"It never gets easier, you just go faster." - Greg Lemond

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

La Sportiva Vertical K Review

I bought the Vert K's almost as soon as they were released.  In fact, I might have even pre-ordered them.  The very first day that I owned them, I ran 10 miles on the treadmill and was thrilled.  They felt great.
Yellow morphodynamic midsole

After putting many more miles on these shoes I can safely say that they fill a niche that is somewhat under targeted in the shoe market.  light weight, cushioned shoes, with a low drop (4mm).

I was very surprised by how well they gripped even in the worst mud that I had the chance to run in.  I attribute this not to the small lugs, but to the waves in the morphodynamic midsole that provide flex points, but also increase traction when required.  They feel incredibly light when holding them and then fit like a slipper.  The tongue only has one seem, which seems to improve the fit of the shoe and supplements the booty-like scree guard that Sportiva is known for on several of their shoe models.

In the past Sportiva shoes have been too narrow for my feet (skylight 2.0 and crosslite 1.0) so I haven't been able to really test out a shoe from this well respected shoe maker.  However, the vert k's have a significantly wider feel.  I still wouldn't say that they are as wide as many other minimalist type shoes that I have run in, but better than the aforementioned sportivas.  Along with the wider fit and unique tongue, their is also a small bungee on the heel of the shoe to help one put it on and off, however it seems to be placed on the wrong side of the shoe to be very helpful (imho).

Unique tongue gives a slipper-like fit
What really appealed to me about the concept of the vertical K is that they are lightweight and cushioned, something that a shoe like the MT110 is lacking.  This allowed me to climb with the comfort of light shoes and quick turnover, but to bomb steep hills with the help of a midsole that compressed more readily.  This is achieved through the use of Sportiva's morphodynamic midsole which is also featured on the quantum, and electron.

I was pretty much madly in love with these shoes until I hit some pavement in order to connect a couple trails.  here, the grooves in the outsole can be felt SIGNIFICANTLY, and while it didn't hurt on a mile of roads during 15 mile run, I can see this causing discomfort in longer races or training runs.  However, the grooves to provide excellent flexibility, and as mentioned earlier, good traction.
Grooves in the fairly wide forefoot

There is no rockplate in the Verticle K.  The protection is supposed to come the highly compressible midsole material.  I found this to work well, but by the end of a 23 mile run on rocky terrain, a combination of the grooves in the forefoot and the occasional rock poke through, again had me feeling a little wary about using them for anything further. 

These shoes come with a very thin insole, and removing it reveals some nasty looking seems in the footbed, which were extremely uncomfortable even through socks, when I ran without the insoles.
Handled the mud very well

Overall, the fit and concept of these shoes is excellent.  I loved the roomy, wider fit, that allowed me to get into a pair of sportivas.  Traction was great on all the conditions that I tested the shoes, including mud, rocks, sand, and erosion netting.  The scree guard on the upper does a good job of keeping debris out of the shoes and the laces can be tucked inside.  I experienced no problems adjusting the fit, despite the built in scree guard.  The downsides were that the shoe had a strange feel on pavement, which wasn't as noticeable on dirt roads or trail.  I did find the cushioning to result in a great feel on hardpack trails, but seemed to suck up extra energy on really sandy trails (I think they would be best on the sometimes rocky, but solid and try trails I ran in San Diego recently).  Furthermore, high volume feet cannot take out the insole, but rather I would suggest sizing up .5 sizes.  Finally, the concept of a cushioned light trail runner is a great idea, but a light rock plate would have been nice to both minimize the feel of the waves underfoot and beef up the protection just a tad.

There are not many other shoes in this category (light and cushioned).  Other competitors for this niche seem to be the Rogue fly, the upcoming MT1010 and Kinvara TR.  After running in these, I can only imagine how soft Hokas must feel, it is definitely an interesting ride, and I like to rotate these shoes in for several runs each week, but don't think that I would ever race more than a marathon or 50k in them.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Winona Lake 50 Mile Race Recap

New Experiences and Running Naked

Back in 2010 I ran the inaugural Winona Lake 50k.  The race started at 2pm on a Saturday in the middle of June.  It was HOT and humid which then turned into thunderstorms.  Needless to say, it was one of those races where you learn something about your own toughness as well as how to adjust your pacing strategy in response to things you cannot control. 

