Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The 2007 Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica (Guest Blogger Beverly Anderson Abbs)

[I'm delighted to have a full race report for The 6-Day Coastal Challenge ultra endurance race that took place in Costa Rica in Feb, 2007, provided by 2005 winner and ultra-guru, Beverly Anderson Abbs. If this ultra/adventure madness sounds like your kind of thing, Trail Runner Magazine has an online drawing for a free entry for 2008 here. Thanks and congratulations, Bev and Alan!]

After participating in the Coastal Challenge in 2005 following the west coast of Costa Rica south, I was excited to return for “The Route of Fire” heading north to the border of Nicaragua in 2007. It was to be more in the cloud forests than on the beaches and promised to show some area of the Country we had not seen before. The Web site promised 45% cloud forest and highland trail, 25% coastal running, and 30% rainforest roads and trails. Alan and I arrived at the host hotel on Saturday afternoon. We checked in and immediately started seeing familiar faces from the ’05 run as well as faces that always seem to be at events we go to. Doone and Tim Watson, Tanya and Glenn Meeth, Dot Helling, Stefani Jackenthal, Jim Mandelli, Roger Rojas, and many more. If nothing else this would be a great week to spend with some fantastic people and catch up on stories!

(Bev and Alan Abbs at the start; the only times their clothes will be clean for the week)

Day 1 – distance listed 21k; actual 26k

Saturday evening was a brief introduction and “celebration” that ended early enough for us to grab some dinner and get to bed early. We were to be loaded on buses at 5:00am for a drive to the town of Fortuna for the start. The night went very quickly and surprisingly, everyone had gear loaded and was on the buses and rolling by shortly after five. Not an easy task with over 100 sleepy people involved! We stopped for a couple of stretch breaks and arrived in the town of La Fortuna with almost two hours to poke around town before the start. This gave us a chance to enjoy the local culture and relax in the shadow of the volcano Arenal, which we would be climbing shortly. The overcast kept the temperatures down for the start of the race.

(And they're off!)

Finally we were ready to start and lined up in pairs for a processional through town. A group of Costa Ricans immediately moved to the front and settled in to a warm up pace while Alan and I, starting at the back, picked up our pace a little to get closer to the front. The pace accelerated along the next 5 k to the first aid station. Juan Carlos Zuniga, Kurt Lindermeyer, and Ronald Torres, all local runners, were ahead of me, Trevor Garner and Roger just behind. I left the aid station and shortly after came to a “T” intersection with no markings. I waited there for Roger, knowing that he was familiar with much of the course. Just as he arrived, the group ahead of me came back along the road, having taken the wrong turn. We began climbing up a serious grade along the side of the volcano. This section was more a scramble up the very steep, muddy, root covered trail. I was often pulling myself up sections using tree roots and, more than once got a push up from Roger as I was too short to make some of the reaches. What a blast! All too soon, we reached the top of the climb and started the downhill scramble; hopping down 2 - 3 foot drops, skidding and sliding in the slippery mud. If this is what the week was to be like, we were in for some long, but incredibly fun days.

This trail section ended on a dirt road that descended to the 2nd aid station near a creek. One more huge climb followed for the Expedition runners while the Adventure Category skirted around and we were overlooking Rancho Margo where we would be staying the night. The final downhill was a shoe sucking mud bog and several people, including me, had to spend some time digging shoes out after taking a step forward only to find ourselves in our socks! The stage ended at a cool pool where runners immediately jumped in the water to wash off the mud and cool off. Unfortunately, this stage took some casualties with Mark Matyazik “hurting” his foot, to find out upon return the U.S. that he had actually broken the second metatarsal, and Dot cracking a rib. Juan Carlos finished 1st in 2:23, followed by Ronald Torres, and Kurt for the men. I finished 6th overall, 1st female in 2:50, with local runner Ligia Madrigal and Meghan Hicks 2nd and 3rd.

(Leader and eventual winner, Juan Carlos Zuniga)

Day 2 – distance listed 59k; actual 67k

The second day again started early as this would be the longest stage. The start was bumped back from 5:30 to 5:45 to allow for a little more light for crossing the river in the first few minutes. Again, the crowd started and Alan and I kept pace, hopping over and skirting puddles. Knowing that we were crossing a river in a couple minutes, I still am not quite sure why we were all so careful to keep our feet dry. Alan helped me cross the river and we got back into our running rhythm on the soft rainforest road on the other side. Again the Juan Carlos, Kurt, Ronald group was just ahead and as we rounded a turn they were shooing a couple of dogs away. These dogs appeared to be heading back to their home and Alan and I kept running. Suddenly, one of the dogs wheeled around and attached itself to my calf, teeth tearing through the skin as my leg pulled through on the stride, leaving a bleeding, nasty gash. I screamed and let out a string of words I didn’t know I had in my vocabulary while Alan chased the dogs off and pressed the wound closed to stop the bleeding. Minutes later we were joined by Roger and were off running. The three of us stayed together through much of this day, giving it more of an adventure race feel as we stopped for each other and helped one another with food, electrolytes, etc.

We climbed through a grassy path in driving rain, coming upon Ronald Torres. In a brief conversation in Spanish with Roger he let us know that he had pulled a muscle but he was okay and would carry on. We continued to the remote 2nd aid station at the top of a climb where the still smiling volunteers had no protection from the wind and rain besides a tarp. They helped us fill bottles and got us moving back down the other side of the hill where we got to run out of the weather they were stuck in.

