Sunday, January 31, 2016


Sitting on my ass in the dust at mile 17.6, on the way back from the halfway point for the 50K distance of the 2016 Bandit trail run, my right quads, the vastus medialis in particular, were spasmed, in what in medicine might be called tetany - that is, like you're making a muscle to show off, only it's not on purpose, it's a muscle you wouldn't normally be able to make in order to show off, and it hurts like you wouldn't believe, a charlie horse in a different place.

It's halfway between two aid stations, about three miles either way. I can feel the other traitorous muscle groups in both legs - the hamstrings, the quads, the calves - fire off warnings every time I try to change positions. Eventually, it's the right thigh that decides it wants the most attention, and there it is, clenched in rage.

Ever since I had my first bout of terrible cramping at the 2014 LA Marathon that was severe enough to throw my race off, I've been trying to figure out what cramps were all about, how to stop them, and since then I've learned, over and over - after the 2015 Leona Divide 50K, after the 2015 Ray Miller 50K that became the 30K - that it's not about electrolytes, it's about the "central governor," it's a central nervous system thing, about the muscle group not receiving the inhibitory signal, i.e. the "it's okay to chillax now" sign that would let it go instead of just being frozen in contraction (oh yes, that sentence deserves the #dadsohard hashtag).

It was a really beautiful day. Overcast, cool, the sun poking out every so often, unlike last year's Bandit which hit temperatures in the 80s by 10am or so. The hillside I was sitting on that climbed out of the valley was really lush, not just by Southern Californian standards, after a few earlier rains in the season. A perfect setting to sit and observe my right quads now firing wildly without order, quadricular fibrillation, like a wriggling bag of thigh-worms. Since it's a CNS thing, I thought, shouldn't I just be able to mind-over-matter this bitch? I tried commanding it to stop being a dick, we gotta work together to get out of here, through clenched teeth, but without effect.

A smiling runner had passed me earlier, adding insult to injury by calling over his shoulder, "I'd give you some electrolytes if I had any!" insulting because hey, I knew it wasn't electrolytes, right? "It's just a little cramping, no prob!" I answered weakly to his retreating back. A few minutes later another, older, grizzled runner stopped. By then I'd managed to pick myself up gingerly, wobbling a little in place.

"Hey," he said, "you need some electrolytes, some salt." The salt thing! But then again, he's a good samaritan stopping to offer help. In the good samaritan story the victim doesn't protest that wasting oil and wine on his wounds ain't gonna do shit to help him recover, so I unprotestingly take the two S!Caps that he offers me from his own stash. "I saw you pass me earlier, you must be having a rough time to be laid up here now. Here, take one of these fuckers now," he says, handing me an S!Cap, "and then another one in a few minutes, with plenty of water. What's your name?" he asks, I figure so he can tell the volunteers at the next aid station. "Tae. What's yours?" I say, out of gratitude. "Gassan," he says over his shoulder, "it's an old Japanese name - and I'm not even Japanese!" He disappears up the hill towards the aid station at Marr Lands, which serves as both the 2nd and 4th aid station.

The race's outline is vaguely like a disc-shaped galaxy, one long arm from Corriganville park out to the first aid station at mile 6 (the first mile which is a loop around the park, which is a great way to let the runners space themselves out according to their own pace, instead of having everyone bottleneck at the trailhead at once), then 3 miles down to Marr Land where the 30K runners, the fastest of whom have already passed us back-of-the-packers despite a 30 minute head start, followed by a roughly 5 miler out to the Tapo Canyon aid station which marks the turnabout returning you to Marr Land (betwixt which I was now standing, having to figure out how to get back). If you're running the 50K, you then take another 6 mile loop out of Marr Land back to the first aid station followed by the last 5 miles back to Corriganville park.

The race, now only in its 8th year (the 5th for the 50K), was very well organized, staffed, and supplied, the aid stations with all of the usual goods, plus stuff that you don't see at the bigger or smaller races, like actual boiled potatoes cut in to pieces instead of the canned kind, jarred pickle slices, real, actual Coca Cola instead of generic - just little touches to let you know that someone's paying attention.

After chewing one S!Cap I started cramping my way back up the trail, no effect, just like I'd expected, but after a few minutes I ground through the other one and kept going, stopping whenever a cramp threatened to bring me back down into the dust. I eventually jog-hobbled back to Marr Land where the volunteers, dressed as Star Wars characters, filled my bottles and attended to me like I was an elite, not just some guy who'd fallen from the midpack to the back tenth of a field of only 84 runners of the 50K. (By the way, have any of you ever been in race where the aid station volunteers were terrible? Mean and not helpful, etc.? I can't imagine, but that would be terrible.) Someone hiking by had engaged an aid station volunteer in a conversation about the race, the hiker was turning 50 next year and wanted to run a 50 miler. My gloomy spirits got me down and I started saying that these 50Ks were barely an ultra, the 50 and 100 milers must be where it's at, and the volunteer was quick to chide me not to talk down my accomplishment, the one that it'd take another 11 crampy miles to go.

Another volunteer kindly wrapped some more S!Caps in foil for me, and I kept hobbling up the trail. I was passed by another runner, and then another, people I'd recognized as those I'd passed earlier in the race, before cramps had hobbled me despite my cautious, restrained start. One old man, and I don't mean older even though as I age myself I'm more mindful about whom I call old, wearing cargo shorts - cargo shorts! - passed me by, chuckling some encouragement to me over his shoulder. Decade after decade continued to pass me as I'd passed them earlier.

The funny thing was, 20 or 30 minutes after I'd left the Marr Land aid station, the cramps eased off, without any more of the warning shots that would fire whenever I'd try jogging a few steps. Maybe it was because the terrain had flattened out for a while and I'd slowed down considerably by just continuing to jog-walk most of it, but maybe it really was the salt and the placebo effect on the central governor.

The placebo effect: look, I'm in medicine, in fact, I'm a medical doctor, I know from placebo effect, right? When people talk about the placebo effect, what they're usually talking about that which we given in place of what's real and actually effective in an attempt to mollify and appease the crazy, undeserving person, to trick them into thinking we really care when we really, really don't. But the thing is, and what I've been teaching medical students for years now, is that that's not what the placebo effect is really about. Because, funny thing is, even when you tell a patient outright that what they're receiving is a placebo, it still works. And it's not just an odd mind-over-matter thing - what I try to convince medical students and other people of is that the placebo effect is what is actually healing about a therapeutic relationship, it's not just some hippie-dippy bullshit but that engagement with someone else and saying that you actually care - that has real, actual, physical, tangible, measurable, outcomes-relevant effect - the placebo effect is totes for realz. (There's a great Radiolab about the placebo effect.) And when Gassan took the time to stop and tell me what to do with his salt - or sugar, doesn't matter in some ways, right? - pills, it was meaningful to me. And the fact that I remembered at Ray Miller that a volunteer said, in passing, that I had to be sure to chew these pills instead of just swallowing them, so in effect actually tasting the salt and thereby alerting the central governor of treats that were to come, maybe that's why the cramps eased off.

I kept climbing up, steeper and steeper vert, and a mist and light sprinkle came in, refreshing. This fall everyone'd been making a huge deal out of the coming El Niño this winter but with nothing happening, I kept expecting to see El Niño's face on the side of a milk carton, but finally, a little actual weather. The hillsides were green and coated with fog. The Bandit is held in Simi Valley, a sleepy bedroom community of Los Angeles maybe best known for housing the Reagan presidential library. When my wife and I looked around for places to eat on Yelp, some of the top hits were the same chain restaurants that we had around our own suburban home - I didn't come all this way just to dine at Yardhouse again! So why in the world would an ultra be held here? Ask the Chumash Indians, who'd run in these hills for what may have been millenia.

