Monday, March 9, 2015

Team Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing

I'm extremely excited to report that I've been invited to join the Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing Trail Running Team.  This team is born out of the marriage of two amazing companies.  Mountain Peak Fitness is a coaching, training, and adventure company based right here in the Hudson Valley.  The group's founders, Elizabeth and Joe Azze, are both coaches and personal trainers who have grown this business out of their love of the outdoors and of endurance sports.  MPF offers coaching and personal training services, as well as leads adventure groups for runners, cyclists, and hikers. 

Red Newt Racing is the brainchild of Ian Golden, the owner of the Finger Lakes Running and Triathlon Company and the race director of the Virgil Crest Ultras and the Cayuga Trails 50.  Red Newt is Ian's race management company, which has recently expanded to include not only those two races but several other gnarly trail races throughout New York, including the first stop of this year's US Skyrunning Circuit at Whiteface Mountain.  Red Newt will also provide their expertise and support for Charlie Gadol's races: Manitou's Revenge, possibly the toughest 50-miler in the country, and the inaugural Cat's Tail trail marathon.  Ian is a fantastic race director who puts on a world-class event and has hosted the US 50-mile championships at Cayuga Trails, and Red Newt is quickly growing into a major player on the trail running scene.

The MPF/RNR team is supported by the FLRTC and also Run On Hudson Valley, a new specialty running shop in Croton-on-Hudson.  Both shops are excellent and you should definitely check them out.

I was a bit taken aback when Ian asked if I'd like to join, as I'm not quite up to the caliber of most of the other athletes in the group, and I'm humbled to be included on a team with such luminaries as Cole Crosby, Iain Ridgeway, Ben Nephew, Carlo Agostinetto, Ryan Welts, and many others.  Hopefully I can put up some performances this year that justify my inclusion.  Please, check out Mountain Peak if you are considering a coach, and if you're looking for a great race this year, pick at least one of the Red Newt events.  I'll be running in at least three of their races, including Cayuga, so hopefully I'll see you out there.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Race Report: Mount Mitchell Challenge: the Paralysis of Indecision

Long considered of the toughest races in the country, the Mount Mitchell Challenge presents runners with obstacles before even reaching the starting line--and I'm not referring to the September entry lottery, which fills the race to capacity on the day it opens.  The unpredictable and ever-changing course conditions tend to destroy the best laid pre-race plans.  Many of us associate North Carolina with Tobacco Road and year-round warmth, but western North Carolina is without a doubt mountain country, and February in Black Mountain can be as harsh as winter in the northeast.  Deciding what to wear and what to carry for a 40-mile mountain race with 9000' of elevation change in the heart of winter presents unique difficulties, even in a good year.

This was not a good year.

The ten days that preceded our trip down to NC this year--my third try at this race, after finishing fifth in 2011 and sixth (fifth male) in 2014--was filled with a whirlwind of texts between myself and the four friends I'd be heading down with, most of them variations on the theme "Do you believe this fucking weather?"  Reports from the course painted a picture of a mix of snow and ice, with high temps in the 20s-30s.  Race director Jay Curwen, who usually downplays any sort of reports as hyperbole, was warning us that traction devices would be necessary; coming from him, this was a shocking admission.  By Tuesday before the race, it became clear that the alternate "snow route" above the Blue Ridge Parkway would be utilized, shortening the course by about 2-3 miles and making the latter stages of the summit ascent a road race--albeit at a 7% uphill grade.  Thursday brought another 4-6" of snow to the course.  I packed two large duffel bags with clothing, four pairs of shoes, two different hydration vests, Nanospikes, and Microspikes.  I was about to pack a pair of Dion snowshoes before I decided that if it was going to turn into a 40-mile snowshoe race, I'd simply skip the race and drink a whole bunch of beer.

Decisions, decisions...
Upon reaching Black Mountain on Friday afternoon, I drove out to Montreat, where the course leaves the pavement after the first few miles and enters the trails.  After a short scouting run with different devices, I decided on the Microspikes, which would provide the most traction in the several inches of loose, unpacked snow that was covering the course; I planned to carry them until the trailhead, then to strip them off again after the trail for the run to the summit on the Parkway and the summit access road, and use them again for the descent back down to Montreat.  At the pre-race meeting that night, though, Jay reported black ice on the summit roadway.  Now worried that I'd need traction for the roads as well, I started to think Nanospikes might be the way to go; they'd be more versatile, I could run with them on pavement if necessary (unlike the Microspikes), and they would provide some help on the snowy trails as well.  The agonizing over this and many other gear decisions--long sleeve shirt or arm sleeves?  Cap or winter beanie?  Regular trail shoes or gaiters?  Handheld bottle or vest?--occupied our conversations, not only for several hours that evening, but even at breakfast on race morning.  We sounded like a bunch of fifteen-year-old girls getting ready for prom.  Having myriad options didn't help; in fact, it simply left me feeling much more vulnerable to second-guessing myself.

