Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Born to (Endurance?) Run(!)

Although ultramarathoning is still considered a fringe sport by the at large American population, it is rapidly growing -- the fastest-growing outdoor sport in the country in 2002, in fact -- and given the popularity of Christopher McDougall's "Born To Run", I'm not surprised by that claim. What you may be surprised to discover, however, is that homo sapiens evolved because we ran. And we survived -- thrived -- because we ran far.

This book is part self-discovery, part history of running lore, and part exploration of running mechanics. McDougall embarks on this journey because of a single, simple question -- "How come my foot hurts?" -- to which few medical professionals proffer anything except, "You just aren't physically built to run". Refusing to accept their hopeless diagnoses, McDougall devours all things running-related, visits medical specialists, and eventually hunts down Caballo Blanco -- the White Horse -- a gringo living amongst an ancient, hidden tribe: the Tarahumara. The eventual meeting of Caballo Blanco marks the beginning of a fundamental shift in McDougall's running form, philosophy, and life disposition. To wit, running well meant living lean and building soul as much strength. And Scott Jurek, the perfect embodiment of American ultrarunning, bridges the gap between the modern ultrarunner and the Tarahumara. Sprinkled throughout the story of how a handful of elite American ultrarunners, Jurek and Luis Escobar included, trekked down to the Copper Mountains of Mexico to race against the legendary Tarahumara, McDougall offers up thoughtful and well-reasoned explanations of barefoot running, the evolution of running, and "persistence-hunting" (hunting via running).

There are many (many!) underline and write-in-the-margins excerpts in this book -- some about Jurek, the Tarahumara, Caballo Blanco, and others just about running. The story about Jurek's resolve at his first Badwater 135 race is particularly moving:
"There's no way, Scott told himself. You're done. You'd have to do something totally sick to win this thing now.
Sick like what?
Like starting all over again. Like pretending you just woke up from a great night's sleep and the race hasn't even started yet. You'd have to run the next eighty miles as fast as you've ever run eighty miles in your life.
No chance, Jerker.
Yeah, I know.
For ten minutes, Scott lay like a corpse. Then he got up and did it, shattering the Badwater record with a time of 24:36."

Barefoot Ted is also extensively quoted -- running barefoot is witnessing a tremendous uptake in believers -- due, in no small part, to the popularity of this book. The sage of barefoot running, Barefoot Ken Bob, declared:
"Shoes block pain, not impact! Pain teaches us to run comfortably! From the moment you start going barefoot, you will change the way you run." I've only experimented with barefoot running once -- I think it may be worth earnestly pursuing -- since it forces you run more naturally...tightening of body, straightening of back, and shifting of legs squarely under the hips.

McDougall also interviews and extensively quotes a handful of academics, e.g. Dr. Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah (my alma mater!), regarding the history and the role that running played in human evolution. Theories are explained, evidence presented, and examples provided, all culminating to Dr. Bramble's solution to human excess and epidemics: "Just move your legs. Because if you don't think you were born to run, you're not only denying history. You're denying who you are."

There is much more to this book -- more than I could conceivably write here -- but suffice to say, I devoured this book in several hours and have been digesting it since. And to hijack a saying of the Tarahumara: "When you run on the earth and run with the earth, you can run forever."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mountain Masochist Mile Trail Run (MMTR)

