Ah hubris in running strikes again. Less than 48 hours after stepping off the crispy Thursday trail all energized I was curled in a ball on the side of the Juan de Fuca trail projectile vomiting 1 1/2 liters of water and remains of breakfast for the second time in as many hours. My one day run of the Juan de Fuca with the fun runners of Victoria was not to be. Somehow, I still want to run.
Yesterday was one of those runs. Everything flowed, I felt nimble and fast on technical downhills, powerful and strong on steep climbs. Running alone with no benchmarks, I felt as fast as the fastest even though my running always falls about 50% slower than the speed demons out there. Who cares, my shirt was off, sweat was flowing freely out while breath flowed freely in and the trail felt like home: fun, friendly, playful. I dashed across the trans-canada as twilight settled in. A hairy, shirtless, glistening, geared-up sasquatch in front of the couple of cars that saw me. Back into the woods and over rocks along Goldstream past bigleaf maples and madrone. I am so damn lucky to be doing this. So damn lucky.
A photo journey of the 10th annual Kusam Klimb. I ran this race as Liz’s pacer feeding her gels and maybe slowing her down by taking photos (maybe that was a good thing?). The race is 5000′ of climbing in 22 kms with the first 7km covering all of the elevation (much in just 4 kms). It’s a feel-good, very challenging local event that has the ear of trail runners all over BC. The race is also a “hike” for many who complete the route by walking and taking their time with a goal of just finishing. Liz and I fell near the front of the middle with a time of 4:26:00 and a lot of good memories and having met some great people along the way. Later in the day we found the community centre hot tub and indulged. Best $4 ever spent.
Each of us performs movements over the course of a day that we don’t think about but which require a highly-trained brain/muscle connection. Standing from a chair, walking, stooping to pick something up, sitting back down, washing dishes, running, typing, etc. We have been practicing these movements for something like our age minus a year or three and the patterns are pretty firmly wired between the brain and all of the muscles that have to intricately coordinate to make these things happen. Standing is a complicated task requiring constant communication and response between the brain and our foot, leg, hip, trunk, neck and many other muscles. If someone gives you a moderate shove, you probably wont fall over and you probably wont have to think about how to compensate. It will just happen. This is phenomenal when you think about it. We cannot design a bipedal robot with this capability. The best we have is the segway, yet your brain and muscles know exactly how to do this.
The interesting thing is that, because of our chair, couch, car, and bed oriented lives, our training for all of these basic postural movements is totally out of whack throughout most of white-collar western society. We are weak where we should be strong (no, not your abs think lumbar, hip and deep core stabilizers) and short where we should be long (illio-psoas, cervical muscles) and dumb where we should be smart (the neuromuscular connection). Our neuromoscular connections are faint because we use chairs and beds and cars (and even bikes) to support our weight and get us around. The human tendancy is to cannabolize systems that aren’t being used so that resource may be dedicated elsewhere, or simply put dormant to save energy. My theory is that the 10% number reflecting the fraction of our brain power that we can access for higher thinking indicates that there’s a majority dedicated to motion, recruiting muscles, and when the shit hits the fan, allowing grandma to lift the car off of her grandchild.
All of this becomes even more hilarious when us western, white-collar types get it in our heads that running will save us. We read Born to Run, we have friends running 5 ks, 10ks, marathons, ultras. trail ultrarunning is all the rage now so we decide we have to keep up. Furthermore, we are constantly bombarded by media with the very real need for more exercise in our lives for health and, to eveyone’s credit who gets out there, we do these things. We haul our shortened, weak, stooped and dumb frames onto the pavement and hammer out some miles 5 days a week. And all of the postural compensations that our bodies have adapted into for desk-sitting and car driving actually work against forward movement. We overstride, our hips tilt, we lean back or slouch forward all leading to knee pain, IT issues, shin splints, TFL pain, bursitis, or my nemisis a nasty clicking where the psoas glides over the femur in my deep hip. It’s just gross.
Because we live lives that are static the majority of the time, our brain-muscle circuits are optimized for standing or sitting still. When we stand or sit we lock our knees, we slouch into our hips, we cross our legs, we fold our arms, we collapse into our spine in a forward arch — all of these things are adaptations that allow us to do what we have practiced which is to stand or sit still for hours on end and let our brains focus on other tasks. I’ve thought about getting a standing or even a treadmill desk but shied away because I know I’d have a hard time focussing on my work, my brain is dumb when it comes to supporting me and coordinating my movements, so a standing desk would make it impossible for me to concentrate at work until those pathways were efficiently rewired. But I digress.
