What Makes An Ultrarunner: Guts, GU, and (minimal) Glory

(Cross-posted from Medium.com)

I’m experimenting with writing long-form for Medium, and would love to have your feedback over there. It’s a lovely site with good content.

I wrote a very long report from the viewpoint of a pacer for a 100-mile race, the Javelina Jundred in Phoenix. I’ve run the race before so I know it pretty well, and I was assisting (with another friend) a runner to their 2nd finish. We encounter GU, nausea, the founder of ultrarunning in the US, sand, and pizza. Enjoy.

What Makes An Ultrarunner: Guts, GU, and (minimal) Glory

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I Love To Run Even Though It Could Hurt Me

Hamster in a wheel, running just cuz it's fun. Maybe.

Hamster in a wheel, running just cuz it’s fun. Maybe.

I’ve been running for 27 years.

At least half of those years were “seasonally” around two-thirds of the year or so, in fair weather or around the competitive season. When I was off, I was really off, not doing much of anything for several months (youthful metabolism is what made that tenable for so long). However, the last decade has been year-round training – and not because of slowing metabolism, but rather to be more competitive and get rid of the inevitable training curve/wall after a few months off. I did get faster – and I got skinnier – and how the two are related and not related is another story.

It took many years of those 27 before I had any idea that running was anything but super awesome for the human body. I mean, how could it not be? All that fitness and endorphins and pleasant exhaustion…. Hell, even mice like to run for no reason at all. I looooove this! Some animals, including we crazy humans, like to run just to run. Brain cells grow, stress hormones go down (within some limits), and things are just good. Usually.

Opposition on a running wheel. From https://www.flickr.com/photos/eyesplash/

Opposition on a running wheel. From https://www.flickr.com/photos/eyesplash/

But there’s two sides to the endurance running deal. The benefits of judicious jogging seem to be pretty clear: all the stuff mentioned above like better thinking, lower disease markers, lower stress, better cardiovascular fitness, et cetera. But when you get into territory like many habitual runners – an hour or more every day on average, with more on weekends or race days – that’s when the benefits rocket down to zero or below.

Net Negative Benefits?

Why? Right now I think there are two main areas of concern: atrial fibrillation and movement monotony.

Atrial Fibrillation

In some adults – those with a predisposition, it seems – endurance athletics will bring out their latent Atrial Fibrillation (“AFib” to the cool kids) where it might have been dormant for a lifetime of less vigorous movement. Only a few years ago it was easy to dismiss the folks who collapsed and died during marathons as pure probability given the population numbers. Those fatalities are still explainable by demographics, BUT there are likely a lot more runners out there with ticking AFib bombs in their chests. A google search for “atrial fibrillation endurance athletes” turns up 3190 results. Yowch.

So, this is just like the misconception that running will GIVE you knee problems when in fact it is slightly protective of your knees in general. What happens is that your knees – if they’re normal – will be benefited from running. If you are prone to knee problems like arthritis or degeneration, you *might* notice those issues sooner because you as an athlete are more in tune with your body and you demand more of it. Running does NOT cause knee problems.

Likewise, running does not seem to cause heart attacks or sudden death, but for some people it functions as a very sobering “stress test” and can make their life quite a bit shorter.

Finally, many, many years of running might actually contribute to AFib. That’s the thing that as a runner you should know about. Not necessarily worry about, but definitely consider it if you are actively choosing to be a runner instead of taking up other pursuits. The research is still ongoing, but it does not look like a win for running when it comes to AFib. Aside from the medical research, there are some runners and medical professionals blogging about the nexus of AFib and athletics, like Michael McCullough’s site AFibRunner, a great reading for all endurance athletes. I also like the site Athlete’s Heart by Dr. Larry Creswell – he is looking at the issue as a very interested 3rd party point of view. Good stuff.

Movement Monotony

Trust me when I say I will have a lot more to write about this, so this little paragraph is but the beginning. Here’s the nutshell. Many endurance runners like myself have desk jobs. We move from the coffee pot to the chair to the bathroom and back just a few times per day. Then we sit down to eat. We sit down to read. We go to sleep and we wake up and run for an hour and think we’re OK. We are not OK. I repeat – we are not OK.

