Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Forever pace

After failing at last year's Petite Trotte a Leon, I did some soul searching about whether I was taking this endurance racing hobby too far. Months later, I told friends that I still couldn't decide whether PTL was a valuable learning experience, or the worst thing I had ever done to myself. I joked that exploring limits is a lot less fun when you find them. I've gained so much personal enrichment from confronting difficult and frightening situations amid the parameters set by racing — which extend far beyond parameters I would have ever set for myself. But how far is too far? During PTL, an onslaught of technical terrain near the edge of my capabilities, constant focus on navigation and maneuvers, perceived dangers, internal and external pressure, and sleep deprivation drove me halfway out of my mind. It pushed me into some dark places I never wish to visit again, whether in a voluntary situation or real trauma. I race to gain control over my Monster, and PTL only revealed all the ways Monster still controls me.

I considered stepping back from racing for a while. I came close to withdrawing from the 2014 Iditarod Trail Invitational. And then a switch flipped. Monster doesn't control me. I don't need to slink away from adventures that feed my passion, energy, and muse just because of one bad experience. I threw my name in the White Mountains 100 lottery, and then the Hardrock 100. I agreed to join Liehann at the Freedom Challenge. And I signed up for the Tor des Geants.

I didn't write this intro to delve too deep into my personal philosophies or deeper motivations regarding racing. Only to expand on the complicated relationship I have with racing right now, and the wild swing from convincing myself I should take at least a year off to jumping headfirst into my biggest year of racing yet, culminating in the one that should scare me most of all — a 330-kilometer march around the Italian Alps, with a distance and elevation profile that very closely resembles PTL. Back into the belly of the Monster.

The allure of Tor des Geants is another complicated matter than I could ramble on about for thousands of words, but the short explanation is a desire to explore the edges of the galaxy amid the incredible setting of the Aosta Valley. Beat has completed every running of the Tor des Geants, and I've joined him to crew for three of those four years. In that time, I've developed a deep affection for this race. Hiking a handful of the route's numerous cols gave me a taste of just how physically demanding the whole loop would be — and also its potential for an intensely beautiful experience. The dream of TDG is what ultimately drew me into PTL last year, and I contended that I should have tried the "friendly" race before I jumped into the "mean" one. Not that TDG is sunshine and foot massages. It's still 200 miles of rugged terrain, with 80,000 feet of elevation gain (and, more importantly, another 80,000 feet of elevation loss) in 150 hours.

What I tend to overlook amid all of my spiritual- and emotional-enlightenment-seeking race greediness is the reality that my body is the one who needs to cash these checks. It took me longer than I care to admit to come to my senses about removing my name from the Hardrock roster. Even still, giving myself a mere two months to both recover from a 21-day strenuous bike- and hike-a-bike tour, and physically prepare for a race like TDG is ridiculous. I know that. I get that. And yet I have this dream ... the dream of forever pace ... the sweet spot where motion can persist and exploration doesn't have to cease.

I bounced back quickly from the Iditarod, resting little amid the manic opportunities of March in Alaska, and still enjoyed my best White Mountains 100 race yet a few weeks later. But post-Freedom-Challenge recovery has been more stubborn. As soon as the soreness in my arms abated there wasn't any remnant tissue damage. If fact, leg muscles and tendons seemed to be in great shape — I could hike for 11 hours without feeling remotely sore. But my cardiovascular system was worn down. I had no pep. I couldn't run. I wondered if it was a bug or perhaps residual effects from the infections in my fingers, which are still in the process of healing. I took lots of rest days — good for catching up on lots of missed work — and started using a heart rate monitor to gauge short efforts. The heart rate monitor did not inspire confidence. I was hitting Zone 5 far too soon. While riding up Montebello Road, my heart rate spiked 188 at a laughably slow pace. Beat assured me it would just take more time.

I lamented feeling terribly out of shape. And then I wondered if that was precisely the problem — I've been in forever pace for so long that I am terribly out of shape ... for short efforts.

On Sunday we planned a run in Portola State Park. Beat wanted to show me the Peter's Creek Loop — home to the largest grove of old-growth Coast Redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This grove was just remote enough and difficult to access that the nearby Page Mill logging operation left it alone, and it's still remote and difficult to access.

Temperatures hit the triple digits this weekend. We actually had planned to do this run on Saturday, but were turned around by a traffic jam on Highway 9. There was a plan B, but when we stepped out of the car into a furnace blast of 98-degree air, we both looked at each other, shook our heads, and got back in the car. Sunday was going to be just as hot, but we built up a little more mojo, froze water bladders solid, and left a whole lot earlier. I left the heart rate monitor at home — it wasn't intentional, as I hoped to gauge the effect of a longer effort versus the hour-long runs. But it was just as well. Judging performance based on numbers from a watch wasn't doing me many favors. I was probably better off just moving at whatever pace made me happiest, and not worrying about where that fell in on the fitness spectrum.

So we did this run. It was 23 miles with somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 feet of climbing. It was very hot — 96 at the car upon return to Skyline, where it felt cooler than the more sun-exposed ridges. I drank 2.5 liters of ice water and then 2.5 liters more of lukewarm water refilled at the ranger station. I didn't have the heart rate monitor to tell me whether I was overtaxed or not, so I just ran forever pace. It felt good. The forest spread out above us, and happiness drove me forward. Happy legs, happy feet, happy heart.

