"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The other depression

Many of you know that I've had a Major Depressive Disorder since my first memories. It was last particularly bad in 2014 - emergency rooms were involved - and then got continuously better. I recall thinking, every 6 weeks like clockwork, "this is so much better than 6 weeks ago." Things plateaued after about a year and I thought "so this is how everyone else feels all the time." I had no reference point, never having not been depressed. As it happens, I had clawed my way up to what most people would consider the worst depression they've ever experienced.

Imagine being attacked by a bear. You play dead, hoping it goes away. As you slowly bleed to death, you just might think "This is so much better than a minute ago." That's where I was, except I was dealing with a polar bear, which starts to eat you when you play dead. The standard PHQ-9 scale meant nothing; I was off the chart - this was a different animal. Able to function somewhat, I had been tricked by this most wily of adversaries into thinking it had gone away. This is the depression you don't talk about, the one with its own personality, the one actively trying to do you the most harm possible; if you talk about this one, you get anti-psychotic drugs, which make the bear harder to fight.

I realize that, just as I had no reference for normalcy, no one else has a reference for this type of depression. Decades ago, a well-meaning woman who had some say in what I was doing, had me make a list of things, maybe 10 per day, for which I was grateful and to add to it each day. After a month, she asked to see the list and this is what I had:
1) I'm grateful no one else feels this way.

She refused to believe that I had really tried to find things for which to be grateful. There was a 1500 lb. bear in the room she refused to believe existed.

The bear's back. I'm fighting like hell. I've fought for 50 years and I'm not backing down.

and I'm going to win.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

2017 Afton Trail Run 50K Race Report

[warning: not suitable for reading while dining]

"You haven’t tried hard enough to like it
Haven’t seen enough of this world yet
But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts
Well stop your whining, try again" - Car Seat Headrest, "Fill in the Blanks"

I awoke early the morning of Afton, too early, and watched the episode of "The Great British Bake-Off" that I'd skipped to go to bed early and then read 20 pages of "Infinite Jest" to finally reach the half-way mark. It was already 65 degrees, but looked to be one of the best days for weather that Afton has had - in fact, it was still only 71 when I finished and it was cool enough for the women's record to be obliterated. As I drove to the race, 89.3 The Current was playing their library alphabetically, so I had "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," "Dance Yrself Clean," "Dancehall Domine," "Dancing Choose," "Dancing With Myself" and "Danger! High Voltage" cranked to ear-bleed volume and there may have been some limbering up via car-dancing involved. I reviewed my goals: finish, don't fall, don't get dehydrated, do better than at Chippewa.

As I picked up my number, I did the rounds through the crowd and parking lots, saying hi to people who generally asked where my volunteer assignment was: it was 2009 when I last finished this race, after all. My cousin Keith told me his dad his doing quite well at 99(!) years old, several people made jokes about the number of times I've "retired" from racing and I came to realize that I'm sort of a fixture on the circuit, but unknown to those contending for awards, as I've been graduated from contender to historical figure. Robyn Reed asked if I ever use a heart rate monitor and I showed her that I was wearing one, that it was useful to keep me from going out too hard at the start... in theory. I told Tim Owata and some guy whose name I didn't catch a story about a desperate thing I did at a race once and the guy said "I am going to tell that story to everyone I meet for the rest of my life." I can spin a good yarn. I took off my shirt, feeling it better to be a bit cool at the start, and tied it to the leg of a picnic table.

The gun goes off and I'm headed down the first slope about 3 minutes per mile slower than feels right for the start of a race. People are asking questions about the course as we go past the corner where I've been volunteering for the past decade and which is manned by John Horns, who could've won our age class here, had he not just run the Western States 100 Mile in 23 hours. Then we head up to the prairie and I glance at my heart rate - 155 on flat ground when I know I can handle 147 for 5 hours [I ended up averaging 146 for the race], proving once again that I know what I should do, but don't do it.

We drop down to the "Back 40" loop, which is uneventful, except for some muddy areas that I know will be churned much worse by the second loop. I'm hoping to keep my new shoes relatively dry, without success. Skipping the first two aid stations, I've gained ground on a lot of people.

