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Racing into Shape

Racing ultra distances requires a lot: adequate training, nutrition, and mental fortitude.  Even after months of preparation, ultras usually leave you mentally and physically drained.  Consequently, most competitive ultra runners suggest spacing out your goal races to allow for optimal recovery between races and adequate training in the build up for the next goal race. 

While it is not recommended to tackle a 100 miler every weekend or every month to build up for a goal 100 mile race (although Ian Sharman and Nick Clark’s record breaking summer at the Grand Slam may have proven otherwise), it is certainly beneficial to do at least one if not a couple shorter distance races (50K, 50 miler, 100K, etc.) as part of the build up. 

These shorter, less important, low-key races act as a dress rehearsal for your upcoming goal performance.  It is on these runs that you can practice with the clothing, nutrition, and hydration that you would like to use in the goal race.  It is also at these events that you gain the additional benefits of having volunteers on course, regular and reliable fuel and water sources, and the companionship of fellow runners to motivate and inspire you. 

For those of you like me who don’t live near other ultra runners, sometimes it’s difficult to find someone to join you for a long (2+ hour) training run.  Despite advances in hydration technology, sometimes it is nice to not have to worry about carrying all the fluid you could potentially need for a long run (especially when you are prone to getting lost for additional unexpected miles/hours).  In my experience, I’ve never been dissatisfied for paying an entry fee to gain the benefit of fellow runners to tackle the terrain with and predictable and dependable fueling/hydrations sources along the route. 

In addition to shorter ultra distance races, however, there are also benefits to occasionally jumping into even shorter events.  As a track and cross country coach, I typically encourage my cross country runners to prepare for their fall cross country season by doing plenty of 1500m & 3000m races in the spring.  Likewise, 800m runners often benefit from the occasional 400m or 1500m race.  Even during cross country season when my athletes are gearing up for a 5K race, we spend plenty of time - at least once a week - on the track or grass fields running intervals from 100m to 1 mile and we seek out courses to race on that replicate the course of the goal race – usually the Oregon State Cross Country Championships. 

Although ultra running is very different from mid-distance track and cross country, the training principles are the same.  If you want to improve an aspect of your running you need to deliberately do things in training to improve it.  One of the best ways to improve efficiency over long distances is to practice running faster at shorter distances.  This can take on many forms from less structured strides and fartleks to more formal interval sessions, hill repeats, and shorter races.

Dakota Jones recently wrote about how intervals have enabled him to improve and compete at the highest level of our sport.  Similarly, nearly every time I run with Max King he concludes with sets of 20-30 second strides and dynamic stretches before getting back into the car and sipping his recovery drink as we drive back toward civilization. 

If you are looking to improve your racing results at any distance, I recommend you make an effort to increase your running economy by incorporating short bursts of speed into your training in the form of strides, intervals, fartleks, hill repeats and shorter races much shorter than your actual goal race distance.   Doing these workouts/races with others makes it easier to complete the demanding effort of high intensity running and will help to prepare you physically for the even more demanding race ahead. 

However, if you are like me and occasionally find yourself just trying to squeeze in a run between work, family, and home owner commitments it isn’t always possible to coordinate your training schedule with someone else.  When you try and do the intense speed workout on your own it is usually harder to run the desired intensity (even with a fancy watch or playlist) than if you’ve got someone there to push you.  So why not jump into a local 5K, 10K, Half Marathon or cross country/trail race?  If you need to get in more mileage for the day you can do a long warm up and cool down.  Chances are, you’ll probably meet someone there who wants to add on some mileage as well and you’ll get what you need in terms of volume and quality. 

An added benefit to racing into shape is that these races don’t have to be the end-all-be-all.  They are simply a means to the end.  You don’t have to get nervous.  You don’t have to win.  You don’t have to run PRs every time you toe the line.  You can just chalk them up as “I’m training through this” or “I’m just doing this as a workout.”  And if the PR does come, you can celebrate it and gain confidence from the fact that you are fitter or faster than you even thought. 

