Thursday, January 06, 2011

The art of go slow

Things are starting to come together for the Susitna 100. Beat and I bought our tickets to Anchorage, and shortly after that pressured friends Danni and Steve (who were both on the fence about even starting the race, and still may be) into buying their tickets as well. In my daydreams, we’re a motley foursome of Outsiders banded together, dragging our sleds across the frozen Susitna Valley. In more likelihood, we won’t be able or want to stick together. But either way, the Susitna 100 will be an interesting reunion since I already know a fair number of Alaskan cyclists on the roster. They’ll all have a chance to laugh at me as we cross paths at a pitiably distant point, since the new route is mostly an out-and-back.

I also am finally attempting to put my sled together. I hoped to do it sooner for training purposes, but as usual reality falls short of intentions. The sled I am using belongs to Geoff Roes, and is full of heavy reinforcements intended for use in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, where conditions are much colder and burlier than a typical Susitna race. But since I seem to have a talent for breaking gear, the burly sled should work well for me. I spent more than an hour on the phone with Geoff last night as he described the attachments and explained the different pieces. I failed to string both ropes all the way through the poles, so I didn’t get it completely put together last night, but did manage to squeeze all my Susitna gear inside the cover, and hope to be running with it by next week.

I am also beginning to feel more comfortable as a runner, if only just. I had a few good runs recently that boosted my confidence in both my footing and ability to maintain a more consistent speed over longer periods of time. But when Geoff asked me how my training was going, I instantly felt the need to apologize for my abilities, which are indeed still quite limited for a person aspiring to a 100-mile ultramarathon.

“I’m still low on the learning curve, but I’m improving,” I said. “My biggest issue is confidence. Also I sometimes feel really lousy for no real reason. I have stomach and cramping issues that I haven’t been able to pinpoint yet.”

“Do you ever go out and try to run fast, the kind of runs most people think of when they think of running — on the road?” he asked.

“Actually, no,” I said. “I started out with that yesterday, running 9- and 10-minute miles with the intention of upping the speed, but found myself veering off into the hills, and that turned to 12- and 14-minute miles on the fluffy snow climbs. I find I enjoy that kind of running so much more. It was still good intensity though. 80 to 90 percent for 90 minutes.”

“That’s good,” he said. “You really don’t need any speed for what you’re training for. All that matters is you get out there and put in time on your feet. It’s something I think most runners, even those who run ultras, don’t realize. By speed training, you might get your 9-minute miles up to 8:40. Twenty seconds is almost nothing over 100 miles. But everyone moves slowly when they feel like crap. If you can boost those slow-moving 20-minute miles up to, say, 15 minutes, that’s five minutes a mile. It’s huge, and easier to do. I used to emphasize speed work and all that, but now I just go into the mountains and spend more time running at slower speeds. It’s made the difference between being a pretty good ultrarunner, and being a great ultrarunner.”

It was an interesting insight into Geoff’s training that I never heard before. When we lived together, he spent lots of time running quarter-mile intervals around a high school track, lifting weights at the gym and suffering through all of his long runs on the road, because Juneau trails in the winter are nearly always covered in unconsolidated snow, requiring snowshoes and a walking-speed shuffle. While training for the 2008 ITI, he ran 25 laps around a flat, three-kilometer groomed cross-country ski loop while towing his sled. It was the same day I set out for an incredibly scenic 90-mile Pugsley ride, touring all the beautiful corners of Juneau. From my point of view, Geoff’s training habits required not only a fair dose of talent, but also a serious tolerance for tedious efforts. Which is why I never had any interest in running. It seemed completely unfun.

When I first met Beat, he introduced me to the strategy of (quotes mine) “moving slowly with haste” during an ultrarun. Consistent movement has always been my approach to endurance cycling — it’s achievable, adaptable, offers its own set of challenges, doesn’t demand tedious training blocks, and becomes more and more effective as events get longer. Beat helped me see how I could do the same in an endurance run. That by keeping a steady pace through all of the highs and lows and downright despair of an effort, I could achieve distances that before seemed to me to be all but impossible. And I was intrigued, because in my view running long distances is the purest form of physical activity, and allows for the greatest access to mountain and backcountry terrain (the less gear you rely on, the less restricted you are in your movement. Skis are limited to what skis can do. Bikes are limited to what bikes can do. But feet can go nearly everywhere.) And yet I had always viewed my own abilities as woefully inadequate in this regard.

Beat’s “just keep moving” (quotes mine) philosophy really made a lot of sense, and he had the experience and success to back it up. Meeting him was the turning point to switch my views from “running sucks and is hard,” to “running is a great mode of travel (but still hard.)” Which is why it was interesting to hear that Geoff holds a similar philosophy. After all, Geoff is considered an elite in the sport of ultrarunning these days. And he does have speed in his background (I believe he has a 15:10 5K PR, and 4:29-minute mile.) But these days, he chooses to leave that background behind to slog around in the mountains for hours on end — which is also what I really love to do.

And of course, it’s all relative. I probably couldn’t hold Geoff’s “slow” pace for five miles. But his is yet another example I was able to draw on when I went out for a late-evening run shortly after our conversation. I felt great for the first three miles, running “hard” but consistently to lay down some 9-minute miles. Then the wheels fell off, so to speak. I don’t know what happened yesterday — I speculate possible cumulative dehydration, or some food that didn’t agree with me, or possibly a stomach bug — but I became quite ill. I had to stop in the woods twice and decided to cut my run short. I was shuffling back toward home, wracked with painful stomach cramps, when I looked down at my Garmin and saw I was logging an 18-minute-mile pace. “I can do better than this,” I thought. I stopped shuffling and started speed hiking. The stomach cramps began to abate. My digestive system felt more settled. And I upped my pace to 14-minute miles at a much less stressful, more solid and sustainable effort. No, I wasn’t running. But I was moving slowly with purpose. And it worked.