Well, third time’s a charm at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 miler! I haven’t competed in this glorious battle of body and mind since 2010, but, for one reason or another, it’s been calling me back ever since. TRT has everything a growing trail runner needs: three different distances from which to choose, majestic beauty, amazing aid stations, and the signficant challenges that come with running at elevation, with lots of climbing, and as it turned out this year, some nasty high temps.
From a coaching perspective, the race really is the easy part. The hard part then lies in the preparation. In training, I like to dwell on the notion that “the more we sweat in training, the less we bleed in war.” Therefore, I’d like to share some of the key things I’ve learned over recent months that directly contributed to a two-hour personal best at this demanding event.
Learning. To stay in the “flow” in racing, training, or life itself, it seems to me we have to keep pushing ourselves forward, and specifically, acquiring skills to meet new challenges. Ever since last December at a demanding but rewarding North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler, I’ve been uploading ultra-running knowledge like Keanu Reeves’ character, “Neo” from the movie, The Matrix. Learning these days comes in the form of podcasts, training with North Face athlete Leigh Schmitt and other experienced local ultra-runners, reading blogs and books, coaching athletes, homestaying Aussie triathlon legend Luke Bell and witnessing his complete and dialed event process, and simply applying valuable lessons from my own training and racing. All of these things contribute to the “how to” effectively pace the first 75 miles of a 100mi running event, and as Karl Meltzer preaches, “be there in the final 25%.”
At Lake Sonoma 50m in April, I learned a few things, starting off with I really don’t want to run without salt tabs, no matter what Dr. Timothy Noakes has to say about it. Perennial frontrunner, Gary Gellin, thankfully sorted our Lake Sonoma results by how much athletes slowed over the second half of the race. Winner, Sage Canaday, slowed by 12%, while I slowed by 18%. It then became my mission to improve my performance on the backside of ultra events, which included an immediate return to taking salt! Duh.
Since 1998, I’ve heard time and again, “Listen to your body,” and “Race your own race.” As with pretty much all of us, I’m still learning just how to listen and how to race. Gary inspired me to throw on the heart-rate monitor, this time for Silver State 50m in May, where I learned, yet again, that my aerobic system has a lot more to offer than my leg muscles. At SS50, I set up heart-rate zones in my Garmin 910XT that were based on an average heart-rate of 142bpm at my 50-miler in December. In the final miles of SS50, I struggled to keep my HR inside my assigned lower limit–my muscular endurance needed some work. I needed to be doing longer training runs more often. Gary, for example, has shared that he likes to do something longish every other day.
TRT Pacing. So, if Sage slowed by 12% in the second half of Lake Sonoma 50m and I slowed by 18%, I thought it reasonable to shoot for some reasonable middle ground of about 14% slowing in the second half of TRT. I wanted to better my time from 2010, win, and possibly establish a new course-record (CR) in the process. The existing CR, established by Thomas Crawford in 2010 is 17:47 (10:40/mi). Throughout the month of June, I started playing around with possible CR scenarios that could pan out at Tahoe Rim, pink being what I felt would be the ideal splits, i.e. “pace difference:”
“The race is long, but in the end, it’s with yourself.” Gary Gellin’s use of heart-rate zones in ultrarunning events is just plain smart, especially for less experienced ultrarunners and/or for folks who are seriously committed to performance gains. I feel I fall into both categories in the context of racing the 100mi distance. Pacing by heart-rate (HR) then, especially in the first half, makes the entire experience more exciting because it gives you a good deal of control out there, granting you “permission” to honestly run your own race, and encouraging a strong final 25%. Up until this point, I’d only used HR zones on the 112mi bike portion of the Ironman Triathlon, in order to hold enough back to run an effective marathon (see Maffetone). Simple principle really—what you hold back early is there for you later.
In order to run the second half of TRT and slow no more than 14%, two things had to happen: One, I’d need to be able to run approximately 9:50/mi over the first half and have that effort be at a HR less than 142bpm (my avg HR for two relatively recent 50mi events). And two, I’d need to have the muscular endurance to hold at least 11:30/mi over the second 50mi. June training was designed to attend to both of these issues.