So we run, and we get injured and we wonder why. We do mindless hip exercises, and we buy shoes with medial stabilizers and motion control and arch support, we wear knee braces, we take time off and do nothing, we foam roll, we start to feel okay and then we are injured again. Or better yet (this is my case) we buy into the barefoot movement thinking that it will force our brains to learn what it needs to and then get injured and wonder why it works for the kenyans and not us. We marvel at the fasties, the kenyan barefooters, the raramuri, the aged gurus running into their 70s or 80s. What do they have that we don’t? Why is my right knee in a chronic state of ache? They have well-trained neuromuscular circuits. They are strong, long, and smart where they need to be and I’m not and you probably aren’t either. This is not because they do 1000 clam shells a week. It’s because they have communication superhighways between their brains and the muscles that support their frame and lead to efficient running or walking or even standing. Either their brains never went down the road of allowing their bodies to soften to the world of chairs and cars and bikes or they trained their bodies out of that mode. So, how many miles of running does it take to get this training? 1000? 5000? 10000? The ol’ 10000 hours? Barefoot running? No! Going out and hammering the pavement or trails will never retrain the brain and muscles to do what needs to be done. The secret of the fasties is that they had a coach drilling them to re-recruit these circuits, the kenyan barefooters never went down the wrong road, the aged gurus are probably a mix.
Since injuring my knee last January, I’ve been reading a lot about this stuff. Sure, you read one book or a blog post and it’s easy to brush the author off as a zealot or a faddist (paleo diet for example) but for me all of this started to converge. I semi-randomly found Jay Dicharry’s book Anatomy for Runners when reading about a criticism of cross-fit endurance training. I was researching standing desks and ergonomics at work when I came across a lecture by Kelly Starrett at Google about posture, alignment, and connective tissue health. I was researching coaches in Victoria, BC and read about Marilyn Arsenault’s Mindful Strides clinics which emphasize posture and the postural training she learned as a professional singer and relearned when embarking on her path to becoming the women’s master’s record holder for the marathon (side note: this is why racing in Victoria can be discouraging — the town is stacked with Canada’s fastest runners, cyclists and triathletes and small enough that they tend to show up at every-day races). I began to assess myself and realized that my posture totally sucks from an athletic standpoint and that this was why my injury was becoming chronic.
So, how to move forward? You have to find someone who is drinking the Kool Aid or spend a lot of time learning and feeling and doing silly exercises. This stuff is hard to learn (or I should say relearn, when you first started walking, you knew all that you needed to know or were a blank enough slate to learn the right way easily) on your own, because without an external brain to help your brain, you can’t escape your own neuromuscular trap. When you actually achieve proper posture your brain will be screaming at you that you are doing it wrong, that you are falling over, that this can never work. I think of my first 10k run and how my brain was yelling at me for the last 1/2 saying that this was rediculous and impossible and that I should stop. Training. You need to redevelop all of those pathways, relearn proper alignment and motion. I’m enthusiastic about all of this right now because I finally enrolled in one of Marilyn’s clinics and am finding a happy convergence of what I’ve read and am enjoying learning how to put it in motion so to speak. Through the course of this “running” clinic, we will probably cover about 500 m running. All of the drills are about relearning the postural foundations of all movement including running. Yesterday we spent an hour learning how to stand; yep, just stand there. And we learned a little bit about breath. It was one of the most exciting classes of my life.
So, you don’t want to spend the money on a class or coach or good physio therapist? You certainly shouldn’t have to. You need to go to other modes of feedback such as your eyes and hands. You need to shoot video of yourself and compare your posture and stance to good posture and stance. You need to touch your butt when you walk or run to see if the right muscles are engaging. Scour race photo archives to see what you do during a race, and best of all, what you do at the end of a race! Compare those photos with the race winners (one thing I’ve noticed recently is that race-leading women almost always have much better form than the men they are running near because they have to be as efficient as possible to overcome the sloppiness that a man’s generally stronger hormonal and cardiovascular system allows)! Without a new form of feedback, all your wrongly-adapted channels will be telling you that the right way is the wrong way and vice versa. You have to use other pathways to help retrain the faulty ones be they external from another person, or internal through a different sensory system until you get things back in check.
