Tuesday, August 30, 2011

UTMB DNF - What Went Wrong

My block of training after Western States leading up to UTMB was not great by any means. I got some really long, really fun runs in, but through much of this time my body wasn't recovering as smoothly from long runs as usual and this was forcing me to take more days off than usual. Three weeks before uTMB though I started to feel a lot better for a nice 10 or 12 day stretch in which I got in 3 nice long runs (about 30 miles each and about 25k ascent between the three of them) and seemed to recover right away from each one of them. This gave me a nice bit of confidence going into the race. I felt that my body was feeling better than it had all summer, and I felt that my mind and my body were as ready for this race as any race since UTMB a year ago. I was however a little bit uncertain about the fact that by the time the race would start I had not run a step in 6 days. When I arrived in Geneva on Monday my luggage was not with me. I didn't get my stuff until late Wednesday night, therefore I had nothing with me except the clothes I had worn on my flight, and thus didn't do any running in the days leading up to the race. I was a little concerned about this, but I also looked at the forced rest as perhaps a good thing since my body was having a slow time recovering all summer.

And so I started the race in what I would call a cautiously confident state of mind. The weather was pretty nasty (cold and rainy) at the start but I wasn't too concerned about this. I was carrying (by requirement) enough stuff with me to run through a hurricane. I can't imagine any conditions in which I would ever wear all the gear they make us carry in this race. I have never run a step in my life in waterproof pants, and I can't imagine a scenario in which I ever would.

At any rate, off we were and I was feeling pretty good. It was amazing how similar the first three hours of this race were to the first three last year. The weather was about the same. I was running in about the same part of the pack on the way down to Les Houches, and somewhere near town Mike Wolfe and I seperated a little bit ahead of the rest of the American runners and began the climb over to St. Gervais behind a lead group of 5 or 6 European runners, led by Kilian. On the way down to St. Gervais several runners (including Nico of course) went blowing by us and then Mike and I gradually reeled them all back in on the gradual ascent on the way to Les Contamines. By the time we arrived in Les Contamines (30k) we had caught up with the 4 person lead pack and the 6 of us ran into the aid station within a few feet of each other. Things had progressed so similar as last year to this point that I was kind of caught off guard when we weren't told that the race was being stopped. Instead we made exchanges with our crews and were off up the trail toward the first serious high alpine of the race.

I wouldn't say I was feeling great heading out of Les Contamines, probably pretty average for 20 miles into a 100 mile race. But the rain had stopped, the stars were coming out, and I felt like the 6 of us were likely settling into a lead group that would end up doing battle for several hours of time through the mountains. Mike looked strong, Kilian and Miguel I knew would be strong for a long time down the trail. I didn't know the other two runners but I just kind of had a hunch that we would all be sharing this adventure for a huge portion of the race. I also knew that Sebastien was just a couple minutes back and would probably join us for the fun.

And then we hit the first steep climbing about 20 minutes past Les Contamines and almost instantly my body felt weak and challenged. I was cramping a bit. Cramping in my legs, but also cramping in my arms and my hips and my abdomen muscles. Cramps in places I have never cramped before. This also caught me off guard as we were only just over 3 hours into the race. I've never cramped that early in a race before. And so I had no choice but to slow way down on that climb. Initially I was fine with this. I was pretty sure I just needed to drink a lot, eat a lot, take in some salt, keep moving as best I could, and things would come around for me. I made it to the top of the climb in pretty bad shape and then when I started running down it felt even worse. The muscles all over my body felt like I had already run most of the race. By the time I got down to Les Chapieux (50k) I physically felt like I should be almost to the finish, when in reality I had not even run 1/3 of the race yet. From here things just progressed further in this direction. Each mile I ran seemed to effect my body as though I had run 10. My quads were pretty much destroyed by the time I began the descent down off of Col De La Seigne.

My mind stayed strong and I shifted quickly from try to compete mode to try to finish mode. I slowed way down and tried to regroup. Ultimately it was way too late though. By the time I finally dropped in Courmayeur (78k) my body was just too thrashed to continue. I was to the point in which I was walking the steep descents backward because my quads couldn't take the impact anymore. I was doing damage to my body with every step I took and thus the decision to stop was almost not even a decision that I needed to make with my mind, my body had made it for me.

