Monday, 30 April 2012

Why Run A Road Half In Training For A Trail Ultra?

Running hard in a half marathon in 2009

I got back from a trip to Eugene, Oregon this weekend for the half marathon there as part of my Western States build up. So, apart from the fact that I enjoy road racing and that Eugene is Track Town USA (with the US Olympic Trials occurring around WS time), why is that a good training run for a mountainous trail ultra?

One thing that I have found over time is that the more I just run trails, the more I tend to slow down. Yes, the ability to climb and descend gets better, but the pace on easier trails goes down. And WS, like most trail ultras, has a lot of faster running in there as well as some climbs to slow things down a bit.

Apart from downhill, most people are unlikely to hit their half marathon road speed in a trail ultra, but by working on the uncomfortable pace close to your lactate threshold (as a half marathon does), you force your body to adapt and be able to sustain a higher pace when on long runs. Your lactate threshold is basically the exercise intensity where lactic acid starts to accumulate in the blood, when lactate is produced faster than it can be removed. Effectively, this causes a runner to slow down so the higher this boundary can be pushed, the higher his or her sustainable pace becomes.

If you can make 6-minute/miles feel easier (or 7s, 9s, 11s etc) at the high end then it really helps to make cruising speed more efficient too in a really long run.

So why is a half marathon particularly good for this type of training? There are two main reasons I'd suggest for this:

1. Half marathon pace is fast enough to get close to your lactate threshold and push that boundary out so you can run faster, plus it is a long enough race that you have to push hard for a sustained period.

2. It's short enough that it doesn't take too long to recover from for a regular runner, certainly less time than a marathon.

Admittedly, guys with incredibly fast sub 2:20 marathon times haven't generally done as well in 100 milers as their speed would suggest. But it's the combination of the flat out speed and trail fitness that counts. Put a Kenyan Olympian on a mountainous 100-miler without specific training and they'd obviously not be bad, but they wouldn't automatically be the best unless they trained well for and adapted extremely well to the specifics of a mountain ultra (the same applies in the other direction but is more obvious to people and has been more tried and tested).

Speed training can be done on trails and hill work is similar in many ways, but if you like roads then they can really help as part of trail ultra training.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Kit Choices For 100 Milers

Which shoes to choose?

The one rule that every ultrarunner learns to stick to, often after a bad and long day on the trails, is to not try anything new on race day. So Western States is exactly two months away today and I realized I needed to make sure everything I want to use there gets well tested and worn in. It also brings home that I only have 61 days left to get in the best shape possible, which seems like hardly anything.

So it's time to try out all those flavors of Clif gels I haven't tried yet (just in case they work better or worse), to wear in the shiny new shoes that I've been saving for the race and to make sure I have everything I think I'll need (anyone got a spare pair of Kilian legs?). It may seem a long time in advance to do this, but this way it's possible to have complete confidence in all the gear I'll take with me.

Made me think there's probably a few other people (approximately 400) who are starting to realize that WS is just around the corner, especially after a scorching weekend all along the west coast. And all those who have other summer target races - they're all very close now so don't leave things to the last minute.

And the obvious way to prepare for those summer mountain run the Eugene Half Marathon on Sunday. Because when Track Town USA is a short drive away it's a waste not to.

Friday, 13 April 2012

How Many Ultras Can You RACE Per Year?

It's over three months into the year and there have already been several very high quality competitions at races this year in the US, before the main season gets going. The Way Too Cool and Chuckanut 50ks had great fields, Lake Sonoma 50 miler is this weekend with a large contingent of top talent. And the coming months will have so many more races that just get more exciting (for me, anyway) every year as they get more and more competitive.

So this leads me to feeling like I'm missing out when I can't get to all the events I want to be at. I didn't get to any of the races mentioned above, although I have had some fun races in the past month and am not complaining about those. In the past I just entered races virtually every weekend, but the more I race ultras, the less feasible this becomes, especially having moved to 100ks and 100 milers. Mike Wardian seems to be the only person who doesn't get worn down if he does a huge number of marathons and ultras and I always used to run 30+ per year, but over the past year I felt like I was doing too much.

It's a tough decision to have to miss so many events and it's obviously not possible to run everything, even at an easier pace, especially given travel and timetable clashes. But if you're as addicted to racing and running as I am then missing out on some fun races just can't be helped. At least there's the option of volunteering or crewing to still be part of events without having to wear yourself down.

So have fun at Sonoma 50 this weekend, you lucky bastards! But I'll be sweeping the Peterson Ridge Rumble 40 mile course down the road in Sisters, OR. So life could definitely be worse.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Drug Testing for Ultrarunners (or Any Athlete) - Some Thoughts

In the latest episode of Talk Ultra we interviewed Ellie Greenwood and one of the things we mention is her recent random drugs' test (she also wrote about it here). Instead of clogging up that interview with my own thoughts on this, I thought I'd put them out briefly in my blog. These are likely to be very controversial and I don't in any way advocate cheating of any sort. The rules currently state what substances are banned so that's what we should stick to - I would never dream of going against the rules and never have.

The current anti-doping rules

In general, professional athletes who are subject to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules need to provide a one hour slot every day where they tell the anti-doping authorities where they can be found. Every single day of their competitive lives! And if you refuse or miss several tests you end up with severe penalties.

