Friday, May 03, 2013

Heat training

I have to admit this shin-resting short break from running has been well-timed. A heat wave settled in to central California this week, bringing temperatures well into the 90s. When it comes to outdoor activities in the heat, biking is considerably more tolerable than running. There's less chafing, more coasting, and a guaranteed wind chill. Still, next week I am participating in a 50-mile race that's likely to see some toasty temps, and I've been trying to acclimate myself by spending a half hour every evening suffering in a 180-degree sauna. Although 90-degree weather often has me using any excuse I can find to stay indoors, it seemed prudent to get some heat-training bike rides this week.

On tap for Thursday: The good old "lunchtime climb," Monte Bello Road. It was 95 degrees at lunchtime so I put off leaving until 5:30. It was still 91 degrees. I had cleverly put my water bottles in the freezer for pre-ride chilling, and then pedaled about a mile up the road before I realized that I'd forgotten them. Blast! There was a few moments of panic, then hedging on whether to turn around, then resolve that this ride was only about 80 minutes and doing it with no water would be good heat training, good heat training indeed.

I am always trying to better my time from home to the top of Monte Bello, a one-way distance of 8.5 miles with about 2,500 feet of climbing. My best time is just a few seconds over 50 minutes, but I'm not in the kind of shape for such quickness right now. Still, my plan was to go hard. As I wrapped around Steven's Creek Reservoir, before I even started the brunt of the climbing, my lips were already parched and tongue felt swollen. My arms and face were coated in a thick film of sweat complete with bugs that had drowned in glistening beads. Monte Bello is a dead-end road that sees relatively minimal traffic, especially late in the day, and I admit I often use my iPod to boost my resolve to ride hard (volume low enough to hear approaching vehicles. But I also admit I don't always hear approaching cyclists if they overtake me.)

Anyway, lecture me if you must. I love my iPod. Sometimes in the throes of a tough effort, I escape into daydreams of future adventures. I like to make a storyline out of things that haven't happened yet (sometimes, I become so fixated on these storylines I invent that surprising pieces of them become reality — including pieces I have no control over, such as the fantastical display of Northern Lights at the Homer Epic. But that's a subject for another blog post.) Lately I have been dreaming about the PTL. During this climb, the Shuffle clicked over to the motivating grandiosity of a Muse anthem about the second law of thermodynamics as a metaphor for environmental destruction and human involution, "Unsustainable." Listen and roll your eyes if you must; I love this song. (Also, the video depicts people running through the woods and is perfect.)

I imagined "Unsustainable" as the soundtrack for a video about PTL. As orchestral rock music blared, the camera would pan out to sweeping mountain vistas, craggy ridges, snow-swept mountainsides, narrow ledges, and tiny ants of racers marching across a bewildering moonscape of high-alpine tundra. There would be clips of mud-soaked people picking their way around rock ledges and slumped over boulders, trying to regain their composure. And of course the lyrics serve as the ironic commentary: "Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted and useless. New energy cannot be created and high grade energy is being destroyed. An economy based on endless growth is... Un-sus-tain-able ..."

That's the reality, right? Energy cannot be generated from non-energy. Every day our own life force becomes more depleted, our bodies more broken down, our cells more fatigued, our DNA more dispersed (thanks to Jan for the link to a scientific paper about potential molecular markers of overtraining. An interesting read for sure.) Everything we do furthers this process, and the harder we try, the faster we diminish. Right?

I have been giving more thought to the notion of general overtraining recently. Especially with such a daunting few months of adventures in front of me, I long for insight into that magic formula that balances that need to increase endurance while minimizing long-term fatigue. Still, I refuse to believe that the perfect formula is the play-it-safe numbers thrown around by the health complex. A half hour a day, five days a week? Surely our species didn't get to where we are now by sitting around for 23.5 hours every day. I know I am happiest, and arguably most productive — at least in regard to the contributions I feel most compelled to make — when I am active. Passivity has never been particularly good for me, often self-perpetuating to a dull stagnation that seeps into all aspects of my life. Forced into a non-active life, I believe I could adapt. But for the present, I wrestle with the life I want to pursue and the fear that it's inevitably "unsustainable."

Interestingly, a few minutes later, "Perpetual Motion Machine" by Modest Mouse started playing on the iPod. By this point, I was seeing dots and stars through a narrow tunnel of pain cave vision, and could only gasp the lyrics in my head "Everyone wants to be a perpetual motion machine. We all try harder as the days run out. We all try harder as the days run out. We all try harder as the days ... run ... out."

