Monday, December 1, 2014

road2boston 2015

After two weeks of no running and another two weeks of the occasional "chill" run, I officially ended downtime and commenced my training block for the 2015 Boston Marathon this morning at 6AM with a fifty-minute easy run, plus some strides at the end. The temperature hovered around zero (32F) and there was only a slight wind with an occasional hefty gust thrown in just to remind me it is in fact winter. All things considered it was quite a beautiful morning to kick things off, however moving forward this winter I expect these types of mornings will be a in the minority. Although I haven't done it much, nor have I tried when the weather is really cold and nasty, I really like getting out early in the morning when it's dark and quiet and most people are still sleeping. In a way It feels like you're getting free training time, and if you so desire you can go again in the evening to add volume (not quite there yet myself).      

To be honest, my road2boston training block actually started off on a slightly more ominous note. I had planned on kicking things off with a decent long run on Sunday, but after dealing with cold sweats, general achiness, and being on the brink of puking the night before I decided it might be sensible to skip the run on Sunday. Besides, I didn't get out of bed until 10AM (that never happens), so I missed the 8AM group long run anyway.

My plan for the next twenty weeks is to have no "official" plan. I know where I need to go and how to get there, so I'm basically aiming to really tune into my body and how I'm feeling from week-to-week with the ultimate goal of being fit, healthy, and confident enough to drop a sub-3 hour time at Boston. I spent the entire summer focusing on getting faster, which culminated with a 1:23 half-marathon in November. According to the Daniels' Running Calculator (linked to this blog) that time roughly projects to a 2:54 marathon, so I know I've established the speed necessary to break three hours. To maintain that speed and perhaps even improve it, I'll mix in hill sprints (10-20sec), hill repetitions (1+ minutes), strides, and intervals of various lengths (1-5min) at roughly 3k-5k pace. This should be the "easy" part.

My biggest and most important goal over the next twenty weeks is to first maximize my general endurance (haven't had a single run over 24km since Boston 2014), and then hone my specific endurance and increase my fatigue resistance. Establishing specific endurance and increasing fatigue resistance are basically the same thing, but when training for a marathon I think of specific endurance as runs or long intervals at or very near race pace, and I think of threshold (10k to half-marathon pace) runs and intervals as workouts aimed at improving fatigue resistance. In this case, I also think of specific endurance runs as tempo runs. It basically boils down to semantics, but one thing is for certain, threshold and specific endurance runs are the key to marathon success because along with improving race specific fitness, almost more importantly, they test your mettle and willingness to suffer on a weekly basis. Apart from avoiding injury and/or cramps (my marathon nemesis), mettle and willingness to suffer are vital on race day.

I don't periodize my training in the traditional sense. Meaning, I don't spend weeks at a time solely focusing on improving one aspect of training and fitness. Admittedly, I've never tried this approach. Although I know it has its merits, it just doesn't seem like a fun way to train, and the reason I run in the first place is because I like it. For me, I'd rather focus on everything at once while slightly changing the emphasis I place on the various components of marathon fitness. 

For instance, during the first five weeks of training my emphasis will be to establish a nice aerobic endurance base through mostly traditional long runs, but I'll also be mixing in some hill sprints and short bursts of speed to increase my stride power and improve my overall neuromuscular fitness. I'll also mix in the occasional threshold run or cruise interval run just to keep things interesting. During the next 8-10 weeks I'll limit the shorter speed/power sessions and emphasize threshold workouts and longer tempo runs. However, to keep my speed up and for the sake of variety I'll mix in strides, longer hill reps (with Heartbreak Hill(s) in mind), and some longer intervals in the 3k-5k pace range. During the last 5-7 weeks of this particular training block I will focus heavily on marathon pace runs and threshold runs at, or just below, half-marathon pace. Again, I'll mix in some strides and the occasional 5k pace interval run to keep my leg turnover sharp, smooth, and efficient.

Lastly, I plan to do all this while adhering as much as possible to the 80/20 running philosophy, which is a commonly used and successful approach to training employed by a majority of elite athletes in various endurance sports. In short, this training principle stresses that in order to maintain physical health and peak fitness 80% of your training should be of the easy, recovery, or aerobic variety, and 20% should/can be "hard." It doesn't have to be right on, and it might get a little out of whack at various stages of a training block, but at the end of said training block you're mostly likely to be healthy and in peak fitness if roughly 80% of your mileage was easy, and 20% was anything harder than easy. I'll be keeping track of this as I progress through my training.

Last Lastly, my personal training philosophy and the majority of the individual workouts I'll do for my road2boston training block come from an amalgamation of three wiser than me: Brad Hudson, Run Faster From The 5K To The Marathon, Matt Fitzgerald, 80/20 Running (and many others), and Jack Daniels, Daniels' Running Formula.

