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"Albert Camus wrote that the only serious question is whether to kill yourself or not."

Lessons Learned at Fat Dog

Despite my unbelievable finishing placement (2nd?!) and very good time (achieved my “A” goal?), I actually felt like I didn’t have a very good run. (See my race report here.) I know that seems silly, but it’s true. Thankfully, we can learn a lot from a bad run.

First of all, let’s talk about…

What Went Right:

  1. Pacing: My pacing was pretty great.

    My pacing was relatively consistent throughout. Although on occasion I found myself running too quickly (usually following someone) I definitely managed, for the most part, to stick to my own plan. Run the flats and downs, hike the ups. My hiking pace never slowed, and I feel I reinforced my belief that hiking is a strength of mine. There’s not much to learn from this except that I trained hard, and started off relatively slowly. I remembered Hal Koerner’s advice: “DO NOT go out too hard. … Remember this: If you feel you are going out too slow, slow down.” but his other point resonated more keenly with me:

    DO push yourself a little. This is a race, after all. And you’ve trained hard for this day, maybe years of cumulative effort, maybe 6 months straight of prioritizing training over other things in your life. You deserve to claim all that you’ve worked for. So go for it! Don’t be tentative. Push yourself up some of those hills, find that pace that you’ve trained for, and stick with it. Don’t be afraid to set your sights a little bit higher on the dream you’ve worked toward—embrace it!

  2. Headlamp: Bright and battery life was good.

    Incredibly, I ran from Bonnevier to Cascade without changing batteries, and my headlamp, LED Lenser H14.2 was pretty bright the whole time. It says 320 lumens on the box. I don’t know which mode is which (I won’t be buying this brand again, the manual sucks ass) but I won’t be buying a light with less than 250 lumens, certainly. An external battery pack is also a must.

  3. No-bonk: Consistent energy despite bad fuelling.

    This is a tough one, but in the months leading up to the race I ate a very low carb, high fat diet, and was certainly in ketosis, at times. Did I become “fat-adapted”. Did I become a low-carb racer? Was I using a more elevated-than-usual percentage of calories from fat? Hard to say, but I do know I ran many, many hours eating almost nothing, and didn’t really “bonk”. I did long training runs with very little fuel, and I have a feeling it helped, despite the relatively short duration of my ketogenic experiment.

  4. Blisters: Didn’t really get any.

    I can’t take much credit for this. I took a page from Matt Mahoney’s training and did a ton of walking barefoot, whenever I walked the dogs. I also wear my shoes really loose, and used copious amounts of Bodyglide. I did develop a couple little blisters but one just faded away and the other was more like a soft spot. Neither slowed me down. That was good.

  5. Fast crew: Time spent in aid stations was very minimal.

    Two packs, just swap and go. My crew was ready, had some experience, and were motivated to get me out of there. We passed many, many people at aid stations. I have a lot to fix in terms of my crew / aid station usage, but time is of the essence, and we did great in that department.

  6. Course knowledge: Didn’t get lost, felt comfortable.

    Training on as many sections of the course as possible, especially the parts you’ll run at night, was a great idea. It’s reassuring to know the course for those few instances you can’t see flagging, and it’s nice to have an idea of where you are, for the most part. It does detract from the adventure, and makes things a bit more monotonous… But if you’re there to race, that’s a small price to pay for a better time. We got lost for 10 feet in the fog, but overall were on track the entire way.

Of course, the interesting stuff is…

What Went Wrong:

  • It was very painful, throughout
  • I had a headache for the first 20 hours, basically
  • The night running was miserable – cold & slow
  • I had nutrition/fuelling problems – nausea, gastro issues
  • I was carrying way too much stuff
  • My gear sucked – pack & headlamp, in particular
  • I got a couple of minor blisters
  • My crew was inflexible
  • My joints were destroyed (my muscles were not)

How might I have addressed some of these issues? I have theories:

1. Pain

I don’t think there’s any way around it, ultramarathons are going to hurt me. All races hurt, really, but ultras hurt in different ways. A marathon is a muscular / neuromuscular pain. It’s exhaustion, of an energetic sense. It’s burning lungs and lactic acid and cramping. An ultra, especially 100 miles, is, in my experience, a gradual breakdown of joints and ligaments, and of posture and small, supporting muscles. At least for me, in this race, the pace appeared to be limited by things like ankle & knee pain.

