Ever since I’ve seen the movie about the 2010 Western States race, I wanted to do a race in the mountains. The fact that I’ve never been to the mountains in my life was one more reason to try to do such a race. I just needed to choose which one to try since there are so many. That was where Brian Culbert’s stories about his UTMB experience ended up being very influential, and I’ve set my sights on the World Summit of Trailrunning – UTMB. Obviously, after just a few years since my first run, I wasn’t ready to do a 100M race, so I decided to try OCC, The Little Swiss Cousin of UTMB – a 56 km race with a whopping 3500m of elevation gain. That was the beginning of my journey that brought me to Chamonix, France in August 2017.
It took me more than a 1 year of running to finally listen to one of the most important advices given by experienced runners in all the books, videos and personal conversations related to running long distances: watch your HR (and/or effort) while running and try to keep it stable/even.
First, I have stumbled upon a Maffetone training method article in Trail Runner magazine, which once again argued, that running slow in training is a good thing and many beginner runners do not run slow enough. I have finally decided to try it this week on short and easy 7k road run and just keep my body in Zone 2 for the whole run. I should say, that it was the best run I have ever done. I was feeling like I could run forever. Even after an hour of running I still felt relaxed, barely sweating and couldn’t hear my breathing.
So, following the revelation on my training run, I have decided to treat my today’s half-marathon at 5 Peaks Kortright centre as a supported long trail run. So, for the first time in my running races I had only one goal for the race: check the hypothesis, that if I’d only care about by effort/HR and keep it as even as possible, the resulting feeling after the race and my ability to run for a long time would be much better than when I do my usual “push as hard as you can until you reach the finish line” routine.
And, as decided, for the whole 3 laps the only thing I did was to watch my heart rate and make sure it never got out of a pretty narrow window (145-165 bmp) for any noticeable period of time. It was very easy on the flats, on downhills I needed to force myself to breathe evenly and on uphills I either power-walked or ran slowly focusing on limiting the spike in my HR caused by the hill.
Long story short, on average I ran slower than usual (8:00 min/km VS my usual 7:30 min/km) but, damn! I felt relaxed and easy for the whole 3 hours of running! I usually start melting down at ~1:30 and then just keep pushing myself until I reach the finish line completely exhausted and unable to walk. Today, after three perfect splits (almost never happens on a hilly trail race), I strolled through the finish line and felt like I could just go and run the course a few more times.
Lesson learned: I’m going to watch my HR very closely on my slow training runs (always keeping it at or below the maximum aerobic HR) and in my upcoming Run For The Toad 50K (my first!) I will try to make HR one of the main factors determining my pace.
So, 2014 is almost over and it has been a hell of a year for me: we have spent a month in Italy with my wife, my first daughter was born and, of course, I have started running. In this short post I’d like to collect my random thoughts and impressions about the past year and really hope to be doing these posts for many years to come
Running Stats of 2014
- First (Real) Run: June 18, 2014
- Total Runs: 55
- Total Races: 5
- Time Running: 75 hours
- Total Distance: 524.3 km
- Total Elevation Gain: 5419 m
Favourite Races of 2014
- The North Face Endurance Challenge Half-Marathon 2014 in California – definitely the A race for me this year, my first really hard trail race and my the first real exposure to the ultra scene. Race report is here.
- Chase The Coyoye 14.4K – beautiful and pretty challenging course here in Ontario, pretty low-key and a lots of fun.
- Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon 2014 – my first ever half-marathon, what else is there to say
Favorite Gear of 2014
- Trail Shoes: Salomon Sense Pro – I have tried 5 different shoes this year (yeah, I know, it is an addiction!) and yet my favourite shoe of the year is the first trail shoe I have ever tried on and loved since the minute I did. I will keep looking for better options of course, but I’m pretty sure this small beast will stay in my rotation for a long time.
- Running Socks: One word: Injinji! – I have never thought socks could play such an enormous role in running and when I first heard about those weird toe socks, I was very skeptical. After running in them for 4 months and hundreds of kilometres, I haven’t had a single blister and I absolutely love the comfort and freedom they give to my toes. Favourite models so far:
- Running/GPS Watch: Suunto Ambit 2S – after running for some time with my phone (with and without a HR monitor) I’ve decided to get a proper watch and this was definitely one of the best things I did for my training and racing, mostly because I tend to push too hard at the beginning of a run and if not for a feedback loop created by the watch I’d just kill myself long before the finish line. This watch gave me everything I wanted and for a reasonable price. If you need more help choosing a perfect watch for you, I’d recommend the Product Comparison Calculator by the awesome DC Rainmaker.
