Monday, March 31, 2014

Hitting "reset"

This morning I stepped on the scale and found that I weighed the most I have in over a year: 191 pounds.

As I trained for this past weekend's ultra, I decided to stop tracking my calories and just try to eat relatively healthfully. I did, however, continue to weigh myself -- although I didn't record my weight every day. This graph shows the progress of my weight over the past year:

That line is headed in the wrong direction

As you can see, I've gained almost 15 pounds since last November. The big event that led to about half of my gains was my injury after the Spencer Mountain 5K in November. I wasn't burning nearly as many calories in workouts, and I was eating out of frustration that I couldn't work out!

Then in January and February as I ramped up training I gained the other half the weight; somehow ultra training just made me hungrier, and I convinced myself that gaining a little weight wouldn't hurt my performance much.

But now that I'm going back to working on speed, those extra pounds will be critical. So I'm revamping my diet to try to drop those pounds and return to a better racing weight. I'm going to be tracking my calories as closely as possible on MyFitnessPal. My diary is open, so anyone can see what I'm eating.

The major change I'll be making compared to my previous regimen is to make a more concerted effort to keep a balance between carbs, protein, and fat. The goal will be to allocate my calories 50% to carbs, 30% to protein, and 20% to fat.

Previously, even on a day where I wasn't overeating, I had been allocating way too many calories to fat. For example, consider October 21. On that day, I had cereal for breakfast, a taco salad for lunch, and a Caprese salad for dinner. But for snacks I had almonds, a chocolate chip cookie, a granola bar, hummus, and an apple. I had some wine and scotch as well. The totals for the day: 91 grams of fat, 155 grams of carbs, and 87 grams of protein. That doesn't sound too bad until you realize that fat is 9 calories per gram, where protein and carbs have only 4 calories per gram. That means I had 819 calories of fat, 620 calories of carbs, and only 348 calories of protein. Almost half my food calories were fat!

Today I gave my first shot at getting closer to the ideal. As of now I've eaten 585 calories of fat, 736 grams of carbs, and 356 grams of protein. So that's 33% fat, 41% carbs, and 20% protein (The numbers don't add to 100 due to alcohol). If I'm hungry later today I will have some fruit or maybe a shredded beef taco (hold the cheese and sour cream).

The main difference is substituting beef jerky for some of the fattier snacks. I've ordered some protein bars that have a better balance of fat and protein, but they haven't arrived yet. And tomorrow I will be testing out a new lunch salad that should have significantly less fat than my previous go-to-lunch, the taco salad.

I'm also planning on limiting myself to two glasses of wine per day. That may be the toughest part for me -- I'm  a guy who likes his wine. I will probably replace some of that wine with smoothies, which will also improve my carb and protein numbers.

My goal is to get back to 175 pounds in three months, then maintain that weight indefinitely as I look to improve my times in shorter races. I'll try to update you with my progress here periodically. Wish me luck!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Race Recap: The Leatherwood Mountains

As I was struggling down yet another muddy, 30% grade, getting passed by yet another runner in the Leatherwood Mountains 50-mile, I mumbled something about wishing my shoes had a more aggressive tread.

"I don't think it makes much difference," he/she would inevitably say.

"Yeah, but you're passing me," I'd think to myself.

That said, in some ways I have to agree with them. I don't think the shoes were the reason I couldn't finish the race. I didn't finish the race because it was a damned tough race, and I wasn't quite ready for something that hard.

How hard was it?

I guess the only way to really tell you is to start at the beginning, on a drizzly 50-degree morning in Ferguson, NC. It was wet enough that I didn't want to get my phone out to take a picture. I did remember to set the runkeeper app to record the race. This was my first ultramarathon, and I wanted to share it with the world as I ran.

Most of the other runners were wearing raincoats -- I was not. I had gaiters on and none of the other runners that I could see had them. I wondered if I had made a bad decision. No time to think; the Star-Spangled Banner was played, and, at 7 a.m. as the first dim morning light reached the valley, we were off.

The first few miles were pleasant, on a paved road and then up a gravel road. Brandon (who had taken me on one of my toughest training runs) passed me, jogging steadily up the hill as I began to walk. The first few miles of trails seemed pretty easy as well, despite some significant climbs.

I had told Greta that I'd be passing our cabin around 8 am, so I was surprised to see it come into view at about 7:45. I waved, and heard a cheer from the deck. Greta caught this photo of me running up the hill past the cabin:

Looking good so far...

Soon after, I hit the first major downhill, and some runners quickly caught up to me. I let them pass, but they assured me that I wasn't running too slowly. I stayed close behind them until we reached the first aid station, about 6 miles in.

At this point, I had been averaging about 12-13 minutes per mile. I was hoping to finish in under 12 hours, which would require a 14:24 pace. So my pace seemed about right early on.

