Monday, September 24, 2012

Trying to get the taper right

On the long list of do’s and don’ts that I’ve learned through hard knocks this year in training and racing I would put how not to taper at the top of the pile.  How not to taper?  It’s very simple.  It whittles down to not beginning a taper feeling like crap.  Beginning a taper feeling crappy will most likely carry over to a crappy taper in general, which then of course would lead to (among other things) diet, mood and confidence swings, an overall less than stellar performance on race day, an elongated recovery or some mixture of all of the above.
“Feeling like crap” might mean different things to different people.  There is over-trained feeling like crap.  Habitually sore muscles feeling like crap.  Injury feeling like crap.  Daily low energy levels feeling like crap.  Less than enthusiastic (i.e. “what am I doing this for?”) feeling like crap.  And so on.  Whatever the case may be, and there could be several, simultaneously, one must be vigilant in minimizing the feeling like crap factor prior to a taper.
The more fit, loose, confident, etc. one feels at the cusp of a taper the better and better one will continue to feel throughout the taper and, thus, the better one will likely perform at their chosen event.  This probably sounds obvious but in reality many of us, myself included, have a tendency to peak train intensely leading up to a taper, often feeling tapped out at the time taper begins and think that is how we should feel three weeks, two weeks, 10 days or what have you out from an event because we have time to recover and energize.
I’ve certainly begun a taper feeling crappy.  Sometimes I’ve even raced well after a crappy taper.  Sometimes I’ve even recovered well too.  But more often than not, after a crappy taper, I’ve always felt as though I left something on the table after the race; as if I could have done better.  That includes races I’ve run this year.  Western States is a prime example.  This might sound like BS but I pretty much felt like shit even two days before the race.  In that case, the feeling like crap factor for me was that I was over trained.  Feeling like crap at the time of the taper shook my confidence and let’s just say the final few weeks leading up to the start in Squaw were bumpy.  My mental game definitely improved in the hours leading up to the race but, deep down, I knew my body wasn’t properly prepared.  Rather, it was over prepared.  And my post race recovery was longer and slower than normal too.
Some people I know don’t even taper.  They don’t because they know it will make them feel like crap.  I’ve often felt this way.  But in reality I think this is not true- which is part of the whole point of this post.  Plus, there are flat out some types of races that simply do not require much of a taper or a taper at all.  100s are a different story all together.  100s require a taper.
I am speaking up about this now because Grindstone is right around the corner and it recently occurred to me that I definitely do not want to begin another taper feeling crappy from the get go.  I know where that road leads.  So what I have done about it?  Based on my recent Western States experience the first thing I did was cut down the volume a bit immediately preceding the taper- which I should point out is what I am doing now.  Tapering.  I also nipped and tucked a few of the longer runs over the past few weeks that in recent past I would have thought I needed.  Nor have I been much concerned with weekly elevation gain.  The fact is I’ve run a ton already this year- more miles and more vertical than in any year prior.  I look at all of this year’s training and recognize that without allowing the body to absorb an actual real rest period (which will come after Pinhoti) not much added benefit will come from continuing to rack up heavy, heavy training.  In fact, it could produce the opposite: diminished returns.
One of the truisms in training and in life is that each new season is different, and this is what I know is working for me right now.  By assessing how I felt leading up to the current taper and by making a few modifications along the way I now feel fit, loose and confident.  I’m ready to rip at Grindstone.  I can feel it.
All of this is to say that going forward I will definitely play closer attention to the feeling like crap factor before beginning a taper.  Whatever the case might be- overtraining, etc.- in whatever season I find myself.  By focusing on starting the taper feeling good, as opposed to focusing on ending the taper feeling good, I am confident better race results will come.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

FKT at Old Rag Mountain

For the better part of this year I’ve had an itch to haul in something I would consider close to a perfect run on one of my favorite Virginia Mountains- Old Rag.  By a perfect run of course I mean something speedy but also something where I would feel decent throughout and really good at the finish.  Finally, yesterday I made the call: after work this run was going to happen.  I hit the road around 4pm and drove north towards the Old Rag Mountain trailhead located on back roads a few miles off Route 231, an hour’s drive from home.

A photo I snapped on July 28th, 2012 looking west from 231.  Old Rag shortly after sunrise.  How nice to receive mail at the Craft abode.