Let's get it on! Actually, that took me way longer than I expected and I'm mostly ready for bed.


Friday, November 14, 2014

The Case for Blood Tests

Thanks to multiple past PED offenders in baseball, football, cycling, track and field, and most recently the marathon world (Rita Jeptoo), the phrase blood test often conjures up negative thoughts and emotions in sports enthusiasts and everyday athletes alike. I suspect basketball would be on that list too if the NBA's drug testing policy wasn't a complete joke. We've been burned by so many cheating sports "heroes," struggling elite athletes trying to reach the apex of their spot (or perhaps just trying to keep up), and has-beens hoping to hang on for one last hurrah that it's nearly impossible not to have a visceral reaction and expect the worst when we hear or read the words blood test. 

For good reason, our faith in professional and, unfortunately, even amateur sports, and the athletes who participate in them has been tested and compromised. We've been lied to and even made to feel guilty about suspecting athletes of using PEDs even in the face of mounting evidence against them (thanks Lance, Roger, Barry, A-Rod, etc). Our hope in fair play has repeatedly been shattered, while those choosing to cheat the system have crushed the potential livelihood as well as the goals and dreams of countless clean athletes.

These lying liars and cheating cheats have ruined the sanctity and ethical code of our most cherished sports. They are the lowest of the low. The scum of the...

Wait, wait. This isn't a post about the ethics of PEDs, or the need for biological passports, or shaming those athletes and coaches who've cheated the system. This post is about the importance of getting a simple blood test, especially for aging and/or endurance athletes. Blood tests are our friends. Let's embrace them rather than shun their results. And, to highlight their simplicity and usefulness I'll share a personal experience.

I'm 38 years old now, so I must've been somewhere between 30 and 32 years old the first time I had a blood test done. I was in good physical health. I ate a varied and healthy diet fueled mostly by produce from the Portland Farmer's Market. I ran 2-3 times per week, rode my bike to work often, and stayed active on the weekends by hiking and/or walking with our dog (Carter - pictured above). Life was not stressful and I was living the classic urban Portland yuppy dream. However, for reasons I can't remember I went in to see my nurse practitioner to have a physical examination.

All things checked out tip-top as I suspected they would, but she was concerned about a low(ish) red blood cell count. Or was it low hemoglobin? Or was it low iron levels? I'm not quite sure, and I was so naive at the time I barely even asked for clarification. I do know for sure I didn't ask to look at the results, and all I left her office with were the words "borderline anemic" and dietary recommendations on how to get my "numbers" up before coming back for another test in 4-6 months. Okay, eat beef and leafy green vegetables. Remember that.

I came to find out my dad was also "slightly" anemic and took iron supplements. So, maybe this was a genetic inheritance like my receding hairline. Makes sense, but in this particular incident my numbers were "within range" (varies from lab to lab) six months later after a slight change in diet, and that was that. This was my first foray into the realm of blood tests, and I didn't give it much thought again until recently.

Over the last few years I've morphed into a bona-fide endurance athlete. I usually run six times per week and typically cover 50-60 miles (80-100km). As an endurance athlete I rely heavily on the production and transport of oxygen from my lungs to my muscle tissues. I'm not a doctor, but simply put, oxygen is transported through hemoglobin in red blood cells, and iron plays an essential role in hemoglobin function/production. Furthermore, iron plays an essential role in myoglobin function/production in the actual muscle tissue where the cells transport and release said oxygen to create the energy our muscles desire during exercise. Lastly, on a cellular level, our cell's engine is the mitochondria, which become more efficient through long bouts of aerobic training, and a key ingredient to proper mitochondria energy production (think ATP) involves a chemical reaction which hinges on...wait for it...yes, oxygen. In short, as endurance athletes our happiness, motivation, and success relies heavily on proper iron stores in the body to produce and transport oxygen to carry out these vital processes. 

In an ironic twist of fate endurance athletes are more susceptible to low iron stores (iron deficiency) due to several factors: 1) loss of iron through sweat 2) increased blood in our urine 3) gastrointestinal bleeding 4) and possibly through "foot strike hemolysis," or destruction of red blood cells in our feet due to repeated impact (this theory has been questioned). Females are even more susceptible due to blood loss during menstrual cycles. 

The primary way the body stores and transports iron is as ferritin, so when getting a blood test it's important to ask that your ferritin levels are measured as well as hemoglobin. There are multiple reasons for our hemoglobin to be low, but the most common cause is low iron levels, which is indicated by your ferritin level. Ferritin is the key, but there isn't necessarily an agreed upon definition for what a "low" ferritin level is in endurance athletes. However, generally anything below about 30 ng/mL (or 30ug/L) is concerning enough to discuss with your doctor about taking iron supplements (ferrous sulfate or ferrous fumarate) and improving ways to get iron naturally through your diet (easy to find on a basic Google search). 

