Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bedrock Sandals Earthquake V2 Review

As you may have noticed, I've been up to my ears in huaraches lately (and bears, but that's a different story).  That's not a bad thing (although the recent snow in Show Low has made getting in test runs a bit more difficult), especially considering the quality of the sandals I've gotten to try. What's really made the experience especially interesting is that--in stark contrast to the minimalist shoe industry as a whole, where giants like Merrell and New Balance have taken over--the running sandal industry is dominated by a number of tiny startups founded by one or two outdoorsy types with a penchant for tinkering.

The Bedrock "Adventuremobile"
Bedrock sandals is one of those startups. The company is based in Harrisonburg, VA and was founded by two friends “with a shared passion for barefoot running and geology” as a Kickstarter project in June 2011. Bedrock currently only makes one model of sandal, the Earthquake V2, which weighs just over 3 ounces and retails for $54. The V2 comes in whole sizes, or you can send in a foot tracing and have a pair custom made. The custom option is free if you mail in the tracing, or $5 if you email the tracing. You also have your choice of strap color.

One cool thing about Bedrock is that part of the price of every pair goes to maize and bean seeds for Tarahumara families in Mexico. Also, your sandals come in a very cool burlap bag (see the picture at top).

Overall the construction is simple and solid, using good quality materials. The Earthquake V2 is based on the classic Tarahumara 3-hole huarache design, but with a modern-style buckled lacing system. The sole material is 6mm Vibram rubber which is different from the Vibram rubber used by the other huaraches companies whose sandals I’ve tried. It’s moderately dense and stiff, less so than the neoprene used in the classic Luna and more so than that used in the Luna Leadville or Unshoes Wokova Feather. It doesn’t seem to mold to my feet as much as either of those rubbers. The tread is a pointillistic nub pattern.

I was a little surprised by the shape of the sole. If you get a non-custom pair like I did the sole is cut with a slight banana-shaped curve to it. This struck me as strange when I first tried the sandals on since it doesn't really fit my foot when it is still. The idea seems to be to allow the big toe to splay out to the side without falling off the sole. Based on my experiences with sandals that aren’t cut this way I don’t think it is really necessary since my toe doesn’t usually fall off the sole like that. However, when I ran in the sandals they seemed to fit my feet well without any noticeable extra sole material, so maybe there’s something to the idea after all.

The laces are strong nylon webbing. At the moment there are apparently two types of webbing, one stiffer and more rugged than the other. Which type you get depends on which color lace you get. According to the website the stiffer variety will be available in all of the colors in the future. I got red so my laces were the stiffer variety. The lace connects via a plug which is countersunk into the sole, so there isn't any bump under the toes. 

The unique feature of the Earthquake line is a piece of elastic rubber (made from recycled bike tubing) attached to the inside of the lace behind the heel. This is designed to keep the lace from slipping off the heel and also allows you to slip the sandal off and on without adjusting the buckle. The clever thing about this design is that the nylon lace is unbroken (more on that later).

The laces adjust via a small plastic buckle. I’m not a fan of this buckle. I was never able to get the sandal adjusted the way I wanted without taking it off my foot, adjusting it, and putting it back on. Even off the foot I found it a bit tricky to adjust, though not impossibly so. Fortunately, since the rubber tubing on the heel allows the sandals to be slipped on and off, you only have to adjust the sandals one time. Once you get them adjusted how you want them, you never have to mess with the buckle again. (It is possible that the buckle would be easier to adjust with the softer laces). [EDIT: the guys at Bedrock have since addressed this issue with an optional "Quick Fit Lacing" system.  It looks like a real improvement, though it does add $10 to the price. More info here.]

Overall, I like the look of Bedrock sandals. They look normal enough to wear around town without getting any funny looks and the laces come in attractive colors. My one big complaint with the way Bedrocks look (and really my only big complaint with Bedrocks in general, which tells you how vain I am) is that the tail end of the laces sticks straight up. This was the case before and after I trimmed the end of the lace. I know it’s not just me because the lace even does this in Bedrock’s promotional pictures.