(Beautiful views around Costa Rica)

Continuing along dirt and paved roads through the next small town we reached the 3rd aid station. By the time we arrived there word about my dog bite had spread forward, and Doctor Kyle was there to administer first aid. As I was filling bottles and grabbing a bite to eat, he scrubbed and bandaged my leg, getting me off just a couple minutes behind Roger, who was walking so I could catch him.

More rolling hills and we arrived at the 4th and final aid station, filled bottles one more time and climbed up to the infamous windmills. We topped out on the hill to see a seemingly endless ridgeline of rolling terrain with windmills following a red dirt road. Of course, where there are windmills, there must be wind…and this area did not disappoint. The wind was gusting to 50 mph, so strong we were running on an angle and were easily tossed around the road. I placed Roger on my windward side in hopes of cutting the wind, with very little success. We caught up to Trevor along this section and the final uphill kilometer turned into a race between him and Roger. I was content to trudge along in the wind feeling a bit sorry for myself and wishing my calf hurt worse so I could call it up as an excuse for not keeping up.

Finally, the end was in sight and I ran in only a couple minutes behind the boys. Alan arrived shortly after and others continued to stream in throughout the day. We found a small cantina across the street and wandered over to take in some local culture and track down a cold coke. The Medical team soon found me to clean up my wound and stitched it up. Eleven stitches later and some strong pain killers and I was ready for the next days run.

Juan Carlos was again the winner, followed by Kurt, then Trevor and Roger. I finished 5th overall, 1st female, with Ligia and Meghan again in 2nd and 3rd.

Day 3 – distance listed 18k; actual pretty close

Day three was a short, fast, downhill “connector” day to give runners most of the day to recover before the next long run on Day 4. It was to be 18k with some rolling downhill, finishing with a long paved section. I was hoping to run this day fairly quickly although I had been warned about the possibility of tearing out my new stitches. The run started with some climbing and this was one of the days that volunteers were able to run as well. With the long downhill stretches, it would have been hard to hold back. I ran just behind Kurt for a while and when dogs came out, he would stop, pick up rocks and guard as I went past, mindful of my new dog phobia. At the single aid station, I noticed that Roger was a few hundred yards behind running with Monica, the nutritionist involved with making our fantastic meals and the female Costa Rican triathlon champion. After the aid station, Stefani Jackenthal caught me on her bike and pushed my pace up as she encouraged and chatted with me. Stefani had finished 2nd female in 2005 and had been scheduled to run again this year but found she had an injury that would not allow her to run these miles day after day. I finished before 9:00am with runners coming in steadily until around 11:00am. We set up tents in a soccer field and proceeded to relax in preparation for the next long day.

(Sunrise over the mountains)

The men’s finishers changed order a little with Javier Montero 1st in 1:27, Juan Carlos 2nd and Trevor 3rd. On the women’s side, I was 1st overall in 1:37, Ligia, then Irene Hale rounded out the top 3.

Day 4 – distance listed 49k; actual 55k

This day again started bright and early to accommodate the potentially very long day. Since we were at the base of mountains we knew that we would have to climb from the start and sure enough, we got onto a gravel road and climbed…and climbed. This was not a climb anyone would make serious time on, 4 kilometers and quite steep! I reached the top with Roger and was treated to an incredible view of the pristine valley far, far below us.

(You want steep? How about a volcano?!?)

Of course this meant we were going to be going down to it and Costa Rican roads are not known for switchbacks and gentle slopes. We headed straight down the side of the mountain! Skidding, hopping, trying desperately to keep feet underneath, Alan Abbs, the mountain goat, flew past me and caught and passed Roger on this 3 kilometer descent. Once we reached flatter ground, I notched up my pace slightly to catch them and after what seemed forever, I finally did. We passed through a couple of villages where school children in uniforms waved and yelled “Hola!” as we ran by. I set my pace to run once again with Alan and Roger. By the time we reached the third aid station Roger and Alan had fallen a little behind and I caught up to Trevor. In turn I was caught by Benji and Abhijeet looking like they were running a 5k!

Trevor kept on with them while I settled into what seemed an agonizingly slow pace through miles of dirt and gravel roads to the final aid station. We had been promised something very cool and fun after this point and I was not disappointed. A short bushwhack brought me to a river where I was told I could swim or try to work my way around the boulders, but ultimately I needed to get about a kilometer up river to a waterfall. Without hesitation I hooked my hand bottle onto my waist pack and jumped in the water. Several sections of boulder scrambling and a few more swims and I had almost forgotten the hot dusty road. I arrived at the waterfall and was told I had about 3k to go. Fifty minutes back on hot, dusty roads later (no, it wasn’t 3k) and I was at the finish.

People started trickling in to the finish, the Adventure Category folks were bused in from some point prior to the river section. Eventually a bus was lined up to take people back to the waterfall to hang out and cheer on the runners coming through (and make sure nobody told them it was only 3 k to the finish). At the waterfall we got to watch the adventure tour group rappelling down the falls then getting into river tubes for an exciting trip down the river we had just come up.

Javier Montero again finished 1st overall in 5:16, Juan Carlos was just behind him and Benji made a dash from his group to finish 3rd. I again finished 1st for the women, followed once again by Ligia and Irene.

