Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's Not About The Shoes... Or Is It?

[Note: several of you noticed that this post was up briefly yesterday and then removed. Sorry for the confusion. I posted it yesterday in error and intended all along to post it today after editing and adding a few things to it]

After the other day's not so serious post I thought I'd write about something a little more serious today (although only a little more): Shoes. Specifically why I wear the shoes I wear and is there a specific type of shoe that I think works the best for

People ask me some variation of the following question all the time: "What do I feel like the main difference is between running ultras compared to shorter distance races?" My answer usually goes something to the effect that when you run for 50+ miles it stops being as much about how fast you can go at the fastest points and more about how fast you can go at the slowest points. That is to say, how much you can do to minimize the rate at which you slow down over time.

We can't run forever. There are things which break down as we run that we simply can't rebuild until we stop and tend to these things. No one that I've ever met can process calories as fast as they burn them when they are running, and no one I've ever met can run continually without muscle fatigue catching up to them at some point. In running shorter distance races (probably anything up to 3 or 4 hours) we can get by more efficiently with stored energy than with energy we take in on the run. This is to say that calories we get from eating a gel doesn't offset the time we spend fumbling to open, eat, and digest the gel. Same can be said of water, although the time before we hit this tipping point is much shorter with water (depending on the temperature somewhere in the 30-90 minute range). In ultrarunning though, not only is it more efficient to take in lots of calories/water while we run, it's pretty much necessary.

Ok, by now you're probably wondering what the hell this has to do with shoes. Don't worry, you're not the only one confused. I've kind of gotten myself off topic such that I can't remember what the point was about shoes. Oh, wait, I've got it: I think the same idea applies to shoes. When you think of why we wear shoes: cushioning, stability, protection - these are all things which we can get by without much of for some period of time, but if you go long enough you will hit that tipping point when the extra weight you are carrying around on your feet in the form of extra cushioning, stability, and/or protection begins to be offset by the time you are gaining from having less muscle fatigue and less damage to your feet. To some degree, the longer we run the more shoe we need to find this right balance.

In terms of what the "right' shoe is for a 50 or 100 mile race I think this varies a fair amount from person to person. For me the Montrail Mountain Masochist has been the "right" shoe for almost 3 years now. I have run almost every single step in these shoes since March of 2009. I think this shoe is nearly perfect in terms of it's balance between being lightweight but still enough shoe to help the body hold up after 50 or more miles. Any shoe I've worn that is much lighter (and thus has less cushioning) feels great for a couple hours, but then usually pretty horrible if I go much beyond that.

It's no secret that the basic trend in running shoes over the past few years has been minimal, minimal, and more minimal. In my mind many people are taking the minimal thing way too far in ultrarunning. I think extremely minimal footwear makes a decent amount of sense for shorter distance running/racing, but forultrarunning I think in many cases it's just not enough shoe for the amount of abuse that you're putting your body through running 100 miles on rugged trail. The trend that I see that I think is the most wreck less is that many runners seem to train in one shoe and then race in significantly lighter shoes. Again, in shorter distance races this makes perfect sense, as we all did this in track and cross country back in high school. But in my mind doing this in ultras is similar to trying to eat as few calories as possible during a 50 or 100 miler. I haven't yet seen a "low calorie" gel. Essentially that's what you're getting when you try to run 100 miles in super minimal shoes. It might be the perfect shoe for a half marathon trail race, but the point I'm trying to make is that the perfect shoe for a 100 mile race and a 13 mile race are not the same shoe.

Before I go any further I must say, Yes, I have read the book, and I think it's an entertaining read, and I think there are some benefits to some of the thoughts involving barefoot running. I like that the "craze" has turned so many new folks on to running. In terms of ironic fads I think running around town in foot gloves is way more beneficial than say, trucker's caps. But I'm not talking about a cute fad. The argument that prehistoric man ran barefoot so it makes the most sense for us to tap into this lineage of experience as barefoot runners sounds really great in theory, but it doesn't work in the reality of trying to run 50 or 100 miles on rugged trail as fast as possible. This just isn't something that we've evolved to do. Running 50 or 100 miles on rugged trails as fast as we can find a way to do is something that 99.999999999999999% of humans in the history of the world have never done. Applying the "born to run" argument to racing ultras is akin to saying that at one time man didn't have clothing so we should roam around naked to give our bodies an opportunity to adapt to be able to better protect us from the elements. I guess this makes sense if you're hoping to be the last one in the nudist colony who's able to stay outside when the sun dips below the horizon on a winter afternoon. But no matter how much you get your body to adapt you're not going to be as warm as the dude next door who has on a pair of down pants and a down jacket. In this same way I can see the point that incorporating barefoot running into our training forces our bodies to adapt in ways that will make us much stronger barefoot runners, but I'm not, in this conversation, interested in that. I'm interested in what we can wear on our feet to be the fastest and most efficient we can be at the 99.9% of trail ultramarathons in which shoes are allowed.