For casual wear the comfort level is decent but not superlative, meaning when I wear them around they don’t bother me but I don’t spend the whole time thinking about how comfortable my sandals are. When running, I like them a lot more. In fact, when I run the sandals tend to just disappear on my feet, which is exactly what you want them to do (and which isn't the case with a lot of huaraches with slip-on style laces). The laces feel fine between the toes and the rubber tubing is very comfortable against the heel. I never had trouble with anything rubbing.

The Earthquake V2 really surprised me by how well it performed. The laces really work quite well once you get them adjusted. Even on rugged trail they are very secure, surprisingly so for a slip-on design. This is the big advantage of the way the rubber tubing is integrated into the heel. Usually, when a sandal has an elastic section in the heel it can allow the foot to slide off the back of the sandal, especially when walking up steep terrain. The beauty of the Bedrock design is that since the nylon lace is unbroken the foot can only slide back a fraction of an inch before the nylon lace stops the foot and holds it in place.

The 6mm sole works well on both the road and trails. Traction is good on both, although I haven’t done any wet runs in them. Groundfeel is excellent. In fact, I wasn't sure about how the sole would handle trails at first since the sole allows you to feel every rock and piece of gravel you encounter (which I suppose makes sense considering the sandal was designed by a couple of geologists). However, after running an extraordinarily rocky 7 mile trail I have to say it has plenty of protection for most runs. I’m going to wear something thicker for my (very rocky) next trail ultra, but for just about anything else I would be confident choosing the Earthquake V2.

The Bedrock Earthquake V2 is a great running huarache and a lot of fun to run in. It works well for road and trail running and features the most secure slip-on laces I have tried. The main downside is simply that the 6mm sole doesn't offer as much rock protection as a sandal with a thicker sole, although in compensation you get much better groundfeel.

You can buy a pair on the Bedrock website

Sandal provided by the manufacturer


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The 7 Day Fruitarian Challenge

If you're wondering where the entree is, you may need to work on your diet

One of the many interesting parts of volunteering at the Javelina Jundred last month was seeing Michael Arnstein come across the finish line in 14:38, almost an hour ahead of course record-holder Hal Koerner (who had won the Hardrock 100 four months earlier), and then finding out that Arnstein runs 200+ miles per week on a strict fruitarian diet. I'd heard of fruitarianism before but had always assumed most of the adherents were hippies who considered cannabis a form of fruit and didn't get a lot of exercise. It never occurred to me that you could do serious training on just fruit, but then I went to Arstein's website and started reading about how he saw a marked improvement in his running performance, along with a wide variety of health benefits (short version: it makes the human body way less disgusting).

The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued. The diet actually makes sense from a couple of different perspectives. Large primates, the animals with the most gastrointestinal similarities to humans, eat mostly fruit.

According to the book of Genesis, fruit was the original human diet before things took a turn south (I like to think of fruitarianism as the "Garden of Eden Diet"). It's even strictly speaking a form of the paleo diet--if paleo is the hunter-gatherer diet, then fruitarianism is just the gatherer diet (and most real life hunter-gatherer tribes eat as much fruit as they can get their hands on). Plus, any diet that measures serving sizes in pounds has my attention.

So, Emily and have decided to try a fruitarian diet for a week and see what happens.

It's important to have a buddy to keep you from falling in

Confusingly, there are a number of different definitions of fruitarianism, many of which include small amounts of nuts, seeds, and vegetables (just as there are definitions of vegetarianism and veganism that include fish, eggs, dairy, or honey). There is the scientific definition (only food which is classified by biologists as fruit), the ethical definition (only foods that can be gathered without killing the plant), the paleo definition (foods that can be gathered without sophisticated tools or techniques), and so on. Since Arnstein was the one who got us thinking about this in the first place, we decided to eat like him for a week. That means getting 90 percent of our calories from fresh raw fruit (mostly apples and oranges since melon isn't in season) supplementing that with some raw, high water content vegetables (such as lettuce, tomatoes (really a fruit, I know), bell peppers and celery), and staying away from fat- and calorie-dense foods like nuts, seeds, and avocados.

I know, I was bummed too

So far we're about five hours in, and I can only describe the experience as "fruity". Will Emily and I survive? Will we emerge from the week with superhuman strength and stamina? Can you stand the suspense?

