Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sisyphus Gets Smart

I've always loved Greek mythology, especially the myths surrounding King Sisyphus. Not that I liked or identified with the character of Sisyphus (he was an unscrupulous, although very clever, ass), but I have always identified with the overwhelming futility of the final punishment meted out by Zeus (arguably, also an unscrupulous, megalomanic ass). To endlessly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down just before reaching the top is just such a fitting analog to the mindless, soul sucking, daily grind of modern life. More importantly, or rather more to the point of this blog, it's also a perfect analogy for learning how to run races.

Iris' latest race experience, and the lessons learned from it, got me thinking about the lessons I've learned over the past few years when running long races (marathons). By no means do I know everything, or even much of anything really, but I have learned a few hard lessons while rolling my boulder up the hill.

Lessons Learned?

So, what have I learned about racing, especially long races, the last few years?
  1. Have multiple goals for a race, and have some of those goals function as fallback goals for the others. Don’t be afraid to set a lofty goal, but don’t invest so much emotion in the goal that not achieving it robs you of the joy of the event, or worse yet, knocks  you right out of the race.
  2. Always, always, ALWAYS practice, and then stick to, a fueling plan for a long race. You may get lucky and skate through on occasion, but when you aren’t lucky, it's disastrous.
  3. Categorize the races you plan during a particular season. I have 3 categories for my races: 
    • A - most important, with one hard inflexible goal and perhaps a couple of fallback goals
    • B - would like to do well, but goals are totally flexible
    • C - just have fun 
  4. Limit yourself to ONE "A" race per season, a sprinkling of "B" races, mostly used as tempo training runs for the "A" race, and as many "C" races as you like (as long as they fit into your training schedule).
  5. Practice the last miles of the long training run. They are vitally important. Concentrate on those. Practice your target race pace at the end of the 20 mile training run. Let your body and brain become accustomed to the *normal* pain you will experience during those miles. Come to terms with the fact that things will be unpleasant if you are pushing the boundaries of your ability.
  6. Don't be a slave to the training schedule. Give yourself permission to take a day, or even a whole week, off from training. Of course this means including a couple of weeks of padding in your training plan for the "A" race, but that's a smart thing to do anyway.
  7. Trust in the training. I know this seems to contradict number 6, but it really doesn't. By "trust in the training" I mean to not fret about achieving your race goals because the training doesn't seem adequate. As long as you've chosen a sensible, tested plan that can get you to your goal, try not to worry about the details. Just because none of your training runs have you running the entire race distance at your goal pace doesn't mean you won't be able to do that come race day. Adrenaline is a helluva drug.
  8. Beware adrenaline! I know, again this seems contradictory with number 7, however adrenaline is a double edged sword. It can carry you through to a great finish, or totally blow your energy reserves in the first few miles of the race. Practicing your race pace in shorter training runs will help you keep adrenaline in check at the start of the actual race. Then, once you are into those final miles of the race, unleash the adrenaline dogs of war, and let them run!
  9. Learn from your mistakes! Everyone makes mistakes, so don't be afraid to admit them. All mistakes are opportunities for learning. How you deal with them says a lot about how successful you will be the next time you step up to the line. If you failed in making your goal, figure out why it happened and keep that in mind when training for future races. I know, easier said than done.
  10. There's no shame in a DNF (Did Not Finish) or even a DNS (Did Not Start). Your health, your family, and life in general sometimes serves up the unexpected. Don't stress about it. There will be other races. Life is short, and precious. And running is a gift, not a right.
Is any of that really useful? Hell if I know. But next time you are pushing your boulder up the proverbial hill, and it starts to roll back down just as you reach the summit, hop on that thing and enjoy the ride down! In the end, the fall can teach you just as much as the rise.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Trail Love - Altra Superior Shoe Review

I really hate buying shoes. Hardly anything fits my 4E width flippers and I seem to be constantly buying and returning shoes in search of that perfect combination of "fit, grip, drop, and pop" (tm Derscott Industries, LLC). So, for the most part, I just keep running in my slippers and try not to worry about it.