Back up on the prairie, I start passing gas. Continuously. In unprecedented amounts. And then it becomes not just gas. I need a port-a-potty. I figure I can last until the next aid station, where there should be one - or at least the outhouse by the beach. The aid station is set up to prevent one from crossing, and there's nowhere to go. I refill my water bottle and head off trying to remember where the next latrine is. 100 yards later, it no longer matters; I'm in the bushes, squatting.

Back on the course, I'm hoping to put that embarrassing incident behind me. I start trading places with people I'll be seeing for most of the race, 69 year-old phenom Gene Dykes, Jacob Pittman (though he was more 2nd loop than first) and Brenna Bray (who ran downhills impressively fast). I'm still at too high a heart rate and playing the mind game of "Maybe I had the numbers wrong. Maybe I am in better shape than I thought." Then my bowels make their presence known again. Ar aid station 5, I hear people I know (Al Holtz among them) cheering for me, though I can't see them - something about the white gravel road and the sun behind them makes me blind to everything more than a yard away. I've refilled my water bottle and am heading for the Snowshoe Loop when I realize I should've detoured to the bathrooms at the group campsite. I'm back in the bushes, wondering what I ate that's trying to kill me and hoping I'm empty. My urine's only a small amount, so dark as to look rhabdomyolitic tea brown, though I know that's not the case. I must be dehydrated, but from diarrhea, or maybe it's just that that's where the fluid's going that should be urine. I'm confused - tired confused - so I decide to just run by feel.

The snowshoe loop proves much easier to run than usual for me. When I hear people behind me, I speed up to do the technical bits at leisure and out of sight of those who will wonder how to run them; some things become ingrained when you've raced for 40 years. The hill out of the snowshoe loop - the last hill - is also easier than expected. There's a logjam of runners at the half-way mark, where people have drop bags and I plow through, skipping the aid station again. I hit the half-way mark in 2:31:57, so slowing 2 minutes per mile would still get me a personal best on the course (where I've never done well). I know I've gone out too fast. I intentionally slow way down. Those I dropped at the half-way point catch up to me, Jacob on the first hill, Brenna on the prairie. Brenna and I introduce ourselves, find out we have some people in common... and I see my heart rate has climbed to 166; dehydration can do that, I recall. I let her go and she says I'll catch her in 10 minutes, as I have all day, but I know it's the end of that phase of the race.

Heading back down to the Back 40, my legs are showing the first signs of fatigue. At the aid station, Doug Kleemeier asks if I want anything to eat and I decline; the truth was I was afraid anything I ate would shoot straight through me. I ran straight through the Back 40 mud holes, getting filthy. The next miles were uneventful and then at 21.5 miles... back into the bushes. This time, I'm off the trail seemingly forever. It's no longer a race of any sort, just holding together for a finish. Ann Heaslett catches me and asks how I'm doing; when I reluctantly tell her, she asks if I want anti-diarrheal medication she's carrying. "I AM a doctor, you know." I refuse, expecting I must be empty by now and wondering just how many medications she's carrying, where she keeps them and whether any other physician would be so equipped. It's a nice distraction,actually.

Nevertheless, he persisted.

The last third of the race was a 13 minute per mile slog, rather than the 19 per mile death march of Chippewa and I'm feeling better. My legs are starting to creak at the knees and hips, I start hunching over a bit on climbs, my toes are jamming into the end of my shoes so I'm scrunching them on downhills. Problems snowball, as they are wont to do. I'm getting passed more and more frequently. With 2 miles to go, Sam Carlson catches me and I can hear Shannon Lindgren call my name. Shannon went by on the last hill, looking fresh and unspattered by mud, which had me wonder if she wasn't in the race - Dan LaPlante and Jamie Mariel, for example, were out there running as spectators - and I later heard that her hydration bladder had leaked, which would've washed off the mud! Usually, I try to put on a show and kick at the end, but there was no reason to and I wasn't feeling it.

