Monday, July 26, 2010

Down the home stretch

Last week (7/19-7/25) shaped up into an excellent week of training for the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run. I left behind the baggage of a poor showing at the July 18th Barr Trail Mountain Race and refocused on the big goal I've been after for four months--getting ready for Leadville.

It was a near-perfect week because it blended high mileage, quality and a key element of training many of us too often overlook--recovery. This was my third consecutive triple-digit week, with a nice 67-mile binge over a three-day period (Friday-Sunday). Here's how the week shook out:

Monday: Rest/recovery
Tuesday: 11 miles
Wednesday: 11 miles including some intervals at the Legend High School track--elevation 6,193 feet. I did 1x1600 at 5:46, 1x1200 at 4:24 and 1x800 at 2:57. Not bad for 6,193 feet. If I decide to go after a new marathon PR in Vegas on December 5, these times are going to have to improve!
Thursday: 11.1 miles
Friday: 21 miles in over 5 hours on a critical section of the Leadville 100 course--from Twin Lakes (9,200 feet) to Hope Pass (12,600 feet) and onto Winfield (10,200 feet) and back. This out-and-back brought 16,400 feet of climb and descent and involved a very enjoyable double-crossing of the Arkansas River. More on that later.
Saturday: 24 miles
Sunday: 22.5 miles
Total: 101 miles

Along with the miles, I'm continuing to focus on core strengthening and push-ups, since successful hundreds often come down to more than just your legs. Obviously, this was a very solid week--and it came at just the right time. Although my mileage wasn't that high (101), I spent a fair amount of time on my feet, especially during Friday's run in Leadville with my friend of literally 30 years, Matt, who is also running in the race.

I've run more miles and hours preparing for Leadville than for any other hundred I've done. That includes the 2007 Burning River 100 (6th place), the 2008 Mohican 100 (4th place), and the 2009 Mohican 100 (1st place), as well as the 2009 24-hour national championship in Cleveland (131 miles/9th place).

Unfortunately, it's really hard getting to the mountains as much as I'd like. With a toddler who keeps us quite busy (and happy!), Anne often working long hours (and every other Saturday morning), and a full-time job that keeps me occupied Monday-Friday from 8-5, I'm able to get to the mountains only about once and, at most, twice a week. On the other days I try to make the most of my surroundings. I go into the Parker hills and run on dirt and gravel roads at over 6,000 feet. I go to the track and pound out some intervals. I do what I can.

My goals for Leadville are as follows:

1) Finish--always the main goal in a 100-miler
2) Under 25 hours for the cherished belt buckle
3) Under 20 hours
4) Placement

In my mind, the course is more or less divided into three sections:

Miles 1-40--Start to Twin Lakes with the Sugarloaf Pass crossing and a few other nasty climbs and descents.
Miles 41-61--Hope Pass double crossing--more than half of the race's total elevation change occurs in these 21 miles.
Miles 62-100--Sugarloaf Pass crossing and more nasty climbs and descents.

I still have a few sections of the course to cover. Team CRUD is holding a night run on August 7 that I may attend if my ankle is doing well. It will take us from the Fish Hatchery to the finish, crossing Sugarloaf Pass. Many say this section is the crux of the Leadville 100.

Friday's run in Leadville with Matt was critically important because it allowed me to experience what will likely be the hardest section of the course. As previously noted, the 21-mile stretch from Twin Lakes to Winfield and back brings more than 16,000 feet of climb and descent--a little over half of the total elevation change in the entire race. From Twin Lakes, you cross the (incredibly cold) Arkansas River and then climb 3,400 feet to Hope Pass, traversing some pretty runnable trail. There will be a manned aid station near Hope Pass, but it won't provide crew access and there are no roads to it. In fact, I've heard the aid station supplies are brought in via llamas! The weather up on Hope can be very unpredictable. In the past, runners have encountered hail, rain and even snow. We're not in Ohio anymore!