Day 5 – distance listed 32k; actual 35

We were bused to a small town Curubanda, early in the morning to start the run around 7:00am. Since we were now into the hotter, dryer part of the country, had we started at the stated time of 10:00am, the heat could have been even more miserable than it was. We headed out from the little town and shortly before arriving at the 1st aid station after running on dirt roads; people started to realize we had just done a big loop and were back at the start. The usual people were ahead of me, including Trevor, who had been just behind me until I was cornered by 2 snarling dogs. (At this point I’m beginning to wonder what it is with me and Costa Rican dogs) Once I scared the dogs away, Trevor flew past with a wave and a “Hey nice job with the dogs”.

(Heading down into the valley)

We continued on roads to the 2nd aid station, where I realized the finish was a couple hundred meters down the trail to my left. Do I go there…oh no…more roads, in another big loop. I checked my race notes and found that the 2nd aid station should be at a school. Since I was coming to some houses I asked a man on a motorcycle if the school was near “2 kilometers” was the reply with a smile. About 200 yards later I rounded a corner and there it was! I poured water over my head, filled my bottles and headed off. This next section was tough, I had been thinking this would be a quick day and had not planned electrolytes well. My hands were swelling and I was having some trouble keeping my pace up. I had a couple sample packs of Sunsweet dried plums that I ate and washed down with my water spiked with nuun and felt better in a short while. The course continued through rolling farmland and I started catching glimpses of water. I knew we were finishing on a beach and when I saw a woman on the road I asked “Playa?”

“Very near” she replied “2 kilometers”.

About 5 minutes later I was on the beach and running the final few hundred meters down the sand. When I finished, I discovered that somewhere along the line, I had passed Trevor and finished 4th overall with Javier, Juan Carlos, and Ronald ahead of me. Ligia once again, followed me for second and Doone Watson from my home town of Calgary, Alberta, Canada was hot on her heels. (Go Canada!)

(Watch your step at the beach!)

The beach was fabulous and we spent a good part of the day playing in the ocean and lying in the sand. We discovered a small nest of sea turtles that were about a month late in hatching and watched and followed each baby as it made its way to the ocean. The urge to “help out” was strong in many people, but the young turtles need that journey to build the muscles in their shoulders for swimming so we remained content to watch and follow, of course, to some extent “helping” just by being there, thus keeping the birds away. The sunset was spectacular and Stefani, Jim and I spent the evening chatting and enjoying the beautiful surroundings.

Day 6 – distance listed 18k.

Day 6 started at 9:00am, allowing for a leisurely morning. This was to allow for the tidal change so we could get around some rocky outcroppings later in the run. I had planned to run this day as an easy, chat with people day. No pressure, just enjoy the day with some good people.

(Racers head down the beach on the last day)

We started by backtracking up the beach and Monica and Roger were just ahead of me. I caught them and we fell into a fairly easy pace, content to walk up the hills. We soon found we were backtracking the same dirt roads we had come in yesterday. This was supposed to be coasteering…we were going away from the coast so fast, there couldn’t possibly any time on the beach.

We were soon on very wide, main dirt roads in nasty hot, dusty conditions. The race buses and trucks drove by with people cheering out the windows. I continued trotting along with Roger and Monica to the one aid station where I filled up my bottle and put a handful of ice down my sports bra. Monica stopped at this aid station to catch a ride to the finish while Roger and I carried on.

Still more, wide dirt road and we saw Kurt just up ahead. Roger picked up his pace to pass him while I just settled in to run the rest of the distance with Kurt. Finally we came to actual beach then shifted to coasteering along boulders and volcanic outcroppings interspersed with beach running. This section brought a huge smile to my face as I hopped along the slick rocks with Kurt calling to me to be careful.

(Chillin' with fellow racers at the pool)

Unfortunately it lasted a mere 1 kilometer and we were back on dirt roads for the final couple of kilometers to the finish. I waited for Kurt to catch back up and finished with him at the wonderful Bolanos Bay Resort where we all had rooms for the night. We lay around the pool the rest of the day, eating, drinking, and telling stories.

Javier, Juan Carlos, and Ronald again rounded out the top three men, while I, Ligia, and Doone finished top three for the women. (all results here)

That evening was the dinner and “awards” ceremony, recognizing the top three men, Juan Carlos, Kurt, and Javier claimed these top three positions for men, receiving inscribed machetes. As an apparent afterthought, the top three women, Bev, Ligia, and Meghan were also given inscribed machetes as awards. Such memories!

(Bev receives her 1st place award machete - congrats!)

Monday, February 26, 2007

Runner's World to Acquire Running Times Magazine

Today, Rodale, Inc., publisher of Runner's World magazine, announced the acquisition of Running Times Magazine for an undisclosed price. Both magazines have been doing well in the last few years (Runner's World has a base rate of 630,000 subscribers, while Running Times has 105,000 but is growing faster; both are increasing ad revenues). Apparently the plan is to continue to let them run independently, short of combining their run race calendars. Man, let's hope so. I've always found Running Times to be a quality, unique read written by competitive runners.

So this is my plead to Rodale. Please, please, please allow Running Times to continue down the path on which it has flourished. Let it be a unique voice with content for competitive runners. Don't let it get watered down to mass appeal - I know you do that formula well with Runner's World, Cycling, Backpacker, and Mountain Bike, but we don't need another one. I promise to continue enduring the 15-20 pieces of junk mail you send me every month as an even exchange. ;-)

The best saving grace for running content has been all the wonderful running blogs that continue to spring up every month. So many unique voices, all doing incredible things! Not to mention one of the only ways you can read 1,000 words on a race experience complete with 20 pictures. Keep at it, and we will always have an alternative.

