Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Running IS an Addiction, Be Careful

I had a few friends who ran the Indiana Trial 100 with me as their first 100 miler and after their success, they were already talking about doing stuff like the Midwest Grand Slam next year. They had just accomplished a new level of running achievement and before their muscles were recovered, they were talking about the next level to achieve.

I contend this is a slippery slope, and I want to try to explain why. But first, a disclaimer:

I am about to compare running to a drug or alcohol addiction. But please do not interpret this as A) negative reference to those with serious drug problems or B) that addictions are healthy. I am merely trying to explain a phenomena that I have seen with ultrarunners and the similarities with drug and alcohol addiction. ---Please, do not be offended---

People try drugs or drinking because to makes them feel good, reduces stress, put them elsewhere emotionally. When you are doing drugs or alcohol you can do too much or you can do it in moderation.
Doing it too much leads to a certain tolerance and then you have to do more and more and eventually you have to start doing more hard core drugs. Think cocaine to crack. Meth. Heroin. You know the stories. Alcohol is the same way. If you drink a lot, you get a tolerance and need more and more and it starts not being good enough.

And you can never really go back a level. You never hear of a person who has a cocaine problem, goes to rehab, goes back to smoking dope and enjoys it and can handle that level. True alcoholics who drink serious liquor can not easily go back to enjoy 1 glass of wine with dinner.

Moderation, however is a good thing. Many people stay at one level for quite a long time and are happy with that level. There is a point in addictions that you start chasing level 'upgrades' faster than you should. This is where the problems really start.

Ok, so lets talk about running and why we even do it. All runners know of what is called a 'runner's high' that comes from the endorphins coursing through our blood when we have a good solid run. This is a totally natural thing and evolution has supported it. Nature wants us to exercise so we stay fit so we can catch our food. It's all good.

Eventually we grow to like it and want more, so we run more. We start running a little longer and it might take us 5 miles to get that feeling. Then we want more.

We enter an actual race. Get a bib and toe the line for actual competition. We scream through our first 5K and we feel awesome. The high we feel can last for days. We may even wear our race shirt to work the next Monday and talk about it incessantly around the water cooler, annoying our coworkers.

The 5K is the first step, the first real level of addiction. Think of it as your first beer.

Eventually for many of us runners, 5K's soon become not enough of a high. We start needing a heavier drug so we might start training harder and go to a half marathon, or even a full marathon. (Malt liquor for our example)

Do a few of those and then that high after each one subsides. You need more, so maybe a marathon in every state, or running marathons in consecutive days, or trying to run 30 marathons in 6 months to get another 'star'. (Wine, if you are following along)

Then, it gets really bad. because by now you really enjoy the 'moving up' getting closer and closer to the edge of the crazies. You like being unique, the 'weirdo' at the office. You enjoy being different and you want to be more different.

The next step in this addiction is of course the ultra marathon, 50 miles +. The difficulty starts getting steeper, but that is what you want. If it takes more effort, the payoff is going to be higher. (And yes, we have reached the hard stuff, liquor)

So you run a 100 miler and it feels AWESOME when you finish. Amazingly, the emotional high of finishing your first 100 mile race is quite similar to the emotional high many people feel after their first 5K and their first marathon. You feel on top of the world.

But by now, you have gone through quite a few levels of running, and you starting to actually enjoy the increasing of difficulty. You are changing drugs so fast, you enjoy finding higher levels. You are moving up so fast you have no intention of leveling off. Let's go crazy.

And there are levels to go to. You can do a series of hundos in a short time frame (the Original Grand Slam, or the Midwest Grand Slam). You can run the toughest footrace on the planet, Badwater. You can do the Badwater double, or heck, the Badwater Quad. You can do 150 or 200 mile races. You can race across the state of Tennessee, or run ocean to ocean.

My point is this, if you start chasing up the ladder to fast and not enjoying the intermediate challenges, you are going to run out of news drugs to try. I know friends who run their first Hundo and then do several and within literally a year, Hundos bore them and need something bigger. Going back down a level is never really in the cards.

