Friday, October 21, 2005

Dr Ultra - An Interview with Ultrarunner Marty Hoffman

Dr. Ultra - An Interview with Ultrarunner Marty Hoffman

Dr. Marty Hoffman is currently a top contender in the 2005 Fuel Belt Series, and has been a regular ultra runner for many years. If Marty is in an ultra, you can expect he will be placing in the top 10, such as his recent finishes in the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 mile/RRCA National Championships (8th), Run On The Sly 50k (1st), or his 1998 2nd overall/1st male at the Kettle Moraine 100-miler. He’s a great guy to pace with too – as a teaching physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, he knows all about how the body reacts to the stresses of endurance sports. He’s a natural teacher, so he’s happy to share tips and communicate in a way that even a half-bonked ultra runner like me can understand.

I caught up with Marty after his win at the Run On The Sly 50k, as he faces the last two races in the Fuel Best Series.

(Marty Hoffman at the 2005 Rucky Chucky, photo courtesy of Facchino Photography)

First, congratulations on a great season! Your finishes in the series have been consistently at the top. How many races do you have left in the series?

Thanks. It’s been fun getting back into trail racing after not doing so much for a few years. At this point, there are only a couple more races in the series – Lake of the Sky and Helen Klein. I plan to do Helen Klein. I will miss Lake of the Sky this year because I know better than to think that I can be adequately recovered to run my best within three weeks of running the Rio Del Lago 100.

What are your chances on winning the whole she-bang? Is there anyone in your rear-view mirror?

At the moment, I’m on top with the points from Rio Del Lago, but there very well may be some shifting of positions before the series is over. In this sort of thing, it’s not necessarily the best runner who takes the prize. It mostly depends on who gets in enough of the right races and runs reasonably well. If I end up winning, it’s not because I’m the best runner in the series.

When did you start trail running? Have you always been an athlete?

Like most kids in the 60’s and early 70’s, I was into team sports. But, after getting tired of that mentality and being cut from the high school baseball team, I started running as a junior in high school. That’s also when I became an athlete. I was most fortunate to have a great high school coach who set the foundation for making running part of my lifestyle. I competed in track and cross-country through college, and also started running marathons during that time period. My first ultra was in 1985 when I was 29 – the American Medical Joggers Association 50 mile in Chicago. The race was held on a flat 5 mile stretch of asphalt along the lake front. I recall, after comfortably coming through the marathon in under 3 hours, I proceeded to learn how tight ones hamstrings can get – a painful lesson that day, but it got me hooked on the challenges of ultrarunning. It also got me looking for trail ultras, and that’s when I started running the Ice Age 50. But, about the same time, I was getting serious about cross-country ski racing, and running just became part of my training for skiing. I continued to focus on cross-country skiing until about 1996 after a few top-200 finishes in the American Birkebeiner. But, as time became more precious, the focus went back to running, and I ran my first 100 miler at the inaugural Kettle Moraine 100 in 1996.

You’re a PM&R doctor and your research relates to exercise, correct? Has this helped you become a better trail runner?

Most of my research falls within the umbrella of applied exercise physiology. Much of this work has focused on factors affecting the economy of human movement. For several years, we did a lot of research on cross-country skiing and the ski skating techniques that were new to the sport. More recently, much of my research has been related to the effects of exercise on pain perception. Our work has demonstrated that pain perception can be transiently decreased after a 20-30 minute bout of exercise in healthy people, as well as individuals with chronic low back pain. Wondering what might happen with an extreme amount of exercise, we measured pain perception at the 2005 Western States 100. Since these results haven’t been published yet, you’ll have to stay tuned to hear the findings.

Clinically, I’ve mostly worked in the areas of cardiac rehabilitation and musculoskeletal medicine. Initially, I largely did sports medicine, and worked for several years with the US Biathlon team as a team physician and researcher. Over the past decade, I’ve been treating folks with a wide spectrum of musculoskeletal disorders, including chronic pain.

Given this medical and exercise science background, it’s likely that non-runners would think that I should know better than to run so much! Actually, the knowledge probably has paid off some and helps me make up for what I lack in genetics. It has likely helped some in the sense that I have a good understanding of what it takes to physically prepare for the demands of the sport, and how to avoid and treat injuries. I might also be a little more protected from some of the vulnerabilities athletes might have to various unfounded products and training techniques that get promoted.

What do your students think of your ultrarunning? Is your family supportive as well?