Mile 25 was at the top of a steep, steep climb. Enshrouded in fog, I heard a vague whooping and cowbelling in the distance, and then all of a sudden, a couple of SUVs, a small folding table with water, gels, Otter Pops (like I needed to cough any more), a couple of volunteers including one woman flashing me with her t-shirt that had a bikinied body imprinted on it, laughing. It was the welcome-to-the-top-of-a-bitch-of-a-climb mini-aid station. No salt, but I took a gel and ran the rolling mile to the next aid station at mile 26, having run a marathon, the rest of the run back to Corriganville park making it an ultra. They were already packing stuff up since I was now at the back of the pack, but there were still some S!Caps, some Coca Cola, thank goodness. I started back, 5 miles left to go.

I'd chewed down a bunch of salt caps at the aid station, but at mile 27 I started cramping again, even forcing me to sit down on the trail again. I chewed one S!Cap, ran for a little bit, and then took another one, again, with a bunch of water, which was a tactical error. A few hundred yards down the trail I began to feel a tickle in my throat, a gurgle in my stomach, and after gagging a few times, another upchuck on the trail, not my first this time, and certainly not my last. After gagging and coughing another few hundred yards, I kept going.

On this descent, irritatingly, even more runners I'd passed earlier now flew by me, looking annoyingly fresh, whooping and hollering on the way down. I suspected for a second that they were distracting me so they could pass me in the competition to get to that elite 80th place finish. Suddenly, my right calf seized up, bringing me short. An older runner, dressed in khaki trousers, a plaid shirt, a windbreaker, and a Timex passed me. "What's wrong?" "Cramps." He looked at his watch. "Two and a half miles in an hour and a half, you can probably do it." "You mean before the cutoff?" I called at his back. He nodded his head.

Well, shucks. I don't know what it was. Look, the fact that he was dressed like that, in plain old khakis, a plaid shirt, and a windbreaker, probably meant that he knew WAY more about running than I did, and that even though he was way back in the pack he'd probably been running forever, before all of this fancy technical gear and GPS watches, but dammit, something about his flagrant disregard, not for matters sartorial, but for chafing, for god's sake! sparked something in me, and I started hobbling down the trail faster. I passed him, and despite the agony that downhilling at anything more than a trudge caused me, I kept trying to keep my feet turning over as fast as the cramps would allow.

You know how in running there's a saying that you got "chicked", that is, you a man who should dominate the world, was passed by a woman, and thereby demeaned? Well, that doesn't mean anything to me, not only was I a fat and slow kid and therefore a slow adult, I've just always known that there're women out there who can beat me at whatever it is that I'm trying to do, so no big deal. But shit, if there's anything I can do right, it's dress, dammit - I take some care in the way I attire myself, and I wear all of this technical stuff so I don't chafe, I even remembered to apply Body Glide this morning, dammit, and I was not about to be khakied by this old dude (even if the fact that he was that age and dressed the way he was and had made it this far and passed me meant that he not only probably but certainly knew more about running than I did).

I kept stumbling down the trail, now casting hurried glances over my shoulder despite the technical nature of the terrain and the possibility that I would end up flat on my face if I didn't pay attention to the placement of my tired feet. That's when, at mile 29, my Garmin started going off again. I have a 920XT, I'd even upgraded from the 310XT so I could do exactly what it was doing, receiving notifications from my smart phone, i.e. receiving alerts from my phone in case my wife needed something while I was on the trail. Earlier in the race I suddenly received 4 texts and a voicemail, probably when I'd come back in range of a cell tower, all of the messages from my wife who'd received an alert that I had DNS'd, Did Not Started, and worried that I'd cramped, been injured, etc.

I was now in excruciating pain, limping downhill, right knee screaming, receiving texts from my worried wife and my friends, one who was running his first 50K with me and had already finished an hour before I would, and meanwhile I was fighting not to be khakied, GODDAMIT STOP FUCKING TEXTING ME!!! There was no way I was going to stop to fish my cellphone out of my race vest, I was NOT going to be khakied. I kept throwing worried glances behind me, there he was, a couple of turns back, no, he's disappeared again, no, there he is, just a few paces.

I made it back to Corriganville park, a little less than a mile to go. At last, I passed someone who'd passed me earlier whom I'd passed before that; the geezer in the cargo pants having finished an eternity ago, a 71 year old having finished before I had (I'm not mad at him, though - damn, 71!!); finally crossing the finish line (no more cramping, though - huh), donezo! And even though I'd diminished the accomplishment at the Marr Land station, even though my friend who'd never run an ultra but had finished an hour before I had, demolishing my own PB, even though this 50K represented my own worst finishing time ever, I had, unlike the last 50K I'd attempted, in November, I'd actually finished, putting me squarely back in the saddle, ready and raring to go at these ultradistances, yes, the 50K is the entry-level ultramarathon, but I AM AN ULTRARUNNER!

Plus, I was just in time to get the last slice of pizza they had left at the closing finishing festival. Victory!

2016 BANDIT 50K: 30.81 miles, 8hrs:29min:27sec, 6,5226ft elev gain, 2,856-4,842 calories (Garmin and Strava have two veeerrry different calorie expenditure measurements - I'll just split the difference and multiply by 3), Hoka Challenger ATR

Sunday, November 8, 2015

2015 Ray Miller 50 - Oops, Make That 30 - K, or, ULTRARUNNING - SPORT OF EQUALS

It's 6:55 in the morning and the 50K and 30K runners for the 2015 Ray Miller Trail Race are getting in to position at the starting line. I notice a familiar shape to my right and look over. "Maria!" "Hey, you!" she replies. We give each other a quick hug.

Maria's my SoCal ultrarunning fairy godmother. A grandmother in her late 50s whose 5 grandkids all sleep in the same room as she does (which leads me to believe that they all live in a giant shoe), I met her in Chino Hills State Park while on a training run before this year's Leona Divide 50K, which was only my second ultra. She, on the other hand, has a long history of ultrarunning. Outgoing, energetic, garrulous, with plenty of advice to give out, she can't remember my name but we fell in to the same easy conversation that we have each time we bump in to each other on the local trails.

Seven o'clock hits and the pack starts shuffling forward. The night before saw winds of up to 75 miles per hour and the race director, Keira Henninger, who puts on a series of locally much-beloved races, had alerted us in her brief pre starting-gun talk that the winds were still very strong, and to look out for downed trees. Given the fact that forecasted temperatures that day were supposed to hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit - by the Pacific Ocean, mind you - she'd also given us the option to drop from the 50K to the 30K distance if we'd wanted to. Despite these warnings I was ready to put a third ultra under my belt in preparation for what I hoped would be my first 50 miler in April, and at 07:00 the group started padding down the trail.

Only to encounter the first pace-destroying part of the course. Not because it was a steady ascent, but because it was an ascending single track with a steep drop off to the right which made passing a dangerous chore. At the trailhead, which served as the bottleneck, I saw Maria quickly bypass the line, so I yelled, "go get 'em!" In the queue, one guy in red appeared to be leading a group of members of a running club, and his pacing was veeeerrrry... cautious, would be the generous way to put it, but by not hanging back to allow the faster runners to hit the trail first his little brood of runners made it difficult for everyone to space themselves out to their preferred pace. One runner in front of me grumbled that even though he was annoyed, red-shirt guy (ooh - hope that's not like the Star Trek red shirt) was probably doing us a favor by keeping us from going out to fast, but by not starting further to the back where their speed would be more natural this herd was keeping the rest of the runners from hitting their paces.

