Monday, February 13, 2012

Circling the Drain

It's not you Hal, it's me.
Leave it to me to over analyze everything about my marathon training plan, and then to systematically destroy said plan through sheer force of will and stupidity. It seems that I can't say no to running, but running can certainly say no to me.

Let me back up a bit.

Way back in November, after successfully finishing the Medoc Mountain Marathon, I hatched a plan to redeem my craptacular performance at last year's Umstead Marathon. It was a plan full of big ideas, measurable goals, and speed work. It was fool proof. Unfortunately, it wasn't Scott proof (almost nothing is really).

November went fairly well. I started speed work and experienced a few adaptation pains, mostly in my achilles, calves, feet, hips, and hamstrings. And my quads. Can't forget about the stabbing pains in my quads. Oh, and my glutes, they were destroyed as well. But I won't mention my lower back pain, since your back isn't supposed to hurt due to running.

By December I had adapted to the speed work to the point that my legs didn't feel like Guantanamo Bay "guests" after every workout. My heart and lungs were feeling less and less like they were on the verge of complete meltdown when I ran 400m repeats. And, I was seeing improvements in my track times! Unfortunately, those improvements meant big recovery times for my old body, and that, along with catching the stomach flu, caused December to be my lowest mileage month since the previous July.

In January, I doubled down on both the speed work and added a couple of tough races into the mix as well. When I ran the Little River 10 miler in mid January, I should have known something was wrong. I couldn't get my body to generate any real speed. I'm more than capable of 8:30 pace on single track (when I'm healthy!) for 7 or 8 miles. I've ran 8:30 in Umstead on Company Mill and Sycamore, which are pretty tough trails. So when I couldn't break through 9:00 minute pace on race day, I was a bit confused. I chalked up that performance to already having 40 miles on the books for that week, including a hard speed session.

I took a week or so break towards the end of January as a taper for the Uwharrie Mountain Run 20 miler in early February. However, even with the taper, January turned out to be my highest mileage month ever. I only know this now, looking back at my training logs.

The late January taper had allowed my body to recover well enough to survive Uwharrie in early February without too much drama. Not that I was fast in Uwharrie. Uwharrie has its own internal speed limiting system - fear of death. I recovered from Uwharrie pretty quickly. Or at least I thought I recovered. I caught a cold a few days after the race, but otherwise, my legs felt great by the end of the week. So, off to Umstead I went, attempting to get back on my marathon training schedule. That was last Friday.

Last Friday afternoon, I was feeling really good. My cold seemed to be gone and my legs felt fully recovered and ready for a nice tempo run in Umstead. I chose my normal out and back route on Turkey Creek and planned a 9 minute pace for about 12 miles. I've done this particular tempo run before without any real problems, so I was shocked when at mile 5 my body simply shut down. The run never felt right. Not easy, not light, and especially not smooth. Everything felt hard. Maintaining my normal pace was about all I could do, and then I crashed hard at mile 5. I struggled to mile 6 and stopped for a few minutes to take stock. This is where the stupidity meme of my running comes stomping in like a rhino rampaging through a light bulb warehouse. Instead of calling it a day and walking back to my car, I decided that I would be damned if Turkey Creek was going to "beat me"! I decided to run the remaining 6 miles at the same body destroying tempo that had just cracked me at mile 5. And somehow, through sheer force of stubborn stupidity, I did it! I stumbled into the parking lot and collapsed into my car, having held just under 9 minute average pace for the run.

Of course, there was a cost to finishing that run. That night my body decided that it knew better than my brain, and simply shut down for about 24 hours. My entire body seemed to be inflamed. My legs radiated heat. I was nauseous and I slept very poorly.

I felt just like this...

But did I get the message? Noooooo!

By Sunday, I woke up feeling tired, but ready to go run the 4 Mile Godiva Geezer Pleezer with my son Ryan. I made it less than half a mile at a decent (for me) 8:00 minute pace before my body started to feel like it was going to self destruct. Luckily I got distracted by a dog, and then started blabbering away to the dog's owner (Hi Bill!) and slowed down enough to prevent the inevitable implosion. I finished the run with Ryan, but I was feeling very, very tired.