Apparently, yes


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

My First DNF - Pass Mountain 50k Report

My dream of becoming the world's fastest cross-legged pirate (shirtless division) was short-lived
Saturday the 10th was supposed to be my third 50k since Paatuwaqatsi in September. As you have probably figured out by now, things didn't quite go as planned. In retrospect, I guess I had set myself up to fail. Although I'd been enjoying my most extended period of injury-free running ever, my race schedule was probably a bit over-ambitious. My third 50k was going to be nine weeks after my first, and three weeks after my second, and I'd also been gradually reducing my tapers in order to prepare for a 50 miler in January. That by itself might have been okay, but I'd also started adding speedwork and hadn't been sleeping as much as I needed to. I was also just preoccupied by my book.

Whatever the exact cause, a week before the race I did a hard tempo session and tweaked my left Achilles tendon. It wasn't terrible--just a bit of tenderness to the touch--so I thought that if I just took it easy for a week I'd be okay for the race.

Long story short, I wasn't. It was a cold morning, so my legs were thoroughly chilled by the time the race started, which didn't help. By 4 miles in, my Achilles felt off, and by mile 8 I was starting to run weirdly because I was favoring my left leg. Things were definitely not going well but I didn't know what to do about it. It was a beautiful, fast course and under normal circumstances that sub-7 hour finish I'd had my heart set on should have been within reach. However, as it was I really didn't feel like running. I just wasn't having any fun. (I also forgot my hat, to add stupidity to injury.) In retrospect, I was probably overtrained. That would explain the malaise and the proneness to injury.

Around mile 10 I started thinking seriously about dropping. Although I wasn't enjoying the race, my inclination was to try to finish. I'm not a quitter--or more accurately, I'm someone who really likes to think of himself as not being a quitter. I was pretty sure I could still finish. My Achilles was uncomfortable but not excruciating and if I babied it there was a good chance it would last to the end. Then I would still on schedule for my 50 miler, and I wouldn't have to write a blog post about DNF'ing right after I'd written a post about all the progress I'd made in being healthier. I decided to stick it out.

I came into the mile 15 aid station planning to soldier on. I'd forgotten my hat at the start and it had been a while since the last aid, so I applied sunscreen and gorged myself on food. Refreshed and determined, I started off the second half of the race.

My Achilles was now twice as bad. Confound it. It was time for a more honest analysis. Reasons to quit: there was a chance I'd injure myself if I kept running; ever if I didn't injury myself, I'd probably slow my recovery from whatever this was; if I dropped I'd have a better chance of running my 50 miler and my next 50k in December. Reasons not to quit: I wouldn't feel like a quitter.

Okay, this put things in perspective a little bit more. It was basically my brain versus my pride (or possibly my brain's ability to rationalize versus my pride; it was hard to tell for sure). A half mile later I came to the fork where the 26k runners turned to go to the finish. I sucked up my pride and headed in.

Normally when I'm on the home stretch of a race I speed up but somehow I just couldn't force myself to do that this time. I kept plodding along at a conservative 50k pace, taking frequent walking breaks. I don't know if it was because I was mentally still in ultra mode, or if I was demoralized from DNF'ing, or if it was further evidence of being burnt out, but the end result was that I did a lot of walking while a stream of 26k runners (who had all started an hour after me) flew past on their way to the finish.

I briefly considered pretending to be the winning 50k runner but I'm not (that big of) a sociopath. I don't think I would have fooled anyone anyway. Based on the reception I got at the finish line I don't think anyone thought I looked like someone who could run a 3:30 50k. On the other hand there fortunately wasn't any of the outright booing I was subconsciously expecting. I went through the chute without making eye contact, picked up my finishers beer glass (I did finish the 26k, after all), and quietly took off my 50k bib so I could blend in with everyone else while I snacked.

So that was my first DNF. It obviously wasn't my proudest moment, but the real question at this point is whether it was the right decision. Looking back a week and a half later, I suppose I'd have to say yes (probably). There was definitely something wrong with my Achilles, and I'm still feeling burnt out and under-rested. I've never maintained consistent training for for more than a few months before, usually because of injury, and maybe my body needs a periodic break (or maybe the dark fall mornings are just making me lazy). I'm hoping that if I reduce my mileage for a few weeks I'll be able to come back stronger and healthier--and hopefully be able to finish the darn race next time.


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

My Book is Now Available in Print!

