Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Slow build

Beat "running" in the 2012 La Petite Trotte a Leon
Physically, this spring feels a bit like last year. There's an unfocused, largely inexplicable body malaise. In my outdoor pursuits, there are amazing high-energy "good days" interspersed with much-rougher-than-they-should-be "down days." Not much in the way of comfortable middle ground. I've never been one to stick to a nicely arching training pattern — and in all honestly such things don't capture my imagination — but payback comes in the way I still, after all these years, don't really understand my body.

Today I'm icing my left shin because I fear I'm developing a splint (thank you, road running. Yes, I blame you.) I had a similar dull ache in my right leg for most of last spring that continued to escalate until I hiked Mount Whitney in June, where it flared up to a full-blown shin splint that kept me off running for a couple of weeks and put a ding in my UTMB training that lasted through August. Injury isn't something I can well afford right now, so I'll take it easy this week, go for some bike rides, and maybe do a real kind of taper for the Quicksilver 50 on May 11.

Given that I haven't climbed out of my spring slump and have been running like crap for most of the month, this is probably for the best. But I wasn't going to "taper" the Quicksilver because it's just a training race to get my mind and feet ready for the rigors of the Bryce Canyon 100 on May 31. A hundred miles with 18,000 feet of climbing at a lung-busting average elevation of 8,500 feet? That should be enough to strike the fear of purgatory in my weak legs, but even that's just a training race for summer adventures — fastpacking in the Sierras, and a stage race in Iceland (!! Iceland has been on my "to visit" list since I was a teenager, so when Beat and I found out that Racing the Planet was putting on an 250-km stage race in early August, we signed up. I'm very excited.) Both are planned for the sake of an awesome adventure, but they're also geared to better prepare my mind and feet for the rigors of La Petite Trotte à Léon.

I haven't been ready to talk about PTL, but it's May now, and well, yesterday I found out I've been accepted into the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational as a foot racer. *That* is going to be quite a build but it's still a ways off. The PTL is closer and arguably even harder. As a physical endeavor, the PTL is probably going to be more difficult for me than the Tour Divide. It's shorter but relentless. For five-plus days of my life there will be nothing but crawling over mountains, up and down, up and down, along the steep and rocky spines of the Alps. After last year's shortened-course disappointment at UTMB, I wanted to try the less supported version — taking the "long" way around Mont Blanc through France, Switzerland, and Italy.

The numbers don't paint an even close to accurate picture of the difficulty, but they look burly on their own — 186 miles with more than 78,000 feet of climbing, for an *average* gain or loss of a thousand feet per mile. The route is often highly technical terrain that occasionally ventures into Class 4 scrambling territory (although in the Alps, the more exposed sections of established routes are generally assisted with fixed ropes and ladders.) Last year, when Beat was racing the PTL, I described it to my dad as hiking Lone Peak — one of the hardest established trails in the Wasatch Mountains — sixteen times back to back without stopping for more than a couple hours of rest per day, including eating and sleeping.

This is Ana, racing the 2012 Tor des Geants with a sprained
ankle. She's crazy. And awesome. 
Why, oh why, oh why? PTL started as the way most big ventures do for me — a kind of joking consideration that suddenly became real. A friend who lives halfway around the world was interested, and we both needed a partner (PTL requires participants to travel in teams for safety reasons.) Ana Sebastian is much crazier than I am; she's effectively a female version of Beat, and she's stronger than me too. Since she lives in Spain we won't be able to train together, so this partnership is a leap of faith for both of us. We will probably be one of the few if not only two-female team in the 2013 PTL, although Ana also recruited an Italian man to join our group, flippantly called "Too Cute to Quit." It's quite the international team and the language barrier is going to be large. We won't have the ability to carry on complicated conversations, although after day one, there won't be much to say beyond, "My feet hurt," "Do you want to stop now?" "I'm terrified of that cliff," and "Uh oh, that looks like lightning." Once I learn those phrases in Spanish and Italian, I'm set.

It's going to be beautiful and brutal, and it's been a couple of years since I got into something so completely over my head and beyond my pay grade. It's exactly where I prefer to be — perched on the ledge of a psychological precipice, knowing I'm either going to climb to new heights or fall hard, and likely both, but either way I'm in for a wholly submersive and memorable experience.