Another view.
Old Rag Mountain is unique and exceedingly popular in that it draws approximately 80,000 people each year who show up to hike the Ridge Trail to the summit, down the Saddle Trail and back to their cars via the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.  Some elect to travel in the opposite direction but most often the chosen route is the clockwise direction, the route I just described, the route to which I am partial and the direction I ran yesterday evening.  In total this circuit encompasses 7.5 miles and just shy of 2,200 vertical feet.   By itself, Old Rag is obviously not very big.  Or tall.  In fact, it is more or less a border mountain located between neighboring foothills and the bigger Blue Ridge Mountain peaks of the Shenandoah National Park located immediately to it's west.  For many reasons, however, Old Rag lends itself well to popularity.  For starters, it is located close to various towns, cities and main roads (or vice versa).  Old Rag also happens to offer spectacular views from atop and, well, it’s just a darn fun mountain to experience.  Especially the super rocky summit ridgeline, which requires practically a full mile’s worth of scrambling; sometimes on all fours and at one point the trail even passes through a cave.  Aside from Mount Monadnock in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the most pedestrian travelled mountain in the United States, if not the world, Old Rag has to be one of the most hiked mountains in all the land.  As a comparison, 125,000 to 130,000 hike Monadnock each year.  How many mountains and National Park locales can even support this kind of use?
The scene at the upper parking lot.  Ridge Trail begins on the left, Weakley Hollow Fire begins (or ends) behind the yellow chain.
Once I arrived at Old Rag and parked at the lower overflow lot I warmed up for 10 minutes on the road leading up to the trailhead.  I shook out my legs.  My quads.  I stood in place and counted jumping jacks.  The legs felt heavy still and not at all excited about the task at hand: to run the Old Rag loop- from the upper lot cement trailhead post and back- in FKT fashion.  Screw it, I thought.  I made the drive and I was going to give this run a shot regardless of how the legs felt.  I started my watch, tapped the cement post and off I went up the Ridge Trail.  A moment passed and in the midst of heavy breaths and paranoid thoughts about not feeling truly up for the effort a voice echoed in my head, seemingly out of nowhere.  Relax.  Let the mountain come to you.  That was all it said, only once, and apparently all I needed to hear.  Instantly my shoulders dropped, my breathing settled and I became fixated soley on traveling the most efficient lines through the rocks at a comfortable pace up Old Rag.  Still, my legs felt heavy.  The voice didn’t just make that go away; I simply concentrated on other things.  Mostly, I thought of nothing at all.  My thoughts were empty; in a good way.
The first overlook, at mile 2.14, came at :22:17.  At this point I began the first bit of hands-on-knees power hiking.  The dirt path changed to a rock staircase which soon gave way to incline granite slabs.  I was now in the thick of things on the best part of Old Rag as I climbed, pulled, pushed, lifted, crawled, hopped and scrambled my way up the summit ridge.  The ironic thing about attempting a perfect run on Old Rag is that negotiating the summit portion allows very little running at all.  As evidence, my GPS splits revealed a 17:20 pace over the 1.01 mile between the first overlook and the actual summit, which I clocked in at :39:50 at the summit post sign.
According to Virginia trail running aficionado and historian, Joe Clapper, Kevin Sawchuck of California long held the official summit FKT in :42:31.  I'm not sure in what year he ran it but I believe it was in the late 90s.  Prior to Kevin's benchmark, Joe and Derrick Carr would duel back and forth over who was king dingaling of Old Rag Mountain.  My summit reach earned me FKT #1 on the run so far and a spot in the history books with greats Joe, Derrick and Kevin.  I must be moving well after all, I figured.  Not perfectly thus far but well enough.  The summit FKT was gravy but it was not why I came to Old Rag.  I came for the full loop FKT, so I continued on past the summit sign and prepared my downhill legs for the coming 1.9 miles of technical downhill and switchbacks.
Man, my legs felt good running downhill.  What happened?  Why all the sudden did they feel so strong?  I suppose the mental boost from summiting in less than 40 minutes had something to do with it.  The confidence meter shifted.  A moment or two went by and I stopped concerning myself with the why, I simply leaned more into the trail, sped up and enjoyed the ride.  The summit descent to the Old Rag Shelter is exceedingly technical yet somehow I managed to actually stride out my legs over the rocks and move really quickly down the mountain.  That is another one of the unique things about Old Rag: in such a condensed loop there is so much variation in the trail.  And to cover the loop in FKT fashion one must draw on a diverse skillset which need include, but not be limited to, climbing, rock climbing, scrambling, technical downhill ability and, finally, over the gravel road homestretch, pure speed.
At :53 I hit the gravel Weakley Hollow Fire Road intersection and banged a right hand turn.  It was a gradual downhill from there back to the Old Rag upper parking lot cement trailhead post, and I cruised the final 2.44 miles at 5:14 pace.
Finally, I entered the upper parking lot, tapped the cement post and stopped my watch at 1:05:49- FKT #2 on the day for the roundtrip.  I stood around for a moment or two thinking yeah, maybe I could cover this loop slightly faster, sure, but it was still a perfectly good run.  I felt good, which is what I had hoped for, and I was happy.  I felt like celebrating so I picked up the water bottle, headlight and pack of Clif blocks I stashed earlier behind a log and made my way back up the Ridge Trail for another loop.
Prior to completing this loop I imagined anything under a finish time of 1:10 would be fairly stout and so I am happy with my time.  Sub 1:05 is definitely within reach, possibly even sub 1:03 or 1:02.  It was still warm out during the run and possibly cooler temperatures alone might have helped get me below 1:05, something I think has a nice ring to it and I would like to claim eventually.  Sub one hour?  I seriously, seriously doubt I have that in me.  Never say never but just looking over the splits and how the course is laid out, each section being so unique and requiring different skillsets, I’m not sure where I could shave off a total of more than five minutes and 49 seconds.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Benefits of Running

