It’s complicated. Yeah, it’s all right!

Despite it being off season, I went out for a long run on Saturday with a number of motivations. I ran because a good friend was the race director and I know he puts on fun events. I also wanted to support Born to Run, a new local running shop that advocates good form and footwear that supports good form. I ran in honor of the many friends racing the Ironman World Championship at Kona. If they’re racing an ultra, I should too, right? It was also some much needed alone time in the woods.

The title says it all about the race. On the first of three laps, I got horribly turned around, ran one part of the course three times and was happy just to find my way back to the start/finish. After looking carefully at the course map I started the second lap singing the Poi Dog Pondering tune, “Complicated”. The refrain was particularly appropriate: “I’m gonna get it right this time! I’m gonna get it right this time!”

At 10am, running alone in the woods I yelled a celebratory “BOOM!” My Kona friends were off. Nearing the end of the second lap, I realized that I again took a wrong turn, but wasn’t as lost as before. On the third and final loop, a guy who’d been volunteering jumped in and ran with me. After over 3 hours on my own, I was glad for some friendly company. Bob and I chatted our way through the final 10+ miles enjoying the fall sunshine streaming through the woods.

Finally reaching the finish line, I’d seen almost no one for the whole race outside of a handful of lost 10k racers and Bob. I started the day expecting nothing more than a fun, long run in the woods. Instead I got an adventure and my first 50k win. Seems like a proper tribute to my friends in Hawaii and an early birthday gift for me.

And that last lap? We got it right. I think. But I’m pretty sure by the end I’d run a few extra miles.

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Work On Form First

In 2002, after not running for years due to a knee injury, I was inspired to give it a try again. I walked into a reputable local running shop and they did what most shops did then and still do today. They had me run on a treadmill and took some high speed video from behind, much like what they’re doing in this video, though without the fancy angle measuring software.

Based on how they saw my ankles collapsing inward (pronation), they put me in one of the sturdiest motion control shoes on the market at the time and on top of them, they added a stiff plastic insole. Until I really started investigating proper form, this is what I ran in for thousands of training miles, many half marathons and even my first marathon.

When I started working on my form and actively making changes, curious things started to happen. First, in order not to heel strike, my stride length shortened. But even without letting my feet get way out in front, it was hard to NOT heel strike with the motion control shoe’s very thick, built up heel. At that point, I began a slow transition to shoes with less and less pronation support. I was on to something with the lighter shoes, but not precisely the right variable.

Second, the lateral sides of my feet started getting sore and soon after, I noticed the lateral edges of my shoes soles were showing more than the usual wear. Why? The motion control shoe plus orthodic liner was preventing my feet from pronating, but with the changes in form, they were actually over compensating. That’s right, fixing my form solved the pronation and the added structure in the shoe caused me to run on the outside edges! Running with better form in the burly shoes was starting to cause injury.

Given my experience since that first visit to a running store, I now see a glaring question here that’s begging to be asked. If careful observation and analysis show that there is some pathological issue with one’s stride, shouldn’t the stride be changed before adding structural elements like thick EVA foam or posting?

Let’s go back to that video for a moment. They called it a gait analysis, but can you see anything interesting about the runner’s gait in the first video? Can you see anything at all about how they’re running? Yes, we get a clear view of how their ankles move and some angles between the ground and legs, but is there anything here that shows why? We can’t see how they interact with the ground almost at all and we can’t really see much about the motion in between. Most motion in running is in a front to back plane and viewed from behind, we miss all of that.

Compare that view to this runner viewed from the side. It’s taken in poor light, but it’s slow motion and clear enough to notice some very important things. Right away, we can immediately see some form issues that this runner could work on. Without getting into too much detail, this runner is overstriding and therefore heel striking. Then as a result, there’s quite a bit of downward motion to absorb the impact and he pushes off with his toes to drive him both up and forward. No matter what shoe he’s wearing, he has some form issues to fix.

Nine years after I bought bought that first pair of shoes, the rear view gait analysis is still the common practice in most running shops. It’s time for that to change.