The weather seemed reasonable, though: high 20's at the start, little wind, no rain.  I was actually pretty comfortable as we gathered on Cherry Street for the start.  I had felt a little sluggish the day before, but our short jog to the start told me that I was primed and ready to go.  Training had gone very well.  I had a six-week, 600-mile block behind me, with tons of hills and several strong tempo workouts mixed in; after switching up my diet in early January, I was at my lightest weight in fifteen years.  I knew the field was as strong as I had ever faced at Mitchell, but I couldn't wait to get going.

Ready to go!
Photo: Mike Siudy
The opening pace was suicidally fast.  Several people fairly sprinted off the line, as if starting a 5K.  The marathon division has become more competitive in recent years, and this has contributed to some fairly insane starts for those of us in the 40-mile division.  In 2011, I ran in the lead pack for most of the first 15 miles; of the first ten people to reach the marathon turnaround on the Parkway that year, only one of them was actually a marathoner.  This year, however, several of the marathoners came to hammer, and they strung out the rest of the 40-milers as well.  I found myself exactly where I wanted to be pre-race: running with Shaun Pope (the Challenge runner-up in 2014 and this year's favorite) and Matt Roane (the 2014 marathon winner), though our small pack of about six runners was not at the front of the field but back in about seventh, over a minute behind the leaders by the time we reached the two-mile mark in Montreat.  Our pace was fairly aggressive, though, and we were banking on some carnage among the fast starters later in the race.  (We were right, kind of; five of the top eight finishers came out of our group, although Daniel Hamilton, the race winner, was one of the guys off the front who managed to hold on.)

After a very gradually uphill first couple of miles, the race climbs steeply for about 3/4 of a mile on pavement before entering the trail; I powered smoothly up this section, leading our group and feeling great.  I stopped at the trailhead to slip on my Nanospikes, losing about thirty seconds.  As soon as I stepped onto the trail I regretted my decision to leave the Microspikes back in my room.  The snow was mushy and loose; the Nanos offered minimal traction, and I was sliding all over the place.  I hemorrhaged time and places, giving up three additional spots within the first mile on trail.  I had already lost track of how many people were ahead of me--10?  15?  My legs felt great, but I was running in quicksand; it felt like every race anxiety dream I've ever had.

My man Brian, seventh in the marathon
Photo: Asheville Citizen-Times
By the time we reached the first aid station at Sourwood Gap, about an hour into the race, I had all but given up.  Beyond this point, the conditions improved a bit; the trail had been traversed by snowmobiles and ATVs at this point, and so was somewhat packed, allowing for stretches of decent running, but never for more than a few minutes at a time.  I stopped losing spots, but I wasn't making up any ground either; instead, I was in a back-and-forth with an unknown runner for a place in the mid-teens.  I was awash in negative self-talk, mostly directed at myself for, after all that agonizing, making the wrong decision on my traction device, which was clearly costing me minutes.  My only saving grace was that I still felt good, and that I knew an 11-mile stretch of pavement--when traction devices would hopefully be irrelevant--was approaching.

I reached the Parkway after a very frustrating 2 hours and 10 minutes--ten minutes slower than ideal conditions in 2014, when I had felt like shit; and nearly twenty minutes behind my opening pace in 2011.  I dug out a GU Roctane with my frozen fingers and gulped it down, vaguely registering that this was the first nutrition I had taken since breakfast.  I started up the access road with my Nanos still in place but ditched them after about a mile; the road was pristine, without an icy patch to be seen.  I was all alone, but periodically caught glimpses of Matt Roane about a quarter-mile ahead of me, locked in his own solo battle with the hill, and though it didn't look like I was making much headway, I tried to dig in and go after him.  About 1.5 miles from the summit, the road leveled out somewhat, and I pushed through the burn in my legs and started to finally gain some ground.  It took several minutes to reel him in, but finally I caught him with about 800 meters left in the climb.  Shortly afterwards the leaders started making their way down and we could see where we stood--we were sixth and seventh, about ten minutes off the lead but only about five minutes out of fourth and 2-3 minutes back from fifth.  The road remained clear until the final 400-meter push to the summit, which is a paved pedestrian path that in previous years has been plowed but this year had six inches of fresh powder on it, forcing a final hike to the top.  I paused momentarily to take in the view from the highest point east of the Mississippi, took a deep breath, and headed back down.