How might I alleviate this? Well for one, I needed more leg strength. More time on very steep stuff, both up and down, but especially I think I needed gym time. Ankles and calves are a big one, but hamstrings, quads and glutes all feel weak. Squats and deadlifts, as well as a dedicated calf-strengthening routine, would have been ideal. I don’t think any core work or upper body stuff is necessary (I have a reasonably good core, I think, I can’t say that’s the case for everyone.)

Another way to reduce joint pain is to run faster, frankly. The less time you’re out there, the less you hurt. This will shift the suffering from your joints to your muscles, but in my case, that might be good thing, since I finished with zero to little muscular pain.

In the 6 weeks post-race, I’ve been at the gym rehabbing my knee, and my lack of strength is shocking!! I won’t make that mistake again.

2. Headache

You might think this is out of my hands, but a few factors might have influenced it:

  1. I was sick before the race – taper sickness?
  2. My pre-race nutrition was FUBAR
  3. I was way too busy in the 3 days prior to the race

Based on that, I need to do a few things better:

I need to figure out my taper. I did the same as at Leadville, which was a 3 week taper: 75, 50 & 25 % of peak volume. In both cases, peak volume was 100 miles per week. This year I did two 100 mile weeks. But tapering both years felt shitty. I didn’t feel healthy, I didn’t feel motivated, and I didn’t enjoy it. I was definitely sick through almost my entire taper period, and I’ve read about “tapering flu” elsewhere. How might that work? What might be the cause? Overtraining in the weeks prior? Or something about the sudden drop in volume? Tapering is a tough one, and I don’t have it down yet. I might try a different taper for a minor race. Perhaps two 25 % weeks?

I did hammer the vitamin C and Zinc, tried to sleep a ton, and ate super clean. So I fought it off as best I could, but I was still fighting low-level sickness throughout.

I need to do meal planning for the days leading up to the race, and pack foods if travel is required. I cannot leave it to the last minute and hit up some small town shit convenience store looking for goddamn cashews!! This should be obvious, but it’s very tough. However I honestly think this is huge bang for your buck.

Similarly, I need to really figure out how I’m going to carb load (white rice is best?) and make that adjustment. I also need to test that carb load diet a few times, before the race! I can’t go low carb for 8 weeks and then suddenly decide to eat a kilo of white rice, without knowing what the repercussions are going to be! Though I think the approach was mostly correctly, the implementation was too risky. Nothing new on race (week)!

Being busy in the few days leading up to the race was stupid. I should have been better prepared. I leave too much to the 4 or even 5 days prior, and that’s just not enough. I need to have all my gear and fuel, all my drop bags, etc. The last three days need to literally be “chillin’ with the fam” and nothing else. The more lazy, the better. I screwed this up big time. Let the crew stress out, that’s their job. In this case it was hard because they didn’t have much time either.

3. Night Running

The night running was also a major pain-point. They say “practice running at night” and I did it for Leadville and thought “this is stupid.”

Now I think practice running at night! The majority of your time on the course, unless you are a weapon, is going to be at night! My god, it’s hard. It’s hard to go fast. The speed and pace feel fast, but are very slow. The terrain is slow. Nutrition is harder. Gear is harder to use. It’s cold, but your core is hot. A lot of things are more complicated at night.