I’ve probably been fortunate that the students and residents have generally been kind enough to not tell me what they think. I do know that they don’t always appreciate me making them take the stairs when we’re making rounds in the hospital! But hopefully, they don’t look at me as being so off the wall that I don’t make at least a bit of a positive impact.

As for my family, they’ve been very supportive. Although, they may not fully understand why I do this, it’s evident that they are more likely to admire me for what I do than think I need to be committed. They had their first practice crewing this year at Rio Del Lago and had a great time, managed not to get lost, and didn’t feel too sorry for me. In fact, I think my sons really had fun pacing me a few miles and actually enjoyed seeing me suffer!

What inspires you to run? And keep up the training?

Well that’s the million dollar question! If we could answer that, and bottle a bit of it for the majority of our population that doesn’t exercise and is over weight, then we would really make an impact.

The truth is, after over 33 years of running, I still have difficulty articulating the answer to the “why” question. So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that those who don’t do this, can’t fully understand its value.

In my case, I see the driving force for performing regular exercise as different from that for preparing for competition. Simply put, my motivation for regular exercise is inherent - exercise is fun, it feels good and I know it’s healthy. In contrast, training to compete goes beyond health, and is not always the most healthy behavior. To optimize performance, you need to be close to the edge, and sometimes you end up going over. In my younger days, the driving force to train at that level mostly related to external rewards of recognition (what little there was!). But over time, the drive has come more from the internal sense of success that I just can’t experience in any grander manner than from a challenge that offers plenty of opportunity for failure. The hard training is also about the continued pursuit of those days when everything just falls in place and you’re flying effortlessly down the trail. I must say that I still find it intriguing to see what the human body can do. I enjoy being around people performing such amazing things, and experiencing some of that myself.

(Marty at the 2005 Run On The Sly, photo courtesy of Don Charles Lundell)

Your 50k and 50-mile performances are outstanding. Have you done 100-mile events since Kettle Moraine? How about shorter events, like ½ marathons?

Well thanks Scott! Since the 1998 KM100, I actually took a hiatus from any real focus on competition until just recently. The loss of my first wife to a long battle with breast cancer, combined with a young family put any interest in serious competition on the back burner. Although I continued to run the Ice Age 50 each year (my home course at the time), running became my way of maintaining mental and physical health. I learned just how important regular exercise can be when going through stressful times. As a single parent trying to maintain an active professional career, I also recognized that most of the excuses I hear from people claiming they don’t have enough time to exercise aren’t very credible!

Do you train with a running club, or have a group of other ultrarunners you train with?

These days, a lot of my training is with my wife. I got her running in 2000, shortly after we met. She’s a naturally gifted runner, but somewhat to my dismay, seems to have no interest in putting her natural talents into a competitive situation. Nonetheless, she’s a great training partner and it’s wonderful to have this time together. Since she prefers running in the morning when she’s still half asleep, and that’s my worst time of the day to run, she gives me a decent workout most weekdays. I generally get in a long run on the weekend. There’s a great group of folks (the Trail People) who I used to sometimes connect with for long runs while I was still living in the Milwaukee area. And there’s quite a network of great people in Northern California that I’m now beginning to connect with.

Lastly, a few training questions. What’s a typical training week look like for you? How many miles? When do you add in speed work?

Due to other demands, I’m not able to get in quite as much training as I would like, but things are much better in that regard than in the past. My usual “baseline” training week currently consists of seven miles most weekday mornings, an extra seven one weekday evening, and a trail run of around 25-35 on the weekend. I’ll bump that up with an extra run of around 15 miles during the week when preparing for a longer race. I’ll add a little speed play when training for an event that might require a faster than usual pace, but avoid doing anything too structured. I also try to do a little trunk and leg strengthening work a couple times per week.

What are your favorite foods/race snacks?

I’ve learned that I have to be a little more careful about what I eat than some folks. This became clear in college when I recognized that I was better off sleeping in than getting up and eating breakfast before a Saturday morning cross-country race. Of course, the coach thought I was just lazy, but I knew my GI system wouldn’t rebel if my stomach was empty. However, getting through an ultramarathon requires the intake of some fluid and calories along the way. After a couple bad experiences this year, I’ve finally learned to stay away from fructose, and seem to do best with water and gels that include a little protein. This will generally get me through races up to 50 miles. Beyond that distance, I typically have challenges with nausea, and nothing that is at all sweet is tolerable. That’s when I end up resorting mostly to things like pretzels, soup and peanut butter sandwiches. Obviously, I’m still figuring this out since the nausea was a serious issue for me at Rio Del Lago this year where I was down 12 pounds at the finish because of difficulty forcing down anything in the last half of the race.