Having only one goal race on the horizon is more stressful than having a couple races throughout the year where I want to run well.  If I put all my eggs into one basket and things don’t go as planned – (i.e. you get sick or injured which unfortunately happens when you are human and interact with other humans) it is hard to feel like all of the effort building up to it was actually worth it.  However, if I regularly jump into races when I can fit them into my training I am able to enjoy myself with my fellow runners, practice for some distant goal race in the future, and push myself more than I probably otherwise would if I chose to simply go it alone. 

I’m not suggesting that you race every week.  I wouldn’t even suggest that for those trying to improve at shorter distances, but I am suggesting that if you want to see improvements, you need to regularly remember that racing hurts and is hard.  The best way to prepare for the hurt of a race is to race. 

Should kids be allowed to run ultras?

Each year, more and more people of all ages, abilities, and experience levels want to challenge themselves to do something beyond the traditional marathon distance.  The recent growth in popularity of ultrarunning has to do, in part, with the fact that many ultras are run off-road in wild, often remote places.  John Muir observed, "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; the wilderness is a necessity." 

As the majority of communities continue to grow around population centers it is only natural that counter-communities grow up in defiance of the trend toward centering our lives on urban life.  One such community is the ultra community.  Those who take to the trails find a welcome reprieve with others that intentionally try not to bring with them the fast paced craze of the work world - leading to a much less egotistical, much more egalitarian community that embraces others who enjoy hours in nature with tasty treats and drinks.  

Video by Yassine Diboun of T.J. Hooks (a Kid) and I leading the Volcanic 50

Naturally, such an inclusive counter community would want to avoid the historical institutional prohibitions and discrimination of its shorter distance predecessors.  As a matter of principle, people of all ages, genders, races, education & income levels should be allowed to participate in ultras.  Unfortunately, simply because something is right or popular does not mean that allowing everyone that wants to participate can reasonably be done without some challenges.  Fortunately,  as ultra runners we embrace challenges so I'll list a few of them and we can figure out how to overcome them.

One of the challenges of the growth of the sport is that races, particularly remote trail races, fill up quickly.  By opening the races to an ever-growing segment of interested young individuals that means the problem of races filling up within minutes will continue to grow worse.  This might be one reason some don't want kids to participate in ultras.

T.J. Hooks & I ran most of the Volcanic 50 together.  Photo  by Paul Nelson.
Race Recap Here
Another reason some may feel concerned over the desire of some youngsters running ultras could be the fact that by allowing some of these "kids" to participate, the level of competition increases and for a sport that has long been dominated by middle agers, it is humbling to admit that a "kid" half your age has the ability and audacity to hang with the likes of oneself.  Humility, even in ultrarunning, is not always easy to embrace.

The most common reason I hear for excluding kids from ultras is that it is not good for them.  This is the same argument that has been disseminated by overweight medical professionals since time immemorial.  I hear it all the time about my own running and about athletes I coach. I agree that it can take years to develop the stamina and strength to endure even a modest 50K, however, I don't believe that only adults are capable of safely covering such distances.   

As a general rule, running is generally better than not running, and running more, through a gradual build-up, is generally better than running less or not running at all.  The risks of muscular, skeletal, cardiac or pulmonary stress are no worse for those running ultra distances at young ages than the far more common practice of ultrasedentary lives of ultragaming.  

If I have a choice between staying inside seated in front of a computer all day or being outside, upright and moving I will always choose the latter. Shouldn't kids have the same choices? Society needs more and more kids constructively dealing with ADHD, depression, anxiety, obesity, diabetes and all of our other self-imposed maladies through activity in the outdoors, not fewer.  

Despite the great benefits of ultrarunning, we must remember that ultrarunning is unique in its ethos.  We do not want to lose the healthy vibe of the sport with the influx of kids who really don't want to do it whose parents push them into it prematurely.  Nothing is less motivating than being forced to do something inherently optional to fulfill another's ambitions. The intrinsic rewards for participating in ultras will be greatly diminished if personal drive and communion with fellow runners and volunteers are limited by the overbearing ambitions of parents.

