Monday, May 28, 2012

Smoky Spine Dream Run

Last Friday I was able to realize a long-time goal of running the Appalachian Trail from Davenport Gap to Newfound Gap. This run along the eastern spine of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park had been on my mind for many years. I simply had not "made" it happen. My preparation for the upcoming Bighorn 100 provided an urgent and just cause for action.

The AT through the eastern half of the Smokies contains the highest sustained elevation east of the Rockies. The AT enters the GSMNP at Davenport Gap (1975 ft) and climbs Mt. Cammerer (5000 ft) in the opening five miles. After dropping to Low Gap (4200 ft) the AT climbs over Inadu Knob before ascending and staying above 5000 feet for the next 36 miles.

Highlighted elevation profile of the run.
My journey to Newfound Gap took me near the summits of six mountains as the AT meandered across an unbroken ridge line. It involved about 9200 ft of ascending and 6200 ft of descending over a distance of 31.4 to 32.8 miles, depending on which sources you adhere to. Even the signs within the park disagreed with each other. The Polar G5 gps unit I wore would have put it between those two if it had enough charge - I did not see the charge cable so I started without it fully charged. So glad it was not tied to the heart rate data when it died!

This rugged section of the AT is also the most remote section, having several 4 to 6-mile stretches in which there are not even intersecting trails. Heliports are located in a couple of these regions for emergency evacuations which, coincidently, did not make my to-do list.

Along the way I encountered numerous vistas of haze shrouded mountains, a couple dozen backpackers, a small rattlesnake underfoot, a far off bear, blooming Mountain Laurel and Catawba Rhododendron, dozens of black muddy bogs, and countless knee high wood and stone obstacles.

I used a finicky UV light to purify 8 liters of cold, great tasting water from springs along the way. A pack used for summiting 14ers carried the light, 2500 calories, and emergency supplies. I started and finished with a Polar tank, but it was too warm to wear it throughout the run. My weak and taped ankle caused me to go with the stable La Sportiva Skylite 2.0 that has given me peace of mind during my three 50-mile mountain runs.  And, of course, I wore the Polar RCX5 to track my progress. I opted not to carry a camera, since I knew the haze would be thick and the warm air would cause excessive sweating.

Polar RCX5 data file
The run went better than I expected. I climbed steadily and slowly in the early miles, keeping a curious, judicious, and calculating eye on my average heart rate. I let it climb during that ascent, but then slowed on the high ridge to gage how fast I could go while keeping the metabolism in the idle mode. My final descent into Newfound Gap found me energetic and elated. The only issue all day was a slight turn of the right ankle at mile 23. I am still dumbfounded as to why I didn't fall down because falling has become a normal part of my mountain running.

This was a practice run aimed at slowing my butt down for a long haul. Tortoise or hare? Survival or death? Finish or DNF? 100 miles is out of my league, beyond my range of motion, and certainly beyond my sense of logic, my rational faculty. I don't normally move 100 miles in a month, let alone in a little over a day. So, this run was my attempt to get a grip on the pace that I will be capable of maintaining for a long, long run.

New friends Jim (master brewer) and Donna (teacher) from AK
Sweat and mud, but no blood!

Running Chicago Under NATO Lockdown

This is the first of two short posts about recent weekend trips. Ten days ago I arrived in Chicago just minutes before there were several road closings due to the NATO summit meeting. It was, perhaps, an ill-timed trip, but Brandon needed to be moved out of his apartment.

He and I walked along Michigan Avenue between 9:30 and 10:15 pm after squeezing in some late calories at an Asian restaurant. We encountered a steady stream of Chicago's finest. They stood in loose packs, walked along the sidewalks, drove by in 15 passenger vans, and cruised by in mountain bike pelotons. And they were all dressed in riot gear. Many of them held their batons in their hands. They were preparing to empty the parks at the eleven o'clock closing time. There were thousands of said police officers and maybe 200 NATO protesters.

Brandon and I noticed these things with curiosity before retreating to his apartment to take down several awesome posters and to begin packing his belongings. We felt safe!

Just before sunrise, and after a meager four hours of down time, I strapped on the Polar, loaded up a Nathan vest, and ventured out for a run as I always do when visiting Chicago, for a run through the parks and along the Lakefront Trail. Most of the police were gone. Not one protester was on site. It was a muggy and quiescent morning in the oddly windless city.

Here are some photos in which I attempted to capture the sights that morning.

Quiet Riot
Posted overnight to keep park empty?

Millenium and beyond . . .

Normally would have run through there.
A quarter-mile "wall" of salt trucks stopped - most runners and cyclists.
Brandon's apartment building is the oldest brick structure in town.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

May 14 Hammerfest Report

For years I have gone out on the days of the time trial stages of such world class events as the Tour de France to test myself against the clock. I ride a bike for many reasons, but going fast easily surpasses all of my other excuses to hop on the bike. I am an adrenaline junkie, a speed freak. I have a Ricky Bobby complex: I wanna go FAST!