After Hope Pass, you drop 2,600 feet, running on a fairly rocky, technical and sometimes very steep trail that intersects with an approximately 2.5-mile, uphill dirt road leading into Winfield, a ghost town. On race day, I think many runners (maybe myself included) will feel great discouragement descending the backside of Hope Pass as we'll be unable to escape the thought that we have to climb that damned mountain again after leaving the turnaround point! For many, Winfield will likely be a place of carnage. I'll be tired and my legs will likely be beaten, but I'll be so glad to see my pacer, Michele. She's a veteran Leadville 100 pacer and I'm glad that she's with me for the toughest part of this journey.

Through it all, I'll have an outstanding crew consisting of my mom, my brother Will, and Anne, who will be with Noah. Everytime I see Noah during a race I experience a lot of emotion. I'll need to harness that emotion in just the right way, so as to propel me. Almost every mile I've run over the past two years has been about Noah--setting a good example, putting your heart and soul into something meaningful, and showing him that it's good to tackle big goals. But there is no way any of this would be possible without the love and support of Anne. Preparing for a hundred-miler takes commitment and sacrifice not only from the runner, but also from his or her family.

Fortunately, I have enough experience with hundreds to know that you go through good and bad patches. The key is to stay hydrated and ahead of your caloric needs, and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. You can't get ahead of yourself--just stay focused on getting to the next aid station. This outlook, I think, will be particularly beneficial on that 21-mile stretch from Twin Lakes to Winfield and back.

Of course, after returning to Twin Lakes, you have Sugarloaf Pass and a series of other nasty climbs and descents to negotiate. But you can take comfort in knowing the vast majority of climbing is now behind you. The last forty miles will be a game of survival. You can't give up regardless of how badly your legs are begging you to surrender. Sugarloaf, Powerline and other challenges in the last 40 miles can be overcome!

This is the final big week of training, and then I enter a three-week taper. There are those who would scoff at a three-week taper, saying it's too long. I believe in the three-week taper for 100-milers. Three weeks out, I'll drop the mileage 15-20%. Two weeks out, the mileage plummets to about 55, and then the week of the race I do very little except walk, maybe go for a swim or two and generally focus on rest. My hope is that during the taper I can get the plantar fasciitis in my left heel cleared up and allow my right ankle, which I re-sprained on Friday going down Hope Pass, strong and healthy.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I have a problem...and it's downhill mountain running

Good news/bad news to report.

Good news: I logged another quality 100-mile week. That bodes well for my training for the Leadville Trail 100-Mile Run, which is now just a month away.

Bad news: I had a very poor showing at Sunday’s Barr Trail Mountain Race, a 12.5-mile run on Pikes Peak that I finished in 2:03. You run from Hydro Street in Manitou Springs up to Barr Camp (10,200 feet) and then back—all on the Barr Trail except a short paved section at the beginning and end. You gain 3,630 feet. My sense (and I could be wrong on this) was that the BTMC didn’t attract a lot of ultrarunners of the 100-mile variety. Most of the runners out there were very fast, shorter-distance mountain runners with highly developed technical trail running skills. The talent was very strong. Let’s put it this way: the greatest mountain runner in recorded history, Matt Carpenter (who is a very accomplished ultrarunner and Leadville 100 record holder), finished third. His Barr Trail Mountain Race record fell to 24-year-old Ryan Hafer, who finished with a mind-blowing 1:29.

My time on the up—1:15—wasn’t great but it wasn’t bad either. My time on the down, however, was hideous. If it takes you 48 minutes to descend, you’re going to get passed and lose a lot of ground. And did I ever get passed. It was discouraging and embarrassing having runners blow past me when I was giving the downhill what I thought was my all. I have never been so discouraged in a race. But I also had 100 miles on the legs that week.

It is clear from my Barr Trail Mountain Race and Leadville Trail Marathon results that my downhill running skills are very poor. On the ascents, I’m strong. I have good endurance and excellent mental and physical toughness. The problem is that my downhill running is so poor that it negates my strengths and actually costs me quite a bit of time. I should have EASILY broken 2 hours on Sunday.

Out east, the hills are so short (yet they can be very steep) that if you’re a poor downhill runner it’s not going to affect your performance too badly. Out west, where the descents can be several miles in length, poor downhill running skills will kill you regardless of how strong you might be on the climbs. This is what we’re seeing with me.

