Monday, July 13, 2009

Diablo Redux

Getting behind in blogging here… After the pains from Quicksilver had worn off, I noticed that PCTR was holding another event at Diablo on June 6th. Not one to leave well enough alone, I watched the weather forecast, and when it was clear we were in for great running weather that weekend (i.e., unseasonably cool even for the Bay area), I signed up for another round of torture in the Diablo 50K!

This was one event I had to do completely solo because David hurt his knee—he hurt it sprinting on the track of all places. That’s what we get for throwing in a little high intensity training! He was having enough trouble just walking, so asking him to run any race was out of the question, and he wasn’t willing to come along as my chauffeur or crew (I can’t imagine why).

Anyone who’s interested in trail running in the Bay Area knows about Mt. Diablo. The PCTR 25K event makes a single ascent of Diablo, totaling 4,450ft ascent (and descent); the 50K event repeats the loop, totaling 8,900 ft ascent. Having opted for the latter, I can say that 25K was really quite enough!

We started out on a similar course to the Diablo 50-mile , but avoided Mitchell Rock and Eagle Peak, opting instead for Back Creek and Meridian Ridge Rd. and then joining Deer Flat Road. From there to Juniper Campground Aid station was the same—just a long climb up the fireroad (with the exception of one steep downhill where you are tortured by having to regain all that elevation you just lost). I had fun chatting with Dianne Forrest (who I met at Headlands 50K, my inaugural ultra), and with Jo Lynn’s friends Christy and Theresa. The leaders and speediest folks passed us going back down the hill at this point (about 90 minutes in!). Since this race is part of the Sportiva Mountain Cup series, there was money waiting for the winner of the series, and some really fast folks were contending this day! I recognized Chikara Omine (who I had met at Quicksilver) moving well (he would come in 4th overall) and already on his way down!

Arriving at the aid station at Juniper, the folks kindly filled bottles and offered us snacks and sent us on our way. The next section routed us out along the Summit Trail, with some gentle ups and downs and beautiful views of the Bay, Walnut Creek, Oakland (pretty much everything actually), until we encountered the rest of the real climbing. Along this section of beautiful single track, we encountered more fast runners flying back down the trail like gazelles. Definitely tricky on such a narrow trail! I recognized a few more faces, like Caitlin Smith and Mark Tanaka. The last couple of miles got really tough though. You could see the tower through the mist at the summit for a long time before it seemed to even get any closer. We just kept climbing and climbing, getting more and more tired, and then finally came out into the parking area at the summit, with its incongruous cars and bicycles and blissfully ignorant persons looking at us like we were from another planet. I don’t know if the bicyclists were impressed at us for hiking the whole way up the mountain or not, but all I could think about was how they were going to coast effortlessly down the mountain, while I had to kill my quads to get back down, working even harder than on the way up!

The view from the top was breathtaking as usual, even with the wisps of cloud hovering around the summit. After a quick breather and stretch at the top of the tower (and taking a picture of Christy), we turned to begin the long climb down. The tricky footing and steep descent was challenging, but very fun! I’ve been pushing the downhill pace this spring, since recovering from piriformis injuries that I had last year this time, and gaining confidence in my balance, agility and hip muscles. The trail included some climbs just to remind us of how much fun we had on the initial climb up. Finally, arriving back at Juniper aid station, we refueled and prepared for the long fireroad descent. I tried my best to make up time here, and eventually worked up enough speed to slip and slide past a few people. It was great fun running down the fireroad, skating on the loose gravel and using the slide to cushion the descent. I am not a fast runner, but I did my best to get the pace down below 8 min miles and keep it there as long as I could. This was enough to get me ahead of a few people, and I came into the 25K aid station/finish area in about 4 hours.

At this point I was seriously hot because of working hard and running in the sunbaked canyons along Mitchell Fire Road, which were not cooled as effectively by the breeze as the heights. I hung around about 10 minutes cooling off, drinking coke on ice (so good in races I have to admit, though I never drink it when not racing!) and hoping some other 50K runner would come in so we could go out together. After a little while, I realized this was not going to happen and I’d better get moving. So I headed back out, climbing the #%$@ mountain again alone!