Last week I had the good fortune to witness in real time one of the many extraordinary benefits of running in daily life.  Last Tuesday, September 11th, Gaby gave birth to a healthy baby boy, to whom we of course fell instantly and conjointly in love with and to whom we have rededicated our lives.  But the story here, at least for this blog’s sake, is in the hours preceding his birth.
Gaby’s contractions began very early, in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday morning.  During which I mostly continued sleeping and Gaby tossed and turned, no doubt analyzing the patterns between the contractions.  As the sun came up what did Gaby then decide to do?  First, she instructed that I continue on with my ritual and go for a run, explaining that she would be fine.  Second, she decided to go for a walk.  It would make her feel better during the contractions, she said.
Wanting to stay close to home, Gaby marched the few blocks over to the University of Virginia track, exchanging pavement for the highly technical rubberized soft surface of Lannigan Field.  At the track Gaby apparently felt good and decided to run.  Run?  During labor?  Yes indeed.  Five miles later Gaby returned home, called her doctor and we casually made our way to his office for a checkup.  She was dilated and the baby was on his way.  Later in the morning we checked into the hospital and the full on delivery began.  Less than six hours after Gaby ran five miles at the track out came our son, Trail Alexander Gorman.  Gaby was amazing, and delivered naturally; just the way she had hoped.  This story has been told many times over the past week by yours truly- in person, via text, email, phone, Skype and so once more, via this blog, won’t kill me.  (I’ll even recycle the same drollery many friends and family have already heard or read: what a double that was.)
Gaby remained in excellent shape throughout her pregnancy thanks to running.  This fitness carried over to her feeling [mostly] in control and confident during labor as well, which fortunately turned out to be a success.  Could it be that Gaby’s labor some women might refer to as ‘easy’ was in large part a result of her fitness?  That running the morning of her birth actually even helped with her labor?  And, now, her recovery is going really well because of her running fitness also?  Definitely.  In fact, the doctors and nurses at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, where Gaby delivered, all of whom were impressed, seemed to agree on as much.
For me, witnessing Gaby in action was and is yet another basic, inspiring reminder of the natural importance of health and fitness, and that there is simply no better- or easier- way to bridge a happy and healthy lifestyle than to get outside and run as often is possible.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Eastern fall racing

Finally, after a long, soggy summer that hopefully will terminate soon, the body is beginning to once again feel restored from runs as opposed to feeling depleted after them.  It seemed so long where back-to-back runs have clicked by without incidence, or without feeling completely drained, sore, dehydrated, limp, over trained or some other descriptive for generally feeling whipped.  This summer has kicked my ass and I’ve struggled by the duel blows of summer’s heat and humidity, simple as that.
For the most part I hate excuses and disdain complaining but I’ve found myself commiserating in summer’s midst on more than one occasion with a wilting flower or dry creek bed.  Last summer I recall enjoying summer’s intensity, at least for a while, but- alas- each year is unique and offers new experiences.
Fortunately the earth continues rotating and seasons change.  At least that is how summer seemed to leave us each year in Washington D.C.  The earth turned a bit on its axis and things got chilly. Hopefully the same occurrence will happen in Charlottesville.  I expect that it will, and beg that it does expediently.  Days eventually will grow longer, leaves will explode into color and in congruence the East’s fall ultra racing season will heat up.
It’s exciting to think about.  Ultra running has experienced an eventful year and I suppose that is the new norm going forward; however, the year is not yet over and though there remains a few important western races (Wasatch, Run Rabbit Run, North Face SF) it seems to me the fall and early winter belongs to the East.  UROC, Grindstone, Vermont 50, JFK, Stonemill, Masochist, Tussey Mountainback, Hellgate and now even Pinhoti- to name just a few- all remain as big question marks as to who will show up at each event and who will raise eyebrows long after the summer ultra season has cooled off.  As an East Coaster it is energizing to recognize that so many important races still remain on the 2012 calendar and so many of these races are close to home.
Perhaps it is fortuitous that my summer of running has not gone so well.  A bit of rest and weariness never killed anyone last time I checked.  My calendar is full enough with Eastern fall events and I intend to represent.