The MMTR is a premier East Coast 50+ miler and one that I figured I ought to run, especially since it is within driving distance of DC (and one I could postpone aggressively training for until after my comprehensive exam in late August). The race is generally held the first weekend of November and, unbeknownst to me when I registered, a veritable reunion for Liberty University students, former students, and parents.
Lisa and I left early in the evening on Friday and arrived in Lynchburg, Virginia well after the pre-race dinner concluded so I was unable to pick up my race number and race swag. Oh well. Our room, however, doubled as a hospitality suite -- the consequence of checking in so late -- and featured a bar area, enormous living area, and *two* murphy beds. The choice between the two was decided only after I lost the best-of-three thumb war tournament against Lisa. Following a surprisingly restful night's sleep, Lisa and I drove to the start line, I made some last minute decisions -- I went w/ the solo water bottle hip pack instead of the dual bottle pack and decided to wear both a long-sleeve tech tee and a short-sleeve tech tee with the intent of shedding the long-sleeve mid-day -- and then we were off at 5:30AM. Per the official course map, the first 5.7 miles are on pavement, although when we finally reached jeep road, my Garmin read 7.4 miles. Turns out those 5.7 miles are "Horton Miles" -- perhaps a throwback to the days before satellite-guided Garmins -- although I suspect it is largely because the preeminent ambassador of ultrarunning (and former MMTR race director), David Horton, enjoys being a running sadist. In spite of the "Horton Miles", however, this race is generously aided -- a couple of aid stations were just 2-3 miles apart -- so I saw Lisa at several of the stations. As usual, she was all smiles, encouraging, and toting any add'l water bottles, Perpeteum, or other supplies I might need. As far as aid station replenishment, I stuck with orange wedges, bananas, grapes, chips, boiled potatoes, and GU2O; I didn't eat any GU (chocolate mint -- yum!) until mile ~47. And, fortunately, my stomach cooperated all day, even though I had a handsome supply of TUMS to combat any problems. For the most part, I felt like I was moving relatively well all day, although some blistering started to form on the bottom of my right foot where the toes meet the ball of the foot (also a problem at the Headlands Hundred) and my left knee began to ache a bit on the downhills. I ran in my Montrail Mountain Masochists and have been satisfied with them on my training runs and will likely stick with them (I'm going to experiment with different kinds of socks since I'm not convinced the shoes are the source of the blistering, however).
Like most other ultramarathons, the characters running this race were what made the experience so unique. Around mile ~44, I passed the RD for the Highlands Sky 40 miler held in WV every June -- he wasn't having the best race -- nevertheless, I think he was mildly surprised that I recognized him (he certainly didn't know me) and, I think, pleased with my favorable opinion of his race. Another fellow I ran a few miles with seemed to be having a stellar race -- I suspect it was his race PR -- and he was just a dozen or so marathons/ultramathons away from reaching 100...pretty impressive, to be sure.
When I finally reached the last mile -- also on pavement -- I pushed on knowing that the mile was officially a mile and although I missed my (ambitious) goal of sub-10h, I still eked out a respectable time: 10h:40m:20s. The actual distance of the race was ~54 miles and I averaged 12:48 per mile. The only other 50 miler I've run is the Squaw Peak 50 miler in Provo, UT (my first ultramarathon) where I clocked in at 12:08 -- this race marked a considerable improvement in my 50 mile time. On the whole, the MMTR is fantastic race. The scenery, the changing leaves, the competitive field (Geoff Roes broke the course record by ~30 minutes!), and the friendliness of RD & the aid station volunteers make this a must-run race for any ultramarathoner living east of the Mississippi.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lackadaisical Training = Quasi-Muffin Top

Running a 100 mile ultramarathon then not running for a few months thereafter -- at least at a level necessary to maintain race (even a 50k) fitness -- has many consequences, the physical being the most apparent. I occasionally run with a waist hydration pack and, when warm and humid out, half-naked, too (read: shirtless). Although I would hardly characterize my body as a hard one, it is (or was?), a lanky one so when I found myself on a semi-long run, half-naked, and frequently pinching the beginnings of a quasi-muffin top my mind waffled between alarm and disgust. Is it the beer? All the Thai curry? The late night helping of Ghirardelli chocolate chips? Or maybe the stress that follows from a shift in academic programs? Or maybe (gasp), a manifestation of my, my...age? Either way, I've since beefed up my ab workout -- 11 situps instead of the previous 10 -- but I suspect that the acquisition of a bona fide six pack (not the two pack of Schlitz I currently sport) will require, say, 100 situps per day. And two-and-a-half minutes of plank. Nevertheless, if the gangly runner guy wants to run the trails, streets, and sidewalks of DC this summer half-naked, a quasi-muffin top is unacceptable. The pasty white chest -- OK. The four inch biceps -- OK. But a muffin top? Not OK.