Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Diablo kicked my butt!

I was thrilled and excited to try out my hill training on the Diablo 50 mile course, though in retrospect I probably should have just signed up for the marathon, since I told myself it was meant as a good hard training run for Miwok. Considering that the times for Diablo 50 are about the same as Miwok’s 100K, that pretty much says it all—Diablo is not a training run for anything- it’s a serious encounter in its own right.

Starting out on single track

A bad omen occurred on Saturday: I happened to be buying some supplies and saw alpha-lipoic acid supplements that I had just read about on Mark’s Daily Apple, and decided to try them. This material is supposed to be a potent antioxidant, restore glutathione levels and to protect mitochondria from oxidative damage. I read a few other studies about it, and it seemed worthwhile, so I popped a capsule, bent over to see something on the computer screen, and immediately realized I had swallowed it into my trachea! It wouldn’t come out, It was blocking airflow, and as the capsule started to swell from hydrating in my body, I panicked. After a few Heimlich maneuver’s from David and some other unpleasant aftereffects, the pill was out of my trachea, but I went into a nasty asthma attack from the junk that had leaked into my lungs! I am familiar with asthma, having had problems with it in the past. So I had a steroid/bronchodilator inhaler handy, used it and managed to be mostly clear by Sunday AM in time for the race (after wheezing and coughing up phlegm for most of Saturday and Saturday night). Pretty scary experience. Note to self: take pills with water and swallow carefully!

Marching up the hill

But the asthma seemed to abate by race time, and I toed the line with everyone (ok brought up the back of the pack). It was warm already (another bad omen), but was a gorgeous day, and I resolved to deal with the heat as best I could. The ascent up Diablo was as expected. We tried it out a few weeks ago, and it went faster and easier on race day than I expected—something about all the adrenaline. There was very little actual running at this stage, but it was a fun and beautiful and relentless climb. At the Juniper Aid Station I got to meet the very adorable Victoria. I think Miki may have been there too, but I missed her somehow. Meanwhile, we continued to the summit uneventfully, paid our respects to the view at the top, said hello to Don and Gillian running the marathon, and continued on. The downhill stretch was nice—pretty steep, not real fast, but we were cruising. Then suddenly, a hamstring muscle (sartorius?) seized up on me. I’ve had cramps in races before, but they are usually annoying little things, like in the foot or lower leg, something you can run through. But suddenly I found myself immobile, unable to even walk. David came to find out what was keeping me and massaged it a bit, and when it finally stopped seizing, I walked for a while taking copious amounts of water, Enduralytes and calcium carbonate, and gingerly started jogging again. (The cramps never did return, but that muscle hurt for days after.) We hit Juniper again, the day becoming quite warm, refilled on fluids and food and continued on the long rolling downhill stretch to North Gate aid station, admiring the views while trying not to go flying off the trail. Somewhere along this trail, there is a patch of sparkly minerals (mica maybe) that made it seem like we were entering Disneyland or some fairy tale. I longed to just sit and play with the stones, but it was baking hot in the sun, and didn’t seem like a really good idea at the time with cutoff times and all, so we continued on down and down to the aid station. They were running low on ice, but we took what ice and fluids we could and continued on as expeditiously as possible. We passed a few people during this five-mile loop, people injured or suffering from the heat. This section was quite nice, with some shade and creek crossings, a few encounters with sedate cows and polite horseback riders, and then a long climb back to North Gate, where I was desperate for more water. When we arrived the second time, there was ice and Coke but not much to eat—I grabbed a cookie, though this was not appealing, and tried to choke it down without success. Apparently, it was 93° F in the shade of the tent.

Can you say “steep”?

Then ensued what felt like a death march through shimmering waves of heat on exposed sections of fire roads, up and up toward the Rock City aid station. Though it wasn’t really very far, it seemed to take forever, as the heat was taking its toll on me. I kept my bandana and shirt soaked with squirts of water from one bottle, and this cooling was enough to keep me going, but not very fast. I passed one poor soul suffering from a stress fracture in his foot, keeping his pace to a hobbling walk. The fire road gave way to a shady trail and short precipitous decline, then another half mile or so of climbing on roads until we finally reached the next aid station, just in time for the cutoff. We grabbed some supplies stashed there: a spare bottle of David’s favorite liquid fuel—coconut milk and whey protein, and for me frozen V8 juice and a couple of beef tamales (don’t laugh, I got down one of the tamales eventually and immediately felt better!). In the rush to move on, I forgot the charger we bought to keep the Garmin 405 alive, so it eventually shut itself off, after about 26 miles. I saw Rick returning already just as I was leaving the Rock City aid station. (He looked amazingly fresh and strong for having run 37 miles in this heat already!)

