Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Racin': Summer Part 1

I thought that maybe I'd sworn off writing race reports, but I suppose that investing all this time into running means it's also worth processing that running, maybe even with written words.  Plus, for the handful of you who actually read this stuff (thanks!!), I guess this is no worse than Keeping Up with The Kardashians (is that still a show?)...at least I'll condense this into one post to minimize the bloat.

Preparation: Winter and Spring
Since I adopted an obsessive focus on mountain racing in 2014, my training for these races begins in earnest in January.  This winter I managed to stay on the trails a bunch, even in the snow (though we didn't have much), and that was a rad development.  (I even got in a few trail runs with the force of nature that is Josh Ferenc.)  Shedding the sallow shell of a lifelong road runner (ooh, nice alliteration Drew!) will, at some point, mean learning how to run trails in the snow.  This winter didn't require snowshoes, not really, but we'll see how I fare when a real winter hits.   The weekly long run with my boys Matteo and Stoneman was in the woods when possible but sometimes stuck to the roads.  Training also included a short "fast" workout of some kind, though these were often sacrificed for recovery (something I'd later regret).  My key workout, though, in winter and spring is a treadmill hillclimb.  I picked this up from Eric Blake who is one of the country's (if not the world's) best uphill runners.  Basically, crank up the incline and run near anaerobic threshold pace for 30-60 minutes--which not coincidentally is the effort that you'll run for most of the Mt. Washington Road Race, which averages 12% grade.  In 2014 and 2015 I ran 5-7 mile tempos at 10-12%, which became race effort in the last few miles every time, and I did this from January right through the summer mountain racing season.  These were brutal and I decided that they were doing more harm than good.  So, this winter I decided I'd scale them back a bit, avoiding full race effort, and instead focus on working inclines of 14-15%, starting with workouts chunked into 2 mile segments and working up to 5 mile tempos.  This approach was hit and miss; I had some balls-out fantastic workouts and some blowup deathmarches on the treadmill.  I wasn't sure what to make of my fitness.

Come May most of my running other than the treadmill workout and the too-infrequent fast workouts were on trails, my mountain bike rides were always 2 hours and rather serious, I was lifting heavier weights than I have since I was 21, and I had a decent outing in my cornerstone 4x Mt. Toby workout.  But still, the treadmill workouts had me wondering what I could do come the uphill races of June and July, and I still had trouble recovering from one workout to the next.  To illustrate what I now view as "normal" fatigue: I can't walk in the morning.  My achilles tendons and calves take about 30 minutes to function, as in, move at all.  To let the dog out requires stepping down 2 stairs, which I do while holding onto the wall.  In short: I was training at my limit, per usual...there was nothing more I could do to get ready for the season.

May: Soapstone Mountain Trail Race
won some steel pints.  photo by Scott Livingston.
I didn't race until May.  This should have been the first real test of my fitness and I headed to this ~13.5 mile trail race with intentions of setting a course record, a good mark set by regional mountain/trail/road star Jim Johnson.  This was not to be, largely because my homeboy Matteo and I, leading the race after the initial blazing dirt road mile, followed the wrong arrows into the woods.  Yes, the entrance to the trails was marked in two directions.  This pissed me off incredibly.  Five of us spent 7 minutes off course, and upon returning, Matteo and I spent probably 2 miles passing the entire field (including walking up the steepest climb behind some folks with headphones on) and generally deciding whether or not to re-engage race effort.  Eventually I worked back up to 95% effort and passed the field, winning in ~1:50, not knowing if I could have broken the record of 1:36.  Dammit.  But, a good day with Matteo (who finished 2nd) and Stoney, and really one of only a few times I've "raced" a pure trail course, which is rather silly.  I've got to do more trail races that aren't just up mountains.


June: Ascutney Mountain Race
from Wifey's hike, while I raced. What a nice mountain.
This staple of the USATF-NE Mountain Series falls 6 days before Mt. Washington.  This is probably not a coincidence as it is almost exactly half of the bigger mountain-- 12% for 3.7 miles.  This year I ran slower than the last 2 years, finished 2nd to a guy who I think just moved back to New England and so I wasn't expecting him, and left feeling crushed by the prospect of running up Mt. Washington against world-class runners with what was apparently subpar fitness.  No matter...it was a fun weekend of camping with Stoneman (he's a regular feature here, eh?) and Wifey, and the best part was hiking around on the summit trails, in the fog the evening before.  Alpine woods (especially on mountains in New England) are a special place.  As for the race, shake it off and try not to cry about the pain to come in 6 days.