In the always spot-on words of Katy Bowman, we athletes are doing the equivalent of saying to ourselves, “Hey, oranges have vitamins! I’m gonna eat 20 and then have some milkshakes!” We are taking in movement nutrients that are vastly inadequate and unvaried. We should be getting up from the chair every 20 minutes to bend and stretch and focus on the wall 20 feet away. We should take walks in the sunshine and squat down to pick up our groceries and kids. And then, maybe if we want, then we can do something as ‘crazy’ as striking the ground at 2.5x our body weight for 6000 reps (the amount of footstrikes in a 6 mile run)!!!

Ok, more Katy to come. Don’t worry.

After all that… why in the heck do I and we run?

Here’s what I know: the main benefit to me is in my inner world. What I mean by that is I get good shots of positive neurotransmitters (the runner’s high) in addition to mental calming and the ability to brainstorm and daydream while out there. This is why I don’t listen to music during 99% of my training time. Now, the runner’s high is real and can be proven by lots of research. But – and this is a big but – the rest of it might just be a self-reinforcing addiction. I get to daydream and clear my head because that’s what I expect from running. It calms me because I haven’t figured out any other way to calm my caucophony.

THERE ARE OTHER WAYS. There’s gentle yoga (not that power/hot stuff – that’s also addictive). There’s just daydreaming while taking a long walk. There’s meditation. All of these involve minimal exertion while having proven mental benefits.

And, I love my running friends, all over the country. I am able to go and experience beauty and connection and soul-crushing fatigue in myself and in those around me, and we get through it. When it’s almost over, we see our families and cross that line and it’s magical. How could you not love my 2 year old niece running to catch me in this photo???

Andrea and Howie finishing Wasatch Front 100 2014, family and pacer in tow.

Andrea and Howie finishing Wasatch Front 100 2014, family and pacer in tow.

I know all of this. If someone new to exercise or fitness or general lifestyle health were to ask me “what should I do?” I would NEVER tell them to take up jogging or running. If one is starting from scratch or starting over, everything I know suggests that we should do three major things with our time. In order from most time spent to least, those three would be: tons of general movement and walking, meditation, and power bursts (sprints, climbing, jumping, weights).

Running is for becoming a better runner. Period. And becoming a better runner all by itself just might make you a more fragile organism if movement monotony isn’t balanced with really well-rounded movement nutrients in the rest of your life. Here’s to a long and movement-filled life.

Tuesday Tribute: Katie DeSplinter

Hi kids. I’m back on the posting wagon, finally, with another Tuesday Tribute. The schedule goes back to weekly from now until eternity or I run out of amazing women in my life. That could be awhile. But now, on to Katie DeSplinter, ultrawoman of mystical powers. She doesn’t break bad, she breaks excellent.

Katie downhilling a not so technical trail. (from iRunFar.com)

Katie downhilling a not so technical trail. (from iRunFar.com)

Me: “Holy shit you’re running amazingly fast!” Katie: “Not as fast as those guys!” Me: “No one runs as fast as those guys. Seriously.”

Those guys were Dominic Grossman & Co, screaming down a loose cannonball run of babyhead rocks next to a steep creek drop-off on the way towards Grouse Gulch on the Hardrock Hundred course. It was a training day, but it seemed to me that Katie was getting some serious turnover practice for future racing days ahead.

Katie is a new person in my circle, but one of influence in just a few encounters. She’s learning her way around racing ultramarathons in one of the most open and generous and patient ways I’ve seen. She blogs about her successes, her worries, her failures, and the intersection of all three. Case in point, AC100 this year was planned to be a dream race, sub-24, with everything looking pretty good. Then, worries about training load (too little) and previous issues with kidneys (too much) and finally, she just went and did it. The write-up is pretty spectacular and takes a meandering course through angst, joy, flow, bloody pee, and rain in Los Angeles. Yep.

“The only thing I honestly feel right now is everything.” – Katie

Just read it, already.

Are ya back after reading that? Good. Now, let’s talk about AC in general. She’s part of the overly-feared next generation of young ultrarunners. Young ‘cuz she is only 31 – the age at which I knocked off from ultras and went down the marathon rabbit-hole for 5 years, losing all sense of moderation and some of my bone density in the process – and yet she is capable of winning races. A few for now, but more to come I’m sure. Her generation (really a sub-generation, but whatever) is overly feared by some in the long-standing ultra camp who think youth entails enthusiasm at the cost of respect. But in many young runners, as well as many older runners, the respect and volunteerism and community are part of the ultra life. They give back. They volunteer and crew and pace with abandon. They do trail work. They organize their own races (hello Nick and Jamil), adding to the pool of awesomeness out in the country and world.