Note: running even splits of 10:40/mi did not seem like a good idea because my entire event takes place over the span of a day, where temps rise and fall with the sun. Physical and mental fatigue accumlates. Therefore, running “economically fast” in the cooler morning, slowing to keep the HR down in the warmer afternoon, will set you up for plenty of faster running for those cooler hours before sunset. Darkness may naturally slow your finishing pace, depending on the terrain, and your night-running abilities. Know thyself.
TRT Training. If you’re interested in reading more about my TRT training, please read my previous post from June 12, entitled, “Pump Up the Volume.”
A snapshot of my first three weeks of TRT training is provided below. During June, I was fresh, running well, having fun, running in a good variety of trails, keeping it healthy, while chasing Dominic Grossman on Strava’s “Junedoggle,” where thousands of runners worldwide logged their June runs to see how much volume they could rack up. This virtual competition, of course, can be a little dangerous. After one too many corrupt Garmin files, I bowed out of the Junedoggle. I needed to take a rest-week anyway! I think I would’ve ended up in 5th (behind Dominic). Anyway, the Junedoggle served its purpose. Keep it healthy and fun, and Strava can be a highly effective training tool. Know thyself!
We do the most training we can absorb. June is the month where I have the time to train most effectively since I’m off for the summer. I can do and absorb more training since I have more time to do all the things that effective recovery involves, like sleeping more, preparing and eating nutrient-dense meals, making smoothies, foam-rolling and stretching, taking ice-baths, relaxing, etc.
I ran 500 miles during the month June with 82,000′ of climbing. I’ve never done this much volume before, even when I was preparing for road marathons. This 90 hours of predominantly trail-running is what most directly contributed to my performance at TRT on July 20th. It’s important to note that I arrived to July healthy, definitely “feeling it” and ready to taper, but with no problems to speak of. The two primary contributing factors to my sustained high, quality volume were, a.) training entirely in Hoka One One trail-running shoes and b.) supplementing my pre/post workout nutrition with Master Amino Pattern (MAP), amino acid tablets that promote a higher level of protein synthesis within the body. I highly recommend you try MAP for yourself during your next phase of bigger volume run training. Speaking from direct and successful experience, you will recover more effectively. And when you’re able to do more quality training, performance results are inevitable.
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A word on technology. Leading up to TRT I was having constant headaches with my Garmin 910XT’s heart-rate monitor strap, to the point that I’d just about committed to racing TRT without HR. My heart-rate data, on two different straps, was intermittent and therefore affecting my average HR, which is the piece of data I most want to count on in racing. After trouble-shooting with various Garmin devices and changing the straps’ batteries, I took my two faulty straps to Echelon Cycle & Multisport where I soon learned that Garmin released a new strap with beefed up sensors; a third sensor on the left to more reliably read HR (remember folks, our hearts reside in the left side of our chests (think Pledge of Allegiance). Thank you to the intelligent folks at Garmin. Game on!
The Ultimate Direction AK Race Vest continues to be indispensible for any event I do, 50mi or above. I prefer to use Amphipod bottles with the vest. The various pockets are incredibly handy for stashing gels and the miscellaneous items we like to carry during ultras. The vest not only frees up my hands for more efficient running and power-hiking, but also frees up my short pockets for trash. Bottom line, this vest allows me to optimally manage my sh*t, so I can concentrate on the important things, like not falling.
Pacing the First Half. So, assuming we would have reasonable temps, I believed that if everything else fell into place, I might have a shot at lowering Crawford’s 2010 CR. Ultimately, the pace of the first half would be decided by the pace run between the high and low limits I set into my Garmin, which at the start were 125-135bpm. Within the first hour, I soon realized a change to those zones was in order. I’d never run a 100mi event with HR before, so I wasn’t very dialed with my zones, thus I set them up conservatively to start. So, I reset my zones to 130-140bpm. At this effort, I felt entirely within myself especially since my breathing was controlled. I continued to monitor both my current heart-rate and average heart-rate, displayed on my watch. I played the game of running between this HR floor and ceiling. When I was above or below, my watch would simply vibrate (no audible alarm) and I would adjust accordingly.
