Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stretching the Elastic

You may have heard of the central governor theory? Or you may be a normal person! Basically the theory expounded by Tim Noakes of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, amongst others, is that the brain regulates the intensity and duration of exercise to prevent damage to key organs, especially the heart. It says that fatigue is actually a sensation that limits the use of muscles for exercise. Therefore, before you damage your body you will slow down and even stop.

I have a huge amount of respect for Prof. Noakes work, which is almost always ahead of its time or takes on unfashionable theories of others and stimulates debate.

As a runner, who has found a new lease of competitive life in the US, I'm finding myself in racing situations where previously I'd probably be in the pack. That's perhaps down to a lack of depth in some of the fields here, but also that I've started running personal bests (PB's) at 45 set when I was 30! It started with going off too fast in races, but then discovering that I could hang in at that pace much longer than my training seemed to indicate.

Sunday's race was where I had Tim on the brain, literally. It was a pancake flat half marathon on the banks of the Columbia river, with PDX airport on the other side. I'd run 35km on trails the day before, so my legs weren't their freshest. The field was 600, but looked thin at the front, so I knew I'd be able to race with the front guys. Off we went at about 3,35 a km pace, too quick for me to sustain, but necessary just to clear the field. I found myself in complete isolation after a kilometre, in 5th, with 4th and 6th placers already gapped either side. It was going to be a 21km solo, hard training run.

At about 6 miles my legs started to feel the day before run, and that when I thought of Tim, and what actually was hurting? Yes I could feel my legs were working, I had a slight headache and I was breathing hard, but all those elements had been there after a mile. So I ignored them. I looked at the Columbia, I watched the planes take off and land, and I said 'good job' to the other runners as I passed them on the out and back course. It worked. I didn't really slow down, even with a pitstop I got within 40 seconds of my 'on fresh legs' PB.

Brain tricked, job done! Later that day I had what is a normal sort of (for me) lull with dodgy tummy and headache. The problem was it didn't go away. No details, but the body broke down. It didn't like being pushed beyond the stage where it shouted 'stop'. It's still not right 5 days later. This was only a 21km race, not a 500km adventure race, a trek to the Poles, or a marathon at 3 minutes a km, but I guess it's the intensity and your own limits that determine where your own bottom of the well is. Now I know it can be deeper but there are consequences, and despite quite a lot of 'discomfort' It could have been worse. I'd like to think I'll listen to my brain next time, but that's difficult when you know you can push beyond previous limits.

Further reading

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Portland - everyones running from something

Portland is rightly called the weird city. There's a 'Keep Portland Weird' group in Paris! Go figure. It is definitely not typical of the other cities in the US i've visited so far.

Here's a few of the 'differences'.

1. Despite what I'd charitably call a 'shit' climate (although I have been spoilt by 8 years in Cape Town and know the UK is suffering right now) it has the highest percentage of cycling commuters of any US city. Running is also huge. The recent Shamrock runs (15k, 8k and 5k on St Patricks's Day) attracted 35,000 runners, and that for a city 1/20th the size of London. And the runners here are fast! Training speeds at 6am in the morning seem insane, when my body is just waking up with an easy jog. Portlanders take their exercise seriously, but generally with a local beer at the end of it. The trails start 2km from downtime and can take you 50km away without seeing a car. 

2. If you are a tattoo artist or a piercer (is that a word?) Portland offers plentiful employment! Everybody and everywhere on their bodies seems to be a canvas to Portlanders. I think it must be part of the entry requirements. But it's a great conversation starter :)

3. The homeless. A contentious subject to say the least. I really struggle with this. As in (1) the weather is 'wet', so surely you'd rather be in California right? Apparently not. A plethora of soup kitchens, shelters, sympathetic resident and authorities, makes this the homeless capital of America. Having recently moved from South Africa where unemployment is conservatively stated as 30% and you can employ a housekeeper for the equivalent of $15 a day, I'm finding it tough to be charitable, when I see homeless people on iphones, having film screenings in the street and doing a brisk trade in the city centre. I'm told a lot of the issues are down to a very unsympathetic mental health system in  this country? I'm sorry I feel this cynical right now.

4. Cycling commuters. Amsterdam with attitude is all I'll say!

5. The Timbers MLS team. I haven't been to a game yet (Square 1 digital agency please note :) ) but watched the first game of the season on TV, and I haven't seen an atmosphere like it, outside of a Italian or Spanish derby game. They love their soccer here.

6. Food and drink. 2,000 restaurants in Portland and 150 microbrews in a small city make this an amazing city to go out in. It's not cheap, but theres also not much price tiering so as long as you avoid the top 5 tourist restaurants you always get great beer, and normally great food too.

