Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book review: Hal Koerner's Field Guide to Ultrarunning

Hal Hoerner's Field Guide to Ultrarunning is what you would write if you had a beer with Hal, asked him to tell you everything a runner who is just getting into ultra marathons should know, and just listened and took dictation. The tone is conversational, approachable, heavy on anecdotes and substance but light on details. For example, you will find recommendations for speed work (hill repeats, tempo runs up to an hour duration, and fartleks are all recommended) and weights (light weight, lots of reps) are important, too. But you're not going to find VO2 max tables or detailed speed workouts here. This is not Lore of Running or Daniels's Running Formula - it is a casual, practical explainer of everything one would want to know before training for and toeing the line at their first ultramarathon. 

The relaxed vibe is the text's strength. Hal's matter-of-fact descriptions of topics and explainers what works and what doesn't sets out the basics with casual ease. For example, Hal himself idoes not follow any specific diet and is not burdened by any restrictions on his intake. His diet used to be burritos, bagels, and beer. He simply focuses on carbs before, during, and after runs. "If my meals aren't measuring up to my mileage, I know it from the first step, and this self-awareness helps me stay on top of deficiencies," he writes. As someone who credits his first 50 mile finish to a change in eating habits and has tried to run after eating something less-than-nutritionally optimal, I completely understand the statement. 

Should you get it? Yes. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

An actual injury - imbalanced pelvis

For several weeks - three or four, perhaps - I have had a nagging ache, very dull, on the back right side of my butt, perhaps in the pelvis area. It has been sore in runs and when bad, wraps around the outside of my pelvis and starts to radiate down the front of my right thigh. 

I took that concern, and a request for a follow-up on my right ankle post-Sawtooth, to my new family physician, Dr. Bill Roberts with the University of Minnesota. He's a family physician, but is focused on runners and is the team physician for Team USA-Minnesota, is the medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon, and also works with the Minnesota State High School League for their track and field events. So yeah, he gets runners and doesn't think I'm crazy. 

When I told him of my right-sided troubles, he said when someone has issues on one side of their body, he always looks to the pelvis first. And sure enough, the top of the rear of the right side of my pelvis is higher than the left. As a result, when I lay down one of my legs (right, IIRC) is appears shorter than the left, and it switches when I sit up. The difference is about the width of a thumb, and it was a little creepy when I was sitting there with my feet extended in front of me looking at how my left foot was closer to my chest than my right. 

It's also possible that the ankle sprain, or whatever it was, that happened at Sawtooth was actually a foot drop caused or exacerbated by inflammation on or around the nerves that run on the front right of my lower leg and control sensation to the fourth and fifth toes. In testing with some monofilament, essentially stiff fishing line, the tops and bottoms of my fourth and fifth toes had less sensation (with more sensation in the fourth than the fifth) than the sensation I had in the big, second, and third toes. 

The solution? A round of physical therapy, however many session the therapist thinks I need up to my referral limit (12), and Dr. Roberts was very optimistic that once this pelvic imbalance was taken care of, my other two issues would go away. I can still keep running as planned - 60 mpw this week and each of the next two weeks. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Test post; via email. 


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ankle sprain forces DNF from Superior 100

2014 Superior 100 photo album (captioned with mini race report)

Somewhere around 9 PM a few miles from the Finland aid station, my right ankle became weak and floppy. It hurt on the front of my ankle when I pointed my toes, and the strength to support my weight on that ankle was waning. I was all-but sure I had suffered a high ankle sprain. (If only because I had recently read the linked article).

We had been running very well. The section from County Road 6 to the next aid has some of the longest, flattest, gentlest sections on the entire course and we had run them hard. Everything was going well - food, fuel, salt, pace, everything. I do not recall any specific, acute trauma that did anything to that ankle - no fall, twisting, or misstep. All was normal, and then the pain showed up out of nowhere.

What to do now? We were 48 or so miles into the Superior 100, a rugged 103.3 trail race. It was three-or-so miles to the next aid station (Finland) at mile 51.2. I could still run on perfectly flat and gentle ground, but running on anything else was a no-go. So we marched on.