Now back in 2012, I was excited for another crack at Winona.  The race has now moved to the middle of April, which has dramatically reduced the heat, and coincidentally, allowed for faster finishing times.  After several solid winter months of running, mostly staying above 100 mpw, I was interested to see what would happen in a 50.  I followed my typical pre-race strategies of cutting my mileage down the couple days before the race and staying away from eating fat and protein and concentrating mainly on eating carbohydrates.  I also tried my best to hydrate well, but had a long experiment going in the lab so it was not always convenient for me to step out into the hallway and drink a bunch of water.  Because the race was down in Indiana, Jason and Arden were also running and kind enough to let me stay the night at their place.  It was nice that Winona starts at 10am, I was able to get a solid nights sleep and have breakfast of two tortillas (200kcal each) slathered in nutella (~400kcal) which is similar to my typical breakfast.  It was sometime during the car ride when I went to turn on my Garmin that I found out it had not charged properly two nights ago.  So I was without a GPS, but more importantly I hadn't raced a 50 miler without using a HR monitor to gauge my effort level.  I felt, naked, for lack of a better word.
Introductions and arm sleeve comparison.  Ryan (left), me (center), Jason (right)

Fast forward about 12 hours and we have arrived at the race start, parked close the to start/finish area so that we can use the back of the van as a large aid station.  The race consisted of five 10 mile loops on mountain bike trails that run through the park.  Arden was running the 10 mile, but planned on going out for another loop after her race, just for fun.  There was also a large contingent of Fort Wayne runners at the race, including Eric, Fabiano, Danieli, Aaron, Ashley, Mike and Vickie.  I asked around and Eric was nice enough to lend me an old timex so that I would at least have a stop watch to keep a consistent fueling schedule.  Also there was a fellow I had met on the Poto just weeks earlier, Ryan Case, who was running several races that Jason and I had also signed up for (and today was his first 50 miler!).  We all said our hellos, gave words of encouragement and cheered on the starters.  The 10 milers started 10 minutes ahead of the 30 mile runners who started another 10 minutes ahead of us, the 50 mile runners. 

It was funny, for the 10 mile, all the runners were up at the starting line, with a clear hierarchy of who was going to get to the single track first.  This trend still held somewhat true for the 30 mile.  But the 50 milers just kinda milled about, no one wanted to stand up at the front until finally someone stood closer to the front, but still 10 feet behind the starting line.  I had done my homework and scouted out the runners who had signed up, and knew that Peter Hogg would be the man to beat, with Neal Butler from the area and having won the 50k in 2010, I suspected he would try to hang with Hogg.  I also saw Melanie Peters name on the starting list, and I had heard from S.B. that she had great leg speed.  At the very last minute Joshua Wopata (if anyone was going to keep up with Hogg, I thought it would be him) sauntered up to the starting line, said hi, and then took his place near-the-front-but-still-10-feet-back. 
The starting line is up near the metal pole on the left.  Everyone is a little shy today I guess
Um, go!

The race started, and we were off.  For me, this was going to be the first 50 mile race I had run since Woodstock nearly 7 months ago.  I was...  interested to see what would happen, but also felt totally naked without my HR monitor.  We passed a few people early on, but soon it was Ryan, Jason and I running together taking turns setting the pace.  We cruised through the first 10 miles in 1:20, which felt a touch on the fast side, but not too close to the red line.  I did the math and mentioned to Jason that this pace would land us with a finishing time of 6 hours and 40 minutes, much faster than either of us had planned on running. 

I sipped my early race concoction called rocket fuel (a combination of flat Coke and Ultra, which gives a good glucose:fructose ratio) for the first loop, then switched to water during the 2nd lap.  Still running with Jason, I occasionally checked in with him to see where his HR was, in order to try to gauge mine.  Again, I felt like I was running a little faster than I normally would be, if wearing a HR monitor.  I am pretty sure I told Jason that I intended to run the second loop slower than the first loop, in an attempt to conserve some energy.  I think about 6 or 7 miles into that loop, just as I thought "oh man I'm finding the zone" Jason vocalized that he was going to slow down a touch and soon I was running on my own.  I saw Ryan, who had passed me while I was taking a leak, ahead and tried to match his pace while I continued to fuel.  

Food consisted mostly of gels with a mixing of clif bloks thrown in for good measure.  I like the margarita bloks as they provide more electrolytes than the regular ones do, so I made sure to eat a packet of these.  Soon I was at mile 9 of loop two, and realized I was going to finish this loop a touch faster than loop (1:20ish).  Doh!  Whatever, I thought, just keep running and we will deal with the consequences of this pace later.  At the car I grabbed a second bottle, which seemed kinda silly since we were running 10 mile loops with 3 aid stations positioned throughout.  But, I had realized how close the front 5-10 runners were together and had decided I would skip aid stations to save some time.  I also wanted coke in one bottle and water in the other as the Coke was tasting great.  
End of loop 2

I came up on Ryan during loop 3, and we ran together for a while.  He was cruising.  There was more than one moment when I wondered whether he intended to run this pace for the rest of the race, then he would say something like "whoops, getting a little excited there" and the pace would become more comfortable again.  Together we worked on moving quickly through the trails.  It was raining now, and the occasional roots and rocks were becoming slick.  Soon we ran up behind Melanie, who was also running her first 50 miler.  We formed a line and ran together for a good long time.  Turns out we were all from Michigan, so here I was in the middle of the woods, in Indiana, talking to Michiganders about other Michiganders we knew who were running races throughout the midwest that day.  I even got an update on Kai's status as he was tackling the Poto150 mile race in Illinois. 

