"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Greying of the Finish Line

I ran my first race in years this past week (and my next is this Saturday). It was a time to see old familiar faces at the start line - and then I noticed that "old" and "familiar" points to something I've talked about endlessly here. People used to race, whereas now they participate; the old-time racers continue to race and they're still near the front of the pack, beating the participators a generation (or more) younger. Here's the top 10 from the race:


Place Name                    Age Sex Time    Pace     
===== ======== ==== ======================= === === 
    1  Greg Hexum               43 M   27:52  5:35 
    2  Daniel Strike            44 M   29:31  5:55 
    3  Adam Carlsen             22 M   29:59  6:00 
    4  William Sikorski         44 M   30:51  6:11 
    5  Jim Ramacier             51 M   31:37  6:20 
    6  Luke Charpentier         49 M   32:30  6:30 
    7  Gary Simon               46 M   32:40  6:32 
    8  Michael Kennedy          56 M   32:46  6:34 
    9  Daniel Nowlan            38 M   33:09  6:38 
   10  Jessica Paschke          29 F   33:26  6:42
 I was 35th, 8th among men over 50 (36:54).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Two and a half experiments

I have a friend who irks me by introducing me as "old school." I'm always looking for something new, though it tends to make me vacillate between different training ideas.

The Edinburgh protocol

Actually, it might be Glasgow or Aberdeen - I should look it up. Though it's gone by several names, doing sprints to improve distance running has been around forever and it's had a variety of reasons behind it. James, then Canova, then Hudson, had people doing short hill sprints, which is almost entirely dependent upon creatine phosphate and is useful for sprinters, but I was never sure of it for distance runners. Then there was Tabata and 8x20 sec.(10 sec. recovery) all-out, which pushes from creatine all the way through lactate tolerance, but always caused me injury. Researchers in Scotland got it down to 3x20 sec. all-out, which hits the upper end of lactate tolerance and found that doing it 3 times per week for 12 weeks improved maximal oxygen uptake. That I can do. It's too early to tell if it's helping me any.

The late-Foster/Furman/Hanson bros. world

Supposedly, I've reached that point in my running career where high volume is not going to help much any more. It's possible to get by on three days of running per week, supplemented by cross-training, running very hard twice per week. Jack Foster ran a 2:20 marathon at age 50 that way (though he ran 2:11 at age 40 on higher mileage). Recent plans have been advocated of running fewer days and, looking at what is essential to marathoning and to what I don't do well, the follwing looks like a plan:

Tuesday: two hours, with 3x1.5 to 2 miles @ 1/2 marathon (threshold) pace
Thursday: two hours of hills
Saturday: 2.5-3 hours, with the last 4-8 at marathon pace
Sunday: two hours speed hiking/fast walking

That whole low carb thing

 Though it doesn't appeal to me, I'm willing to put anything to the test - assuming it makes sense. Getting 45-65% of one's calories from carbohydrates is considered normal. 40% is where Zone, then paleo went; that's possible if one's careful. Then things went weird and people were advocating exceptionally low carb diets - and some were having running success with them. I kept looking at what they were eating and it made me ill, but still, I considered it.

Most people don't get enough vitamins D, E and folate, or enough zinc or calcium. These low carb diets could get those nutrients in sufficient quantity, so I started looking at it again. There is evidence for a healthy diet containing: 4 oz fatty fish, 2 oz. baking chocolate, 5 oz. red wine, 2 cups green vegetables (especially leafy greens and cruciferous), 1/2 tsp (3 cloves) garlic... not many carbs there!

Unfortunately, weird diets lead to weird deficiencies and I suddenly had to think about thiamin, of all things. If you eat grains or legumes, you get enough thiamin, but these have too many carbs. The alternatives: yeast extract (which is industrial waste, and most vitamin pills are derived from this same sludge) which tastes horrible to me, pork loin or sirloin or tenderloin in too large quantities, kidneys (which I refuse to eat) and supplements.

I've looked over what people are eating on low-carb diets and it's either nutritionally deficient, revolting in taste or just a bunch of potions and pills. Until I can find a way to test this that I can live with, this remains a thought experiment.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Still Here

I had a major hiccup in my training last month and was wondering if I was already falling apart. Then I ran 50 miles in this past week (with 2 days off) and things seemed to be back to where I wanted to be. I'm not running very fast, but I didn't expect to be, given that I had a 16 month lay-off - even though my weight's back under 150 pounds at 6 feet [5'11 3/4" according to a recent measurement, meaning I've lost 1/4 inch to age over 30 years] and my body fat's just under 5%.

I went back over my records and found that my "fat slow years" were not quite as I remembered. I was still running 8 minute miles, rather than the 9.5-10 I'm doing now. At my best (early 1980's), my easy days were 9 miles in an hour, then I hit the 8 min/mile plateau for decades, dropping to 9 in 2008, when I started running a lot of ultras... and now 10.

