Friday, August 15, 2014

Dog days

August is the month for reluctant training, stirring up clouds of dust from the chunder trails, wiping the burn of salt from my eyes, and running without water for eight miles in the midst of a 20-mile run in 85-degree heat because my region is in exceptional drought and the groundwater taps are dry. Through it all, I wonder why I so ambitiously signed up for a late-summer race. But I know the reason. Registrations for these things always take place in January, when California's outside temperatures are tolerable and spirits are still fresh. (I wouldn't call my January legs fresh, however, since I'm usually in training for some hard Alaska race. But at least the legs are peppy in January, because they're going to Alaska.)

Then late summer comes around and the legs are tenderized, spirits over-ripened, and the consequences of January ambition ... those are still the same.

I actually wouldn't mind hibernating through August. One of these years I probably should. But I really do want to participate in the Tor des Geants, and so I need to do at least some physical preparation. Since mid-July I've been aiming to balance more frequent rest days to continue recovering from the Freedom Challenge, slow runs and hikes to add a little more spark to the legs, and some cycling as well because I do really like cycling. Slow is all I've been able to accomplish, but both my speed and energy levels are improving with every run. Since I'm not experiencing much in the way of overtraining symptoms besides being slow, this ongoing improvement suggests that I'm not burned out — I'm just out of shape. It makes sense. I did focused running training through March, which developed into a routine complete with pace expectations. Then I turned to long-distance cycling for three and a half months. I can't just expect to pick up where I left off with running, regardless of how much cycling I did in the interim.

I've been analyzing the data from the Tor des Geants course because — while I am slowly regaining fitness — in truth my only real chance of finishing this race is to go in with a well-understood plan that I can use to crack a whip on my less-than-peppy legs. I never make race plans because plans fall apart, every time — but PTL last year taught me that if I don't adequately judge my abilities against the cut-offs, I'm going to end up chasing them for four days and DNF anyway.

The Tor des Geants is 205 miles with 78,740 feet of climbing. That's an average elevation change of 768 feet per mile, but the reality is usually north of 1,000 feet per mile with the occasional flat section thrown in just to really piss off your feet. Yes, that is a higher average than Hardrock and yes, the TDG is twice as far, and yes, my plan is to hike the entire thing. There may be an occasional shuffle on the infrequent lower grades just to mix up muscle use, but personal experience has taught me that — unless you happened to be named Kilian or are sponsored by Salomon — a focused power-hike is both more enjoyable and more efficient over a long enough period of time. The most common reason people drop out of the Tor des Geants is because they went out too fast and tore up their feet, crushed their knees, and shredded their quads. They didn't think it was too fast. It was probably slower than they'd ever run in their lives. But it was too fast.

Still, to actually finish the Tor des Geants in its 150-hour cutoff, you still need to cover 33 miles per 24-hour period. At a glance, it doesn't seem that bad. A 50K a day? Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers do that all the time! But what's contained in that 50K is what matters. The first 49 kilometers, for example, has 13,110 feet of climbing. (When analyzing run data I often think it terms of kilometers of distance and feet of climbing. It think this is because I grew up with imperial units of measurement but focused the bulk of my running on either 50Ks or Euro-races, so I visualize kilometers.) But to reiterate, that's 49,000 meters of horizontal with 8,000 meters of vertical change, otherwise known as the takeoff angle of a jet. The whole course is more or less like this for 330 kilometers. You can see why I would love this, right? It's a foot race more or less designed for strong and determined hikers. I only wish I was in better shape.

But I am trying to figure out how capable I might be at any given section so I can design a plan with expected rate of travel along with the best, or at least most strategic, places to rest. To do this I tapped my four-time finisher boyfriend for recommendations and then dredged up old Strava data from some hikes I've done on the course. There are 25 prominent "peaks" on the course and I've seen seven of them, some several times because the timing for a crewperson in the Tor des Geants usually works out to hit the same places year after year. Here's a profile of one of my favorites, Col Pinter:

Why, yes, that is 4,500 feet of climbing in 3.5 miles. So fun! Probably even more fun after 120 miles of slogging through much of the same. The blue line is my pace chart. Not sure why it fluctuates so much (guessing stops to catch my breath) but the higher ends are probably most accurate. Shooting for 25-minute miles seems an ambitious but worthy goal. I realistically have to keep my overall moving average below a 30-minute mile to make this work, while still finding the necessary time for sleeping, feet-drying and repair, and eating ... in that order. (Actually eating is the most important thing in an endeavor like this and the hardest to keep up with. That's actually another very common reason people drop out of a multiday event ... they just run out of gas. Low calorie intake was likely my biggest physical setback during the PTL and greatly exacerbated my psychological meltdowns.)

Here's another fun one, Col Loson, and the reminder that there are definitely going to be some 60- and maybe even 90-minute miles in the mix. This is why I'm doing the math even though I doubt I'll be able to adhere even loosely to any kind of race plan. But I have experienced pieces of this route, and feel like these previews will help me set reasonable expectations for myself. The Tor des Geants will be the kind of 90-percent-mental mindgame that I both love and fear the most. Three and a half more weeks to go.


  1. Luckily you have got 200% of the 90% mental mind game. Remember the body goes where the mind wanders, keep your mind focused !!!

    Enjoy !!!

  2. It's so different here. I feel fall in the air and am so not ready! At any rate I laughed because it just took me 14 days to backpack 250 miles. Hahahaha.

  3. Have a great race. I am totally jealous. I was just re-living my TDG experiences as it turned out two Banff runners whom I met in Italy were at the Fat Dog race last weekend. My only piece of advice is to just take the course one col at a time. It's near the hardest race I've done, but also one of the most rewarding. Oh, and don't worry about food, unlike PTL, they actually take VERY good care of you at TDG!

    Wishing you and Beat a great time over there!