Thx, SD

Friday, February 23, 2007

Neil Weygandt - An Enduring Friend and Runner (News of Delaware County)

Here's a great article about Neil Weygandt, an outstanding distance runner whom I met at the 2006 Boston Marathon (he was going for his 40th consecutive Boston!). I didn't realize Neil has been a legend for quite sometime in the marathon and ultra world. He won an NCAA championship in 1960, has won several marathons, and has respectable PR's in the 50-mile (5:51), 100-mile (14:35), 24 Hour (133.8, then a US indoor record), and 6-day (452 miles). Whew!

(Neil Weygant at the 2006 Boston Marathon)

Favorite quotes:
Yet Weygandt recalls the positives: the camaraderie and friendships formed at these races. While daytime could be brutal, he says, he enjoyed the respite from the heat that night running offered.

With all that he has accomplished in running, friends never fail to cite his modesty and willingness to support other runners, regardless of speed. "Even when he has been injured," says Ann Warsing, a member of his support team for the Philadelphia to Atlantic City 100k, "he has attended races just to cheer on the runners." Adds Schultz, "Win, lose, or tie, Neil would somehow find a way to congratulate your effort and downplay his."
He was recently awarded the Jack Saint Clair Award, given each year by the Philadelphia Athletic Charities Track Club. Congrats, Neil, and I'll see you at Boston '07!


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Charlie Engle, Ray Zahab, and Kevin Lin Cross 4,000 Mile Sahara in 111 days

Running close to two marathons per day for over 3 months, Charlie Engle, Ray Zahab, and Kevin Lin have completed their 4,000 mile trek across the Sahara desert. You can read the full story here (NY Times), as well as here (press page).

A snippet from the NY Times article:
At several points in their trek, the athletes stopped near sparsely populated wells to talk with villagers and nomads about the difficulties they face finding water. That marked another goal of the run -- raising awareness for the clean water nonprofit group H2O Africa.

''We have seen firsthand the need for clean water, which we take for granted in North America. It's such a foundation for any community,'' Zahab said during day 108's lunch break. The three plan to fund-raise for the group after they return home and finish recuperating.

''It started off as a huge motivator, especially as we passed through countries where the water wasn't clean,'' Engle said.

Look at that map. 100 degree days for 3+ months?!? These guys are seriously extreme.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Interview with Mark Tanaka, 2006 PA/USATF and Fuel Belt Ultrarunner.net Series Champion

Dr. Mark Tanaka is a familiar face in the California Ultra scene since he races just about everything on the schedule. Sometimes he goes fast (2nd at the 2006 Rio de Lago 100-miler in under 18 1/2 hours) and sometimes he takes his time (last one the cross the finish line at the 2006 Tahoe Rim Trail 100-miler), but he always has fun. Mark recently edged out Jon Olsen in a close race for the 2006 Fuel Belt Ultrarunner.net Series that came down to the wire at the Helen Klein 50-miler, as well as winning by close margin the Men's Senior (age 30-39) division of the PA/USATF Ultra Running Grand Prix.

(Mark Tanaka at the 2006 Skyline 50k)

I caught up with Mark shortly after he finished 4th at the 2007 Jed Smith 50k, the first race of the 2007 Grand Prix.

First, congratulations on a great season! You sure raced a lot. How is it that you can race competitively so many times in one year? Any injuries?

Thanks, Scott. I was lucky and pleased to be able to race often (and race hard) without getting hurt last year. I knew of several others racing a lot in Northern California who were hindered by injuries. A few times my iliotibial band started complaining, but it never flared outright like it did few times in the previous two years.

You won both the Ulrarunner.net race series as well as the 30-39 Open Senior Men's Division of the PA/USATF Ultra Grand Prix. Were those goals of yours from the beginning of the year?

Definitely not, as I doubted I would win either. I didn't even sign up for PA/USATF until after the American River 50, where I finished a lot faster than I had anticipated, and noticed that I would have received Series points for it. I thought it would be fun to sign up, see how the points stacked up, as well as support a good cause. After a few runs, I found myself at or near the top. Obviously there are lots of faster runners, who, by running just a few more races, could have beaten me in the series. Perhaps because I knew this--that this might be my only chance-- when it looked like I had a chance at winning near the end of the year, I really wanted it, and lucked out.

With the Ultrarunner series, it was a similar story. I knew I wanted to do the Tahoe 100 miler since I didn't get into Western States, and that I wanted to run Rio del Lago again. So I thought I might as well enter some of the other races and maybe win something. Robert Mathis had to cancel Rucky Chucky Roundabout, and then the results for the Overlook Run, where I would've come in 3rd, were thrown out. I suspect a lot of potential series competitors got frustrated by that. I later noticed that the point totals weren't accurate for the Tahoe 100, so it looked like I was way ahead of everyone. I emailed Robert, who corrected it, and then offered double points for Lake of the Sky in mid-October, forcing me to really work to stay on top. I got lost in the last mile or two, adding 15-20 minutes to my time. Jon Olsen was neck-and-neck throughout the whole season. Had Jon Olsen run the Tahoe 50 mile instead of the 50 km, I wouldn't've have had a chance. But fortunately I ran a good race at Helen Klein (50 mile), staying within 20 minutes of Jon.