When training for a long race/run, one winds up quickly running through the standard trail options of an area. Victoria is rich with trails which explains why there are such fast trail runners here. For a trail example, where I work, there is a beautiful stretch of trail called Mystic Vale that runs though a deep, cool, maple lined gulley from the ocean up to the summit of Mt. Tolmie (roughly). This is 4 kms of running and 350 feet of climbing each way and can be stretched into an hour long run. Further afield are Mt. Doug, Thetis Lake, the Lochside Trail, Elk/Beaver Lakes and then Gowland Tod, Goldstream and eventually the Sooke Hills, East Sooke, then the coastal trails. It sounds like a lot, but in a typical week now I’m running for around 7 hours. If you add up the weeks and the time, you pretty quickly run out of new trail and understand how precious this resource is. In a land of very ugly tract housing and giant malls, finding new trails in hills can be like stumbling onto a hunk of gold.
One of the motivating factors for all kinds of running for me is exploration. In my earliest running days almost 8 years ago, I used running as a way to explore my area and challenge my sense of distance. I carried my old yellow Garmin etrex GPS in hand and would track my runs and then marvel a them on the tiny little screen when i got home. Each track was a treasure permanently locked away on the little microchips in that device (I didn’t have a way to download that unit). Of course now there are wrist-top GPS units slightly larger than a typical watch; cell phones and their apps allow GPS tracking and instant uploading, so these tracks are now instantly available in the cloud. A side-benefit of this is that open source mapping web sites like Openstreetmap (similar to Google Maps, but without the big brother data mining) can be updated to show all the trails in an area if someone goes out and covers the ground.
This past weekend my training schedule called for something like two 3 1/2 hour runs. These are the back-to-back runs that are a staple of building endurance for very long runs. My peak training week will have me running a 4 hour run one day and a 6 hour run the following day. Ouch. But that’s still a month out so I can pretend it’s not in my future. I covered Saturday’s run by running 3 repeats of a local 1300′ mountain with some friends. Sunday was a house-moving day, so I schlepped boxes for an hour or so and put off the run to the end of the day and was tired at the outset. I promised myself to be happy with any length run but was hoping to get at least two hours. To cap it all off, I’m trying to run on less sugar. A vague idea about this was recently reinforced by a friend who is a professional kinesiologist. She suggested that training on low to no sugar or any food intake leads to more efficient fat burning. But, to do this, you have to bring yourself close to bonkland and work through it sending a strong signal to your body that secondary fuel resources would be handy. So I set off yesterday with two bottles of water and one gel (equates to 100 calories) and maybe 2000 calories of work ahead.
Prior to my run, I looked at maps and saw that there was a spur off of one of my standard climbs called Prospector’s trail. Prospector’s is a beautiful track up a slope of douglas fir and madrona with rocky outcrops and lush undergrowth. This past spring, the slopes were covered with lillies and then camas. I set out with the intention of exploring this spur and seeing where it took me. After a few failed attempts running through the group camp site where one of the trails was meant to be, I got back on the known trail kind of giving up on exploration. I was feeling really tired from the previous day’s run and all the moving so latching into a known route was comforting.
Further along, at the top of the first climb there is a spur I knew about, but had thought just petered out. I decided to pursue it with a little more perseverance than before since the maps showed something out there. There was a steep step that looked like a deer trail but I climbed it to find a pretty little single track path snaking through some grass and madrona. What followed was some of the prettiest trail running I’ve done in a while. Partly because it was new and partly because it’s simply gorgeous in there. The path climbed steeply up and northward past another trail fork into a deep vale filled with fir and fern and a little creek. This area was lush with birds and growth and silent in that old forest way that always brings joy and peace into my brain. The tiredness in my legs dissolved and I whispered exclamations of wonder to myself as I ran.
Of course, I knew that this little sanctuary was pinched in between the area I knew, Prospector’s trail, and something called Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain sounds like a nice place in name. There are black bears on the island, so it’s not out of the question for that name to crop up. However, in this case the Bear refers to a golfer named Jack Nicklaus and the name is that of a massive condo, resort, golf complex sprawled up against Saanich Inlet, pristine salmon spawning streams, and the beautiful hills of fir and madrona. Bear Mountain was hotly contested when it was proposed and through its development during the real estate derivatives bubble of the mid-2000s. The “Mountain” is actually on Mount Skirt and Mount Miniskirt an area that was a mecca of trails. As I explored on my run I realized that I had connected into the old trail system. The feeling was like opening a hidden door into the servants passageway on an old mansion — this entirely other world that I hadn’t guessed existed that I hadn’t known the extent of, and that was rarely used.