June: Mt. Washington Road Race
...and the pain did come.  I spent the 6 days between Ascutney and Washington being a nervous wreck, wondering how I'd handle the pain.  Jesus, this is the most psychologically miserable race I've ever run, and this year I didn't have the benefit of ignorance.  I wanted to improve upon my 1:08:41 (or so) 11th place finish from 2015.  In January I set out with a 1:05-1:06 goal but at the starting line I wasn't sure.  My workouts, and Mt. Ascutney, made me doubt myself.  I ran the same exact first half as last year (well, 5 seconds slower) but felt incredibly limited in my aerobic capacity over the second half.  The pivotal mile for me is 5-- the dirt road section.  It was my slowest in 2015 and this year I ran even slower...30 seconds slower.  I almost quit and walked.  It was a low moment and I questioned my toughness.  Here I was caught and passed by a few guys I thought I could run with.  I rallied a bit for the last mile of this 7.6 mile race but finished in 1:09 and change.  It was good enough for 8th place, which on paper is great for this world-class event, but I knew it wasn't all that.  But still.... a great weekend hanging out with Stoney and a bunch of other high class dudes on a badass mountain.  Dont' forget this privilege, I remind myself.  Matt Lipsey's simple mantra has been in my head since we pumped each other up pre-race: "Run as hard as you can on this day."  Yes, that's all you can ask of yourself.
Joe Viger's epic photo from 2015, looking down on the race course. 
I have lots of thoughts about the unique challenge posed by this race, some of which I'm investigating in an honest-to-goodness study of heart rate data from runners in this and other races.  Mostly, I'm convinced that the altitude effects* on this mountain--which in theory are quite real almost right from the start--render all of us sea-level runners hugely disadvantaged to the Rockies folks who show up.

(*I'll have lots more to say on this in a paper I hope to write this fall and I'll post the highlights here. But lots of people seem incredulous that altitude is a factor in this race, so for now, let's get one thing straight: oxygen levels drop linearly beginning at sea level, so in theory, any gain in altitude will have an effect on how much oxygen reaches your muscles.  A controlled treadmill test (link to abstract ) demonstrated that this is true in practice as well.  Runners' VO2-max decreases linearly with altitude, beginning right at sea level. By mile 2.5 or so, a sea level runner at the Mt. Washington Road Race is experiencing a 6% decrease in VO2-max relative to his/her sea level performance, while his altitude- adapted competitors face much less of a drop.  By the last half mile of this race VO2 max has dropped by over 12% vs. sea level values.)


July: USA Mountain Running Championships (Loon Mountain Race)

the start. borrowed from http://misquamicutrunner.blogspot.com/
This glorious race, which I've run 4 years in a row now, is hosted by my team acidotic RACING and played host to the USA Champs in 2014.  The start and finish change a bit every year but the meat of the course is the same.  I won't rehash the course description, as my 2014 and 2015 recaps already went over that (2015 report here ), but the race played out similarly to the 2014 championships:  tons of folks sprinted off the line like they weren't running up a goddamn mountain;  I sat in ~30th place, maybe 35th, when we finished the initial climbing and entered the woods portion, on the XC trails;  I held my own in here, not really gaining or losing positions, and was determined to do most of my work when the real climbing began, around mile 3 of this 6.2 mile race.

photo by Snap Acidotic.

My climbing was...about 95% of what I'd hoped.  I had been distracted all week with real-life type issues and I found my focus lagging a bit.  Also, I didn't feel quite as strong as I'd hoped.  At any rate, the result was 20th overall, but a comparison to prior year's races indicates that I ran 15 seconds slower per mile than 2014 over a similar course.  20th is good, and the field was loaded, maybe the most competitive ever, at least up front.  But I did not progress here, nor at Washington, and if you're not going forwards, you're going backwards, as they say.  Had a good run back down the mountain with Mr. Lipsey, who is always good company, to meet an awaiting Wifey for a large and free breakfast at the resort.  Speaking of Wifey, this was to be the kick-off for a vacation week that ended up being rather awesome-- Phish shows (one 2 nights before the race- I hope the mild dancing/shimmying didn't affect my legs?), camping in Acadia, water parks...but I've concluded that racing and vacation are odd bedfellows.  Better to keep 'em separated and that may be the rule going forwards.
Upper Walking Boss, near the finish.  Photo by Joe Viger.

...and why the stalled progress this year with the racing?  (If you've found any of this boring, definitely skip this next part.) As a sometimes-student of running training theory, and ostensibly a legit student of human evolutionary physiology, I believe that training for mountain and trail running can adapt the principles of traditional running training: long run, threshold run, intervals, strength training, cross training, easy days.  The terrain has to change (mostly trails) and the workouts should be run, I think, not on flat ground but on topography that mirrors the event.  So, for mountain races, do threshold runs and intervals uphill.  I have neglected the intervals and I think this has limited my aerobic top end.


Taken all together, this has been a super fun first half of my racing year, filled with great mountains, great people, and hard running.  But I demand more of my running than just fun.  I hope that a few minor changes to my training, and improved race-day focus, will help me perform at a higher level for my two late-summer races. I am training to win these races, no less.  I keep saying that I'll get slow at some point, but 34 isn't old for mountain or trail running...I should still have time to get faster.  Onward, to see if that's true, remembering to enjoy the enormous privilege of having the time and ability to test myself in these wonderful places.

Big thanks to the men (and sometimes women) who force me to dig deep, and to my team acidotic RACING for putting on such a great championship race (and generally embodying New England mountain running) and for generously supporting me via some race fee assistance.


  1. Nice write-up Drew! Keep up the good work, and more importantly keep questioning the whats and the whys of your training. Your best races are ahead!

  2. I hope you're right! I have a newspaper clipping from 2003 framed on my wall where you said the same thing...thanks for still thinking so!

  3. Proud of you, nephew. Well written, very informative and interesting, and I look forward to seeing you beat the crap out of those young'uns next time.