I had taken a misstep and rolled my left ankle on the Tuesday before the race. That left ankle was supported with a compression sleeve on race morning, and I had been wearing it since Wednesday AM. Together with my pacer, we resolved to get a medical evaluation at Finland, tape the ankle, and continue. Barring that, we would move the compression sleeve over. The left ankle had been giving me no troubles and so I was comfortable with that plan.

We rolled into Finland at 9:50 PM, the party in full swing. I sent my wife to find someone who could tape an ankle. The aid station did not have anyone. They also did not have any athletic tape. The only tape we had was Leukotape, which I use for blister prevention. It has no elasticity and was not something I wanted to tape an ankle with. I also couldn't carry the roll with me should I later change my mind between now and the next time I saw her in 11 miles - my pack was full and my pacer couldn't carry it either. And so we switched the sleeve over and kept rolling. We walked, gingerly, out of the rocky spur trail that had lead to the aid station. I chalked my uncomfortable footing up to the chill that I underwent after sitting in the aid station for 15 minutes eating, drinking, and determining what to do with my foot. I did have a fleece hat and two shirts on. Once we hit the dirt road off of the spurt trail that leads back to the main SHT trail, we were running. All was again perfect with the world.

To Sonju

It lasted about four miles. The section to Sonju is notoriously rough, and it beat my feet into submission during 2013's event. And so we walked and maintained a decent clip. I expected to slow down if only because of the terrain, and we did. Whether the pain returned because of the terrain or not, four miles in I was back to the weak ankle and cringe-inducing steps. Again, how to fix it? I sat down on a rotted-out stump and laced up my right shoe to the top pair of eyelets - those one you never, ever use - and tightened up the laces as taut as I could comfortably manage. The additional lacing through those top eyelets provided additional downward pressure to the front of my ankle and stabilized the whole joint. And we kept moving.

We pulled into Sonju aid station, mile 58.7 at approximately 1:20 PM. Larry Pederson and his daughter were there, as were several runners huddled around the fire. I asked for medical assistance with taping the ankle, and they did not have any. They also lacked tape. I asked for some ibuprofen. No dice (and was later glad they didn't have any).

"You can't drop here," Larry said. Best to keep going to Crosby, they'll likely have medical staff and supplies there because, well, it's Crosby, we agreed. It had taken us 24 minutes per mile to get here, although my brain calculated our pace closer to 20 minutes per mile. That faster pace was sustainable at a walk, and running the math out - remember, it's dangerous to do basic math during a 100 miler - it was also a finishable pace, Larry and I agreed.

To Crosby

And so we hoofed off at 1:24 AM. The 4.2 miles to Crosby is actually closer to 3.66 because you need to get out of the aid station (~0.2 miles) and then once you get to the gravel road, hike up that gentle grade into the aid station (~0.33 miles). It was an easy section. At my erroneous pace guess of 20 minutes per mile, even on my now-supported ankle, we were going to shoot for arriving at around 2:50 AM.

But just like the compression sleeve, the relieve the additional lacing provided did not last and within a mile or two I started to hobble on the ups and down. I shuffled down declines sideways with my feet perpendicular to the trail. When the pain returned my pacer and I concluded that I was not going to run another step. We determined that once we got to Crosby, we were going to get a medical evaluation. If it was safe to continue, i.e. I wasn't running the risk of a serious or permanent injury, we would tape up the ankle or do whatever else was necessary and keep going at our power hike pace. I would hike to Lutsen if necessary.

But the ankle only got worse with each step. By the time we hit the road, I was in a full-on limp on the flat and hard dirt. For a third time, we had reached the question: What to do now? I grimaced as we plodded up into the aid station. For the first time during the race, I did not run to meet my wife. I hobbled.

But there was no medical staff at Crosby. My wife asked the aid station workers for someone who could tape an ankle, and it got to Matt Patten - who was captaining party known as the aid station - who determined that he was going have to be the person, who despite a lack of medical training, upon whom the task would fall. He also lacked the medical supplies to complete the task.