Chronically low iron stores can lead to a feeling of general fatigue, decreased interest in training or racing, longer recovery times, and subpar performances, which brings me back to my story and my second foray into the world of blood tests. 

Back in July I had a 5K race in which I was definitely fit enough to set a PB and possibly dip under 18 minutes. I went out hard and detonated and had to walk for a bit around the 3K mark. In hindsight, I probably just went out a little too hard and went anaerobic too early in what was only my second 5K race ever (rookie mistake). But, it got me thinking about other possible causes. Then, in August I ran a 10K race in which I detonated around the 7K mark and had to walk yet again. This time I'm sure I was running a pace I should've been able to maintain based on my training. I still set a PB, but my time of 39:00 was about forty seconds slower than what I felt I was capable of. 

I suppose looking back on it I may have been feeling a bit fatigued as well, but I wouldn't have guessed it at the time. Regardless, based on two disappointing performances in a row I decided to change my training approach and to get my blood checked just to be safe. After all, I knew I had been "borderline anemic" in the past, and I wasn't training nearly as much at that time. 

When I got my results back I was not surprised at all to see that my ferritin levels were extremely low (16ug/L), as well as my hemoglobin and red blood cell count. By the this time I had already researched which form of iron as a supplement and which brands carried at our local health food store were the most effective, so when I met with my doctor to go over the results she could simply recommend dosage (admittedly, I had already started). I also started being more conscientious about eating an iron supportive diet as well, which includes drinking coffee more strategically. Apparently, the tannins in coffee and tea bond with iron making it harder for the small intestine to absorb. As a result, I try to take my pills and eat iron heavy food at least an hour before or after drinking the coffee I so desperately need because I have two small children. On the flip side, Vitamin C is supposed to help with iron absorption, so if possible I'll take my iron pills with C heavy fruit, or a bit of orange juice. 

By the time I became aware of my iron deficiency it was mid-September and there were still races left on my calendar. I had read that it can take as little as three weeks to start feeling more energized once iron stores start to increase in the body. My "A" goal 10K and half marathon races happened to be four and seven weeks away respectively. There was hope.

I would never have guessed I was feeling fatigued when I decided to get my blood tested and started taking iron supplements. I just wanted to stop detonating and start racing better again. Maybe it was partially a placebo effect, but I swear my energy level and overall attitude improved after just a few weeks. I went out and crushed both races and set PBs by over a minute in the 10K, and nearly three minutes in the half. 

Were increased iron stores in my body solely responsible for these results? Probably not, since I also changed my training approach by incorporating more frequent and longer tempo runs, which toughened me up and left me with more confidence in my abilities. But, I do believe increased iron stores helped provide me the energy I needed to perform well in those workouts and deliver on race day.

However, I could be totally wrong. My ferritin levels may not have changed one bit, but I'd be surprised if that were the case. I'll know for sure in mid-December when I go back for a re-test to see just how effective these changes have been. I've got a pretty important marathon coming up in Boston in April, so you better believe I'm going to stay on top of this.

Given the increased risk of becoming iron deficient as an endurance athlete, and the negative effect iron deficiency has on motivation and performance, I'm amazed by how few runners I know have even thought about having a blood test, let alone getting one done regularly. At the very least it makes sense to have one during the off season or scheduled down time to establish some baseline numbers. However, based on personal experience and from what I've read, if you're logging some heavy mileage I'd recommend a blood test at least twice a year. A simple blood test may just help you suffer better and improve your performance. Or, it could just save your life.  


Friday, September 26, 2014

Lessons Learned: Part One

I am not winning.

Eighteen minutes and thirteen seconds on September 6th, 2014. That is the fastest I could get myself to cover a five kilometer distance after a summer of fairly focused "speed" training. A mere seven seconds faster than my debut 5K road race back in early June coming off a winter and spring of marathon training, and a personal best effort at the Boston Marathon. Not a shameful PB for the 5K distance, but not the sub-18 minute performance I was after, or even a marked improvement over the distance after nearly three months of training.  

However, getting faster over five kilometers was only part of the goal of my Summer of Speed training. I also wanted to improve my 10K time, which I've done by fifty seconds (pictured above with two races still to come), and crush my half-marathon personal best (coming in November) set last February in the midst of training for Boston. In addition, I wanted to shorten and speed things up this summer simply to add some spice, fun, and variety to my training. 

So...since my 5K racing season has come to a close, but there's still racing left to come, it's a good time to ponder, look back, and reflect on...

Lessons Learned So Far...

1. Racing a 5K at or near redline really hurts. Like a whole body pain that makes you want to whimper and cry like a wounded puppy. 