This time, the ascent was slower. Toward the top of the first leg of the climb, just before reaching Deer Flat Road, I realized my right calf muscle was aching. With another 1000 ft of climb to go, I had to slow down even more to favor it, making the quads and gluts do the lion’s share of the work. The third time through at Juniper, the aid station volunteer accused me of leaving after cutoff time and didn’t help me on my way at all! Just what I needed—demoralizing comments! I continued on anyway after correcting him and fending for myself, and met a number of other 50K runners on the way down from their second visits to the summit. In contrast, they were all encouraging and enthusiastic, and lifted my spirits.

One more time back the way we came…I was feeling pretty lonely, but the weather was nice, the day was beautiful and there really was no problem except for the now grumbling calf muscle. I made it back through the aid station one last time, and made decent speed back down the fire road and toward the finish. Not so fast this time around, but good considering. I managed to catch up to one runner about a half mile before the finish. He was walking, so I stopped to walk with him and ask how he was doing. He was feeling pretty beat up and demoralized at this point. We chatted a bit and soon I broke into a jog again, and he came along with me. When he stopped to walk again, I stopped to keep him company. This happened a couple of times and then when we were approaching the finish, he took off running fast again! I could have tried to sprint past him, but that seemed absurd (the last two runners sprinting for the finish!), so I came in a few seconds behind him. I was really hoping not to DFL this event, but due to my stopping to check on a fellow runner, I got to DFL anyway!

This raises a running etiquette question: if you happen upon someone in a race who is obviously flagging, should you just blow by them (assuming you are feeling strong at the moment) and let them deal with their problems on their own, be it injury or just being tired? Or should you slow down to check on the runner’s status and offer help and encouragement if needed? And if you are the flagging runner, should you show your appreciation for the other’s concern by speeding up and blowing past them once you get your legs back or see the finish line? Or do you bring it into the finish together, so that neither one gets left behind?

Maybe this is just a girl thing, but I would have thought showing a little bit of concern warranted being shown some tiny amount of appreciation! (He did thank me afterwards, but that did not make me feel better!) This is not the first time this has happened to me either!

The aftermath and lessons learned:

The day never became warm up on the mountain, and the breeze was strong- it was truly a glorious day to revisit Diablo, even though it is a hard mountain in any weather!

For nutrition, I enjoyed coke on ice, a few potato chips, cytomax, a quarter PB&J sandwich and 3 gels. I also supplemented the dearth of protein by eating a piece of ham (a little too salty, but it might be just right on a very hot day). Again, not very much food. I don’t really know that taking in carbs early in the event was helpful. We’d have to measure blood glucose levels and insulin levels to really know what was happening. I can say that after a recent 12 mile run drinking nothing but water, my blood glucose was up at 123 mg/ml—certainly not hypoglycemic! Actually this is in line with what we would expect, since adrenaline causes the liver to release its stored glycogen to pump up the blood glucose levels, and 12 hilly miles isn’t nearly enough to deplete total body glycogen. It’s possible that for me at least, taking in carbs early in an event is counterproductive (promoting insulin release and inhibiting fat burning), or at the very least unnecessary. It doesn’t seem to help maintain my energy levels all that much, since typically after about 4 hours of slogging up and down steep hills, I’m tired anyway. I either need a whole lot more than I’m getting, or something else entirely (perhaps protein instead). In my past days of running marathons, I never supplemented with anything at all, and didn’t feel any need for it. So perhaps the current obsession with gels and carb supplemented drinks is really all about creating a market and not about health and performance. I will just have to keep experimenting to find out what works best, or at least better.

I gave my muscles 3 days to recover before trying to run again. The quads were definitely quite sore from all the ups and especially the downs! I went out after the 3 days of rest and felt better than ever.

The sore calf made its presence known for a few weeks, particularly if I tried to run faster, and complained about how it had barely avoided injury and berated me for my mistreatment. I had to massage it quite a bit and intentionally decrease the kick-off phase of my stride (slow down more) so as to let it to rest a little more for a couple of weeks.

The foot injured at Quicksilver a few weeks before held up ok, though it still hurts occasionally.

Only one blister—on the top of my foot where it was pressing against the laces during the downhill stretches! The thick calluses on the balls of my feet were fine though definitely warm, and one of them peeled completely off (but the skin underneath was also calloused!) so there was no injury. Again, I think Drymax socks really help (I also used vasoline as a lubricant).