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Running Role Models

In most any sport, improvement comes from two areas: technique and fitness. It was about three years ago that I realized that technique was probably the larger issue holding me back in running. Despite having run cross country as a kid, I’d never actually been coached on how to run, only what sorts of workouts to do. Without a better place to start, I began watching really good runners. Being mostly a distance guy, video clips of athletes like Anton Krupicka, Dean Karnazes, Scott Jurek and Heather Fuhr are really inspiring, and so is seeing seeing local PNW runners like Uli Steidl and Miguel Galeana at area events.

Caitlin Snow

Caitlin Snow shows just what small, quick steps can do.

More recently, in June I volunteered at Ironman Coeur d’Alene and Reid and I had a good time watching the run. Two pros stood out because they looked effortless at crazy speeds, Craig Alexander and Caitlin Snow. Julie Dibens was the opposite. Her gait was not smooth and she looked like she was suffering. Interesting too that Snow’s run split was nearly 24 minutes faster and almost down to the magic 3 hour mark. Dibins clearly won the race on the strength of her bike and despite her run.

So there are lots of people out there with good form, but there are a couple of problems trying to learn from them indirectly like this. They’re fast so it’s hard to see them for more than a few seconds at a time. Unless you’re stalking them on the course with a high speed camera, it’s hard to actually come away with interesting facts about their form other than “smooth” and “wow”.

Craig Alexander

Craig Alexander heading out on lap two. He looked this comfortable all the way to the line.

Even so, as soon as I started carefully watching these people, a couple of patterns were clear. They ran with little vertical motion in their upper bodies and they were not heel striking. My own form was quite the opposite so I figured I needed to stop hitting the ground with my heels and I needed to minimize bouncing up and down on every stride.

That’s not a bad place to start, but how to accomplish this? At first, it was trial and error. When I got frustrated, I made up excuses like “Those people run so fast they’re almost sprinting so it has to be a different technique. When they run slow, their form is probably not far from mine”.

Of course that can’t be true. The fastest times at Western States are just over 15 hours. That works out to an average of a little over 9 minutes per mile. Fast pace and very impressive for 100 miles, but that’s still a slow running pace. What’s the trick to running smoothly and efficiently at any pace? Sure, Anton Krupicka can run sub-6 miles comfortably, but he’s clearly running at a wide range of speeds during an ultra.

Despite the frustrations, I was able to somewhat reducing vertical motion in my stride and lessen my tendency to heel strike. Along with these form changes, my race times dropped and I ran those faster times on lower heart rates and felt better afterward. Ultra-distance running started to seem possible and even fun, but I still didn’t feel like I had even the beginnings of truly efficient running form figured out.

In the end it turned out my observations were right, but they weren’t the key problems to solve, only symptoms.

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Curves Ahead

Friday was the last night of track racing season at the Marymoor Velodrome. With no more big events on the calendar, off season officially begins today. The timing is a little coincidental but it’s good too. I’d hoped to be racing this past weekend at the 70.3 World Championships, being held the new Henderson, NV location. That didn’t work out this year so I was cheering for a few friends from afar.

Attacking in the points race

A surprise attack intended to lead out a team mate turned into a 10 lap solo break, nearly to the finish line.


But really, the timing is perfect and in some ways, my off season actually started after the Sylvania Triathlon. Not that I really race for anything other than fun, but after that event, I had no more racing goals for the year that I can take any action on. From now until the next training cycle starts, it’s all about fun, family and finding balance. But what is that balance going to be?

The next couple of months are going to be interesting. Last Tuesday, Reid started first grade at the local public school. Wednesday, Elsa went back to the Montessori preschool. Since they both start school at the same time every day, we’re still trying to figure out school transportation. Sara is trying to set a regular workout schedule. And after all of the work craziness over the past year, I’m finally settling into a new job. So that is the real goal for the fall: find a routine that works for everyone.

Training for me will probably start again in November. How will that fit in? It’s unclear. My job is now so close to home that commuting hardly counts as training, at least on the bike. I’ve got some ideas about what I might do but it depends on how the rest of the family schedule works out.

I’m also looking forward to some off season activities. I have some endurance sport related things in the works, from a running coaching clinic and some “for fun” events, maybe an Olympic distance triathlon and a 50k trail run. I’ve also got a long list of things to do around the house, and I’m hoping another nice weekend or two will provide an opportunity to spend some time with the family in the mountains.