My name is Mark, and I am an running addict. I suffered this problem in my own life. Once I finished my 50 state quest, I needed a new challenge and I went straight to Hundos, skipping 50 mile and 100K races (I have never raced either distance) but when I started taking the Hundo drug, I consciously decided that I was going to stay here and enjoy it. I was going to cap my racing to 3, maybe 4 Hundos a year, no more. I want the races to still be a big deal. I want to enjoy the training, the lead up, and the post race bliss. I want to still have those same feelings I did when I ran my first marathon. I have done 8 now, and I can already feel the high weakening.

Right now, I still love the 100 mile distance. I am training hard for it and getting better, always learning from my mistakes and successes. It is still a lot of fun and challenging. Of course I am going to run Badwater. Of course I will probably run across the entire state of Michigan. Of course I will run across the entire United States. I am just trying to take my time and enjoy each challenge. I don't want to run out of new drugs before I die.

There is a lot of marrow to be sucked out of each level of running addiction. Take some time to enjoy each one or you will run (ha!) out too soon.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

2013 Indiana Trail 100 Results (Or: How to Embrace the Suck)

2/57 overall (152 started)
1st male overall

The Indiana Trail 100 is the first ever trail 100 in Indiana and it was put on by a set of top notch crew of race directors at Chain O' Lakes State Park. All that was controllable was done perfectly. Absolutely everything about this race (except the weather and the trail) was perfect.  The fact that they got 250 runners the very first year is amazing in an of itself.

The RD’s had several training runs over the last 6 months including a nice run the day after Thanksgiving  so people could come get a feel for the trail, and I went down for two such runs. It was nice because it helped me to know how much hill work I should be doing. The course was 6 times around a 16.6 mile loop with gentle rolling hills through beautiful terrain. One of most beautiful trails I have been able to run on. However, when it rains, there a few wet crossings. When a monsoon rolls through, like it did 2 days before the race, it gets bad. Really bad.

The race personnel changed the course the day before the race to avoid water hazards that were over waist deep, but that meant some brand new trails were being blazed by the runners. Yes, there was some actual bush-wacking done during the day. At night, that would cause some problems. At the pre-race briefing the night before, we were told that the trails were some of the worst conditions that the RD’s had ever seen, and they have been running these trails for decades. That was not a good sign at all.

On my way into the area on Friday, seeing the ‘High Water’ road signs was not a good omen either. I choose to stay at Brick Ark Inn only 10 minutes away from the race. Misty and I had stayed there back in November and loved the hospitality of Tammy the innkeeper. She was very accommodating for the runners who were staying there, getting up at 3:45 am on race morning to make us breakfast.

My ace crew chief (my lovely wife) was unable to attend this race as my step son had major back surgery 3 days before. Luckily, I have enough experience that I spent some time making drop bags for myself the week of the race. Knowing it would be cold and wet, spread over the two drop bags (start/finish and at mile 9 of the loop) I had 5 full sets of clothes. Extra everything just in case. Turns out, I only did 2 costume changes all day long. At noon I removed one long sleeve shirt, going down to 2 layers. Then, at 7pm, I added a long sleeve shirt. That was it. During the warmer parts of the day (mid 40’s) when the sun was out, I would sweat just a bit, but when the sun went behind a cloud I would get a little cold. I surmised from those observations I was ok.

I have recently changed to a ketosis diet, so food at my drop bags were low-carb tortillas with butter, blackberries, blueberries, cheese sticks, hard boiled eggs along with some salami. I ended up eating only the tortillas and berries, nothing else sat well in my stomach, but that was no great surprise. I also had my standard first-aid type of things at both aid drop bag locations. I was well prepared.

I was able to follow my aid station gospel to a tea, never being at any one of the 23 aid stations (the entire race total) for more than probably a minute. I always knew what I needed when I rolled in, and often had a friendly stranger help me get pills out of bags, but that was about it. I truly believe this method is one of the huge reasons for my success at this distance.

