Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner #4: Balance Stress and Rest

       This is tricky and complex.  Taking time to rest isn't a matter of compromise.  You don't compromise anything by seeking the right balance.  Movies about heroic warriors perpetuate the idea that the harder you can train without collapsing, the stronger you will be.  OK, it's basic physiology that stressing a muscle in a workout tears it down a little and stimulates it to grow back stronger.  That's true of all physiological systems and mental skills.  But the "growing back" part is too easily neglected.  In any exercise, you can reach a point beyond which there aren't enough hours left in the night to fully recover before the next day--so the next day's workout begins with less muscle or resilience than the day before, and the training effect begins to reverse.  Symptoms of improper balance betweeen stress and rest include a "stale" or "flat" feeling, a slump in performance, and then--inevitably, sooner or later--illness or injury.  And if you don't learn, you could experience burnout and permanent disability.  I've seen it happen to a lot of people.
     Part of the complexity is that different kinds of exercise require different amounts of recovery.  Speed work requires more recovery time between sessions than slow base-building.  It may be counterintuitive, but twelve quarter-mile intervals totaling just three fast miles (or six miles overall, if you  count the alternating slow laps) may need three times as much rest between sessions as longer but slower 10-milers do.  Similarly, intense weight-lifting routines require two or three times as much rest between sessions as situps.
     Another complexity is that the physical exercise is not the only source of stress in your life, so it's not the only stress you have to take into consideration in finding optimal rest and regeneration.  Ever since the pioneer endocrinologist Hans Selye began his research on the "stresses of life" almost a century ago, we've understood that while such varied experiences as financial trouble, a car crash, the death of a spouse, a new baby, or the planning for a wedding are all very different, their effects on an individual can add up.  A runner who is coping with heavy stress at work or home, whether emotional, mental, or physical, may not be able to carry as much workload in his or her training as one who feels relaxed and on top of the world.  On the other hand, if you've already built some endurance as a runner, you can probably handle more stress in your life as a whole than you could if you were sendentary.  Again, the ideal regimen is to find a balance between the cumulative stress of everything that's happening, including the running, and the amount of rest (sleep, days off, easy runs,) needed to keep building endurance.

     --From an Appendex to the book The Longest Run: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon,
       and the Case for Human Endurance, to be published in October.  Copyright 2012, Ed Ayres

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner #3: Vary Everything -- Distance, Speed, Routes, Terrain, and Mental Engagement