You can imagine my excitement, then, when the productive people of the Southern Indiana Triathlon Team (Jeff, Anna, et al - THANKS!) decided to stage a series of time trial races last year. I participated in two of the five events, the first and the last. In between I morphed into an ultra runner mountain goat - or at least I attempted to. This year looks to be the same for me. I participated in the May Hammerfest and will likely not have another go at it until the September edition due to galavanting through the Rocky Mountain states. (Sure, gas prices are up, but I intend to spend a little more time hunting and gathering . . .)

Given my recent return to good cycling form in which my power was high enough to sustain high (for me!) speeds while training, I looked forward to this week's race. However, with the clock quickly moving toward the Bighorn 100, I also needed to log a long run this past weekend. On Saturday morning I ran more than 28 miles at an ave HR of 140 (73%). I turned my ankle during that run, apparently to stay with the trend of doing such a thing early in my summer trail ultra preparation. Though I felt reasonably strong at the end of that run, experience has taught me that running more in one run than I have averaged per week over the previous several months had certainly caused significant damage to my legs. Looking back, the yearly inversion of the right ankle was a perfect fit for the drama moment, but it likely had little affect on my cycling performance.

The now blackened ankle just after the run.
Needless to say, I showed up at the Hammer with weakened legs. Honestly, though, thought that I was stronger than my showing suggested. The event started out poorly when the lady (owner/manager/clerk???) at the market near the start line stopped letting people use the restroom. I was going to buy some Gatorade, out of desperation(!!), but she claimed the toilet was broken. Arrgh! I am NOT the type to soil myself in order to go fast or even to finish an event. Nor would I consider doing something disrespectful to lovely Kristy! Yuck!

The ride itself was great - for about four minutes. I powered into the light wind at just as I have in practice lately, but I soon found my pace dropping as my legs refused to sustain the power. Bummer. I watched as my average pace slipped for several miles before the course turned and a tailwind leveled the pace out. It should have increased my speed, but my legs just weren't up to it. I pushed hard enough to get the burn, but the push had no authority or demand. My mind was giving those pedals hell, but my legs seemed to kindly nudge them into motion. I simply wanted to get back to the start/finish line. The data file below shows most of the ride. I failed to start the watch until I was about 20 seconds in. My time of 28:07 (25.7 mph) was my slowest in three tries.

The Polar RCX5 data file for most of the 12-mile ride.
After crossing the line I reset the Polar RCX5 and started a cool down. About a mile into this I returned to the start/finish area and decided to take another loop. Within minutes of starting that, out of frustration, I started pushing hard enough to increase my HR to just below my tempo rate. I held it there throughout the loop. This effort, not tapping so deeply into the muscle fibers recovering from that long run, proved to be easily sustainable - and enjoyable! My time of 30:25 (23.7 mph) was much more typical of this type of effort than the first lap in which the muscles were not able to produce maximum power at a higher effort.

The Polar RCX5 overview of the "cool down" lap.
As usual, I enjoyed the race and the people who attended. What a great group of like-minded people to hang out with! It is especially nice to talk to and kid around with people who care about their health and are not overly competitive to the point of being repulsive. I do this stuff for fun and the fun factor is increased significantly when the experiences are shared with competitive yet affable people.  This year's hammer turned out to be a big rubber mallet. And that was good, because I have been in need of one since I splintered mine last year.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Indy Mini Race Report

Well, this event almost didn't happen for me. Though I had entered the Indy Mini months earlier, I wasn't really thrilled about running it after making the decision to race at Du Nats. By early April I had convinced myself that it would be foolish to compete in another event so quickly. The event slipped off of my radar.

I returned from Tucson last Tuesday physically and mentally spent. Luckily, I was able to sleep well one night and my body healed significantly. And then I needed to drive into northern Indiana to pick up my son, Tyler, from Purdue. This created a scenario in which running the nation's largest half marathon would be a convenience, so I decided Friday afternoon to join about 35,000 other runners in the Indy Mini.

This half marathon is a fantastic race! With more than 4000 volunteers working the aid stations, monitoring intersections, and playing a variety of music, the journey to the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway and back is one that should eventually appear on all runners' calendars.

Because muggy conditions were expected, race management sent warnings about heat threats. I used this and the fact that I had raced the previous weekend to deduce that I should run in a tightly controlled manner. I would allow the heat to indirectly dictate my pace. Though I can run a half marathon at 90-92% HR max, and though the heat would likely slow me while also elevating my HR to 92-94% in a normal race effort, I decided to keep an eye on my Polar RCX5 and run at 86-88%, thus treating the event like a long tempo run. Experience told me that the plan would allow me to not only survive, but also to maintain a relatively steady pace.

The Polar RCX5 heart rate and pace chart.
And it worked! I eased into the race with a 6:01 first mile. I then ran relatively steady at sub-6 pace for several miles with variations  resulting from slowing to take two cups of water at each aid station.
The Polar RCX5 laps recorded manually at mile markers.
Just before passing the six mile marker, while running around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the sun hit me for the first time. Immediately, I felt hot. And my body reacted with a HR spike from 165 to 172. I knew the heat would only drive the HR up further. So, I slowed until the HR stabilized at 168-169. This resulted in a 10-12 second decrease in pace and peace of mind.