One more rant about the barefoot thing before I get back to the main point here. Think about it this way: when we run an ultramarathon we pick our feet up and place them down, over and over, hour after hour, hundreds of thousands of times. I don't give a damn what cavemen did when they ran. What I care about are the options available to me. I can either put my feet down on a couple centimeter thick piece of foam that has been engineered and re-engineered by thousands of shoe developers for the exact purpose of absorbing the impact of these hundreds of thousands of footsteps, or I can put my foot (or my foot wrapped in a foot glove) down directly on roots, rocks, pavement, gravel, or whatever else I encounter over the course of 50 or 100 miles. Any guesses as to which one I'm going to choose? I'll give you a hint: It's the same choice that every other runner I've ever met who is trying to turn themselves into the fastest ultramarathon runner possible has also chosen.

I do think it's important to think about the bio-mechanics of barefoot running when choosing shoes (I think the lower drop you are seeing in many mainstream shoes as a result of the barefoot craze is a positive effect that will stick around for years to come), but in terms of the larger point I'm making here I think that is where the barefoot conversation ends. I just thought I should address the barefoot thing so as to avoid having dozens of responses wondering how I could ignore such an important part of the running footwear conversation. I'm not ignoring it, I'm just saying that I don't think it's all that practically applicable to the point I'm making.

Ok, so back to the larger point. How do we know then what is the right amount of shoe for us? In my mind there's no better method than good old trial and error. When you have the right shoe you'll know it. What you'll know even more is when you have the wrong shoe. If you're looking for somewhere to start I would say try to find the happy medium somewhere between what was popular 10 years ago and what is popular now. Somewhere in there for about 5 minutes I think the typical "popular" trail shoe made sense for racing ultras. The pendulum seemed to swing so quickly from over built "tanks" suited more for backpacking or thousand mile adventures to uber minimal shoes that would be great if we were all back in high school trying to run 3.1 miles over grassy hills as fast as we can. My guess is that at some point the pendulum will swing back and you'll actually be able to go into any running store and find yourself a nice solidly built pair of shoes, but not over built, weighing in somewhere in the 8-11 ounce range. I would even imagine that we'll start to see companies make shoes that are specifically intended for running ultras. I guess if I've made one point in this way too long post it's that I think the right shoe for ultras is quite different than the right shoe for shorter races. One could argue that Hoka has started the trend of making shoes that make sense specifically as ultrarunning shoes. I think the popularity of Hokas in the ultrarunning scene is a great indicator that what many people are wanting on their feet when running 100 miles might just be a lot different than what they want on their feet when running a 10k. Too bad Hokas are so stiff that they make me feel like I'm running in clogs. For now I would recommend just trying a pair of Mountain Masochist and then go up or down from there :)

Ok, that's my rant. If you've taken everything I've written here 100% serious: I'm sorry. My intention here was simply to touch on the general question of what type of footwear makes sense for racing 50 and 100 mile races, and does there come a point when you run so far that you actually want more shoe rather than less shoe? In my opinion there does. Would love to hear what conclusions you've all come to in regards to these questions. Do you wear different shoes in racing ultras (or in really long training runs) then you do in general training? And if so do you go to "more shoe" in races or "less shoe"? I'm sure there are a wide range of opinions on this topic, but I am curious to see if there is a general direction in which folks are going on this topic. Again, I'm curious specifically about folks who are racing 50 and 100 mile (or longer) races, as in my mind not much (if any) of what I'm saying here applies to anything below 3 or 4 hours.

Monday, November 28, 2011

North Face 50 Race Preview

With the North Face Endurance Challenge coming up this weekend I thought I'd do a post previewing how I see the race playing out.