2. That pain is either one I just haven't grown accustomed to, or one I just don't agree with because I hate it after about twelve minutes (on the roads). At this point, I'm programmed to suffer better over long distances.

3. With the aforementioned in mind, the mental component to racing a 5K is paramount to achieving your best result. If you lose your focus for even a portion of the race, which is easy to do when in oxygen debt, you're not achieving your best result.

4. There's no room for self-doubt. The race is too short.

5. Pacing is key. A couple seconds per kilometer too fast and you're in the pain cave too soon. A couple seconds per kilometer too slow during the middle of the race, and you're not making it up at the end. 

6. I think the best approach is a hard-even-hard tactic. Just under goal pace for the first km, at goal pace from 2-4km, and as hard as you can for the last kilometer.

7. Probably best to have a mantra, or a way to get yourself to think positively and/or distract from the pain because it's coming. I didn't have one, or at least one I remembered to access.

8. Racing people is way more fun than racing the clock (as is the case in most races). Motivation is key and when my whole body hurts I'm more motivated by place than I am by time.

9. My shorter distance speed (400m, 800m, and 1000m) didn't translate proportionately to my 5K time.

10. I need to continue to work on top end endurance, however marathon training when done properly has a pretty significant effect (physically) on one's 5K ability.

11. I like training for a 5K race more than I like racing them, but the opposite is true for marathons.

12. I like a course that undulates. My best race of the 5K season from a physical and mental standpoint came last weekend at Falling Leaves on the University of Guelph cross-country course, in which I ran in complete control the entire time while moving up throughout the race, and I set an 18 second PB. I actually enjoyed it, which leads me to my next two points.

13. I think what's holding me back from performing my best at this point is mental and not physical, however ultimately, I'm not that fast.

14. That said, I have enjoyed switching things up this summer and it has been glorious not to have to worry about fitting three hour long runs into the schedule, but I'd still rather run an ultramarathon through the mountains than chase a 5K PB any day of the week. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Ode to Oregon: A Photo Essay

Wildflowers on Dog Mtn - The Gorge - Washington 
Oregon is my favorite place on earth., not really. With all the varied, culturally significant, and stunningly beautiful places around this wonderful world of ours, how could one really claim a single locale as their favorite of all? It's just an impossible and pointless task. Having said that, I've had the pleasure of visiting an array of exotic, fascinating, and incredible places across the globe, and through it all Oregon ranks right up there as one of my favorites. Perhaps it's because I'm lucky enough to call it my home turf, or maybe it's just because it kicks so much ass on multiple levels.

This past weekend I was lucky enough to head back to Oregon as part of a three day "freedom from family furlough" to attend a lifelong friend's wedding at Skamania Lodge in the Columbia River Gorge. Since I was leaving my wife at home to attend to our lovely daughters on her own, it was my duty to experience as much as I could during my short stint back. As expected, Oregon did not disappoint. 

If there's one thing Portland has become known for over the past decade or so, it is its food culture. I'm pretty sure the term "made with local..." was invented there. Whether its fine dining, food trucks, inventive twists on old favorites, quasi-street, rustic, raw, or mouth watering ice-cream, Portland has it all. And, one of the best aspects of the Portland dining experience is fantastic food accompanied by knowledgable, attentive service without the pretentious vibe you'll often find in bigger cities. That said, their can be a hipster vibe that some people are turned off by. Anyhow, after picking me up from the airport my dad, stepmother, and I went for Spanish tapas and paella at Atuala. Not the best paella in town (that can be found at Toro Bravo), but the cocktails were great and the service was spot on. We finished the night off with some ice-cream from Ruby Jewel since the line at Salt & Straw was around the block. 

The options are endless

I woke up Friday morning to a classic Pacific Northwest morning of gray overcast skies. It was warmish, but there was a thunderstorm the night before which left the air crisp and moist. Typically, on days like this during the summer the clouds will burn off and it will be sunny and warm by noon. It was 7AM and I headed straight to one of my favorite places in the city, Forest Park, for a morning run. To call this place a "park" seems like an understatement. It's one of the largest urban forest reserves in the United States with a vast network of trails and firelanes totaling over 70 miles of hiking, running, and frolicking good times. The park is bisected by the 30 mile long Wildwood Trail, which can be accessed at multiple locations throughout NW Portland. Last July, I ran the Wildwood Trail Marathon and placed 4th overall. I've run and hiked in the park dozens of times, and this morning I was just happy to be in this large slice of city heaven for a leisurely jaunt of an hour or so through the Doug-Firs, ferns, and every shade of green imaginable. The first time I brought my wife to visit Oregon she said she never realized there were so many shades of green and it stuck with me.  