Knowing that it was going to be wet, I wanted to avoid wearing socks, so I decided to start the race with my Vibram Spyridons. I added some 2Toms sports shield which really helped. I packed 4 other sets of minimalist shoes in my drop bags just in case, but decided early on I was going to keep them on as long as possible. I did not expect to keep them on until the very end. I have never done a 100 miler in the same set of shoes before. It certainly shaved off some time, not having to change them out. I did some research (after the race of course), and before this race, the farthest I had ever run in a pair of Vibrams was only 29 miles. Hmm...

Ok, so lets talk about the weather. The temperatures were in the low 30s at start with a light snow and the winds up to 20 mph most of the day. The high for the day was in the low 40’s in afternoon and when the sun went down the temperature plummeted down into the 20’s.

Because of the heavy rainfall two days before, There were ~35 water crossings and ~60 unavoidable mud stretches were what made it this course so rough. What’s even better (worse?) was that they were spaced out evenly over the whole course so you never had to go much more than half a mile before you got muddy and/or wet. The water crossings were usually calf/knee deep and the water was relatively clean, so after a good mud section, the water would clean it off nicely. I’m being sarcastic of course. :) I was reminded of my previous worst-ever-race-conditions, the 2012 Winter Beast of Burden. That was just cold. This was wet AND cold. making this the worst running conditions I have ever run in, at any distance.

The race course was well marked, and yet I still made a wrong turn on the first lap, which added at least 10 minutes to my time. And of course, it was an obvious turn complete with big white sign. On my second lap, some large sticks were put in the way there, so I knew then I was not the only person who went wrong at that turn which made me feel a little better. :)

To bring in some elite runners, the race offered a $25,000 prize for anyone who could break the US 100 mile trail record which brought out a few speedsters, including the eventual winner, Michelle Yates. With there being a 50 mile distance as well, I started behind the lead pack of 8 people and let them take off. I have done this enough times to know, it is not who is in the lead at mile 3 that wins. I wanted to get into my long-term pace as fast as possible. While I walked/jogged through the muddy parts, I still ran the uphills, even after mile 50. My switch to minimalist running and the subsequent shortening of my normal stride helped. I have been doing a lot of hill work which also helped.

The aid stations were great, always with workers willing to help, though I needed little. For everyone of my laps, except the last, I followed this simple routine:

Start/finish: Swallow 3 Hammer Electrolyte pills, 2 Hammer Endurance Amino pills, 1 Anti-fatigue pill and then leave the aid station with 20 oz handheld filled with flavored Hammer electrolyte laced water and something solid & small to eat (small bag of fruit for example) while I walked out of the aid station. Because of these supplements, my muscles never cramped (the electrolytes) and my brain never faded either (the amino acid pills)

Mile 4 aid station: Drink 1 cup of water.

Mile 9 aid station: Refill the handheld with same custom concoction (I made 2 gallons beforehand) making sure I drank the entire 20 oz since the last major aid. Again, grab something solid and small to eat on way out of aid station.

Mile 14 aid station: Drink 1 cup of water.

That's it. No need for a complicated plan. So short and simple, even I can't screw it up.

I carried my iPod from the very beginning and ended up listening to techno from about mile 50 until the end pausing it only to chat with runners I was passing and aid stations workers. It kept me moving, even when I was power-walking to the beat near the end.

As expected, I did not touch 80% of the stuff in my drop bags, but that is a good thing. You never know what you WILL need, so I pack pretty much everything, knowing full well I will not touch much of it. Before a Hundo, you never really know what is going to go wrong (something always does) so you must prepare for all reasonable scenarios.

At the end of lap 5, there was only about 15 minutes until sunset and I knew life was going to go from bad to worse. While I could walk around many of the mud spots by bush-wacking a little bit, at night it was harder to find the right detour, so I ended up going through more mud than I did any of the other laps. And it was way colder. And I was tired. There is no pill or food that could cure the 'my feet are cold and wet and I hate this course' problem I was having. Experience and unwillingness to quit kept me going. At no point did I even think about stopping, but slowing way down was contemplated.