The print edition of my book is now available for purchase! "What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?" is the first and apparently only children's picture book about barefoot running. It stars a little bear who is eager to go run around outside but who unfortunately has some very human preconceptions about what he needs to wear on his feet. He peppers his bemused mother with a series of increasingly silly questions as she patiently tries to straighten him out.
The book is written in verse and vibrantly illustrated by the very young and very talented Laura Hollingsworth. I recommend it for children ages 2 to 105, or for anyone who remembers the simple childhood joys of bare feet, soft grass, and warm summer sunshine.

It's still available here in Kindle edition, but I have to say that the print version is the way to go. It's really beautiful, and I'm not just saying that because I'm incredibly partial to it and love it like my own child. It's really a great book. Go buy it now.
Here are a couple of snippets:

"But what about sneakers, should I wear some of those
While I'm running around so I don't stub my toes?"

"No, silly bear--listen to me, please:
To go run around you don't need galoshes or skis.

"You just need some feet and some fur in the breeze
And some grass and some sunlight, and maybe some trees.

"For a bear's foot should be barefoot; it's really the best way
For a bear to run around on a honey-sunny day."

Friday, November 9, 2012

My Book is Out!

The Kindle edition of my book is now available on Amazon! It's a children's picture book called "What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?" and it's about a little bear who is very confused about whether he needs to put on shoes before he can go run around outside and his patient mother who tries to straighten him out. Here are a couple of snippets:

"But what about sneakers, should I wear some of those
While I'm running around so I don't stub my toes?"

"No, silly bear--listen to me, please:
To go run around you don't need galoshes or skis.

"You just need some feet and some fur in the breeze
And some grass and some sunlight, and maybe some trees.

"For a bear's foot should be barefoot; it's really the best way
For a bear to run around on a honey-sunny day."

As partial as I am to my verse, it's really the illustrations (by Laura Hollingsworth, an amazingly talented art student) that are the best part. They are just wonderful.

As mentioned, the Kindle ebook is the only version currently available, but a print version is in the works and should be available in the next week or so, so stay tuned.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Unshoes Pah Tempe and Wokova Feather Review

In many ways, the state of the minimalist shoe market today is similar to that of the state the airplane industry around the turn of the 20th century. There are a lot of people trying a lot of different ideas--some great, some awful, some just strange--and it can be a lot of fun to watch.

Be honest--if your neighbor starting building one of these, you'd be egging him on and making popcorn
Adding to the variety is the fact that the people making the footwear are coming to the minimalist fold from various directions. Barefoot Ted (founder of Luna) is a distance runner, Steven Sashen (founder of Invisible Shoes) is a sprinter, and Terral Fox (founder of Unshoes) is an "outdoor adventure enthusiast" and a longtime wearer of sport sandals. It's really pretty fascinating to see the variety of designs that these people come up with, and how influenced they are by the backgrounds of the people designing them.

Unshoes is a small business with three employees located in southern Utah. As I mentioned, the owner and founder is Terral Fox, an avid hiker, backpacker and river rafter. Unlike many of us who came to huaraches as an alternative to heavy running shoes, Terral came to them as an alternative to sport sandals like Teva and Chaco. This explains why he shied away from traditional laces and started using nylon webbing instead (which Unshoes was the first to do).

Terral originally just made sandals for his own use, but started selling them on Etsy in May 2010 after his wife suggested it. Unshoes has been selling from its own website since April 2011. All of the sandals are custom-made by hand in Utah. The company also has hands (feet?) down my favorite barefoot-related logo.

Seriously, how cute is that?
Currently there are three adult models, the Wokova, the Wokova Feather, and the Pah Tempe (the sandals are named using Paiute words). Unshoes provided me with pairs of the latter two for this review.

The Wokova Feather in olive with a brown sole
The Wokova Feather is a lightweight version of their original model, the Wokova. The Wokova Feather uses a 5mm Vibram Newflex sole, weighs under 3 ounces and costs $45. (All Unshoes are custom-made from a foot tracing and this is included in the price.) It is designed for running, backpacking and casual wear. You have your choice of a black or brown sole and black, blue, olive or red webbing.