If you’re a runner who is going to spend any significant time in the woods at night, you should really, really get a lot of night runs in. Not around the neighbourhood, either. I’m talking real night runs. Scary? Yes. Lonely? Very. Dangerous? Probably. Hard to do? The hardest thing in the world. But if you can get good at it, you will have such an incredible advantage, I can’t even imagine.

Of course a fast runner at Leadville hardly has any tough terrain in the dark: pretty much only the big down from Powerline and around the lake. So it’s not such a big deal. Some people at Fat Dog however spent two whole nights out on the course! Can you imagine!? Practice your night running. Figure out how long your headlamp lasts, also. Well before race day.

Coincidentally AJW just posted a little article on night running on iRunFar.

4. Nutrition issues

Well, again, this is a tough one. They say “never try anything new on race day”. I tried UCan for the first time on race day, and it didn’t go too well. However, it went better than everything else, which was terrible! All the fuels I used in training failed me on race day. What to do about that?

I’ve said previously that “I learn nothing on my long runs”, and I stand by that. I can’t go out and run even a 9 hour training run and expect that this is going to teach me anything about race nutrition. It just doesn’t work. First of all, I almost never run for 9 hours, and secondly, I have only once in all my running ever gotten even slightly nauseous during a training run! And that was at 3 AM! So what can you do?

Well I made a few changes that I should have practice… First was the UCan, but I didn’t get it delivered in time. Second was the quantity of carbs was “race volume”, i.e. 250 calories per hour, despite the fact that the last 3 months have been low carb. I’ve done that quantity in training before, but not recently. Perhaps going low carb meant I really should stick to 150 cals/hr, or even less? That’s typically what I’d do in training, if anything. I was scared to bonk, but getting sick sucked. So a lot more experimentation is necessary. I will also have to find a better way to get UCan. Or ideally find something cheaper.

In training I also loved the chews, but found them to be terrible: too sweet, too chewy, and too hard to eat in training. I should have stuck to gels a bit more. But goddamn those Stinger chews were heavenly on my training runs!

On race day I also found myself eating chips and chocolate bars. I should have known this might come up, and practiced these in training! (I actually did that for Leadville, and we had them as backup fuel. I got lazy this time, thinking it would go just as smoothly. Oops.) Practice your alternative fuels, including flat coke, ginger ale, chips, chocolate, even cookies. Hell, even orange slices. That’s the type of crap they have at aid stations that you may end up eating in your race.

5. Pack weight

This is a major issue, and one that cost me the most time in this race, I think. I was carrying way too much shit.

My method of loading up and skipping aid stations doesn’t work. It only works if you have a crew, and many crew stops. In this race, the crew stops were far too spread out, so I would have to carry too much fuel and water to ignore aid stations.

I need to adopt the Killian approach: carry way, way less. Fuel up much, much more at aid stations, and take time and rest at aid stations. Then move quickly (owing to the reduced weight, also!) between stations. The fact that you can rest and carry less makes this the sensible approach. A few seconds filling water isn’t time wasted, if you’re resting! And conversely, the few seconds I saved by skipping aid stations isn’t worth it if I had to bust my balls carrying 3 L of water and 5 lbs of gels.

Similarly, I don’t need arm sleeves, gloves, calf sleeves, and a beanie, for the cold, if I’m carrying a damned mandatory jacket! Although who knows, they sure did come in handy. But going light means moving faster, being less tired, and getting the hell off the mountain sooner. Perhaps a light jacket would have been the better option. I also need to put my clothes on before I nearly die of hypothermia. Not while it’s happening.

6. Shitty gear

My gear sucked. My old S-lab pack was really good, but needed to be fixed, which was ok, but I still forgot to fix one of the pockets, and it drove me insane. My Gregory pack, which I used to run in quite frequently, turned out to be totally uncomfortable. I really didn’t expect that, but that’s what I get for not training in it! Nothing new on race day! I found it to dig into my shoulders, annoy my stomach, and felt like it was pulling me backwards. I couldn’t reach the bottles easily, and it holds so much, I couldn’t find the things I needed! I should have just gone out and bought a new damned S-lab pack. Yes, they’re expensive, but no more than a pair of shoes! God knows I had to buy about a dozen pairs of those, and they last a hell of a lot fewer miles than a pack would.