The winds gusted and blew up dust, making my lungs feel weak and wheezy. The fact that most of the run was uphill and into the wind didn't help - at least that volume of air dried enough sweat to keep one cool.

The views were pretty spectacular. Out to the ocean you could see the Channel Islands and Catalina. Inland looked like what you'd imagine the dinosaurs had once roamed.

The first aid station, which also served as the second and third aid stations in this clover-shaped course, came quickly at 4.9 miles. I felt pretty good, well-rested, just starting to feel a little bit of the distance but an appropriate amount, and in high spirits. They had the standard fare, PB&Js, generic cola, etc., but they also had a bunch of what looked like must've been leftover Halloween candy. A couple of fun sized Snickers were somehow a lot more satisfying than the organic trail sport bars that I've always wished I liked more. This was the race for new equipment because, of course, consumerism was going to make me a far better runner. New shoes (Hokas, 'cause that's what most of the ultrarunners at Western States used and must therefore be superior), a race vest but with the two bottles and one handheld in preparation for the heat, a FitBit Zip for FitBitting (I'd destroyed two Charge HRs this year - maybe from all of the sweating? - and my wife had this Zip she wasn't using since receiving a Flex from her workplace so I thought I'd give it a try. I clipped it to the front of the vest, and it was kind of cute, like my own little R2D2, and I couldn't wait for someone to ask about it so I could use the line, "that little droid and I have been through a lot together!" but of course this race was our first together), a waterproof iPhone case for the picture taking, I even remembered to bring a bandanna, but for goodness' sake, I'd forgotten to apply BodyGlide in the morning, so all of this new stuff notwithstanding I'd lapsed on the basics, of not chafing.

I grabbed a couple of gels in deference to the Central Governor and started down the hill towards the first loop of the clover. Overall, still feeling good, but noticing the starts of twinginess in my hamstrings, which I tried to ignore. I started taking a lot more walking breaks towards mile 8, 9, and 10, and by the time I arrived back at the aid station at mile 11.3 or so I was definitely feeling it. In the middle of mile 12, in the midst of a bunch of really nice downhill switchbacks, which usually would have been so much fun to bomb down, became the start of a shuffling agony as various leg muscles began to cramp. My hamstrings were where it began, but my inner quads (vastus medialis, for those interested), hip adductors, and then most severely of all, in my calves, all joined in a chorus of agony, a protest demanding a sit-in by me, the thing they were protesting, a coordinated refusal by the Central Governor to allow these muscle groups to relax. I was spending a lot more time walking than running now, desperately hoping that the cramps would subside, like watching a group of people on the verge of forming an angry mob.

And then we came upon a runner who'd fallen and hit her head. A young woman and her male running companion stopped, but the young woman was the one voicing concern, taking the lady's name and bib number, and then calling out for her from the switchbacks below as she continued to blow through the course, way faster than I was going. Which brings me to the point about this post, which is in part my reflections on this race, but also, wait for it, a bigger point about gender and ultrarunning: it's one of the few sports where there's parity between the sexes, or at least more than many of the other sports.

There's apparently an expression in running where "getting chicked" means you, a male and therefore dominator, suffers the shameful emasculation of having someone without swinging male genitalia actually pass you in a race. However, in this race, like the other two ultras I ran, I found myself in the midst of packs of women runners, many of them 5, 10, maybe 20 years older than I, and since invariably some (or many) of them were going to be faster than I, it wasn't unusual enough to be passed by a woman to have to note (to some imaginary running bro) that I was "getting chicked," I was just getting passed, as I had been all along.

Yeah, I'm a middle-to-back-of-the-pack runner which could surely explain some of the people around me, but it's remarkable to notice the total numbers of women who participate in these trail races, like Mitt Romney's binders were actually just full of ultrarunners like Maria. So during the entire thing, while I was suffering, I was passing women, or being passed by them, they'd encourage me, or I'd encourage them, everyone relentlessly upbeat, one woman saying, "hey, you all match!" meaning my outfit was entirely color-matched, which, of course, I meant to do while I was getting dressed at zero-dark-thirty, but hey, if I can't be fast, I'll at least be fashionable. And sure, while the fastest runners still tend to be men, at the really, really long distances the difference in speed between men and women apparently begins to narrow and the ladies even become competitive, but again, for the vast majority of us in the middle and the back, there's no contest, the men and women are participating as equals, or even with the advantage tilting towards the women. At the finish line I sat and chatted with several men whose wives were the real runners in the household and were racing the longer distances, with these husbands running the shorter ones so they could still be there to support their spouses.

Which is one of the reasons why there was an outcry, albeit brief and small, about Udo's Oils' recent ads in Ultrarunning magazine. The first of the series included their "ambassadors", ultra royalty like Sage Canaday, Max King, and Rob Krar, all walking barefoot down a trail in their running togs like the badasses they are, only to follow up with ads featuring top women ultrarunners Krissy Moehl, Stephanie Howe, and Anna Frost standing, STANDING and striking poses, all wearing - get this - little black dresses. Not only do these women ultrarunners not get to move in these ads, they don't even fucking get to be individual human beings, they're reduced to things wearing the most generic of cultural symbols of womanhood, the LBD. It's bullshit, enough to get this father of a young girl furious enough to forswear Udo's Oil - um, even if I'm not really sure if you're supposed to ingest it or, I dunno, rub it on the creaky parts of your legs? I can tell you, though, that my unsolicited solution (which undoubtedly will never actually get back to Udo's) for fixing this thing that's not just a gaffe but a gigantic gender blindspot is a simple one: first, do an ad with these women with the same dignity that the men had, resplendent in their victory gear, and then make another ad in which the men are all wearing little black dresses - just to prove that they're game, have a sense of humor, and most importantly, know that they stand as equals. And if all of this discussion of critical theory and gender equality is making you feel queasy, not to worry, because the literal barfing is coming up.

Because naturally, appeasing the Central Governor means giving it what it wants. I'd taken a gel around mile 12.75 or so which miraculously seemed to tamp the cramp down, so around mile 14.5 I took another one, which was why at around mile 15.5 I found myself pausing by an unwitting group of mountain bikers (of which there were a ton that day), bent over, hands on knees, feeling a funny scratchy feeling in my throat I chalked up to the winds. One of the women I'd passed earlier approached and asked if I was feeling okay, and I said I felt fine, I just needed a minute, and she moved on. A few seconds later the scratchy feeling got worse and then I threw up - for the very first and probably not the last time.

It was funny, because I wasn't nauseated, I felt a scratch in my throat, but nonetheless, barfing seemed to take care of the problem. Perversely, I was actually happy to have upchucked because I now felt like I'd been initiated, jumped in by vomit, in to the culture of ultrarunning wherein ralphing is a normal thing, but the best part was that I really did feel better.

I rounded the corner where the woman who'd paused and asked if I was okay came jogging back - "here, take this, it's ginger, it'll help with the nausea - suck it a bit, chew it every so often." My eyes were still watery from throwing up, and I thanked her and took the piece of ginger candy she'd proffered to me, chewing on it as we started up a big, steep hill back towards the aid station.