Being on a ketosis diet as an ultrarunner gives me one small advantage in that at the end of race a little carbs serves as extra-special fuel. So I drank some Pepsi at the aid stations and only water in my handheld the last lap. I will be honest, I didn’t feel like it helped, and it made my stomach upset I think. Though, my stomach gets upset at the end of all my Hundos.

Once the sun went down, the temp dropped quickly into the 20’s and I started getting even colder, but kept slogging. I was down to power-walking most of the loop, but even that still at 15 min/mile pace. Keeping your arms up really makes a difference when you hit that stage.

A word about the overall winner, Michelle Yates. She is an elite runner, and while this was her first 100 mile race, she has won the 50 mile and 100K national championships as well as qualified for the Olympic trials. I did not mind losing to her at all. The fact that she beat me by less than an hour is pretty awesome, actually. I would like the record to show, that my lap 5 split was the same and my lap 6 split was faster than hers :)

At about mile 88, I passed a couple of people and as I said ‘good job!’, one asked me if I was Mark Ott. I said yes, and she said to her running companion “I told you, he’s the male overall leader”. What?! She told me that the leaderboard said I was in the lead after lap 3 and 4. I was on my 6th lap (she was on her 5th) and I didn’t even know there WAS a leader board. I found it later inside the aid station tent that I never went into :) I knew nobody had passed me (actually, no one passed me all day long) and now, for the first time I knew I was the leading male. Crap, now I had to try not to lose it. I hate pressure.

I was passing people at a good clip, so I was trying to keep an eye on every headlamp I passed and making sure the lamps never got closer behind me. I had no idea at all how much of a lead I had on the #3 runner, so I assumed they were right behind me, so every time I looked behind me and it looked like the light was getting any closer, I would pick up my speed a little bit if not outright running. At about mile 95 I caught up to two guys but they were moving pretty quick. Turns out, they were on lap 5 but still moving good. I got into a good pace with one of them and we power-walked the last 5 miles of the loop together keeping each other company. It took my mind off the awfulness of the trail.

I finished the race and went into the aid station tent for the first time. Boy, was it warm in there! RD Mike came over and gave me my awesome winner plaque and congratulated me. It was a great feeling, but then my nausea set in. I have a track record of always getting sick and my blood pressure dropping bad at the end of Hundos. After sitting for about 5 minutes, I had to go puke, but on my way out the tent, I sortof sat down. Quickly. ‘Medic!’ was the next word I heard someone say and in short order, I had two EMT’s on me asking me questions and putting warm blankets around me. About 5 minutes later I was in the back of an ambulance trying to convince the EMT’s that I didn’t need to go to the hospital. They were pushy about it, but I explained to them that A) This is normal for me and B) The conversation with my wife would be much worse if I went to the hospital. When they were finally able to get a blood pressure on me (it took them a little while), it was 88 over 42. They got concerned and even tried to trick me into letting them take me to the hospital against my will (key word: disorientation) by asking me questions (confirming my street address, for example) just to see if I would get them wrong. In my delirious state I kept telling them ‘Please stop. My head is fine and I am thinking clearly, I just need to stabilize’. They did not trust my experience of my own body I guess, but they were doing their job, so no foul.

Of course, I had yet to deal with my feet. The feet that have been cold and wet for now almost 20 hours. Once the medics released me after almost an hour, I went back into the tent and carefully removed my Vibrams and before I put a pair of dry socks and shoes on, I hold my feet up to the heater to try to warm my toes. It was not working. I decided I need to get stable mentally ad physically so I can go back to the B&B and take a shower and get some rest. I left everything including my award and buckle and drove the 15 minutes back and carefully took a shower. The warm water on my toes was excruciatingly painful. Houston, we have a problem.

Turns out, I had real life case of frostnip on my toes, and all 10 of them were completely numb. The pain coming from the de-frosting was the most pain I have ever experienced in my life. It really did feel like someone had cut off my toes. I ended up having to soak them in lukewarm water for 30 min just to make it so that I could rest, as sleep was impossible. Oh, and I was wandering around my room at the Bed and Breakfast sobbing like a baby it hurt so bad to move. Luckily no other soul was awake to hear me grovel.