Soon my consistent fueling strategy was paying dividends and on a small hill I pulled away from Ryan and Melanie, although we would give each other encouragement when we ran by on the switchbacks.  The rest of this loop went by without a hitch.  Soon I was done with loop 3, about 1:18, and I was starting to think 6:40 was possible.  Doing the math I came to the conclusion that 6:40 meant 8 minute miles for the entire race.  That seemed...  OK, impossible, but weren't there at least 3 other people ahead of me? who I could no longer see on switch backs.  So maybe this pace wasn't too impossible. 

Beginning loop 4 I saw Arden who gave me a quick update that I was in 3rd place, apparently one of the 3 ahead of me had dropped out.  I figured it was Joshua Wopata and Peter Hogg who were ahead of me, and although it would be unlikely, I was going to stay strong in case one of them faltered.  The only thing of consequence here was that I grabbed my ipod to keep my brain company as I figured I would be doing a lot of running alone. 

I stayed on top of my salt (2 scaps up to this point), kept eating gels and did my best to maintain a consistent effort levels.  I ran all the hills, except a couple, which I chose to walk up, allowing myself to pee at the same time (awesome, right?).  Somewhere along the way, I think I lost track of my fluid intake and began getting dehydrated.  I blame it on the rain, because I was already wet, I didn't realize how much I was sweating.  Finished loop 4 in 1:21, so I guess I was maintaining a consistent pace.

Starting loop 5 I chugged a red bull and was just feeling generally excited and tore out of the start/finish aid, ready to get the race overwith.  I started imagining sub 6:40 if I could just keep it together for this loop.  About 2 miles in I decided to take another gel.  This is when things started to get interesting.  I slurped it down, but then it immediately wanted to come back up.  Overcome with nausea I sipped on a little water and hoped it would pass.  Still feeling a little less than 100% I came into the mile 3.5 aid station and decided my stomach probably wanted solid food.  They had something advertised as Pa potatos which were cold boiled potatos.  It sounded perfect at the time.  I grabbed a handful and shoved them in my mouth.  Mmmm salty.  UGHDKFSLA buttery.  Yuck.  After swallow a little bit I felt myself begin to salivate similar to the prebarf salivations.  I spit out the entire mouthful of potatos and cursed whoever put butter on them.  Realizing I must be dehydrated and overfueled, I continued to run on burping fairly consistently.  I tried another gel around mile 6 and tiny bit made me gag.  Not good.  The last 10 miles of a 50, its really important to keep the fuel coming in.  I felt myself starting to slow a little bit.  I tried putting HEED in one of my bottles, hoping the light taste would let me get some fuel down.  Nope.  Soon I was feeling pretty sick, wondering if I should just get it over with and get the puking out of the way.  I continued to force down water, hoping that I could dilute some of the sugar I could feel sitting in my stomach.  I could taste the gels everytime I burped, leading me to think that my digestion had shut down.  Somehow I continued to run, but noticed my mile splits were now more like 9-9:30.  I was relying almost entirely on fat metabolism and was starting to get light headed when I ran up to the top of hills.  I tried a salt pill to see if it would help clear my stomach up.  Nope.

The misery continued until about mile 49.  I knew Ryan was not far behind me so that if I slowed down too much, he would make me pay.  At the mile 49 marker I decided to run with whatever I had left and if I was spewing as I crossed the finish line, so be it.  I think knowing that there was only a mile left shut my stomach up, or I was finally getting things back online.  I cruised it out and decided to be elated with my finishing time, despite having set a new goal for myself before starting loop 5.  I finally crossed the finish line with my arms raised up and a huge grin on my face.  Its hard to describe the feeling that accompanies seeing a time that you once thought would be completely unattainable.  Honestly there was not a single part of my mind that thought I could run a sub 7 hour 50 miler.  Maybe that shows lack of  determination, but part of my personality is setting what I believe are realistic and attainable goals so that I am satisfied.  But I guess those goals can be adjusted when you have fast trails, perfect temperatures, and legs firing on all cylinders.