What were your highlights of the year?

It was all fun. I lowered my times in every race I'd done before, sometimes to a suprising degree. My two 100's, being 100's, were more memorable. Barely finishing Tahoe was an accomplishment I will always be very proud of, given that for more than 16 or so hours, I really doubted if I was going to finish. I'm guessing it was the altitude that made me feel so weak the second half--it seems many of the 40% that didn't finish were lowlanders like myself. Being able to come back to Rio del Lago and run well was huge. I guess I redeemed myself placewise, but more importantly, I corrected and improved lots of things from the previous year, my first attempt at the distance.

(Mark climbs Marlett Peak for the second time at the TRT 100;
photo courtesy of Matt Chamberlain)

I felt pretty good about some of my quick turnarounds from race to race. Finishing 4th at Quicksilver 50 mile and then 4th (under 5:15) at Ohlone 50k the next weekend. Also coming in 4th at Firetrails (50 mile) two weeks after Rio. Actually in October I ran Lake of the Sky a week after Firetrails and would've come in 3rd until I got lost near the end; then the following week I initially finished in 2nd until I figured out I'd missed a whole aid station and cut about 1 1/2 miles from the course. So I contacted the race director and asked him to nuke my results. Sort of frustrating, but apparently it wasn't totally my fault, and I still had fun on a beautiful course.

Your family must be very supportive. I think I met your son at Ohlone this year. Is he your crew chief?

Well, for better or worse, Peter often calls the shots at home, so I guess that makes him my chief. He's always drinking from my water bottle, so he might not make the best crew chief (in truth, I've never had a crew for even the 100 mile races).

My wife has been very accomodating and supportive, but I'd be lying if I didn't tell you all this racing has and always will require compromise and negotiation, even if can win a deluxe king size mattress that she loves (the grand prize for the Fuel Belt Series). I don't ask her to crew, since taking care of our toddler without me around is enough responsibility. If there's stuff for her and Peter to do near the race then she'll come along. Otherwise I go alone.

(Crew chief Peter helps Dad with his water bottle at the Ohlone 50k)

You are an emergency room doctor, yes? Aside from lots of practice at all-nighters, how does your career help your running?

Being an "ER doc" is often very stressful and intense, involving trying to make a lot of people happy and alive and well at the same time, often when there is no time. If anything, my job probably more than trains me to deal with the stress of running. You have to multitask a ridiculous amount.

It's something more mundane, my schedule, that most impacts my running. Shift work means irregular hours. Half of my shifts end around midnight and at least one of my weekends is completely shot working night shifts each month. For every race I'm able to schedule, I need to reciprocate to my wife by giving her personal time another weekend while I take care of our son. Any other time I'm off in the evenings, I want to spend it with my family, whom I might not see for days otherwise, save for frenetic morning encounters before my wife goes to work and takes our son to daycare and then I try to go back to sleep. Therefore it's hard to make group training runs, usually held in the evenings or on the weekend. It would be nice to enjoy more of the social aspect of this sport, and maybe that's another reason I like to race.

As if my work weren't intense enough, a few times a month I work an especially long shift made up of two 8-hour shifts back to back. These can be really really draining and take a lot of mental endurance, and remind me that running for 16 hours straight is actually fun.

The Rio del Lago 100 in 2005 was your first 100-miler, and you raced a couple more this year. How has it been stepping up to the big distances?

It's really awesome. I remember during my first AR50 run in 2004 talking to a bunch of guys who had done States or other 100 milers, and being awed by both the idea and by how normal they made it seem. Until then, I thought it was something that maybe I would want to do, but probably it would be too painful or difficult to try. Eventually I got the nerve to try it. Running longer than 60 or so miles makes the experience not only quantitatively, but qualitative different. You have to think about nutrition thing a lot more, you have to prepare those drop bags, and there's the running in the dark. I feel like I haven't fully "stepped up" yet, having tried only 2 different 100 milers.

Have you always been a runner? When did you get into ultras?

I ran cross country in junior high and high school, but was never particularly fast. My high school coach seemed convinced if I weren't such a wimp and actually was willing to undergo some real pain, I could run sub-14 minute 5-k's, but that's something I never came close to.

I probably learned the most about pain and endurance from wrestling practices in high school, as well as practicing a martial art when I studied abroad in Japan during college. We would do crazy stuff like do knuckle pushups for 2-3 hours straight, or at least try to.

I bandited the Boston Marathon my senior year of college-- I doubt if they still tolerate unofficial runners at the back of the pack. I finished writing my graduation thesis and then ran like crazy to try to train in a few weeks for it. Needless to say, I got injured before the race even started and limp-ran most of the 2nd half. I think it took me over 4 hours and I couldn't run for months. I finished two other marathons, less stupidly, over the next decade.

I started running marathons regularly after med school, during my internship and residency in Chicago, and was able to finish more than half the time under 3 hours. But not much faster, which sort of gives me an idea of my limits at longer races. My last two springs there I tried my first ultras with the Chicago Lakefront 50km, basically flat and an extension of the marathon, without all the hoopla. I liked how most of us were encouraging each other as we passed each other by on the 3 times out and back course, the informal friendly atmosphere. I heard about the Kettle Morraine ultra runs in nearby southern Wisconsin and was intrigued, but had neither the time nor the guts to try to train for something as long and crazy as 100km or 100 miles.