It is said that the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging the problem in the first place. I obviously have a problem with downhill running. I need to find someone—a coach?—who can help me improve in this area. If I can become even an average downhill runner, I think I would still be a reasonably successful Colorado ultrarunner since my climbing is so solid—and the desire is obviously there.

My hunch is that my downhill mountain running problems come down to over-striding. Because the trails are often littered with loose rocks, I think it’s critical that you have quick turnover, let gravity take over, and avoid over-striding. If you over-stride—a problem that has plagued my running for a long time though my form has improved some—you’re going to be less in control and pull back just a little as a precaution. I also think confidence is a huge factor. Experience is a huge part of confidence. I’ve been running mountains for only three-and-a-half months.

I believe that in time my downhill mountain running skills will develop and improve. It may be that 2010 is going to be a year of learning. But I need to learn from someone who can help me.

I am taking today off to rest and recover from yesterday’s race, which I supplemented with an additional 7.5 miles for a total of 20 for the day.

This Friday, I’m going to Leadville to run the critical Twin Lakes-to-Winfield-and-back section with a few others. This will involve a double-crossing of Hope Pass.

I wish I could say I’m in good spirits, but I’m not. I am very frustrated by what happened at the Barr Trail Mountain Race (and the Leadville Marathon) and think it’s time to ask for some help from someone who excels at downhill running but perhaps had to work hard to achieve success in this area.

Monday, July 12, 2010

102 miles; taper 3 weeks away

I just wrapped up another tiple-digit week--102 miles to be exact. I'm now three weeks away from my taper for the Leadville Trail 100. I took a nasty spill last week and fortunately didn't do any serious damage. It was on a sidewalk (!) and the culprits were a) tired legs and b) an uneven block. (I normally never run on a sidewalk but have to on this particular section of my route.) I sprained my right big toe and bruised the hell out of my back.

My mileage since early May has been very solid and consistent--on average, about 90-95 miles per week. Plus, I established a great 70-80 mile-per-week base starting in December (when finally I was over my North Coast 24-Hour injuries) and going through April save about two weeks during the move. At that time I was training (hard) for the Boston Marathon but, with the life-changing move to Denver literally two weeks before Boston, that race was aborted. Turns out my Boston training was great base-building for the Leadville 100.

With three weeks to go, I think this is the hardest part of the training cycle. It's akin to mile 70 in a 100-miler. You're 70 percent there, and yet you still have 30 tough miles in front of you. The key is just focusing on each step toward the big goal.

There is no denying it; Leadville is going to be the hardest race I've ever run. It's not the Hard Rock 100 or the Wasatch 100, but it's nonetheless a huge challenge, run between 9,200 feet and 12,600 feet with only 11 aid stations. Many 100s have 20+ aid stations. Next Friday I'll be in Leadville running a critical section--from Twin Lakes to Winfield (a ghost town) and back. That's about 24 miles and it includes a double-crossing of 12,600-foot Hope Pass. Hope Pass will be a great opportunity to test out my new Black Diamond trekking poles, which I bought at They're light and they fold up.

I've trained hard and I'm feeling strong. I'm pounding out 100-mile weeks and am often running at a strong pace when many would be struggling just to put one foot in front of the other. The question isn't whether I have the strength for 100 miles; I have it. The question is whether I'm acclimated enough to handle 10,000 feet for 100 miles. We'll see. Experience with 100-mile racing and mental toughness may make the difference.

I have the Barr Trail Mountain Race this Sunday. It's a 14-mile run up Pikes Peak to Barr Camp and then back. I'm not really going to taper for it, and so we'll see how I do. The plan this week is  90-100 miles.

Run hard. Run happy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Leadville Trail Marathon report

I ran the Leadville Trail Marathon on Saturday, 7/3. Going into the race, my strategy race it. But about 7 miles into the race, as I was running 14th, a volunteer inadvertently misdirected me, sending me down the wrong trail. About a quarter-mile down the trail I realized I was off course and had to run back up a hill to the aid station, where the volunteer apologized and got me back on track. I had lost about 5 minutes and any hopes of decent placement were dashed. This is all a part of trail races! No worries!