If kids want to run ultras and they can figure out how to safely prepare for and complete them they should be permitted and encouraged to do so.  But if kids aren't ready or don't want to they should not be coerced, manipulated, or incentivized into doing them.  It will ruin their relationship with parents, ruin the sport, and ruin the potential fulfillment they could ultimately find in an activity and community that is socially, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. 

Return to the Roads

After a hard effort at the Hagg Lake 50K I took the week to recover and then made my first return to the roads in over a year to add some much needed threshold work to my winter training.  After Hagg I took a day completely off from running, did some light swimming, aquajogging, and mountain biking with some easy running mixed in.  The Saturday after Hagg I accompanied my friend and long run training partner, Rian Beach, to Richland, WA to participate in the second annual Tri Cities Half Marathon.

Rian has had a profound impact on my running over the past few years.  Doing my long runs and long workouts with him has been both fulfilling and beneficial.  We were actually rivals in high school, but we reunited at a local fun run, the Salmon Walk 10K, a few years back and have been training together as much as possible ever since.  It was actually kinda funny the way we were reacquainted with one another.  My brother and I started out pretty fast down a hill pushing infants in jogging strollers.  The strollers probably helped on the descent, but when we had to climb back up the hills pushing them it got a bit more difficult.  When Rian tried to pass my son, Cairo, removed his shoes and began throwing them at him.  Rian kindly reached down and picked them up, thinking that perhaps it had been an accident.  Then Cairo started throwing snacks, granola bars, gold fish crackers, etc. and Rian finally got the hint that Cairo was far more competitive than the guy pushing the stroller.
My brother, Thomas Rivers, and I pushing our kids at the Salmon Walk
Rian lives in Pendleton, about 35 minutes away.  For much of the winter of 2010 we drove back and forth to each others towns to run with each other on the weekends.  Both of us had completed a couple of marathons, but we both felt that what we needed to dip under the 2:30 mark was consistency in our long runs.  We both got it during that winter.  Most of the time I'd be dragging the last few miles, but Rian insisted on dropping sub 6:00 miles the last few miles of our 18-24 mile training runs.  This stimulus had both psychological and physical benefits.  That Spring I PRed by over 5 minutes at the Eugene Marathon.  With his help, I was able to complete a number of marathons under the previous ceiling of 2:30.

Rian and I cooling down after the Wheat Field Half Marathon & 8K in The Dalles, OR 2010
Photo by Scott McMullen
It was that first winter of training with Rian that actually got me interested in running trail 50Ks to extend my training runs even further.  Now, it is my turn to try and help him make similar jumps in his racing.  Due to a coaching conflict, I won't be able to join him at Eugene this Spring, but I'd like to be able to run with him as much as possible between now and then.  So when we heard about the Tri Cities Half we decided to go for it.
Rian and I running up Dead Man's Pass in the Blue Mountains outside of Pendleton
Then we heard that it would be cold and windy.  Really windy.  Oh well, we'd adjust our goal.  We initially talked about trying to run 1:13 or 1:14.  Neither of us have been doing much in terms of speed, so we figured that would require a solid effort at this time of year, but we also thought it would provide a solid stimulus for our future aerobic development.  However, with the wind it was pretty tough to hit any sort of even splits.  The course was horse shoe shaped - started by going north about 3 miles, turned east toward the river, turned south into the wind and ran along the river about 3 miles and then turned around and retraced the same path.  The wind was at our backs about half of it and in our faces the other half.  So it really didn't seem too tough to go out in 5:20s with the wind to our backs for the first three miles, but once we turned into the wind it was more than a challenge to stay under 6:00 per mile.  Our initial time goals had to go out the window and our goals of winning, breaking the previous course record, defeating last year's champion, and getting a good workout in were still attainable.