That sucker was hella steep. An older man in a blue shirt was staggering ahead of me, and a park ranger driving down stopped to check in on him, giving me an opportunity to finally pass the geriatric runner who'd been outpacing me. About a tenth of a mile to the top a woman in her 50s came rounding the corner with a jug of water in her hand, asking if I'd seen puking guy. I raised my hand with a smile and reported that I was he, and that I felt fine having barfed - it seemed that the aid station was trying to gather in all of the runners they'd heard reports of distress on.

I staggered in to the aid station when my legs decided that it was probably a good time to start cramping for reals, since I was so close to assistance. My calves, as usual, were the loudest offenders, and when I asked if I could sit down a kindly volunteer surrendered her chair to me in the shade, which was when the concert of cramping began in earnest.

"Where are you cramping?" the aid station volunteer asked, to which I responded, "my body," with a chuckle, but it was kinda true.

Bless these volunteers. Each successive race, my cramping's been the worst it's ever been. This time, my left calf spasmed in to this tonic activity with a bit of fasciculation on top - one of the aid station volunteers later confided to me, in hushed, awe tones, that it was the worst cramping she'd ever seen, which for me means, hey, at least I'm the best at something! The pain was exquisite - I explained to one volunteer that it was the funniest thing, that the pain was accompanied by the funniest endorphin rush. But despite my disheveled, sweaty, grimy, stanky state, the volunteer who found me swaying up the hill stayed with me, taking my trash, encouraging me to take salt (even though salt and electrolytes aren't the reason why we cramp, but what position was I in to argue that? Hells to the no, I just said thank you, bless you), stretching my salt-caked leg in her hands, handing me salted potatoes to eat.

These cramps really were the worst I've had yet. But there was, at this point, still an option to drop to the 30K, and between a DNF and a drop to the 30K, I chose the latter. The kindly aid station volunteers - most of them women - sent me off with a couple of handfuls of chews, and I began to walk the last of the 4.9 miles to finish the 30K.

I kept getting passed by the speedier 50K runners, but no matter, I was going to finish a distance. Not making the 50K was disappointing and in some ways felt like a DNF, but on the other hand I'd still learned a lot, barfed my way in to the ultrarunning community, and was going to return to the finish line on my own two feet.

I began to feel like I could trot a little, and eventually ran in to the finish line where I told Keira, who, bless her, was personally handing out medals, that I'd dropped to the 30K, and then sat down at a picnic table where I found Maria again, who'd run the 30K as training for the Chino Hills 50K in a couple of weeks. This grandmother had again smoked me, but I continued to learn from her, and from my own experience. Now I've gotta do another 50K before I feel like a 50 miler is within reach, but I'm going to learn from my big sisters first.

Still a beaut of a day.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

2015 Leona Divide 50K - Midol Won't Touch These Cramps

"Hey, do you have salt tabs?" "Here, have some salt tabs." "You're cramping? You need some salt."

Everywhere I turned on this course well-meaning runners, volunteers, even health care professionals were pushing salt tabs on me like crack-dealers who'd found a new market in selling salt to deer.

"Cramps, huh? You just gotta push through it. Oh, and take some salt."

After the wheels came off at mile 20 of my 2014 LA Marathon with bilateral calf cramps that forced me to limp the rest of the 6.2 miles to the finish, I've been exploring what causes exercise-associated muscle cramping (EAMC) and therefore how to prevent and treat it. And after yesterday's Leona Divide 50K degenerated in to a cryscreamlaughing cramp-fest and my fears that every distance that I run in the future may be the same I'm now even more curious about this most common endurance-sport related complaint. Well, maybe chafing in weird places jockeys for most common. Along with weird blurred tan lines.

So about the race first: my second ultra, also at the 50K distance, but as I mentioned in my post about the The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco 50K (four months later and I still feel compelled to write it all out like that) (by the sponsors of the The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco 50K), the 50K really is the entry-level ultra - it's basically doing a marathon and then walking to your parked car afterwards. In comparison, I happened to run into (no pun) one of my workplace's surgical residents, who remembered me from his rotation through the emergency department as an intern, who was running the 50 miler that day. As a RESIDENT! How did he even have the time to train? Even more amazing, he'd only started running a year or so before, and this was also his second ultra, having completed a 50K recently. (Cute story: the reason he got in to running was that his parents had decided they wanted to run a marathon, in their 50s, which was got him in to it.) When I praised him for doing these ultras as a resident, his half-apologetic excuse to me was that he wasn't married and therefore had all the time to train, and that he was on a research elective and had more time to run, but come on, I'm no dope - the guy lapped me and actually finished the 50 miler before I'd run in the 50K, and the best part? I ain't mad at him! He has the talent, he put in the work, nothing but respect for the guy's awesome running. But now I want to do 50 milers, with the ultimate goal of a 100 miler, 'cause come on, if even I can do a 50K, it's not cool until I can do a 100 miler - the race is always against myself, yo. Or something like that. That sounds less weirdly masturbatory. (Which reminds me: on the trail, I had a lot - and since I'm slow, I mean a LOT - of time to think, and to try to come up with jokes. One of them is to remember that with the exception of two people, there's always going to be someone who finishes before you and someone who finishes after you. #circlejerkwisdom - See?! It's funny because you thought it was going to be about running!) (Actually, come to think of it I'd probably heard that joke elsewhere and recycled it to myself in my delirium, whatever gets you through the day.)

And that was kinda the marker of the Leona Divide for me, this positivity about my fellow runners. The course is basically as follows, you run to the first aid station at mile 2.6, and then there are two out-and-back arms, one to an aid station about 7 miles to southeast, the other to one about 7 miles to the northwest. The 50 milers have a longer southeast limb which adds to their total distance. Out-and-back courses are interesting because you eventually start encountering the faster runners (and then once you start heading back, the slower runners), and when I realized with some amazement that the people with race bibs on heading my direction were actually the fast fast fast 50Kers who were essentially already lapping me, I began giving them all, the people faster and the people slower, a thumbs-up and a grin, with some encouragement, you're awesome, you look great, looking strong, something, and even though some were too in to their own heads to look up and answer back, and some could only grunt out that they felt terrible, most of them responded with surprised grins of their own, calls back, high-fives, just all kinds of positivity.

Quick aside: many would say, "nice job," and although it's ultimately still a positive response and an easy one to make, I started thinking that to equate running this race to work was a bit of a downer, we were all there because it's a past time we find enjoyable.

Later in the race it became tougher to maintain that kind of positivity, by no means impossible, but harder to do because the cramping began. Mile 15 was the return to the first aid station before heading out on the northwest limb, and I was starting to feel a fatigued, and about mile 18 is when the cramping began. About mile 20 was when I was passed by Maria, an ultrarunning grandmother of 9 I'd met on the trails in Chino Hills (and of course I'd get passed by someone that tough), we talked for a bit as we walked, and her advice? Walk when you have to, and hey, someone told me that you should really take some of those salt tablets.

So the conventional running wisdom is that salt (and other electrolytes, but primarily salt) loss is the reason why endurance athletes cramp. I mean, think about the salt that collects on your skin after a sweaty run, seems to make sense, right? But like so many of these common-sense reasons we offer for the phenomenon we experience, it turns out we may have been wrong the whole time. Like, if low sodium levels in your blood is the reason for cramping, why is it that only particular muscle groups cramp, and not all of them? One article addressing a lot of these offered reasons is Schwellnus MP, Muscle cramping in the marathon: aetiology and risk factors. Sports Med 2007;37(4-5):364-7.