This is the root of my "forever pace" experiment. I'm happiest on the move. Even when summer is in full force with its oppressive heat and fierce UV rays, when sweat is so thick that the annoying bugs buzzing around my face land on my skin and drown, and both social convention and personal inclinations tell me to embrace hibernation and sit indoors eating popsicles ... I still find my joy outside. Maybe I will fail spectacularly at TDG, and maybe I'll make good on past promises and take a year off of racing next year ... but I can't say I have't enjoyed the process immensely. 


  1. Hi Jill,
    Just for conversation, what would be the harm in continuing this quest for exploration and adventure, but dialing it back to 80%, and removing it from the context of racing?
    Essentially this would be creating your own parameters, without the risk of the permanent physical damage towards which you might be approaching.
    If you wish to find that absolute limit-and someday, it will find you-that's understandable. But having done a bit of this type of thing in a different arena, I can assure you that with a few more years under your belt, the damage will be a companion which will go with you everywhere. It doesn't fail to show up at every social gathering, every meal, every waking moment.
    Just sayin'. Nothing wrong with any of what you're doing, but too much of a good thing....

    1. This is a good conversation to have. Of course I don't know, and can't know, what the future holds. But you can bet that if I believed in an absolute physical limit, I wouldn't go looking for it. My own experiences have led to a strong belief that so-called limits are largely a construction of the mind, and the act of pushing through those constructions is what I find most rewarding.

      Because this has a real chance of affecting my own long-term health, I have done a fair bit of research on the subject. The science is very limited. For every anecdotal case of a long-time runner dying of heart failure (and these instances are still significantly lower than heart failures in the general population), there are many anecdotes of runners quietly continuing at high volumes well into their 70s and 80s and 90s. I concede that I just don't know, but when it comes to long-term negative health effects of physical activity, I'm a skeptic at best. I can't be convinced that evolution designed us to sit on our asses all the time except for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. We used to be hunters and gatherers; we migrated for weeks and months at a time. Evolutionarily, this wasn't that long ago.

      But it's certainly worth much more consideration. Long-term injuries are real, and likely. I'm also willing to accept the possibility of adrenal fatigue as a real condition (of this, the science is also very limited.) Still, everything I've done so far has had very little measurable impact on my health. The stats from my physicals now are altogether better than they were when I was 20. My list of overuse injuries over the years is fairly short — mostly shin splints and minor knee pains. I usually feel no pain; I wouldn't do the stuff I do if I was in pain. My experience with pain is generally that the more I train, the less my joints and muscles hurt — unless an awkward force generates a strain or tear. My injuries are usually a result of clumsiness, but I believe that the major cause of injury in the athletic population is speed. Our bodies can naturally adapt to long distances, but speed is a forced concept that has to be finessed.

      Another interesting post-FC development is that my resting heart rate is lower than normal. I usually see 60-65; lately it's been 55-57. It registered 53 at my doctor visit yesterday. Based on the absence soreness in the longer efforts I've engaged in this month, I wonder if I'm actually very fit right now, just lacking my relative abilities toward speed because of the way I'm currently trained.

      I do agree that — even mentally and emotionally if not physically as well — I might benefit from stepping back from racing and doing something different. Mostly for the sake of a different experience. Thanks for sparking a conversation. All are important issues I need to consider further.

  2. Very fine essay on the limits of limits.

  3. JIll,

    While you will certainly face many of the same challenges in TdG (super steep climbs and descents, technical terrain, sleep deprivation, etc.), it is most definitely NOT the same as PTL, especially in terms of the spirit of the event. Where PTL dares you to try to overcome all the challenges it will throw at you, TdG invites you to embrace the beauty of its challenges while embracing the unique culture of the Aosta Valley (it is sponsored by the tourism board). I think if you approach it as a week long speed-hiking tour, you will have a great time regardless of how the "race" goes.

    I almost contacted you guys about doing a long run on Saturday, but got lazy and decided to sleep in and just run in the Headlands in the afternoon. Since I am heading out for travel the next two weeks and you guys headed to Europe after that, have a great time if I don't see you before the trip!

  4. Great that you got down to the Peters creek grove. It's like another world down there. Did you see any Leopard lilies in bloom? They are only found in a few places in the SC mnts.
    Was the trail blocked by Poison oak like I heard it was a while back? I've done that hike in August in somewhat the same heat.

    I read in the Mercury news that Hwy 9 between Saratoga and Skyline will be messed up with construction for the next 2 years. Caltrans said until December. They have that traffic light for the oneway traffic set so that bikes going uphill can make in through, so the delays are very long!

  5. I appreciate your insights. As a person that bites off more than I can chew (on a much smaller scale) often I struggle with some of the same issues. I've decided I'd rather fail 3/4 journeys than have a very strong effort in 1, because I'll see more, experience more and learn more. But that's just me.

  6. Sometimes you need to tap down to be able to tap up again. I have shifted my focus from racing competitors to racing at my happy pace and in doing that I have achieved more. After the Freedom Challenge I will normally take of a month of healing and then slowly work my way up.

    The FC lowers your resting heart, don't know why, most probably pumping more efficiently due to the strenuous journey, at age 43 mine is 38 and it stay's there.

  7. I'm older than Marnitz and have been at this a long time, though not at the endurance level you are. My HR is low fifties, sometimes 40s. I suspect you are just very fit. Unfortunately different kinds of efforts don't seem to translate. Right now I can backpack for 12 hours and feel fantastic at a 3 mph pace. But if I swim, I feel clumsy and slow. I have decided for myself that forever pace is where I want to be--cut out the sprinting type efforts. You have plenty of time to explore what is best for you.


Feedback is always appreciated!