Despite, but probably because of what is an odd mix of outdoor crazy, outdoor and crazy, football crazy, and body art crazy, I've fallen in love with Portland. It's just big enough to feel like a city, but with trails and safe roads to ride on from my door. Thats a pretty good situation for me right now.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Racing in the US

It's a big country! There are hundreds of amazing races, most of which require travelling. So here's my virgin's racing 101 for the States.

Book flights early, prices fluctuate. is a good resource and you can set alerts for when prices go up or down.

Unless the race is in a really remote area don't book accommodation early. Wait til the day before especially if out off season. I've paid as much for a flea pit as for a 4 star room. is my favorite site for accommodation. Use with which is pretty good for rating the best and worst!

You definitely get what you pay for in accommodation here. I've worked out that the price in dollars is directly related to the thickness of motel walls! $100 will get you twice as good a night's sleep as $50, seriously. The worst experience you can have on the night before a race is either hearing the TV blasting next door, or worse a 'party' next door. About to run 50k in Sacramento, in a hotel room on your own, eating one minute noodles and 4 people making out next door, doesn't make distance running seem very appealing!

Take road and trail shoes. My limited experience of US trail races (5 to date) has pointed to road shoes unless theres been heavy prior to or predicted during the race. Even the most technical of trail races I've taken part in had a lot of gravel, pathways and manicured single track. Ask the organisers when you check in wat condition the course is in and has there been recent rain.

Look at detail where and how often the aid stations are on the course. Often the course description will give both distance and time (for 1st, middle and last runners) between aid stations. I've found the aid stations to be veritable buffets with water, coke, electrolyte drinks, gels, sweets, bananas, potatoes, sweets, chocolate, energy bars. This has been my experience at every race. Some races are cup free and we were given a handy little plastic cup at the Chuckanut 50k.

A lot of runners will just carry a hand bottle, no pack.

Run naked if you want! It must be an American thing, but there seems to be a propensity to run topless here, regardless of the conditions. Pinning your number to your shorts is considered cool. The skimpy shorts, no top and beard looks is still seen regularly here. Nice for the summer or to show off those pecs and tattoos, but the Americans do it regardless of the weather. Mainly the men though :)

And finally stay around at the finish. Trail runs here, especially the ultras have a great finish area atmosphere with (yet more) food, including all the savory stuff you've been craving for the last 8 hours as you glugged coke and squeezed in gels. Oh, and there's normally beer from a keg and a chill out area to swap war stories.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Chucked a Nut

Maybe Max King can do it, maybe Ellie Greenwood can. I definitely can't race two 50k races on consecutive weekends. The Chuckanut 50k in Bellingham, 260 miles north of Portland is a tough 50k! 2000m of climbing, truly shitty weather that tested the enthusiasm of the amazing supporters and aid station volunteers, and a couple of killer hills bottomed me out, big time.

The usual insane early pace for a 50k trail race (sub 4 minute kms) was ok last week. This week it was too much. Then hills, and technical single track. Not my forte. The hills, one 3 mile slog then the famous 'chinscapper' a 250m scrabble into cold, foggy, freezing wind and rain. My Garmin scrambled, like my brain and took me out to sea and added 10k. It felt like 60k and swimming was right for the level of rain we had!
After 10k the writing was on the wall with runner after runner passing me, including at least the top 10 women. Both course records went, mens 3,42 and women's 4,01 which are just awesome. Despite 10k of gravel at start and finish, to throw 2000m of climbing in the middle 30k, with plenty of mud, makes those times pretty awesome.

So my first bad run for a long, long time, since Peninsula 2012, which is why running is the true test of body and mind. There's no drafting, no faking, no bullshit. You can suffer downhill just as much as uphill, there's no opportunity to cruise when you've hit the wall, you just have to try not to walk the easy parts or it's a long way home. That's why I love it :)

Thanks to Krissy Moehl and her team for an awesome race in crappy conditions, with a no cup, no litter approach (great little water holder they provided). Tough, but great!

So onwards, with some shorter races and hilly trail runs before African X with Coach Dion. Happy St Patricks Day. I think I'll go and watch some runners this morning!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

African X with a trail legend

Long before minimalist trail shoes, GU Roctane, compression socks and even bladders, trail running was the home of a handful of 'lunatics' who, rather than hike the Cape, ran the same trails. This way PUFfeR was born and a very small number of other trails runs; Old Fishermans Trail and the Hout Bay Trail Challenge. One of the 'original' trail runners was the mountain goat (TMG) Dion Middelkoop. Dion was and still is a master of the technical stuff, an excellent road runner and a coach too.

I'm not sure Dion would appreciate my next comments. But when you meet TMG for the first time, he might come across as 'confident' to the point of arrogance. I guess when you've competed at a high level, and are still doing so into your 40's beating the youngsters, have conquered IM and almost 20 cycle tours, you are allowed a little preening. Dion also never takes running too seriously despite being intensely competitive. Check out his if you don't believe me.