Andy Sandor finished a few minutes behind me and Mike Scandrett got his 15th (!) finish a few minutes after that. Someone had stolen my shirt. I debated how long I could talk to people before heading back to the port-a-potties and knew I couldn't stay for the picnic, fearing nothing would stay inside. I got in the car, saw Janette Maas, who'd dropped, and Brenna, who'd been done for half an hour and Gene who'd been in for an hour already, and drove home, content to have finished in 5:53:29.

My schedule for training for the Superior 100 Mile had a back-to-back long run planned for Sunday, after all.

One of Shannon's obligatory selfies.

Mud, medal and finish time.

Update: It's the xylitol in the HEED that did me in.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Early Panic Numbers Post

Five days until the Afton 50K trail race... Early this year, I felt 5:00 was likely, though I've never done well there (5:28 I think is my best). Now 6:00 seems likely, which is still an improvement over the Chippewa Moraine 50K debacle of 7:00.

I got to wondering what Afton times signify for the Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile, which I'm doing this year. Most people who ran both in the same year finished Afton between 6:30 and 7:00, which surprised me a bit. There's enough data to find that: finishing Afton in 7:00 gives a slightly better than 50% chance of finishing Superior in 38:00 (the cut-off). 6:00 improves the odds to 6 out of 7. 5:30 gives 14/15 and 5:00 gives 38/39.

That's the chances of not timing out, however. The overall finish rate hovers around 66% at Superior (75% in perfect weather), because most people who drop do not drop because they miss cut-offs.

Finishing Afton does not increase the odds of finishing Superior.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Political Think Piece

Time to talk politics for the first time in 10 years of this blog. There's not a single hard fact in this post.

With the ends of the political spectrum spewing bile at each other, it's difficult to try to see things from the opposite viewpoint to one's own. I'm a liberal; I hadn't even heard of Breitbart, much less read anything there, until 2016, though conservative friends would sometimes ask me about things that they were getting from news sources I ignored - remember "Jade Helm," the military exercise that was supposed to install martial law to take away weapons? [If you're a liberal, you may be asking "WHAT?!" as I did] When it didn't happen, the conservatives congratulated themselves on stopping it, though it wasn't real. In the mean time, sales at gun shops skyrocketed and the temporary ammunition shortages that that caused fueled the crazies who said "See, it's happening!"

It's apparent that most liberals - and certainly Hillary Clinton - have no idea why Trump won the last election, claiming fraud or xenophobic "bag of deplorables." I think I see things clearly now, though I may be wrong. I believe it's simply a matter of a generation seeing that they are not doing as well as their parents and certainly not as well as they hoped and seeing even less hope for their children. The problem is that rural problems are being framed in urban terms.


We in the cities think we know what poverty looks like: we've seen panhandlers. You don't see that in rural areas, because it wouldn't make sense. There you have people forced to sell homes and move into cheaper mobile homes where there are no trailer parks, but there are hook-ups in Wal-Marts. People are walking the aisles in the stores all night to stay warm. People are buying (I hear) heated dog kennels for their children to sleep in when the heat's been cut off. You may see "People of Wal-Mart" and laugh at the people you see, but they're doing the best they can under the circumstances. You're mocking people for being poor (and shame on you). The same goes for the "Fixed It!" posts where someone has jerryrigged things haphazardly with what was available - when you have no money to do it right, you do it somehow. Again, stop mocking the poor.

I've never bought anything at a Wal-Mart because I despised their business model of: moving into an area, selling at below cost to drive out the competition (absorbing the loss among thousands of profitable stores), forcing those who used to run their own businesses to work for them, and then jacking up the prices when they had a monopoly in the area. They then often closed stores, forcing people to go to a different Wal-Mart further away. Not trying to save a dime here and there by shopping at Wal-Mart seemed the way to stop them. The thing is: when you're down to your last dollar, saving that dime becomes very important. You cause a bigger problem down the line because you need to live through this moment before you can think of the future.


There are places where the number of people health insurance went from 10% to almost 90% and these places often overwhelmingly voted for trump. They didn't buy insurance because they couldn't afford it and now have it because they must; though the cost drops from (say) $800 per month to $200, that's $200 they can't save or need for other things. This discount is seen as an unwanted government handout. Add to this that it was declared a tax by the SCOTUS and it's seen even less favorably.