The Pah Tempe in tan and rust (lower right)
The Pah Tempe is designed to be more secure in water and steep terrain, and for people who don't like having a strap between their toes. It comes with two different soles, a 6mm Sport Utility or 10mm Newflex (which is what I chose). With the 10mm sole it weighs around 4 ounces and costs $62 ($60 with the 6mm sole). Again you have a choice of colors: brown or black for the sole, and tan, rust, black or olive for the straps.

The soles are the incredibly durable Vibram rubber familiar to most huarache aficionados, while the straps are made from extremely strong nylon webbing that any rock climber would immediately recognize. Both sandals use plastic buckles to adjust the straps. In addition, the Wokova Feather has an elastic loop attached to the straps so that once you get the sandal adjusted you can slip them on and off without readjusting. The Pah Tempe uses a single piece of webbing over the toes, instep and and front of the ankle with no elastic, which means that to get the sandal on I had to loosen the strap all the way to get my foot in and then adjust the tightness of the strap in each of those three areas. Not the end of the world, but definitely less convenient than the Wokova Feather.

The Unshoes workshop

Based on the materials used, there's the potential for these sandals to last a long time. Overall, the construction looks very solid. My initial concern was with the parts of the straps that touch the ground, since nylon webbing is strong but not known for being abrasion-resistant. Unshoes has planned for this by covering those parts with a protective hardening adhesive to reduce abrasion. Terral says that most pairs last a few years, depending on use.

The Wokova Feather gets high marks for aesthetics. It has the polished appearance of a sandal you'd buy in a store. In fact, it's one of the few minimalist shoes my wife actually likes me to wear.

In contrast, the Pah Tempe looks a bit rough, almost home-made. On the other hand, at least people won't say you look like a gladiator.

"Buy some Unshoes, you hippy!"
The Wokova Feather also gets high marks for comfort. In fact, as far as casual use goes, I'd say it's the most comfortable sandal I own. The tubular webbing is soft and the elastic means that you don't have to tighten them too much to get them to stay on.

The Pah Tempe is reasonably comfortable as well, though not in the same "ooh... aah..." sort of way. The webbing feels fine against the skin, although it covers an awful lot of it. If you wear sandals so you can feel the breeze on your feet, you may not be as happy with this sandal. My big complaint is that when I did an 18 mile trail run in them I ended up with huge blisters on the big and little toes of my right foot. That may just be me, but as far as distance running is concerned one inherent disadvantage of the Pah Tempe compared to a traditional huarache is that the Pah Tempe has material in contact with many parts of your foot that a huarache doesn't.

Performance: Running
I have to confess that my testing methodology is inherently slanted against Unshoes since they are designed for a wide variety of outdoor activities and I just used them for distance running. With that in mind, let's talk about how they handled it.

The Wokova Feather is obviously not intended for serious trail running. The 5mm sole just isn't very much protection and even small gravel is uncomfortable. The flip side of that is that the groundfeel is fantastic and rivals that of the Invisible Shoes Connect. The straps also aren't secure enough for technical running, or even hiking on especially uneven terrain. (This is true of most slip-on sandals and is one of the inherent limitations of using elastic in laces.) Fortunately, it handles road running much better. Here, the groundfeel is a plus and aids proprioception. The straps are sufficiently secure for normal road running. It's light weight and the ability to roll them up also make it one of the best options if you want to carry backup footwear on barefoot runs.

With the 10mm sole (which appears to the be exact material used in Luna's capable trail model, the Leadville), the Pah Tempe is twice as thick as the Wokova Feather and more than capable of handling virtually any surface for any distance. The level of protection is comparable to the Luna Leadville, Tanner Sandals Solution, or Merrell Trail Glove, my go-to choices for long distance trail running. The straps are also extremely secure; I ran 18 miles on very rocky, hilly terrain and never had to slow down because I was worried about my feet slipping. When I first got the sandals I wondered if my toes would slip off the end on steep downhills but this was never a problem.

One thing that is a problem is that the strap attaches to the outside front of the sole a significant distance from the edge. Not only does this mean there's wasted space on the sole, but when running I found that there was a tendency to push my foot slightly off the inside of the sole, exposing my arch to the ground. (The Wokova Feather does this too but only slightly, since its outside strap actually attaches to the edge of the sole.) This probably wouldn't have been a big deal except that one of my runs was on a trail with a lot of volcanic rock. Ouch.