I was still gasping to Modest Mouse when I rolled up to the Monte Bello gate and realized with an air of surprise that I made it to the top without succumbing to heat exhaustion or dying of thirst. The valley below was cast in golden light by the late afternoon sun, which had yet to loosen its grip on the stagnant heat in the air. I looked at my watch. 55:14. "Arg, I could have done better," I muttered, startled by how scratchy my voice sounded. But the truth is I haven't even been that fast in a while. My lips and throat were still parched, but I managed to crack a smile.

"I showed you, brutal sun," I thought. And suddenly, I couldn't wait to go back out in the hot hot heat the next day. I can't help it, and almost don't care that it's physically impossible. I want to be a perpetual motion machine. 


  1. Isn't every activity "inevitably unsustainable" as we age? Fast twitch muscles die off and we eventually lose our speed. Our bodies lose flexibility and injuries become more common. Since you're mostly a trail-based athlete (and cross train almost equally), it greatly reduces the overuse injuries that plague many road runners. Basically, all you've got to do is take a day off if you feel really wrecked for several in a row. Otherwise, use that youth while you've still got it!! :)

  2. I was thinking about this on a more micro scale, in terms of this summer and the PTL itself — sustaining a high level of effort for 5 continuous days. Shouldn't be sustainable, but ... there's personal adventure in finding a way.

    As for aging, I like to look for inspiration from people like Hans Dieter Weisshaar, who got his start in 100-mile running at age 58 and as now run more than 130 of those things, still going strong at 72. Could be a lucky stroke of genetics but I lean toward the belief such a level of endurance has more to do with perspective and desire than biology. Hans doesn't see any reason why he can't run a ton of hundred-milers every year, so he keeps at it.

  3. I was speaking more on an individual level: from energy in the 20s/30s to decades later. People like Hans are amazing, but it begs the question: What he would have been capable of when he was younger if he'd had that same interest then?

    To me, it seems like the five days without sleep would wear me down faster (not eating enough, crappy mood, etc) than the running all day part. But I've only run 50Ks so correct me if I'm wrong.

    I follow the blog of an older ultrarunner, and he keeps starting anew after many injuries and doesn't seem to catch a break long enough to get to his race feeling well. I believe he has that same drive, but genetics and age are beating him. Unfortunately, desire doesn't always save us. :(

  4. Yes, lately there's been more chatter floating around the Web about the theory that runners can only race ultra-distances at high levels for a few years before inevitable burnout or injury or both sets in. This theory is well-supported with anecdotal evidence. There are a scant few people in ultrarunning who have both longevity and high results (Karl Meltzer and Hal Koerner are among the few.) And because of my personal connection with a well-known runner who is grappling with potentially race-induced health problems, I hear questions and concerns about my own racing endeavors from mutual friends. Of course my level of racing doesn't even compare. But it has sparked more reflection on this issue recently.

    As for sleep deprivation, I have occasional bouts of insomnia where I'll only sleep for 2-3 hours a night for 5 or more days. Usually the first and second day are the hardest and then I weirdly start to adapt. I wouldn't categorize my state as mentally or emotionally competent during these times. But it does give me some insight into purposefully depriving myself of rest for this length of time will entail. It is daunting ... but constantly moving is definitely harder. My strung-out insomniac days still pale in comparison to the difficulty of endurance efforts where I got a lot of sleep (such as the Tour Divide.)

  5. I'm older than both of you guys and have been running since I was 14. I believe part of what you say. It is definitely true that desire is really important. I see people my age and older who just can't do what they used to (or keep up with me, and I don't claim to be an uberathlete) simply because they have stopped wanting it. Sadly, for most mortals, we do slow down. Some folks are just built in such a way that they can sustain a very high level of exercise into old age. Many people aren't. I have a friend who is in his late fifties who still runs 20 miles every Sunday, and while I am much younger than he is, I could not do that--my body will not let me, even though my mind wants to. I've found that the key is to push yourself a little every day. Sometimes I really, really don't want to. But I know in the long run it will keep me on the trails.

  6. Of course you can never know what might happen, and what life circumstances will get in the way of what you want to do. But I do cast a skeptical eye at any claim that incorporates a variation of "If you do A then B will happen eventually." I think people who consistently pursue activity get a good idea about what their bodies can do. Those who try to defy or consistently push beyond their natural boundaries probably will run into issues. I don't feel any natural inclination toward speed but I *love* distance. I honestly believe I'd be a lot worse off mentally and physically if I decided I had to run a 20-minute 5K and made it my all-encompassing goal to do so. I'd probably train an average of 30 minutes a day and end up injured all over.