What's worse, people are paying for something they're not using - men are notorious for not going to doctors. If you're rural, the nearest doctor may not be convenient; anything not routine sends one to the one hospital in the county and often to the nearest sizable city. I can see men saying, "I feel fine and I'm told my blood pressure is high, my blood sugar is high and my cholesterol is high. They want me to start taking three medicines I can't afford and are telling me to exercise, change my diet and stop drinking and I don't want someone telling me how to run my life."

Acute problems become chronic problems and when chronic problems again become acute, they become emergencies. After a trip to the emergency room, there's a prescription for opioid. Then starts a new chronic problem.

Substance abuse and suicide

The rates of opioid addiction continue to rise throughout the population, regardless of income, location or age. The rates of suicide and overdose among rural white men is exploding. The rate of death from alcohol-related reasons is skyrocketing among rural white women; they're killing themselves, but more slowly. The despair in rural communities is almost palpable.

Corporate farms and agribusiness

Because of the economy of scale, family farms are dying and replaced with corporate farms. Fewer people are needed to farm, but there are few other jobs in rural areas. It's been shown that a dollar spent in a small town recirculates ten times before leaving the area. Money made by a corporate farm leaves immediately. Money earned by those who work there most likely goes online to Amazon or to chains like Wal-Mart.

Small towns are dying. A good measure of health is the presence of a high school; consolidation removes local identity - and you need young people to keep a town going. Slightly larger towns centered in agribusiness - turkeys in Worthington and vegetables in LeSueur, for example - are growing, but the population increase is from immigrants. There are no longer high-paying unskilled jobs, as was once seen in the automobile industry, but these low-paying jobs are being taken by those for whom it is a step up, rather than a step down. Perhaps what's seen as xenophobia is the belief that, if those taking the low-paying jobs unionized or demanded higher wages, then opportunities would open for others (though I assume the typical isolation by language and culture are involved).

The jobs that are available in cities are skilled. It's cheaper for a business to have people pay to go to school for their training than to train them themselves, so people go into debt to get training for a job they might not get and which will not last and is not transferable. The common alternative is to join the military, which trains one for nothing useful in civilian life and causes one to return to the same condition, only older and less likely to be hired; deaths of former military by handgun are almost epidemic.

Success at the cost of one's soul

There are some towns that have had great success due to tourism. The classic example in Minnesota is Lanesboro, which I loved in 1980 as a sleepy town of quaint buildings by a river. Having whitewater brought tourism, which brought money, which brought businesses catering to tourists and redesign for tourists (the bike paths are excellent now). Rents went up, so older businesses closed. Congestion during summer weekends kept locals from their hangouts. "No Trespassing" signs erupted everywhere. Like gentrification of industrial areas in large cities, these tourist meccas have a boom and a bust. As Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded." When the tourists dislike the crowding, they find new places and leave the boom town less able to survive than previously.

God, Guns and The GOP

What do we as "big city liberals" do to change the situation? We have to visit small towns. Many small towns have a yearly festival; last year I went to several that had a race to run and people were interested in why I visited - oddly, none suggested what one should see or do there. Hunting will give reason to visit, something you can't do in the city and a sign that you're not a "take our guns away liberal."

Buy the local newspaper, use it to find out what there is to do there and do it. Find out what the important issues are, what the local angle is, how much right-wing propaganda has filtered into the opinions.

Attend the local church. Conservative churches, especially the charismatic ones, bother me, but it's a good place to be welcomed, usually over cheap coffee. The church tends to reflect and reinforce the local views; going in as a liberal and a Christian, you can gradually nudge messages toward greater mercy, acceptance, tolerance and forgiveness.

Consider what you could bring to the area. One of my favorite stories is of the Californian who opened his Vinegar Museum in Roslyn, SD because of the low costs. An openly gay black Buddhist, he was overwhelmingly welcomed, as he'd been the first to move there and first to open a business in at least a decade. Of course, I know of opposite stories as well, including a lesbian couple whose house was set on fire by their neighbor when they moved to the country.