- Running Backpack: Salomon ADV Skin Lab Hydro 5 Set – I have tried a bunch of backpacks, but this one ended up being the most comfortable for me. After running with it for a few months (a long race and many training runs) I’m loving it: lots of pockets to put all the stuff I need to take with me (gels, drinks, phone, etc) and I don’t even feel it when I’m running.
Favorite Sports/Running Books of 2014
- Born To Run by Christopher McDougall – this was the book that inspired me to try running. Really interesting story explaining how all of us could run, running is not an innate talent and giving us a glance into the ultra-community (friendliest bunch of people I’ve ever seen).
- Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes – building on the momentum created by the previous book, I have devoured this one, could not stop listening to the story of a really fun guy that could run for days non-stop, once again, giving a glimpse of the trail and ultra running community, showing many interesting and very different people sharing the passion of running.
- Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by Scott Jurek – hearing about Scott from the other books I really wanted to hear more about his story. And this book was the way to go! Really interesting and very inspiring story of a guy who won the Western States 100 seven (7!) times in a row and did a lot of other crazy and inspiring things in the world of running.
- The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances by the author of the awesome Oatmeal online comic, Matthew Inman – I’ve been following The Oatmeal comic for many years now and was very surprised when I heard, that its author is an ultra-runner. The book is crazy funny and is highly recommended for anybody related to running (especially runners or members and their families).
And now, some plans for 2015
- Run my first marathon – seems like a natural progression from the half-marathon distance I’ve conquered this year
- Train for and try to run my first ultra (50k) – this is a stretch goal, though I do think it should be possible and will definitely try to get there
- Lose at least 20 lb – pretty sure this will just happen with the amounts of running required to train for the previous two goals.
- Involve my family more in my racing – as nice as it is to finish a race, it would be so much better to have people waiting for you at the finish line. We weren’t able to do it this year with the newborn baby and all, but will definitely try to do better next year!
Happy new year!
Ever since I ran my first road half-marathon race, I wanted to try to do a long trail race. For the next year I have already signed up for a 25K and really want to try to do a 50K at the end of 2015 running season, but for 2014 I didn’t expect to do any more races because the season is over in Canada and I was not considering traveling somewhere for a race.
So, I was not even thinking about any races in the last few months of 2014, but then one of the guys in Salomon Toronto running group mentioned that he is doing a 50M in San Francisco – The North Face Endurance Challenge California. After asking around I’ve realized, that there will be more than one person from our running group doing various distances there. Long story short, thanks to my wife’s and to my employer‘s support I have managed to get an opportunity to do a half-marathon trail race in San Francisco on December 7, 2014.
What Have I Done?!
After signing up for the race and booking the trip to San Francisco, I have started thinking about it and the more I thought about it, the scarier the race looked. I have never ran a race with such an intimidating elevation profile:
Even during our hardest weekly runs and my own training long runs, I have never amounted to more than a hundred meters (~300 feet) of elevation gain, while this race has 3.5 hills each of which have ~600-800 feet of elevation gain.
To not let the panic discourage me, I have deduced to do what I can to prepare and get myself as ready for the race as possible in the next 1.5 months.
In preparation for the race considering that the elevation profile seemed like the most intimidating part of it, I have started focusing on uphill walking and jogging (I’m not at a point with my fitness where I could actually run uphill for any significant period of time). Aside from religiously following runners-specific strength training routines from Jason Fitzgerald I have started doing two things (in addition to the usual trail runs):
Stairs climbing. I live in a 25-story condo and I have just started running/walking up 25 floors, then riding the elevator down and repeating that until I couldn’t do it anymore (first few times) or until I reached the total elevation profile for the upcoming race (210 stories).
This was probably the most important part of the training, simply because up until the second or third day of doing it I didn’t actually know how to properly walk/run uphill. I would use my quads to pull myself up, trash them in the first 10-20 minutes and then couldn’t even walk straight, running downhill afterward would be out of the question. During one of the exercises I’ve noticed, that if I try to use my hamstrings, calves and, especially, glutes to push myself up, I spend much less energy to get myself up the stairs and my average heart rate gets significantly lower. That’s when I started developing some uphill running technique, which has proven very effective on my trail runs.