Unfortunately, I still had it in my head that I needed to run 8 more miles that day to finish with a total of 12 miles for the 12athon. I still wasn't getting the message. My body was screaming for a rest, but I refused to listen.

So, off I went that same afternoon on an "easy" 8 mile loop in my neighborhood to finish off my 12athon miles. By now, running was misery. Every step was difficult and unpleasant. But I'm stubborn to the point of stupidity, especially about sports, so I pushed on. I managed to shuffle, run, and walk for about 6 miles.

And then, I stopped.

At mile 6, I simply could not run another step. My legs simply shut down and locked up. Walking was possible, but only very slowly and very painfully. I was reduced to a stiff-legged, old-man shuffle. The 2 mile walk back to my house took nearly an hour. I spent that time thinking about all of this.

Where does that leave me? Well, apparently my overtrained body has decided that I am now on a running sabbatical. With less than 3 weeks until Umstead, my "A" race for the entire Spring running season, I'm lying in the metaphorical ditch, unable to get up. Four months of preparation is slowly swirling down the drain. And I'm the guy who flushed it.

Why did I write this? Certainly not to garner sympathy. Hell, even I am not sympathetic to my situation. I think I just wanted to make sure this entire experience gets burned into my leathery frontal lobe.

I do think I have learned a lesson of some sort. I'm just not sure what that lesson is. I'm sure it will come to me. Probably on my next run...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Geezer Pleezer Freezer

Godiva held it's most interesting race on perhaps the coldest day of the year. The Geezer Pleezer is a start time adjusted race where time offsets are set by gender and age using a WAVA (World Association of Veteran Athletes) chart. Personally, I think this is a great idea for all races. The only problems is that the Godiva folks around my age (early/mid forties) are ridiculously fast, so the WAVA offset isn't helping me very much. Also, the offsets for guys in their forties is only a couple of minutes in a 4 mile race. Also, when I'm surrounded by a bunch of 40 something speedsters, and immediately chased by a bunch of 30 something greyhounds, I have no chance.

Ryan, on the other hand, being 7 years old, was awarded with a whopping 9.25 minute offset. When I told him that he would have an over 7 minute head start, he laughed and said I would never catch him.

Riding over to the race, my car thermometer indicated 27F. If that weren't bad enough, there was gusty wind to push the wind chill down into the teens. In other words, it was freezing (for North Carolina)! Luckily, the race registration was indoors, so no standing outside in the freezing wind.

Once we were registered and had our bibs, we sat on a comfy couch in the warm sun. Ryan said he didn't want to leave that couch, and I agreed, but we were there to run.

Soon enough though, we were forced to venture out into the cold so that Ryan could start. With 9:15 on the countdown clock, he was off like a shot.

I had time to get a sip of water before it was my turn to start when the clock hit 2:00 minutes. I took off thinking that if I could run an 8 minute pace, I would catch my fartleking spawn well before mile 3. Easy.

Three minutes into the run, my over trained legs said otherwise. Ready for my litany of excuses? Ok, here we go...

  • My left knee hurt. Big deal you say, but I've had 5 knee surgeries on that leg. I ignore that pain at my own peril (it's one of the few pains I actually listen to).
  • My right achilles felt like it was cold and brittle and was about to crack like so much frozen bubble gum.
  • My left hamstring was threatening to to tie itself into a square knot.
  • The two blisters on my right foot made it feel like I had angry bees trapped in my shoe. Just an aside, but I've actually experienced this, and it is truly awful (I screamed like a baby when I was stung between my toes).
  • Bill  Hansley's dog ate my homework!
This dog ate the post-it note where I had
my master plan scribbled in green crayon.
Luckily, all I had to do was slow down a bit. Bill was kind enough to put up with my constant yammering for the next mile or so. And that allowed me to not fall to pieces trying to run a pace my body wasn't able to deliver. 

And I still caught Ryan before mile 3! Woo hoo for old(er) people! Although Ryan did look a bit bummed, so I didn't tease him (too badly).

