Monday, September 8, 2014

Couch to 100 Miles: The Fastest Five Years

When I took my first steps towards fitness, I could not comprehend the distance I would cover, and how fast I would get there. It seems like a lifetime ago, but just 5 years have passed since that day. I would have denied any desire to attempt what I have accomplished. In fact, I denied any interest in ultra running right up to the day I signed up for my first 50k. I would have wagered money that I would never run 100 miles. I still don't know how I got here, but the montage sequence that is these past five years tells a different story. How did I get from the couch to 100 miles in five years? Let's go to the tape.

To get started, I chose to follow the "Couch to 5k" (C25k) program. Touted for its gentle introduction to building stamina and endurance, the C25k program is built on 30 minute workouts five days a week. My first week was, well, pedestrian:

Monday (9/1/2009): Walk 30 minutes

Tuesday: Walk 30 minutes

Wednesday: Walk 30 minutes (walk 5 minutes, run 30 seconds, repeat)

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Walk 30 minutes (walk 5 minutes, run 30 seconds, repeat)

Saturday: Walk 30 minutes (walk 5 minutes, run 1 minute, repeat)

Sunday: Rest

And so it went, gradually increasing the run interval to five minutes. Then the walk interval was reduced until it lasted only 30 seconds. At this point, my legs would ache whenever I walked, but they loosened up when I ran. I was beginning to feel like a runner. The program progressed into running 1 mile, then 1.25, etc. Until that fateful day: November 1, 2009, I ran 3 miles without stopping. I followed the C25k program with a Nike+ 5k program which built my long run up to 3.5 miles before my first 5k, the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in Grass Valley. I broke 29 minutes on the hilly course, and never looked back.

Using Nike+ training programs and the Nike+ foot pod, I trained through the winter and set my sights on the Gold Country Grand Prix. Having a race every month or so would provide continual motivation to get out there and run! In April and May of 2010, I ran 3 5k's, first improving my PR to 25:55, then 25:51, then 25:06. I found the improvement rewarding and motivating.

Then Twirly and I bought Kuani, our 42 foot Cascade ketch. She was a project boat, and we ended up spending the long summer weekends in the Napa Valley Boatyard making repairs and doing much needed maintenance. Racing took a backseat, but I continued squeezing in runs while epoxy was drying or after the day's work.

The lack of consistent training from the boatyard was a breeding ground for niggles. As I continued trying to improve my speed my joints became a nuisance. Sore Achilles tendons kept racing off the schedule until the 2010 Turkey Trot.

2011 began with my first 10k, the Davis Stampede. I comfortably met my goal of sub-50 minutes. The allure of running longer distances was strong. I spent the summer preparing for a 5k PR attempt at a Gold Country Grand Prix event that August. Focusing on heart rate training zones and race-pace interval training, I was able to establish significant gains in performance. My eagerness to improve was ultimately my downfall. Just weeks before my goal 5k, I developed what I hoped was shin splints. I rested, wrapped and iced my left leg, running less than 10 miles in the three weeks leading up to race day. I ran the race, and set a new PR of 22:51. After the race, I could hardly bear weight on my leg. An MRI a few days later revealed two stress fractures in my left tibia. Running was shelved for a few months.

Committed to continued improvement, I took the heart rate training program which had worked so well and applied it to the elliptical. I spent the next few months in the gym, religiously implementing various levels of exertion with the expectation that when I was able to return to running my cardiovascular system would be in prime shape. Twirly and I ran/walked a couple Grand Prix 5k's in the fall, and I set a goal to compete in the entire Gold Country Grand Prix in 2012.

2012 also marked my first trail run, the American Canyon 15k. It was held on my 40th birthday. I took second place. The longer distances continued calling their siren song. I signed up for my first marathon, the California International Marathon in Sacramento. Two months after American Canyon, I ran my first half marathon, the US Half in San Francisco. It was at the finish line that David, a friend who had just begun running, suggested that we run the Bizz Johnson 50k. I had heard about the ultra distance races, and my interest in trail running was growing larger with each passing day. But the timing of Bizz Johnson meant that I would be attempting the 50k two months prior to CIM. Of course, that just made it all the more attractive.