Once I accepted a job back in the Bay Area, I found the Pacific Coast Trail Runs website and signed up for the Skyline to the Sea (renamed Big Basin)50k. I showed up in road shoes already falling apart, and without a water bottle like they recommend. Within the first 1/2 mile I followed a bunch of rabbits maybe doing one of the shorter distances, who ran off the course. Maybe about a mile and a half down the hill, this other guy and I figured out we needed to turn back. I got lost a few other times, fell 3 times, and just when I thought I was getting the hang of things, made the mistake of eating 2 whole full-sized Cliff Bars at an aid station, forcing me to walk with an unhappy GI tract during the flattest part of the course for about 20 minutes. But I finished alive, my longest run in distance and time up to then. Needless to say I was hooked.

A couple of week later, I barely completed the Vineman, an Ironman distance triathlon in Sonoma, for which I had been swimming and running, and as much biking as my poor equipment would tolerate. I thought I'd trained enough, but my body starting shutting down halfway through the marathon, which in hindsight was due to hyponatremia, since it was hot and I wasn't taking any sodium other than the watered-down sports drink. After barely finishing before the cutoff, I ended up in an ER, perhaps my first time as a patient rather than a doctor. Unfortunately no labs were drawn, so I was thinking I just bonked.

I signed up for the first PC Trail Run Diablo 50 miler the next month. Probably a bad choice for a first 50-miler. It was really hot, like upper 90's, and I didn't take any extra salt, thinking the sports drink was enough. Severe muscle cramps were followed by diarrhea, nausea and eventually the inability to think straight. Wendell Doman pulled me off the course at the summit at mile 41, and after a hellish drive down the tortuous road, I ended up spending the night in the ER with hyponatremia and rhabdomyolysis (a condition resulting from too much muscle breakdown, which probably all ultrarunners have after any race). My then fiancee still in Chicago was very upset when she got the 2nd call in 2 months from me, very out of it, unconvincingly telling her I was alright. With every race after that for the next year through my first 100 miler, I had to prove that this ultrarunning thing was something I could actually do without killing myself.

What races are your favorites? Steep, fast, trails/road?

The variety of terrain is what makes this sport so interesting. It's hard to comprehend I used to enjoy just running flat road marathons. My learning curve for running technical trails hasn't flattened out, which makes for an added challenge and ability to improve even if my physiology plateaus from middle age. I try to train on trails as much as possible for the sake of my joints. And there is nothing like starting the descent as you finish a long climb with the whole world stretched below you. Topography is part of the reason I could never seriously entertain moving back to Chicago, despite occasionally grumblings from my wife, whose entire family still lives there. But I'm not a trail purist, and will probably continue to run a few flat road or loop courses every year, for series points or just to see how fast I can run a certain distance. I just set my 50k PR this past weekend at Jed Smith, despite a tough schedule and poor sleep the week before.

What is it that you enjoy the most about the sport?

Communing with nature and repeatedly appreciating the beautiful scenery out here in California and elsewhere. If I weren't doing this I'd still be hiking a lot. I'm always amazed that people live their whole lives in the Bay Area without seeing the beauty so close to them. My trial running addiction lets me enjoy it regularly and often, and with a wide variety of settings and terrain. I enjoy feeling very familiar with and connected to my local geography. The continual challenge and opportunity to push yourself to your limits and learn more about yourself.

There are a lot of cool, nice and amazing people who do ultras. Even the elite runners seem down-to-earth, not full of themselves, and supportive of everyone. One of the best parts of racing a lot is that you learn the names of people and get to know them. And they are all great.

Let me ask about your training. What does a typical training week look like for you?

As I mentioned earlier, given my ever-changing work schedule I don't really have a typical week. I end up getting a decent proportion of my mileage running to and from work, which usually involves a jaunt to a BART station less than 4 miles away or running all the way, which varies from 7 1/2 to 18 miles, depending on which hospital and how I go. I try to run off the pavement, but it's unavoidable, plus all the traffic, so I wouldn't call these quality workouts.

People at work love making fun of my skinny legs in my shorts when I arrive or leave. I suspect a few think it's unsafe and think of that part of Hayward as a warzone, but so far I've never been shot at. I do have access to a very small network of trails with only a few stretches of pavement accessible from my house that I can do as quickly as 75 minutes. But real quality training runs, where I go and do trails for hours, are harder to arrange--I don't hit those local East Bay Regional Park trails as often as I'd like. I wouldn't consider myself particularly high-mileage, although I never know how far I've run in a week. In my training log I record the route and the time running, without trying to figure out the mileage, which means less when you're on hills.

Any cross-training, or do you mostly run?

Mostly run. If I'm lazy or rushed, I'll bike the commute instead of running it, which isn't that much of a workout, but it sure beats driving and not getting any exercise at all. I finally bought a road bike this fall. It's sort of fun seeing new places and going farther, but my skinny unpadded ass hurts like hell after an hour or so.

Theoretically I'd like to swim once a week, but the lagoons near my house are only open in the summer, and the pool I use has limited hours that are usually not convenient for my schedule. We spent a week vacationing in Mexico before Christmas and I swam as much as I could at the resort, amidst too many cocktails and being crazy with my son. But I also managed to run about 6 or 7 hours over the week.