 Now that's not to say that actual hyponatremia in runners isn't a real phenomenon, and a really dangerous one, but it's caused not by sweat loss but by excessive forced hydration with free water. But the cause of EAMC may have to do with something else, something called the Central Governor.

And for me, the Central Governor has been sorta anthropomorphized into this guy:

Cramping WILL make you my bitch!

The idea is that your brain/central nervous system has a part of it that, depending on how you look at it, is the sensible friend telling you perhaps you should slow it down so you don't wreck your body ("naw mate, you really don't want another drink or you'll be way hungover in the morning"), or the major party-pooper that's putting the kibosh on the fun you're having by shutting it all down and causing you to miss that personal best you've been looking forward to ("three cars in the driveway? I'm calling the cops"). Here's an episode of Radiolab that describes the Central Governor theory. Here's an article I found in the New Orleans Time-Picayune of all places. Here's another from Outside magazine. Aaaand here's another from iRunFar.

So it's not sodium, it's not sugar, then WTF, Why The Flameout? Because your Central Governor is going, you a damn fool, no way I'm letting you take another step and wreck this whole thing we got going! But what's curious is that taking a swig of briny pickle juice may actually work, but not because it's replacing your lost sodium. Rather, it's because you're essentially suckering the Central Governor in to thinking that the reward is coming so it eases off to let you do your thing.

The 7 mile limb back to the 1st aid station at mile 2.6 became this grim return march. I actually tried taking salt tabs at the 22 mile aid station with the hopes that I could fool the Central Governor into easing off, but no luck, which is funny because a placebo will still work to a degree even if the person receiving it is told that it's a placebo. Nevertheless, every time my calves, or my quads, or my hammies, would seize up, I'd let out this groan - a manly, strong one - stop running, return to speed-limping, and ask what the Central Governor wanted this time. Gels? Sport drink? Michonne's sword in my calf muscles? What?

And the rest of the race was what any endurance event becomes, you just gotta finish because that's how you're going to get back to your car and go home. The 2.6 mile stretch back to the starting/finish line was temporarily impeded by a crossing rattlesnake, and I was going to blame missing my goal time on it (I'd hoped to finish in under 8 hours, i.e. to at least beat the time I'd clocked at the The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco 50K - man, I'm getting really good at typing that out), but nope, it was the last 200 ft climb followed by the 400 ft of elevation loss to get back to the start/finish, oh, and all of that cramping.

But at least all of that positivity was there. I managed to shuffle in across the finish line and still had enough pride to whip off the cachalot I wear (to my wife's chagrin) beforehand so I'd look slightly less geeky in the photos and was greeted by all of the as-always awesome volunteers (the races that the director, Keira Henninger, organizes are universally praised), including one guy who heard me say, "BEEEEER!" asked if I wanted one now, because if so he had Anchor Steam on draft, if that was okay. Bless him, I hobbled over, sat down, and the guy looked all the world like Hal Koerner, but when we exchanged names he told me his was George (I'd mentioned before that the ultrarunning world is small, but this time the only running celeb I recognized was Ethan Newberry, the Ginger Runner), but I'd call him St. George because beer always conquers any dragons.

Of course, chugging that beer was a huge mistake as I immediately started feeling lightheaded and nauseated, so I tried to scarf some sandwich down, which was another immediate mistake. On the way back to our rental house I thought I'd stop by the grocery store so I could get a Coke (miracle drink: it's got some sodium, it's got some caffeine, it's got some fluid, but it's also got phosphorated carbohydrates which work as a mild antiemetic) and a beer for the shower, but when I tried to get out of the car I felt so sick I couldn't move. I eventually swiveled back in to the driver's seat and got home where my child offered me salty peanuts (I haven't yet taught her about the Central Governor) and my long-suffering wife had to wash my feet, as bending over caused cramps in my right lowest rectus abdominis muscle and lifting my legs caused cramping everywhere else.

So - sophomore slump, but no big deal, because the day before the race I started researching other 50Ks to do this year (Ray Miller, anyone? Good? Bad?), and now I know I can't be undertrained and overnourished like I usually am, I'm going to have to get some distance on my legs if I'mma tackle 100 miles.

2015 Leona Divide 50K
31.37 miles, 4,281 ft elevation gain, 8hrs:24min:37sec, 16:05 pace, 68,918 steps, 5,696 calories

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K

I am, as of last Saturday the 6th of December 2014, now, officially, technically, an ultrarunner.

Having finished the North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K (and so far I've felt the need to write the entire thing out like that, "the North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K") I've finally completed an ultra distance. Now, I keep reading that anything over 26.2 miles is technically considered an ultramarathon but that 50K is considered by most a real ultra. The thing is, it's basically the entry level, starter-home version of the ultra - my wife thinks I'm nutty for saying it, but hey, I wasn't running the 50 miler that day.

Which was one of the cool things about the way the North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K (see?) was set up - the whole event was very well organized - with the 50 milers starting two hours before the 50K runners, etc., the starts staggered such that the entire day of racing would end at more or less the same time (individual speed permitting, natch), which also meant that as a 50K runner you'd cross paths early in the day with the 50 milers, and then later in the day with the marathoners, etc. The 50K started at 7am, a little chilly but without any of the rain that had been pouring down in the city across the Golden Gate bridge just hours before.

Which reminds me: the North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K was held in the Marin Headlands. When we arrived in San Francisco that Wednesday I checked the weather report and saw that Saturday was supposed to be dry, maybe even with a little sun, no prob. But that Friday, after I picked up my bib from the North Face store in Union Square, we met a nanny at the Children's Creativity Museum who commented offhand that it was supposed to pour the next day. In a panic, I dropped my family off for their afternoon nap and raced back to the North Face to put to use the 10% off coupon for race participants buying perhaps the most expensive article of running clothing I'd ever bought, a the North Face (I'm never sure how the articles should be used when a definite one is included in the proper noun, thus the "a the North Face") waterproof shell for $150, more than I'd ever be willing to spend on shoes, etc. Which is silly because I love running in the rain (my first marathon, the L.A. in 2011 - torrential downpour with hypothermia), but for some reason I was convinced I had to buy more stuff, spend more money. Given that the day of the race was actually rainless, I'm now convinced that the nanny who'd commented on the forecast was a plant from the North Face.

Cameron (with whom I'd run that first L.A. Marathon) and I arrived at the starting line an hour early, taking a shuttle bus from a middle school in SF that had been designated a park-and-ride. We squelched around in the mud from the rains earlier that week, waiting for the start, doing the usual pre-race hydrating, waiting, peeing from over-hydrating.

At 0700 the 50K racers were sent off in 4 waves, each a couple of minutes apart. Coming around the first major corner, I could hear gasps from the runners around me, all of us nicely stunned by the beauty of the fog rolling over the low hills ahead of us. That was what the entire day was like, just gorgeous, beautiful trails.

The rains that week had washed out one of the trails that the 50K was supposed to be on, and the diverted course meant an early crossed path with the 50 mile group, but I didn't know any better which meant that I didn't really care, although others who had participated in this race before were a bit regretful as the trail we'd missed was supposed to be particularly choice. But this first looping segment was one we'd run on at the very end of the race; on our first pass that morning it was the first major downhill which I ran with glee obvious in the race photos we keep getting email offers to purchase, the second time, not so much.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Also, since it's been a week and a half, a lot of the glow of finishing has worn off, so here are the highlights.

Quick word to the wise: pin your bib to your pant leg, not your shirt. You may be wearing a shell during this ultra, so having it on the leg of your shorts ensures that it remains visible to the personnel at the aid stations.