After a few hours, with my HR still well below my average 50mi event HR of 142bpm, I decided to change the zones one last time to 132-142 and ran in these zones to the half-way point back at the start/finish at Spooner Summit. Along the way, I slowly moved from 6th place up to 3rd by about mile 45, where I spied recent 2:30 marathoner, 2013 Silver State 50 and Quicksilver 50 champ, Chikara Omine, inside the Snow Valley Peak aid station. Snow Valley was all hustle and bustle with 50k runners and I shot out of there with full bottles of water, hoping to open up a gap on Chikara while still staying within my dialed HR zones.
Because I’d changed my zones, I’d arrived, earlier, to the Diamond Peak aid station at mile 30 before my crew (aka: my wife, Amanda). The same thing happened in 2010. Totally my fault, I scrambled to find some de-caffeinated Clif Shots. Since there were only caffeinated Shots on the aid stations table, I threw myself at the mercy of the spectators. My new hero, Jason Riddle, among others, handed me some Razz and Chocolate Shots and I was on my way up-n-over Diamond Peak and back down to Tunnel Creek aid station, where I had an emergency stash of gels in a drop-bag. No ultra is complete without a bit of drama!
Amanda was there to meet me at mile 50, handed me a big bottle of water to guzzle, replaced my Amphipods with two fresh bottles, stuffed my vest pockets with Shot, handed me an icey hand-held Amphipod to use solely for cooling, and gave me a fresh Garmin 910XT for the second half of the race. We ran out together, her offering words of encouragement while also reminding me to run my own race and be smooth. The last thing I heard was a guy shouting, “You’re in second place but you have 50mi to catch him! Settle in. Back to my mantra: “Steady. Relaxed. Breathing.”
Racing the Second Half. Perhaps it’s more: continue-to-pace-well-in-the-third-quarter. It was mid-day and the temps were up there in the high 80s to low 90s. It’s 2000′ and just under seven miles back up to the next aid station at Hobart. With over a mile to go to Hobart I was completely out of water and had to conserve by slowing the pace. Grateful to arrive at Hobart, I took on plenty of fluids and departed with about 52oz of water. Not wanting to carry a bottle, I stashed the hand-held in my vest’s back compartment and reached for it regularly to splash my head, face, and neck.
First place runner, Josh Brimhall, had come into—and left—the 50 quite a bit before I’d arrived. Now sandwiched between him and Chikara, I certainly had the motivation to keep my head in the game, though the inner demons were awakened with the mid-day sun. Mental and physical fatigue was on the rise as well. Josh had bested me at Lake Sonoma by some 20min. Chikara had run a smart race at Silver State the month before, and dropped me on a long climb up to mile 40, ultimately winning by 13min. “Steady. Relaxed. Breathing.”
The third quarter of any endurance event is tough, for obvious reasons. Tired of my watch vibrating, I took off my trusty HRM strap and stowed it away. At the half, I saw that my average pace was 10:06/mi. That wasn’t the 9:50/mi I dreamed of running but it was hot and this pace was close enough to start me thinking once more about the possibility of besting that course-record. To arrive at the finish in 17:47, I’d have to average 11:14/mi. I set my Garmin’s Virtual Pacer to 11:14 pace and continued on.
Climbing somewhere between Hobart and Tunnel Creek, while imagining Josh an hour ahead and Chikara a minute behind, I looked up and spied Josh walking with his pacer. The time had come for a predator-prey role reversal. As I moved passed Josh and his pacer we exchanged words of encouragment. I pushed the effort a bit to open up a gap and get out of site. From about mile 55 or so, I would be in new territory at TRT, that is, on the front.