This is a basic principle of biological and ecological health, including the ecology of your own life.  For biologists and ecologists, biodiversity--both within the genetics of a species and in the complexity of a whole ecosystem--is essential to long-run survival.  And for athletes and trainers, cross-training--combining the benefits of complementary forms of exercise--is one of the secrets of durability and resistance to injury.
     Probably the most basic variable in your training is the distance you run each day.  A successful pattern for many runners is to go short to moderate distances (5-10 miles) five days each week, and one day a week go long (15-30 miles).  To illustrate the importance of that weekly long run, consider two different patterns, each totaling 60 miles for the week.  The first is to run 10 miles a day for six days, then take a day off.  The second is to run 8 miles a day for five days, then 20 miles on the sixth.  While both yield the same total mileage, the first pattern never takes you past the point where you're running low on muscle glycogen and need to adapt to more efficient fat-burning metabolism for endurance.  The second takes you past that four times a month, or about forty  times in the year or so you'll be training for your ultra.  While there's no difference between these two patterns in total mileage, the second one provides a huge advantage in training effect.
       Varying speed is also important.  Here, too, a tried-and-true pattern for most people would be to run at slow-to-medium speeds four to six days a week, and faster for one or two days.  To try running fast more than once or twice a week is to invite injury.  "Fast" is a relative term, and in your first year of training for an ultra, it would be prudent to limit your fastest running to the taper phase (Note #2, below), and use more low-key variations of speed during base-building.  These broad categories ("slow" days, "fast" days) can be further broken down as you gain experience.  The "slow to medium" pace can vary from a lazy lope on some days to the pace you might actually hope to run a 50-kilometer race, on another.  Remember, running at ultra race pace doesn't mean you're doing a hard workout, if you're only holding that pace for 8 or 10 miles rather than 50 kilometers or 50 miles.  When you do intervals (again, not necessary at all during a first year of base building), there's no need to time them as you would if you were training for the 1500 or 5000 meters; what's important is simply to run fast enough to be breathing hard and making your heart beat fast.  An alternative to regular intervals such as you'd do on a track might be to run a longer stretch of several miles fast (a "threshold" run as described in Note #2), then slow down just long enough to recover before doing another several miles fast.  A third alternative is what Scandinavian athletes call fartlek--highly irregular shifts of speed within a single run so that you're trying to "surprise" your body and build its resilience and adaptability along with aerobic capacity.  The logic of these patterns is that if you train your body to run fairly often at faster-than-race pace, then "dropping down" to race pace will enable you to feel very comfortable at that pace (an important goal) on the day of the big race.  In the fast-pace training, rather than rely on stopwatches, heart monitors, or other techno-assists, practice relying on your own developing ability to "listen to your body."  With practice, you won't need electronic monitors to tell you what's happening with your heart, lungs, hormones, and metabolic waste.  And in the long run, it's better if you don't.  You do value independence, don't you?
       Varying routes (and thus terrain) is important for both physical and psychological reasons. Uphill and downhill running put different stresses on the muscles and tendons, and both differ from running on the flat.  A runner I know who had no hills near his home trained for a mountain ultra by doing long sessions on a treadmill raised to steep-climb settings.  He thought that as long as he could handle the climbs, the descents would be a breeze.  But when he ran the race, the miles-long descents were murder on his quadriceps which get the lion's share of downhill braking.  Unfortunately, none of the treadmills I've seen have steep downhill settings.  If you don't have hills or mountains near home that are comparable to those you'll  encounter in your race (look up the elevation profile on the race website), you can train just about as well by running up-and-down repeats of a smaller hill.  But again, try not to use just one route.  Different grades of climbing or descent, like different speeds, use different combinations of muscle fibers.  In training, run as many different  hills, of different steepness, as possible.  And for similar physiological reasons on a more "micro" level, seek out different surfaces as well.  Pine-needle paths, dirt, gravel, grass, rocky trails and pavement each put different stresses on the feet and legs (and even on the core muscles used for balance), and you need to feel at home with all of them when you  race. 
       As for mental engagement, experienced runners often distinguish between "associative" running, in which you are focused on all the physical and environmental factors affecting you performance, and "dissociative" running, in which you're not consciously paying attention to the running but are letting your thoughts wander.  Both have their place.  It's important to sometimes focus on the running itself, so that you are well attuned to the progress of your conditioning and so that you can consciously practice (or "visualize") racing conditions.  But there are also times when it's important to let running be an escape from the stresses of the workplace or home, or our troubled world.  On some days it may be better for your mental and physical health to let yourself recall what you said in a conversation that's bugging you, and then fantasize about what you'd like to have said, than to be thinking about your stride length or tempo.  The more practiced you become, the more the running can take care of itself for hours at a time, while your mind takes care of business.  There's also a kind of engagement that's neither associative nor dissociative, but an integration of both--occasioned by a run in a beautiful place, or past an inspiring scene.,  If you come over a mountain pass and see an amazing cloud formation and feel your spirit lift, it's a chance to feel your body lifting at the same time; you can be light on your feet and psychologically energized by the scene.  It's especially rewarding to integrate both physical and mental experience with the environment you are traversing.  That's a big reason why millions of people in the past twenty years have shifted from the roads to the trails--and why most ultras are now on trails.

          --Excerpted from an Appendix to the forthcoming book The Longest Race:
             a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance,
             coming in October.   Copyright 2012 by Ed Ayres

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner #2: Build, Sharpen, Taper