I am still lousy on steep uphills. I’m just not a very good powerwalker, and not strong enough to run them either, though my gluts (and later one calf) were screaming that I was working them too hard. I guess Diablo still kicks my butt!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Vibram Five-Fingers Shoes and “Barefoot” Running

I have always been something of a maverick with regard to sports equipment, resisting the latest gear marketing efforts in favor of minimalist and homemade equipment whenever it seemed to make sense. I also look for what actually works for me instead of what the pundits tell me I must have to optimize my performance and protect me from injury.

For example, I’ve been riding a recumbent bicycle for more than 25 years now, one with handlebars under the seat. Before I adopted the recumbent riding posture, I would routinely pinch nerves in my hands holding onto conventional handlebars. For rides of more than a few miles (I did a lot of longer rides of 50 to 100 miles or more in those days, as well as some extended multi-day trips), I would end up with numb hands. Since manual dexterity is important, this was unacceptable, and the recumbent riding posture fixed the problem. I also feel safer on a recumbent bicycle, largely because, if I fall off, I am much less likely to go head first over the handlebars. There is a visibility issue in that I ride lower to the ground, but that is readily fixed with a flag.

I also often find myself choosing footwear that is intended for some other purpose than the one I'm using it for. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and continued to participate in orienteering, I found that even shoes that were allegedly specially made for orienteering did not work very well in the Bay Area hills, where I often found myself contouring along steep hillsides that could be anything from soft mud to loose dirt and rock. I abandoned my special orienteering shoes in favor of some cheap football shoes that had wraparound cleats that provided much surer footing.

My primary sport right now is trail running. There is, of course, huge amounts of hype supported by lots of allegedly “scientific” research that has created an ever-changing array of running shoes with all kinds of “features” based mostly around various allegedly needed forms of support and/or cushioning. “Trail running” or “all terrain” shoes have mostly tended to be shoes with a fair amount of both support and cushioning as well as deep treads for all the apparently obvious reasons. At the same time, serious racers on trails have tended to opt for lighter weight “racing flats,” at least for competition, just as for road and track running; they want to minimize the weight of the shoes. I, too, have found myself migrating toward lighter and lighter shoes with less cushioning. Most people in the business of selling you shoes will insist that it is dangerous to continue running in shoes after the cushioning has started to deteriorate (usually deemed to be a few hundred miles or a few months). I’m the kind of guy who thinks his shoes are just getting broken in at that point! And I never missed the cushioning beyond the occasional minor bruise if I step too hard on a small sharp rock. I’ve done all my recent ultra-marathon running in well-worn New Balance 790s. These are lightweight shoes with minimal support and cushioning, and the cushioning they do have tends to break down after a few hundred miles, well before I’m ready to replace the shoes. I’ve never had any foot problems with them beyond some toenail bruising on long downhill running. (I should note that I grew up wearing arch-support shoes to “correct” my flat feet. I still have very low arches and a tendency to pronate, but I’ve never sprained an ankle or otherwise had problems that I could attribute to the low arches, and I haven’t used arch supports in more than 30 years now.)

I’m also a fan of going barefoot. I rarely wear shoes around the house. I haven’t generally chosen to run barefoot, except on sand, though my feet are tough enough to withstand a few miles of barefoot pavement running. So I was intrigued when I encountered the Vibram Five-Fingers shoes. They were originally developed for water sports, but have been increasingly adopted by advocates of barefoot running. On something of a whim, I decided to try a pair. I’ve had them for a couple of months now, and they have become my primary running shoes!

There have always been a few people out there who have developed tough enough feet to go barefoot in all but the most dangerous conditions. A few have run marathons barefoot. But most of us non-bushmen haven’t got enough callouses to manage, say, a marathon without at least some protection. The five-fingers shoes can provide that protection and give us a chance to get a lot closer to true barefoot running under more ground conditions and run lengths.

Others have written more than I can about why you might want to run barefoot. There are links you can follow from the Vibram website. Check out Barefoot Ted and the Pose running method, for example. (And read Christopher McDougall’s new book, Born to Run, A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a surprisingly great read, that has quite a lot to say about running footwear [and Barefoot Ted]!) I’ll just focus on my recent personal experience.

