Dr. Andy

Reflections on medicine and biology among other things

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Western States Tips, or go and get your buckle

With all the applicants and the apparently imminent demise of the 2-time loser rule, you may only get one shot at Western States, so here are some tips on getting that silver buckle.
I made it in 2007 after just breaking 28 hours 4 years earlier (race report and pictures)

Pre Race
1. Get in. This is rapidly becoming be the hardest part
2. Pick a year with little snow and good weather. 2007 was great for this. If global warming is real I think we’ll see less snow, but hotter temperatures. Of course the temperature on 1 day in June is going to be more variable that the snow over an entire winter
3. Train hard. I think you know this one
4. Get the rest of your life in order. Unless you are independently wealthy without family. training is going to impact the rest of your life. I let some things at work go and assured my family I’d have more time after the race. I also made the commitment to get up at 4:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays to run 11 miles before getting home to get my kids up from school. I also got up that early or earlier on Saturdays when I had long runs, so I wasn’t gone the whole day. Your situation will vary but it is important to realize the effect training will have on the rest of your life.
5. Don’t overemphasize total miles. I think this is not the best metric for your training. Think about what runs you want to get in (long runs; back to backs, hill work; speed, etc) and focus on that, not the totals. Last year’s winner , Hal Koerner noted he only ran about 70 miles per week as opposed to 100 previously. I only ran about 50 miles per week on average, but that was usually in 4 runs/week with a good long run every 2-3 weeks. I cross-trained the equivalent of another 20-30 miles a week
6. Don’t overrace. Koerner also noted this was different about his training for 2007. I didn’t run a single race in 2007 before WS. I would have done some if they were convenient, but for me it was better to do long runs at home rather than travel to and from a race.
7. Take care of yourself. As you ramp up your training you have to be very careful about fueling and hydrating. As an example, if I am not training hard and I run 7 miles on a Tuesday morning, my next workout might not be until Wednesday or even Thursday so I might shower and get my kids up and dressed before I eat or drank, maybe 45 minutes, knowing I have lots of time to catch up on fueling and hydration. 2 months out from WS, I might run 11.5 on Tuesday morning, then lift and do a walking workout on the treadmill after work and a rowing workout Wednesday morning. In that case, I MUST drink and eat right after I finish my run. Then during the day, I have to keep up on hydration and make sure to have a snack before going to the gym. Similarly, I can’t afford to stay up watching TV or whatever; I need to make sure to get my rest. As training picks up your margin of error decreases.
8. Keep up with little things like stretching and ankle strength.
9. Be strong. I really felt strength work helped me, particularly late in the race. The ups and (especially) downs will be very tough on your quads and it is hard for running alone to prepare you for that, especially if you don’t regularly train on tough trail There are a lot of different opinions about what the best strength work for ultrarunners is, and I’m not sure it is the same for everyone. I’m big and come from a background of lots of lifting, so for me, 2 about half hour sessions a week focusing on lunges, pull-ups and dips was perfect, but other stuff might work just as well. The last few months before WS I cut back to 20 minute sessions and focused on maintaining my strength. Some people like to cut back to once a week, but I get too sore that way.
10. Have at least one cross-training activity. It is good to be able to get a good workout on days you want to stay off your legs, and you WILL have some minor injuries that will keep you from running. Having a cross-training activity will allow you to still workout while you recover. If you haven’t doing a specific activity I think it is hard to jump in and get a really good workout. I rowed in college and have a good rowing machine so that was good for me (and helped my quads) but I don’t think the actual activity is as important as having something you can do besides running.
The Course
11. Be ready for a tough course. If you just read the ULTRA list, you get the impression this is a pretty easy course with a few tough climbs. This is not true, unless you run primarily on technical single track. The first 1/2 of the race is at altitude and this will affect your performance. There are several very difficult climbs (the start, to Robinson Flat in the new/old course, and of course the canyons). Parts of the trail are moderately technical and even the dirt road parts mostly are rocky enough you need to pay attention. I saw one race report where they said that the course just never lets up, and I think that is apt. It isn’t at super high altitude, isn’t super-technical, etc, but it is NOT easy. If you don’t believe me, ask Greg Crowther.
12. Know the course. If possible go to the training weekend or do runs on the course. I never actually did this, but I thought the course knowledge I gained the first time I ran really helped me the second time. If nothing else, go to the course description meeting a few days before the race. It helps to know, for example, that after you top out Emigrant Pass you hit some single-track, and that it is a steady uphill to the aid station at Ford’s Bar. I think the benefit is both physical and mental
13. Be a good walker. Unless you are going to finish in the top 10 or so you are going to walk a lot on the uphills. I estimate I walked 40-50% of the course and still got under 24 hours. If you are going to spend that much time walking you need to practice it. I like practicing walking on a treadmill so I can get long, sustained climbs. My two favorite workouts were an hour at 15% grade and 4.0mph and successive miles at 15%/4.0 mph, 12%/4.3mph, 9%/4.6mph, 6%/5.0mph and 3%/5.5mph. If you lived where there were long hills, you could do some good hikes. If you think you don’t need to train to walk well, read this account of a winner of Angeles Crest where he talks about hikes as part of his training
14. Be a good downhill runner. It is a net downhill course and if you can run fast on the downs you can gain a lot of time. None of it is horribly technical but there are rocks and roots and some of the steeper downs can make you nervous (think Last Chance to Deadwood Canyon). See Crowther again.