With this experience behind me it's still a bit diffucult for me to know what went wrong. There were a lot of top level runners (American and Foreign alike) who had days very similar to mine. The common thing I kept hearing from almost everyone who dropped out of this race (which was more than half of the starters) was that they eventually just hit a point where their bodies felt like they had already run 100 miles. For several folks this occured even earlier in the race than it did for me! For me though I don't know how much my troubles were isolated to this race and this specific day. The weather was a bit tough, and it's a challenging course for sure, although not enough more challenging than a few other hundreds I've done (Wasatch, HURT, and Bear) that I should have felt as beaten up physically after 4 hours as I usually do only after 17+. For me I think my diffucult race was more of a larger picture thing. My body has not felt "normal" for the better part of 3 months now. Typically I feel below average (physically) about 20% of the times I go out for a run. The other 80% is usually average or above. In the past three months though this ratio has pretty much been flipped around. I've been able to fool myself into thinking everything was OK by taking way more days off than I usually do, but this race made it obvious to me that it's not a few days off that I need, but rather a few weeks or months. Just as we hit low stretches in our running in the shorter term, I think I have hit a low stretch in the longer term. After more than 24 months of pretty steady growth and strengthing in my body, I have hit a point in which my muscles need to reset a bit before they can go forward. Basically I feel myself at the same point I was in May of 2009. At that time I took about a month off and came back to running not even sure if or when I would race again. By the end of September that year I had run (and won) 3 hundred mile races. I bounced back that time even stronger than I had been before that.

I had a very strong craving to do well in this race, but I didn't have the fitness right now to do so. I'm OK with this. I'm glad that I finally put my body up against something so challenging that I have no choice but to read the writing on the wall of such an inability of my body to perform when pushed to do so. Where this all will take me in the next several months I have no idea. That's the thing about reseting and then moving on. You have no idea what moving on looks like until you do the resetting. I'm actually really excited for the next several months, and to see where this all takes me. It's hard to totally clear the mind, reset, and just go with what feels right down the road, but this will be what I hope to accomplish over the next several weeks/months.

Friday, August 26, 2011

UTMB Delayed... Again!

For those following along online in The States (or anywhere in the world for that matter), we got news a bit ago that the race start has been postponed by 5 hours. We will now be starting at 23:30 France time, which is 5:30pm EST in the US. There's a pretty strong and fairly fast moving storm expected to roll through here right around the time that the race was supposed to start. I guess their hope now is that the worst of it will have passed by the time we start 5 hours later. Going to be a lot of tired folks with this race starting about the time most people are used to falling asleep for the night.

I for one love the later start for a few reasons. First of all the storm is going to bring in some very cool weather. We might be running in some rain/snow in the first third of the race, but by sunrise it's supposed to be mostly cleared up and significantly cooler than it's been. Cool weather = better stomach performance which more often than not = better overall performance. I also like that we will get to see a lot more of the route in daylight. Instead of running in darkness for 10+ hours we will do it for about 6 or 7. I love running in the dark, but these mountains here are so amazingly dramatic I want to see as much of them as possible. And the third reason I like the later race start is just that it's something different. In the United States there is such a format to most of our ultras. They're almost all one of 4 exact distances and they almost all start between 5:00 and 8:00am. I love that this is simply a run around a mountain (it happens to be right around 100 miles, but only by chance, not by design) and that we are starting at 11:30 at night. It just gives the whole thing even more of a unique and exciting feel.

And beyond all of this there is nothing like having 2,500 runners primed and ready to do a run that they've been preparing for for most of the year and then telling them they need to wait even 5 more hours. You can just feel the tension in the air here now. It's easy to react negatively to news like this, and part of me is frustrated with the situation, but the decision has been made and now it's time to just wait a little longer and try to get some more rest. As soon as we line up, take the start, and run out of Chamonix the whole 5 hour delay is going to mean nothing in comparison to the adventure that lies ahead. Personally I have a feeling that this is going to be one of the most satisfying runs of my life so I don't really care so much when we start... just as long as we get to actually finish this time around.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

One Year Later

I've been ready to run UTMB again for a full year after last year's postponed race. This has pretty much been my focus race since the day after this race one year ago. Keeping my finger's crossed now that the weather cooperates enough to let this one go off without any stoppages. The forecast currently looks a lot like the weather last year!

My week here in Chamonix started out a bit sour. I arrived several hours late into Geneva on Monday and my luggage (with all my race gear) arrived 2.5 days late! Until late in the day yesterday I didn't know if I was even going to receive my stuff before the race. Certainly I'll be going into this one very fresh as I didn't have anything with me to be able to go out for any running. The only clothing I had were the clothes I wore on the flight. I'm probably a little bit over rested but I'll take that any day vs. being over trained.

For those following along online it should be a pretty good one to follow. When the race leaders pass through La Fouly (110k) they will be giving all of the top runners a small gps device that will show the leaders progress with less than a few minutes delay.

Nothing left for me now except to sleep, eat, and run in the mountains all night and most of the day Saturday. Doesn't get much better than that.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


It's no secret that consistent practice of any physical activity can and typically does lead to improved performance at that activity. If only it were really that simple though. In the case of something like running there is only so much running that our bodies can handle before it's too much. This amount varies from person to person, but in the case of most experienced ultrarunners I think there is more of a tendancy to run too often than not enough. I do think consistency is crucial to maximize one's potential, but in the case of something as physically degrading (if overdone) as ultrarunning I think long term sustained consistency is much more important than short term consistency. This is to say that I think it's a lot more important to be consistent over the course of months and even years than it is to be consistent over the course of days or weeks.