It’s good to have a target date in mind—the day of the ultra you’d like to run. That determines when you should aim to reach your peak—the highest degree of readiness you can hope to reach in the coming year. Then count backward, allowing a couple of weeks before the race for a “taper” (easing off on the training), and before that two or three weeks of sharpening (speed work) to put a little spring in your step.The time left between now and the sharpening is what you have available for building base—the accumulation of lots of miles at an easy-to-medium pace. Ideally, you’ll have six to eight months or more for base building—developing cardiovascular capacity and endurance. If you don’t have at least six months for base, pick a later race. Once you reach your peak,you may be able to hold it for two or three months (and even run another ultra, if you’re young and crazy) before needing to back off and rebuild base for the following year.
The basis of the one-year pattern may be the long evolution of our species in environments where climate played a larger role in our lives than it may seem to play now. Persistence hunting may have been more difficult or impossible in winter, necessitating periods of relative inactivity and subsistence on stored food. And the universal biological principle of cycles of rest and stress may also play a role. In any case, most ultrarunners make running a seasonal experience—we train year-round, but consciously prepare to be at our best during certain parts of the year, and to build or recover at others.
Some runners race year-round, incorporating races into the base building while forgoing sharpening and tapering. Year-round competitors also use races as their long training runs. If you’re preparing for your first ultra, you might benefit by doing something similar—running a marathon or half-marathon as a training run (not as hard as you can, six or seven weeks before your ultra.
In the sharpening phase, starting five or six weeks before the ultra, begin incorporating faster workouts (maybe one the first week, then two a week after that). “Faster” in this context doesn’t mean anaerobic running or sprinting, but might involve what I prefer to call anaerobic-threshold running. Some physiologists don’t like the term “anaerobic threshold” because they feel it implies that there’s a point at which, as the effort becomes more intense, you shift suddenly from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism—which is not quite what happens. Rather, there’s a zone of overlap. The academics prefer the term “lactate threshold,” which is defined as the level of intensity or caloric consumption at which the production of metabolic waste is right in balance with therate at which it is being cleared out. Any faster, and the waste builds up and you can’t go more than a minute or two before having to slow down and recover. Experience tells us that workouts right around the lactate threshold (also
called “tempo” runs) are the best thing you can do to build endurance. Research confirms it. But threshold running only works if you’ve done enough base building to support that kind of intensity without breaking down. And it only works if it’s done infrequently enough (once or twice a week at most) to allow full recovery between one “fast” day and the next. To begin your sharpening phase, you might do a warm-up of several miles at an easy pace (always warm up before any fast running), then accelerate to threshold (about as fast as you can keep up for at least five or ten minutes), then ease off for a while and go home. Three or four days later, do it again, only this time, take the threshold part a little farther. Maybe in the second week, do an interval workout—alternating faster-than-threshold surges and slow recovery, say, four times. The next time you do an interval workout, go six surges, and the one after that, eight. By then, you may be ready to taper. All the in-between days should be the same kinds of easy distance running you do in base building. Use whatever mix of threshold running and interval work suits you. Just don’t overdo it, because fast running raises the risk of injury. If you feel twinges, back off. The taper is a period of easing down on mileage and intensity—letting the body get some regeneration before the big day. On the day of the ultra, you want to start out feeling fresh and “hungry” to run, not tired out from all the miles you’ve been doing. The taper typically takes just a week or two—so if your total mileage the third week before the race is 70 miles, the second week out might be 40 and the last week before the race just 20. These numbers are somewhat arbitrary; your individual condition and ability to listen to your body will guide you on the details.

          --Excerpted from an Appendix to the forthcoming book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for    Human Endurance, to be published in October.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner -- #1

     Ultrarunning is not separate from the rest of life. It will affect your overall vitality, endurance, and patience, and may also affect your relationships and worldview. You will very likely become less complacent, more questioning, more adventurous, and more reconnected with your lost youth. Ultrarunning won’t save the world, but it’s a practice of the kinds of skills and outlooks that could ultimately help change the world’s course and will almost certainly change yours.

                                                       1. Allow Enough Time
In almost anything worthwhile, and especially ultrarunning, rushing to achieve success is a big mistake. Our culture has conditioned us to reflexively expect quick success. But quick success is the artificial, largely illusory, lure of an unsustainable civilization. Most people need eight to twelve months of regular running, averaging thirty to forty miles or more per week, to build the basic
cardiovascular capacity and endurance needed to run an ultra. Most will already have completed a marathon, or at least have substantial long-distance-running experience.