With the day’s real-life competitors in my rear-view, it was time to chase the ghosts of TRT past, namely, Thomas Crawford. Anyone else with a faster time on this course was fair game too. The Tunnel Creek aid station was pumping out music and cheers as I again weighed in, filled up, and descended into the infamous 6.5mi Red House loop, which descends east off the ridgeline and loops back up to the Tunnel Creek aid station. The legs were protesting on the steep, sandy descent. Then, at about 2mi into the loop, nausea set in. Before I had time to decide what to take (Tums, or Pepto, or a ginger-chew) I found myself vomiting on the side of the trail. It wasn’t, however, the complete bodily shutdown I’d suffered through at my first TRT in ’09. This upchuck episode lasted only a minute or two. Once purged, I found myself once again moving down-trail toward the aid-station, situated in the middle of the loop.
Through the aid station, I probably walked and power-hiked most of the 3mi back up to the top of the ridgeline. On the way up, Chikara was coming down. As a competitor I was not sad to see I had a good lead on him now, and at the same time I was glad to see that he’d not dropped. Anything can happen in a 100 miles. Just keep moving >>>
Now that I tossed my cookies and the thought of gels was repulsive, I knew the time had arrived to go to Coke. Filling up one bottle with soda and the other two with water at Tunnel Creek (mile 67), it was time to get up to the flume trail and swoop down to Diamond Peak to meet Amanda and my pacer—best-man for the job, wedding or otherwise—Michael Cook.
On the way down the 4mi flume, I’d made up some ground on virtual Thomas Crawford. He was now only 15min up. But, I was at the bottom of a 2000′ climb and naturally, I was pretty exhausted from the day’s 80mi effort. Out and up we went, Michael pouring on the encouragement as we climbed the sandy Diamond Peak ski slope. Looking up-slope was demoralizing, so I chose to keep my head down and focus on sandy foot-holds, determined to just get the job done.
Boom! Once back up on the ridge, we cruised with some good light left in the day. Down through a rowdy Tunnel Creek—where I wouldn’t have minded sitting down for a few minutes. In between Tunnel and Hobart, the headlamps went on and the arduously simple task of moving forward was stark before us. My trusty mantra “Steady. Relaxed. Breathing.” now too complex to employ, was re-tooled to one word: FLOW.
It ain’t over ’til it’s over. I had a sense of where Chikara was, but really no idea how Josh was doing. I’d looked over my shoulder more than once on the way up Diamond Peak expecting to see him charging up after me. You just never know…
Finally arriving at Snow Valley Summit, Michael got some chicken broth into me. I filled up with some more Coke, and it was go-time down the fairly technical, switch-backy descent to the finish. I’d picked up my iPod at Diamond Peak but hadn’t used it yet to this point. With one earbud in, I jammed to some Springsteen, Imagine Dragons, Cash, and U2, yo-yo-ing back-n-forth between complete elation and complete exhaustion. Following Michael’s cues to slam more Coke, I was making full use of my downhill running speed, keeping the turnover high so as not to face-plant into a rock and knock myself out. From the top, I was some 24min behind virtual Crawford. By the finish, I’d got back only 8min. Not enough. But, I was totally stoked to have run 18:03, now the second-fastest time run for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100-miler. Until next time Crawford, virtual or otherwise!
Results. First half in 8:27 (10:06/mi). Second half in 9:35 (11:26/mi). I came up short on the CR but reached my goal of running the second half of the event 14% or better. I was 11.8% slower over the second 50. That’s for you Gary Gellin!! Thank you.
Endurance Planet, Ask the Ultrarunner podcast (7/25/2013): The Pooping Runner, Habits of Ultrarunners, Using HR for Ultra Pacing, Ultras in Heat, and More
In recent days I’ve tried to express my sincere gratitude to all those folks that followed along on Saturday, all the folks associated with the Tahoe Rim Trail 50k/50mi/100mi, the spectators, friends near and far, the Cook family, Inside Trail Racing, and my lovely and supportive wife, Amanda. Running well in an “A-Race” means quite a bit to a runner. And at 39, who the h*ll knows how many of these I got left in me! All the support along the way helped create my masterpiece, if you will. What I’ve written here, is my attempt to educate—and maybe even inspire a little—those of you chasing your “Cool Impossible.” Good luck out there and stay in the flow >>>