Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hooky Run

Back in March this training run was put on the calendar as a great final "push" before tapering for Massanutten. The last couple of months I have been running in the afternoons but wanted to dedicate a full day to this run so I decided to take a Friday off - hence the "hooky run". A running buddy of mine had to bail out at the last minute so I went up knowing that I would be running most of the day solo. I run alone in many races so this was no big deal.

I had been corresponding with Adam Hill who lives in the area I was running and puts on several tough organized training runs throughout the year. Basically I told Adam what I wanted to do in terms of distance, elevation gain and time on my feet and he "designed" an appropriate route for me. I have emailed with him several times over the last year but had never actually met him before. So, off I went to the Kitsuma trail head (about 1:45 from Charlotte) on Friday morning to meet up with Adam and his friend Paul. They both would run some of the early portions of the run with me. We met up around 7:00 AM and after discussing the map/route a bit, we were off. The planned route went on the Kitsuma Trail over Kitsuma peak and down to the picnic area. It then followed asphalt for about 3 miles past Andrews Geyser and up across the train tracks to the Heartbreak Ridge trail (name much deserved). Heartbreak Ridge spilled onto the Toll Road that you take out of Montreat up towards Mt. Mitchell. At that point, you could go right and head towards to Blue Ridge Parkway ("BRP") on the way to the Mitchell summit or go left and head down the Toll Road into Ridgecrest or Montreat and back to Kitsuma. If I followed the route I could get between 30 and 40 miles in. I hoped to get at least 5,500 feet of climb and about 7 to 8 hours on my feet. I planned to take a fairly easy pace hopefully simulating the late stages of a 100 mile race.

The Kitsuma trail is a great stretch of trail that very quickly climbs up over the Kitsuma peak and then blasts its way down into the valley. We ran along and Adam pointed out several wildflowers. We all remarked how "early" they seemed to be out this year. Adam and Paul are much faster runners than I am and I explained that I was purposefully taking it slow and they were fine with that. We had a great time talking and just enjoying the trail. About 3 miles in, Adam had to bid us farewell and after thanking him for all of his help, Paul and I continued on. In the event of any difficulty, Adam gave me his cell phone number (remember this for later). Paul and I made our way to the picnic area where I used the restroom and we headed up the asphalt road. Although it was road, this section was very peaceful as several folks said hello to us and we did not come upon a single car inn the 3 mile jaunt. Paul pointed out a cabin he and his family have rented during trout fishing trips. The cabin had a pretty cool history as it was built by a "train baron" who placed it such that he could see the trains traversing the mountains and ridge lines around him. Before long, we made our way up the steep trail and got on Heartbreak Ridge.

We climbed several (I think eight or nine) switchbacks up the trail taking notice of many fallen trees. We both remarked how it would be an amazing sight to see and hear such large trees come crashing down. I could tell I was holding Paul back so I eventually advised him to go on and enjoy his run as I was going to be taking it easy for a good while. With that, he was off but I would see him again. I absolutely loved the Heartbreak Ridge section as the trail was challenging and the views were absolutely spectacular. There were many occasions where I was unable to pass up stopping and taking in the unadulterated beauty around me. I placed a call to my buddy who was at the office to "rub it in" a bit but kept on moving. I felt great and was eating about 2 gels and 3 shot blocks every hour. I had plenty of water but knew it would be a little tight getting to the first water source. I noticed lots of dogwoods and mountain laurel along the trail and it was gorgeous! I was careful to follow the yellow blazes and took note of the landmarks Adam advised me of in his excellent directions. Before long, I arrived at the Toll Road and noticed the campers and bear cabin on my right as I intersected with the road. I decided to turn right and do an out and back up to the BRP but would not go to the Mitchell summit. I figured I would have an opportunity to "add on" mileage if I wanted to down lower on the Toll Road (boy was I right). I was amazed how peaceful it was as the silence was broken by the occasional car as I approached the BRP. I made my way back down the Toll Road and before long was right back at the Heartbreak Ridge intersection. I reviewed the map once more and then headed on my way.

For those that have not run on the Toll Road, it is a very rocky and technical stretch of "road". Actually, it is very MMT-esque in certain spots (especially higher up). It is all runnable but you really have to watch your footing in several stretches. Fortunately, it was fairly dry so the rocks were not slick. I can imagine how difficult it would be during the Mitchell Challenge in February when it is coated in ice. Eventually I came to a fork - on the left, a white gate and on the right the road appeared to circle around. I took the left and went around the gate. Now the real "fun" would begin as I was about to get 6 or 7 bonus miles and about 2,200 feet of bonus elevation gain. Not to mention a nice lesson in rationing water...