Wildwood Trail

Wildwood Trail to the left, Birch Trail to the right

After breakfast at The Daily Cafe with my dad and stepmother, it was time to head east of Portland 20 minutes to McMenamins - Edgefield Resort, Winery, and Bewery with my buddy Matt. Now, this place is truly unique and the various McMenamins locations throughout Oregon are tourist hotbeds and a testament and living tribute to Oregon's culture, past and present. But, to be brutally honest the wine and the beer are just okay compared to Oregon's many other options these days. Luckily for us we weren't heading there for the beer or the wine. We were heading there for the fantastic 20-hole par 3 chip and putt golf course located on their 74-acre grounds. By this time it was hot and sunny (like I said), so their signature fruity Ruby Ale made with Oregon grown raspberries is actually quite tasty, and potentially dangerous out on the course. I actually had the best round of golf I've ever had out there, shooting a 75 and never losing a single ball, which is nearly unheard of. 

After golf it was time to complete another mission on my list. We headed to Portland Running Co. to look at a few pairs of running shoes, which I really had no need for considering I'm cycling through about six different pairs currently. One look and one trial run around the block in these Nike Lunar Racer 3s and I simply couldn't pass them up. They're light as a feather (6.5oz), fit like a smooth butter glove, responsive, and they're snazzy looking. In some selfish, rational way the purchase made sense since not only are Oregon prices cheaper than Canadian prices, but there's no sales tax, and they were offering a 15% discount on top. All the necessary boxes were ticked, and in the end I walked out of there with a shoe that on the off chance I was able to find it in Canada would've cost me at least $50 more. One could even convince themselves this was a prudent purchase...maybe. However, I did just set a new 3K personal best of 10:32 (down from 10:55) the other day wearing these shoes, so there you go.

Luckily for us, Rontom's, one of Portland's best bars with an absolutely phenomenal back patio was just down the road from the running store, and it was prime patio time. Allegedly, the guy who opened this place about ten years ago was burnt out on the corporate rat race lifestyle (he worked for...wait for it...Nike), so he cashed out, followed his dream, and opened a bar as you do. There's also another story associated with this bar. It's a "romantic" one, and it involves me proposing to my wife while we waited for a table at a much nicer restaurant, Le Pigeon, next door.  The bar was not necessarily part of my master plan, but we had just purchased a puppy (Carter) earlier in the day, and I couldn't contain myself any longer. Besides, the proposal was just a formality by that point as we had been together for a few years, and when you buy a puppy as a couple it's a done deal. I have no idea what's in the drink pictured, but I'm sure it included bourbon, and it was in fact deeelicious.

Look, it's Portland's best outdoor drinking patio

Who could resist this face? He was the biggest of his litter and they called him, Bubba.

The next morning was Saturday. The big day. Wedding day, and I had a lot to accomplish before its 4pm kick off an hour away in the Gorge. The first thing Matt, wife Celeste, baby Maya, and I did was head down to the Portland Farmer's Market. I've literally been to dozens of farmer's markets, and I've yet to visit one better than the Saturday farmer's market in the park blocks in downtown Portland. The supply and variety of produce is off the charts. Oregon has so many delectable types of berries it's almost comical. The sweets and treats are heavenly. The breads are creative and fluffy. The salmon is wild and line-caught from the Columbia River, and the meat has the whole sustainable, free-range, grass fed, humane vibe to it. There's even a vendor, Tails & Trotters, who specialize in selling pork from pigs fed on hazelnuts. It's pretty damn tasty. The food vendors are so good there's usually long lines by 10am, and many of them have been so successful they've been able to open restaurants around the city. And, there's always two live cool vibe bands who play at different times in the morning and afternoon. In fact, we found the band for our wedding at the farmer's market one Saturday morning.

Got kale?

My friend Celeste's both at the Farmer's Market

Unfortunately, this day I had a mission and time constraints so I wasn't able to laze a good portion of the day away as we so often have many times in the past. I was there for a hearty breakfast to fuel my run up a mountain later that morning, some post-run fruit, a coffee, and to see my lifelong friends at Cherry Country (Celeste's family business). A hearty breakfast of fried market veggies, fresh kale, white beans, and two "happy" eggs on top of two handmade corn tortillas from Verde Cocina was a no-brainer.  Next, I headed straight to Baird Family Orchards for two plump, juicy, and crisp Oregon peaches (God I miss these things). I found a vendor with massive Marionberries - exclusively Oregon - and I was set. Time to head east for the Gorge.

Fresh market veggies on the flat top grill

The hearty Huevos Rancheros breakfast

The Columbia River Gorge extends east of Portland for roughly 90 miles. The Columbia River used to be a mighty beast and throughout its time carving up rock it has left a vast, jagged, and deep Gorge in its wake. The river's raw power has been harnessed by dams over the years to provide Oregon and Washington with an abundance of cheap, renewable energy for the power grid, and loads of irrigation water for the agricultural industry in the rural areas east of Portland. The deep gorge also acts as a reliable and consistent source of wind, making Hood River, about 50 miles east of Portland, one of the windsurfing capitals of the world, which is just one of a multitude of other outdoor activities at their doorstep. East of Hood River for miles and miles is also where you'll find loads of wind turbines capitalizing on those stable winds to provide yet another source of renewable energy. 