I haven’t really mentally taken any time off of training in a couple of years and so far, this feels great. I’ll also admit that I’m already getting riled up about about some exciting things on the horizon, but for the next couple of months formal training is on hold.

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Sylvania Triathlon

[A little belated, but like my actual participation in this event, better now than never.]

In the past, I’ve not been much of a short course racer. I’m kind of a long distance guy by nature and it shows in my race history: I’ve done over twice as many long course races. So the Sylvania Triathlon was not what I’m used to in many ways. But it was tons of fun.

The swim was warm, officially 80 degrees F. The air was cool and a light drizzle kept it chilly while waiting for my wave to start, but finally jumping into Olander Lake for a few strokes before my 8am start time felt balmy. Men ages 39 and under made up the last wave. The canon fired and we were off, chasing the rest of the racers on the course. The swim was fast and smooth with no waves on the small lake. I made quick progress jumping from group to group as I passed the other racers by the dozen. First the yellow caps of the women, then some gold caps of the 40 and older men, and finally started catching some collegiate racers in blue. On the long run on the beach to T1, I passed my Aunt Amanda. I didn’t know what my swim time was yet, but I felt like I’d done well and she must have too if I hadn’t passed her in the water. I was right on both accounts. My official time was 24:01, but with the long run to the transition entrance and timing mat, my actually in-water time had to be about 30 seconds less. I’d have been happy with the 24:01 and I’m VERY happy that I was solidly under it for the actual time in-water.

In T1 I forgot to take off my swim skin and didn’t realize it until nearly the exit, then had to double back and and drop it at my station. Oops. Still came through in 1:26. Not too bad but maybe otherwise would have been sub-1?

Leaving transition it was starting to rain harder and the first half of the bike was right into the oncoming storm. I quickly settled in to my target watts and tried to enjoy the warm rain. The roads were full of racers and for the first two thirds, I was passing people every few seconds. This was not fun. Many riders weren’t following the rules of racing: stay right except for passing. It’s not legal to pass on the right or cross the yellow center line, so I found myself shouting at folks to move over as I approached from behind. On the long stretch back toward town, the rain was really hard. Between the rain and having the wind at my back it was hard to keep the watts up, but the pace was certainly ok. Off the bike in 1:05:41, a minute or two slower than I’d hoped, but I’ll take it given the conditions.

Hopping off the bike I quickly re-racked and pulled on my shoes and socks, grabbed my watch and race number and took off. Nearing the exit my salt dispenser fell off my belt and I had to double back and grab it, then crossed the exit mat in 1:13. Ugh, problems in both transitions.

The run was mostly uneventful. I put in a solid effort but the roads were slick from the rain. I could feel some slipping on every step and it’s possible that I just didn’t have the right shoes for the conditions. I was still passing people basically the whole time, weaving through the crowds in places and was never passed myself. Despite the slower conditions I still managed to run under 40 minutes, clocking a 39:54 10k.

Overall the day was a success. My top level goals were to run under 40 minutes and qualify for USAT Nationals. Both of those have been accomplished. My next goal was to swim under 24 minutes. I’m calling that one a success too. I didn’t make my final goal, which was to finish in under 2:10, but I’ll take the 2:12:13 given the conditions, both weather and racing traffic.

Given that my family lives so close by, it’s a reasonable bet that I’ll be racing there again sometime soon.

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Pacing at the Cascade Crest 100

Ever since last year when I paced a 14 mile stretch through the middle of the night, I knew I’d have to come back and see Glen through to the finish line. Once again I started at the Hyak/Gold Creek aid station at mile 53 as it’s a convenient access point to an otherwise very remote course. So at about 9:45pm Saturday night Sara dropped me off and I sat down to wait for Glen to arrive. By 11:45pm we were heading out under clear skies and a new moon.

The following afternoon, Glen completed his fifth Cascade Crest 100 in as many years. Although things did not all go as planned, we both had a good time. I’d intended to go all the way to the finish line, but after many miles of technical descending, my left foot told me quite clearly to stop. Despite stopping 4 miles short, I had tons of fun and accomplished what I set out to: I pushed Glen through the night and on the climbs. I’d like to think I provided a little motivation to pick up the pace on some sections where it can really make a difference, particularly those climbs. And I covered 12 miles more than I’ve ever run before on a beautiful day in the Cascades. Win all around.