Heading toward Eagle Peak

The trail to Finley Road aid station was quite nice at first, shady and following a stream, but it quickly morphed into more uphills or at least rolling hills on fire roads. This section should have been easy, but it was hot and I was bonking. Eating and running is hard. By this stage I had had three gels and a carb/protein supplement (Cliff Shot Recovery Drink), one square of PB&J sandwich, a small handful of chips and a few cups of coke. Apparently, not enough. My heart rate had averaged 155 bpm for the initial ascent, meaning that I was working at nearly 90% of my maximum heart rate, well into anaerobic threshold, and 140 bpm for most of the rest. Since I rarely train at that high an effort for long periods of time, I’m pretty sure I was glycogen depleted, despite trying to supplement. Of course, David was having an easier time of it, waiting patiently for me, and feeling good. Managing the best speed I could, we continued on our way, passing many others on the return, all saying “Good job.” I finally understand why ultrarunners say that—it’s because it’s short, sweet, and positive, and best of all, keeps you from looking like a moron when you can no longer put words together to make a sentence because your brain has ceased functioning.

Almost there

The day was waning by now, but not the heat. We started the last long steep hill leading down to the Finley aid station, and I was completely dreading having to trudge back up that hill. I was pretty sure we wouldn’t make the next cutoff at Rock City due to my utter slowness, and was ready to drop here. I saw my friend Chuck Wilson, a veteran of 200 ultras, sitting there with legs that refused to work anymore, and he was getting a ride back. This seemed like a great idea at the time, but the aid station volunteers explained that we’d have to get back on our own because they didn’t have room in their vehicle. Another guy came up hoping to drop as well as his knee was in bad shape, but we were all sent back up the hill. Then another guy came down the hill, suffering mightily from leg cramps, but we told him no one else was getting out at Finley—he would have to head back up the hill too. We left the two suffering men to keep each other company and struggled to get back to the Rock City aid station. I hope they got back OK! I talked to one man’s worried wife, but she couldn’t reach him on her cell phone at the aid station.

View from the top

I resolved to get up this hill and back to the aid station as best I could in a vain hope of making it by the cutoff time. I suggested to David that he go on ahead and try to make it, but he opted to stick with me. (Thanks!) I chomped down finally on my tamale and just kept going up the hill—and you know, once I had some fuel in my belly, it wasn’t so bad! We had also brought some applets and cotlets, which I had forgotten to eat earlier due to my brain fog. Once the tamale and sugar were in my stomach, and the shadows were getting longer and the breeze cooler, I felt like a new woman and was ready to continue. But alas for naught, they pulled us from the course, and I joined the other runners in the van for the long drive back to the finish, many of whom were in much worse shape than us—nauseous, crampy, and exhausted. Diablo certainly took its toll that day.

The way ahead

I’m pretty sure I could have finished the race in time, but wasn’t given the opportunity. There were supposed to be 150 starters for the 50 mile, but only 106 finished. On this particular day, that was doing pretty well I’d say. I don’t feel too bad having missed the opportunity to finish. It just means I’ll never rest until this particular devil is met and conquered—maybe next year. That said, it’s probably for the best. It turns out I was developing a blister on the ball of one foot unawares, and if we had continued, it could have become very painful and I might not have been able to recover very well. As it was, I had three blisters in spots I wasn’t expecting on my right foot, but the left foot was perfectly fine. Completing 37 miles at Diablo is certainly enough for a training run for Miwok, but I am humbled and lacking in confidence at this stage, and worrying about making cutoffs once again.

The aftermath and lessons learned:

The lung injury due to inhaling lipoic acid wasn’t a problem during the race, but the asthma and congestion plagued me all week afterwards.

Minor blisters, quads were sore on Monday- we went for a walk which was fine, but legs said resounding “No!” to running even a few steps. Tuesday, legs felt better, gave them a nice walk anyway. Wednesday was another rest day, mainly because of time constraints. Thursday, antsy to get back on the trail, we ran some short hilly trails with no soreness. Friday an easy recovery run, trying to keep heart rate down, and did a familiar loop in better time than expected. Saturday, we ran 13 hilly miles, but I got completely exhausted by the end—maybe I’m not so recovered after all! I conclude we did a fine job of acclimatizing the quads and gluts to the rigors of hills, but I still need to work on basic endurance and speed.

Keeping the bandana and T-shirt damp is very helpful—but carrying ice in your hands is even better (my hands are always hot when running). The frozen V8 juice was delightful—I used it to chill my hands and arms and neck, and wished I’d brought another bottle full. I wish I could have managed Rick’s suggestion to put ice in a bandana around my neck, or put it in my cap, but in the rush at aid stations I could never remember to. Even so, in real heat, ice doesn’t last long. Carrying enough water is essential. I was constantly and voraciously thirsty, and this is very unusual for me. Once I remembered to start taking salt and calcium, cramps were kept at bay.

V8 juice is delicious on the trail (so is chicken broth, turkey sandwiches, sushi, pretty much any “real” food IMO) . Aplets and Cotlets are nice—not so chewy and sticky as Cliff blocks- and go down well. But basically, I’m still looking for a fueling strategy that works for me. It could be that I need to hold back so as not to glycogen deplete quite so fast, but that’s not a great option, being slow and all. It could be that I need to supplement even more with gels etc., every half hour or something, or that this is not necessary at all and not a good idea when using Vespa (which I did). David is still sold on his fuel, easy to drink, no muss or fuss. Maybe I should try it!

Finally, one of the rules of training is specialization: in this case, it means if running Diablo, train at Diablo, because nowhere else are the conditions quite so tough!