The Gorge, as it's affectionately known locally, is thoroughly littered with vistas, ridges, streams, waterfalls, and trails on both the Oregon and Washington side. Many of the trails link up to create a vast network of hiking and, in my case, runnable terrain. It's also home to Multnomah Falls, Oregon's most popular tourist destination. The gorge seems more raw on the Oregon side. The mountains and cliffs rise higher, and mini-gorges cut into the cliffs are more jagged. Since the roads run along the water and most the trail heads start near the roads, most of the hiking and running takes you up. Many of the trails are very reasonable and forgiving in their ascent, but there are also some doozies on the Oregon side that will take you straight up over 4000 feet in four or five miles. I've only done one of those, Ruckle Ridge, and we weren't running, but we did have Carter with us. 

Since the wedding I was to attend was on the Washington side, I decided to head to Hamilton Mountain. Karen and I have done this hike a few times in the past as it offers an array of vegetation zones, waterfalls, plenty of vert, and a nice long ridge at the top with views of the gorge in either direction. It also had the added bonus of being only ten minutes away from the location of the wedding, so yet again I was faced with a no-brainer.

So many shades of green at the beginning of Hamilton Mtn trail

Looking back down the trail towards the trailhead

Rodney Falls up top trickling down a rock bed

This is a popular destination for both hikers and campers, and I as made my way into the parking lot at the trailhead it was packed full as expected. To make matters worse the overflow parking and picnic area just up the road was reserved for a wedding party. After a mini-panic attack that my plan had been foiled, I remembered there is a little known day parking area slightly further up the road just past the camping area. The campgrounds are set amongst a thick forest of second growth Douglas Fir trees. The setting is lush and green. The trees are massive and covered in moss. This is idyllic Pacific Northwest at its prime, and I was invigorated and giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. This is what I miss, and this is what I'm here for. Of course there's a spot in the little known parking area designed just for me on this day.

Where I live now in Guelph, Ontario there are no mountains. I wouldn't even say there's a real hill, although the locals I run with may disagree with me. Sure there are some decent rollers and an incline here and there, but I think we'd all agree it pales in comparison to what you find in the Pacific Northwest. This is of some significance since the Hamilton Mountain trail gains 2000 feet in just over 4 miles (6.5km). When I lived in Oregon I was a pretty good hill climber, especially on a bike. But, to be honest, I was a bit worried about whether or not I'd be able to handle it now three years later. I knew I could make it to the top based on past hikes, my current fitness, and sheer determination, but I wasn't interested in "just" getting to the top. I wanted to run as much of this damn thing as I could. 

I knew weeks before coming back to Oregon I was going to run this trail. So, in the couple weeks proceeding my visit I shifted my training focus a bit to help meet the challenge this mountain was going to throw at me. Twice a week instead of doing 8-10 sprints at the end of my easy runs, I did what I called "hill blasts," which consisted of sprinting up a fairly steep grade for 20-30 seconds near our house. And, once in the middle of a long run I threw in 5 x 1 minute hill sprints on the longest hill in town, which is nowhere near as steep as most of the four miles up Hamilton. Other than that, I was counting on my strength from speed training this summer, my relatively light weight, my aerobic fitness, and my excitement and giddiness to carry me to the top.

About halfway up Hamilton Mtn, looking west towards Beacon Rock

Loaded up with Camelback, camera, and IPod (I don't normally run with music in nature, but I felt today called for my special Run playlist) I set off through the campground to the trailhead. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. While we lived in Oregon we hiked and explored dozens trails throughout Oregon and Washington, but one thing I've always regretted since moving away is never running any of the trails in the Cascades, or the Gorge, or the Coastal Mountains. It was too easy to just go to Forest Park and keep it quick and simple. I was also a different person at that time. I was someone who enjoyed running and ran a few times a week. However, since moving to Guelph and immersing myself in a culture of runners and great people in what is likely Canada's "running epicenter" I've evolved into "a runner." Whereas, this type of excursion might've seemed fun, but painful and debilitating a few years ago, it just seems like an obvious thing I need to do on a given morning while going about my day now.  