I think there will be some big surprises before the race even starts. Three of the greatest ultra runners in the world will make surprise appearances in the race field. Dave Mackey will show up at the start line having tricked us all with the oldest trick in the book: the "post on your blog that your not running and then show up and see what it feels like to race 50 miles with no training" trick. Kilian Jornet will decide to race at the last minute at hearing the news that his Spanish/Solomon teammate Miguel Heras (last year's winner) has decided not to run. He will be taking his best stab at challenging Mackey for the top finisher with no training. At half Mackey's age my money will be on Kilian. Last but certainly not least in terms of surprise appearances will be Tony Krupicka who will have decided that if he can power hike Green Mountain faster than 99.9% of the runners in the world can run it why not take a stab at the NF 50. Besides this is ultra running, and as anyone can learn from reading Letsrun for a few minutes (I must confess though, I've never actually read Letsrun) only a handful of the runners actually run a 50 mile race faster than brisk walking pace.

The race will start like many people would expect. The Daves (James and Mackey) will instantly sprint out several hundred yards ahead of the pack. The surprise will be that Rickey Gates will follow suit and eventually sprint into Tennessee Valley in the lead and fall to the ground in excitement/exasperation thinking he had just won the race. When asked how he possible thought he could be done with 50 miles already he will respond, "50 miles? I thought the 50m meant 50 minutes."

Meanwhile back in the chase group of 30 or so runners, Mike Wardian and I will be running along comfortably chatting when I make a wrong turn because I am still, a week later, distracted by the fact that Bryon Powell in a preview on Irunfar stated that he thought Way Too Cool was the most competitive 50k. Unfortunately for Mike this time he decides to go the same way as me. Neither of us realize we're lost for a couple hours as I'm still zoned out trying to figure out if maybe Bryon was talking about the most competitive 50k over the past several years or if he's just never heard of Chuckanut. Finally Mike and I come across a bearded dude meditating in the forest while he eats his breakfast: Fair Trade quinoa/wheat berry hot cereal with goji berries, chia seeds, and flax seed oil. We ask him where we are and he points down through the trees and tells us that the Marin Headlands Hostel is down there. Unfortunately for us the Marin Headlands Hostel overlooks the race start, not somewhere you want to be a couple hours into the race. At least our proximity to the Hostel explains the presence of the dude with the bowl full of barely edible foods.

Back in the race as the chase group which is now down to about 15 runners rolls through Pan Toll (mile 18) they discover that they are in fact in the race lead as the Dave's have both disappeared. Mackey wasn't feeling so well and decided to just leave the course and run for home, a trick he learned from Nico at UTMB (Hoka bretheren unite), and James, well no one really knows what happened to him. He just kind of disappeared, but certain to reappear ahead of the pack in the early stages of another race soon.

Shortly after Pan Toll, Hal Koerner tells the other runners that he's going to drop to the back of the pack because he's worried that he might get lost if he's in the front. When asked, "shouldn't you know the course? Haven't you run this race every year?" Hal is heard responding, "Yeah, but I've never made it past Pan Toll".

Meanwhile, Jornet who has been running strong with the large group all day gets distracted by some sand dunes along the out and back trail out to Mckennan Gulch. Apparently the slow motion Kilian's Quest wasn't as contrived as it seems. The young Spaniard is heard telling friends later on that he just can't run past sand dunes without jumping off of them and clicking his heels. I knew the protege must have some weakness.

Coming into Stinson Beach Dakota Jones has moved into the lead and the crowd is going wild. I swear last year when he and I ran in the lead together for most of this race there were 300 people screaming for him for every one that there was cheering for me (thanks Dad). Unfortunately the Young Money fan club will prove to be his undoing. While filling up his water bottles at Stinson Beach a young fan asks Dakota to sign her sports bra. As he's doing this another fan asks Dakota if he would like a sip of his beer. Being that Dakota is in fact an ultra runner he finds it impossible to resist the lure of a hoppy microbrew. Only problem is that a cop who is helping direct traffic nearby sees this and arrests Dakota for underage drinking.

Most of the lead pack at this point is made up of the usual suspects: Bragg, Wolfe, Sharman, Campbell, Meltzer, Olson, Schmitt, Kaburaki, Malarde, Loblanchet, and Chaigneau. As well as a few lesser known, but very strong runners: Flaherty, Schlarb, Burrell, McDougal, and Maravilla. Beyond all of these guys there is one runner that no one has ever heard of: Matias Saari. When he explains to the rest of the pack that he's from Alaska and this is his first ultra in the Lower 48 many of them are reminded of another unknown runner from Alaska a few years back who made his lower 48 debut in Marin at the Miwok 100k, and then went on to put up some huge performances in the few years to follow. Setting records at Wasatch, Mountain Masochist, and Western States along the way. They all rack their brains to try to remember his name, but now that he's old and washed up and pretty much drops out of every race he runs no one can seem to recall.