One cool thing about ultramarathons is instead of just "mile 3" or "mile 18", the aid stations have names associated with their geography, "Tennessee Valley", "Stinson Beach", "Cardiac". Okay, geography or the medical specialty that'll be most visited afterwards.

Bombing down the muddy, sloshy hills was my catnip, probably because I don't routinely get to do it, but later in the race, when my quads were burning (my quads and calves were the most sore), less so.

Coca Cola everywhere! My go-to post-race drink is Coke, probably because the phosphorated carbohydrates have a known antiemetic effect, but every aid station had Coca Cola, and I was slurping down a bunch.

The ultrarunning community is small, so it was cool but also possible that Hal Koerner was going to be on the course with his toddler waving and encouraging the runners - like, in contrast, if you ran the New York marathon you would never have actually seen Meb anywhere on the course or afterwards, really. The ultrarunning community is also bearded. I was part of a small pack of slower runners who were hiking the ascent of Cardiac (the hill with the most ascent, at about mile 18 of the 50K) who would often have to step off the trail to allow the 50 milers and some of the faster 50K runners to continue their descent. One of the 50 milers appeared to be totally copping Rob Krar's aesthetic, and in my mind I was all snidely, "what up, 'Rob Krar'?" with the runners behind me jokingly asking what the deal was with ultrarunners and beards. Turns out that that dude was actually Rob Krar, as I later discovered. The ultrarunning community is small and bearded.

On my descent of Cardiac, which was progressively getting sloshier and muddier, I remembered hearing someone saying that the best tactic was to run on the middle of the trail, where the rivulets of water were running, as the mud would build up there and actually permit some traction. I saw a runner power-hiking up my way, so I thought that I'd get around her by jumping on to the wet middle of the trail. Big mistake: I immediately slipped, fell over abrading my right knee, and then had bilateral calf and a rectus abdominus cramps (both of my medial gastrocnemeii were the parts of my body that were sore the longest after the race) prompting me to cry out, "JESUS!!" The runners in front and behind me stopped and asked if I was okay, and through gritted teeth I joked that it seemed that the universe was telling me to take a break; I eventually got up and speed-limped, but for about 15 minutes afterwards I continued to have a cramp of my abdominal wall muscle that would force me to stop and contemplate the meaning of the North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K.

The mental challenge of running an ultra, or at least this ultra, was a lot lower than that of a regular road marathon. At a regular road marathon, there are aid stations at essentially every mile, and markers for every major subsegment. So at my first marathon, when I saw the marker for the half distance, 13.1 miles, I found myself thinking incredulously, "I gotta do that again?!" An ultra kinda ignores those standard ways of dividing the distance, so by the time you're at the top of Cardiac at mile 18, you've blown past the midway point miles ago without really noticing it. The last aid station was 2.8 miles away from the finish line, so you didn't really have to count down the miles since the distance wasn't precise.

Finally, the community of ultrarunners, small, bearded, or otherwise, was really very cool, and these kind, weird people are burned in to my memory. I met Jose on the bus to the start, he lives in Gilroy and works at the North Face store there, he trail runs a bunch, he biked to the Ferguson protests in Oakland the night before with his friend, he wore a propellor beanie on the race with a huge smile on his face and was super-fast. Matt is a salesman from Bozeman, it was his second time running the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K (his other, third ultra was a 50k at the UTMB). Danny lives in SF, he made some money on real estate during the dotcom bubble and now teaches cycling classes, had run 35-plus ultras, and likes to date women in their mid-20s. Angie is a tough woman with some gray in her hair whom I'd paced on one of the ascents after the stop at the Tennessee Valley aid station. We were swapping the lead for a while and then fell in to a pace side by side; she commented that I was a strong climber, and as a first time ultrarunner I took that as a compliment, but then I pointed out that I was just trying to keep up with her. She'd done some ultras before, and I lost her on the downhills to Stinson Beach (I was having too much fun burning out my quads racing down that mud), but I saw her again at the finish and got a big hug, telling her she was right about everything and how glad I was to have finished my first ultra.

My goal was just to finish the thing, but to finish with a smile on my face. I was walking funny for days afterwards, my time was pathetic, but I was grinning the whole way. As with any of these long races there was a point at which I thought to myself, "never again," this time it was around mile 22 or 24, but meh - promises like that are made to be broken, and I'm already starting to sniff around for my next 50K. Besides, I burned 3,395 calories - do you even realize how many slices of pizza I can eat in compensation now?!

The North Face Endurance Challenge California 50K
Nike Terra Kiger
32.29 miles
5,781 ft elevation gain
3,395 calories

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


My word, it's been a while, hasn't it?

Well, not only since my last post to Positively Split (the name of the blog speaks volumes) (and if you're not familiar with the idea of what a "split" is, it refers to the way that you split a run/race into segments.  So if you're gaining speed as you progress the split times become negative, i.e. the times it takes you to finish a later part of the run, say, mile 5, is less than an earlier part, say, mile 2.  If you start slowing down as your run progresses your splits become longer, or "positive" - that's me), but also since my last 26.2 miler, which was last March's 2011 LA Marathon, a race that I remember quite fondly - not only was it my first crack at this thing, it was quite dramatical.  Besides, I always love seeing my hometown in the rain, so despite the bout of clinical hypothermia I had a terrific time.

Now, I'm not a bucket-lister type (and I don't think young Jack Nicholson would have ever imagined that he would someday be in that style of "old guys rule!" buddy comedy with Morgan Freeman later in life), and my plan has always been to move on to the longer distances, the ultras, but I had something to prove - I had to prove to myself that last year wasn't just a fluke, a one-off, but that I could do this distance thing.  So in the fall of last year I started looking for another marathon.  I'd originally considered running Long Beach but didn't feel up to snuff and just ran the half.  It was then that I discovered that a marathon was held in one of my favorite places, the Napa Valley.  Wine, rich food, and strenuous physical exertion - what could possibly go wrong?

Two of my friends, part of a circle of friends who'd pleasantly vacationed in Napa before, also signed up for the run and our little group of 8 made a holiday out of the event with fond memories of previous trips in mind, arriving two days ahead of time.

The Napa Valley Marathon's considered a destination race, and come marathon morning I figured that meant that the participants were by and large serious runners, or at least that they were serious about their sneakers, which were by and large the more exotic, expensive kinds purchased by people who are essentially running nerds.  Mizunos, New Balance Minimi, Brooks, etc. etc.  There were a few "natural" runners, either shod in Vibrams or entirely barefoot.  I was surprised by the number of runners sporting Newtons, which are quite pricey, especially the "Distance" model, a pair of which I'd recently bought:
"Natural running" in form, not style - those colors aren't found in nature.

The company, which was recently featured in this month's Runners World, espouses a "natural running style" in that they minimize the heel-to-toe drop or "pitch" (that is, the height difference between the back heel of the shoe and the front toes.  If you're standing barefoot your pitch is zero;  many shoes have a pitch of 10 to 15 mm, and these have a heel-to-toe drop of 3 mm) and try to encourage landing on your midfoot - here's a link to an earlier post that provides some exposition.  They also have these curious, potentially gimmicky but also possibly helpful midfoot lugs that are designed to give you a little spring back when you land on them correctly, i.e. with a midfoot strike:
See the 4 orange bars in the midfoot?  Those are the lugs.
I, however, didn't run in these as I hadn't yet accustomed myself to lower pitch and accompanying calf soreness (fuller review is, of course, to follow).  Instead, I ran in my old faithful, the Nike Free Run+ 2:

The original Nike Free Run+ was my go-to shoe and the one in which I ran the LA Marathon, and the updated 2 was also quite good, enough so that I'd put about 750 miles in them before the Napa Valley race.