Matt is a wonderful downhill runner--he won last year's marathon with an amazing charge to overtake Mike Halstead in the final eight miles, himself no slouch of a descender--and I fully expected to get caught within minutes, but tried to push that out of my mind and instead tried to focus on the spots in front of me.  Cid Cardozo, an excellent masters runner and triathlete from North Carolina, held on to the fifth spot, and I set about employing my limited descending skills trying to catch him.  Which I did, somehow, and we ran in lockstep down the pavement for several miles, reaching the parkway aid station together where we stopped to re-apply our spikes one more time for the snow-covered trail.

Coming downhill, trying to find that rhythm
Photo: Asheville Citizen-Times
I was fairly certain Cid had left the aid station before me and started charging as hard as I could, but could not see him, so I settled into a solid, steady pace and focused on making my way to the next aid station.  The trail was now much more packed from having had hundreds of runners follow us up, and I was able to run the downhill at a nearly normal pace, avoiding marathoners all the way.  My energy levels still felt good; small cramps seemed to disappear after swallowing a couple of salt tablets.  Almost before I knew it, I was back on the pavement, hammering down the painful descent back into Montreat, not flying but moving better at this point than on any of my previous attempts at this race.  I left the spikes on for the last three paved miles back through Black Mountain, tiring but still moving well; I had given up hope of catching Cid, who I couldn't see anywhere; but I didn't see any Challengers closing behind me, and was fairly sure I had sixth place locked up.  I crossed the line in 5:22:26, about four minutes slower than 2011 and 22 minutes faster than 2014, on a shorter but infinitely more difficult course.  It was a nice surprise to find out a few minutes later that I was actually fifth and that Cid had been behind me the whole time!

In retrospect, I was quite pleased with the way the race turned out.  It was a frustrating day, made more difficult by my own second-guessing and ultimately wrong decisions on gear, and in the first half of the race I did a terrible job mentally, allowing my negative thoughts and frustrations to limit my performance.  But ultimately, I was as fit as I had hoped, and that fitness allowed me to regroup and salvage a satisfying performance.  Mount Mitchell is a difficult race on a good day, and given the conditions, I think this may have been the most difficult race I've ever run.  The second half of this race was very gratifying; outrunning a strong descender like Matt by several minutes was the sign of a strong performance for me.  It was a bit disappointing not to improve on my placing from previous years, but with the Microspikes, maybe that would have happened; overall, I had to take away mostly positives from this day.

In terms of the new diet, I have to report that unfortunately, it worked very, very well.  I took absolutely no nutrition for the first two hours of the race; I did the entire race on five gels and one bottle of GU Brew.  I did not stop once at an aid station except to put on or take off my spikes.  My energy levels were great; I rarely cramped and never bonked.  Whether I'm doing this whole LCHF thing correctly or not, I really have no idea, but for my first race as a purportedly "fat-adapted" athlete, it was an unqualified success.  Which is annoying; now I have to keep eating this way.  I took a little dietary vacation this week--impossible not to, in Beer City USA--but will be starting back on it tomorrow, so I'll have to crack open a few tonight.

Gear report: Orange Mud HydraQuiver Single Barrel (no bounce hydration, worked brilliantly) and trucker cap; Yard Owl race shirt from Verge; Pearl Izumi shorts; New Balance MT110 Winter shoes (the gaiters worked great).  Can't wait for the Salming Trail T1s to arrive.  Nutrition: GU Roctane and GU energy gels; GU Brew.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

This is not nutritional advice

If you're a regular reader (and if you are, my apologies), you'll know that I try to leave the nutritional side of things to Lexi.  Nutrition is of course a huge facet of ultrarunning, both during races and in terms of daily consumption.  Many of us, myself included, tend to focus most of our time and energy on workouts and mileage, and give short shrift to eating, recovery, and the mental aspects of the sport, all of which are arguably more important than the actual training itself.  In the past, when I have concerned myself with nutrition, it is generally to examine my in-race intake--tweaking salt, fluids, and everything else to find that magic formula that leads to GI-distress-free racing.

Of course, our daily diet is paramount if we're looking to realize our potential.  Speaking for myself, I tend to neglect "eating right" because it's a pain in the ass, and the delayed gratification of doing it is hard to make up for the reward of eating whatever you want.  And of course, when we're young, we can get away with a lot.  But as I near masters status, I really feel like by not paying attention to my diet, I'm doing my athletic career a disservice.