I got up about 7am the next day and had a little breakfast before heading back to the race to get my stuff and chat with folk and cheer on the other runners. In looking at the leader board, I could tell it was a rough night. The final race results tell the tale. In the 100 mile race, there were 152 starters, only 57 finished, with 20 of those over 29 hours and only 3 finishers under 20 hours. For those of you who don't know, that means it was a tough race.

I am not sure what helped me out the most, my switch to minimalist footwear, my ketosis diet, my HSW training, or my mental attitude and experience. It was certainly some of all of those things. I am just glad I get to keep the title “Pretty good Ultrarunner”. That’s all I really want.

Race report from #1 finisher, Michele Yates       Race report from #3 finisher, Paul Stofko
Race Report from Rick Simon                   Race report from a friend, Andrew Siniarski

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Stomach Issues in Ultramarathons (or: Another Easy DNF Fix)

A few weeks ago, many of my friends attempted the 100K and 100 mile distances at a race in Wisconsin. More than a few of them DNF'd partly because of 'stomach issues', which is honestly a common DNF reason. While many people who run hundos train their legs for the race, they do not train their stomachs. I offer the following suggestions to make race day easier on your tummy.

Anyone who knows anything about marathons has heard of the dreaded ‘bonk’ which happens to many a rookie marathoner ,usually around mile 20. The cause is pretty simple to understand and involves how many carbs you can jam into your body.

Your body converts the carbohydrates you eat into stored glycogen in your muscles. Even if you are a large person, it turns out you can only pack about so much into your muscles before they are ‘full’. Depending on who you ask, this is about 2000-3000 calories. This fact is why marathoners will ‘carbo-load’ before a big race packing that glycogen in as tight as possible. It is also well known how much energy it takes to run 26.2 miles, which is (amazingly) about 3000 calories. What that means is that most marathoners who carbo-load and/or take only a small amount of carbs during the race have little problem getting to the finish line.

When you ‘bonk’ you have run out of glycogen and while your muscles are trained to use that as their primary fuel source, your brain also needs it. When it runs out, your brain goes foggy. Bonking is a physical and mental problem. Your body does have a backup system to keep you from dying and that is the fat you have stored. And there is a lot.

In ultramarathons of 50 miles and longer, life is much tougher than a marathon. Even if you jam 3000 calories into your muscles the days before, you are gonna burn through that in the first half of a 50 mile race. That means you are going to need to consume a few thousand calories during the race to prevent bonking. For a 100 mile race it is even more.

Getting all those calories via liquids (gels or XYZ-ade) is generally not enough as they are not that calorie dense. This is why most ultramarathoners consume solid food during their longer races and why aid stations are usually stocked with all sorts of delish solid foods which generally have oodles of calories per serving.

Your stomach, however, is not built to process solid food while you are running. Think ‘fight or flight’. You are definitely ‘flighting’ while running so your insides are busy converting stored energy into usable energy. When you consume solid food while running you are asking your body to suspend that (important) process to do something very different, convert consumed food into stored/usable energy.  This is why right after a big meal you just want to sit, not go for a run.

And that is why (I posit) that many people get stomach issues that slow them down and/or cause a DNF in an ultra. I further propose that these issues can easily be solved with simple training, and you don’t even have to become a ketogenic athlete to do it, but of course that would be best :)

The first solution is simply training your body to consume solid foods while running. I know, I know, it sounds simple, but it is commonly overlooked by ultrarunners when training. When they are doing their long runs (generally 20-30 miles) they run it like running a marathon, having a good dose of spaghetti the night before and consuming gels and energy drinks during their run, and very rarely attempting to eat solid food, simply because they don’t have to eat solid food to get through that workout.

I am a huge fan of the concept ‘train as you fight’ which means you want to train your body both physically and mentally for as many race day issues as possible beforehand. That means you need to practice eating on the run, but more importantly, you need to practice eating solid food when your body needs it.