But back in February, I ran  the 20 mile Uwharrie Mountain Run and discovered the limits of moccasins. No, it wasn't the endless miles of hidden roots, rocks, and holes that was their undoing (they actually worked fine for that). It was the stream crossings. Turns out, loose fitting leather moccasins really suck on trails once they are waterlogged and full of dirt. The last few miles of that race were comical. I felt like Uncle Uwharrie had filled a couple of my grandma's old purses with icy, muddy water and then strapped them to my feet. I think he left some of grandma's 20 year old hard candy floating around inside them as well. Running with floppy, soggy, hard candy filled purses strapped your feet is just plain wrong.

I'm sure I also felt Grandma's car keys inside these.

So, when I signed up for the 40 mile Uwharrie Mountain Run this coming February, I knew I was going to need more suitable footwear.

For a small company, Altra makes some really good shoes. I own two pair of Instincts and have raced everything from 5Ks to trail marathons in them. After about 500 miles total, I can honestly say that the Altra shoes just plain work for my feet! I was pretty excited when my local shop, Bull City Running, sent their monthly email news flier out several weeks back and it showed they had a new Altra trail shoe named "The Superior" in stock. I wandered by to take a look, hoping for the best.

Cinderella's Ugly Step Brother
I wear a size 8 in Altra's Instinct, so of course I asked to try the Superior in 8 as well. The size 8 Superiors looked about the same as the size 8 Instincts I had worn into the shop, but for some strange reason they did NOT fit like the Instincts at all. There's a colorful old saying here in the South about the stupidity of wearing anything that is much too small for you - it's like stuffing 10 pounds of manure into a 5 pound bag. The size 8 Superiors were like a 3 pound bag. And my feet are at least 20 pounds of manure.

Turns out, I had to go all the way up to 9.5 in the Superiors to get a similar fit to my size 8 Instincts! I was so shocked by this that I left the store without buying them. Later, I realized that I had forgotten to take the insoles out of the Superiors, like I do for my Instincts. I went back the next day and spent about 30 minutes trying various combinations of sizes and insoles, everything from 8.0 to 9.5.

Just a quick aside about Bull City Running. What a great store! I had boxes and insoles and shoes scattered all around me and spent about 30 minutes walking around the store with various combinations of sizes and insoles on each feet. They never rushed me and were always helpful. If you are local, do yourself a favor and shop there.

The sweet spot ended up being size 9.0 with no insoles. Still a full size up from my Instincts, but not too bad considering I wear 9.0 in other shoe models as well.

Trail Love
Crossing the Eno in Superiors
Ok, so they fit me. I won't bore you with a bunch of shoe specs that you can easily Google, but I'm sure you are wondering how they feel on the trail. Well, after about 50 odd miles of running,  I can honestly say that I love the way they feel! In fact, I've worn them nearly full time (work, home, running) for the past month. I'll spare you any more gushing and just give you some random highlights.

  • They drain quickly following a stream crossing and my foot stays locked in position when the shoe is soaked.
  • The grip is good for the type of trails I run (rocky, rooty, leaf covered East coast forest trails). However, these are not mud shoes, so don't expect super grip in the very slippery stuff. I really like the blocky design of the sole. It feels stable and firm. A more agressive, cleated sole always feels unstable to me on flatter terrain. The Superior sole design is a nice compromise, in general, but a design I much prefer over more traditional studded or cleated trail shoe soles.
  • Rock protection is decent, even without the rock plate (it's a full length removable plastic plate), but if you are bombing down the rocky stuff, you'll want to have the plate in the shoe. I bruised my heel during the 11 mile race flying down a steep, rocky hill because I didn't have the rock plate installed. With the rock plate installed, I feel pretty bullet proof on even the nastiest rocky stuff.
  • After an 11 mile trail race with 4 stream crossings, and a 6 mile "mud" run with 5 cow crap crossings (including a full blown cow poop mountain traverse), the shoes handled several trips through the washing machine with no problems. They air dry in a day or so and look new again. I'm not sure if they will EVER smell the same again after the Misery Run.
  • I would say the shoes are not heavy. They aren't light either. At about 9oz they are acceptable (I'm used to wearing a 6 oz moccasin). But if they were any heavier, I probably wouldn't wear them.
  • They are GREEN! Green shoes rock. Period.