15. Don’t go out too fast. The desire to get ahead of 24 hour pace is strong, but you have to be careful with the altitude early in the race. Let the race come to you.
16. Don’t obsess about the 24 hour pace, especially early on. The times they post at aid stations (and are on the website) are really rough approximations. For example, between Duncan Canyon and Last Change is 5 trail miles. Not hard trail, but not all downhill and not super easy. Following the 24 hour “pace” you have to run this in 45 minutes . It is easy to get too worried about losing or gaining 5 or 10 minutes between stations. Focus more on running well but staying within yourself. There is time to be made up late in the course if you are running well. Also, note that 24 hour pace accounts for you slowing down as the race goes on, it gets dark, etc as well as for variations in course diffculty.
17. Get in and out of aid stations. My pacer said after the race I actually took more than 24 hours to run the course, but spent negative 28 minutes in aid stations! Get what you need but don’t waste time. If you have a crew and a chair it is easy to sit an extra five minutes, but you may wish you had those 5 minutes back at the end. If you don’t believe me check out Matt Carpenter's account of his record run at Leadville:
In reviewing tapes of previous LT100s (the 1994 race with Herrera and Trason is an epic on par with any Hollywood production) I was amazed by the amount of time runners of all abilities spent in the aid stations. Bottom line, 5 minutes at an aid station means having to run 30 seconds a mile faster over the next 10 miles just to break even. Impossible!
As someone once said about WS “I had a chair to sit in, to; at the FINISH”
18. You’ll hear “the race starts at Foresthill” and in many ways it is true. If you look at the historical splits, lots of sub-24 finishers make up time from there to the river, and the course gets much easier after Green Gate. You have to get to Foresthill in good shape.
19. Use the light you have. My pacer, Tom Watson, told me coming out of Foresthill that we had 2 1/2 hours of daylight left and we should make the best use of it. As it gets dark you will slow down, so really push that last few hours.
Mental tips
20. Go for it. This may be your only shot and 24 hours isn’t very long. Don’t give up on your race mid-way because you are tired or hurting. Back off a little and
21. Have confidence. My biggest worry was that at some point I just wouldn’t be able to tough it out: I’d be on or near 24 hour pace but wouldn’t be able to push through to the finish. As it went, I remember distinctly getting to Foresthill at 6:35 or so and thinking “I’ll do whatever it takes to make it.” All those early mornings and long runs are strengthening your mentally as well as physically.

Now go and get your buckle.

Pittsburgh Indoor Sprints Rowing Race Report

I led for only 200 meters, but fortunately they were the last 200.

I put down 6:50 as my estimated time 3 weeks ago, but after some short workouts at higher rates (strokes per minute) I figured I could go significantly under that, maybe even 6:40 if everything went perfectly. The 6:50 left me as second seed of 11 racers. The guy in first had put down 6:47 and won the race last year in about that time.

I got to the race just about 45 minutes prior to the race, expecting maybe a few dozen people. Instead there were several hundred, including a lot of rowers from local colleges.
I started my warmup about 30 minutes prior to race time, as we were supposed to be ready 10-15 minutes early.