Why is long term consistency so important in this sport? Running 50 or 100 miles is not a matter of precision and fine tuning. It is a matter of deep rooted mental and physical strength and endurance which is developed through a series of micro adaptations that we make over the course of years. No matter how hard you train in the 2 or 3 months leading up to your first 50 or 100 mile race you are going to get worked over really hard in that race. Of course there are random exceptions, but everyone I know has been physically hammered by their first ultra. On the flip side of this I see folks (myself included) who have trained and raced consistently for a few years (or in some cases for decades) who have been able to make these gradual adaptations such that they can race every few weeks and only the occasional "race gone bad" has the extreme physical effect that those first few ultras seem to have on everyone. I remember shortly after I ran my first 50 miler someone told me that if I kept doing them fairly regularly that my body would "learn" to do this without even being sore the next day. At the time I thought there was no chance of this. Now, 5 years and about 35 races later, I rarely have very much soreness after a 50 mile race.

Anyhow, if you've read this far you might now be thinking, "okay, good point about long term consistency, but this doesn't make short term consistency unimportant." To some degree I think it does though, because in my experience the most likely way to be consistent over the long term is to not over do short term consistency which in almost all cases seems to lead to eventual injury, fatigue, or burnout that limits long term consistency. This is to say that rather than focusing too much on trying to run a certain amount everyday, or a certain amount of time/mileage each week I think most ultrarunners could benefit a lot from just adopting a lifestyle of going out and running when their bodies and minds (and logistics of day to day life) allow for it and not so much when they don't. Running every single day for a year or running 100 miles a week for a year (if you are one of the rare few to pull this off without getting injured or burnt out) isn't going to make you nearly as capable of an ultrarunner as running a consistent and challenging amount of mileage/hours per year for several years. A few weeks without much running, or even a month, will do virtually nothing to set us back once we have built up all these micro adaptations that this kind of long term consistency leads to. But we can only get to this point if we can stay generally healthy for a long period of time.

How do we best do this? By not focusing too much on short term consistency and just taking individual days as they come and letting our bodies dictate when and how much we run. Of course this is just my opinion about all of this. And of course there are many folks who defy this theory, but I would argue that most ultrarunners would actually run more (and faster) over the course of the long haul if they focused less on trying to run a certain amount each day or week and just ran each day and each week what felt right, taking into account the physical, the mental, and the logistics of day to day life as it comes at us. When your body and mind feels good and you have the time in your day to go out and run like crazy then go out and run like crazy. But when you're not feeling good or you just don't have the time to squeeze in a run without it being too much of an extraction on the rest of your life, then just do what you need to do to take care of your body and/or your life and don't stress about not running enough that day or that week. By not running on these days you'll actually be making yourself a better runner over the long haul.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Colorado, UTMB, and 2012 Camps

My summer in Juneau has come to and end and I'm back in Colorado getting settled in here before leaving in a few days to head over to France for UTMB. I had an amazing summer running in Juneau, but didn't really feel physically very good for a lot of it. Everything has really begun to click in the past 10 days though and I have felt better in this time than I have for any 10 day stretch in several months. This has me more excited than ever for UTMB. Going to get in one last long run tomorrow and then head off to New York to visit my family for a few days and then on to France.

I've mentioned a few times how successful my running camps were this summer. They were without question two of the most satisfying weeks of my life. And now I have moved forward with 3 sessions planned for the summer of 2012. The entry forms for those camps are now available on the camp website so sign up soon if you want to guarantee a space for next summer. Based on the response I've gotten I suspect these camps will fill up pretty quickly again for 2012. I will update the "Latest News" section of the camp website as applications start to roll in, but if you want to be sure to have a space in the session of your choice please send your entry/deposit as soon as possible. Also be sure to fully read over the camp website before you sign up. Most things will be the same as 2011, but there are a few changes that have been updated on the camp website. The most notable of these is that the May 28th session will be specifically intended for the more advanced/performance oriented runner. Please fully read the website before choosing to sign up for this session. And feel free to contact me via email if you have any questions about this.

Friday, August 5, 2011

First Summer of Camp is in the Books

Finished up the second session of my running camp this week. I still can't believe how amazing the experience has been of putting on these camps. Both sessions turned out to be amazing. Two of the most satisfying weeks of my life. Thanks so much to everyone who participated. They were such a success that I already have 3 sessions planned for next summer! The dates are up on the camp website and the entry will open beginning on August 15th. Click here for more info.

Beyond this I've just been doing my best to get ready for UTMB and packing up to head back to Colorado for the fall/winter. It sure has been a short summer. I've done a ton of cool stuff here in Alaska since early May, but I feel like this summer could go on for years and I wouldn't run out of run stuff to do. This said, I'm looking forward to getting settled back in to Colorado and enjoying the Rocky Mountain Autumn which can be one of the most wonderful places in the world to spend the next several months.