The next 4 miles continued on in similar fashion. There was no letup in the rain, but it wasn't bothering me, and the run felt comfortable. But somewhere around Mile 11, conditions began to deteriorate. Instead of an occasional muddy patch, there were whole long stretches of deep, slippery, yellow mud. It would have been one thing if the mud was just in the flat spots, but there was mud everywhere. It slowed my progress on the uphills, and made the downhills treacherous.

Each step involved calculating the best spot to place your foot, adjusting for the potential slide of the foot, then reacting to the actual slide, often in a completely different direction than anticipated. On downhills the decision was often between "letting it ride" and speeding down the hill before your feet had a chance to slide -- but risking a serious fall -- and trying to control the descent by slowing down. In the end, I fell down several times, nearly always in slow-motion as I took the "safer" slow option.

My mile paces slowed to 16-, 17-, even 18-minutes-per-mile, barely faster than walking. In truth, I was walking for large chunks of the race, even on downhill segments. Around Mile 15, about three and a half hours in, I got passed by the lead 50K runner, who had started an hour later than me. I couldn't believe how seemingly reckless he was, but somehow he managed to remain vertical and continue running.

Finally I made it back to the main aid station at Mile 16, next to the finish line. Here's a photo Stephanie Moore snapped of me as I was running in:

I don't look half bad at this point

I had completed the first loop (in orange below). Perhaps Loop 2 (in pink) would be easier. Loop 1 and 2 total 50K -- the 50K runners would stop then, while the 50-milers had to complete an additional 10-mile loop (in green) twice:

Note the 14,000 feet of vertical gain — and descent

At the aid station, Sam — my training partner who had talked me into this race before dropping out with an injury — filled my water pack while his wife Stephanie helped me find the food that felt like it would stay down. I grabbed a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the road and started on Loop 2.

Nearly immediately it was clear that this loop was going to be much tougher than the first loop. It wasn't that the hills were bigger or steeper, it was that they were much muddier. Often when climbing up a hill, I wasn't sure that my foot would stick. A typical step slid back ten inches. The downhills were the worst. On Loop 1, I could usually find some part of the path where there was a little less mud and my feet would have some prayer of not slipping. On Loop 2, often there was no "safe" part of the path, and it was a matter of trying to ride out the slip as best as possible.

My pace slowed, and slowed some more. Finally I reached the next aid station, at mile 20. Several runners were there, and we all agreed these were the worst conditions we had ever seen. One runner asked for a beer from the aid workers, who were happy to oblige.

Mercifully, the next couple miles were on pavement and I could pick my pace back up to 11:00 per mile. If only I had solid footing the whole way, this race would be no problem! Unfortunately, it didn't last. Next I had to wade across a creek two feet deep, and then it was back to steep, muddy slopes. My pace dropped back to barely-better-than-walking.

"I'm definitely going to change my shoes when I get back to the main aid station" soon morphed in to "maybe I'll drop out when I get back to the main aid station."

A runner caught up from behind. "Are you Dave Munger?" he asked.

"Yes," I said with surprise.

"I thought so," he said. "I recognize you from your blog." We chatted, and this lifted my spirits for a while -- until he too disappeared ahead of me in the mist.

As I approached the next aid station, our path merged with the path the 10-milers were taking — the path we'd be taking for the final two loops of the race. The mud was thicker and deeper than it had been anywhere along the course.

Finally I made it to the aid station at Mile 24.7. Here the race leader strode by almost effortlessly. I wasn't sure if he was on his final lap or his second-to-last lap, but he looked very strong. One of the aid workers said that from here to the main aid station the course wasn't too bad. "There are a few slippery spots, but most of it is quite runnable," she said.

Immediately after leaving the aid station I hit one of the slickest sections of trail I'd been on all day. It didn't get better, and my pace slowed to 25 minutes per mile. At this rate, with half the race remaining, it would take me 10 hours to finish. I wouldn't be done until midnight or later. I felt like I could keep running if I only had decent traction, but this slipping and sliding was just impossible. Everything just kept getting muddier and muddier. My shoes, my gaiters, and even my calf sleeves were coated with mud. Every time it seemed like the trail was improving, I'd find a section that was even worse.

I could also tell that just being tired was slowing me down a lot. Even on flat sections it took more and more mental effort to lift my legs up and start running. The temptation was to walk slower and slower. When I reached the top of a steep pitch, I'd often stop completely, just to steel myself mentally for the precarious descent.

Finally I decided that this was going to be it. I would drop out of the race after 50K, when I reached the main aid station. With conditions worsening and my own physical condition deteriorating as well, it simply didn't make sense to continue.

Shortly after that, the runner who had recognized me before passed me again. "It's me again," he said. "I took a little detour." Someone had misdirected him and he had taken a wrong turn.