I'd like to do another Ironman distance triathlon again. Hey, does snowboarding count as cross-training?

Absolutely. Do you peak for a few races, or just try and run consistently all season for the Series?

If I were fast enough to consider, say, placing top ten in Western States I would probably try to peak for that to get in every year. But I doubt I could ever come close. Series are nice because they often reward consistency. Plus, I can place like 12th in some big race, but come in 2nd or 3rd in my division for Grand Prix points.

(The Tanaka family lends support at the Cool aid station of the 2005 Rio del Lago 100)

So what are your plans for the future, both this year and in the years to come?

This year I'll probably need to limit my racing since we're hoping to have another baby this fall (nothing official yet). Robert Mathis appears to have added several new interesting races to the Ultrarunner.net Series and if you've looked recently at the Pacific Coast Trail Runs website, Sarah and Wendell Doman have come up with some very exciting new longer runs. I'll probably concentrate on PA/USATF races, for which I get 1/2 off this year, though I doubt I'll be winning that again in the near future. But that's what I thought when I first signed up last year, right?

In the long term, I'd like to do more races, all distances, but particularly try to increase my 100-milers. Lots of them seem to be at altitude, so somehow I'm going to figure out how to deal with that. But I want to balance racing with my family needs too. I'd be content to enjoy the wide variety of races just in the area, but hope to combine races with travel where my whole family can have fun, such as H.U.R.T., being at low altitude and a tropical vacation location.

What are your favorite foods/supplements both for training and racing?

When I'm racing or on a long training run, if it's hot at all, I make sure I'm taking salt (usually with potatoes) or a lyte capsule every hour. If I know ahead of time I'm running more than 3 hours I'll carry a bottle, gels, powdered sports drink to mix at a drinking fountain, and maybe a sandwich or some energy bar. But usually I don't bother since for an ultrarunner, a 2-hour training run isn't a big deal. The problem is when I end up running lots longer than I anticipated, and I'm unprepared--makes for some brutally tough runs, in some ways tougher than races. I prefer stuff without a lot of artificial colors and additives, like GU2O or Clif products. I really haven't experimented in any sort of controlled way, and doubt it matters that much. I have a feeling salmon or unagi (eel) would make a great, easily digested 100-miler food, but don't expect to see that at any aid stations soon.

This isn't quite nutrition, but this year I got an iPod Nano for my first loop course, Ruth Anderson 100k, and used it also some during the nighttime hours of my 100 milers, especially helpful since I don't use pacers. Otherwise, I rarely feel the need to run with music.

Any recommendations for first time ultra runners? First time 100-milers?

If you mean general advice, there's too much to say, and I'm probably too new at this. In any case, everyone's different, so what works for one person often doesn't for another. One thing I've noticed novices get into trouble, especially at longer races, by not getting enough nutrition or going out too fast. Master the distance first, before working on speed, unless you don't mind not finishing. The important thing is to have fun, and try not to sacrifice too much other fun to have ultrarunning fun.

Thanks, and have a great 2007 season!


Friday, February 09, 2007

Using GPS with Google Earth

Google Earth is another software application that matches up well with a GPS device such as the Garmin Forerunner 205/305. By uploading your GPX files (or converting from your Motionbased or Everytrail account by hitting the Google Earth button), you can import your GPS data and tilt the map to create a 3d track. Below is the Pacifica 50k, Woodside 50k, and Quad Dipsea.

I love how the distance and altitude are matched up to show the full scope of the adventure. It's nice that it's always sunny on Google Earth too. I had previously posted about two other GPS upload sites that cause data addiction, Everytrail and Motionbased, so I thought I would share one more!


[Note - I edited the above text to remove my incorrect information about needing Google Plus]

Monday, February 05, 2007

My VO2 Max Test Results

My parents-in-law gave me a great gift for the holiday season this year - a gift certificate for a full VO2 Max and resting metabolism test. Last week I went to BaySport of Redwood City, CA, where Physical Therapist Brian Tomason put me through two sessions of testing to find out how my body utilized oxygen, fat, and calories. Both sessions used a system by New Leaf which tracked my oxygen and CO2 usage through a mask, and my heart rate. Brian doesn't get many ultrarunners, so he was excited to see what my "abnormally high levels of racing" might yield.

I've never really done much benchmarking of my heart rate (HR) zones prior to this, aside from the standard "220 beats minus your age" kind of thing. 90% of my runs are really for fun, loosely organized around a "long fartlek" or "go until it hurts". But now that Sophie is around, I've felt the need to make my ever-disappearing training time as efficient as possible. I figured a good starting point would be to make sure my training HR zones are correct. I know can hold 158 beats/minute through a 10k and it feels hard, so I figured that was roughly what my anaerobic threshold (AT) was (AT is when you start building lactic acid, and you're burning almost all energy from glycogen instead of fat - read: unsustainable for long periods of time). I do most of my aerobic training between 130 and 145 beats/minute, which feels easy to me, but just enough where I can feel my breathing pick up.

The VO2 Max Test

(Example of a New Leaf VO2 Max test with mask)

The first test was the V02 Max test. For this, they strapped on the mask and an HR monitor, and put me on a treadmill. Over the course of 25 minutes, they slowly cranked up the speed and incline until I maxed out at 12 degrees and 10 miles/hour (and nearly passed out). This calculated the oxygen and CO2 levels at each heart rate. Brian used other systems to find my body fat %, etc. Here are the test results:

MaX HR: 172. I guess that's not bad. It sure felt like the "max"!