Photo of the Start courtesy of Mark Harper, KAPPTV
We ran together for the first three miles or so.  After the initial blitz, I was bigger (taller and wider) than anyone else in the lead pack so I just tried to get as much wind in my sails as possible on the way out.  On the way back it seemed to have the opposite effect - the wind seemed to slam into my barrel chest and held me in place as others made up considerable ground.  We were still pretty close together at the turnaround.  Rian and I had opened up a gap on the others, but third and fourth were still in striking distance.  I tried to use the tailwind to my advantage from miles 6.5 to 9.5 and tried to drop the pace again to give me a cushion when we got back into the head wind from mile 10 to 13.

Swiftwick Aspire Twelve compression socks - perfect for the cool , windy weather.
Between the warm up, the race, and the cool down I would be running about 18 miles on pavement which is about 18 miles more than I typically run on pavement on any given day so my upper legs and lower back were not reacting well.  Thanks to the Swiftwick Aspire Twelve compression socks, my feet and lower legs were able to get the rest of my body back to the finish with no cramps and no hot spots or blisters.  I was still a bit sore from the effort the week before so the last few miles into the wind were more about focusing on form and trying to run as efficiently as possible.  The socks helped me stay focused on form and not on my feet.
Me, race director, Miguel Reyna, and overall women's champ,  Erica McElrea
Photo by Rian Beach
It turned out that both of us were able to beat the previous course record.  After fueling up at the PowerBar station and downing a few bananas we cooled down with the 2012 champ, David Hurtado (who is an engineer that coached soccer at the same school where I coach cross country and we shared a few athletes).  We looked for a healthy post race meal option, but the only place that was open that early was Zips so we had no other choice but to eat greasy hamburgers.  Protein is protein, right?

I've done two races this year and set course records at each.  I've got my first mountain bike race of my life this week at the Echo Red2Red XC and let's just say I don't expect the streak to continue, but I do plan to have a lot of fun and enjoy one last ride before I am on the road every weekend at high school track meets.

Two years and looking forward

As I prepare for the upcoming Hagg Lake 50K, it is hard to believe that I am entering my third year of ultra running.  Hagg Lake was my first attempt at a distance over 26.2 miles two years ago and I have been hooked ever since.