This section was very steep and mostly downhill. It was great technical running and I was having a lot of fun. The trail was totally exposed but offered incredible panoramic views to the east and south. I continued my way down but did find it curious that some of the landmarks weren't showing up. I rationalized that I unknowingly missed them since I had not run this section before. After about an hour or so, the trail leveled out and presented me with another fork. To the left it went steeply up through private land while to the right, the trail went down into the woods (although I did see old ribbons on the trail). Straight ahead was a rolling "double track" section. I went straight but after about a mile, the trail ended at a waterfall. I was certain Adam would have mentioned a waterfall so I headed back to the fork and took the "right" fork and followed the old ribbons. Eventually the trail turned into a deer path and soon I was in knee deep leaves when the trail just stopped. Uh oh! I called Adam and left a message and then called Mason at work since I knew he has run this route several times before. Mason's immediate reply was: "I have always wondered where the trail behind that white gate went"... My mistake was all the way back at the white gate on the Toll Road. Ugggh! I passed the gate about an hour ago and had about 5 ounces of water left...

I got right to work and climbed and climbed and climbed and then, climbed some more. The sun was beating down on the exposed trail and I noticed a dark cloud forming. Fortunately, the cloud didn't materialize but my cell phone did start acting weird. I couldn't get the screen to work and it would only answer on speakerphone. Oh well, onward and upward - literally. I admit I was a little scared due to the water situation. I have never been "off course" or gotten lost before so I suppose I was due. I started thinking of contingencies but soon I saw the white gate. Wow, I made pretty good time on the arduous climb back up. Might as well have been the pearly gates to heaven because I was psyched to see it. Now I know where I was and this gave me some unexpected rejuvenation. Another call to Mason and I learned that water was not far away. Adam returned my call and made sure I was back on track. I told him that given the bonus miles, I might bail out at Montreat but would decide later. Soon I was at "Earl's Cabin" and filled up my bottle, hydration pack and doused my head in the cold clear mountain water. It felt great.

I started running and really cranking out a good pace. I looked at my watch and it said I had already been 29 miles and climbed 7,300 feet! Wow! Soon I saw the green bear cabin and decided to call Adam and get directions on how to bail early. At Sourwallow Gap I headed into Montreat and met Adam and Paul. My watch showed a final distance of about 33 miles and I had been going for about 7 hours. I still had tons of energy but it was smart to cut it short.

Adam and Paul had all kinds of snacks for me including a Clif bar, cookies, trail mix, sports drink and even a beer. I devoured the Clif bar, cookies and most of the trail mix. I also drank most of the sports drink but passed on the brew. I had only met these guys this morning but they treated me like a lifelong friend. We talked about my run some and then headed to Paul's house so he could take me to get my car. He offered me more food and a shower if I wanted to clean up. I decide to just go to the car and head home but was very appreciative of his hospitality. Before Adam left he told me I had a "gift" at my car. When Paul and I arrived, Adam had left me a really cool pint glass on my hood. What a great gesture. After thanking Paul, I made my way back to Charlotte.

This was a fantastic training run and an incredible set of trails I got to run on (even the bonus section which I have dubbed the "Bedrock Spur"). I got a huge boost of confidence going into MMT with this run (and the Crowders Run the weekend before). I got another rugged run in the Streaks (they worked great), got to test out some more race day gear and discovered some wonderful trails to train on. I even got a "finisher's award" - the pint glass :-) Most importantly though, I made two new good friends in Adam and Paul. These guys are two of the most genuine and "real" people I have met who just love being out in the woods pushing the limits. After all, isn't that what the "it" in trail running is all about? Running with friends in the woods and enjoying the nature around us.

Now I am officially tapering for Massanutten and feel really great going into the race. Stay tuned for a few more posts about my preparation and of course a race preview in a couple of weeks. Peace to all.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Crowders Mountain Training Run

I had one of my best training runs ever today at Crowders Mountain State Park. With Massanutten looming in just four weeks, I only have a few opportunities to get good quality long efforts in before my taper. Mason and I have a great day planned for next week up in and around the Black Mountain/Mount Mitchell area. Our friend Adam Hill is planning a route for us that I am sure will be phenomenal. I wanted to get a really solid workout on some technical trails with some good elevation change. My plan was to use today's run and next weeks run as "test runs" for MMT. Today I tested out the Montrail Streaks, which are what I plan to use at MMT. I will give a full review in a separate post but suffice it to say, I really like these shoes. I also tested out a new waist belt from Nathan that worked like a charm. All in all, today's run was fantastic. Over the course of about 5 hours, I got 28ish miles in and close to 6,000 feet of elevation gain. Crowders has several options for loops and I combined several sections to create the hilliest run I could. Some keys about this run:

  • Nutrition worked great, ate a GU every 45 minutes and some shot blocks on the hour (I also ate two peanut butter sandwiches and drank a 20oz. Gatorade on the way).
  • Hydration - drank GU2O for the first 2 hours and then switched over to water
  • Had no ankle or foot issues throughout the entire run
  • Finally think I have managed to get 100% comfortable "picking lines" to run on technical terrain rather than trying to "hop" from rock to rock in a timid fashion. I am certain that running with confidence and committing 100% to the "line" played a big role in my not only not rolling the ankle but also staying upright all day.
  • The weather was a hodge podge, warm at first and then windy and cool as the showers moved in during the last 2 hours of the run.
  • I had a ton of FUN today working the hills and running in the rain. What a blast!
I have really noticed that my climbing has gotten A LOT better. There is a ~2 mile climb that used to take me about 40 minutes (when training for GEER back in the fall) that I did today in 30 minutes! I also came back down about 3 or 4 minutes faster for a round trip improvement of almost 15 minutes. This is a big boost for me going into MMT. I was so jacked after the run that I started calling folks to tell them about it, which is something I rarely do. Hopefully next week will go as well as today did. I will write more about the Streaks in the next couple of days.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Alexander Supertramp

I saw the movie Into The Wild this past weekend and thought it was a great story. I started reading the book a couple of years ago but got sidetracked and never finished it. Alexander Supertramp is the name moniker adopted by Chris McCandless during his journey across America and to the Alaskan wilderness. The story certainly has adventure at its heart but it also unmasks many of the pitfalls in our society today including the obsession of most folks with materialism, status and bank account balances. One of the best lines in the movie is when Alex notes how amazed he is at just how bad people generally treat each other every day. Think about it. How often do you get angry over such minuscule details such as someone driving too slow, talking too loud or looking too different? I now I do far too often.

My rant does have some running content. As I watched the movie I was reminded of several parallels with ultra running and trail running in particular. See, I admittedly used to be obsessed with materialism and even owned a Rolex at one point (I know, ludicrous). Discovering trail running (through ultras) in 2006 introduced me to a purer form of myself. Over the last two years, I have developed much more appreciation for the "simpler" things in life such as my family and frolics through the woods testing my endurance. Tony Krupicka is often noted for his "minimalist" approach to life and how running through the woods exposes his own "primal existence". I can certainly identify with that, at least on some level.

Anyway, my training is going very well as I have about two more solid weeks before tapering for Massanutten. I feel very good both physically and mentally and am starting to get details such as crew and pacers all worked out. A couple of epic training runs await including a beast of a day next week with Mason. Details/report to follow afterwards. Definitely check out Into The Wild either in print or on the screen and see if you can unleash your own Alexander Supertramp from within.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I drove up to the Umstead 100 this weekend to volunteer as a pacer. This is the first time I have done pacing duty and ended up running with my friend John Straub. I really liked the whole pacing thing - helping someone finish their race, previewing a race course, etc. What I found I enjoyed the most was the camaraderie with the runner and learning things that will help my own race efforts.

John ran a great race. When I arrived, I soon found that he was on loop 6 (75 miles) rather than loop 5 (62.5 miles) as expected. We got right to work once he was ready and I would run with him for both of his final two loops. He said he felt okay but that his stomach was not cooperating - gels were intolerable so he was relying on Boost, PBJ and shot blocks. As this was a loop course he had several landmarks that he was using to mix up the run/walk combination. A very good idea and one that can be applied in point-to-point races as well. We kept the pace up and I did my best to push him as much as I could and it seemed like we were passing someone every 10 minutes or so. We checked into the aid station and after a quick stop headed out to the "sawtooth" section of undulating ups and downs. We power walked the uphills and bombed the downhills. Soon we were at the turnoff and a bit later back at the start/finish. John took some Tylenol and I grabbed some more gel and changed out of my long sleeve shirt.

We walked the first mile to let John recover some and then began to pick up the pace. John did not know it, but when we left on loop 7 he was in 20th place and we passed a lot of people on the last loop. Many of these were folks a lap or two behind us but I was sure he had picked up several spots. More importantly, he wanted to break 23 hours and it was only 12:00AM so I knew his goal would be met. I did not share any of this with him until much later and focused on pushing him to keep going. Even when we walked, it was at a good clip and when running, I could tell he was really giving it his all. Before long, we were back at the aid station and I decided to carry his drop bag with me so he wouldn't have to worry about waiting around for it.