The steady, HR controlled pace resulted in me feeling great and passing more than a dozen runners in the closing miles. An average HR of 168 resulted in a time of 1:18:33 (6:00 ave). Though I almost did not run the Mini, my experience there served as an affirmation of the importance of monitoring heart rate while training and racing. Unfortunately, running it caused me to pass on a planned long trail effort geared at getting me ready for my next big event, the Bighorn 100.

As my buddy, Chris, says, it is time for me to change my tactics, slow down, and learn to survive a long, long run. Of course, I should also adopt the mindset of ultra legend Karl Meltzer, whose mantra is that "100 miles is not that far."

Friday, May 4, 2012

USAT Duathlon Natls - Tucson

I was fortunate enough to travel to Tucson to participate in the 2012 USAT Age Group Duathlon National Championships. The trip was rewarding from many perspectives.

My beloved uncle, his nurturing wife, and their adorable three-year-old girl took care of all my needs. They live within a few miles of the race venue and they provided a vehicle, LOTS of food, tools, fan support, and some medical attention (duh - more on that later). They also arranged for a Sunday gathering of several other family members who live close by. In the end, one of them (Brian) even took care of shipping Kristy back to Indiana. Family! Wow! I am so lucky and appreciative to have family to depend on.

The venue was great. Both the repeating 5K run course and the 35K bike course were carried out on constantly rolling hills through the Oro Valley, which I welcomed after a spring of climbing in both sports. The courses and heart rate data collected from my file can be seen in the satellite maps below. The isles of the smooth desert transition area were lined with green AstroTurf, so they were sock friendly. The entrance and exit were marked by the usual USAT inflatables which were placed with fairness in mind. There was, of course, almost zero shade, but that made little difference since the desert sun seemed to provide as much positive attitude as it did heat.
Satellite view from Polar RCX5 data file
The weather was, well, sunny and warm, then hot (69-82F while I raced). Just what one would expect in the desert southwest. The 8-12 mph wind seemed to vary, but came mostly from the NNW, so it provided a headwind early on each of the two bike out/backs.

The race experience itself was not what I expected. First of all, the run course contained an 1100-meter finishing hill that I had greatly underestimated before I started climbing it. My first two miles splits were 5:15 and 10:40, which were about what I had expected to run on a rolling course. Soon after starting up that last climb, however, I decided to back off. A judicious first run is always advisable in a duathlon, especially one carried out in a desert. I finished that run in a dead heat :) with Scott Schraff, whom I had raced against in the 2010 Du Nats.

The RCX5 data for the cautious first run.
After a rare (for me) smooth transition I powered onto the bike course. Eight minutes later I looked at my Polar RCX5 and was shocked to see that I was only averaging 21.1 mph, which was well below my goal of 25+ mph. But I felt like I was working hard. And I was. The beginning of the course had a lot of climbing into the wind. It wasn't long until descents brought the average up. Whew! Temporarily psyched by the course.

About the time that I began to feel like I was moving smoothly I was passed by a train of four riders, two of whom were in my AG. They were close enough to be flirting with drafting - close enough, in fact, that a USAT official was riding along behind them counting off. The bad news for me was that the big guy pulling the train weakened and the group slowed down. More than once I tried to pass, but the group sped up, keeping me at bay. So, I eased off of the pedals and settled in about fifty feet behind the group - and the ever-counting official.
Polar RCX5 data for the bike.
This continued for more than half of the first lap. Then, one by one, the riders slowed and I accelerated across the gaps. I finished with a good bike leg, for me, at 25.7 mph (mount to dismount) and relatively fresh legs that I hoped would come in handy on the second run. Two fellow AGers were not too far behind.

At each turn-around during the second run I counted seconds back to Schraff. The gap increased to about 40 seconds before that last climb, so I once again eased up while ascending. You have to look at the pace plot to see that, though, because the HR climbed throughout the run.

Polar RCX5 data for the second run.
I finished 11th OA and first in the AG, beating Scott Schraff to the line by about a minute. Scott is a strong competitor and extremely nice guy. We talked for awhile after the race, mentioning the fact that it would have been nice if more of the top Eastern state guys had shown up to strengthen the field.

In the end, it was a memorable trip. The race went well for me, but equally important was the fact that I got to spend some quality time with family. I am already looking forward to a return trip next year. However, I hope to fore go the four days of post-race bleeding fingers . . .

I am also pondering whether or not I should run the Indy Mini (half marathon) tomorrow. My most challenging athletic goal of the year is finishing the Bighorn 100. It starts five weeks from today - and I have yet to train specifically for it.

Some pics from the trip.

Scott and I comparing splits
Aunt Lori and I at Subway
Kristy was parked near the IN flag!
Welcome to Tucson, nerd.
Finishing first run
Entering T1
Start of bike
Midway through Run 2 = HOT!

With Savannah and uncle John.
Just before I danced on the podium.
When bones meet metal.
Perfect alignment of fingers and chain ring teeth = blood sport!