My trail wound up the lush little cove and along the streambed to a fork in the trail that goes steeply uphill to the right and another toward daylight to the left. Noting the right-hand trail, I went left and soon broke out of the forest, through a thin barrier of scotch broom and into a sand trap. I was looking up the fairway of the 5th hole of the Bear Mountain “Mountain” golf course and the trail just ended. Cold. The landscape had been remolded to that expected by a golfer and which is completely foreign to the region — smooth and rolling with neatly trimmed grass and gentle slopes. These are characteristics that embody nothing of the local landscape. Jack Nicklaus, the course’s designer, was born in Ohio and spent his life on golf courses, not in nature. The contrast between the forest behind me and the smooth greenness in front was shocking and sad. I couldn’t help but imagine where this trail used to go and through what little natural wonders, but it was all paved-under by trucked in soil and fake-emerald turf. I ducked back into the forest to explore the other trail and to try to reconnect with that cool little valley.
It’s not that I dislike golf; I actually have a certain love for the game having played in High School and to this day on occasion. But the development of this area; the lack of need for it (many of the condos remain unsold almost a decade after completion and the golf market has softened considerably worldwide) is hard to be okay with.
The rest of the run went well. I explored the rest of the remaining network (the right-hand trail hit one of the development’s rock quarries). I hit bonk-city and grovelled in it for a good 30 minutes in hopes that my metabolic systems got the message that bonk-city demands scraping from and getting by with already available resources. My more-ample-than-average-runner amount of adipose tissue has literally hundreds of thousands of calories free for the taking. Why go scouring elsewhere for something artificial to fuel something so irrational? Maybe land-developers can learn something from that message?
This past weekend was my second go around at the Sun Mountain 50k. This time it was a training run, but instead of going into it with the plan of running strong and controlled, my plan evolved from confidence in an earlier 50k and became “to crush my old time at any cost.” But, it seems that outrunning hubris is damn near impossible.
It all started a little auspiciously. I couldn’t decide what shoes to wear, I’d forgotten the shirt I wanted to race in and didn’t have anything of whimsy to wear and keep me cheered up along the way, my shoes were either too new or too minimal, and to top it, I realized 5 minuted before the start that my heart rate monitor was in the car — a 10 minute walk away. All the little things that add up. The last one seemed like the biggest deal. I’d gotten used to using my monitor as a brake to keep me from blasting away on longer runs like this. But, I’d studied my paces from last year and knew when I had to be at each aid station to at least beat my time and I knew that I should be happy heart rate wise if I keep those same paces at the fastest.
So, the inaudible pre-race megaphoning turned into a 5 second countdown and we were off. Man, there were a lot of people and they all looked fit as hell. The fitness was no different than last year, but the numbers were larger. The 25k race had ben split into its own day, so there were more entries for the 50k and 50 mile races. And I charged out and settled into what I knew was a way-too-fast pace. The first 5 k roll along Patterson Lake and I was cruising 5 1/2 minute kilometers meaning I was taking off about 30 seconds from last years time each kilometer. I’m fitter now, and I have a better understanding of the distance, but I didn’t think I was THAT fit!
Understanding what it means to run the distance is still a challenge for me after a year in which I’ve done it 5 times. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea that you will be racing for 5+ hours. Not just trotting for a training run, but actually in race mode: observing passes, pushing yourself a bit harder, trying to catch other runners, rushing through aids, and having just a slightly more tense mindframe. I can do the first 2 to 2 1/2 hours. My brain understands that and will find a natural pace to run that in. Beyond there is a terra incognita where mistakes can lead to blow ups of all kinds.
Anyhow, after those 5 kms of beautiful lakeside trail, the route dekes west into the hills and up a draw and the start of the first real climb. I tried to cool my jets around there and started forcing myself to walk climbs that nearby runners were running up. I let people pass and tried to keep myself under control. Without a monitor I didn’t know what my output was. My reliance on technology was exposed and made me uncomfortable. But, I seemed to settle into a pod of people that had about the same idea as I did. After the climb, there’s a long traverse with some ups and downs and, again, I was covering ground quickly. My downhill has improved in the interveneing year and I was racking up a lot of time running down things.
And so it went. I hit the first aid about 10 minutes earlier than last year. I was faster down off the mountain but slower on the intermingled climb owing to some time spent with a friend running the 50 miler (well on his way to an 8:50 effort). Then fast again down the last drop off that first hill and still speedy into the second aid station at km 25 — more than half way through the race.