Yet for ultrarunners hardly anyone is subject to this very intrusive testing - basically just the podiums of the road ultra World Championships and those who are at the front of a handful of other ultras (as far as I'm aware it doesn't extend much past the top 12 men and women at Two Oceans and Comrades, both of which have significant prize money). I was tested a couple of years ago at Comrades, despite being outside the top 12 and was very nervous for a couple of weeks in case there was some banned substance I'd accidentally eaten in some restaurant food (not because I cheat!).

Isn't that ok if it works?

I personally have a few serious reservations about the system even if it worked perfectly and was guaranteed to make a sport 100% clean. However, I certainly agree that we all want to have a sport without cheating, but I'm not sure this is the way to achieve it, even if the testing did extend to all athletes at the front of all ultra races.

Outside Magazine had a good article from years ago about why negative drugs' tests don't really prove that an athlete is clean and why there are no easy answers for stopping drugs' cheats.

Here are my objections to the system as it is

1. Only parolees are subject to the loss of freedom that the tested athletes are forced to accept - this is a significant impingement on personal freedom. I like not knowing exactly where I may be in a couple of weeks (or months) and would hate to be subject to a dawn raid out of the blue, as most people would agree.

2. The testing currently covers very few ultrarunners so doesn't cover the sport effectively (not that I agree this is the way to stop people cheating anyway). Over time it'll cover more, I'm sure, but even then, see point.

3. Cheats will continue to cheat and find ways around it - does anyone believe it's made professional cycling completely clean? There's still the doubt in people's minds that maybe the only way to get ahead is to find a way around the doping rules rather than to not dope and train the harder than anyone else.

4. This is the most controversial one - the list of banned substances is extensive and is over the top in my opinion. Many of the substances could be ingested by accident within meals (athletes have to be extremely careful they find out ingredients of all the food and medicines they use in case they accidentally take a minor amount of something that could get them banned). I also believe that the term 'performance enhancing' is misleading to some degree. The things that will most enhance your performance in an ultra are perfectly allowable - training and nutrition/hydration during the race. Why are gels not banned, or electrolyte drinks? These enhance performance greatly. The line seems to be arbitrary to me. To take it to an absurd degree, the only true test of our natural abilities is to force us to be sendentary in exactly the same way as each other then race from the couch - anything else is not a truly level playing field.

5. What else is performance enhancing? Over time, surgeries will surely make it possible to improve on the human body. Without opening a related, but totally different can of worms, a couple of South African athletes have caused controversy about whether they have unfair performance enhancing benefits - Oscar Pistorius, the 400m runner, with no legs and 800m champion, Caster Semenya, who was accused of 'cheating' with some kind of hermaphrodite benefit. I'm not delving into those arguments, just showing the complexity of what counts as 'natural' and what's 'unnatural'.

Does that mean I'm advocating every athlete be allowed to do whatever drugs they want?

No. However, athletes will continue to cheat so the drug testing doesn't stop it, just make it harder for them. I have no personal desire to use performance enhancing drugs even if they were allowed, but I look at it as one other training option  that just happens to not be allowed (but still happens). I also can't get in altitude training, underwater treadmills and a whole host of other things that may enhance my performance. I even have several aspects of my training that diminish performance, like drinking alcohol or eating unheathly foods

So if I'm complaining, what's the answer?

I don't have an alternative answer to how to police drugs' cheats because prohibition of items that (some) people will always want to do will always fail. I don't think it's possible, just increasingly expensive in monetary and personal freedom terms. It didn't work with booze and it doesn't work with illegal drugs. It only causes more harm than allowing these practices by criminalizing something that can't be stopped, meaning it can't be regulated and not collecting tax revenues from the industry.

The more items that are on the banned list, the harder it is to patrol. Some will always cheat and be a step ahead of the authorities within professional sports - the enhancing drug comes first then they find a way to screen for it (admittedly having samples of athletes from the past helps to mitigate this, but how do you rationally punish someone for using a substance that hadn't been banned at the time of use?).


Allowing the use of drugs in professional sports wouldn't be a perfect solution by any means but the line of what is and isn't performance enhancing is blurry (going back to my point about gels and electrolyte drinks being allowed). I'm not writing a thesis here and these arguments all deserve much more in-depth discussion than the cursory overview I'm laying out here.

The main point I'm trying to convey is that personal freedoms are not something to be given away cheaply. There's no doubt that prohibition of anything for which there's a strong demand leads to illegal black markets. Whether performance enhancing drugs are banned or not, their use is still a choice some athletes will make and get away with.

I hope you can read this posting in the spirit it's intended - to provoke thought rather than to suggest we should all become drug addicts. But prohibition never works and the current system seems unfair and no testing system could ever give 100% confidence that a sport is completely drug-free.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Elvis Costume For Sale on eBay (Used)

Photo used with permission. Copyright Glenn Tachiyama.

As mentioned yesterday, my Elvis-themed 50k at the Badger Mountain Challenge 50k in the Tri Cities, WA, was dedicated to charity. As an animal lover I've opted to support the Humane Society of Central Oregon, so you can either donate at if you feel inclined or you can buy the actual costume which I'm auctioning to raise funds.

I've run four Guinness World Records in this costume for the Fastest Marathon Dressed as Elvis and this costume currently holds the record:

- London Marathon 2007 (2:57)
- Rome Marathon 2008 (2:52)
- Seattle Marathon 2009 (2:42)
- Napa Valley Marathon 2012 (2:40)

I've also run two ultras in it, the 2011 Miwok 100k and yesterday's 2012 Badger Mountain Challenge 50k.

If you'd like to own this piece of errr...history...then please bid at eBay. You have until the end of Sunday the 8th of April.