Genetically, all humans are built for running, but culture has separated us from nature and it takes time to readapt. While 30-40 miles per week is a minimum, you’ll probably be better off gradually working up to 60-80 mpw. If you are young and have good biomechanics and big dreams, you may be headed for 100 mpw or beyond. But remember, more is not always better. And getting to your maximum mpw as quickly as possible is almost always a mistake.

                                     --From the appendix "Notes for an Aspiring Ultrarunner,"
                                        in my forthcoming book The Longest Race (coming in October)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Babe Ruth vs. Clarence DeMar: Who Was the Greater Athlete?

     One hundred years ago this week, Babe Ruth hit the first of his 714 home runs--a record that stood for a lifetime. 
     Also about a hundred years ago (in 1911, actually), a guy named Clarence DeMar got the first of his seven Boston Marathon victories.  Everyone in America has heard of Babe Ruth.  How many, other than we runners and a few very old Bostonians and Hopkintonians, have ever heard of Clarence DeMar?
     I bring up this question because I've been doing a lot of cogitating lately about the largely forgotten role of human endurance in our culture of ever-greater speed and ever-quicker gratification in all things.  We live now in what I call a "sprint culture."  In the physiology of sport, of course, a sprint is an action that can last no more than 1 to 2 minutes.  If you run as fast as you can, you can keep it up for maybe 440 yards (most of us not even that far) before having to stop, stooped over with your hands on your knees, gasping.  You've gone anaerobic, and until you pay off the oxygen debt and get rid of all the metabolic waste you've accumulated in your system, you're done.  Yet, a well-trained long-distance runner, using highly efficient aerobic metabolism, can go 2, 3, 4, or 5 hours nonstop (or in an ultra, 6, 12, or 24 hours or longer with only brief stops) and cross the finish line without gasping for breath.
     Our civilization has a comparable choice, based on the same metabolic principles.  Our industries burn carbon fuels and breathe out carbon dioxide at a rate that will catapult us into civilizational burnout within decades--or we can shift to sustainable industries and behaviors that will let humanity thrive for many generations to come.  But that's another story, which I tell in a book that will be out in October.  More about that later.
     Back to Babe Ruth and Clarence DeMar, it strikes me that their relative fame (or lack thereof) is reflective of our culture's obsession with quickness and speed.  We want faster airplanes, faster computers, faster TV thrills, faster relief from pain, faster returns on investment.  For the Babe, who came along in the early years of this developing obsession, it took only a one half-second swing of the bat to bring 60,000 people to their feet.  A thrill in an instant.
     For a very good marathon runner in those days (when much less was known about training methods, nutrition, etc.), a finishing time of 2 hours and 30 minutes was an effort that took 18,000 times as long as a swing of the baseball bat.
     So, quite aside from the time spent training and laboring in now-forgotten competitions, how do the peak achievements of Babe Ruth's 714 home runs compare with Clarence DeMar's 7 Boston Marathon victories just in terms of the number of minutes of iconic athletic performance they gave us?  It's a worthy comparison, because both were about equally unequaled by other men.
     Discounting the ritual run around the bases after the ball flies over the fence, if we count each home run as a marvelous half-second, the Bambino's actual time hitting home-runs adds up to 357 seconds, or about 6 minutes.  DeMar's Boston Marathon wins, averaging somewhere around 2:25 each, add up to more than 1,000 minutes.  So, who's the greater athlete?
     OK, OK.  If you're a rabid baseball fan or spectator-sports junkie in general, you'll have a heap of objections to this.  I don't mind, and I'll even acknowledge in advance that in some respects this comparison may be considered absurd.  But as many playwrights, novelists, and artists have found, contemplation of the absurd sometimes provokes us to new perspectives on the even greater absurdities of the culture in which we live.  I think I need to get out for a run.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Best Trail Ultra" -- Who Wrote This?