"That's too bad," I said. "I'm thinking I'm going to drop out at 50K."

"No!" he said. "You won't be able to live with yourself if you do."

"I just don't think I can make it."

"I'll run with you," he said.

"I couldn't keep up with you."

"I've only dropped one race, and I've always regretted it," he said.

We went back and forth a couple more times, and I convinced him I just couldn't handle the trail conditions. Soon he once again disappeared ahead of me.

Somehow I made my way back to the finish, and 7 hours and 45 minutes into the race, after running 50K (or around 28.6 miles according to my Garmin) I told Sam I was dropping out. He tried to talk me out of it for a minute or so, but it was pretty clear to him that I had had enough. "If it's any consolation," he said, "tons of people are dropping out. I've never seen so many DNFs."

Apparently there were 49 DNFs in the 50K and 50-mile races. There were only 44 finishers in the 50-miler compared to 63 last year — and I believe the number of registrants was about the same both years.

My friend Jeff McGonnell limped into to the finish area about 20 minutes after me, and said he was dropping out as well. Jeff has run over 40 50-milers and this was the first time he had ever dropped out. He said it was among the worst conditions he has seen at any race.

All that said, I really do wish I could somehow have summoned the will to continue. I was simply terrified by the muddy downhills, which were getting more perilous as my own body was weakening. I would have almost certainly been finishing in the darkness, when it would have been even more difficult.

It was a tremendous relief to just be finished. My results don't count as an "official" 50K, but my time would have placed me 10th in the 50K race, so despite being very hard on myself, I apparently am not a horrible ultrarunner. That said, I think I'm going to retire from ultrarunning at least temporarily and go back to the 5K and 10K distances, which are much more satisfying to me (perhaps mainly because I seem to do better at them).

My Garmin data for the race ended up being corrupted, but if you're interested in seeing some details of the race, you can look at my Runkeeper results. These go through mile 25.8, when the battery in my phone died. That's too bad, because around Mile 27, I tried to stop and take a picture of the muddy trails to show you what I was dealing with — only to see that wasn't going to work.

I'll leave you with a couple more photos my wife took:

Me after the race—stopping feels so good!

My muddy gear

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Walking...with purpose

When you're getting ready to run an ultramarathon, you hear all sorts of advice about...walking!

"There's no shame in walking!"
"Even the best ultrarunners will hike up steep inclines."
"Walk up any hill where you can't see the top."

But my favorite nugget of walking wisdom comes from the famously "somewhat legendary" ultrarunner Jeff McGonnell. He has completed over 100 ultramarathons, including an amazing 22 consecutive completions of the brutal Mountain Masochist 50 mile run. About walking, Jeff says "When you do walk, walk with purpose."

In other words, don't walk like you're out on a sunday afternoon stroll. Walk to make progress in the race.

I'm not very good at walking with purpose. When I paced Val Wrenholt at the Leadville Trail 100 in 2012, I had trouble keeping up with her when she took a walk "break." I often had to break into a jog just to keep up. I told her to just keep walking and not feel obligated to run. After all, she was 70 miles in to the race, and I had only accompanied her for 10. Her secret: 4-mph walking treadmill workouts at maximum incline.

Many ultrarunners actually train to walk. I've done a little walk-training, but almost certainly not enough. In a running group it's much easier to find someone who'll run with you than to find a walking partner, and I don't enjoy the treadmill enough to copy Val's strategy.

But now, in the final days before the Leatherwood 50-mile race, I am severely curtailing my running so as to be as fresh as possible on race day. For me, this means 4 miles on Monday and Wednesday, 2 miles on Friday, and walking on Tuesday and Thursday.

Our running group has a thread for each day's workout, so when people were posting their plans for this morning, I said I'd be doing a two-mile walk. I didn't expect anyone to join me -- I was more interested in joining the runners for coffee when they were all finished. But to my surprise, Ashley, who is recovering from a broken hip, was also interested in a nice walk.

Tuesday morning I ended up waking a little early, so I added in an extra mile to the meetup-spot, then met Ashley (along with a crowd of faster-paced creatures) at the usual spot in downtown Davidson. Ashley and I strode along in the darkness and had a very enjoyable chat, but I have to say, it was frustrating watching the other runners fade quickly into the distance ahead of us. I focused on good posture and a positive attitude. I could feel that this was the right thing to do: The usual niggling pains in my hamstring and hip flexor faded away, and my whole body just felt more relaxed than it does on a run.

Even walking "with purpose," I never felt out of breath; I was comfortable and smooth, all the way. I ran in to a couple other walkers -- folks with dogs, or escorting their kids to the bus stop -- and I noticed that I really was walking considerably faster than they. Given that I may be walking almost half the time in the race on Saturday, walking with purpose should save a considerable amount of time compared to just ambling along.