  7. I think many ultra-athletes are confused about speed. I don't think it's an accident that some folks can run seemingly insane numbers of miles year after year. Trimming down your speed and intensity just a few percent reduces the stress on your body greatly. I steadily increased my racing miles over the last 10 years (1400 miles last year) ... and purposefully gotten slower so I can sustain it. Does "slower" mean that mean I got weaker? I don't think so at all? I can do all the things that are fun, and more of it. Being fast is completely irrelevant to me. But that is often what people talk about, and why I don't really want to have anything to do with the new guard of "runners" who love to talk about the top field and speedwork and such (and zero-drop shoes, ok, that's not quite fair ;). The training that Jill and I do has almost nothing to do with the training of "elite" athletes (or people clamoring for the next PR), and I don't think overtraining really factors in at our level of exertion. I for one am supremely lazy when I train. Seems to work quite well for me ... you guys should try it ;) Obviously injuries happen here and there, but if speed is not an issue, it's mentally quite easy to deal with. There's a million things that are fun to do (and some of them don't involve physical activity at all, gasp!).

  8. Who wants to be an ultra-trudger though? At some point it just gets ridiculous to go long distances at a snail pace. And if you have to go at snail pacein your thirties or early forties to keep doing it, welll,the training isn't working. If most days are "off", hurty, require superslow pace, or what have you, it's too much. An off day should be a rare, not even a weekly, occurrence.

    Ever think of hiring a real coach? A real one, not a hobbyist Internet one.

  9. Anonymous,

    thanks for the insult :) Only because you can't see the fun in something doesn't mean it's not fun to me. For certain, the 200 mile mountain races and the Iditarod were by far the funnest and most beautiful races I have done, I wouldn't want to miss them. And I did just fine speed wise, though no one really cares about how fast one is in those events - finishing is a significant feat by itself.
    You know how many coaches know how to best run 1000 miles in Alaska? That number would be fairly small. I would think it's around zero, with maybe some "hobbyists" like Ray Zahab possibly knowing what they're talking about ...

    Again, you miss the point altogether. If speed is important to you, sure. But there's absolutely no rational reason for speed to be important. What's the point in trying to go fast and being disappointed if you can't and then get burnt out if what I really enjoy is being in nature, pushing some of my limits. I think a through-hike is for example one of the most satisfying and impressive things that can be done.

    I feel quite successful in accomplishing what I like to do. Not doing it to please anyone but myself ...

  10. Water bottles in freezer: I've always been an "out of sight, out of mind" person, so whenever I put bottles in the freezer I put something I know I'll miss right away nearby--hang my helmet on the freezer door, for example--or put an empty bottle where I have to move it before I leave.

    Training: Much to everyone's surprise, Lance Mackey won back-to-back 1,000 mile sleddog races several years ago, then did it the next year. "Common knowledge" was the dogs needed more than a week off before the next race. Turns out they don't, and a month of nearly continuous 100 mile days seemed to fit them very well. Of course, they also get excellent nutrition and hydration, feet massaged, carefully watched for any sign of injury. And they're going long and slow compared to sprinters. But some people like that!

    Trudging: You could extend the other Anonymous' posting to say if you can't win why bother? Some people do feel that way. Fortunately, most people consider the journey the most important part--otherwise races would have only a handful of participants.

    (Still skijoring on great trails!)

  11. Even for ultra athletes who rightly spend most of their time at submaximal levels, I think the occasional set of intervals (when fully rested) above threshold are a good thing, get you out of the "one speed" rut. But only if you are fully rested and have some spring in your step. Doing speed work when tired is an oxymoron, teaches your body to go slow. Eddy B (former [disgraced?] U.S. Olympic cycling coach) had a great, simple system for telling if you were getting overtrained. Races on weekends, Easy, easy recovery ride on Monday, then short, high intensity intervals on Tuesday. If the second interval felt better than the first (means you're getting warmed up), keep going with more sets. If your legs were even more tired for the second interval than the first, your overtrained and should stop and take another very easy day. Built-in safety valve. Combining that plan with recording your waking resting pulse rate and weight, you can stay on that tightrope that is endurance training. I like that no cyclo-computers or heart rate monitors are required, just a watch and a scale. Although it's a cycling program, the principles can adapted.

  12. Hi Jill! My name is Aleah, I am with the women's cycling company Moxie Cycling Co., and I would like to gauge your interest in receiving a women's cycling jersey from the 2013 collection for a product review. As a women's specific cycling company, we are very interested in any feedback you have to offer as such an incredible athlete. You can see the styles we offer at Let me know if you'd like to discuss more! And best of luck with your upcoming summer endeavors!


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