10 minutes prior to race time we got to get on the race ergs. It was weird as we were facing the bleachers with lots of people just 10 feet away. The others were continuing to warm up, but I stuck to my plan and just waited for the start once I got the drag factor set. Kipp, the guy seeded first is actually smaller than me. I figured if it was close, I should be able to use my size and strength to beat him over the last 300 meters or so. The monitors were cool. In addition to the usual info about meters left and pace, it showed what place you were in, and how far you were behind the leader as well as the guys immediately ahead of and behind you.

Soon enough we started. Searching the web there seemed to be 2 basic race strategies. One is to take a few hard strokes to get started and then immediately settle into your goal pace. The other is to use your adrenaline the first 20 strokes or so to get ahead of your goal, then settle into a pace just slightly slower than your goal and try to make up any deficit in the last few hundeed meters. I figured I’d take 3 fast strokes to get going, 10 hard strokes, then take the next 10 to settle down to 1:40-1:41 per 500 meter pace.

Apparently, there is a 3rd popular strategy, which is to go all out the first 500m and try to hold on. This turns out to be as effective in rowing as in running, which is to say not very.

I was at 1:36-1:38 my first 10 strokes then settled down to 1:40 to 1:41. My rate was only 30 strokes per minutes, a bit slower than I’d planned, but I felt strong and like I was rowing within myself so I didn’t push it (in general, rowing the same pace at a lower rate is a bit less tiring). Some guy named Storm took it out incredibly hard. By the 500 meter mark I was 29 meters (about 6 seconds) behind him and in 4th overall. Holy Cow. I had promised myself I’d row my race, so I stuck with my pace and let the race come to me. By 700 meters down, I was in 3rd, still 29 meters behind this Storm guy and 9 meters (maybe 2 seconds) behind Kip, who was seeded first. Storm all of sudden starts coming back to us, no surprise. By 1000 meters I’ve almost caught him but was still 9 meters back of Kipp. At halfway my average pace is about 1:40.6 or 3:21.2 for 1000 meters

With 900 meters to go, I decide to try and make a move. I push my rate up a bit and aim for 1:39-1:40 instead of 1:400-1:41. No dice. Kipp is tough and I’m getting nowhere. Storm has exploded (how painful must his last 1000 have been?) and I’m 20 meters or so up on 3nd. I’m thinking I’ve got second wrapped up but it isn’t looking good for winning.

But I keep pushing, and by 600m to go the lead is 8m. Not much but maybe there is a chink in his armor. I had planned to start my sprint at 600 to go, but I’ve pushed so hard already, I don’t have much more. By 500 to go though, I’m hitting 1:39s consistently and the lead is 6 or 7 meters. I’m redlining here with the rate up to 32-33 and slowly moving back. At 300 I’m 3 meters down but moving through him. The spectators realized it is a hell of a race and start to really cheer. At 200, we are even, but I’ve pushed the pace down to 1:37 and he is, in retrospect, dying. With 10 strokes to go (100 meters) I have to back off a touch (to 1:38-1:39) and my last 2 strokes are 1:40 and 1:41 as my tank is empty. But Kipp has crashed. I finish in 6:39.3, the fastest I’ve rowed since college. Kipp is like 6:42, so I put some distance up on him in the last strokes, winning by maybe 10 meters.

Oh did that hurt. I just slide up and down for 30 seconds or so as the rest of the racers finish. That may be the hardest I’ve EVER pushed myself over a shortish distance. After a minute or 2 everyone else is done and we get up to make way for the next race. After walking around for a couple minutes I have to sit down just to catch my breath. Wheww.

Epilogue: All that air going in and out of my lungs gives the sensation that you’ve burned your windpipe and lungs. I coughed up a storm the next 2 hours and am still coughing up some phlegm 12 hours later.

In retrospect, this was a fine race. I stuck with my race plan even as others went out too fast. I held my pace and managed to row through everyone for the win. The fact I tired just a wee bit at the end shows how much I’d already given. I might have gone just a bit faster if I’d taken it out faster, but given this was my first (and perhaps last) race like this, I think a bit slow was better than too fast. Just ask Storm