Thursday, March 29, 2012

My Experience as a Research Participant (aka Guinea Pig)

It had started innocuously enough: A friend told me about an "easy" way to earn some extra cash while also serving science. The best part is, all I would have to do is what I normally do: Run.

As it turned out, I would have to do a little more than just run. I was going to be participating in a scientific study of running performance. The study was evaluating the effect of a dietary supplement called NutraSorb. Participants in the study would have to take a test evaluating their VO2 max, then take the supplement, and finally run on a treadmill for two and a half hours, three days in a row.

The link above describes my VO2 max test, which was a tough challenge of its own. But given my well-professed aversion to treadmills, I knew the treadmill portion of the study would be the most difficult part for me.

Before I did that, however, I would have to take the supplement, twice a day, for two weeks. In fact I didn't know if I was even taking the supplement; I might have been in the group of participants assigned the placebo. Whatever group I was in, the supplement itself was no fun at all, it was a black powder with roughly the consistency of sandpaper. I tried mixing it with yogurt, but the result was a horrific black sludge. I finally realized the best course of action was just to mix it with as little water as possible, and suck it down as fast as possible. The last gulp was always accompanied by the gritty sludge on the bottom of the cup, which I had to chew in order to swallow.

Finally on Monday I arrived for my first treadmill test day. I was to run for two hours and fifteen minutes at 75% of VO2 max, meaning the speed at which I consumed 75% of the maximum amount of oxygen I can process. The researchers estimated this at 6.5 miles per hour, or roughly a 9:13 pace. This is normally an easy pace for me, but on the treadmill, all bets are off. Sure enough, after an hour or so on the treadmill, things started getting rough. I had an iPod with an interesting audiobook loaded, but I found I couldn't stand listening for more than 45 minutes at a time. I was sweating profusely, and my singlet was absolutely drenched. Although the study room was well air-conditioned, it was still warm for me for a run, especially with only a fan to cool me. If I had been outside, just the breeze from my own running pace would kept me much cooler.

At one hour the researchers put on the oxygen mask and tested my oxygen consumption to make sure I was around 75% of VO2 max. They didn't change my speed so I assume they had estimated correctly at the outset. I also had to consume another dose of supplement. I kept running. I alternated listening to music, my audiobook, and running in silence. The study room had a TV, but because there were five of us running at once, there was no place to put it where everyone could see, so they left the TV off. Instead, I looked out the window at the lab's driveway, and across the driveway, at a barren field:

My view for 7.5 hours this week
I tried counting the cars that passed along the road on the other side of the field, but they came too infrequently. I tried looking away from the clock charting my speed. I decided it was more interesting to watch the clock ticking away, second by second. I noticed the clock only had four digits, so I tried to guess what would happen when it hit 59:59 (it went to 60:00), and then 99:59 (it started back at 0:00).

About 90 minutes in I started to feel my singlet chafing, so I decided to remove it: modesty be damned; at this point I just wanted to finish. Finally I had been running for 2 hours and 15 minutes and I'd get to enter the final phase: a 15-minute time-trial where the goal was to run as far as possible. I increased the pace to 6.8 miles per hour, what should still be an easy 8:49 pace. I was running faster than this at the end of the Richmond Marathon, but somehow today this seemed very difficult. I bumped the pace to 7 mph, 8:34 miles. C'mon, Dave, you can do this for 15 lousy minutes. After 5 minutes, I had to slow down again, but I rallied for the final 5 minutes and finished at around 8 mph. I probably could have done a little more, but I knew I'd have to come back two more days for more of the same. At the end of the session and my weight was compared to the starting weight. Despite drinking two liters of water during the run, I had lost 7 pounds in sweat!

Day two was much harder than day one. I was wearing a heart rate monitor, and on day one it had been in the 140s most of the time. On day 2 it started over 150, and kept increasing. After an hour I asked the researchers to slow the treadmill down, so they reduced the pace to 6.2 mph, 9:40 miles, which still felt intolerably difficult. 30 minutes later I asked if I could take a 2-minute walk break. They said I could go to the bathroom. I didn't need to go, but I went anyways. When I returned, they reduced my pace again, to 6 mph -- 10-minute miles. I should be able to do this kind of a pace in my sleep. I barely finished, and my final time trial was done at 6.5 mph for nearly the whole time.

Self-portrait on treadmill

Amazingly, I felt better on day 3, and was able to do the entire run at 6.5 mph, just like on day 1. By the time I got to the final time trial, however, I was exhausted, and unable to increase the speed until there was only about 7 minutes left. By the final minute I recovered enough to boost my speed to 9 mph, a respectable 6:40 pace. Over the three days I ran a total of 48.74 miles, certainly the most mileage I've ever run in such a short time.