Getting back to the marathon:  it's a straight-shot point-to-point course that starts in Calistoga and runs down Silverado Trail on the east side of the valley, terminating at Vintage High School in the city of Napa.  Buses collect the runners at the high school at 5 am, and a longish bus ride in the pre-dawn darkness does nothing to ease the anticipation one feels about the distance that's going to have to be covered, each passing minute in the bus leading to worsening feelings of, holy crap, I'm gonna have to run back all this way...

The lines for the port-a-potties at the starting line were deep but not too terribly bad.  The race only fields 2,500 runners, which may have been one of the reasons Napa seemed to cater to more serious folks;  waiting for the race to begin we could overhear other people chatting about the number of marathon's they'd been in, their goal finishing times, how neon yellow their shoes were, etc.  As usual, I ended up somewhere in the middle of the pack at the starting line when the gun fired, and after a glance back and a little wave at my friends, off we went.

It was still pretty frosty at 7am so running a bit was a welcome way to ward off the toe-biting chill.  A fog was still lifting from the trees during the first quarter of the race.  The sun finally started coming up over the eastern hills of the valley, so there were warm patches of light in between the shade of trees.  The course's elevation is net-negative, meaning that the route is, ultimately, downwards, but the first half is comprised of some rolling hills which I charged up, feeling spry.  Perhaps it's because this run was a bit rural and there was less stuff to pass than in LA, but mile after mile just seemed to reel on by at a nice pace and everything was beautiful until mile 14, which was when I fell apart.

The only chip timer on the route was at the halfway mark where a young woman sat with a clipboard noting the passing runners, but by that point I was starting to feel the beginnings of doubt.  I'd gone out way too fast;  my early splits were low-8 minute miles, my watch marked mid to low 7 minute paces at points, and I began to entertain fantasies of mid, even low three hour finishes.  By the time I reached the midway point I began to feel the strain of the pace, and by mile 14 things there were problems.

It seemed to begin at the aid station;  miles 14 and 18 of the Napa Valley Marathon have GU packets (GU, for the uninitiated, is a brand of gel, which is a kind of sugary goop that's supposed to be an easy way to take in and metabolize energy whilst engaged in endurance sports.  They taste weird and feel weird and are unlike real foods, but since they're semi-liquid they're supposed to be ready sources of carbohydrates for feats of sportsmanshipping), and when we arrived I saw a volunteer with one and swooped in, totally cutting off another runner who'd been there first and was going for the same thing.  I have no idea why the hell I did that;  I'd been running with two CLIF bars in my hands which I'd planned on using for nutrition during the run but that I ended up just kinda squishing around, but when I saw the GU girl I just bee-lined it for the gel and basically just GU-blocked a fellow runner.

My conscience was riddled with guilt, and for the next three-quarters of a mile or so I tried to find the runner I'd dicked over to apologize.  Another guy, who wasn't the one I'd treated so rudely, said that he'd absolve me in the place of the offended party, but it didn't matter.  And it was around this time I also began to realize that I had been totally and utterly unprepared for this marathon.

I don't mean necessarily and only physically, since I'd run farther and faster this past year than I had in preparation for LA.  And the days preceding had been spent with careful attention to rest and diet.  Okay, by diet I just mean that I ate extra french fries whenever they were around, but I had started carb-loading well in advance and had hydrated to the point that I had to pee all the time.  But I was totally unprepared for the mental part of this run.  I mean, the longest run I'd had in preparation was a 20 miler, which may seem crazy-long, but 6.2 miles whether in isolation or on top of a previous 20 is still a lot.  But already somewhere in the space between miles 14 and 15 I began to doubt whether I'd be able to finish.

It wouldn't be so bad if I just stopped, just right there.  The Napa Valley race was small enough that a bus trailed the course to pick up runners who couldn't finish.  I could go back to the rental house, call it a day and have some cheese, and after all I'd already gone the half-marathon distance, so why not?  I'd gone out way too hard and was feeling it, feeling the impossibly optimistic pace I'd set earlier catch up with me, and I knew the rest of my splits would be positive.  I think it's over.

I tried to think of motivators.  At the finish of this race they have hot showers, if you're so inclined, soup, bread, massages even.  I could have a beer later.  Some writers I'd read made mention of being motivated by the idea of sex - just follow the shapely butt of the tall runner with long hair in front of me, just focus on it and chase it.  Oh, wait - that's a guy.  Dangit!  Why does that keep happening to me?  Nothing worked.  I had spent months getting ready, I'd been running so much, all of the 5am mornings awake and preparing for long runs, but I hadn't been ready mentally.  Although I'd been getting ready in fine detail in some ways, planning on the taper and rest, on the carb-load, I hadn't been thinking about what it'd be like on the run itself, my head wasn't in the game.  In some ways my first marathon had been a bit charmed by ignorance, while the miles progressed I just thought, wow, it's raining like crazy, we're really far, when this sumbitch goin' end?  But this time I'd spent the days leading up just thinking about eating more carbs and not about what the race itself was going to be like, what running all of those miles was going to be like, what I was going to be thinking just after mile 20 and while I'd stopped at that point during training that I'd now have to keep going.

Somehow I made it to mile 19.  I'd heard some other runners, middle-aged women in tu-tus who'd left me behind miles ago, talking about the hill that began at 19 and progressed in a slog for two more miles.  An impossibly fit-looking couple to my left kept slowing down to a walk, and then every time I'd catch up, maddeningly, they'd speed back up to a run, over and over again.  The sun had come up miles ago, and while the start of the race had been chilly the sun was now bright and there was no shade anywhere on the course, salt drying on my shirt, thoughts of quitting, quitting, quitting.

After being passed by the walk-run couple again I found myself pacing a gentlemen in a blue shirt and shorts, a little heavier set like me, taller though, but with the same pace.  Neither of us seemed to pull forward or fall back.  If you only have one day left to live, spend it running up a slow, low grade hill miles into a marathon 'cause it'll feel like an eternity.  I just wanted to be in my own thoughts, but he began talking.  I don't remember what it was that he first said, probably something about the hill, and me grunting in return, can't be rude, now, and then we just kept talking, he was from San Antonio, he'd planned on losing 15 pounds before this race but hadn't, the course was hilly, he'd been on a number of marathons and just wanted to break the four hour mark 'cause then he could cross it off his bucket list, all stuff related not only to running but this particular run we were on, and somehow we made it to the top of the hill.  "I woulda stopped running back there," he said as we started the descent, "only I woulda been ashamed quittin' in front of y'all."  Somehow, me too, and as we rolled into the aid station at mile 21 we took comfort in that the rest of the course was flat.  I wished him good luck on making a sub-4 time and we lost each other then, but he'd gotten me over the hill at mile 19 and then disappeared, a marathon angel.

At mile 21 I began to cramp, the heat and the lack of conditioning getting to me, my left quads and my right calf aching.  I took slow, deep breaths in and tried to hyperventilate the lactic acid out which left my hands tingling.  I tried taking more vigorous strides and nothing seized up, so I kept shuffling along.  Thinking about things gives me some perspective.  It's not like I'm out there curing cancer or making peace in the Middle East, no one's life is being saved, we're just running because our loved ones put up with us running, so lighten up, you're supposed to be having fun, and despite the aches, despite the fact that the sun is merciless, I lighten up, this is just for fun.