High-Grade Uphill Running. Since I could not find a way to reproduce the race’s long 11-13% grade hills anywhere in Toronto, I have decided to just try the treadmill. And, to my surprise, it worked really well. Since I could specifically set the grade on my treadmill, I have successfully reproduced all of the uphills of the upcoming race within my long training runs and it has given me confidence that I could actually change my primary goal from “just finish under the 4hrs cutoff time and don’t die” to a more ambitious (for me) “finish under 3 hours”.
My First Meeting With The Hills
A few of my friends from Toronto were running 50M, 50K and Marathon distances on Saturday (Dec 6) and I really wanted to support them by being meeting them at the finish line. And, of course, I wanted to check out at least a part of the course before running it the next day. So, I took a taxi to the start/finish area of the race.
“Holy shit!” – that was my first thought after my taxi crossed the Golden Gate bridge, we went through a tunnel and into the Marin Headlands. Only then I have realized how a 900 feet hill looks like (being from a flat country and living in a flat part of Canada for the last 8 years I haven’t actually encountered any large hills or just never tried to match them to elevation numbers). And a few minutes later I have noticed tiny dots moving across a side of one of the hills… those were 50M/50k runners. The sight has got me worried, but then I realized, that there is no way back out of it and I’ll just have to do my best – I trained by the numbers and I should be ready for this race.
While being at the finish line I have witnessed glorious finishes by Sage Canaday (50M winner) and other elites and then, sometime later I have met my good friend Deanne McDoom, who just finished her first 50K trail race. It was a huge inspiration seeing a person you know finish such a serious race. Unfortunately, from being on my feet for a few days I have started feeling some suspicious aches and pains in my left foot, so I have decided to leave early and could not meet the friends from Toronto, who were still running their long races.
When I woke up at 4:30 am (just could not sleep, being excited/worried about the race), I have noticed, that the pain in the arch of my left foot was still there. That got me very worried, but again – there was nothing I could do, so I just went on with my preparations and by 8 am I was standing at the starting line waiting for my wave to begin the race. We have started at 8:10 am.
The first mile I was warming up, keeping my pace steady and my heart rate reasonable. And then we hit the first hill. Surprising myself, I have managed to run/walk it pretty quickly (constantly monitoring my heart rate to make sure I would not burn too much energy so early in the race) and didn’t feel much pain/tiredness by the time we have got to the top of the first of the 3.5 hills in the race (around 30 minutes into the race). The first downhill was a blast, that was my fastest mile ever.
The second hill (at around 1hr into the race) was a bit harder and by the time we have got to the top of it (1:23), I have started feeling tired and my feet started to swell. And that is when my major mistake started to creep in on me: I bought my shoes a few months ago and during the last 1.5 months my feet got bigger (both longer and a bit wider). I attribute it to feet conditioning because of all the running I did in the last 4 months. Anyways, the shoes I was racing in fit pretty well for the first half of the race, but when my feet started to swell (a normal process for long runs as far as I understand) the shoes got a little close to being tight. And then I started my second long and fast descent. About 30% down I have noticed that my toes were constantly hitting the front of the shoes, about 70% down I had to stop and switch to walk/run because of the pain in my toes. I have finished the descent (around 1:35) about 30% slower than the previous one.
Lesson #1: Make sure your shoes are roomy enough to accommodate for swelled up feet during a race. Or you will lose your toenails.
The last hill climb was almost all fast walking (maybe ~10-15% running on flats and low inclines), but not because of my legs being tired, but because the pain in my left foot started to feel much worse and I was afraid that me pushing too hard up the hill may aggravate it even more and I was already past the middle of the course, so dropping out now would feel too embarrassing. And I knew that after the last large hill and a small peak at the end, there will be a 3 km downhill which I could use to gain some time. To help with the pain I started listening to music, focusing on breathing and the beat and blocking out the pain in the foot.
Lesson #2: Spend the last few days before the race off your feet (especially if you are not used to walking a lot).
Just as on my training runs, music helped a lot and by the time I have got to the top of the last hill (2:20) I felt energized again and ignoring the pain in my toes went downhill hoping to finish at around 2:40 (making it just a 15 minutes slower half-marathon result compared to my flat road half-marathon PR).