I had been concerned that I might feel absolutely horrible after such an ordeal, but I found that I recovered quite well. This was hard, but clearly nowhere nearly as hard as running a marathon. Even my IT band, which usually flares up after a difficult workout, seems to be doing just fine. I'm not sure if that's because of the supplement (or placebo effect), or because despite its monotony, the treadmill is actually lower-impact than running that distance on roads. This morning I completed the final requirement of the study, a blood draw.

The only remaining decision was what I'd buy with my honorarium for participating in the study. In fact the decision had been made a week ago; I'd be buying a new GPS system -- a Garmin 910xt. It's probably overkill for my training regimen. I don't do much cross-training, and I never swim. I don't need its 20-hour battery life. But its crystal-clear screen, its barometric altimeter, and the ability to sync with my computer wirelessly won me over. Plus, given the proceeds of this experiment, it's basically free. Hard to argue with that!

It will be several months at the soonest before these study results are published. I have asked to be sent a copy of the final paper, so when it's ready, I'll be sure to share it with you either here or over on Science-Based Running.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Race Recap: Race to the Top

As is the case with most of the short races I run, I decided to do the Race to the Top on a whim. Why not see how long it takes me to climb up a 50-story tall building?

Duke energy center
Okay, so I can't see the top...surely it's not much taller than what I can see, right?
Never having done this sort of race before, I had no idea how to pace myself, so I looked at last year's results. The fastest runners were finishing in about 7:30, and the fastest in my age group were in the 9-minute range. Since I generally tend to place in my age group, I figured I should shoot for 9 or 10 minutes. Since there are 50 stories, if I did five floors every minute, I'd be at the top in 10 minutes.

This race is run differently from most races because there's not a lot of room in the stairwell; you can't just start everyone at once or there'd be bedlam. So runners start every 15 seconds. The runners are divided into groups based on experience. Even though I hadn't done this before I signed up for the 8:30 a.m. "advanced" group. I thought I'd be faster than most climbers, and I didn't want to be climbing later, when hundreds of sweaty, stinky climbers had already left their mark on the place.

Here I am just before the start of the event:

Me getting ready for a climb
So far, so good....
All that was left was to run the race. The first few flights seemed relatively easy, but also very long. These were no ordinary "stories," and it took what seemed like forever to get to the 5th floor. Fortunately I was still running faster than my 1-minute-per-5-story goal. At this point the landings got closer together. When I reached the 10th floor I was still ahead of schedule, but I was tiring. I decided to walk a flight. Then I started running again. Every so often there was a photographer or video camera filming my ascent. Since I was running alone, it was very surreal. Now I know what the folks on "Big Brother" must feel like.

I finally settled in on taking a one-flight walk-break every 5 stories. This seemed to work, and I was not only staying on schedule, I was making up ground. But I was also severely out of breath. Would I be able to sustain this all the way to the top? After about 30 stories I started taking breaks for one and a half flights. I was still ahead of schedule at the 45th floor -- just 5 flights to go! Maybe I'd actually be able to break 9 minutes. But then the flights started getting longer again; it seemed as if every story was more like two stories. I passed one exhausted climber, the only other climber I'd see during the ascent. Finally I made it to the top. My time was 9:12 -- faster than the planned pace, but I hadn't broken 9 minutes. No one had passed me, so I guess I was right to sign up for the advanced group.

At the top a bunch of exhausted runners sat sipping water in some kind of utility room. There was no way to experience the view — although, since it was fogged in, I'm not sure what we would have seen anyway. Then we headed back down in the service elevator, and that was it!

When I returned to the bottom I found out what all the video cameras were for; they actually were showing live video of the climbers at the finish area:

Big Brother really is watching!
Overall it was a fun race, and once it was over, I realized just how short it was. Although it was over quickly, it's definitely a race that's worth doing at least once. I probably could have gone a little harder, though I'm not sure if I could have placed higher in my age group. The official results put me in fourth place (35th overall out of 432), but I would have had to have run more than 30 seconds faster to get third.

That said, it's also awfully tempting to try to beat my record next year. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Race Recap: The Leprechaun Loop 8K


I'm not sure what the craziest decision I made this week was, but I have two distinct nominees:

1. Running a tough interval workout in the heat two days before the Leprechaun Loop 8K

2. Doing a 17-mile long run about 13 hours after the Leprechaun Loop.

Or perhaps the craziest decision was made several weeks ago: To run the Leprechaun Loop at all.

I'm not really a very good afternoon / evening runner. I do nearly all of my runs in the morning, when it's a little cooler here in the South, and before I've become preoccupied with the events of the day. But the Leprechaun Loop 8K was too tempting: It's put on by Summit Coffee, the semi-official coffee shop / meeting-place of my running group, and it's right here in my home town. It was also at 6 p.m. on an abnormally warm day even for this part of the country.