Somehow, a crew member of another runner heard my plight and came over. Jen was a physical therapist and graciously agreed to examine my ankle. With my shoe, sock, and compression sleeve removed, she wrapped her hands around the base of my ankle and squeezed, putting pressure with a single fingertip.

"Does that hurt?" she asked.

I moaned, reared my head and thought I was going to cry. She moved her hands, and squeezed again.

I repeated my wincing, and announced to the world that I was going to throw up. The pain had sent me into shock.

You've definitely strained the ligaments on the outside of your ankle, she explained - likely by rolling it - and you likely pinched a ligament on inside of your ankle at the same time when it rolled. She could tape the ankle up and that would brace it very well, but she was unfamiliar with the Leukotape we had.

Now I have rolled ankles in the middle of races before. During the 2011 Superior 50K, I took a wrong step and a later fall rolled my left ankle. Obviously sprained, I could and did continue to run on it. I sprained the right ankle en route to finishing the Zumbro 100 in April 2012. But none of those affected my ability to maintain forward progress like this injury.

My wife asked the penultimate question. "Does he risk serious or permanent damage if he continues [with a taped-up ankle]?"

Well, she said in a tone that told me I wasn't going to like the news, you're risking a longer recovery from continuing. You're looking at eight to 10 weeks of recovery if you stop now, and longer of you damage it further. You could also tear the ligaments and risk immobilization, she said.

During the hike up and into Crosby, my pacer and also discussed the collateral effects of the sprain on other parts of the body. I would be compensating for the weakness and my gait was noticeably affected. It was all too easy to injure another body part as a result of my altered stride.;

I knew the trail that was coming next, too. I would need to descend over boulders into the Manitou River gorge and then hike up and out of the same. If something went wrong, I was toast and could need professional rescue. And other hard parts of the course remained - the Cross River and the hike up and down the hill prior to the Temperance River and then up to, around, and down Carlton Peak were primarily on my mind.

My pacer looked at me and all-but told me to turn in my number. You don't want to be out six, nine, 12 months because of this, he said. I knew he was right, and I told my crew, Jen, and Matt Patten that I was done. My wife removed my bib and took it to the radio operators and made sure I was properly DNF'd. I thanked Matt Patten, Jen, and sat there for a little while in warm clothes consuming soup and grill-fired pizza. I dragged my right foot as I walked to the car, dazed from the effort and what had just occurred.

Aftermath and evaluation

My injury-forced DNF has left me with an emotional emptiness, like a nagging Monday morning quarterback who has nothing critical to say about the prior day's performance. Just a shrug, a better-luck-next-time.

Why? Because everything went right on this race except that ankle, and everything continued to go well after the ankle injury (except of course the ankle). And even with the ankle injury, I still cannot point to a specific event which caused it. I did not fall, and none of my stumbles over roots or rocks were out of the ordinary. I do not remember rolling my ankle (which is why I thought it was initially a high ankle sprain caused by running down hill), or any specific point on the trail or event that was occurring when and where it first gave out.

So what did go well?


How often do you get three perfect days in a row on the North Shore? Almost never, that's when. The days lined up to be mostly sunny, temps in the mid 60's, lows in the low 50's/high 40's and a nice breeze. Zero rain was in the forecast, although we did get about five droplets hit us by a passing cloud en route to Sonju.

It did rain earlier in the week and so the trail was muddy in many spots, but that was manageable. I'd rather have water on the ground than it coming from the sky.


I went into the race planning on relying almost entirely on Clif blocks while taking a gel once per hour, salt tabs every 30 minutes, and taking two 225-calorie bars (made from this cookie recipe, which I have used in cookie form at prior ultras) at each aid station, and then consuming bananas, other fruit, HEED, Coke, ginger ale, and PB&J sandwiches at aid stations. My watch was set to a 10 minute timer so I could take a block, and everything was based off of that. My world was confined to 10 minute increments, and I had the timer field showing all the time on my watch. I only looked at the time elapsed (or the actual time) at aid stations, but never in between. I can do anything for 10 minutes.