Do you cross-train at all in other sports, or stay specific to trail running?

Well, if wine tasting doesn’t count, then running is about all I’m doing right now! After a decade of competitive cross-country skiing, I haven’t been on cross-country skis since the last race I did, which was in France in 1998. I’ve intermittently trained at sea kayaking over the past 20 years, and when we first moved to northern California about two years ago, I had done a couple kayak races before my first running race. But, with the focus on running, there’s not been enough time to continue kayaking either. Certainly, I’d be healthier overall by including some skiing or kayaking in my program, but doing your best to get ready to race is not just about being healthy.

A lot of the blog readers love to hear about “lessons learned” (ie, things that didn’t go right that perhaps they could avoid). Any you would like to pass on?

One thing I recall from my early days of ultra running was the leg pain, especially affecting the quadriceps and hip flexors. Over years of running long distances, the muscles adapt to tolerate the eccentric (lengthening) contractions they experience while running. At some point, the limiting factor then relates to energy availability rather than leg pain. When my performance was still limited by leg pain, I experimented with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications. But, after producing bloody urine for nearly the last 50 miles of a 100 miler, I became much more cautious about the use of these medications. At this point, I wouldn’t recommend taking such medications since they reduce kidney blood flow in a situation where there is already the potential for a significant compromise in blood flow to this organ due to dehydration. It’s my opinion that if you need something for pain, acetaminophen is a better option.

Another thing I’ve learned is the value of having a good pacer in a 100 miler. I’ve run 100’s with and without a pacer. It can certainly be an interesting experience going the distance alone. But, if running your best time is your goal, then you should have a pacer who understands the needs in such an event and can take good care of you but will also continue to push you.

Your “on the fly tips” that you gave to me at the Rucky Chucky 50k (my second ultra) were really helpful. Any tips you would like to pass on to somebody trying their first ultra?

Well, I’m glad that helped, and that you didn’t end up landing flat on your face as a result of my advice. I really don’t have anything too enlightening for the newcomer to the sport. But, I would certainly recommend continuing to ask your fellow runners how they deal with the issues you may be concerned about. I’m still asking questions. And as a group, ultra runners are the most supportive bunch I’ve ever associated with. Also, during the race, remember to hang in there when things seem to be getting tough. It’s often hard to imagine, but things really can get better after going pretty sour, if you just hang in there…not so different from life itself, sometimes!

What’s next on the race/run agenda?

I’m sure hoping that the 2006 Western States is the next big race. I have to get in next year if there’s any hope of running 20 of them by the time I’m 70!

Thanks for a great interview!

- SD


  1. Scott-

    I followed your link. Hoffman isn't a "top contender"...he's #1!!! By quite a few points. That's great he's having such a good season.

  2. Another good interview, Scott. Thanks. I like that you find these great people that I haven't heard about. I'll be looking for Dr. H on the trail for tips!

  3. I met this guy at RoS, and Marty is super nice. Congatulations, Marty!


  4. Thanks for all the great interviews full of helpful information for ultra and trail runners, and runners in general.
    I especially liked his comment about the use, and as seen too often, the abuse of anti inflamatories while running long distances. Not a good idea to keep popping pills to dull the pain.

  5. As a good friend and my former running partner once told me, "Horses alway run faster back to the barn". This was conveyed to me while running the trails in the South Kettle Morriane in Wisconsin. This quote came from the horses mouth,Marty.
    Congrats Marty and Happy Trails to You

  6. As a trail runner - formerly from SE WI - let me tell you - Marty is a great person and far more competitive runner than his humble persona and interview would lead the unsuspecting reader! His laid back style got me into a death defying run/trek up Long's Peak, in Colorado! congrats Marty on your official return - Run Strong!

  7. You look in a very good shape on these pictures Marty. I'm looking forward to see you again... provided you don't beat me at the WS100 !!!
    The French guy.

  8. Looks like Dr. Hoffman got 2nd place overall in the Fuel Belt Ultra Series after getting 4th at the Helen Klein (he did the 50k).

  9. For all those aches and pain after a long run try a memory foam mattress. Sheer bliss!

  10. I love running, but I also enjoy sleeping on my my memory foam mattress. After a long run it great to relax on.

  11. Just got back into running after 35 years doing the family thing, work, eat and sleep routine. Just realised what I have missed during all this time. Freedom and fresh air!


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