I ran the Gold Country Grand Prix series, sticking with the 10k distances when they were available. I set new 5k PR's in back to back races over the summer. 21:27 in the 2012 Bear River Run remains my best 5k to date. I set a new half marathon PR at the Giant Race in September (1:41:13). I shifted my focus to distance/endurance training, and ran the Bizz Johnson 50k with David. My longest run prior to the 50k was 17 miles. We finished in 6.5 hours. There were many lessons learned on that trail.

I achieved my goal of top three in the Grand Prix, and came very close to my goal time of 3:40 at CIM. 2012 was the year I came into my own as a competitive runner. My biggest accomplishment that year was staying healthy. I learned the value of consistent training and recovery aids like foam rolling and Active Release Technique (ART) therapy. My quiver now full of training tools, I set my sights on ultra trail running. The increased training volume brought new challenges, and my crescendo to present day has not been a smooth one:

Monthly distance, 2012 to present

2013 saw me progress into the 50 mile distance via the American River 50 and the North Face Endurance Challenge 50. I increased my total volume by ~10% and my total elevation by 50%. I began utilizing a coach, as the ultra distances felt like a different animal altogether. Despite the addition of a guiding hand, a pulled groin interrupted the summer training plans. In fact, I have yet to return to the smooth progression which I had been building from 2012 into the first half of 2013. I learned a lot in 2013, and the confidence that came with racing four 50k's and two 50 milers came in handy when I got the news that I would be running Western States.

A key component of my heart rate training is monitoring my daily and weekly effort using the TRaining IMPulse (TRIMP) score. TRIMP is a product of the time spent exercising (in minutes) and the average heart rate zone for the session. I find it is a useful way to compare different activities, such as road running and trail running. It also allows me to gauge my effort across race distances. Take a look at how 2014 has unfolded so far:

My mileage numbers thus far really do not tell the story. I have run over 5500 miles, and raced 642. The evolution of my perspective over that time has changed so drastically that it is hard for me to believe there weren't more miles in there. I feel like I've run to the moon and back, whereas if I were running across the continent and back, I'd still be somewhere in the Rockies. Compared to many of my new ultra-geek friends, these numbers are insignificant. Lifetime totals of well over 100,000 miles are not uncommon. But what jumps out at me is that I have had life-changing epiphanies within those 5500 miles. Each and every mile holds the potential to rectify a bad attitude, or provide just enough oxygen-rich blood to my brain for me to solve that elusive problem or develop the right paradigm to interpret another.

By distribution, the bulk of my racing experience remains middle distance. While I continue to consider taking another run at my 5k and 10k PR's, the experience of finishing Western States guarantees that I will spend each and every year trying to get back into the iconic 100 miler. If I cannot gain entry, I will complete a qualifying race. So I can count on at least one 100k or 100 mile race each year.

Race distribution

In five years, I have completely redefined my personal expectations. Fitness and strength are now paramount to my identity. My coping mechanisms have been reduced to sweat equity. My priorities now include communing with nature and ensuring I have the time to train and race. The community I have found in trail running has been the largest surprise of all. Running is an activity which precludes many of the aspects by which we define each other. In modern culture, the question of how one spends their time is common cocktail party banter. Our society is built upon the idea that networking is beneficial, which leads us to ask of others: "what do you do, and what can you do for me?". Ironically, when I spend time with running friends, the question never arises. I have no idea what most of my fellow runners do for a living. Unless, of course, they work for a running store. Otherwise, it just doesn't come up.

My confidence in my training has evolved too, to the point that I have returned to self-coaching. Having the support network while preparing for unknown distances helped me through the doubt and fear that accompany such undertakings. Now that I have endured the distances and trained through the niggles, I know my body well enough to approach training on a day to day or week to week basis. By listening to my body and reacting accordingly I feel I can prepare for any race I pursue. I am fortunate to still have the ears of many veterans at my disposal. Runners don't shy away from questions on training, nutrition or fitness. I can get feedback and opinions on wide-ranging topics from all levels of abilities.

And so, I look forward to not just five more years, but a lifetime of running adventures. My bucket list grows larger all the time: R2R2R in the Grand Canyon, many more WS100 finishes, organizing my own 50 mile race, traveling to Europe for some of the most iconic races of them all. I'll keep coming back to Wanderplace to record as much of my adventure as I can. See you there.