I asked him what happened and he said his lungs burned. Well, I can see why. It was still below 30F at this point. My lungs burned too. Luckily my hands were frozen to offset that burning feeling. See? A bright side!

We spent the remainder of the race really just trying to stay warm and enjoying the course. It is really a lovely little 4 mile loop, with a nice mixture of paved road, gravel road, and even a small bit of single track trail thrown in towards the end. Warning, many pictures follow (click any of them for full size versions)...

North Carolina horses wear coats when it gets "cold"

In the end, Ryan was a bit sad that Dad was so "easily" able to catch him, but as with most problems, chocolate makes it all better.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Wonderful And Awful - Uwharrie Mountain Run 20 Miler

"Uwharrie is wonderful. And awful." I wrote that a couple of weeks before the Uwharrie Mountain Run after previewing the "easier" middle portion of the trail. Now, after running the full course for the first time, I stand by that description.

Over the course of the past couple of years, I've stumbled across a few races which somehow lodged themselves into a special place in my mind. Umstead Marathon and Medoc Mountain Trail Marathon being my favorites. I can now add a third to round out my top three races. Uwharrie joins Umstead and Medoc, but it's difficult to order them in any real way. They are all very different races and experiences. So, I'll just try to describe how I feel about them in terms of family.

Medoc is like your grandpa. He's old, and firm, but gentle and doting as well. He challenges you with the big climb, and then gently encourages you with the smooth rolling trail along the river. The loop course gives you that sense of comfort that comes with familiarity. Others have said this, and I will agree - Medoc is the perfect first trail marathon.

Umstead is like your father. He's constant, and disciplined, but supportive as well. He pushes you as hard as you need to be pushed in order to grow as a runner. He can teach you lessons through both your successes and your failures. I continue to learn from him.

Uwharrie is different. He is like the older, harder, gristly uncle who thinks your father has been too soft on you. Uncle Uwharrie loves you, but thinks that pushing you to the limit will make you a stronger person. As you struggle through his challenges, even at your lowest points, he tells you in no uncertain terms to "Grow up!". And then when you've made it through, he slaps your back and gives you your first beer. He's the uncle you love and respect. And also fear.

Recreation? That should be remediation.

The start, with lots of green "Umstead Tick Mob" shirts.

Lessons from Uncle Uwharrie
Lesson 1 - Don't Give Too Much Too Early - The start of Uwharrie is hard. Very, very hard. You "run" straight up a rock strewn gully for what seems like miles. Unless you are stupid, or extremely gifted, expect to walk most of this section.

Straight up "The Ditch"

There are a couple of rocks in the first section.

Me, followed by Ryan McCarty and Andrew Beckert.
All Uwharrie newbies...
Only a few more miles to the top.. sheesh!

 After struggling up the first big hill, there are several miles of fun, runnable trail, but you must be careful not to bomb down the hills too fast, or to attack the up hills too hard, except if you are running the 8 miler, in which case feel free to run like you are being chased by Sasquatch himself.

Ryan rockin' the kilt.
Andrew rockin' his first 20 mile run, ever. And I thought I was nuts...
The only real bridge on the 20 mile trail.

Lesson 2 - Eat Well - The first 8 miles or so are all about cooking up the proper Uwharrie running recipe. Take a large portion of difficulty, toss in a good helping of fun, and spice with fear and exhaustion. Consume with abandon.

The Uwharrie aide stations are simply fantastic. I had filled my pockets full of granola and honey gels before the race. At the end of the race, my pockets were still full. Uncle Uwharrie whispered sternly into my ear at the first aide station "Gels are for hair, boy! Have a banana. And a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And a chocolate chip cookie. And wash it down with some Coca Cola. That's a real man's race fuel."

And so, I did.

I can't tell you how stupid of me this was. I have a notoriously bad racing stomach, and fueling is something I've struggled with for over a year now. Trying an entirely new fueling "strategy" during a race is monumentally idiotic. Just the sort of thing I'm good at.