My headlamp also sucked, compared to what could have been. I not only should have bought the rechargeable version (which also takes AA’s!) but they screwed me by not including an extension cord for the battery pack! Goddamn them. So I was really disappointed. Of course, if I had done my night training like I was supposed to, I wouldn’t have only found out about that the week before the race! And I could have returned it and bought a better one!

The only other gear failure I had was my shoelaces came untied twice, in my first pair of shoes. I despise shoe laces coming untied! It makes me insane. I had installed elastic “speed laces” in my good pair, and they can’t even budge. And they are way better. If your shoes come untied even once, do yourself a favour and go out and buy a $5 set of elastic laces. Actually it looks like the Salomon ones are not elastic, which would be even better, as I find them a bit tight, and I prefer my shoe completely loose.

7. Blisters

I don’t know about this one. I got a very minor blister under one of my big toes, presumably due to descending for 10 miles in wet, dirty socks. Not much to about that. I used Bodyglide, and it seemed to work. I got one other blister on the back of my heel, which would have been a big deal had the race been 400 km. Perhaps a bit too much barefoot walking caused too much of a callous? I don’t know. I didn’t even notice it until I was done running. I guess I’ll have to do more training in wet feet to figure out the blister thing, because I’ve never gotten one in training. If I’m gonna run Badwater some day, I’d better figure out how to get blister practice!

8. Inflexible Crew

This is a tough one, because when you make lots of plans, things rarely go according to plan. My crew, who were fantastic, both here and at Leadville, were a bit too fixated on the plan.

Leg07_finish011

Some examples (all that I can think of, actually):

  1. I was hosed down with sunscreen (twice) on a cloudy, rainy day
  2. Always handed a full water bladder despite having never emptied a previous one – Same goes for fuel. This is a tough call, I know, but I got home and realized that I ran leg 5 with at least 1.5 L of water left over, and about 6 gels and a full 10 oz thing of UCan. And that was on the of the easy legs!
  3. Too much fuel, even when I couldn’t eat. Re-using fuel that I hadn’t eaten!

Of course these are really tough calls to make in the middle of the night after 24 hours of running. How can you know if your runner is going to show up barfing, or starving? If you add only 500 mL of water, and the runner goes dry, he might actually murder someone! There’s a fear of angering the runner that must be overcome: as a crew chief you may need to tell them to shut the fuck up and get out there and run. You have to make some decisions, and they won’t be easy. If you’re in the running for 2nd place, perhaps going light and risky is the right one. If you’re puking all night, maybe loading them up with more fuel makes sense.

Whatever you do, as a crew though, you must remain flexible, and try to keep thinking logically and quickly. Don’t get emotional, that’s the runner’s fate!

One other crewing issue is placement of gear: your location is critical. Or maybe I’m just a psycho anal retentive bastard. (I am.) But don’t set your truck up 50 feet back from the station, if you can help it. Don’t set up in a crowd. Don’t keep everything piled in the truck, where you can’t find anything!! You have to have a well laid out setup where anything is accessible. You never know what will be needed.

9. Pace and Effort

Frankly, no amount of reading or writing is ever going to solve this problem for you: you just need race experience. Having finished the race feeling relatively good (other than my injured knee and fucked up left ankle) probably means I didn’t run hard enough. As I said before, I was limited by pain in my joints, but not by muscular weakness. I ran the last leg of that race as fast as anybody, and I could have gone 30 minutes faster had I not hurt my knee, if not faster. I felt like a beast on the uphills. I wasn’t tired, at that point. Compare that to how the winner said he felt like pure death in the last leg, implying to me that he left a lot more out there than I did.

So next time I race 100+ miles it’ll be with a bit more intensity. Just a bit! Gotta keep looking for that balance of even-splits and speed. Of course, as you progress and get more and more fitness, that target is always moving, so it’s tough. It’s just a part of racing, I guess.

Summary:

In no particular order:

  1. Don’t skip leg day – strength training is a must
  2. Practice night running
  3. Continue to experiment with tapering (very hard to do, I know)
  4. Plenty of sleep & clean living the month before the race
  5. Meal planning and packing for race week & travel
  6. Experiment with carb loading specific diet
  7. Race prep complete 3 days before the race
  8. Practice race fuelling, even if you don’t need it in training!
  9. Practice with alternative fuels (chips, chocolate bars), even in training!
  10. Travel light. Use an aid-station based fuelling plan, if sections are long
  11. Don’t carry too much water. Refill at aid stations or from streams.
  12. Consolidate gear if you can. If you must carry mandatory gear, use it!
  13. Don’t cheap out on gear, if you don’t have to
  14. Practice with all your gear, even older stuff you used to use!
  15. Use night runs to validate your night gear
  16. Stop using knots to tie your shoelaces
  17. Try to cause blisters in training and learn to fix them
  18. Give your crew leeway to make decisions, and trust them!
  19. Don’t sell yourself short – push it to the limit

Keep fit, and have fun.

7 Comments

  1. The worst my legs have felt this year, training for a 50km and a 50 miler, is when I was in Germany and unable to squat.

  2. I loved your report and the way you analyzed your actions – thanks.

    Try this lacing technique. Your laces won’t come undone but yet still easy to undo. Especially nice in the winter if your laces get icy. Be sure that the aglets don’t get caught in the loops when undoing the shoes though or you will have a knot to deal with.

    http://mrc-ultra.blogspot.ca/2010/03/how-to-tie-swiss-knot.html

    • Mitch

      2014-09-24 at 9:17 am

      Thanks, that looks pretty good. I will give it a shot, until I slowly acquire dozens of pairs of drawcord laces, haha.

  3. How many carbs were you eating on average during training per day?

    • Mitch

      2014-09-24 at 8:36 am

      Well, in general I do none at all, unless I’m running for 3, maybe 4 hours. Anything around 30k I *might* do one gel. Anything around a marathon distance (or above, which I ran only infrequently) I would do 1 per hour. In the past, I used to do 1 per 45 minutes, for my long runs (during my big training year for Leadville). I went through a lot of gels! This time, I did very little. In fact, my later runs, I occasionally did only 1 gels for a marathon+ or even *no* gels.

      For my very long run (66 km) during this training year I think I probably did the equivalent of about 1 gel every 1.5 hours… mostly since I ran out of fuel.

      But again, I was eating a very low carb, ketogenic diet for about 2 to 3 months prior to the race.

      Essentially I try to find a balance between trying to train myself to run without carbs, and trying to practice race fuelling! Diametrically opposite goals, sometimes…

  4. Nice race report and analysis. Sorry to hear your headlamp didn’t work. I have the Petzl Tikka RXP, and the thing that drives me insane is never knowing which buttons to press in what order to get the best light level. I don’t know how the Lenser works, but Petzl’s reactive lighting and button scheme is crazy, so beware of that.

    • Mitch

      2014-09-24 at 9:16 am

      Well, it worked ok, but I wasted seconds, nay, *minutes*! Fiddling with it. I will be buying a Fenix HP30, I think, for my next ultra lamp. I will take your advice into consideration, but typically the “bright” Petzls seem very expensive. I’ve been seeing people recommend the “Nao”. I see it also has spare batteries and an extension cord, so that it looking like a really good option.

      The LED Lenser is dead simple: turn it on, use the wheel on the battery pack to adjust brightness. There are modes and shit that you need to figure out (and the manual SUCKS) but once it’s set up, you’re golden.

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