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

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.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Mistakes Every Great Runner Makes

I recently read an autobiography by a top runner and it was like most. To paraphrase: "When I started running, I tried A and it didn't work. Then I heard people had success doing B, C and D, so I started doing those and started to improve. Then I followed a rigorous plan of B, C and D diligently and improved quickly. When my progress started to slow, I wondered if I was missing something. I heard about E, added it and had peak performances, so E is the secret to success; if I had been doing E from the start, I would've been even better. Then I added F, but not only didn't I get better, I got worse, so I went back to what I had been doing earlier, but I kept getting worse - F killed my career. Never do F. If you follow what I did, you'll have the same results."

It doesn't matter who the athlete is or what A through F are. This is simply a description of a running career. Little success at first, then fast results, then diminishing returns and then a trailing off. That's my story, that's your story. The whole argument is fallacious.

1) If something doesn't work, perhaps you didn't give it enough time. Perhaps you didn't do it properly. Perhaps you needed to do it after doing something else first.

2) If something works, it works temporarily. Perhaps something else would've worked as well. Different things work at different times.

3) What works for one doesn't work for all and doesn't work equally when training for different events.

When you train, try something for 6-8 weeks. Then make a significant but not complete change; you might add something or change something or remove something. Then try 6-8 weeks under the new plan; if things don't improve, go back to what you did before for another 6-8 weeks and then make a different change.

Monday, May 1, 2017

2017 Chippewa Moraine 50K Race Report

"At dawn the running crowds set our planet going." - Tomas Tranströmer, Streets in Shanghai

For me, Chippewa was a debacle. What I do now will decide whether this race is a tragedy or merely the prelude to a transformation. Maybe I'll know by the time I finish writing this post.

I'd had several weeks of excellent training in January and February and entered a bunch of races in expectation (or perhaps just hope) of a return to ultramarathoning. March and April, however, found me back where I'd started. Easy workouts, when I could do them at all, were slow and usually terminated early. Along with the usual injuries (Achilles tendinosis, plantar fasciitis), something structural in my left knee had given way and I couldn't diagnose it; rest did not help. Then I developed prostatitis, a condition more uncomfortable and embarrassing than painful - long runs were punctuated by urinating more often than a woman in the late stages of pregnancy. A week prior to Chippewa, I caught a cold that's been going around and I just lazed about, hoping to recover enough to be able to race.

Frankly, I was worried. This was not just my first ultra since DNF'ing at the same race in 2013, but this was my longest run since then and perhaps the first time I'd go beyond 20 miles in the past 6 years.

It was cool race morning, 41 degrees in St. Paul at 4 AM, but not raining, as had been a possibility. I drove through Wisconsin, calling "moo" to cows left in pasture overnight (including some Brown Swiss, which mean a true dairy) and listening to the lyrics of songs to see if there were any portends.:

"I feel faint like an old ass flashlight
I don't remember how I got there" - Atmosphere, "Ringo"

"I feel empty, I feel tired, I feel worn
Nothing really matters anymore" - Ryan Adams, "To Be Without You"

I really should develop a pre-race playlist. This is bad juu-juu.

Stopped to pee twice, which I hoped was more coffee than prostate. Otherwise, the trip was uneventful. Sand Creek is a town you don't need to visit.

Right away, Bob Marsh got a photo of me in a typical mood:
Did my left knee bend backward? That explains a lot.
I caught up briefly with a bunch of people, some of whom I hadn't seen in years and one guy who lives 1/2 mile from me (we should've car-pooled). I had the same pre-race jitters I've had since, well, 1969. We got lined up for the start, were given instructions and no one wanted to be up front, as usual.

The start is down a long hill that's a killer when finishing. At the bottom of it, I found myself by
a bunch of runners that would finish two hours ahead of me even if things went well.
Between Kim Holak and John Storkamp. That didn't last long.
[Photos are by Mike Wheeler, unless noted otherwise.]