Since that time, I have often been asked what is so appealing about the distances and races that go beyond the traditional 26.2, often over challenging terrain. While I still consider myself a neophyte to the sport of trail, mountain and ultra marathoning, I've concluded that there are some overriding traits to the sport that appeal so much to me and a burgeoning bunch of newbies seeking the next challenge:
  • Community - While I don't have a large pool of people to train with on a regular basis, I have felt a part of something bigger than my small-town self each time I have participated in an ultra.  From check-in to take-down I have felt the embrace of an eclectic group of people who love what they do and enjoy sharing it with others.  
Energetic volunteers at the first Aid Station at Trail Factor 50K 2012.  Photo by Micheal Lebowitz.
Aid stations and finishing chutes are managed by energetic volunteers, many of whom are runners themselves, who give up a couple weekend long runs to do trail maintenance and share their local trails with guests visiting their stomping grounds.  Times and places fade away as participants, photographers, volunteers, race directors, crew members, and spectators relate tales from the trails and bask in the sense of fulfillment that only comes when people approach and exceed the perceived limits of human potential.
Finish line crew from Trail Factor 50K 2012.  Photo by Michael Lebowitz of Long Run Picture Company
  • Variety - My 20s were spent on the roads.  While I don't mind long straight-aways as much as some, I have certainly enjoyed the change in scenery, surface, and speed.  Technical terrain poses a definite challenge to me.  My feet are huge and I am much more accustomed to running on flat, even terrain.  The variety in race terrain has forced me to seek out more varied terrain in training and has helped me find greater fulfillment as I work toward strengthening my weaknesses.
The only single track within an hours drive of me in Echo, Oregon.  I've spent every minute of the winter that I could running and biking these trails. 
  • Comradery - Some of my most treasured relationships have been forged on the trails.  Yet what is so unique about these relationships is that they are not limited to an inner circle of early starters, elites, or old timers.  In fact, one of the most refreshing parts of the sport is the sense of communitas shared at the finish line when those who have finished await and cheer for those who are finishing. 
Start of the Flagline 50K led by Max King, Ryan Bak, and Mario Mendoza.  Ate dinner the night before with them and their families and then played in the woods for a few hours together the next day.  Photo by Michael Lebowitz
  • Tranquility - While training for ultras definitely requires discipline, the variety in courses and weather conditions all but eliminate the unhealthy obsession with splits on every training run and workout.  This enables the runner to be more in tune with his/her environment and body.  This holistic approach enables training to be adapted to the way the body feels and the way the winds, rains, and temps affect the body.
Climbing Mt. Chirripo, the highest peak in Costa Rica, with my brother, Thomas Rivers Puzey.  This was part of his two month stint as a volunteer porter and national park ranger.
  • Responsibility - Perhaps the most appealing thing about the ultra community is the sense of responsibility that so many who spend long hours in the woods and on mountains feel toward the environment and fellow runners. Sure they want to bag peaks to kick off their mornings or weekends, but they also want that same experience to be available to them and countless others time and time again.  They feel a responsibility toward their surroundings.  They want to care for it.  They want to eat responsibly and advocate for responsible stewardship of the land and waters that produce healthy foods, breathtaking views, and endless adventures.  They also want to share the sport with the next generation of endorphin junkies.
I've met some great friends on the trails including Max King and Ryan Bak.  They help coach the teams and athletes my XC team competes against.  When we compete on those terms it seems even more competitive than when we race ourselves.  Photo by Riley Smith
Flanked by two of the most passionate guys I know, Nick Triolo and Yassine Diboun.
Photo by Micheal Lebowitz

I look forward to greeting the friends I have met over the last few years and meeting new ones on the trails, at the aid stations, and at the finish line of the races I'll be doing in 2013.  I'm particularly looking forward to doing so many races I have always wanted to do throughout the NorthWest that will let me get to know new places I've never been before.

2013 Race Calendar

Winter months

"There is no such thing as bad weather, just soft people."  
Bill Bowerman

Winter has always been one of my favorite times to train.  It was during the winters in high school that I began the ritual of morning runs while playing basketball in the evenings.  It was also during this time that I fell in love with the trails and rugged basalt bluffs in the Columbia Plateau.  However, maybe it is age or maybe I am getting softer, but lately running in the winter has not been as easy as I remember.

First, my treadmill broke.  Still not sure exactly how or why, but I must have gained a little extra weight when I turned 30 and my metabolism slowed down.  At first I thought I was just running inefficiently and was beginning to over pronate, but as I noticed it getting worse and worse I realized that the platform beneath my feet had literally begun to cave in beneath me.

Bottom of the treadmill deck before replacing it.
Fortunately, with the help of my handy brothers-in-law we were able to get a new deck installed on my treadmill for the new year.  I've already used it more this year than I had the previous year.  Hopefully, it doesn't cost as much per mile this year.

I try to get in at least an hour of outside running on the week nights after work.  Most nights that requires a head lamp and several layers.

Occasionally, I get lucky and the sun comes out and I am able to get out on the trails for a longer run.  I've been fortunate to have some good training companions willing to join me on some of these adventures and fortunate that so many are kind enough to share their property with others so that we can enjoy the beauty of the area.  

This is one of my favorite places to run when I have a few extra minutes to get out of town:


The trails are well manicured and used primarily by local mtn. bikers.  In fact, each year one of the largest mtn. biking races in the area is held on these trails - Echo Red 2 Red 

Thank you to the Piercy Family and Sno Road Winery for sharing your property and to Shane and Stephanie Meyers of Echo Bike and Board for maintaining the trails.