Single track mind

Nifty staircase, so well maintained
I won't go too deep into the details of the run. About a mile into the trail you come across a couple waterfalls (pictured above), which are really great in late spring and around October. From here the trail really starts to go up. There's a few nifty stair sections, and soon you come across a fork in the trail. The sign pointing to the left reads "difficult" and the sign pointing to the right reads "more difficult." Well okay. I chose to go left since I wanted to run. I'm not going to lie, it got "more difficult" for my breathing real quick, but your body when trained for this adapts and I soon found a rhythm. If I had to I'd walk for one or two minutes, and then I'd run for at least double that, but usually five minutes or more. I must admit, as I made my way up and saw the looks of "holy shit, look at this guy" on the faces of the folks coming back down, or the people struggling their way I was inspired to keep pushing. I couldn't very well stop and walk in their view. After a while I recognized where I was at and knew the summit was near. I forged ahead never stopping again until I reached the ridge at the top of the mountain. Prior to this I had obviously looked at my watch for my run/walk breaks, but I hadn't really comprehended my overall time. As I stopped at the sign signaling Hamilton Mountain's summit I glanced at my watch and it read 54 minutes. Not bad considering my little side trail detour to get a picture of the waterfall, and the few other times I stopped for photos. 

Even the sign looks cool
My first selfie - looking east up the Gorge

Ridgeline at the top

Bonneville Dam in the distance at the top of the tall tree on the right

I took a few minutes at the top to soak it all in and shoot off a few text messages. I thought about the first time Karen and I hiked this and had a mini-picnic on the upper ridge overlooking the gorge. I thought about the next time we hiked it with Carter for the first time, and how excited he was when he found a great swimming hole in the creek on our way back down. I thought about our girls and how much I look forward to hiking these trails in our future. I thought about how lucky I was to able to do these types and be there at that moment. And, I thought about the wedding I had hustle up and get to. Then, I geared up and bombed back down the mountain in 34 minutes. 

What a wonderful bridge

The day, and my trip, were capped off Saturday evening when I watched a lifelong friend (a buddy who some 10 years ago pushed me to pursue running) that I've known since I was nine get married to a woman I've liked and known was perfect for him since the moment he introduced us. It was truly a wonderful trip back to Oregon, and it was their wedding that brought me home. Although, I'm happy in Guelph and it has forever changed me into a better, healthier person, I miss Oregon dearly and can't wait to one day move back there and raise our girls Pacific Northwest style. 

More Oregon Photos From Years Past...

Blue Basin - eastern Oregon desert

Crater Lake, OR - straight out of outerspace

Diamond Lake - southeastern Oregon

Joseph, OR - northeast - "Oregon Alps" (Wallowa Mtns) in background

Lavender farm - Hood River, OR

Mirror Lake in May - Mt. Hood in background (11,000 feet)

Oregon's tallest lighthouse - Yaquina Head - Newport, OR 

McKenzie River trail backpacking trip

Upper McKenzie River falls

Monkeyface rock climbers - Bend, OR

Ecola State Park - Cannon Beach, OR

Ecola State Park

Bullard's Beach - Bandon, OR

Oregon surfer at Smuggler's Cove - Oswald West State Park 

Waldport, OR

Portland in October

#1 and mom - Oregon Tulip Festival
*All words and images are my own.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Defeated: Summer's Night 5K Race Report

"Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." The prolific Japanese writer Haruki Murakami wrote this in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. To me it's obvious he's referencing the physical and mental duality at play every time we choose to, or choose not to, run or race. There's not much we can do as runners to alleviate the physical pain we experience when pushing ourselves to our personal limits during a race. Whether it's the extreme muscle fatigue and cramping from a marathon, or sheer exhaustion of an ultramarathon, or the searing full-body burn of a 5K, physical pain is an unavoidable component of running and racing. Mentally choosing how we react to physical adversity is where suffering becomes optional. 

Last night I chose not to embrace the pain and suffer better. For the first time in a very long time I lost that mental battle that takes place every time we choose to race, and I gave in to self-doubt. I ran a bad race mentally, and I walked, not only once, but twice.

I came into the race wanting to set a PB (sub 18:20) and break 18 minutes, which my training indicated was definitely within my physical capabilities. The weather conditions were nearly ideal. The sky was clear with a slight breeze. The oppressive humidity often associated with air temperatures around here in July was completely absent. It was warm, but pleasant. In short, last night was a perfect evening for running. And, combined with the flat terrain of the course, it was a perfect evening for a PB.  

However, from the beginning I lost focus of the task at hand. I intentionally, and in hindsight stupidly, unset my Garmin to record and notify me how fast I was running each kilometer split. I wanted to run this one by "feel." Well, I went out way too fast and by the time I passed the 1km course marker I was breathing harder than I should've been, but still manageable if I dialed it back a bit. Shortly thereafter, around 1.5km, I was passed by two older gentlemen, Paul and Michael, who run with our group at the track. These are two guys who are not only at least ten years my senior, but two guys I felt I should've been running with. I really had no idea how fast we were running because I was entering the pain hole, and rather than letting them go and running my own race I let pride take over. It's never a good idea to run someone else's race, but it's especially true when you're not running for place and instead an overall time.