It's difficult to imagine a harder marathon. A good case could be made that the Pikes Peak Marathon is harder, as it does travel 7,300 feet up a 14,115-foot mountain. But on the way back it's basically all downhill and it does start at a manageable 7,000 feet. Starting at 10,200 feet, the Leadville Marathon isn't all downhill on the way back. It brutalizes you in both directions, bringing 13,000 feet of gain and loss and plenty of thin air the whole way, with two passes on 12,000-foot Ball Mountain and a turnaround on top of the very rocky 13,185-foot Mosquito Pass--the summit being above treeline. These passes make the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill, which many consider the "toughest" hill of any marathon, look like a parking lot speed bump. In fact, the Leadville Marathon is far harder than any 50K trail race I've ever done. Ask me again in a year or two what the hardest marathon or 50K I've done is and my answer may be different than it is now. For now, it's the Leadville Marathon.

Throughout the 26.2-mile course, you're in the historic mining district east of Leadville, which is the highest incorporated city in the U.S. The course consists mostly of old mining roads and trails, as Leadville has quite the mining history. You pass by old abandoned mining facilities that are quite spooky. These are the reminders of the good 'ole days that have long passed and left a city with an extraordinary history to tell (and show) and a desperate reliance on tourism and racers. The city sure knows how to put on a good race. That's what has made events like the Leadville 100-Mile Run legendary, and it's why Lance Armstrong and others come to town every year for the 100-mile mountain bike race.

First, the basics: I finished 28th overall with a 4:55. Very disappointing. My goal was 4:20 or better. However, the conventional wisdom has it that a finish of better than 5 hours at the Leadville Marathon is very respectable.

Going into the race, I had tapered for the previous six days--wracking up just 34 miles--on the heels of a 94-mile week. So I thought I was fresh enough for a good effort at Leadville.

When the shotgun (yes, shotgun) went off at 8:00 a.m., we were off, heading down 5th Street and eventually making our way onto the mining roads going up to Ball Mountain. The first six miles were basically all up hill, topping out at around 12,000 feet. I felt pretty solid on this section and let it rip on the downhills going into the second aid station at 7.1 miles. My confidence was quite good.

But after the debacle at the second aid station--losing 5 minutes and more than 10 positions after being misdirected--the air had been let out of my sails. No matter, I still let it rip on the mostly downhill section from the 7.1-mile aid station to the foot of Mosquito Pass (about 10 miles into the race). I picked off a few runners, but it was obvious to me that I'd lost a lot of ground in those 5 minutes and the best approach now was to just do my best. If I tried to make up the time, I might blow up.

The three-mile climb up Mosquito Pass starts at about 11,200 feet and ends at 13,185 feet. It's on very rocky ATV road with three switch-backs. Only a third of the way up Mosquito Pass, with half-marathoners flying down the mountain (they'd run an abbreviated course to Mosquito and were thus way ahead of the marathoners), I was humbled by the realization that I still have a ways to go before I'm fully acclimated. Don't get me wrong; I didn't have any meltdowns and I was always pushing ahead hard. But I did a lot of power-walking up Mosquito when I really should have been running. I was breathing pretty hard. My legs were tired. My back was aching from too much leaning foward on the uphills--and probably the 70-ounce Camelbak that I should have left behind. I felt discouraged, especially during one mile that I covered in 19 minutes.

In Ohio, I could power up the hills. I won a 100-mile race--the Mohican--notable for its hills. And here, despite the fact that I'm knocking off weeks of 90-105 miles in preparation for the Leadville 100, I'm just a guy struggling up huge-ass mountains when in my mind I should be running up those things. I saw Matt Carpenter run all the way up 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, gliding along the Barr Trail, and, even though I'm no where near the the super-freakish talent he is, in my mind I too should be able to run up a mountain. To this, a line from "Top Gun" most certainly applies: "Son, your ego's writing checks your body can't cash!"