I'm trying to figure out how to regain some speed. Running fast, no matter how little, seems to get me injured these days, but I've been managing to run 3x20 sec. all-out on a steep uphill three times per week, which studies show could lead to an improvement over 3 months (5% showed no improvement or get worse). I've been working on regaining both strength and flexibility, hoping that that will pay dividends in the future and allow me to actually run fast without injury some day.

I have two races planned next month! There's a guy that will be at both of them that has never beaten me in about 80 tries over 30 years (mostly long ago) - I also have raced his father early in my career and both his daughter and son a few years ago - and this looks like his big chance. I doubt that he even knows he's never beaten me, though. At any rate, it'll give me some idea of just how far I have to go.

Next year, I have two races planned. In at least one of them, I have to beat a guy who ran a 2:43 marathon a few years ago. [Yeah. That'll happen. Sure. Right.]

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tom Bunk

Tom at the Voyageur 50 Mile in 2011
Local (well, Wisconsin) running legend Tom Bunk has passed away after a battle with cancer. He was a good man and I respected him - and those are the highest compliments that I ever give. His presence is already missed.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Next Big Thing

I've complained a lot about missing "the good old days" of running on this blog. Finally, the pieces have fallen together and I think I have a solution. This is going to require a rather long description of the problem [sorry], because the solution looks simplistic without it.

Information Dilution

When I started running in the 1970's, information was passed from runner to runner in the form of lore. Wanting to run a marathon, I was told "run 60-70 miles per week, run a 20 miler every other week and train a minute per mile slower than you expect to race." That information still holds true for those planning to break 3 hours, which was the common goal of the time, but has become meaningless  in the age of the 6 hour marathoner. There are still some remnants of lore - I've heard it said that one can finish the Superior 100 Mile if one can run up Buck Hill thirty times; if you aren't familiar with that race or that hill, that's the nature of lore. Similarly, fartlek training and Lydiard training are no different, just differing terminology being used by different small groups.

With the running boom, there were enough runners to make it profitable to publish training manuals (I own a dozen), all of which tried to codify training based upon one coach's mindset. By trying to make a beginner's training be a watered-down version of an elite athlete's, information got diluted and individuality was lost. People would try one method, fail, then try another.

With ever larger numbers of runners, magazines for runners made money by publishing exotic and improbable training methods, always searching for the latest thing, creating chaos and contradiction. The over-riding trend was not "how to train to run faster given where you are now" but rather "How to finish a race on the absolute least possible training." There had been a sea change; instead of races being competitive sporting events, they were participatory social events. This in itself was not a problem, except that the few competitive runners could no longer find each other, lost in a sea of humanity at a mega-race or being alone in one of dozens of races in a given weekend.

I switched to trail races and ultramarathons because there was still a small sense of community, but these have exploded in popularity and, with lower capacity, faced the same problems in a very short time. I started this blog as a way to get information out about the UMTR before they had a website and decided to use it to publish my own training manual as I learned how to run ultras. There were two times when someone commented "That's brilliant!" but the most telling comment was toward the end, when a friend asked "What am I supposed to do with all this information? Just tell me what to do!"

That brings me to the second issue, the problem of authority and control.


I've always been a teaching coach, which has never been popular and is now nearly extinct. People, lost and looking for direction, want someone to tell them what to do (the dictator personal trainer who tells you the "workout of the day" for example), but they want to control and shape their own path as well. This has led to the proliferation of training plans, either copied from the internet or a book ((it's interesting ho many people bought Hudson's book, where he spend hundreds of pages explaining how to personalize a schedule, and then blindly following one of the examples in the back). When problems arise and the poorly-understood plan can no longer be followed, they follow as best they can for a while, and later do whatever token effort they can and hope for the best, deciding to follow a different plan next time.

People also commonly get coaches as motivators and cheerleaders (and both are appropriate at times), paying someone to make them accountable ("I better get in that workout or coach will be disappointed") or to acknowledge every accomplishment and celebrate every achievement, even if it has no bearing on the goal of future success or even jeopardizes it.

My goal as a coach has always been to teach a runner until they no longer need me as a coach, but the prevailing attitude among runners is "I don't care why something works, as long as it works." The problem with this is that it leads to a non-stop search for quick fixes. Add to this the pick-and-choose method of selecting pieces from different sources - always choosing what one likes, rather than what one needs - and failure is inevitable.

What one wants, ideally, is access to the collective wisdom, made pertinent. This requires a team.


The concept of a running team has taken two diametrically opposed positions, neither of which has worked for me and for which I propose an alternative.

First, there is the social training club, which generally run together once per week and usually has a meal or drinks afterward. I was part of one in 1986 (it still exists, with some original members, and they say I'm welcome back) that was made up of some of the best runners in the area. They would run 10 miles and I would always find myself running with the leaders, which meant that i was doing a weekly 10 mile race in 55-60 minutes, while the majority, which included the likes of a 2:16 marathoner, were having a leisurely 10 mile run in 65. While conversations rarely strayed far from running (no one knew what the others did for a living), very little information transferred except for who was planning to do what race and occasional race recaps.