Shortly after leaving, John "lost" all the calories he had just ingested but with less than 5 miles to go we were not worried. I adopted a "nobody gets by" approach at this point, John just didn't know it yet. I would really push the walk up the hills and John was right there. I would hammer the downhills and he was right there. We topped off at the last water stop and about 1.5 miles from the finish my watch read 2:22 AM so I spilled the beans:

Me: "John, what was your time goal again?
John: "Sub-23 hours.:
Me: "Do you think you can run 1.5 miles in 38 minutes?"
John: "Um, yeah, why do you ask?"
Me: "Cool, because that is what you need to break 21 hours!"

John was siked and I was glad I didn't say anything until now. We declared that the new goal was 20:45 and took off. We passed Jaret and got to the turnoff an my watch read 2:32, so the goal was again changed. I told John to GO! and he did in an effort to get in at 20:40. His final time was 20:40:56. Upon finishing, I strolled over to the leader board.

Me: "Um, John you are top 10 overall."
John: "No way."

It WAS true, John was 8th male and 10th overall. What a great race for him and a great experience for me. While I take no credit for John's result, I do think my presence helped keep him focused and made time go by more quickly. I think there are some key things every pacer should do when jumping in to run.

-Asses the "status" of your runner - hydration, stomach, fatigue, etc.
-Be assertive but remember "who" is boss - the runner.
-Subtly find ways to push them and keep them motivated and encouraged.
-Ask often about electrolytes, pain, feet, etc. as they are likely to forget things late in the race.
-During rough patches, let them recover but keep them focused on hydration/calories.
-Be prepared to run in silence or to talk your head off - whatever the runner prefers.
-Have fun and stay in good spirits yourself.

Not exhaustive but this also would serve anyone well to do this in your own races. I look forward to hopefully pacing more in the future.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

LaSportiva Raceblades Review

There has been a good bit of press recently on LaSportiva. They have really stepped up with sponsorship for a number of well known ultra veterans including Karl Meltzer, Mark Tanaka and Emily Baer. They have sponosored a mountian running team for several years and have had several notable athletes excel at many distances on trails. Their shoes have gotten a lot of press over the last couple of years as the "minimalist" approach to shoes has caught on. I tried some Inov-8 shoes last year and really liked the flexibility but the shoes were just a bit too narrow for me. I also am a big guy at 6'2" and 183 lbs so I have to be a little careful not to use "too little" shoe. With all of that qualification, here are my thoughts on the Raceblade.

I really like the whole set-up of this shoe. It has a very flexible sole and a real "grippy" outsole. I also like the extra protection around the toebox and the general lower profile of the shoe. Even the "Ferrari-esque" color scheme is tolerable. Perhaps my favorite feature is the connected tongue of the shoe. The shoe goes on kind of like a wetsuit booty and fits nice and snug around your foot. Although I haven't run on dusty trails with them, I expect that this will help to keep small rocks and dust out. I tested the shoes a couple of weeks ago while down in Georgia with my family during my kids spring break. I ran some fun trails in and around the Okefenokee Swamp Recreation area. They were flat as a pancake but with a lot of rain in the days before, they were muddy and slick in several spots. I managed to put about 40 miles on the shoes over 4 days and had no issues with them at all. I even ran about 4 miles on asphalt with them and they worked great. The shoes drained very well and did not give me any blisters. The question remaining was how will they work on technical trails and should I use them in a 100 miler?

I ran the Bel Monte 50 Mile in these shoes and the course was a beast (as my previous post says). Lots of rocky trails and a good number of water crossings. I had no issues whatsoever in the shoes including no blister or toenail problems. I did turn my ankle several times but blame my lack of recent rocky trail running for that and not the shoes. Again, the shoes drained very well after several ankle deep water crossings. In short, I really like these shoes a lot and think they are an excellent choice for me. However, I only expect to wear them during the first half of Massanutten. These shoes would be great for someone who is very good at picking lines through very technical terrain, which I am not. I tend to just hop from rock to rock in the really gnarly sections and think a more substantive shoes (i.e., Montrail Vitesse or Vasque Mercury) is more appropriate for this. Particularly in the later stages of Massanuteen when I am fatigued and the rocks grow in size. For me, this shoe is ideal for up to 50 miles or perhaps a 100K distance or a 100 on gentler terrain than MMT. I have not tried the Fireblade but Karl Meltzer seemed to really dig it during the Coyote Two Moon.

I may try the Fireblade later in the season and if so, will post a review. With MMT only a month and a half away, I am hesitant to try something new at this point. LaSportiva shoes are definitely worth checking out.