But enough about other runners. Katie’s getting the podium today. I ran into her, not quite literally, on the PCT outside of Los Angeles last weekend. She was running with a friend, as was I, in opposite directions. The four of us stopped to chatter about everything under the warm sun, only finally disbanding when we all realized we probably should get back to our respective days. She sported a hat that can only be pictured to be appreciated.

Katie says 25% of people get it. I'm surprised it's that high. (by Geoff Cordner)

Katie says 25% of people get it. I’m surprised it’s that high. (by Geoff Cordner)

It’s a snarky hat from a snarky 2008 youtube phenomenon, but underneath the hat is a good dose of earnestness. Without the dippy video, this could actually be Katie’s motto. Do what you like and give zero Fs to those who stand in your way without reason.

That’s why she is here. Another woman making me rethink what it means to be solid in your own self.

—————————–

**Tuesday Tribute is my way of showing off the women in my life who have done something to influence me for the better, through direct advice, great example, resilience, strength, bad-assery, or any number of things. Every week. Every Tuesday.

The Spaghetti Approach to Achieving a Breakthrough

Let’s say you’re stuck in your progress toward a goal. Doesn’t matter what goal – it could be a physical feat or it could be getting your homework done. There are two generally accepted ways to make progress: incremental change (ideally with tracking) and jumping off a cliff (not literally).

Incremental change is the preferred method: it can be tracked, measured, and reproduced. When you make progress you know WHICH thing enabled the progress. You know that it was the fact that you started flossing your teeth right after eating that made you less likely to snack, versus putting an alarm on the fridge door. You know which behavior change you are in the middle of, and therefore you know what is working. Incremental change gets much love, partly because of how sciency it is, probably also because it is easier chunks to bite off if you’re the person making the changes.

But here’s the problem. It’s fucking slow. Sometimes you need or want the end result to happen very soon, or at a particular point in time rather than just “when it happens”. This is where jumping off a cliff becomes useful. For clarity’s sake, let’s alternatively call this method the Spaghetti Approach.

Oh please.... stick!

Oh please…. stick!

In the spaghetti approach, you simply change a whole BUNCH of stuff all at once. In the snacking example, you padlock the fridge, take herbal appetite suppressants, floss after eating, drink water before meals, AND buy a dress a size too small. You throw all the spaghetti against the wall at the same time. If enough of it sticks, you have made your breakthrough in record time. The only drawback (if you can even call it a drawback – it depends on how sciency you like your life to be) is that you won’t know for sure what really worked, and which pieces of spaghetti you can ignore the next time around.

BUT, here’s why the drawback might not be a drawback. The next time around, things might be totally different. Knowing exactly what worked before might not even be useful. This is especially true with things involving the human body or even relationships. Humans are just a mess of ever-shifting potential. It’s true you can generalize, of course. If you take up weightlifting, you will almost certainly get stronger. But generalizations are for generalized results. Doing MORE weightlifting, and MORE, and MORE, will not necessarily move up your maximum squat by 20 pounds. When things get detailed, humans get slightly less reliable results.

What works today or this month or this year or this decade will not necessarily work again.

This is why my 2014 Wasatch Front 100 race is getting the spaghetti approach. I am going out for a breakthrough, and I’m going to try a lot of new things. New things that I have not tried before, or things I have not done in an ultra in awhile, but all things that I have reasonable confidence will not be utter disasters. I’m not going to just decide to go keto-adapted and eat only macadamia nuts. That would be truly nuts.I am happy to share my plans. So here is what I *am* going to do:

  1. Use music. I never, ever, run with music. But I know it helps a ton of people and has sciency research to back up its effects on performance. (See, science!)
  2. Bring back my gaiters (woo, Dirty Girl!). Haven’t worn these in several years and dust/dirt is a big issue for my feet on this course.
  3. My own hydration drink, always. Preloaded dry into bottles or baggies in drop bags. Tailwind, if you’d like to know.
  4. MOAR calories. I undereat at ultras and I suspect that it has an effect on my pace, even if I don’t feel like I’m bonking.
  5. New food (to adjunct to #4) – rice balls. Many, many rice balls.
  6. Swap hydration pack at mile 82 for bottles.