Somewhere during the climb back to Pan Toll (mile 32), Karl Meltzer is forced to pull out of the race. First his back seizes up on him as he ruptures a disc on the climb. This isn't enough to stop the Speedgoat though. He just needs a little break to let his back loosen up and decides to build a little fire in the forest to keep warm during this time. Unfortunatly the wind kicks up and he starts a small forest fire and is kicked out of the race for breaking the "no forest fire starting" rule. The thing I can't quite understand is why did he have a lighter with him in the first place?

But surely this race is loaded with so many top runners that the race goes on with a very compelling field of runners in the front of the pack as they make their way back down to Muir Beach at mile 42. By this point the lead pack is down to Campbell, Bragg, Saari, Wolfe, Kaburaki, Malarade, Sharman, Chaigneau, and Lorblanchet when a very odd, amusing, and depressing series of events unfolds on Twitter:

StillDepressedAboutUTMB5: @NF50 Here we go again. Why do the Americans seem to suck at every major ultra nowadays.
UltraGeek3: @NF50 At least we have Wolfe and Saari still in the mix.
StillDepressedAboutUTMB5: @NF50 Saari isn't American. He's from Alaska. And I've never heard of Wolfe so he must not be American either.
UltraGeek3: @NF50 Last I checked Alaska is part of the U.S. Haven't you ever heard of The Susitna 100, The Resurrection Pass race, or the Crow Pass Crossing? And yes, Mike Wolfe is from the U.S. I had not heard of him either, but I looked him up on UltraSignup and he's actually done a lot of big stuff. It even says that he was 2nd at WS this year but that must be a typo.
PatriotActRules47: @NF50 Um??? No. Haven't heard of any of those races. Really though? Is this true about Alaska? My cousin was telling me the other day that Alaska was part of the U.S. but I didn't believe him. This is good though. Hopefully Wolfe and Saari can pull it out and not let these foreigners win this thing.
OneLove7: @NF50 No one is a foreigner here. We're all just loving souls who like to run through the mountains and test our limits with ourselves and with nature.
PatriotActRules47: @NF50 If foreigners keep coming over here and winning all of our races we might need to think about tightening security at our borders.
OneLove7: @NF50 What does ultrarunning have to do with national security?
PatriotActRules47: @NF50 Just because we didn't find any WMD's in Iraq doesn't mean that terrorists might not try to send WMD's into the U.S. with ultra runners who come over here to run races. Think about it.
OneLove7: @NF50 I'm thinking about it and I think you're crazy.
PatriotActRules47: @NF50 Anyway, I don't have time for this. I need to go hop into my 6 door, 8 passenger, 12 litre, F900, double Hemi truck with 4 American Flag stickers, and 2 NRA stickers on back and go down to the store and buy another case of Bud Light before this race is over. At least Americans still make the best beer in the world, even if we lost in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and aren't the best baseball players or ultrarunners in the world anymore.
OneLove7: @NF50 Don't forget about the green stuff we grow here in my hometown of Arcata, some of the best in the world.
PatriotActRules47: @NF50 Wow, I guess even hippies have some patriotism about something.

Back in the race the lead pack has been narrowed down to half a dozen runners, ranging from all corners of the world, most of whom have never met each other. Now that the pack is actually small enough to remember a name with a face the runners reintroduce themselves to each other before the final battle to the finish. As they roll through the Tennessee Valley aid station (mile 45.5) spectators can hear Ian Sharman introducing himself to the others. Instantly they all put the name with the face: "Oh, you're Ian Sharman. You're the guy that ran a 12:45 hundred miler. Is this the first race you've run since then"?

Back to the race. Everyone is gathered up the road from the finish line waiting to see who comes into sight first on the homestretch. Suddenly a runner with long hair appears in the distance. Who could it be? Could it be Tony (Everyone's default long haired ultrarunner)? Maybe the power hiking thing really worked out. Besides, the winning time in this race is usually only about 8 minute per mile pace. Isn't that pretty much speed hiking pace? Or maybe it's one of the half dozen or so Tony look alikes that tend to run most every major American ultra nowadays. Or wait, could it be a women? Ellie Greenwood? Lizzie Hawker? They're both fast, but are they this fast?

Anyhow, I'm going to end there. I don't want to give everything away.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Many of you are probably already aware of this, but for those of you that aren't there is a feature length film coming out in a few weeks about the 2010 Western States race. This is a piece that ultrarunner and film maker JB Benna has been working on in one form or another for quite some time now. Many of the ideas, and some of the work on the film go back even a year or two before the 2010 race. JB traveled extensively throughout North America to compile footage for this film. I'm excited just to see all the amazing footage of beautiful and wild places in which pieces of this story are told, ranging from the California Sierras to the Colorado Rockies and all the way up to Southeast Alaska, as well as a handful of other locations in between. I think if the story is well told it has potential to be a great film.