Gap between point where strap attaches and edge of sole

The main problem with the Pah Tempe from a runner's perspective is that the front strap goes straight across the toes, which largely prevents them from splaying. This is especially annoying when you consider that one of the big advantages of huaraches is that they usually allow completely unfettered toe movement. It's possible to loosen the front strap to give them more room but this allows the front of the sandal to flop around, so it isn't a real solution.

Strap across toes

On the other hand, the Pah Tempe has some real advantages over traditional huaraches. For one thing, there's no lace between the toes which should really appeal to some people. Another plus is that not only can you wear socks, you can wear any pair of socks you want. On several cold morning runs I wore thick wool hiking socks, which were a huge improvement over thin Injinjis.

Performance: Non-Running
This isn't a normal category for my reviews but the focus of Unshoes is different enough that it seemed warranted. Unshoes, especially the Pah Tempe, are extremely well-suited to a much wider variety of of outdoor activities than are traditional huaraches. If you do a lot of hiking the Pah Tempe may be your best option on the minimalist market today. The straps are extremely secure in every direction (which is not true of huaraches) so they will work well for hiking and backpacking over any terrain.

The Wokova Feather is not as secure and I wouldn't want to do a lot of hiking or scrambling on uneven surfaces. However, it should work fine for easier trails. One of its suggested uses (which it would be perfect for) is as a second pair of footwear to bring when backpacking, where its light weight, comfort, and packability would really shine.

Unshoes are an interesting and creative addition to the minimalist sandal market that fills a number of holes left by traditional huaraches. Although I don't like them as much as my favorite huaraches for long distance running, depending on what you are going to be doing they may be the best choice for you. The Wokova Feather is one of the best sandals on the market in terms of groundfeel, light weight, and comfort. The Pah Tempe for its part has several advantages: no strap between the toes, the ability to be worn with any sock of your choosing, and the fact that it's one of the few minimalist competitors to Teva or Chaco in the all-purpose sport sandal field.

You can purchase Unshoes on their website.

Sandals provided by the manufacturer


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

My 6 Biggest Breakthroughs as a Runner

rocky movie running training

My journey from couch potato to ultrarunner has taken quite a few wrong turns and detours over the years. The success I've had has very little to do with hard work or determination, and a lot more to do with a few good ideas that I've had the good fortune to stumble across. Here are six of those ideas and the breakthroughs that resulted, in roughly the order that I found them.

abebe bikila barefoot running marathon
1) Ditching bulky shoes
This was a turning point for me. I enjoyed running before, but there was always something that seemed off--I just wasn't moving naturally or joyfully. Once I got out of bulky shoes into something that let my feet function the way they were supposed to, something clicked. It didn't solve all of my problems right away but it did make running joyful again, and taught me to move in a way that felt good, natural, and just right.

roadrunner cartoon running
2) Increasing my cadence
For me, this came naturally along with #1. I'm listing it separately because for many people it doesn't come naturally--even for many people who run barefoot or in minimalist shoes--and because it's probably the single biggest key to good running form. No matter what you're wearing, it's hard not to run gently if your cadence is high enough, and it's hard not to run like an elephant if your cadence is too slow.

3) Building gradually
Man, was this a hard pill to swallow. Even more than most people, I have a hard time easing into things patiently. The most embarrassing part is how many different times I've had to learn this same lesson, because I kept repeating the same mistake in different contexts. Distance--the time I went out and ran 10 miles even though my longest runs at the time were 3 miles. Speedwork--the time I decided to add speedwork and did three sessions in the first week, including two sessions of uphill sprints at 100 percent effort. Crosstraining--the time I decided to try HIIT and did multiple session per week on top of peak mileage. The end result each of these times was that I got injured, which meant that I had to let things heal and then start building up all over again.

stupid people weight training cross-training advice
4) Crosstraining intelligently
It takes a certain base fitness to be able to run long distances. If you're an out of shape couch potato (like I was am) then you can't just go out and run a bunch and expect everything to go smoothly. When I first started running I had a bunch of extra weight and exactly zero muscle strength. As I increased my mileage, some muscles grew stronger (my calves) while other muscles remained weak (my quads). The result was a bad case of runner's knee. Once I learned to strengthen the right muscles, the problem went away. The broader lesson I learned am learning is that the more balanced an athlete you are (which is to say, the fewer weak areas your body has) the less chance there is that your body will break down on you.