Now, this is not to say I eat terribly; my wife is a very good cook, and I think my regular diet is generally pretty healthy.  I tend to eat out more than I should, particularly lunch during the week when I have days off, or late-night dinner working overnight shifts.  Obviously my IPA consumption is higher than might strictly be considered "beneficial."  But for the most part I eat fairly well.  I know, however, that I'm certainly not using my nutritional intake to my advantage, not molding what I eat to benefit me athletically.  I follow lots of sports, and the more I read about athletes as they age, the more I find that they are turning to different nutritional strategies to gain an edge and combat the effects of getting older.  It might be eliminating sugar, or eliminating fat, or going vegan, or eating more protein.  Whatever.  It's clear that athletes who pay attention to their diet have an advantage over those of us who don't.

So as I approached this year and this racing season I started to consider my diet more critically, particularly with an eye toward weight control.  Obviously the lighter we are, the easier it is to run fast over long distances.  Keeping my weight in an optimal range for racing has become progressively more difficult in recent years.  In college, I raced at around 135 pounds, with a BMI of about 21.5.  (Most elite US distance runners have BMIs in the 19-21 range.)  In the past few years I've tried to keep my weight under 145, which I've generally been able to do, and to sneak down near 140-142 for racing when possible, which has gotten much harder.  I've had to resort to significant calorie restriction, or brief bouts of eating nothing but fruit, or--heaven forfend!--completely eliminating beer.  All of which will work, in the short run at least.  But none of that has proven sustainable for me, and my weight has kept creeping upward (aided by my lack of willpower), kept in check only by copious mileage.

Like everyone else in the ultra world, I've heard a lot in the past few years about low carb diets.  If you're outside this fairly insular community, several ultra runners have had significant success with switching to high-fat, low-carb diets (LCHF), both at the recreational and elite levels.  One of the most well known is Zach Bitter, the WR-holder for 12 hours and the AR holder for 100 miles, who follows the Optimized Fat Metabolism (OFM) diet, a LCHF variant. Intrigued by the success of Zach and others, as well as reports from friends of mine who have successfully switched, I did some reading on the subject.

Basically, LCHF diets work by retraining the body to preferentially burn fat instead of carbs.  Since we have nearly twenty times the fat calorie stores than those of glycogen, if we can tap into those stores efficiently, we can perform much longer in a relatively carb-depleted state (as would occur during a long ultra), and therefore would need to take in much fewer calories over the course of a race--a huge advantage.  Unfortunately on a standard diet, the body can't access those fat stores with enough efficiency to make it viable.  But by restricting carbs and suppressing insulin release, we can, in time, ourselves to metabolize fat at much faster rates.  The FASTER study, performed at UConn last year, has yielded some interesting preliminary results along those lines. (The investigators aren't exactly neutral observers, having been LCHF proponents for some time, but the data looks reasonable.)

So I decided to try it.  Starting the day after RFTH, I started severely limiting my carbs.  I'm not keeping close count, but I'm estimating my carb intake to be comfortably under the 50 grams/day that Phinney and Volek suggest; probably closer to 20g a day or less, with very few exceptions. My experience has been consistent with most of what I've heard/read on the subject.  Without sugar, my energy levels have stabilized throughout the day; I rarely have intense crashes and keep a much more even keel.  For the first several weeks--probably the first month--I ran like shit.  I could do the mileage without a problem, but nothing fast; any attempt at a hard effort was pitiful.  But after those first four weeks I feel like my running has returned to normal, and I've been able to add in tempo work, MP running, and some progression runs with good results.  And for sure, the weight has come off.  I've dropped nearly 15 pounds in the last eight weeks, back down to 137 and a BMI back near 21.5, which has helped the running immensely.  It's certainly not for everyone, and as I've indicated above, I'm not suggesting that anyone try it themselves.  The jury on LCHF--the jury on most dietary advice, believe it or not--is still most definitely out, no matter what the ADA would have you believe. I'm just reporting a cool thing that happened in my life for the past two months, which maybe you find interesting. 

Will I stick to it long term?  I don't know.  It's not easy, and I do love my pizza and beer, both of which have basically been eliminated.  Right now I'm in Black Mountain, NC, getting ready for another crack at the Mount Mitchell Challenge.  This will be my first "fat-adapted" race, so we'll have to see how it goes.  Certainly I don't think I'll be as religious about the diet after this race is over, but I may use it from time to time, or continue with it long term with some "cheat days" thrown in to maintain my sanity.  A lot will depend on how it goes tomorrow, as well as the results of the bloodwork I'm having drawn next week.  (Most anecdotal reports indicate that, perhaps counter-intuitively, LCHF helps your lipid panels substantially, but we'll have to see.)  Check back next week for a report on Mitchell and pictures of the all the pizza and beer I plan to consume immediately afterwards.