Including the two miles walking to and from the meeting spot, I walked four miles this morning, and probably felt better than if I had simply taken a rest day. Here's hoping the walk-breaks I'll inevitably be taking on Saturday during the race will have a similar effect.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Getting ready for an ultra

It's come down to this: Five days from now, with any luck, I will be almost halfway through my first ultramarathon, the Leatherwood 50 miler. My training is complete; I'm just running a few easy miles this week to keep sharp. I missed a couple of key long runs, but by all accounts I've done more than enough training for a 50 miler. What I don't have is experience. I don't know what my body should be feeling like at various points along the race. I don't know what a reasonable amount to push myself would be, say, 20 miles into the race.

What I do know is that this will be a very difficult course:

Note the total elevation gain [click for larger version]

The course is simply non-stop hills. My hunch is that, early on, the temptation will be to go too hard, and later in the race, the temptation will be to back off too much. So I will try to fight those urges as I make my way through the course. What I do on race day, however, will also depend on how I prepare in advance.

I may be on the trails for 12 hours or more, burning perhaps 7,000 calories. I won't be able to eat as much as I burn that day, but I need to eat as much as possible. To get even half those calories from energy gels is simply impossible: My stomach gets upset consuming the 7 gels I eat during a typical marathon; to eat 3500 calories in gels alone would mean consuming 35 gel packs!

Clif Bars have been a staple of my training; they contain 240 calories per bar, but again, I don't see myself eating 13 Clif Bars over the course of my race. I will need a variety of foods. I can expect the aid stations will have a decent selection -- typically cookies, soup, peanut butter sandwiches, and bananas are found. My plan will be to bring a half dozen Clif Bars in a variety of flavors, about 6 gel packs, and my favorite food from the few ultras where I have served as a pacer: Vanilla sandwich cookies.

I've never been very happy drinking Gatorade or other sports drinks, so I will be consuming plain water, supplemented by Endurolyte electrolyte supplements to replace the salts and other electrolytes the body loses through sweat.

The aid stations for this race are spaced roughly 6 miles apart, so I'll be carrying a hydration pack that I will try to keep half-full throughout the race to cut back on weight. Even if I slow to a 20-minute mile pace by the end, a liter of water should be enough to get me 6 miles at a time.

I'll also carry my phone (so folks can track me via my Runkeeper account), a map, some paper towels, gloves, allergy medication, and an extra shirt for warmth. I'll have whatever else I can think of in a bag at the starting area (which I will pass through three times over the course of the race): Extra shoes/socks/clothing, body glide, sunscreen, etc. (feel free to offer your own suggestions in the comments).

And that, I think, is about all I can do to get ready. All there is left is to run the silly thing!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tapering for an ultra

So, when your goal is to run 50 miles on trails, what does a taper look like?

If I was running a marathon in 16 days, I would have already cut back significantly on my mileage. My long run this coming weekend would maybe be 17 miles, and it would be over in just over two hours.

But in a tough 50-mile trail race (the Leatherwood 50-miler, on March 29), I'm going to be on my feet for at least 10 hours. Two hours into the race I'll barely be warmed up.

My plan calls for a 20-mile trail run this weekend -- this will take me around 4 hours, depending on the trails I'm running. Even so, my total mileage scheduled for the week isn't much different than it was when I was training for Boston last spring (49 miles last year, 52 this year). Of course, last spring I was just getting over a bad cold when I was three weeks out and my training had been severely curtailed, so my 17-mile run was pretty much a disaster.

This time around I'm feeling much healthier, but I did miss almost a whole week of training last week when I injured my left shin. I thought I was getting tendinitis in the lower shin just above my ankle, so I massaged and iced ferociously, but that only seemed to make it worse. Finally I realized it was actually a bruise, and when I just left it alone, things improved much more rapidly.

Even so, I had to curtail my training last weekend. I was supposed to do a 25-miler but only managed 10 on Sunday. Then on Tuesday I improvised a bit and ran 15 -- and felt great! So hopefully my last long run this coming Sunday will work out all right. I will end up with 70 miles for this week, which might seem a little high three weeks out from a race, but since I only had 17 last week, I think I will be fine.

Next week, the taper begins in earnest, with a total of just 38 miles and a long run of only 10 miles.

The week of the race, I'm scheduled to run just 4 miles every other day. I'm not sure I will be able to handle not exercising at all on the off days, so I think what I will do is power-walk a few miles on those days to get used to the idea of walking with purpose during the race itself.

Normally on race weeks I do a little race-pace running every day, so I'll try to match that by varying my pace a lot during the runs, since that's how I'll be running the ultra.

Now all I have to do is execute the plan, and then execute the race. I can't wait!