Unfortunately, after a few minutes of running I have noticed, that my core muscles (abs, muscles between the ribs) started cramping and at some point, I had to stop again and switch to a lower pace with walking breaks to keep the pain tolerable. I’m still not sure what happened there: either my core muscles just got tired from all the downhill running (I tend to tense a lot in my upper body when I’m going downhill fast) or maybe it was some kind of electrolyte imbalance issue, but it surely kept me from gaining time on the last downhill as I was planning to do.
About 15 minutes before the end of the race it was the time to take my next (last) gel, but being focused on the core muscles pain and yet feeling energized I have made another mistake (pretty common one as I found out later while talking to my friends): I have decided to skip the food and just push it towards the finish line. 10 minutes later I’ve hit The Wall for the first time in my life. I have suddenly started feeling twice as heavy, I could not get my heart rate down even by switching to walking, I did not have any power left to run.
Lesson #3: Stick to your feeding schedule during a run, even if it means taking your last food minutes to the finish line!
The last 5-10 minutes of the race felt like the longest run of my life. If not for the watch, I would easily believe it took me about 30-45 minutes to reach the finish line. Being so shocked by the feeling I didn’t even consider taking a gel at that point, though now I realize it most probably would have helped a lot.
Because of a slower descent and the bonk at the end, I have reached the finish line a bit later, yet still ahead of my 3-hour goal: my official finishing time is 2:51:23 and I’m still very proud of it!
I would like to thank my lovely wife for her constant support and my friends from Salomon Toronto running group for believing in me and constantly inspiring me to push my limits further than I have ever expected I could.
Special thanks to Endurance Tap guys who provided me with a batch of their delicious and very effective maple syrup based running gels which I used exclusively throughout the race and absolutely loved every single one of them (I actually had to hold myself back from taking another one until it was time, they are that delicious). I strongly support their campaign for bringing this product to market and hope they will reach their goal.
And, finally, I really hope the next year will bring even more experiences like this and I will keep surprising myself over and over again!
My name is Oleksiy and I am a Technical/Web Operations Engineer or just an “ops”. If described in a few words, our job is to make sure your favorite web sites are up and running 24×7, you can post a photo of your funny cat to Facebook at 2 am or follow your favorite celebrity on Twitter any time of the day. We literally are the operators of the web. As you can imagine, being on-call 24×7 (we have weekly rotation, but as a Head of Technical Operations I am always a level 2 on-call person) could be pretty stressful and I actually believe, that one of the pre-requisites for a successful career in technical operations is the ability to cope with this stress and still stay productive over time.
I have never been a “sports person”. Being a geek in school, I despised all physical education and sports activities. Now I realize that it was probably because no one told me that I could get better in sports if I was actually training and not suffering through it once or twice a week for half an hour. Anyways, sports “wasn’t for me”, I thought.
Another interesting fact about me is that I really love food (both, cooking and eating). I actually wanted to become a professional chef until I was about 12 or 14 and got introduced to computers. But even though I didn’t make a career in cooking, I still like to cook sometimes for my family and my love for eating great food just became stronger over the years as I got a chance to try more different cuisines and got access to fancier foods.
So, as you can see, I have got all the classical pre-requisites for being overweight: high-stress sedentary job, no physical activity, and a love for tasty (which, for me, was always an opposite of healthy) food. No surprise, that I slowly, but surely have been gaining weight since my college years (when I got married and had to start eating regularly) up until I have looked at my 29 years old self and noticed, that my weight just crossed the 275 lb (125 kg) mark.
Here is me at the peak of my weight:
One of the triggers for my decision to start doing something about my weight was an example of one of my co-workers, who started following a so called “slow-carb diet” and it actually produced some meaningful results. Surprisingly, I have never encountered a single person who has actually lost any reasonable amount of weight by following any diets. So, I have decided to take a look at the book by Tim Ferriss called The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, in which he talks about many different things and, among them, he describes the slow-carb diet. What I liked in that diet, was the fact that I didn’t need to give up fats and fatty proteins, which for me were always the main ingredients of almost any good meal.