Again, if you are running 20-30 mile you can get away with only liquid fuel during the run because your body has a good chunk of glycogen stored because of your normal diet. So, let us remove that. You need to start your long run depleted. The day before a long run, avoid carbs, in fact, maybe even skip dinner and go to bed hungry. Wake up, have your coffee and then go for your run. You will run out of stored fuel quickly maybe only 5-10 miles, which is what you want. You have just put your body (mentally and physically) in the same boat you will be in at mile 40+ and you didn’t have to run 40 miles to get to that point.

Now, as you are hungry and running is when you start testing your foods. Yes, you are testing, because we are all an experiment of one. You want to try every solid food you have ever heard of people consuming during an ultra. Jello. Beef Jerky. Hard-boiled eggs. Cookies. Gummi worms. Fruit. PB&J. Grilled cheese. Spaghettios. You are testing different thing to find out what YOUR body can handle under those conditions, and more importantly what your body cannot handle. When do you want to find out that food X makes you want to vomit, during a 20 mile training run or mile 60 of your first Hundo?

I know in my training, I figured out (after 5 Hundos) that I did best with fresh fruit. It is a simple food and my stomach has little problem breaking it down while running. The more ‘complex’ the food (read: processed) generally the harder it is for your body to break down. So chocolate chip cookies might look good and taste good, but there is a good chance your stomach will reject them.

The goal here is to get a list of things you can and cannot eat. You avoid the cannot foods at aid stations and you pack your drop bags with the can foods. It’s really that simple, but not as simple as the other solution, which is training your body to not need as much solid fuel to make it to the finish line. Burn the fuel you have on board, fats.

As I said earlier, we can only store 2000-3000 calories as glycogen in our muscles, but we can store (depending on who you believe) 40,000+ calories of fat energy in our bodies. You have plenty of fuel on board, but your body is not used to using it.

You are born with the ability to burn carbs or burn fats. In modern society, we consume plenty of carbohydrates to get us through our day so our bodies rarely have to use fats as a fuel source. Your body can make the switch of course, the most obvious instances being when you bonk in a race (you don’t keel over and die right then) or when you are stranded on a desert island with only water and you survive for a week or so with no food. In both cases, your body’s survival mechanism has kicked in. Your body loves you THAT much.

However, if your body is not ‘practiced’ in that using-fats-for-primary-fuel-source process the ‘shock’ of the transition is rough, especially when you are deep into a long race.

People who follow a ketosis diet actually exploit this fact and eat very few carbs. I am such an athlete. I have trained my body to burn fats as my primary fuel source from the get-go as I have no glycogen on board. In effect, my body ‘bonks’ about 0.5 miles into every run I do. Since my body has made the adjustment (which took a few weeks) it is little problem for me. The benefits are numerous, but I will not go into that here, you can read about it in my previous post on ketosis.

Most of my readers have no desire whatsoever to go keto, and that is totally cool, but you can still benefit from the concept. You need to train your body to run on fats when the need arises. Think of it as training the backup system ‘just in case’. If your body has never really used that fat-burning-system until you are at mile 50 of a 100 mile race, of course it is gonna be rough.

So how do you train your body to burn fats? Simple, do a carb depleted run (much like our first suggestion) but this time instead of consuming solid foods containing carbs, you simply drink water and make sure you are getting enough electrolytes. That’s it. You are trying to bonk and more importantly, you are running THROUGH the bonk with no carbs.

Its gonna be rough the first time, just like the first time you ever ran 15 miles without stopping, but like that workout, it will become easier every time you do it. And once again, on ultramarathon race day when you run out of stored glycogen (you will at some point, I promise) your body will transition over and start burning through the HOURS of fat energy you have stored up. You will probably be consuming carbs during the race, but the fat burning process is gonna help you go the distance.

Ultramarathons are tough, but when you recognize that your training has to be changed more than simply ‘run more’ you will have a much better chance of finishing. DNF’ing is to be avoided at almost any cost. But that is for another post...