Of all of these, the one with the most potential for bad effects is #4. That will have to be monitored closely so I don’t hurl all over the trail (at least not more than once, anyway). All the rest should have minimal side effects and if they are annoying I can stop or change course in moments.

Wish me luck and sticky pasta.

spaghetti-stuck-on-wall

Tuesday Tribute: Charlie Thorn

[A NOTE ABOUT “TUESDAY TRIBUTE” and it’s beginnings]: a few weeks ago my mind went off a-wandering during my run. As it often does, it strayed into the realm of songs I’d rather not play on repeat, what the weather might be like today, did that car just wave at me, and wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if ideas. Ideas like Facebook memes. I thought about how nice it is to see gratitude posts directed at a certain person or community, someone that made a difference even if they didn’t know it. I thought about those 52 week challenges to leave little notes for strangers or smile more. I decided on a new challenge for myself: I will take every Tuesday to highlight someone from my life, past or present, who has changed my outlook or given me reason to make a positive change.

There is only one guideline, and one caveat: First, I must have interacted directly with this person. Authors or public figures that have had positive effects in my life are not candidates if I do not know them well enough to call them an acquaintence. They might collectively have their own post(s) in the future, but this series is for my direct circle. Second, those I choose to highlight are in no particular order. There is no implicit hierarchy or chronology. That is all.

TUESDAY TRIBUTE #2: Charlie Thorn

charlie thorn

Charlie Thorn, in front of his house, gathering for trail marking.

It was 1998 and I was an avid participant in this email group called the Ultralist. I had recently started doing 50Ks back in the Midwest and now, living in Albuquerque, I was jonesing for good trail running and connecting with whatever ultra community was around. Trouble is, there wasn’t a lot in the way of races in New Mexico. Like, none. Sure, there were trail runners, ultrarunners, and lots of trail fun runs – you just had to find the right people to hear about that stuff.

Up in Los Alamos there were a bunch of folks who thought about two things: physics and ultrarunning. One of them owned a house in Silverton and went up there a lot to run and stuff… that’s as much as I knew. On the Ultralist came a notice of some trail work being done in Silverton over Memorial Day weekend. I had nothing better to do, so I contacted the guy organizing it, Charlie Thorn, and he offered me a spot to crash at his house, even. Off I went, into these totally new-to-me mountains north of Durango, and had quite a hard time actually finding these guys as they did trail work. Luckily I found them the next day (Sunday) as they were constructing a totally new trail for some ultra event that summer. That trail was the Nute Chute (named for Chris Nute), and it removed a few miles of road from the course. That course, of course, was/is the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, and Charlie was one of the founders of the event.

On that Sunday – and the next day when he and his wife Andi Kron took me up to Cinnamon Pass half on bikes and half on foot – Charlie told me about Hardrock. I was impressed, obviously. The run didn’t fill up in those years, so Charlie told me I should enter. I thought he was joking at first, and then completely nuts. Had I entered then, who knows what would have happened with my Hardrock “career”. I ended up pacing a new friend instead for about 40 miles and had a really enjoyable and tough time. Sometimes I think Charlie wanted me to enter to see how badly I would blow up. With aid stations and support, I wouldn’t have been in danger, but it might have been an interesting experiment.

Charlie, in his many years on the Hardrock board of directors, has been a voice of reason, humor, snark, and sanity. He has a boatload of Hardrock finishes – TEN, that’s 1000+ miles of Wild & Tough! – and has arguably spent more miles on the course than anyone else still traipsing the trails.

Thanks Charlie!

Tuesday Tribute: Mike Kline (and origins)

Today, on this ordinary Tuesday, my mind went off a-wandering during my run. As it often does, it strays into the realm of songs I’d rather not play on repeat, what the weather might be like today, did that car just wave at me, and wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if ideas.

Today I thought about Facebook memes. I thought about how nice it is to see gratitude posts directed at a certain person or community, someone that made a difference even if they didn’t know it. I thought about those 52 week challenges to leave little notes for strangers or smile more. I decided on a new challenge for myself: I will take every Tuesday to highlight someone from my life, past or present, who has changed my outlook or given me reason to make a positive change.