I was all efficiency at this aid. Ate a lot, downed some salted potatoes from my drop bag, drank tons, took a pee and was off with a handfull of food walking while I ate. Shaved off 6 minutes at that aid alone and left 14 minutes ahead of my time from last year. But, I’d been running as if the race was shorter than it is and was starting to feel it. But I knew I had a long descent before the climb up Sun Mountain so aimed to make some speed on that and keep my pace up at least.
And onward. I kept drinking but somewhere in there I stopped taking gels and focussed on my candy. Strange inner thigh cramps came in at the top of Sun Mountain and coming back around I got overcaffeinated from some Gu gummies. But, I kept pace and was neither passing nor being passed and could see a blob of racers up ahead that I was hoping to pass.
By now it was getting hot. The forecast clouds didn’t materialize, and in the windless coves and valleys the sun was merciless. I’d been drinking my usual 1 1/2 liters per aid and ran dry right as I rolled into the final aid. Knowing the course maybe helped here, but I recalled Patterson being a long climb, but not overly painful last year. So, I charged the aid and was out of there really fast. But, I still wasn’t eating and only managed a bit of melon and some orange and coke and water before heading off. I was at 4:14, a full 21 minutes ahead of my performance last year. What could go wrong…?
Hubris. When reality pulls you out of your brain and back into contact with the world, the result can be painful and the transition abrupt. That orange slice from the aid station hit my stomach wrong and, in hindsight, I needed a gel and maybe a short easy walking break. But, I did none of those things. I kept charging on. “Power walking” up hills and trotting when it got flatter and then power walking into the last slope. As the elevation rose, so did the queasiness in my stomach. Just 100 m vert from the top I turned a switchback and suddenly was in a cold sweat, felt my bowels loosen, and could feel the world closing down on me. I staggered ahead, told the guy behind me to go by; that “I’m just going to take a breather” and laid down in the shade of a ponderosa. And stayed down. People asked after me. I remembered seeing this same hill littered with people last year who looked like fit bastards but were mysteriously collapsed in the shade and wondered why I should be so lucky to cruise on up, mostly painlessly. Well, now that was me collapsed on the hill. I contemplated what would happen if I stayed there. What would happen if I couldn’t get back up? How would I get off the course if I couldn’t walk?
Eventually, a fellow who I’d passed earlier and who was way worse off passed me and that kicked me out of it. I couldn’t let this guy beat me. He really looked like shit. So I clawed my self back to standing and staggered after him. And, as I walked, I felt a little better. A bit shaky, but better. And then a guy behind me was making funny jokes about my sexy, dirty calves, and that helped. And then we were at the top!
I turned and saw that the mountains were more beautiful this year than ever. Snow capped and sharp on the horizon. The wind was whipping up there cooling me down. And so we desceded and somehow my legs actually worked okay. I followed the jokester all the way down and then passed him on the flats (with some guilt and no words ’cause I couldn’t conjure any). I mustered some faster kms and then ground into the last climb. Fuck. But I wouldn’t, couldn’t stop. I ground up and past the previous years turn off passing some people and then imagined that James had lengthened the course by some unknown amount. What if it was 5 more k? He had the right to. What if there was a new hill? I’d planned on the end being in a certain place and had no recourse for a different end. And just as the winding seemed like it would go on and on, it ended. The band played and I could hear people cheer. Then I rounded a corner and heard Kate shout my name and cheer for me and I knew I was home. I remembered to really shake James’ hand this time and thank him for the great race, stopped my watch and was done. I rolled in in 5:41 having spent 12 minutes of the banked time from the first 3/4 of my race on Mt. Patterson. I’d found the fabled wall in a very real fashion and it was costly. But oh well.
After 10 minutes of lying down the first waves of endorphine came and I began to feel the invinceable sense that makes me want to keep trail racing. I slowly started forgetting hubris and started imagining sub 10 hour 50 milers in my near future…
The neurotransmitters of our brains can be modified pharmaceutically. It’s a blind guessing game. Throwing wrenches into somewhat broken machinery and hoping that the grears that grind to a halt or are clanked back into smoother operation are the correct ones. Hoping that the jammed machine is a better functioning one. The drugs send one into a dizzying climb, a jittery scour for satisfaction, into euphoric post-run satisfaction, into weak-limbed exhaustion that doesn’t jive with personal bests and human speed that may also be experienced. Like this, I will drive to Winthorp, WA to run a 50 k this weekend. I’m eager to push myself, afraid I’ll wobble off the trail or hit an impassible wall. My heart palpitates. My palms are sweaty and I don’t know exactly what is calling the shots. I just know it’s all in my head.