In the end, I consumed 12 tubes of blocks (2,400 calories), four gels (400 calories), several bars, and other goodies at aid stations. I probably easily cleared 5,000 calories and felt great the entire time. When my brain did start to fritz out while walking to Sonju and then Crosby aid stations, I was easily able to recognize it, take a salt tab and get some calories in, and keep going.

Gels did not work so great because they were so sweet (I had a couple of ones from Clif), but they were a good pick-me-up when I knew I was low on sugar. Mix with some water and take it slowly and all was fine. As the race was progressing, my plan for them was to keep a couple on me to get me through any low-glucose-induced rough patches.

Fluids also went well, and was able to drink to thirst without worrying about draining my supply.


I went to New Balance 1010v2's for additional support and protection in this race. And they worked. My feet did not get pounded to a pulp, although I did end up jamming my big toe on my right foot and will lose the nail on my right big toe again. I don't think this is so much of a shoe issue as it is my own tendency to use that foot as my initial stepping-off foot, i.e. it bears the brunt of any contact. The shoes themselves also held up very well, and only one lug became partially detached my the aggressive trail. I'd wear them again.

Other issues with my feet I am chalking up to the loss of form caused by the ankle sprain. 


I planned to take the pace slow an comfortable. Apparently my reputation - earned or not - of blowing up in races precedes me, and there are a few people who have scrapped my butt out of an aid station and pushed me to the finish. I chalk most of these prior errors up to plain inexperience, and I was going change that rep at this race.

I hope I have. I arrived at Split Rock, mile 9.7, at approximately 10:10 AM. I had run with a group of people, the leader of which was taking the pace gently and making sure to walk and go slow over technical sections. The transition was quick, and later I shortly caught up with T.J. Jeannette as we walked out of the aid.

T.J. and I ran to Beaver Bay together, again, going nice and slowly. We let a few groups go and T.J. kindly let me lead. We pulled into Beaver Bay, strong and comfortable, at 12:30. The exchange was quick, and T.J. later caught up to me after I stopped to urinate. We hit the dirt road and he left me, but I kept going slowly.

Somewhere prior to Silver Bay Kevin Langton caught me and I told him we were going to hit Silver Bay at 1:45. I had been running 15 minute miles comfortably, and he gave me a Woo! as he passed. I hit Silver Bay right on time, 1:45 PM. I had passed Kevin during the transition, and he would later catch up to me just prior to the Drain Pipe in Tettegouche.

Next was Tettegouche, a 9.9 mile section. That 15-minute pace would mean 2.5 hours on a generally difficult section. I pulled into the aid station at 4:30 PM, a 2:45 split for 16.5 minute miles. I was pleased, as I was still running very well and not slowing noticeably on the flats or down. I still had plenty of legs on the ups.

I did forget to grab something solid to eat at Tettegouche, and by the time I realized it I had made sure I wolfed down half of a bar. The climb from Highway 1 past Tettegouche to Inspiration Point is slow and shallow, but it also is not runnable. I had my first bad patch here, and I fought through it with a gel and determination. I hit County Road 6 at 7:10 PM, again comfortably running everything runnable after I fought through the low spell. The section was done at about an 18:12 pace and I was in over 20 minutes ahead of where I had been been in the past. Of course things then went south after mile 48 en route to Finland with the ankle injury, but we did the next 7.7 miles in 2:20 (18:18 pace). Even after the ankle injury I was consistently moving at 24 minutes per mile for 12 miles.

Had it not been for the ankle injury, I have no doubt that I would have finished.

Could I have finished, and if so, what would it have required?

I doubt it. Looking back, it would have required the ankle to be evaluated and taped at Finland. I could have also taped it myself at Finland. I also think poles would have helped, although I made the conscious decision while packing for this year's race not to bring them because I felt I had relied on them too much with too little gain at last year's event. And even then, it was a big unknown.

What's next?

