Monday, August 15, 2016

Post-ultra recovery: resting or... pushing?

After running ultras for 10 years and having logged 42,000 miles since I moved to the US, I wish I had the assurance of elite runner and coach David Roche to tell you, and assure myself, that I knew what I was doing with my training. Well, as much as I have respect for the youngsters shaking the ultra establishment, if there was any, I think it's fair to say that the saying "ultra is a big experiment" still applies. After all, we still see shooting stars, over performing for a while but sometimes burning out after too much intensity in racing or training. Therefore I have to admit that I'm myself struggling on training strategies, especially taking into account the aging factor. Not only we are all experiments of one in general and, surely in my case, there aren't that many 50+ runners keeping improving their time and pushing the envelope as much as I do.

When I started running marathons, my sister and best medical doctor, Marie, gave my this wise advice: "no more than a marathon race a year!" At the intensity that the Kenyans or Ethiopians are competing, in the red zone, it makes sense that they put all their bets on one race. Fortunately, I don't have to run to make a living, pretty sure I couldn't handle that competitive pressure and stress. Although the corporate world has its own version of these... Nowadays, I typically run 32-37 ultra marathons a year, more than half as training runs!

Anyway, after racing Skyline 50K last Sunday, relatively hard, what did I do this week? If you recall, I had cramps for the last 11 miles and didn't do much stretching after the race, so I was quite sore when I woke up on Monday morning after a very short night (working and blogging late on Sunday evening and waking up for a 6 am conf call with the East Coast, just to find out it had been cancelled 15 minutes earlier, grrrr).

Monday. Following Dean Karnaze's tip of recovering by resuming training the very next day after an ultra, at least with an easy recovery run, I did put my Brooks shoes on. The calves were so painful, I almost turned back after a few hundreds yards, yet decided to keep going as I was still capable of running under 8 min/mile. While the pain remained the whole time, the muscles eventually loosened up enough to keep up the pace. I completed 2 of my neighborhood 5K loops (6.2 miles total) with splits of 7:46, 7:23, 7:16, 7:15, 7:11 and 6:59, all that without watching my GPS, just by the feel.

Tuesday. I was bummed that my calves were still so painful, 2 days after the race, but went for another run anyway, albeit starting at a moderate pace. 3 loops this time (15K), with another nice acceleration in my miles splits: 7:29, 7:14, 7:03, 7:03, 7:00, 6:50, 6:53, 6:41, 6:32, and 6:19 min/mile on the last 0.3 mile.

Wednesday. The pain and soreness were mostly gone, but I could still feel some fatigue, so I started slow again to warm up. 4 laps this time (20K) with miles ranging from 7:32 for the first one to 6:35 for the last one and an average of 6:58 min/mile.

Thursday. Couldn't run in the morning and was trapped with work until late in the evening so finally took a rest day. It didn't feel that good because it wasn't a rest by design, but it was a good/reasonable outcome.

Friday. Not much sleep during the week but at least I felt my legs were well rested from the day off. I wanted to run 5 loops this time but had just enough time for 4 fast loops between two conference calls. With that, I started faster, the first mile at 7:06 to warm-up then progressively gaining speed with the last mile at 6:20 and an average of 6:32 min/mile for 20K, leaving 3 minutes to catch my breath and sweep my sweat as it was 84F outside!

Saturday. Work got in the way again, not leaving enough time to go up Black Mountain so I ran along the rail tracks down to Winchester Boulevard, a 16.6-mile out-and-back, 2/3 of dirt trail for a change. I didn't have much expectation for killing it but I happened to run my third fastest time on this route at 7:04 min/mile average.

Sunday. Again, got caught between work and family obligations and ended up having only about 3 hours for my long run, not leaving enough room for a hilly ultra. Decided to maximize the distance by selecting a flat course and went on the Stevens Creek trail toward Shoreline and the Palo Alto Baylands. First mile in 7:13 but I quickly picked up the pace and got under 7 min/mile pace for the 4th mile. When I saw that I ran the first 9 miles in 1:02, I thought of going the marathon distance around 3:10. As I was running through Shoreline Park, I passed a fast runner who recognized me from the Trailblazer 10K race. I was on a 6:35-6:40 pace throughout the Park and pretty happy to be able to maintain that pace in that heat (84-86F), with some breeze helping getting through this exposed area in this early afternoon. On the way back, around mile 18, I started getting some doubts on my ability to maintain that pace and settled down imperceptibly to a 6:45-6:50 pace, managing to going through the wall without bunking. However, passing my a MacDonald's at mile 23, I have to admit that I stopped my watch a few minutes to get some iced water to cool my core down. I ended up running 27 miles in 3:04:25 and around 2:58 for the marathon mark (again, not counting 12 minutes of stops for main road/street crossings and the lengthy stop to get iced-water). With the heat, I was drenched from the sweat as soon as I stopped running and quite tired with this sustained effort. I drank about 30 oz of water upon getting home, and rushed to make a smoothie with some Go Recovery brew (mango), milk, orange juice, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream: yummy cocktail which quickly got me back to my feet!