Runners kept passing me, and all I could think of was to remind myself, "just run your own race," don't compare yourself to the people around you, just run to what you think you can do right now, just run your own race at your own pace.

The problem with these road marathons is that there are parts of the course that are big, long, flat straightaways without any variation, so you see, way off in the distance, the orange mile marker which never seems to get any closer, and then you turn a corner and you have to keep going to the next one.  At mile 24 I tried to tell myself that there were just 2.2 miles left, but that part of the course was just straight and painful, stretching off into the distance.  The last bits of the marathon went through a residential area and the course kept going onto the grounds of the high school but it was finally over.  A volunteer singles you out, guides you over to a kid who puts a medal around your neck, you stagger through the finishing area and then onto the pavilion.  A concerned volunteer came over, you look like you're a bit wobbly, but then again you just ran 26 miles, I don't bother to correct her that it was 26.2, but thank her and move on, trying to find something to drink, and eventually my wife finds me and we buy Girl Scout cookies and I have some of the vegetable soup and learn that there are no more massages available but I don't care anymore, we find a spot of shade in which to sit and wait for our friends and it's done.

I don't know what happened to the guy from San Antonio, if he broke the four hour mark or not, but he certainly helped me finish.  It wasn't just the "you and me too, brother," type of encouragement, we didn't spend the time cheerleading each other, we just trudged up the same hill and learned what feels like a surprising lot about each other in a couple of miles.  I wise-cracked that he was a marathon angel, as though he were Della Reese in running clothes and Nikes, but I guess the idea I'm having is more that we, meaning people, were meant to run together.  Some of the best parts about preparing for and running these races has been getting to hang out with people I may not have gotten to know as well if we hadn't spent hours alongside each other.  I love it.

I spend the next few days walking funny and involuntarily whimpering in a pitiable way.  Reading and talking about running is a lot easier than actually doing it, but another marathon down, and now I've gotta think about the next run.

Napa Valley Marathon
26.37 mi.  4hr:3min:27sec.  9:14 pace.  3.231 calories.  698 overall place.  72nd percentile.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


There's no getting around it, I'm out of shape, or at least in no shape to run a full marathon.  Although I had every intention of keeping up the pace after the LA Marathon, you can tell by the gap in time between this post and my last (real) post that I haven't been able to run much;  my last lengthy run was a pathetic, wheezing 10 miler in late July.  I went on a preparatory 5.77 miler trail run through Powder Canyon yesterday and was alarmed at how the entire world would spin every time I climbed a hill and I'd look like this guy:

A classic image of Netter's entitled "Angina Pectoris", frequently seen in med school. Especially if said med school was in Michigan. As in real people walking out of restaurants. Not necessarily in textbooks.
Since I'm not independently wealthy, and that career as an international underwear model hasn't really taken off like I'd hoped (apparently, you need a six pack and fewer spider veins), I didn't have the kind of time this past year to put the miles in that I'd need to run another full marathon.  But if you can't have a whole, how's about a half?

They'd promised that LA was essentially a downhill run, and they lied - that mutha was hilly, only in that slow, painful way that never seemed to stop.  They promised that Long Beach, being at sea level, was essentially flat, and that since the half is almost entirely at the beach, it had even fewer elevation changes - we'd see.  But with the hope that the promise of levelness would outweigh my dietary indiscretions (note photo above), I signed up for the Long Beach Half, bib number 13,991, which, coincidentally, also was my expected finishing rank.

I went with my running buddy, Nicole - well, "running buddy" in the sense that we talked about it a lot and since she's a mother of three and also a full-time nursing student whose husband would like to see her on occasion as well, and I had... a lot of not-running going on, we never actually got to run together.  My saintly wife drove us to downtown Long Beach (I often tell my wife that she's lucky because I don't enjoy watching team sports and therefore don't spend any time doing so, which in any other marriage might win me a gajillion points, only it's offset by the fact that she woke up at 5:30 am to drive me down to a footrace and then not only waited around for two and a half hours but also went to two different locations to cheer me on) (boy, when I put it like that...) where we alighted from the car like junior high schoolers at the mall and followed the crowds to the starting line.

A quick way to understand what a "thronging crowd" looks like is to wait around for the start of one of these big races.  It's different from a mob, I've seen one or two of those and they're scary as hell, and it's not that a thronging crowd is exactly unintimidating, but to hear the buzz and activity, smelling the sweat and random farting, you finally understand how a crowd can throng (perhaps I could write a "throng song" to explain).

Everyone's largely good natured, particularly at the back of the pack.  The runners are supposed to sort themselves into waves according to the time in which they think they're going to finish, and I suppose the positive view of things is that it's encouraging to see so many optimists together in one place.  If the meaning of that sentence was unclear, I mean to say that a lot of slooooow people pack themselves in at the front of the line, slowing down the people who are at times considerably faster.  Which I realized when I kept leaping from side to side and swerving through the crowd in order to pass all of the runners in front of me who were, improbably, even slower than I.

As a matter of fact, I kept passing people the entire way, which was really unusual.  I was happiest about my form, which seems to have lasted through the past 7 months of indolence, and perhaps even improved in efficiency, a quick, easy cadence, bouncing off the midfoot, arms up at my side, little wasted movement, actually, if I were less efficient I might be able to burn off more calories, but whatever.

Thirteen point one is, don't get me wrong, a long distance, but it's a lot less, about half I'd say, of 26.2, and I didn't weigh myself down carrying a bunch of gels and didn't worry about the need to aggressively hydrate, I just kept moving forward, one foot on the ground.  As opposed to one's self on the ground - I saw at least five people take tumbles on the road, young, otherwise healthy looking people, it was really odd, and I'm not sure if the accidents were attributable to klutziness, poor road conditions, just plain bad luck, or perhaps a combination of all of the above, but I've never seen so many people fall.  It was nice seeing so many of their fellow runners spring to the aid of these fallen runners, so quickly that I didn't even have the chance to lope over and begin the entire awkward, "okay, so, well, I guess I'm a doctor and it looks like you just took a spill"-thing, plus the whole I'll-bill-your-insurance thing gets everyone so worked up.

There's always a point in a long run where I'll ask myself, why exactly am I doing this thing?  Sometimes it's when I'm pressing the "send" button when I'm registering for a race online, today it was at about mile 11, and sometimes it's both.  And the reason, of course, and as with most of the things that I do, it's so I can eat another slices of pizzas, or drink another beers or four (I burnt 1,616 calories during the run - yes, I will have another basket of fries, thank you).  And then there's the entire sense of accomplishment, feeling of well-being, euphoric flood of joy around mile 8, etc. etc.  But the pizza, that's what makes it all worth while.

Ill-trained, but I still did okay, at least earlier on when I was dodging and weaving around slower runners (all of that extra lateral motion added 0.2 miles to my run - my GPS recorded a 13.3 miler), but I felt the cumulative inactivity of the past 7 months start to drag on my calves towards the end.  The very last stretch, the last 0.2, was a blessed downhill, a smile breaking on my sweaty face, and then the run was over.  I suppose, over the coming months, that I could put down the cheeseburger and try to find the time to put in some more training, and I do believe I'll try, especially so I can work on keeping my pace even. But like the blog says, I'm Positively Split...

Long Beach Half Marathon
13.3 miles.  1hr:53min:30sec.  8:32 pace.
1,616 calories.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Holy crap, has it really been two and a half months?


Working on a book.

Not about running.