VO2 Max: 73.3. The VO2 Max represents your peak oxygen uptake, ie, your ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles. Brian said that anything over 60 is considered "above average shape", and that most people come in around 40. A professional athlete that is tapered would come in around 80-90. Overall, it looks like my body is utilizing oxygen well, but there may be some room to grow.

Calorie Burn in Aerobic Zone: 13.1 kCal/minute from fat. Brian said this is a very high rate for use of fat calories, but he's not surprised given the volume of training and racing. Basically, I've tuned my body to burn fat very efficiently when I'm at an aerobic pace.

Anaerobic Threshold: 125 beats/minute. This is the point where your body starts needing to use glycogen instead of fat to process calories. I was very surprised to see how low this was, particularly given that I have run 50-milers with an average heart rate of 145 beats/minute. If this test was right, I haven't been doing any true aerobic training since my heart rate is too high on my "easy" runs. Close examination of the output chart shows that I am very efficient at burning fat below 110 beats/minute, but it drops off like a cliff between 110 and 140 beats/minute. A better trained athlete would have this holding steady of decreasing gradually to an AT much closer to my Max HR.

The Resting Metabolism Rate Test

The next morning, I came in for a resting metabolism test to determine what my caloric burn needs are at rest. I had fasted for 12 hours, and they strapped the mask on me again and had me chill out in a dark room for 20 minutes to relax as much as possible. That is, as much as one can with a big tube strapped across your mouth. ;-)

The results of this test were also very interesting:

Resting heart rate: 38 beats/minute. Most of the men in my family have a low heart rate and I'm fairly well conditioned, so I'm not surprised this is low. I know individuals with resting heart rates as low as 32-34 beats/minute.

Resting metabolism caloric burn: 516 calories. This means that I only need 516 calories per day to maintain my body weight, or 744 calories on a typical non-workout day. What?!? That's like two donuts!!! A typical BMI would say that 2200 calories is about right for my age, and a standard chart prediction for a trained athlete would have been closer to 1700 calories. Brian was a bit baffled at the low reading, but then pointed out that nearly all of those calories were consumed from fat and both my oxygen and CO2 levels were shallow. Basically, my body is insanely efficient at rest. Apparently I could fast for a week on the couch and only lose one pound.


Brian said that I'm basically in really good shape, and that the post-test recommendations are mostly for people trying to get in shape, not crazy endurance people like ultrarunners. But he did say this:

1) My body fat level is just fine. Given my ability to stick to high levels of training, he said I could certainly get down to the 9-10% found in most elite 10k runners (ab cover shoot, anyone?). But when he saw the 100k's and 100-miler on the schedule combined with my fat-burning aerobic capacity, he suggested it would be good to carry an extra couple of pounds for fuel. He also warned that since my resting metabolism is so low, it's hard to lose weight via diet, and the only outlet would be to exercise even more than I already do.

2) I should consider "aerobic intervals" to raise my AT. Brian was a bit perplexed by my low AT calculation (given my race pace at previous 50-milers, which would have had my bonked or dead by mile 30), and warned that the test could have been off. But the quick drop off from aerobic to anaerobic indicates that I could benefit from much slower workouts just under my AT. He suggested going 5 minutes just under AT, resting for 15 seconds, then repeating over an hour.

3) I should do more weight training. Brian congratulated me on being efficient with what I have - by his calculations, my body is very good at using every muscle and every gram of fat. But that means I'm "always at 11", requiring me to recruit all that I have for every race. Weight training could give me more muscle mass, and require me to recruit less muscles for the same amount of work. I certainly have enough headroom in my resting metabolism to feed a few more muscles.

I'm going to take Brian's advice on a few fronts, and do more weight training and at least one weekly aerobic interval. I did one aerobic run this weekend at 120 beats/minute, and it was excrutiatingly slow. But there could be benefit, so I'll stick with it. I don't want to turn my favorite daily activity into too much work, so I'm going to stick with "fun" for most runs.

It certainly is helpful to have some specific numbers associated with calorie burn during exercise, and a more realistic benchmark for my daily intake. I'm burning much more during exercise than I had thought, but am using much less outside of exercise. All of this data will be helpful in charting out a food/race plan for longer runs.

I'm open to feedback if any of you have (a) ever done anything like this, and (b) see anything crazy in my test results or recommendations.

Thanks, SD

PS - Congrats to all the racers who mastered the Woodside 50k this Sat!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Jack Kirk, the "Dipsea Demon", dies at age 100

Jack Kirk, who ran the Dipsea 67 times over his storied running career, died on Monday at the age of 100. Jack ran his 67th Dipsea in 2002 at age 96, exclaiming "you don't stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running". He has won the event a few times, at age 44 and 60.

(Jack Kirk taming the Dipsea, photo courtesy of Ken Wilson)

Few people capture the spirit of running like Jack Kirk. So many lessons to be learned from his example - keep running, have fun, and perhaps you too can run the Dipsea when you're in your mid-90's. You can read more about his life at the San Francisco Chronicle (here) and the Marin Independent Journal (here), or even order the DVD about his life.

Jack used to say "old runners don't die, they just reach the 676th step" (referring to the 675 steps of the Dipsea). Congratulations, Jack, you found the 676th after thousands of runs.