With the 50K Trail Nationals in 2 weeks, I wish I was able to squeeze in some hill training this weekend. Maybe next weekend then if I'm not on a plane again (I was supposed to go to Saudi Arabia again, but it looks unlikely as of Sunday night), before tapering more the following week.

Well, as you see, between resting or resuming training right away, I've chosen the latter this time, even pushing more than I had anticipated or thought possible. And I'm still wondering if that was the best thing to do this week, training wise. An 84-flat-mile week at an average pace of just below 7 min/mile following a 50K race, here is another data point, a drop in the global experiment that ultra running is... Although we lack data and formal analytics overall, but Strava, RunKeeper, Garmin Connect and many other sites are silently amassing that wealth of data from those willing to share. To this point, although I'm still keeping my Microsoft Excel running log up to date manually, which is a good way to remain independent from changes happening to all these platforms and software tools, I finally took the Strava plunge at the beginning of 2015 so all the above data is available on line. Surely, it's also nice to get some cool predefined dashboards such as this one, showing that I also know to take some time off or taper around bigger/longer races.
I'm sure that this level of details and analysis look futile for some. I agree that it's not good to fall overboard in over (or ultra!) analysis, but I'm a believer in the adage "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it!" (Edwards Deming) or "If you can't measure it, you can't improve it!" (Peter Drucker). So, putting some introspection into your running is important from time to time. Or all the time as a matter of fact to listen to your body, and your mind. That's what a coach can help on I assume and, at least for the tracking, motivation and (over) analysis parts, I seem fined with self-coaching... ;-)

With these random thoughts about post-race recovery and training strategies, I'm looking forward to keeping experimenting as long as I can, and reading and learning from others as well. We are all in ultra running together, aren't we?! :-)

Monday, August 8, 2016

Skyline 50K 2016: the 10th time's almost a charm!

10th consecutive year I toed the line of this early August event: I was so excited I had to post something on Facebook the night before. And what a night... After flying back from South Korea and Japan where we stayed for 13 days, and with the 16-hour time difference, I was seriously jet lagged this weekend. On Friday, I worked at the office from 8am to 12:30am, went to bed on Saturday morning at 2am and woke up at noon, oops! I always like to put a few hours of sleep in the bank, 2 nights before an ultra, at least I had this taken care of. But with that, I barely slept 4 hours the night preceding the race which isn't that good. Apart from that, I was feeling great after logging 123 miles while in Japan, including a few hilly long runs. And I was so much looking forward to a redemption race after the DNF at TRT, this time with a distance which is my sweet spot: that was my 58th 50K race today, in 10 years. And in these 10 years, I've ran each of the Skyline 50K edition, an event which is said to be the longest running 50K event in the US with 35 or 36 editions (co-race director, Adam Ray, wasn't sure, and Gary Wang has 32 years on his RealEndurance reference website, but Stan Jensen 36 years indeed on his page).

With 269 running races in my log, I've given away many t-shirts, but there are a few events I like collecting Ts of, like Ohlone, my fetish race, Miwok, Western States of course and this one.
After this hectic night, the day started early as I arrived at the Chabot Lake Marina in time to see the 6am early start. I apologize for not staying until the last runner gets in, but I like this opportunity to see the ones who are going to battle the cut-offs and leverage this opportunity to start earlier, a nice option offered by a few race directors.

Here is Race Director, Brian Wyatt, giving his pre-race briefing/instructions before sending a dozen or so runners on the trail.

Meanwhile, there was this wonderful volunteer who was handling the bib pick-up all by herself! (Here seen as serving our very own John Brooks.)
The venerable Quicksilver ultra racing team members, Jim Magill and John Brooks ;-)

We started right at 7am but going on the North shore of the lake this year because of some construction at the dam. I had looked at the map but admit that I'm not familiar enough with all these trails to have internalized the course and was going to rely on course markings. Fortunately, there were plenty of these pink ribbons, plus a myriad (maybe 20 total) of Park volunteers at major intersections, that was very helpful to remove any doubts.

A bunch of runners from Excelsior were at the front when we started (Brian, Karl, Jason, and more), two other runners with blue tops whom I didn't know, and Chris Calzetta and I from Quicksilver. I've seen way faster and even crazier pace in the past, so the 6:50-7:00 min/mile we were at didn't seem unreasonable. I actually pushed the pace a bit in the first climb and Chris was the only one to respond and follow. I've such found memories from running these trails with Chris back in 2011 (Skyline and Firetrails) it was a delight to run a few miles again together, although I had no illusion that this would last for too long as he got stronger and faster these past years. But, between my faster speed in the downhills and his stops at the aid station (and me not stopping), we kept going on and on until we arrived together at the turnaround, the Skyline Gate aid station around mile 14.5. The excitement of still being in the lead about half way in the race even doubled as we got welcomed by Greg Lanctot, our Club President, always providing a ton of motivation and encouragement through his radiating energy. Here are 2 shots he captured of us at this station which, I learned later, was manned/hosted by our Quicksilver Club; thank you club mates!