Here are some more pictures. If you want to be identified in any of these photos, leave a comment!

Eagle Peak from beyond

Trudging up

Baldy Ridge

Deer Flat Road

On the way up to Juniper Campground

Getting close

Breaking into a shuffle

Across North Peak to Sacramento River

Back toward Eagle Peak

Of course you can just drive to the top, but where’s the fun in that?

All the way up the steps to the tower

Down, down, down toward North Gate

Getting hot on those exposed trails

Horses looked hot too

Trudging desperately toward Rock City and a reprieve from the heat

Getting closer to Rock City

Single track toward Finley Road

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

We’re Officially Insane!

OK, we’re officially insane now having signed up for the Diablo 50 miler only two weeks before Miwok 100K.

Don advised me not to, and I bet he’ll be saying “I told you so” in a few weeks when my dead legs refuse to move during Miwok. But what the heck, next year this time I’ll be even older. A lot can happen in a year. And I’m a sucker for punishment (poor David isn’t, but he kindly agreed to come to make sure I stay in one piece!)

That said, we’ve been hitting it fairly hard on the hills of late and I was very pleased to not be sore for more than a day after Pirate’s Cove 50K. We also did some long runs, for example, heading up the Bay to Ridge Trail (the part from Arastradero Preserve to Black Mountain and back through Rancho San Antonio) (see Jean Pommier’s write-up of a similar run), Windy Hill and along the ridge to Borel Hill (see Russian Ridge and Skyline Ridge web pages) and back down via Alpine Road, and the PGE trail in Rancho San Antonio up to Black Mountain and back another time, with only minimal quad soreness. All of these routes entail miles of downhill running. Practice in downhill running is crucial to developing quads that can resist the stress of eccentric contractions, and it has been reported that even a single session of downhill running can protect against quad damage. Here are a few papers discussing these effects:
Decreased blood oxidative stress after repeated muscle-damaging exercise
Characterization of inflammatory responses to eccentric exercise in humans
Recent advances in the understanding of the repeated bout effect: the protective effect against muscle damage from a single bout of eccentric exercise

Diablo is another matter though, as I discovered when we checked out the first and last legs of the course a week ago, up to the top of Mt. Diablo via a couple of far-from-insignificant side peaks (such as the aptly named Eagle Peak which actually had a bald eagle soaring overhead!) and back to the finish—just hellacious climbs and descents, but oh so beautiful. Two days later, my quads still hurt. Not a good sign. I’m wondering whether our relatively tame hill training is going to be enough. The relatively short sections on fire roads were the fastest parts, but the tiny twisted gravely rooty steep single track (is that enough adjectives?) is slow as molasses. I don’t know how the fast people can manage it—all the power in the world can’t make those treacherous trails fast! But somehow they do it. I just want to survive and not be out too many hours after dark! The goal race after all is Miwok, so I reassured David that I wasn’t afraid to drop if I thought I was getting too beat up to recover in time for Miwok (sure, sure I will…). Also, those trails were particularly hard on the balls of the feet, since so much of the time I balanced on larger rocks rather than scrambling on loose scree (is that a word?) for secure footing. Anyone have a suggestions for problems with too much friction on the balls of the feet? I’m wondering if blister prevention patches in that location would help or hurt?

The injuries I was complaining of back in January haven’t completely gone away though they no longer ache and keep me awake at night, most of the time at least. Some nights I’d sleep with a tennis ball pressing on the sore spots (it seemed to help!). My gluteus medius, IT band and rectus femoris still ache, but my “posterior chain” (gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and calves) have gotten their act together and are no longer a severe limiter (ok, they still ache, but work properly now). Many thanks to David for endless massages and cross-fiber rubbing! The exercises that seemed to help include lunges (adding in the hip flexor stretch), supine bridges, step ups (see Eric Crissey’s Butt and Hip Care articles, part 1, part 2, and part 3 ["Healing the Hips"]), myrtls (thanks Glorybelle!), piriformis stretches (thanks Lori!) and just lots of slower running (faster running risks flare-ups again). I like Cressey’s stuff even though he’s really oriented toward the weight lifting crowd. Here are a couple more interesting articles he wrote:
Five Resistance Training Myths in the Running World
Cardio Confusion

In fact, I think I was suffering from something called femoral anterior glide, where the hip flexors literally pull the head of the hip bone forward in the socket, causing pain and dysfunction. My gluts weren’t activating properly. Now they are better and that problem disappeared (knock on wood!). In fact, I could feel everything engage properly on the climb up the steps above Rodeo Beach back in March when we ran PCTR's Pirate's Cove 50K, and felt good for a change. It’s amazing just how screwed up things can get when one muscle doesn’t engage properly.

I feel like I have trained as well as I could given the injury from last January and limited ability to tolerate higher training volumes (a few 50+ mile weeks, but with lots of hills). Now we’re tapering (long run only 12 miles and 2000 feet climb!) and easing up for a bit on the everyday runs (can you say lazy?), and hopefully that will help get us through. So stay tuned to see if we survive Diablo! It’s going to be a long day!