There is only one guideline, and one caveat: First, I must have interacted directly with this person. Authors or public figures that have had positive effects in my life are not candidates if I do not know them well enough to call them an acquaintence. They might collectively have their own post(s) in the future, but this series is for my direct circle. Second, those I choose to highlight are in no particular order. There is no implicit hierarchy or chronology. That is all.

Let’s begin.

TUESDAY TRIBUTE: MIKE KLINE

Coach Mike Kline taking notes during a meet.

Coach Mike Kline taking notes during a meet.

Mike Kline was and is the Cross Country coach at University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. He is a marathon runner, jogger, and embracer of anyone who finds joy in running. This inclusiveness, I believe, is one of the reasons that our cross country team was not competitive amongst our peer colleges. But it is the reason that it was a dynamic and enthusiastic herd of athletes.

Coach Kline believed that the title student-athlete was ordered that way for a reason. GPAs of less than 3.0 were offered tutoring to bring their performance back up. Being a B student was something that allowed one the privilege to run on the team. Scholarships were frequent and partying was minimal. We trained relatively hard given most of us didn’t have a summer workout schedule, and some of us got injured a lot. Coach Kline was new to this, too – he was about 26 when I started college on his team.

A dedicated runner himself, the one thing that Mike Kline did “to” me as a runner was to condition my head to the idea that some people really, really just like to run. It doesn’t matter if you’re competitive or past your prime or anything. If you like to run, you should do it. He’d show up for practices sometimes after having run 15-20 miles on the roads around campus, looking like I often do these days after the same kind of run – a little sweaty, a little dehydrated, a little crazy. I could tell he had a bit of a compulsion but in a certain way it was alright.

If I were a coach now, I might be a bit more nudgey with my athletes to help them compete, but I’d also be that wild-eyed salt-streaked weirdo showing up for practice right on time because my run went a little long. I’d hope that one of those kids would see the joy in my obsession.

 

Pernicious (or persnickety?) Anemia: Round One

I’ve felt fat and slow for a long time now.

Years. Part of that is not that I’m fat, but that I do actually weigh more than I did 4 or 5 years ago. What happens when I run is just physics: it feels different to hit the ground at 2.5x your body weight with an extra 12 pounds. Strength and experience can get through a lot of that. Good weight training, endurance work, neuromuscular development – all of these contribute to performance even when not at the featherweight category.

And yet. Feeling like you’ve strapped on a soggy wetsuit when going out for a run or trying to bound up a hill and gasping like two decades just jumped on your back ain’t fun.

So I turn to my red fluid of life: blood. Specifically, the known condition deep in my tissues that has lie in wait for years without too much bother: anemia. Uh-Knee-Me-Uh. Sexy, huh?

What is anemia?

Anemia (or anaemia for the fancy) means a lot of things, just like being overly warm can mean a lot of things. You might have a parka on. Or it might be 100 degrees out. Or you might be feverish. Or you might have just eaten Thanksgiving dinner.

With anemia, generally there’s something going on with the available red blood cells and/or their ability to give you oxygen when you request it, either by bounding up a hill or by getting out of bed.

I’ve learned craptons by reading the overview on the Merck site, which delineates different kinds of anemia and how one might get them. Anemias that I am extremely unlikely to have: excessive bleeding, sickle cell disorder, certain other genetic diseases.

Candidates for my own anemia, from lifestyle and bloodwork:

  • footstrike hemolysis (basically when my feet hit the ground the red blood cells get smooshed and die)
  • B12 deficiency (mine is low-ish but not that low, also I get numb fingers sometimes like Reynaud’s)
  • “simple” iron deficiency (caused by malabsorption – gut issues)
  • G6PD deficiency (genetic mutation, can be triggered by infection or fava beans. Yes, fava beans.)

So…. there are a lot of moving parts. But one thing I can start with is to try to increase nutrient absorption. I eat in a manner that does not explain my low nutrient levels – seriously I should be super high in damn near everything, and I’m not.

First experiment: HCl

From scdlifestyle.com – an awesome HCl resource!

Poor absorption of nutrients can be simply because there ain’t enough acid in one’s stomach. Supplementing with Betaine HCl will increase stomach acid and lead to better breakdown of food. It’s not crazy. (In fact, LOW stomach acid, not high, is the most common factor in heartburn and GERD. Weird, huh?)

I’m excited to try this, even though I’ve known for years about HCl. No time like the present, I suppose. I’ll follow some good guidelines about how to do it right, and let’s see how it goes.