As we approached the 2k marker I could tell we were maintaining a pace my body just couldn't sustain. Running that first kilometer too fast had put my body and my breathing into a shocked state I couldn't come back from unless I eased off. Paul's daughter, Sarah, a girl I help coach on Mondays, was at the 2k marker cheering us on and pride again got the better of me. I couldn't bring myself to ease off in front of her. Plus, there was a tiny piece of me that wanted to see just how far I could push it, and if I could break through the other side. 

I pushed on. Barely hanging on to the backs of Paul and Michael. Somewhere around the 2.5km point I hit a point where I just couldn't push it any further and stay upright. Paul and Michael started to pull away from me. I should've just eased it backed to a marathon pace effort for a bit until my breathing came back to me, and I could feel my arms and legs again. But I didn't. I was pissed. I wasn't thinking straight. I stopped to walk. Never stop to walk. Another older gentleman passed me. I started running again. I made it to the 3k marker before I stopped again, and another dude passed me. What was happening to me!?

At this point I just wanted to pack it in for good. My sub 18 was history for sure, and a PB had all but waved bye-bye as well. My body, my mind, and my ego were in tatters. I have never abandoned a race in my life. Mark Allen, 6-time Ironman World Champion, once said,"You can keep going and your legs might hurt for a week or you can quit and your mind will hurt for a lifetime." Quitting outright is never an option for me unless a serious injury is imminent, and it wasn't. It also helped that I looked down the road and saw Jeff - the head coach of the youth running club I help coach - marshaling a turn on the course. Pride, the good kind, kicked in again. It was time to finish this damn race.

As I ran by Jeff he gave me some words of encouragement. I was embarrassed, but not broken. I settled in about 50 meters behind the last dude to pass me and narrowed my focus to maintaining that distance. I wanted to finish this race on a positive note and with at least a shred of dignity. 

The last 2km felt like the entire race should have. It was painful, but within reason. At some point during the last kilometer I heard the pedaling of a bike marshall behind me, which meant there was a runner shortly behind him. I'm not really that fast, but at the same time, I'm not really used to getting passed that often during a race. Four had been enough, and I wasn't about to let it happen again. I focused on my breathing and staying as relaxed as I could. I rounded a turn and entered the park, which meant the finish line was drawing near. I figured it couldn't be any more than 400 meters away. I allowed myself to glance at my watch. It read 17:4something. For the love of God, I was within PB range. I legged it as best I could and as I rounded the last bend and the crowd cheered us on, the clock came into view. A PB wasn't in the cards this day, not that I deserved it. But, I didn't get passed again either.

I finished in 18:30. In the end, Michael and Paul finished in 17:24 and 17:38 respectively, which is much faster than I could've gone on the day. I was punishing myself trying to keep pace with two dudes I shouldn't have been running with. The guy who passed me the first time I walked finished in 17:57, which was right in my wheelhouse. If I'd only slowed down a bit instead of pushing myself to the point of walking, we could've raced it in together.

A friend of a friend, Sanjay, once uttered while telling a story during a long run, "There are no mistakes in life. Only lessons. And, lessons will be repeated until learned." There were lessons in yesterday's 5K race that I don't care to be repeated. I lost the mental battle in terms of race tactics. I let my ego get the best of me, and it wasn't the time for that. I also let suffering get the best of me and I gave in to self-doubt and self-pity rather than embracing it. However, I didn't give up entirely, and I finished with a respectable time, so I'm not a total loser.

In Other News...

Ricky Gates has found a way to literally combine my three favorite passions - running, traveling, and motorcycling. I watched this video the other morning with #1 and found it beautiful, honest, and inspiring. I figure it must be pretty good because it held her attention for the the entire eighteen minutes and it's not animated. I admire Ricky for his courage to live a free-spirited life that cuts against the grain. In a way, I feel we're kindred spirits and I wish him luck, happiness, and enlightenment in his life On The Road.

I started this post the other day with the intention of writing about motorcycling and how it has provided me with so many amazing adventures, lasting images, and cherished memories. However, I just couldn't find the words that merited the subject's significance. So, for now I simply chose to post some images with minor captions.

My Babies Before Babies

Moto #1 - BMW F800 ST

Moto #2 - Triumph Tiger 1050 - Crater Lake, Oregon in the background

SE Oregon desert. A place one has no business being unless on a motorcycle.

At my friend Celeste's cabin on Flathead Lake, Montana with my pops.
Part of a week long road trip with my pops from Oregon to Glacier Nat'l Park.

Big, bold, and beautiful Glacier National Park. Those are cars at the base.

Moto camping in the Redwoods as part of a week long road trip.

Stanley, Idaho with Sawtooth Mountains in the background.