The day was also a real learning experience for me since I’m a somewhat experienced distance racer, but a rather inexperienced ultrarunner with only one previous run longer than a marathon. Here are some notes from the day:

  • I’m still a really bad technical trail descender. I spent a lot of time this spring learning to run downhill efficiently on roads in preparation for Yakima River Canyon, but this was not anywhere close to sufficient for the CC100. I frequently found myself wishing for skis, the proper way to descend mountains.
  • Nutrition/hydration experience from long course and ultra distance triathlon transferred very well. I’m pretty sure that my careful control over calorie and water intake helped me manage the heat and I was never low on energy.
  • On a long run, sometimes little things make a big difference in comfort. At one aid station one woman pulled a toothbrush out of her drop bag. At that moment, I’d have done about anything for a toothbrush. I’m gonna use that one.
  • Running in the wilderness at daybreak on a trail marked by glowsticks was gorgeous and Zen-like. It looked like a place inhabited by magical creatures. Or Ewoks.
  • Braces and ultrarunning don’t mix. The inside of my mouth is raw from the constant motion and abrasion.
  • I took a big risk and wore road racing flats. I did this primarily because I’ve never had a blister in these shoes and they’re light. It worked. Even after 43 miles and splashing through streams, no blisters. But the light shoes with no support certainly made the descending even harder and it probably had something to do with my foot finally protesting.
  • Ultramarathon aid stations are awesome. Some highlights: bacon, grilled cheese sandwiches, potato leek soup. Frozen towels.
  • Ultrarunners are awesome. It’s so amazing to be on the course with such a diverse set of people in every respect, but be united by the fact that we’re all out just having tons and tons of fun doing something we love. It’s like the Ironman scene, but so much less competitive and very low key.
  • Running, hiking, camping or climbing: after ten years of living here I’m still totally in love with the Cascades.
  • Running through the alpine meadows was amazing, both for the inherent beauty and just to see the state of things this year. With the massive snowpack and late melt out, it looks like early July up there. Two weeks until wildflower season?
  • Saw cougar and goat tracks, cougar and bear scat, but not any big animals themselves.
  • That 43 mile stretch was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. To everyone who competed: I’m in awe.

So when am I going to run a 100 mile race myself? I don’t know, but probably not soon. Maybe in 2-3 years, although I probably won’t start with Cascade Crest. Charlie puts on an amazing event and I’ll have to do it sometime, but for now I’ll just continue to support friends there or maybe volunteer.

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Never Too Late

Summer is my least favorite time to visit Ohio. It’s hot, humid and there are lots of mosquitoes. We generally would rather not travel there this time of year but for the foreseeable future, that’s probably when we’re going to be visiting. With Reid starting first grade in just a few weeks, our family is about to be locked into the maniacal September to June school year. But I’m not even going to get started on all the things that are wrong with the traditional American school year…

Our family is about to make our annual pilgrimage east for 10 days. Don’t get me wrong, we’re all looking forward to it and will have a great time. Thankfully, the heat wave that’s been gripping the eastern half of the country has subsided and the weather forecast actually looks really nice. And it will be wonderful to see lots of family and close friends? This year will be especially nice with my sister and her family in town as well.

It also just so happened that we’ll be in the Toledo area when the annual Sylvania Triathlon is being held. It’s one of the longest running triathlons in the US, dating back to the early 1980s. This race has been in the back of my mind for a very long time.

When I was 12 and just getting into long distance cycling I was inspired by Greg LeMond. In the US in the late 80s, what kid with a with a bike wasn’t? I went to the library looking for a book about training for cycling and came home with the best thing I could find at the Maumee Branch, which turned out to be a book about triathlon. It was interesting, but not really what I was looking for. My thoughts at the time were something to the effect of, “Sounds amazing but who would want to run even the 10k for a short course race, let alone the marathon in an Ironman?”

That’s right, as a kid I was more put off by the running than the swimming. I wasn’t a competitive swimmer, but I was comfortable in the water and occasionally swam across some small lakes in Michigan for fun. But when I found out about the Sylvania Triathlon sometime when I was in high school, that 10k run kept me away. I stuck with my nice comfortable cycling and occasional swimming.

So over 20 years later I’m finally going back to do my hometown race.

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