The release date on DVD is set for December 20th, but there will be numerous screenings throughout the country between November 25th and December 18th. Click here for all that info, including info on how to host a screening of your own.

For those in the greater Denver area there is going to be a screening in Colorado Springs that Tony Krupicka, Anita Ortiz, and myself will all be attending. The evening will include a Q&A with the three of us after the film. I highly recommend getting tickets for this one early as it certainly could sell out.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Different Kind Of Tempo Run

I learned today that doing 10 miles of tempo pace (mostly between 6:00 - 6:45 per mile), at 9,000 feet altitude, on technical trail, mostly covered in ice and snow, wearing micro spikes, with 20 to 30 mph winds blowing somehow in my face the entire time, is a lot different than the typical tempo run. That is to say a lot harder.

But it was that good kind of hard. The kind where you can feel yourself becoming a stronger runner with each step.

Time now to mix up about a gallon of my favorite recovery concoction and sip on it for the rest of the day: Clif recovery powder mix (discontinued product that I'm nursing every last particle of this last container that I have), coconut milk, frozen fruit, some leafy greens (kale, chard, spinach, and beet greens all work well), and a couple tablespoons of Udo's Oil.

And last but not least I think a good hoppy beer will be in order for this evening.

Monday, November 7, 2011

What's Next?

After UROC I wasn't sure I was going to race again this year. I took almost a month "off" after that race and then began to run everyday again just a few weeks ago. My plan all along was to start back up sometime in mid October and just see how I felt. If I felt good I knew I wanted to race the North Face Endurance 50 miler the first week of December. After a few weeks of running everyday I have decided that I am most definitely going to run NF (assuming I am, knock on wood, alive and healthy come December 3rd). In the past 3 or 4 weeks I have felt better in my training than I have since sometime in the Spring. The North Face race is once again going to be loaded with top talent, and for the first time I am going into this race somewhat fresh. A lot of people seem to complain about this race being run so late in the season, but I kind of like the timing of it. This way it pretty much has nothing else to compete with. If it were held sometime between May and September I don't think you would get near the depth of top talent that this race now gets. Yes, you would have more top runners who were in top form, but for me part of the excitement of the North Face timing has been pushing on for one last race of the season and seeing how various runners are able to do that (or in many cases are not able to). I have no idea how things will play out for me in 4 weeks in Marin, but this is certainly the best position I have been in 4 weeks out of this race any of the times I've raced it.

After North Face comes and goes then all of my focus will shift to The Iditarod Trail Invitational in late February. At this point I am not really planning anything beyond this for 2012. This is such a large endeavor that I don't really want anything looming beyond it to distract me. I'm also well aware that If I finish the full 350 miles I might not have the physical (or mental) ability to run much at all for a month or two. I do have some races in mind that I'd ideally like to do in the late Spring or early Summer, but I won't decide on any of that until after I'm done with the ITI sometime in early March.

One thing I've decided for certain though, is that I am not going to run Western States again in 2012. There are several reasons for this decision, but more than anything I just want my Summer to play out a bit different this year than the last two years. Each of the last two years I trained hard all of May/June for WS, ran WS in late June, trained hard for UTMB all of July/August, and raced UTMB in late August. I've thoroughly enjoyed the training/racing each of these Summers, but this year I am looking forward to changing things up a bit. Right now I don't know exactly what this will mean. I haven't completely ruled out the possibility of UTMB again in 2012, but I think I will more likely do a different late Summer 100 miler. Any recommendations? I've also put in for the Hardrock lottery, and if I get lucky there that will certainly be a hard one to say no to, although the timing of the race would be almost impossible for me with some other things that I have planned already.

And beyond any of these races I'm really looking forward to 2012 likely being a year of less racing for me, and thus more time to get out and explore remote and beautiful places. Almost certainly I'm going to do some racing in 2012, maybe even a decent amount in the second half of the year, but I'm not going into 2012 with as much of a feeling of wanting to race once every month or two as I have the past 3 or 4 years. A bit of a down year (racing wise) should be perfect to give me more time to really explore the amazing mountains that surround me both here in Colorado and up in Alaska, and it should get me nicely motivated for some big racing ideas that I have in mind for 2013 and beyond. Then again this is all much further away than I ever really like to plan and could easily change just as soon as I'm done with the ITI.