So when he called saying he might be looking for a veteran partner for the 3 day African X trail race, I felt mild panic. He's faster, stronger, better on trail, better in heat. Better at every facet of trail running that I can think of. Wait, his eye sight isn't as good as mine, but it would have been if I hadn't had eye surgery! Dion said lets just have fun. But three days being dragged around Grabouw behind the mountain goat doesn't sound like much fun, until you realize that Dion doesn't do pressure, so I know he will be an understanding and forgiving partner. In the meantime I have just under 6 weeks to hone my climbing skills and also work on my speed. I have two 50k races under my belt this year with one more lined up this weekend, the Chuckanut 50k. Then a couple of 21km and a 10km which will help the speed.

Will we be competitive? That depends on the opposition (no entry published) and if I can reach up nearer to Dion's level. But we'll have fun and 3 days in the mountain with like minded souls can't be so bad, can it?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Trail running is different over here!

If I thought running in SA was competitive, which it definitely is, the bar has been raised now I've moved to the US, especially on the trails. I've been here 3 months off and on, and this week had a real taste of the ultra trail scene with the amazing Way Too Cool 50k in the appropriately named Cool, California. It takes in some of the legendary Western States trails and a good field for early season, including legendary trail runner Max King who definitely pics his races carefully as his 2012 log shows 2/36/1/1/1/1/1/3/3/1/1/1/1/1 Pretty impressive. When you can run a 31 minute 10k and a sub 2,20 marathon i guess you always have a winning chance when you pitch up on the trails. I'd got pretty 'lazy' and unfocussed over the last year and had really only tried to keep 80k a week going but with no structure whatsoever and few races. So had no expectations when I arrived in the US. The first races I found were small field 21km events, and the novelty of leading a race for the first time for years got the competitive juices flowing and made up for the lack of proper training. First 3 races, 2 PB's and 3 second places. Great to be back racing again, but the long stuff was feeling like hard work and a 30 loop marathon didn't help the motivation to run distance. However, the beauty and variety of the trail here means you can find a different, unique race every weekend if thats your goal. Three weeks before WTC 50k was the Hagg Lake 50k, a 2 laper with a 6km road section to start. The starts are like a road 10k; fast and furious, and although this seems nonsense, you cant amble along and hope to catch the speed bunnies. They dont slow down enough! As this was my first ultra of the year i just wanted to get the miles in and not push too hard. 8th/191 and 4,06 was a good start and there was more in the tank. The next weekend was a 35k in Portland's Forest Park and an 8km race at Lake Oswego. 29 minutes for the 8km was pretty much what i'd thought, given the long run the day before, but it hurt. A lot. Way Too Cool was by far the most impressive trail ultra I've run. 1000 runners, chip timed, amazing aid stations and pizza, beer and cupcakes at the finish. Also a Patagonia finishers tee and free beer from their chill out zone! The start was fast! My first km was 3,58 and I was a long way back from the leaders on the 2km of gravel road that was needed to string the field out before the single track. As we hit the single track the pace normalised and i reckoned I might be 30th or so. The leading woman swooped past me and into the distance, so maybe my pace was too slow? But over 50km you have to be in a place between very comfortable and breathing hard and I felt I was there. Also I know that generally I get better in the second half, so was happy to hope I saw her again! We dipped down to the river, a 250m drop and had the American trail experience; fast flowing river, pines, surely a bear somewhere fishing, and beautiful single track. The kay's flew by, with every 8km or so an overstocked aid station, with more food than most restaurant buffets I've been to. Spectators with cow bells were common, other runners not, which if you are racing is generally a good thing! As we climbed out of the valley, my legs told me we were ok, and we started to catch runners. Some going ok, others cramping. As an aside, I've sorted of decided that a good (or bad run) is down to two things, pace and nutrition. The pace has to be faster than you are comfortable with, but within your limits. At Hagg Lake I took the famous (in running circles anyway) Rob Spedding quote to hurt. If you feel good, wait, if you are still feeling good, wait, and so on. This time I was less cautious and pushed from the valley bottom, about halfway. Nutrition has taken me a long time to get right, but GU Roctane seems to be the magic muti. Maybe its in the head, but one of these every hour and I seem to keep my energy up. Trail runners here are real polite and all stand aside when you are about to pass, and a bonus was catching a group of three up the steep Toad Hill. To the last aid station (2km to go, go figure!) and then the sting in the tail, 100 metres up in 1km, to nearly the finish. The first glance at my watch all day said I would break 4 hours, a surprise given the hills, and a great end to an awesome race. Just as during the race, we were pampered at the finish with massage, pizza, homemade soup, frog cupcakes and beer! Thank you WTC.

Next week its Chuckanut, much tougher, but great training for African X, potentially with mountain goat Coach Dion. Yikes.