     I was in a Barnes & Noble looking at magazines a few days ago, and found a magazine called "Trail" (not the regular Trail Runner), in which there was a slick feature about "best" American trail races in all sorts of categories: "Best Partner Race," "Best Marathon You've Never Heard of," "Best Barefoot Event," "Best Race on Reclaimed Industrial Land," "Most Zany Fun Run" . . .
     I noticed the item "Best Ultra Race," and out of curiosity took a moment to read it.  I had read in Ultrarunning magazine that there are now more than 550 ultras in the U.S., so how does anyone decide which one is "best"? 
     The selection was "The Western States Endurance Run."  This was no surprise.  Western States is probably the most famous, most publicized, and--as I note in a forthcoming piece (August issue) in Running Times magazine--the most "legendary" ultra.  And, while I have run around 50 ultras (along with around 600 other long-distance races) in my life so far, I wouldn't particularly argue about this one-shot magazine's designation of Western States as "the best."
     What amazed me, though, was the writer's reason for selecting Western States.  In the interests of journalistic accuracy (and what journalists call "fair use"), let me quote the three-sentence reason the writer gave:

     "This is the granddaddy of them all, the 100 mile race that spurred the sport of ultradistance trail running in the U.S.  It morphed out of a horse race; when Gordy Ainsleigh's horse came up lame in 1974, he decided to run the entire course through the Sierra Nevada mountains himself.  Since then, Western States has become the Boston Marathon of trail running, attracting the best trail runners from around the world."

     I have read a lot of "rewriting of history" over the years, but this one should get a prize.  Hey, I have a few dusty trophies and medals from popular ultras I ran in the years before Western States was born, so maybe I could send the writer one of those.  And maybe I could enclose a note asking how Western States got to be a "grandaddy" of some major ultras that were older than it?
     For example: In 1973, the year before Gordy Ansleigh became the lone first finisher of the first Western States, the JFK 50 Mile in Maryland had 673 finishers.  Other ultras that thrived before Western States include the Sri Chinmoy hundred-mile and thousand-mile ultras in New York, the Two Bridges 36-Mile in Washington, DC, a series of 6-day races in New Jersey, and some others I'd have to go look up my dusty old copies of the long-defunct Long-Distance Log to recall.
     In one respect, the "Trail" blurb is right: ultrarunning boomed in the 1980s, and Western States certainly had a role in it.  But the boom had nothing to do with the launch of that race in 1974; it was spurred by the ABC network TV show "Wide World of Sports," which featured Western States in 1984 and '85, and gave ultrarunning a kind of media exposure to the general public it hadn't had before.  In a very PR-savvy rewriting of history, Gordy Ansleigh's heroic feat was recast as the launch of the ultra boom.  But it wasn't.  A TV special was, ten years later.
     The real "grandaddy" of American ultrarunning, of course, is not Western States but fthe JFK 50, which had 1,311 finishers over the decade before Western States had its first, and which has had hundreds more finishers than Western States in every one of the 37 years Western States has been run.
     Of course, there will be those who say Western States is the more "legendary" race because it's more competitive.  Well, I won't at all disagree with the "Trail" special's observation that top runners come from all over the world to run Western States (although that has been true only in the past few years).  But they come to JFK, too--just with much less fanfare.  In 2010, when seven-time Western States winner Scott Jurek came to JFK, a lot of us assumed he'd win in a breeze.  He finished 11th.
     As for what race is "the best" trail ultra, again, I wouldn't argue with the "Trail" writer.  Western States has a spectacular course through the Sierras--taking you through pristine snow and 100-degree heat just hours apart; it traverses awesome canyons, vistas, and climbs; it has superb aid stations and organization.  And the legacy of Scott Jurek's seven wins (and Ann Trason's 11 wins) there is truly awesome.  I also know that at least 20 other ultras around the country might make the case that they are "best," but just less publicized.  The Lake Waramaug run in Connecticut, for example, started up the same year as Western States (actually three months earlier than WS), and became iconic to ultrarunners in the late 1970s but never became known to the public.  "Best" is a subjective word.  To paraphrase an old saw, "Best is in the eyes, heart, and feet of the beholder."
     My point is just that in the world of long-distance running, "best" cannot be determined by TV producers, film-makers, and publicists.  It can only be decided by runners.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The State of Running, 2012: Have We Gone Off Course?

My article by this title, in the May issue of Running Times magazine, questions whether some of us long-distance runners may be unconscionably failing to share, with the quick-gratification, tech-addicted culture that surrounds us, something essential we've learned about human nature and survival.  Read it here: