Monday, February 21, 2011

Yeah, He's Just That Kinda Guy

Sylamore 50k race report

The conversation went something like this:

Dink: You made your travel plans for Sylamore yet?
Me: Not yet, are you coming?
Dink: Yeah, I told you I would.
Me: Yeah, but I know you had to find someone to volunteer for you at Black Warrior 50k so I wasn't sure.
Dink: It's taken care of.
Me: You registered for the race yet?
Dink: Registered?  I'm not running.  I'm coming to crew for you.
Me: What? Are you serious?  When I asked if you wanted to come, I expected you would race as well.

So let me get this straight.  Dink Taylor, the man who set the course record at the Sylamore 50k 11 years ago, was going to spend a weekend away from his family, drive 8 hours to the middle of nowhere Arkansas, solely for the purpose of crewing for a guy that was trying to break his course record and pocket the $2000 prize for doing so.  Yeah, he's just that kinda guy.

The conversation really started over a year ago.  Dink told me about his 3:40:37 course record at Sylamore that he ran in 2000.  Now the race director was putting up $2000 for someone who could break that mark.  Dink figured somebody would eventually break the record, so why not have it be me?  At least that's the story I heard.  I was running pretty well last year, coming off a 2:26 marathon at Rocket City and building my 50k trail resume, so I thought sure, I'd give it a shot.  Dink really talked the course down as well.  He made it seem as if it would be no problem for me.  When I thought about Dink's 2:40 road marathon PR compared to my 2:26, I figured that even on a tough course I'd have enough speed cushion to break his mark.

I was wrong.  I ran 3:48 last year after being reduced to walking a substantial portion of the last 6 miles.  Even though I still was able to win the race, I was demoralized.  I still feel today like I was capable of running faster than his mark last year, but I just made several errors that ultimately led to my implosion. 

The day before last year's race, I ran to the infamous creek crossing just a mile into the race.  I crossed the creek to check out the trail on the other side and quickly realized that this was anything but the easy course that Dink and the pictures on the race website made it out to be.  This year I knew what I was getting into. 

After moving to Cincinnati last summer, I didn't really plan on racing Sylamore in 2011 just for logistical reasons.  But the race haunted me.  And the closer we got to 2011 the more I started to think about it.  It wasn't really about the money or the course record anymore.  It was more me vs Sylamore.  It defeated me last year, and I wanted my revenge.  With some new-found confidence from my great race a Mtn Mist a few weeks ago, it was decided.  I was ready to battle.

I wish I had an interesting story about the actual race itself to share - but I really don't.  I took the lead after watching eventual 2nd place finisher Ben Creehan end up in the creek with water up to his neck.  I hit the trail and never looked back.  The first 6 mile section is surprisingly technical.  It's just too rocky to go very fast.  The next five miles is more runable but there's also a decent amount of climb to make things tough.  It's an out-and-back style course and I hit the turnaround in 1:48.  Pretty close to what I did last year and two minutes under CR pace.  But what I did next was very different than last year.  As opposed to trying to bury my competition at mile 16, I was patient and focused on running relaxed.  Pretty soon I started encountering the other runners on their way to the turnaround point.  They all seemed to know that I was chasing the course record and virtually everyone shouted words of encouragement.  At the next aid station my split indicated that I was another minute ahead of CR pace.  If it ain't broke don't fix it.  So I kept running relaxed and tried not to push.  I started encountering more groups of runners now and most of them were very considerate and moved aside to let me pass.  I only ran into one girl.  She stepped out of line suddenly to pass some folks and I was coming quick in the other lane.  I caught her shoulder pretty good, but I don't think she fell down.  Sorry about that and I hope you're ok. 

Despite my efforts to run relaxed, passing people and hearing more words of encouragement caused me to continue easing down on the accelerator.  Soon, I was passing participants in the 25k race that started an hour after the 50k.  I don't care if you're passing people running 12 min pace in a completely different race, it's a mental boost to pass someone.  Well, at least this year it was.  Last year these people were annoying obstacles.  This year they were cheering fans.  It's amazing what a powerful effect your mindset has on your physical performance.

I cleared the final aid station confident that I'd be able to hold it together.  In 2010, right on CR pace at this point, I made the fatal error of skipping the last aid station.  My water bottle nearly empty, body dehydrated and my legs out of fuel, I quickly bonked and struggled through the last 6 miles.  This year, I got my pacing right.  I got my nutrition right.  The trail was uncharacteristically dry and fast.  The weather was nothing to complain about.   It all came together.  With a little more than a mile to go, I crashed back into the creek crossing like I was sprinting from the beach into the ocean.  A group of spectators cheered as I ran through the water and exited on the far bank.  I killed the last bit of dirt and paved roads to the finish.  3:31:44.  A sub 1:44 return trip negative split.

It wasn't magical like Mtn Mist 3 weeks ago.  Despite my efforts to run controlled for most of the race, it hurt.  That course is tough.  I requires a unique combination of speed for the flat sections, strength for the numerous climbs and the ability to run technical trails very well.  It just never quits.  It doesn't have the show-stopping climbs of the Mist or the brief sections of extremely technical trail, so you have to be able to run everything - and fast if you want the course record.  I realize Garmin's don't do elevation very well, but mine recorded 4,500' of climb - 1,000' more than Mtn Mist.

When people look at Dink's 3:40 from 11 years ago, they usually overlook what he did immediately following that race.  The May 2000 issue of UltraRunning magazine reported:
In a twelve-day period, he ran the Sylamore Trail 50-km in 3:40, breaking the course record by 15 minutes. The next week, he ran the Mount Mitchell Challenge 40 Mile in 4:57, breaking the course record by 45 minutes. Then he broke the course record [at the Mississippi 50 mile] by 27 minutes.
Of course, Dink didn't tell me about his unbelievable hot streak until after the race last year.  Dink considers that string of races some of the strongest racing of his career.

I am hugely in debt to Dink for unselfishly suggesting the race and then coming out and crewing for me this year.  That was a crucial piece of the puzzle that I missed last year and allowed me to get my nutrition without stopping at the aid stations.

Yeah, he's just that kinda guy.  But you probably knew that already.

I always like to reflect on lessons learned after my races.  Sitting in O'Hare airport at 9pm Sunday night, with terrible weather in Chicago, waiting for my delayed flight and looking at a 1AM arrival into Cincinnati, the biggest lesson I learned this weekend was this: Don't wait too long to purchase your airline tickets and, if possible, get a direct flight.  I failed miserably on both accounts this trip.  I made it home at 3AM - 12 hours after Dink dropped me off at the Memphis airport.

Additional race coverage and reports:

Monday, February 14, 2011


Week of Feb. 7, 2011: 97 miles (6:53 pace)

Sylamore 50k creek crossing at miles 1.5 and 29.5.

This was a big week.  Tuesday's track session turned into an unexpectedly good, but intense workout.  I usually meet up with the Earth Drummers team - a competitive distance running team that is supported by Bob Roncker's Running Spot - for this quality run.  I typically do the marathon group's scheduled workout, sometimes modifying it for my personal goals.  I occasionally will have someone to run with, but lately I have been mostly doing these workouts alone after the team warmup, strides, and drills.  I feel like my road marathon speed is a big differentiator between myself and some of the other top ultra guys in the country right now - and I'd like to keep it that way.  Sometimes it feels odd to not have complete control of your running schedule when you are self-coached, but I don't really believe in magic workouts.  Should I do 3x2mi or 6x1mi this week?  I don't think it matters as much as some people might think as long as you're doing the workout at the correct pace.  I find that trading some control for being able to enjoy the camaraderie and encouragement of the team pushes me to do workouts that I know I wouldn't have the motivation to do if I were running on my own.

This week was 1x2mi (10:28) + 3x1mi (5:11, 5:12, 5:07) + 2x800m (2:32, 2:26) + 2x200m (way too fast).  Everything except the 200s was followed by a 400m jog recovery.  The temperatures were in the teens and the wind wasn't exactly calm, but I really felt quite good.  I couldn't believe the splits I was hitting for the 2 mi considering how relaxed I was running.  Maybe my legs were so numb that I couldn't feel the pain.  Or maybe I'm just a good cold weather runner.  Cold weather definitely doesn't seem to detract from my performance, and I'm pretty sure I run better when it's sub-freezing than when it's 70 deg+ and humid.  Anyway, that was as fast as I've gone in a long time, and I really wasn't planning on busting out anything like that, it just happened.  My legs hurt that night (mostly from the 200s), but surprisingly, I felt OK on Wednesday.

I took it easy Wednesday and Thursday before trying a hill workout on the treadmill Friday.  It was 2x2mi at 8% grade and 6:49 min/mi pace with 1 mi recovery at 7min pace in between climbs.  That comes out to about 1700 ft of climb in 5 miles if you include the recovery sub 7 min pace.  It was tough, especially mentally.  I had never done a treadmill hill workout before, and it's hard not being able to focus on the crest of a hill.  The hill just keeps going. 

Saturday I hit the trails at Mt Airy forest and did two loops of the Stone Steps 50k course in 2:15 (17 mi).  The snow had been packed down and re-frozen on the trail, so it was still pretty slippery even though the daytime temps were getting into the 40s.  Descending some icy trail stairs and unable to stop, I slipped and fell hard on my back with my head snapping down against the ice.  I laid there stunned for a minute, but it appeared I had no major injuries as a result.  My neck may have suffered the most from the incident as it is still sore today from what feels like a muscle strain.  After running a 70 min first loop, I completed the 2nd in just 65 min, which was pretty tough considering the trail conditions.  Probably a little harder than I should have gone.

Sunday was scheduled to be a long, slow 25 mile run on the roads.  Just time on my feet.  Temps in the 50s were nice, but it was also really windy, which wasn't nice.  The week's workload was finally catching up to me as I never felt very good.  I find that I have trouble running slow though.  I would have been happy starting with 7 min pace working toward 6:45 pace at the end, but I was already averaging sub 6:45 at mile 4.  Even though my legs felt like trash, I just stuck to 6:40 and kept moving.  I found myself losing motivation around mile 18, so I found someone to chase and threw in a 6:08 mile to catch him.  I was able to ride that little boost and get myself close enough to home to finish the run respectably.  2:45 total for 6:36 pace overall.  Wish I could have slowed down and felt better, but it doesn't seem to buy me much.  I need to figure that out before I attempt a 100-miler or I'm in trouble. 

Overall, a great week of training.  Most mileage I've done since October and the quality was impressive as well.  I'm tired for sure.  Now it's time to rest up so I can take a shot at the course record at Sylamore this weekend.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Miles, Mountains, and Meatheads

Week of Jan. 31, 2011: 86 miles (6:37 pace)

Big thanks to The North Face for sending me this pair of Single-Tracks.
I'll post a review after I've run in them a few weeks.

Over a week out from Mountain Mist and feeling recovered, it was time to start working hard again.  On Tuesday, with rain falling and temps in the 30s, I decided to hit a local gym for a treadmill workout.  I did 5x1mi w/3min jog recovery starting at 5:30 pace and working it down to 5:18 for the last one.  I was pretty cautious with my pace because I have done very few hard workouts on a treadmill.  It felt like I was running fast, but I wasn't that tired afterward and probably would have gone faster if I were on a track.  On the other hand, my recovery periods on the treadmill never dropped below 7 min pace.  That probably would not have been the case if I had run faster miles on the track.

Following easy days on Wednesday and Thursday, I headed to my favorite hill repeat spot on Friday.  As best I can figure, this road climbs just shy of 300 ft in 3/4 of a mile.  I summited five times and I usually try to keep the pace brisk on the way back down each time.  My last two climbs were the fastest right around 4:45.  I felt a bit stale at first, but loosened up nicely.   I kept a running clock on the entire workout and ran 13.5 miles total in 1:28 (6:49 pace).  I'm pretty happy that I was able to maintain a relatively fast pace for the whole run considering all of the elevation change.

But that's not the "mountain" mentioned in the post title.  On Saturday, Stefanie and I had a chance to check out the Perfect North ski area which is located in Indiana, about 45 min from our house.  This "mountain" boasts 400 ft of vertical and 100 acres of skiable terrain.  We got a great group rate and thought it would be a good warmup for our big Colorado ski trip next month.  Skiing (technically snowboarding in my case) is maybe one of the only activities that I allow to interfere with my running.  It's just one of the few things in life that I enjoy enough to sacrifice my training occasionally.  I was going to run a bit in the morning before skiing, but it was 34 deg and raining when I woke up, so I vetoed that plan.  We skied from 10AM to 5:30PM, drove home, then I ran.  I only went 9 miles, which is pretty short for a run on the weekend, but I actually felt decent.  The legs were tired for sure, but they didn't seem to be running tired.

I thought Sunday's long run might be compromised as well because of sore and tired legs, but the ski trip seemed to have little negative effect.  I tried to start really relaxed and worked into things as I determined the legs felt fine.  I went 22.5 miles in 2:26 and I averaged just under 6 min pace the last two miles.  I am very pleased to have been able to run my long run at that pace considering the hill repeats on Friday and skiing on Saturday.  It was a very good week of running for me.

Meatheads.  I ran Tuesday's workout at a local gym because Stefanie had recently joined and had some free guest passes.  Part of her new membership included a fitness assessment with the head of the gym's personal training department.  When asked about her typical workout, Stefanie told him that she normally did 45 min to an hour of running or spinning.  The trainer then proceeded to tell her that was too much cardio and her body would start to consume her muscles for energy if she did that much aerobic work.  He then asked, "Have you ever seen the body of a marathon runner?"  She was pretty fed up with this guy by now and uncharacteristically came back with the sharp response of, "Actually, my husband is a professional ultramarathon runner."  Obviously surprised, he gathered himself and clumsily continued on explaining the finer points of a marathoner's lack of muscle mass.  "You can see all their ribs."  He of course attributed that fact to my body burning my muscle as energy.

I know it's possible for your body break down muscle protein for use as energy.  But, my understanding is that only occurs in extreme situations.  And I know my muscles are compact as a direct result of my endurance training (and genetics), but I'm fairly certain it's not because my body has used them to serve my energy requirements.  Unfortunately, I've had trouble finding much reputable research on the subject.  Namely, when does your body start to break down your muscles to use as an energy supply?  If anyone out there has the answer to this question or some links to related information, I'd appreciate you sharing.

The trainer also told her that marathoners don't live very long.  True story.

Edit Posted 2/7/11:

Here's a source that confirms what we already knew...from Lore of Running by Tim Noakes, MD:

"Protein is used as an energy source during exercise, and only under extreme conditions, such as complete starvation or prolonged exercise lasting three for more hours (especially under conditions of carbohydrate depletion), does its contribution reach even 10% of the total energy production (P.W.R. Lemon and Mullin 1980)."

"Most elite runners are genetically programmed to have a small muscle bulk, which increases little, if at all, in response to weight training programs.  This most likely reflects a reduced capacity of their muscles to respond  to the muscle-building (anabolic) properties of the male hormone, testosterone."

I think we can officially call this myth busted!  My muscles aren't consuming themselves for energy and you could still see my ribs even if I lifted all the time.