With the third runner on our heels, we did not have the luxury of spending much time to recover and were quick to leave. I had planned on refilling my GU2O bottle but I had only used half of it anyway so not the right time. But that showed that I hadn't not drunk enough electrolytes, and even less water, despite a good sweat as I was still wearing my arm warmer/compression sleeves. A few people had told me it was going to be chilly but the temperature was actually quite nice despite the overcast. Sure enough, the low fluid intake translated into some cramps as we were flying down French Trail and, on the next steep uphill, I told Chris 'go for it!', meaning I couldn't keep up with his pace anymore. I drank much more in this section and took 2 more S!Caps plus a pouch of Vespa concentrate. I didn't mention above that we reached Skyline Gate in 1:45 which appeared to me like a slow time compared to previous years. I was so confused with the new trails we took in this first part that I couldn't figure out if and how much that first section was harder. Passing through mile 16 after 2 hours of running, I started to doubt that I will break 4 hours today, which was my biggest objective today (out of 9 editions, I missed 4 hours only twice but for injury reasons). Better keep pushing for the last 15 miles then and, the cramps persisting, I could predict some trouble and suffering...

This time, I arrived at Big Bear (mile 20) with empty bottles, having forced myself to drink much more than in the first half. A few volunteers helped me refill them, and I also drank a large cup of Coke, getting some sugar before the next big climb. I was very pleased to have the stamina to run/jog the whole hill, still no walking so far! I had to stop at the top of the hill though because of a severe cramp in my calves, but was able to keep the cramps under control in the descent to Bort Meadow (mile 23) where I didn't stop again (sorry George Rehmet and team...). I felt good when the volunteers told me that, like at Big Bear, I was just 2 minutes behind Chris. With this boost, I maintained a good pace until about mile 25 where I realized that, unless the end of the course was cut short, it was going to require running sub 7 min miles to break 4 hours, darn! I did walk a bit but not too much, however my running had slowed down. When I finally reached the final aid station, welcomed by ultra volunteer Stan Jensen who was recording our splits, I realized that I had less than 18 minutes to cover 3 miles, which wasn't going to happen. Yet, I flew through the aid station to keep moving and protect my second place, telling to myself that, to balance the deception of missing the 4-hour mark this year, I should at least cherish these podium opportunities given my age (and it surely helps that the faster and younger dudes typically popping up at this event didn't this year!).

I had not seen anyone behind Chris and I for 15 miles since the turnaround but, bingo, one runner passed me at mile 29. I had no intention to counter, still content with third place but when, a mile later, I saw a runner with a yellow singlet (Excelsior) closing on me, this gave me a kick and got me to sprint the last mile this time. Oops, does that imply that I'm competitive? Yes, some times... ;-) Well that worked, I managed to finish in 3rd place overall, in 4:07, and I'm glad I did because 3 Excelsior runners crossed the finish line within the following 2 minutes! Dang, so long for the Grand Prix points because Loren was third for our club but quite behind. [Photo credit: Eileen Francisco]
Chris had won the race this year in 3:55. Here is the 2016 men podium:

When I shared my disappointment about my finish time with Brian, he said that he thought the new course had between 1,500 and 1,800 more feet of elevation, that surely counts. I look forward to hearing about what others have found from their GPS recordings. And that being said, I know that I may have to live and start accepting slower times, especially with my stroke hiccup of last March...

3rd place earned me a nice cap from event sponsor Victory Sportdesign. Although I was sorry he couldn't run today because of a cold, it was great to meet and catch-up with Victor again (and Lorna and Lucy). Hope everybody stopped by to check Victor's latest invention, a super organized and handy sport bag/luggage which can be carried as a backpack. If you missed the opportunity, make sure to check his website!
Special mention for Joe Swenson, another Quicksilver teammate, who becomes the second runner with 17 Skyline 50K finishes, equaling Barbara Elia's record. At the finish, Joe said he is going for 20! (Assuming he keeps running consecutive years, in two years he'll have run half of the editions...)

Big kudos to Brian and his Scena Performance team for perpetuating this great tradition and maintaining the very high standard of this event. As a side note, I chatted with two runners who were visiting from France and were impressed with the quality of the markings, the number of course monitors, the quality of the food at the aid stations and also blown away by the helpfulness and the kindness of the volunteers everywhere, their ears not believing the loud encouragements that they received when entering and leaving the aid stations. Great testament to the quality of our local races from a fresh perspective. Indeed, volunteers, you rock!!

What I also like in this event is that it marks for me the start of the second half of our ultra running season. Indeed, there have been so many great ultra accomplishments by many already this year, but we are barely half way, Summer isn't even over yet, let's keep running! And see you on the trails then...