The Human Performance Bubble

When I trained for Grandma’s Marathon in 2010, I did so while dealing with a pretty intense work schedule. I traveled a lot, usually a couple weeks out of the month, and trips were often short-notice. My training was intense – lots of high volume and long marathon-pace workouts, which took a lot of time out of the day. On top of this, I was commuting 45 minutes each way, every day. Time, in short, became a precious commodity. Somehow I managed to make it all happen, but I made a lot of sacrifices along the way; time with my new bride, focus at work, and hobbies all kind of fell by the wayside for the six months leading up to the race. I pushed my body to its absolute limits during that time, but two months out, things began falling apart. I got injured after making a foolish decision to run a fast 24M in my racing flats at around 2:54 marathon pace, then followed it up with three weeks working nights at work. It was a radical schedule shift that severely affected my sleep and recovery. Then, Pedro 66 went down and I went into a mental and spiritual freefall. In one month, I went from a fitness state that made me truly believe I was capable of a sub-2:40 marathon, to wondering if I could race at all. I had to make some tough decisions, but it all worked out well. I PR’d, ran 2:48, and felt that I competed in a way that honored my fallen comrades.

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Race Report: Kal’s Knoya Ridge (Mountain Run)

When I was a junior at the Front Range School for Boys, I tried out the 3000m steeplechase. I ran the 300m hurdles in high school, so my form was decent, and I figured with my endurance as a collegiate miler, I’d probably be decent.

I was not.

My first steeple, I laughed after the first lap. I think we clocked around 74s for 400m. As a miler, I was used to going out no slower than 64s, and hanging on for dear life from there. This was going to be a piece of cake. But right around lap eight or so, the horrible realization dawned on me that unlike hurdles, steeple barriers can’t be knocked over. They felt so…permanent. 3000m of this became Sisyphean, and I slipped into a gloom. I contemplated simply running headlong into a barrier and knocking myself out cold. Each barrier grew harder and harder until the gun lap, during which I felt like flopping  myself over the barriers. The pain was unlike the mile, or even that blessed two lap acid bath, the 800m. This was borderline madness. I finished in a mediocre time, gave the race maybe one more shot, then decided the mile was a better fit.

Fast forward 16 years, and on Thursday, I entered my first mountain run trail race. Kal’s Knoya Ridge. I had a glimmer of what to expect, based on my experience with the Bonny Sosa trail series. But let’s be clear: this is my first week of running since getting off Denali last Sunday. I am out of (running) shape, and putting in the mileage this week has not been painless. I ran doubles Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, on the track Tuesday with Peak Performers…you get the idea.

Here’s what I knew: 1) The course would climb 2900′ of trail over 3-4 miles, giving it an average grade of around 20% (11ish degrees).  2) “Trail” can be a very subjective word up here in Alaska. Sometimes, it’s a legitimate trail, down which you might pleasantly occupy yourself. Other times, it’s simply an open expanse of bog, through which you are free to choose your own awful adventure. 3) I was not in any kind shape to truly race this thing. I approached it as a nice, long, hard, uphill workout. It would hurt, but not too badly, I thought.

Once again, I was wrong.

It was basically like running the steeple for around an hour straight, instead of 10:00. In case you’re wondering, that’s painful. It was a day for firsts, to be sure. My first full week of training; my first mountain run; first time I’ve split 10:00 at 1M and been red-lined; and the first time I’ve walked in a race. The course was muddy as hell, 45 degrees steep in places, and included some snow at the finish.

I ended up finishing 19th. I was probably 9th or 10th at 2M, but got destroyed in the last mile. I can’t tell you how surreal it was to be totally tapped out, walking up a steep portion and watching somebody walk faster past me, completely incapable of producing any response beyond a gasped, “goodjob.”

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Remembering how to suffer.

After I finished and ensured my heart wasn’t going to explode, I stood up, turned around, and ran back down the course (the only other option was to walk and I was way too hungry to wait that long). It was a solid day, a great workout, and a totally humbling experience. As one of my bro’s says, I’m not a mountain runner (yet). But I’ll also say that with some fitness and some race experience, I could probably be pretty decent.

Alaska Winters are Funny / Still Not Crossfitting

Two weeks ago, I was running in -20F weather. Last night, I ran home and it was 32F. For fellow Humanities majors, that’s a temperature variation of 52 degrees, and a serious concern for all of us living in igloos (seriously, how dumb do you have to be to think Alaskans live in igloos?). Last week, it got up to 47F. Dude, that’s shorts running weather. Anyway, I love it. This state keeps you guessing, on your toes, and engaged.

So, what else is up?

Before I left, I wrote a bit about Heavy Weight Training (HWT) Protocols for endurance. While downrange, I decided to run a little experiment on myself: Run a fraction of the volume I was doing at home (80M/wk down to about 25M/week), and replace that volume with HWT strength work. See what happens. If you recall, my idea about HWT is that it is the preferred strength training regimen for endurance athletes, as it leads to strength gains without associated weight gain (hypertrophy). There are secondary questions as to whether it benefits endurance through neuromuscular adaptation and recruitment, but I would view that as a distant second to the benefit of getting strong without getting big. So, here’s what I did:

Every other day, as my schedule allowed, I executed the following workout:

1) 4-6 sets of 4-6 x half squat @ 80-90% 1RM

2) 4-6 sets of 4-6 x bench @ 80-90% 1RM

3) 4-6 sets of 4-6 dead lift @ 80-90% 1RM

4) 4-6 sets of weighted pullups @ 80-90% 1RM

After three months of this, I saw no increase in weight. My Squat numbers went from 315lbs t0 365lbs. Bench went from 225 to 240. Dead lift went from 315 to 405. Not bad, considering I achieved all this by simply making better use of the muscle I have, as opposed to adding mass I don’t need. Scientific? Hardly. Trial and error? Absolutely. This confirmed to me that what I see as the primary benefit of HWT is indeed valid, even when I dropped 90% of the cardiovascular work I was doing and substituted strength. At the very least, it blew the idea that strength means mass, absolutely and firmly out of the water.

Also interesting – I found that when I came home and started bumping up the running to previous distances, I didn’t get the usual oh-my-legs soreness I normally get the first few weeks back into normal training rhythms. I’m not sure what’s going on there – anytime I’ve looked at HWT and endurance, nothing has covered secondary aspects like recovery aid, which might be exactly what I experienced.

So, in light of all this, I won’t be doing Crossfit anytime soon. I think it has utility as a bridge program to take traditionally weak endurance athletes and add some functional strength. But I see HWT as a “next level” of strength for those who are truly looking to make themselves elite endurance athletes. The biggest problem with Crossfit (besides how cultish it’s grown) is that it bills itself as a hypertrophic regimen, meaning it promises mass gain. Look at the athletes of the Crossfit Games – how many of those guys do you think are capable of running sub -3:00 for a marathon? Riding a 1:00 40k cycling time trial?  But they sure are good at crushing 12 minute workouts, which I suppose is their point. If you want to be good at something, be good at it, whether it’s checkers or seeing how quickly you can do 40 x power cleans. My point is that if you’re trying to PR in a marathon, win a trail stage race, cycle fast, summit Denali, then Crossfit is not the most efficient use of your time.

But feel free to prove me wrong, of course…