Very simple. Recover, and recover well. Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. I'll be back next year.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Superior cometh

In 10 days, the wheels roll north to Two Harbors and then Lutsen for Superior for my favorite running weekend of the year.

I am ready, despite my YTD mileage - which will be ~625 since May 1 as of race morning, which includes a pitiful June - being a good 150-175 miles short of where I would like it to be. But the long runs have given me confidence. I ran a solid slow-and-easy pair of loops at Afton ten days ago, coming in at 3:01 and 3:09 for a 6:10 solo 50K. Together with my 5:27 50K race at Afton, I have had 11 solid long runs this summer time, including one six-hour, 20-mile jaunt in the mountains of Breckridge, CO (Main Street elevation of 9,600', with peaks just under 13K).

I am changing up a couple of things from last year's race to better ensure a finish in these fickle things known as 100 milers. First, I am switching up my fueling to increase my caloric intake to something closer to a semi-arbitrary 300 calories per hour. I know that 200 calories of gels per hour, plus aid stations, is insufficient. And my stomach bailed on gels at Afton in the heat somewhere around mile 20, and so that gives me pause to not rely on them entirely. The plan will be to move to Clif Blocks, one every 10 minutes on a timer with gels taken every hour on the half-hour. Timing the gels will be easy because when there are three and zero blocks left in their six-pack tube, a gel goes in. That will get me to 300 calories per hour right there (blocks are 33 calories each; gels are 90-100), and that plus real food at aid stations with something to take with will put as much hay in the barn as possible on race day.

Second, I went to a beefier shoe after my feet were beaten into submission last year. As much as I love the New Balance 110's, they are really a racing flat designed for less rugged courses and shorter races. Although NB is re-tooling them into the 110v2's (and curiously NB has them listed on their website as "cushioning" shoes...), I went with the 1010v2's earlier in the year and have run all but one of my trail runs in them. Preliminary results are that there is a lot of cushioning and room to stretch as feel swell, and the the tread is designed to tackle most anything. My feet have not been sore after any of my long runs (only Afton and Breckridge had any real gnarliness to them - running at Elm Creek is more of a 10-mile track loop on compacted dirt with no hills steep enough to require a walk), and so I am confident in my ability to keep the soles of my feet intact to Lutsen. The race will hurt, no doubt - there are gaps in the lugs where something could hit my arch or the rockplate hard - but the suffered will be greatly minimized.

Third, my entire family is coming. This will exponentially increase the experience level of my crew, as my wife will he acting as Field Marshall to make things go smoothly. This will be her first time at Superior since 2009, my first ill-fated, inexperienced attempt at a 50 miler. My parents are coming up to watch the little guy, and one of my wife's best friends is coming to keep her company in the woods during this mad excursion. Pacing me on the overnight is a partner at my wife's office, a 3:05 marathoner who has run with me several times, is very talkative and easy going, and will be good company through the overnight. He is more than stoked to be pulling that shift, and was blown away simply by running a loop with me at Afton. Superior is on another level my friend - prepare to be amazed.

Fourth, this is my third go-around at this race while I seek a second buckle (and a new sweatshirt!). I know the trail well and am determined to play the experienced racer. I will go out calm and cool, keeping a steady pace throughout Friday while managing the afternoon heat for the first third, running as smoothly through the overnight for the second third, and pouring on the gas to push through the sunrise and on to Lutsen for the final third of the race. I'll minimize my time in aid stations to keep the downtime to a minimum. Mentally, I am much stronger and ready to grunt myself to the finish ahead of cutoffs, damn the time, than I have been in the past.

The goal? As always, I want to finish above all else. I would love to run 32-34 hours, and anything less than 30 hours would juts be amazing. I believe I am capable of such a time, but everything has to go right, weather included. Cool and calm, overcast, and a warm night. Come into Finland at about 10 PM and just hammer the overnight while not flagging dramatically in the morning. But I'd like to finish, to cheer and whoop and holler across the timing strips, the cathartic release palpable to all present. I'd take that.