Thursday, December 11, 2008

We’re improving! Yea!

Well, it seems as if something is improving, albeit slowly. We just completed the Woodside 50K and were pleased to handily beat the cutoff times and bring in a PR (6:31), especially given the difficulty of this course (see profile) relative to our last 50K PR (Skyline-to-the-Sea, previous PR 7:02). The other amazingly cool thing is that I didn’t fall down during this race (though David took a roll instead, thankfully with no injuries). We’ve also benefited from some eye-opening information from using the Garmin 405. Despite its inevitable inaccuracies, it has helped me come to terms with the unpleasant reality of my basic physical condition, what I’m capable of or not, and being realistic about my current status. This allows for focusing on (or trying to focus on, anyway) effective training. Needless to say, I will not be challenging the winners (newcomer Keith Bechtol who smoked the course in 3:36 and destroyed the previous course record of 4:14), but I did come in only ten minutes behind the previous woman in my age group. David was kind enough to pace and encourage me, even though his heart rate monitor revealed that he was consistently performing at a rate about ten beats per minute below mine—in other words, he could have worked a lot harder and gone a lot faster. Thanks Sweetie!

We started out with the pack and just tried to cruise the initial downhill and subsequent climb, which became steeper eventually. David kept telling me I was pushing too hard, and he was right of course—with a heart rate in the mid 160s, I couldn’t sustain that pace the whole way, but I was going to do my best to meet the first cutoff at Bear Gulch (18.9 km, 2:50). We did fine, running up the hills, and slowing to a walk when necessary, and made it to the first aid station (King’s Mtn) about ten minutes faster than I had estimated. I had added an antioxidant tablet (vitamins A, C, and E) and Nuun (for electrolytes) to my water bottle on the way up. (Apparently all the oxidative stress from running generates free radicals that deplete plasma peroxide neutralizing capacity—See for example, the review “Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold,” a review of 29 trials involving some 11,000 participants which, while finding minimal effects in general populations, found significant benefit of Vitamin C supplementation in “persons exposed to brief periods of severe physical exercise and/or cold environments.” See also, “Antioxidant supplementation prevents exercise-induced lipid peroxidation, but not inflammation, in ultramarathon runners.”) I added Conquest to the mix at the aid station and guzzled some Coke (for the caffeine and sugar), and tried to choke down a couple of Cliff blocks. There followed the undulating Skyline Trail, deceptively difficult and seemingly unending, before reaching Bear Gulch aid station in 2:30 (well ahead of the cutoff time—I was so thrilled, since our training runs were not so successful). I used one Gu before this aid station, though it’s unclear whether it did any good. By this time, the speedy 35K runners who started 30 minutes after we did had started to pass us—showing us how it is supposed to be done.

The descent into Wunderlich was an enjoyable respite, even though the trail is rough in places and my quads were starting to complain after we’d descended about 1000 feet. We met the front runners heading back up, smiling and making it look easy, and I just tried to keep it steady and not trip or sprain an ankle or something. I trudged back up the hill munching on my sandwich as best I could (it’s hard to eat solid food when there is no saliva!) and washing it down with my antioxidant/electrolyte supplemented sports drink. I conserved energy and fought off an urge to pull over and sleep, and put in some halfhearted jogging at David’s urging. We made it back to the Bear Gulch aid station (33k) by 4:30, and plunged back onto the Skyline Trail for the return trip. The next descent on the Chinquapin trail was heavenly, but they routed us back up the Dean trail (another slow-to-a-walk stretch) before flying down the road to the finish.

I tried to keep up the pace throughout the race, but after a few hours, my body seemed willing to function only at its solid aerobic level (AKA slow). For example, in the descent into Wunderlich, I averaged something like a 9 min mile pace at a HR of 145–150; while during the descent in Huddart I averaged a HR of 140 at the same pace, at least as far as I can tell from my Garmin data, in contrast to the initial part of the race.

What about nutrition during this race? We started out with a Vespa sample that Peter Defty gave us at the Zombie Runner store opening. I supplemented somewhat with carbs (2 Gu’s total, half a ham sandwich, handful of potato chips, few small cups of Coke, sports drink with sugar). I figure since I was pushing into the glycolytic realm (judging by my generally heavy breathing and high heart rate—at least initially, later on I was too tired for that nonsense and HR stayed mostly below 150), I may well be limited by glycogen depletion and some carb supplementation could help. I don’t know that it does, but I did it anyway. David did the entire race on essentially no carbohydrate, using his home-brew protein shake, this time based on coconut milk instead of cow’s milk; he has become a firm believer in running on fat as fuel. Certainly his energy level was more constant than mine (I really wanted a nap on the way back up Wunderlich), but it’s not clear whether that was because I was pushing my limits harder than he was, or his nutrition was superior. I do know that some food is necessary—I’ve experienced nausea with no food (which could, however, be controlled with just a little chicken broth), but I’m not convinced that Gu’s and sugar are really all that helpful.

So what changed? How did our times get better? Since we’ve been doing ultra runs, the weight loss has stalled. I think that some fat loss is still occurring, and there is increased muscle and blood volume and sometimes even swelling and water retention that accounts for some of the stall. But as there has been no further weight loss, that cannot be the reason for improvement. Since the Firetrails 50 miler and SF One Day, we decided it was time to focus on some basic running skills, and actually “train” on occasion. Having run track as a sprinter in my youth, I knew enough to design some simple intervals to see what various paces feel like. It was a pleasant reminder to feel what a 7- or 8-minute pace is like again, and strangely addictive (I want to keep doing it, even though I can’t keep it up for long, unfortunately). We’ve started timing our runs so we can see what might be working, and are including some fartlek segments and some hill sprints in addition to occasional track workouts. I think the most important improvement has come from running on roads, since trail runs inevitably make me stop to walk, if only to admire a beautiful view, or for hills, while road running provides fewer interruptions, allowing you to work on cadence and breathing and consistency, what I’ve been sadly lacking.
So we’ll keep it up and see where it goes!


Julianne said...

So you're obviously NOT slowing down with age!! And congrats on your PR AND not falling during the race. Hehe. :-) How did that low carb bread work out??

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Hi Julianne,

Thanks for the encouragement. I got my butt kicked though a week later at Muir Beach. Oh well.

The bread was great. David made cranberry walnut rolls for Thanksgiving. They're high in wheat gluten, so high protein and sturdy while light in texture, but not so good if you're gluten sensitive, which I guess we are not.