I guess this still represents something of a preliminary report. Shortly after I acquired the shoes, I injured my Popliteus muscle, and have only just gotten back to where I can run my usual 40 to 50 miles per week, so I still haven’t got a lot of miles on my Five-Fingers. In some ways, though, the enforced slow recovery gave me a convenient opportunity to learn how best to take advantage of the Five-Fingers. Some observations:

1. If you’re going to be a “barefoot runner,” you are naturally tempted to forgo socks altogether with your Five-Fingers. I’ve now experimented quite a bit with and without socks. My current preference is to use socks only for hotter temperatures and runs of more than an hour or so. I don’t bother with socks for runs of an hour or less. The primary issue is that I start to develop hot spots after my feet start to sweat significantly. Socks help reduce the chafing and wick away the sweat. I don’t seem to need very much sock; I use very thin Injinji “liner” socks made from bamboo fiber, and I’ve had good luck up to the maximum run of about 16 rough trail miles I’ve tried so far. I did get a blister on the bottom of one heel on a hot hilly 8-mile run early on when I wasn’t wearing socks (and was still running with a heel-strike gait). Of course, if you’re not wearing socks, then the shoes are absorbing the sweat and dirt that normally ends up in the socks. I rinse the dirt and sweat out of the shoes every few days, something that I practically never do with “normal” shoes. Keeping the insole surfaces clean is important to minimize wear on the feet.

2. Five-Fingers shoes have a very smooth sole made of what I assume is a tough urethane material. (Vibram built their business around making tough long-lasting soles for hiking shoes and work boots.) So far, the soles show very little sign of wear, even though I’ve been doing relatively a lot of pavement running. I was concerned about traction, given the complete lack of tread, but I haven’t found it to be much of an issue. They slip a little on the typical summer dust on Bay Area dirt trails, but so do shoes with lots of tread. What you gain with toe grip generally makes up for the loss of tread grip. The shoes work fine in soft mud. Probably the most difficult terrain is tall grass and similar field conditions. The grass tends to get between the toes and get stuck. And, of course, anything spiny like star thistle can be a real problem. You wouldn’t want to run through a field of star thistle, cactus, or blackberries (not that I make a habit of doing so in any footwear…).

3. You do need to pay attention to where you put your feet. The soles spread the pressure points of ground features enough to dampen out the effects of fine and course gravel, but they don’t help all that much for isolated sharp rocks. I was already accustomed to sub-consciously paying attention to foot placement anyway, since I haven’t been using shoes with much cushioning for a long time, so I have yet to actually bruise my foot. If anything, the minimal cushioning really does force you to be more in tune with the surface you are running on. But extended running on rough trail does tend to abuse the feet somewhat more than running in shoes with more cushioning. Part of the adaptation one makes to running in Five Fingers shoes is to develop the foot muscles more to take advantage of the new-found capability to “feel” the ground you’re running on, and you can then adapt to longer running on rougher trails.

4. There is no fundamental requirement that you change your running gait to use Five Fingers shoes. However, the absence of heel cushioning certainly encourages a switch to something more like “Pose” running, where you land first on the ball of your foot rather than the heel. It’s a big enough change for distance running, that I didn’t do it immediately. But having made the transition, I really like what it does for me. It significantly reduced the stress on my injured knee, and it has probably given me a bit more spring
in my step and some resulting speed. Surprisingly, to watch me run, you might not even notice the difference. I already tended to land nearly level-footed, so the change is fairly subtle to a casual observer. I still land nearly level-footed, but tipped slightly the other way. From a muscle training point of view, it was necessary to develop a little more strength in the calf muscles, since they now play more of a role in absorbing the impact of each footfall, but that didn't take very long (for me, at least).

5. So far, my Five-Fingers are showing very few signs of wear and tear, though my total experience is probably still under 200 miles or so. One strap started to fray (possibly due to a manufacturing “defect” where the slot that the strap goes through was a bit too sharp), and I added a small piece of leather to repair the strap and take the wear. I don’t yet know what the ultimate failure mode that will cause me to retire the shoes is likely to be.

6. I haven’t yet worked up to runs of much more than a couple of hours, so I don’t yet know what issues will come up. So far, though, I’m not seeing any likely limitations, and I’m hoping that my chronic struggles with toenail bruising on multi-hour runs will be a thing of the past.