My first mistake, then, was not crosstraining at all. My later mistakes have included crosstraining too much (high mileage on tired legs is a dangerous combination), with too much intensity (be careful with tabatas and the amount of weight you use), and jumping into new activities too fast (#3 applies here as well).

5) Not running on consecutive days
Aside from #1, this has been by far the biggest and most surprising breakthrough for me. (I wrote about it in more detail here). I'm naturally injury-prone and until recently had never made it to the start of a goal race without being sidelined for several weeks or months during training. Since switching to a running schedule where I run every other day, I've run my first two ultras without injury and have even been able to finally start real speed training.

The principle behind this is that your body grows stronger by stress and recovery. By having recovery days between each run I've been able to run harder with less wear and tear on my body. I'm making faster progress and my body doesn't feel beat down like it used to, even though I'm running the same weekly mileage. Some people can get away with running every day, but if you (like me) are injury-prone, I can't stress enough how life-changing this can be. Everyone should try it.

6) Realizing that training smarter is more important than training harder
When it comes to running, or really exercise in general, I have two natural inclinations. One is to sit on the couch and eat Chinese food. The other is to go try Emil Zatopek's 100x400m track workout. Neither one would result in me becoming a better runner--the first for obvious reasons, the second because I would immediately get injured and be confined to the couch eating Chinese food again. The reality is that thoughtless zeal and pride can have a worse effect on your training than laziness. After all, if you spend a day watching TV and eating Chinese food, you can always go run the next day, but if you do tons of wind sprints and injure yourself, you might not be able to run for weeks.

Everyone knows that achieving your goals as a runner takes discipline, but what it's taken me a long time to learn is that that discipline takes many different forms. Sometimes it means gutting it out through the last few miles of a long run when all you want is to quit, but sometimes it means calling it a day when you're on the verge of injury. Sometimes it means skipping a run (or doing an easier run) when you feel like running and running instead on a day when you'd rather stay home. Sometimes it means reducing mileage and intensity for a week because your body needs it, even though that's going to screw up the running schedule you had planned. You have to know your body, and then make smart decisions based on what you know. Personally, I know that I'll improve a lot more training at 80% effort day after day (which can be a drag) than I will training at 100% effort and getting injured after a week.

I thought about titling this section "not being an idiot" (or maybe, "being less of an idiot). I've made a lot of bone-headed decisions over the years, and many of them came down to pride. I was proud of my x-mile week, or my x-day running streak, or I didn't want to feel like I was wimping out. But the fact is, it takes more discipline to train with your head than with your heart, but it gives much better results.

So that's my list. What do you think? How do your experiences compare?


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Cave Creek Thriller 50k Report

After my first 50k, very little time passed before I was itching to give ultras another try. And since I have no concept of moderation, signing up for Aravaipa's 7 race ultra series (starting 6 weeks after Paatuwaqatsi) seemed like a good decision.

After crashing at Paatuwaqatsi, I was determined not to repeat the same mistakes the second time around. My biggest goal was to improve my pacing. I had gone out way too fast last time and had paid the price. My goal this time was to keep my average pace around 12 minutes per mile from the start and keep it there as long as possible. I even had a mantra that I repeated to myself the whole race: "Slow and steady doesn't barf."

Words to live by
Emily and I drove up the night before and got a campsite about a half mile away from the race start. This way we could get up at a reasonable hour, pack up our campsite and not have to rush to get to the 7am start.

The next morning we got up and packed everything up. By 6:30 we were ready to go. We were running a little behind schedule but it wasn't a big deal because it was a short drive to the start. We got in the car and I turned the key. Nothing. Son of a hamster... Now it was time to panic. We threw our stuff in a bag and started speedwalking. I really didn't want to run anymore than I needed to today and at a 20 min pace we should have been able to cover half a mile in 10 minutes. However, by 6:50 we were still a good ways off. Okay, time to start running. I left Emily (who was still in pajamas and flip flops--the plan had been for her to just drop me off at the start) and ran the rest of the way. 

I reached the start just a few minutes before 7:00. I picked up my bib, pinned it on, filled my bottle, dropped off my drop bag, and lined up at the starting line about 45 seconds before the gun. 