If nothing else, bring food you love. More than anything else, I find people in rural areas, particularly recent arrivals, seeking a change in fare. It's hard to hate a man with whom you've shared a meal. I often think that circulating metro food trucks through small towns would be genius (if probably highly unprofitable); attending small-town festivals, there's always food trucks selling fry bread and sno cones, but little else. I am always amazed how hard it is to find fresh produce in a farming community.

I'm just old enough to remember Dixiecrats. The rural poor of the Bible-belt south elected Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The rural poor elected Trump and for the same reason: hope. Winning them back starts with not dismissing them as bigoted rubes, but meeting them and bringing a message of hope.

This Weekend!

There are races to run this weekend in Elko, Henderson, St. Bonifacius, Fairfax, Redwood Falls and Howard Lake. There's something you could run every weekend and the 4th of July is coming, when there are dozens of small town races. Try it!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Coaching errors: The Theorist

It's natural, once one has collected workouts and divided them into groups - as I described in the last two posts - to switch from asking how the workouts differ to asking why they differ, to ask what does this particular workout get me that this other one does not? Once you formulate an answer to that question, several problems arise.

The simplest theory devised is to divide workouts into cardiopulmonary and neuromuscular. One piece of advice from the 1970's that's based on this still holds, namely "Once per week, run so fast that your lungs burn; once per week run so far that your legs burn." The most popular proponent of this theory today is Brad Hudson, whose book "Run Faster from the 5K to the Marathon" takes 250 pages to explain that simple idea. Because both short sprints and long slow runs don't cause one to breathe hard, he folds them both into "neuromuscular," but does anyone believe that those two are equivalent?

The most popular theory today is any variation of the "energy systems" theory, that started by separating workouts into "aerobic" and "anaerobic." The most popular proponent of this theory is Jack Daniels, who in "Daniels' Running Formula" divided workouts into "repetition," "interval," "threshold" and "easy." He then added "strides," then "marathon pace running" and "fast intervals." In the second edition, in table 2.2, he adds a "10K zone" because of another gap in his theory. Every time there's a workout to add that doesn't fit the theory, the theory gets altered; there's nothing special about runs at marathon pace, unless one's training for a marathon, certainly no physiological rationale for it.

When one compares competing versions of the energy systems theory, one sees the flaw in thinking that something you've given a name has a real existence. Take "anaerobic threshold" for example. Daniels defines a "tempo run" - what others call a "threshold run" - as a 20 minute run done at that one precise velocity where the accumulation of lactic acid in the muscles begins to exceed the ability to remove it, at a point called the "lactate turnpoint," which has never been proven to exist. He then admitted that that velocity was subject to change with terrain, weather, general health and so on. Then he decided that going a little further a little slower was also good, coming up with complicated charts of times and paces.

Daniels' protege' Pete Pfitzinger took a more practical approach. Since one cannot measure lactate level when running (I've heard of attempts to do just that), he says that "threshold" is "15K to 1/2 marathon pace." Daniels has said that it's 5K pace plus 24-30 seconds per mile, 83-88% VO2max, about 88-92% maximal heart rate. That's four different ranges in my case. Both refer to it as "comfortably hard."

Brad Hudson says he uses three different threshold paces (so much for Daniels' one specific pace!), the paces one could race for an hour, for 90 minutes and for 2.5 hours. Other coaches have different definitions, all of which conflict. When you've run for a number of years, you get a feel for what they mean, but you should remember that their definitions are not for anything real.

The inductive switch

A complication of the theorist approach comes with experimentation. Once one is convinced that a theory "makes sense," one forces things to fit the theory. Workouts others do that don't fit the theory are declared a useless waste of time and energy or at best inferior to workouts that fit the theory. The coach thinks in the shorthand of the theory and prescribes a "threshold run," whatever he or she happens to believe that is, because it's a requirement of the theory, not because it's in the best interest of the athlete.

When a theory becomes firmly entrenched, one stops learning. One of the reasons I started running ultramarathons was because no theory could explain how to train for them and I was forced to see things from a new perspective. Of course, now there are ultrarunning theories, too.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Coaching Error: Parsing bad data

This post is controversial.

When trying to formulate a plan for reaching a goal, it's natural to look at the work of those who've come before, to find the commonalities between successes. This has some drawbacks.