But somehow, all the aide station goodies actually worked. I looked forward to each station so I could have a coke and a cookie. I had noticeable surges after each station and never had any stomach discomfort. Uncle Uwharrie is a wise man. Next year, I'm trying the eggs and potatoes.

Lesson 3 - Embrace the Difficulty - I spent the first 10 miles or so trying to keep my feet dry, and for the most part I succeeded. But I paid a price in terms of time, energy and momentum. Eventually, Uncle Uwharrie got fed up with me and pushed me off a rock in the middle of a stream crossing. "Run through it, boy!" he ordered. After that, I splashed through every icy stream and clomped through all the squishy trail mud. And I loved it! I must have passed 20 people total at stream crossings.

You could spend 15 minutes looking for a way
around this crossing. Or 3 seconds splashing
through it.

Uncle Uwharrie Smiles, Sort Of
The final few miles are the toughest. There are many stream crossings, lots of sloppy trail mud, ledge trails I wouldn't let my favorite goat climb up, and a hill around mile 16 that seems to go on forever. And it started to rain (why I have so few pictures - my camera isn't water proof). But this was also my favorite part of the race. I started seeing lots of friends who were running back along the course in the 40 mile event and that really lifted my spirits. Congrats to everyone (Bart, Anthony, Heiko, Dan, Sean, Shannon, Karen and Brandy) I remember seeing on their second 20 miles of the 40 miler. You 40 milers are simply amazing!

Anthony flying down hill so fast, I couldn't
get him in focus.

Shannon, smiling her way down one of the
gnarliest sections of the trail.

Close to the finish, I started thinking about a time goal. Normally, I have all sorts of nonsense goals going into a race, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to set any goals for Uwharrie, other than to finish the thing without injury. I think I actually feared Uwharrie. I said as much to my wonderful wife the week prior to the race. She sympathized (somewhat...) but asked why I even wanted to run Uwharrie if I was scared of being injured. I didn't have a real answer. I still don't. I'm not even sure there is an answer. But I accept that.

Around the 14 mile aide station, I realized I had a shot at coming in close to 4 hours if I kept the same pace. But I was feeling a bit down.  I had lost my running buddies, Ryan and Andrew and had slogged through a bunch of miles nearly alone on the trail. Somehow though, in the nastiest part of the course, I found my second wind, and I flew. I ran easy, light and relaxed. I crossed the line tired, but feeling good. Not that I could have turned around and ran another 20 miles, like you 40 miler maniacs, but I felt really good about my run. I think I finished in just a bit over 4 hours. Not bad considering I had a vague notion that the race would probably take me at least 4 hours 30 minutes.

Uncle Uwharrie slapped me on the back, and grunted "Not bad, nephew. Not bad."

That's right! I wore my bedroom slippers for the race.
Even Uncle Uwharrie was slightly impressed.

My calf is cramping in this picture.
You're welcome!

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Oh, how I hate the taper. Some people really enjoy it, but for a neurotic like me, it's pure hell. Seems like every time I stop running in anticipation of a race, my body falls to pieces. First my feet hurt, which is stupid because they have it the easiest during the taper. Then all my old injuries seem to reignite. My hip will hurt for half a day. Then my ankle will ache. Suddenly, both my achilles are sore and tight. Then my hamstrings feel strained. And why is my back hurting?! That's not even involved in running, is it?

And don't even get me started on all of the "regular" sickness that I feel coming on. Is that an itch in my throat?! Great, I'm coming down with a cold 3 days before the race! Better get some extra sleep. But wait, insomnia strikes, so I'm only managing 3 hours or less each night! Ok, the throat itch disappeared, but now my kids are running fevers! ARRRGHH!!!!

Then there's the eating. Or in my case, the attempted eating. "Preload with carb rich food to build up your glycogen stores" all the experts advise. Not! Every time I try this, my irritable bowel stages a digestive system coup d'etat. And it always wins! Eat pasta?! I might as well wash down some concrete mix with hair ball dissolving drain cleaner.

It's very strange. And very annoying.

Now, where is my beer? What?! No alcohol in the last 48 hours of the taper?! Please, someone just shoot me...