Some of my friends have asked me why I'm so focused on foot racing right now, especially when met with the surprise that after a five-year absence, I've opted to try the race to McGrath without my beloved fat bike. Part of it stems from all the bad runs, these pre-shin-splints, clumsiness, downhill side-stitches, and the suspicion that I'm just not biologically cut out for running of any sort. An act of defiance if you will, in my continuing experiments with mind over matter. PTL and the ITI are both arguably hiking races and do play to some of my strengths, but the fact is I'm going to have to get a much better grip on my weaknesses to see any kind of success in these endeavors. The confrontation with weakness is my reward — that age-old rationalization "to see if I can."

So here's to (hopefully) avoiding shin splints and staying healthy for the slow build. There's a big year ahead, and who knows? Maybe by summer 2014 I'll be ready to return to test my own speed limit in the Tour Divide. ;-)


  1. You are a machine. Admittedly do not understand it, but I do like to follow along. Those races sound like the inner circle of hell to me, but I admire those who do them.

  2. Whenever people in my family/circle think I'm doing crazy things, I like to point them to your blog.

    Recently got Be Brave, Be Strong as a birthday present and loved it, btw.

  3. Girl, I don't think a single one of your blog posts does not mention exhaustion or malaise of some sort. I'm not thinking it's as inexplicable as you say in this one, ha ha. Hello from Bogota by the way!

    the other Jill

  4. Jill — not all of my blog posts. Just the ones where I complain. :P

  5. Jill - while I absolutely admire (and do not comprehend) your consistent and huge weekly mileages, I think there may be signs of chronic overtraining in your descriptions. I have read some interesting papers on that topic (particularly the effects on immunity) and will share by email. I guess it is very hard not to go out when you know you can pull it off, but because you can, does not mean you have to. Few days off (three for me at my old age) do wonders. Sorry for the unsolicited advice, but there seems to be solid scientific evidence on this.

  6. Jan — Of course I don't disagree with you or the scientific evidence. Training for my interests is a tough nut to crack because my ultimate goal would be "endless endurance." I don't like having a body that needs rest. :P

    In the past I was able to accomplish my best - or at least favorite - efforts with long builds. I don't consider my day-to-day training too overboard. It generally amounts to 1-2 hours a day of long slow distance type paces on hilly terrain (so plenty of heart rate variability.) I admit I falter at "speed work" and haven't recognized the value in it for my personal goals.) I'm also quiet terrible at non-cardio or indoor training because I feel no motivation toward it.

    Sometimes I suspect that I simply do better with consistent efforts. I generally feel best in the days after my long efforts, and then that endorphin-fueled energy boost starts to fade. I have work now that injects 1-2 mandatory rest days per week. By resting on Tuesday I basically guarantee that Wednesday is my most sluggish day of the week. However, today I did a 35-mile road ride and actually felt pretty good. I generally do feel good when I'm biking now that I don't ride every single day.

    I still feel like my acute injuries crop up somewhat randomly (like last year's shin splints. Started racing harder in May and then ran a 70-mile race where I felt great afterward and believed I finally kicked the shin pain. Then, about two weeks later, while *hiking* Mount Whitney, they set in.)

    But yes, overtraining. I'd love to see the papers you read on the subject. I'm going to have to give the issue some more dedicated thought.

  7. You Jill are simply awesome. Go get ém

  8. (thank you, road running. Yes, I blame you.)

    Perhaps you should rethink your running style. Its worked for thousands of other people. Just a thought. I know we all have a tendency to blame an event or action for an injury, but when we look hard, it is usually just ourselves we should blame. I'm not trying to sound critical for the sake of being critical. The fact is if we look to ourselves as the culprit, then we look to ourselves for a solution. There is almost always a way to prevent chronic injuries through changes in training or style.

    Just a though, good luck.

  9. Ah, running style. I fear I'm way behind the curve in this regard. I have improved from the years when friends would tell me that I "walk kinda weird" while we were hiking. I seem to have developed a kind of natural awkwardness that transfers to stiffness when I run, because I'm trying not to end up on my face. I'm making improvements in trail running, and feel a better "flow" these days. But the the repetitiveness of any kind of flat running starts to exacerbate nagging pains. I'm sure I could learn better form, but I'm a long way out from the base I'm starting with.

    I share your opinion that chronic injuries are caused my chronically bad movements. But I also believe that lots of humans just aren't built for the somewhat unnatural motion of running fast, long distances on a hard, flat surface. It would take an excessive amount of refinement to force our bodies into this narrow margin of ability. Mistakes are easy to make, which is why running has such a bad reputation of being injury-causing. Trail running, on the other hand, is a more natural motion and the variability of movements automatically helps prevent overuse injuries, even at long distances. Pushing limits can push injuries, of course, but there's a much wider margin for error.

  10. Aaah, awesome! I think it will be the perfect adventure for you.


Feedback is always appreciated!