The 8-2-5 syndrome:

You plan 8, do 5, call it 5.

Most runners overestimate what they do, though a few dramatically underestimate. You'd think that GPS would greatly improve things, but I'm currently doing a stair workout in a ravine and the error in distance is 100%, the error in elevation (notoriously bad with GPS) 200%.

Runner's schedules when reported are often an ideal week, rarely if ever achieved and give no indication of how it was approached or if there were recovery weeks. Sometimes coaches and athletes simply lie about what they do, not wanting to give away their "secrets" or trying to convince their competition that they do much less or much more than they really do.

Runners are not independent. Just as you are looking at what others have done, so have they. Looking at marathoners, you may see that all the successful ones ran a long run every week and think that that's a necessity, overlooking that there have been exceptions. Grete Waitz set a world record in her first marathon, never having run more than 13 miles in training before that; later she changed to more "traditional" marathon training and improved by a few minutes, about what one could expect just from gained experience. The first volume of Fred Wilt's "How They Train" (long out of print, but partly covered in Noakes' "Lore of Running") showed that runners used extremely varied approaches to achieve similar results, but by the 3rd volume, they became more homogeneous. As information spreads, varietydecreases; with the internet, information spreads rapidly.

There is a common error in believing that this increased homogeneity is the result of improvements in training knowledge. New records are smaller improvements than in the past, so we must be getting ever closer to perfected training, right? Instead, I believe that it is a statistical phenomenon; there are simply more performances by more individuals, so there's a greater likelihood of more extreme performances. The marathon record keeps lowering, but the 10 mile record stays relatively constant, as there are few races at that distance, few who do them and there's little importance given them, as the races have no prize money and are not an Olympic distance.

Jason Koop's "Training Essentials for Ultrarunners" has an anecdote about coaches arguing about minutiae in an athlete's training. One pointed out that they were arguing about less than 0.5% of the total. Another pointed out that 0.5% is the difference between an Olympic gold medal and no medal at all. The implication was that they had perfected training down to 0.5%. This is preposterous. The placebo effect is 30%, so 30% of winning is the belief that you are going to win because you are the best and have trained best. That's what the coaches were doing in the anecdote - convincing each other and the athlete that they have it all worked out - the placebo effect.

Looking at a week's or a month's training is like looking at a rainbow. There's a continuous spectrum, but we instantly divide red from yellow from blue. If you ask where red ends and yellow begins, you insert orange. If you ask where orange becomes yellow, you might create yellow-orange and orange-yellow. If you look extremely closely at the spectrum, there are indeed gaps, due to atomic spectra being based on quanta. Similarly, a week has discreet workouts, but several years form a continuum.

Or should.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Coaching error: the workout collector

In my last post, I meant to warn against the idea that just because someone is successful, they're a knowledgeable exert. I also made a comment that, if misconstrued, could lead to another error. I said that what particular training a runner did does not matter; what someone else does should not matter to you, but what particular training he did was important to him and what particular training you do is important to you. The "It's all good" comment one often hears is misleading - all training is not equal.

I know several accomplished runners, including a national-class master, who say one just has to "keep changing things up, keep the body guessing, keep the muscles confused, never do the same things." This can work fairly well for runners so gifted that they can succeed without a plan. It also works well for beginners, for whom every workout is new and therefore equal. Many successful high school coaches use this method; teenagers prefer the novelty of always running new workouts and, because any one workout will work well for a few runners, fairly well for many and a little for most, constantly changing workouts gives everyone on the team some of what they need most, leading to an improvement in the team as a whole.

There are entire industries based on the "workout collector." People take classes in yoga, tai chi, Pilates and so forth - all useful disciplines - switching from one discipline to another or one instructor to another, always seeking the next challenge, never thinking about what they should do, never planning. Running magazines, and now websites, are based upon promoting the latest crazes and, if you jump on every bandwagon, you get a continuously varied approach, which, with enough followers, ill have its success stories (which are invariably reported).

Change is necessary. One needs to do a variety of workouts. What I'm advocating is to not have those changes be random, but evolutionary. Yes, evolution in nature involves random changes; in the same way, you need to select those changes that lead to success. Change without direction is chaos.