I had just enough time to adjust my sandals and pet Guadajuko, whom I had never met before. Like many celebrities, he looks taller in the pictures.

I'm proud to say, I stuck to my plan and started at the back of the pack with Maria, who apparently had the same idea. Guadajuko, who had just found out that he was in a race, had a different idea and stopped to take care of some pre-race business.

The first 15 or 20 miles went by without incident. I was staying true to my plan, which so far was working well. The problem was that it was getting hot. Really hot. The temperature hit into the low 90s, and parts of the course were these rocky valleys which blocked any wind and kept the heat in like an oven. It finally reached a point where I was forced to walk, not because I didn't have the energy to run but just because that was the only way to keep my body temperature down.

It wasn't until I got to the next aid station (around mile 22-23) that I finally started dealing with the heat in anything like an intelligent way. I asked for ice water. I put ice in my hat (which it turns out is incredibly unpleasant). I decided to pick up my extra bottle from the drop bag next time I passed it so I would have extra ice water to squirt on myself. Slowly, this started to help and I was able to run more.

The one big downside of keeping to my pace was that I was running by myself virtually the entire race. That was a big switch from Paatuwaqatsi, where one of the highlights was chatting with people I met along the way. Emily was running the 10k which was run on part of the 50k course and started later in the morning. I was hoping to get to run with her but apparently missed her by about 5 minutes. I finally got to see her when I finished my second lap, which was around mile 25. Unfortunately, I came through the finish line along with several runners who were finishing their final lap. Emily, optimistic as ever, was there at the finish line enthusiastically cheering me on as I finished what she thought was the end of my race at two hours under my previous PR.

I got my second bottle and started off on the last 10k. Somehow, this loop took me something like two hours to finish. As the day wore on it got even hotter, which took a lot out of me. Plus, by around mile 28 I was just exhausted. I'd pretty much stopped eating 5-10 miles earlier due to the heat and completely ran out of energy. For the past year I've been drinking water and eating solid food in training and it never occurred to me to switch to liquid calories. In retrospect, some ice cold gatorade might have been a good solution. File that away under lessons learned.

Finally, I crossed the (real) finish line in 7:39, 21 minutes slower than my first 50k. This put me in 22nd place out of 25, which is pretty close to dead last. Oh well. (Emily for her part finished in a respectable 35th place out of 97 in the 10k.) In my defense, the course was a bit long. The website lists it as 31.7 miles, although my Garmin read 32.5 at the end, not counting my run to the start. (I actually finished the first 31 miles in something under 7:18, for what it's worth.) One of the low points in the race was when an aid station volunteer shouted "only 3 and a half miles to go!" in an effort to encourage me; my Garmin read 29 miles and I just had been in the process of psyching myself up for the last two miles. At any rate, I had just enough energy to run the last 20 feet for the camera.

So what did I learn this time around? Let's start with the things I did right.

What I did right:
1) Pacing. I started out in the back and stuck to a reasonable pace. Although I eventually still crashed, it happened almost 20 miles later than it did the first time.

2) Footwear. I wore huaraches again and did not regret it. Specifically, I wore Tanner Sandals' The Solution, which I needed to get some miles in for my review. With my modification to the heel strap, they really did well. I didn't get any blisters and my feet, while a bit sore by the end, were still in better shape than most of my body. It was also encouraging to hear the folks in Hokas say things like "You're tougher 'n heck!"

3) Wore a dang shirt and hat. Maybe it's part of my secret desire to be Tony Krupicka when I grow up, but last time I really thought I could pull off the shirtless hatless look. Apparently not. I wore both for most of the race and didn't get quite as charred this time around.

What I did wrong:
1) Heat management. After training at altitude all summer I was unprepared for the heat and didn't have a decent strategy for it. I finally figured out a few things that worked but by then my race had already suffered a lot. Next time I'm going to start out with two bottles with ice in them and ice in my hat and keep replenishing at every aid station.

2) Nutrition. Specifically, I didn't modify my nutrition strategy for the heat. Switching from solid food to Gatorade with ice might have allowed me to get down more calories late in the race and kept me from crashing when I did. My plan next time is to eat solid food as long as I can and then switch to sports drink.

So that's ultra number two down. Now it's time to get ready for number three (Pass Mountain) in nine days (3 weeks after Cave Creek).