I have decided to give this diet a try (and started doing some walking on a relatively regular basis) and, to my surprise, I have started seeing the weight numbers on my scale going down at a steady pace of 3-4 lbs per week. I did have a lot of excess fat and water in my body so now I understand it wasn’t that surprising, but back then it looked like a miracle
Fast forward 2 years and I found myself weighing around 235 lbs (105 kg), many sizes smaller (I had to buy all new clothes), but it looked like I have reached a plateau in my weight loss. For almost 6 months my weight (and my body composition) stayed almost exactly the same. It was getting frustrating and I started looking for a way to push through the plateau with some additional measures. This was a moment when, trying to cope with increasing stress levels caused by my wife’s pregnancy and upcoming (first) baby in our family, inspired by a few people in the community publicly sharing their running progress, I have decided to try running.
Treadmill to Road to Tails
First running experiments (on a treadmill in our gym) went pretty well and I have noticed, that I like the effects those runs had on my stress levels – every time I went for a run, I had an hour to think about something (mostly my work) but it was more like a meditative state, where I would not worry about issues, but reflect on them and look for ways to solve them. I liked it a lot!
Then, some day, after a discussion with my wife, I have decided to go buy new running shoes since my old gym trainers were too tight and caused pain after any run longer than 15-20 minutes. Not sure why, we went to a Salomon Toronto store. Considering that Salomon specializes on trail running and I was looking for road shoes, this may not have been the best idea, but I’m glad we went there. After a short consultation with the staff, I have tried on a pair of Salomon Sense Pro shoes, which at that moment felt like and have actually been the most comfortable running shoes I’ve ever worn in my life. So, I bought them and, before leaving the store, I picked up a flyer for an upcoming Summer Solstice Run (a series of multiple hour-long trail runs they do at the store during a summer solstice day) and found out about a running group at the store that does weekly trail runs every Wednesday.
After coming back home, I have decided to google “trail running” to find out what is it all about and if I may be interested in those weekly runs with the Salomon Toronto group. The first few results showed a bunch of happy people running in a park on a nice packed gravel road. “That I could definitely do!”, I thought and decided to go for a trial run on Wednesday so that I’d know if I should do the Summer Solstice Run on Saturday.
So, the next Wednesday I have put on my new “smurf blue” shoes and went to the store. A group of very friendly people greeted me to the group and we went for the run. 10 minutes after the start (I was already panting pretty hard since our pace was ~50% higher than what I was used to) we reached the Edwards Gardens park and to my surprise we didn’t start running on a nice park road, but turned off the road and went into the bushes on a pretty technical single track trail, going uphill. Long story short, the only reason I survived that run was a shock at what I got myself into and a huge amount of support and encouragement from the group and especially from a Salomon ambassador Joshua Young who stayed with me through the whole run helping me with advice and pacing me through the hardest parts of that trail run. I’m not sure how long it was, but based on my observations and the time we have spent on that run, we have done around 12-15 km that day.
When I came back home that day, I looked like hell: dirty, tired, with black circles under my eyes… but when my wife asked if I want to go back the next week, I answered with no hesitation: “Hell, yes!”. This was the hardest thing (physically) I’ve done in my life and I was astonished at what my body was actually capable of.
Sadly, I didn’t get to participate in the Summer Solstice Run the next Saturday because I had a hard time walking for the next few days and was in no shape for a run.
Realizing My Love For Trail Running
Over the next 3 months, I have done a dozen runs with the Salomon Toronto running group and many more runs by myself. I would go out for a run anytime I had a chance and the only limiting factor in the amount of running I could do was my body: I was not ready for a rapid ramp-up in mileage and my body started protesting by throwing minor, but none the least painful and limiting injuries at me after each run. Yet slowly, but surely, I was improving and at some point, I have realized, that trail running has become one of a very small number of things in my life that I genuinely love doing.
The major thing that makes trail running so very different from road or treadmill running for me, is that when I run on a trail, almost 100% of my attention is focused on the process of running itself. It is not possible to worry about something else that running, it is not possible to doze off like one could easily do on a treadmill or long flat road – on a trail, you have to think about your next step or there is a huge chance you’ll soon be flying face forward down a hill. And this is exactly what I always needed to help me cope with the stress – a way to forget about everything and focus on a simple pleasure of moving through the beautiful natural landscape.
And the result of those runs on my weight? I have lost 15+ lbs (7 kg) in the last 4 months, became much more fit and have a finally reached that goal of 220 lbs (100 kg) I’ve set for myself 2 years ago!
And, what is much more important, I have now become a running ops – a better, stronger and much faster version of my old self!