The other type of team is organized around a business which supplies teammates with gear as long as they are seen placing well in races. These often do not see each other except at designated "team races." Other than being able to spot teammates in their uniforms at races, the benefits of these are mercenary.

A team should be, by definition, mutually supportive and cooperative. Finding people who want to run the same distance at the same pace at the same time and place is nearly impossible. It's also not necessary that members of a team have similar goals. What's required is a willingness to offer another assistance with the expectation that one will also get the help one needs. Websites are popping up continuously for runners asking advice, but these too have been stymied by the problem of scale: the first for ultrarunners a decade ago had someone asking how many miles they should run per week in training for a 100 mile race; the moderator said that as an elite athlete, he did 140 per week, but thought that was excessive for most; another said that one cannot expect to run 100 miles in a day if he cannot run 100 miles per week; then others said they run 60-70, others said they did 30-50 and one said he got by with 15-20; becuase of information dilution and lack of specificity, they only caused confusion.

A committed group of 6-7 is ideal for getting to know others and being able to support each other. They should be chosen for their desire to run faster, for their ability to think critically and accept criticism, to not try to win arguments but be helpful and lastly, for their faith that this is going to help them succeed.

The proposal

I want to start a team (or two) and act as the team's coach. I'd help set goals, figure out training schedules based on whatever information I can get and make adjustments as needed, provide support and answer questions. Some things require being in the same place - showing how to deal with minor injuries, proper hill running technique, etc. - so only people close enough that they could run together if they chose would make a team. Because people don't seem to value things they can't put a price on, I'd charge 1/2 the entry fee of whatever their goal races are (this is nicely self-regulating, as shorter races can be done more often and require less preparation time). The team function would work as a governor - when a question or problem arises, I'd address my answer/solution to the group and consider their input (I can sometimes miss the point); this way, everyone has a stake in the success of the others.

Lastly, to prove that I wouldn't have anyone do anything I wouldn't, I'd also teach by example. Which brings me to my own goal: I plan to win the grandmaster's (over-50) class at the Afton 50K next July 4th; it'll take cutting an hour off my personal best time on that course (that's two minutes per mile!), starting from not being able to run at all for most of this year. Want to know how I'll do it? Join the team.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Odds and Ends

I looked at the Afton Trail 50K record for 50 year-old men and decided it was soft. Using age-grading and switching 25K to 50K in one case (and changing gender in one), I came up with four predictions of what the record should be - 4:05, 4:05, 4:08, 4:08. The record currently stands at 4:27:27. The next question was: Just how hard would that be? The current record is about like running a marathon under 3:10 and 4:05 would be about a marathon in 2:50. I might be able to match the current record, but that would be about my limit.

De-romanticizing the past

But is that in any way realistic? I dug out my old records and in 2007, I was running 85 miles per week at 8 minutes per mile; I could run sub 4:30 at Afton then. The next year, I was doing just a little worse (and racing a lot) and could reasonably expect to do it... but ran 5:29. Two minutes per mile slower! It was a bad race, with a nasty fall, but even before that, the pace was wrong. I was not racing well after the win at Trail Mix in April. Something was up.

The idea of running as fast next year as I did then is barely in the realm of possibility.

How did I used to do it, anyway?

In the early 2000's, I had times when I didn't run much mileage, but I was still running 6.5 to 7.5 minutes per mile in training. When I increased mileage, it was dramatic and not systematic. I remember some slow years, when running 10 minutes per mile for a few miles was a challenge (about where I started this summer), but my records from then are spotty.

The build

I'm starting to run again. I'm stuck at a slow pace and low mileage and trying to remember how to make a comeback. There've been times when I could whip myself into shape in 6 weeks, but I can't do that any more. There've been attempts at a comeback before that have failed and I think I know the reason: what made me race well was the ability to endure much more suffering than others - but there are no awards for suffering. I'm good at going from 98% to 99%, but getting from 48% to 49% bothers me and I've tried to leapfrog over some steps in the past.

Recently, my "long" run was 7 miles and, as I headed out to run 8, I ran into an old friend who pointed out that I was running a 3 mile loop, so I might as well make it a 9 miler. It's what I would've done before - and I would've paid the price of not being able to run well (if at all) for a couple of days afterward.

Treating myself like someone else

The biggest challenge of being self-coached is second-guessing oneself.  What I need to do is make myself run like I would if I were someone else. Pull out the old rules:

1) Don't increase mileage more than 10% (and 5% is safer).
2) Don't make your long run too long (25% of previous week's mileage is the goal).
3) Take a day off each week, until running at least 60 miles per week.
4) Do just a little speedwork - nothing longer than 100 meters at a time, to break the monotony.
5) Don't push in any workout, but, if you feel good, run as fast as you feel like going.
6) Try to improve just a little, either in average pace or in total miles, every week.
7) When you can't manage #6, back off for a week or two.

It's maddeningly slow making a comeback this way, but it's working so far.