On Friday morning after my tough interval workout, I was feeling sore. I did a 7-mile recovery run at a very slow pace and didn't feel any better. The weather forecast for Saturday's race suggested it would be in the high 70s at race time. I began to wonder if I could possibly meet the sort of goals I've been setting for myself in races lately. My last 8K was in October, when I took a wrong turn and finished in 33:10 - an asterisked PR. I should be able to do better than that; all it would take is to run faster than a 6:40 pace, and given that I'd managed a 6:07 just a few weeks ago in a 5K, that seemed quite doable.

But I also have a long-term goal of completing a 10K in less than 40 minutes. To do that I will need to run at a 6:26 pace. Ideally I'd use the 8K as a testing ground to see if I can hang at a 6:26 pace for 8K.

As the temperature rose throughout the day on Saturday I set two very tentative goals: First, to PR, and second, to finish at a 6:26 pace or better.

I arrived at the starting area about 40 minutes early and picked up my race packet. Soon I saw plenty of other runners I recognized. Most importantly, Chad was talking to Anthony Famiglietti, who recently moved to Davidson. Fam, as he is called, happens to be a world-class runner; he was a steeplechaser on the US Olympic team in 2004 and 2008 and will be trying out again this year. Chad introduced me, and Fam turned out to be a really nice guy. He asked me if I'd be running this one all-out, and I said I would, so he gave me several tips. The most important one was to go out fast; the course is front-loaded with downhills and you might as well bank time at the beginning.

This was a slightly different strategy than what I had been considering given the heat -- the temperature was approaching 80 degrees, and chances didn't look good for an afternoon shower to cool us all off. I figured Fam knew what he was talking about, and decided to head out at just over a 6-minute pace, then see how long I could hang on.

I took about a mile-long warm-up run, then headed to the start. I decided to ditch the running cap I usually wear during races; it was just too hot for it.

At the starting line. I'm right behind Fam (orange shoes).

Soon we were off and heading downhill. After a few hundred yards I glanced at my watch and saw that I was running about a 5:30 pace. Too fast. I gradually slowed down and let a few runners pass me; hopefully I'd pass a bunch of them back as the race wore on. Among the runners ahead of me were Fam (of course), and fellow DARTers Tommy and Chas.

Tommy and Chas have never beaten me in a race, but both of them seemed much more comfortable than me in the heat. At some point I think I passed Chas, but Tommy stayed in front of me through Mile 2. Here's a photo Chad caught of me at around Mile 1.5:

Me trying to look like I'm having fun

Soon after this, Chas passed me back, as did a runner Chad had just introduced to me, Pete. Here's a photo of both of them:

Chas is making this look much too easy!

Even though the course wasn't really getting any harder, my times got progressively slower for each mile. Mile 1 was 6:17, Mile 2, 6:30, and Mile 3 was 6:44, despite 85 feet of downhill. Even so, I think I passed Tommy in Mile 3. Chas just kept gaining ground, but Pete was tantalizingly close ahead of me.

I pressed into Mile 4, knowing this would be the most difficult mile of the course. I glanced down at my watch halfway up the hill on Avinger and saw that I was running a 7:30 pace. I knew I could go faster than that, heat or no heat, so I tried to pick it up. I turned the corner from Pine Road onto Lorimer, where Marc Hirschfield was taking pictures:

I may look awful in this picture, but I can assure you I was feeling worse!

I finished Mile 4, with its 84 feet of climbing, in 7:12. I tried to increase the pace for the final mile, not wanting anyone else to pass me. Pete was in my sights but much too far ahead to catch, so at this point I was just hoping not to be embarrassed. As we got closer to the finish I saw more and more people who knew me — not just running friends, but other friends from around town. I tried to smile as I passed by.  The final mile included two steep hills, and the race finished up a gravel road and then another gradual upslope. I strode across the finish and then mercifully stopped at the water table. The clock read 32:50; somehow I had set a PR.

Chas and Pete were there to congratulate me / commiserate over the difficult course, and soon Tommy, Brian, and a number of other DARTers had crossed the line. Chas had set a huge PR of 31:57, a 6:26 pace. Even if I hadn't succeeded in my goal of running this race at a 6:26 pace, Chas had! This was the first time Chas had beaten me in a race, and I suspect it won't be his last; he's still got lots of potential for improvement.

I learned a couple things from this race. First, I still haven't mastered the 8K distance; I don't yet know when to turn it on and how much gas is left in the tank. Second, I probably need to do more training in the heat to be prepared for events like this. I don't like the heat, but I do know that the only way to get better at handling it is to run more in the heat. Despite all this, I still managed a PR and finished third in the 40-49 age group, so I should probably learn to stop complaining and just be happy about my race! Here's the local news site's report on the race, here are the overall results, and below is my Garmin record of the race.