This wasn't so much a ridiculous fast start as it looks, though it was faster than planned and ultimately ridiculous. I eased back, waiting to be passed by people until I was more where I belonged. I did the first miles just ahead of Timothy Owata and one of the first women finishers, recalling Tim had done Afton in about 5:10, so thinking that a typical slowdown for me would bring in me in about 6:00, which was what I expected. I checked my heart rate monitor, expecting 145-150 and it was 155-160 between 2.5 and 5.0 miles, so I was working way too hard on the downhills (not letting my heart recover) and I decided to shift back yet another gear, knowing early errors are deadly.

Tim starting to outdistance me.

The course has few landmarks, particularly in the first and last 10 miles, all run up and down moraines and along kettle ponds (and you should know what a kettle moraine is - essentially tiny glacial lakes with ridges in between).
Because there's no real natural landmarks, you start to think in terms of bridges and road crossings. A week after the race, you'll remember maybe 3-4 roads though there may be 8, and 2-3 bridges, though there are two dozen.
There's only one place on the course you need to boulder with a cat. [Not Mike's photo]

My left knee was making a "clicking" sensation, as if a tendon were sliding from one side of a bone to another - impossible, yes, but I can't say what it was - it wasn't a problem if I thought about landing with my left foot toed-in slightly and if I didn't lift the foot medially past mid-line on the upswing. This isn't a big deal, but it required diligent concentration (for hours).

There is one grassy area among all the hills, at about 10 miles, which I think of as "the meadow," though it's not a meadow and there's a long gravel road downhill past that. This is the focal point of the race. From there to the turn-around, the terrain becomes much tougher - the hills steeper, longer and a little more technical. So, the plan is to run the first 1/3 in control, focus on working the hills in the middle and, once back to the meadow, if possible, race the last 10 miles.

I was starting to feel the uphills a bit at about 10 miles, at least it seemed like they affected me more than others. Bill Pomerenke passed me at almost exactly the same place he had in 2013 and went on to a very solid finish, about where I hoped to be for the Afton 50K in July. I hit the 25K turn-around in 2:45 and felt pretty good, considering, and thought a sub-6 finish was not unlikely.

I let a few people pass me between 16 and 20 miles, feeling a slight unease. I was starting to go downhill with my legs landing straighter and stiffer than they should, a sign of serious muscle fatigue. Things went downhill in more ways than one. Between 19 and 21, my pace slowed, though my heart rate remained the same, the sign that a major problem was coming. This turned from a slow race to a training run just like that.

It was here I tripped for the third time - no falls, so my balance has improved! - and my hamstrings took a serious blow keeping me upright, aching with each step for a bit.

At 21, I hit death march. Survival shuffle.  Same pace up and down hill, with heart rate slowing continuously to what I felt I should be able to maintain for 100 miles. My heels were hurting, as were my plantar fasciae. I also noted that I hadn't had to pee during the race, so I was probably dehydrated as well as having run out of muscle glycogen. I was starting to feel overdressed as well (I'd thought before the race that, if I tanked, I'd need more clothes to keep warm; I was wrong). My back didn't hurt, so all the work I'd done on posture helped.

I was getting passed by a continuous stream of people, the first expected and then some that have never been anywhere near me in a race. I ran mostly by myself, which was what I wanted, because I needed hard focus to keep the pain manageable. Oddly, my mood wasn't bad. I actually thought: "my mental health is a lot better than it used to be." If I hadn't hurt so much, it would've been enjoyable. This was not conveyed by my appearance; after the race, one told me "I didn't think they'd let you continue at the last aid station." Oh, come on, it wasn't that bad.

What a course record finish looks like.
After the race, people immediately started to greet me and I just needed a few minutes to decompress. [Sorry, Bill, silence is better than anything I would've said just then.]

Before. Photo by Chase Nowak

After. That's a world of pain right there.
I didn't even break 7 hours (7:00:58, I think). Personal worst by almost an hour. The next day, I was still hurting, but able to go down steps forward. Today, only my right hamstring's really sore. I may run tomorrow. This is where a decision gets made: I don't want to hurt like this again and there's two different ways to ensure that: 1) Stop running. 2) Train better.

"I can crank out 19 minute miles like no one's business" - me, to John Storkamp. [He laughed.]
"The first ultra back is always tough." - John, to me.