Well, I finally got to the top of Mosquito, marking the half-way point but really for me 13.6 miles--2:35 into the race. Yowzers! Up top, the temperature was at least 25 degrees colder--the upper 30s, I'd say--and the wind was howling with gusts of over 50 miles per hour. With nothing but some shorts and a singlet on, I was cold and quickly slipped into my Under Armour shirt, which thankfully I'd packed in my Camelbak just in case. And then I was off!

Have you ever been on top of a 13,000-foot mountain? If you have, you know that at such elevations you are mentally not there. Still foggy in the head, I powered down Mosquito as best as I could, running fairly aggressively for a guy still learning how to navigate very rocky mountain trails and warding off gusts that felt like I'd encountered an invisible brick wall. I quickly stopped to help a half-marathoner who had fallen hard. I was moving quite well down the mountain but was still in a stupor when I arrived at the 16.4-mile aid station. The route split--marathoners this way, half-marathoners that way. I was so mentally fried that I didn't even notice the sign telling you where to go, and so I had to ask. As I ran off, I heard the aid station worked tell another, "It's the elevation--does them in mentally." Well said.

Miles 16.4 to 22.4 could be described in one word--uphill. At mile 20 you're back up over 12,000 feet--yes, Ball Mountain again. By now I was running at about 9-10-minute pace. I was never really out of breath. I was just really working hard on the uphills. At 12,000+ feet, it's like you're deflated. At 13,000 feet, it's like you're completely flat. At 14,000 feet, you are in slow-motion, working hard just to put one foot in front of the other.

After the 22.4-mile aid station, I was home free, basically running with an open stride downhill for the next 3.8 miles, losing about 2,000 feet until you arrive in downtown Leadville, elevation 10,200 feet. I wasn't in the greatest of shape by the time I was back out on 5th Street and making my way to the finish, but I was nonetheless moving at about 7:30 pace, having flipped the switch to "autopilot." A storm was gathering overhead, with a light sprinkle coming down. I didn't see any lightning, but I thought about the many behind me who were going to get whacked by the system.

So I crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 55 minutes--good for 28th place. My time was more than a half-hour off my goal. Had I not gotten misdirected, I might have run a 4:49 or 4:50--still way off my goal.

Yes, I was humbled by the Leadville Marathon, but I'm going to try hard not to let it discourage me as I prepare for the Leadville 100. When I look at the numbers, I see a marathon with nearly 13,000 feet of gain and loss over its 26.2 miles, and with three mountain passes and a high point of 13,185 feet. The 100-mile run has about 30,000 feet of gain and loss, with four mountain passes and a high point of 12,600 feet. That means that the ups and downs of the Leadville 100 will be more spread out, allowing for some "recovery."


Bottom line is this: By August 21, having lived here for about 140 days, I still might not be fully acclimated to the Leadville elevation, but I'll be ready to give it my all. Between now and then, I think it's critical that I spend as much time as possible way up there. On July 18, I have the Barr Trail Mountain Race, which goes up to 10,000-foot Barr Camp on Pikes Peak and back--a total of 14 miles. That day I'll work in some extra running at Pikes Peak, trying to get to 20+. Sometime soon thereafter, I want to return to Pikes Peak for a second summit. I might even spend a few nights up near Leadville, sleeping in my truck. With the understanding that family needs always come first, here are my mileage goals from now through Aug. 1, when my 3-week taper begins.

7/5-7/11: 100+ miles
7/12-7/18: 110 miles (Barr Trail Mountain Race)
7/19-7/25: 90 miles
7/26-8/1: 110 miles (hopeful Pikes Peak summit)

Before signing off, I have some great news to share. My mother and brother and maybe my dad will be coming to Leadville to crew for me--as will Anne and Noah. I also have a pacer, Michele V., and hopefully I can pick up a second pacer. I think asking 50 miles from Michele would be asking a lot. I am very excited about my family being there to crew for me and take part in their first 100-mile race. I'm a little worried about them going from sea level to Leadville with an inadequate acclimatization time in Denver, but I'm sure they'll stay hydrated and there will be opportunities for rest since we'll have a crew of 3 or more.

Run hard. Run happy.