Final time was 6:46.47, 22 minutes behind Wopata (6:24.46), and 55ish minutes behind Hogg (5:53).  Both those guys ran incredible races, and I realize now that they are also 2 of the 3 guys who finished ahead of me at Woodstock 50 mile (Ben Vanhoose being the other).  So it looks like I had better get used to seeing their names on the starting list for local races and seeing there backs at the start of the race.  I think I liked running without a HR monitor, at least for a 50 miler.  Its still going to be a must during a 100.
Pretty thrilled with my finishing time
2nd place finisher Joshua Wopata

Ryan came through the finish ~7 minutes after me, as I had figured he was looking strong and had a huge smile.  What an accomplishment, to run sub 7 hours for one's first 50 miler.  Jason also ran a great race and finished 5th in a huge PR time of 7:19.  Melanie also showed some gutsy racing, dominating the women's field in 7:32.  Likely, she will learned a lot about running 50s from this first 50, and have a very successful day at Ice Age.  I think everyone I know had great times, which speaks loads about the trail system and the weather.  Looking back, I think my nausea cost me 7-10 minutes, my legs were firing on all cylinders all day which is a great sign for the coming 100 milers, and I was even jogging around after the race.  I guess I was due for some stomach problems as I have not experienced many GI issues during my 3 years of ultrarunning.  now, to just learn my lesson and not let it happen again.
Congrats to Ryan and a great race
I think he is happy

I wore the Asics Gel Fuji Racer's for the entire race, and never had to change socks.  They handled the growing mud well.  The only downside was that they let in a moderate amount of sand and grit when it was dry out, as the trails were relatively sandy.  Overall, the race was fun, but I felt sort of...  unchallenged?  Like I could have used a few more big climbs and descents to really feel the stress of running 50 miles at a quick pace.  I don't want to take away from my own, or anyone elses performances, certainly this race required staying power and mental toughness, but the lack of climbing/descending, minimal technicality, and perfect temperatures did not really destroy me as I have felt during a couple other races (namely OPSF 50 and the MS50).  On the otherhand, maybe I am the only person who feels this way and should just shut it. 
Congratulations - now here have this piece of wood.  kidding, great "natural" plaques
 All photos are compliments of Planet Adventure

Thursday, April 19, 2012

99 Problems and a Shoe Addiction is 1


Anyone want to buy these for me?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Adventures

Trail Running in the Smoky Mountains

Several years ago I was lucky enough to lose a loosely tied shoe in ankle deep mud at Dances with Dirt - Gnawbone.  This predicament gave me pause to not only laugh at myself (an important ultrarunning skill) as I felt the mud squishing up through my sock on my now shoeless foot, but also to share a few casual words with another ultrarunner.  Since then, he and I have become good friends, sharing several stupidly fun training runs as well as the sweet victory that is accompanied by finishing your first 100 mile foot race.  

So when Jason invited me to come along on vacation with his family, I knew it would be an adventure.  After a fairly mundane car ride during which the highlight was listening to the hunger games on mp3, we arrived in Pigeon Forge, TN.  All I can say about that city is wow.  I think it exemplifies the  modern human condition, one in which we are engrossed in overconsumption, and overindulgence, when there is a huge National park just miles away and indicates how much we have lost touch with our natural origins.  Looming tourist attraction litter the strip and the traffic is nearly unbearable.  OK, I also think its designed to entertain kids.  I will stop my rant here, because that is not the focus of this post.

Our cabin in Gatlinburg was cozy, but felt like it had plenty roomy for the 10 of us, unless we were all trying to be in the kitchen at one time :)  So thanks Arden for picking such a winner.  Once we arrived in Gatlinburg, Jason and I set out to aquire every piece of information we could find on hiking, trails, and waterfalls in the area.  This was best accomplished at the National Park visitors center (suprise suprise) where I bought a very nice book that contained a short snippet about every trail in the park, as well as the elevation change, elevation profile, and possible dangers on that trail.  Trail maps were a dollar, and very helpful so we bought 4 of those as well. 
Day 1 run along the TN-NC border via the AT

Eager to begin our adventure, Jason and I set out at 7am Sunday morning with full packs, extra water bottles and a load of snacks.  We planned a run that started at the Chimney tops trailhead, connected to the Road Prong Trail, then dumped out onto the Appalachian Trail.  After passing Newfound gap, we continued on the AT until it it met the Boulevard trail.  We ran (hiked?  grunted?  staggered?) the Boulevard trail up around the backside of Mt. LeConte, and hit the summit of LeConte which is just a touch over 6,500 feet.  We stopped here, took in the sights, snapped a few pictures, and checked out the lodging that the park service maintains near the summit.  It was here we found fresh water, and another ultrarunner, who was visiting from Oregon.  He suggests some other trails that were near the summit and we took these into account when planning later paths.  The guy was clearly an experienced runner, and after a brief conversation, he turned out to be the type of runner I admire, someone who has been doing this forever, and just never gets tired of it.  
Boulevard trail which let us run along the ridgeline for quite a ways

5,496 feet of ascent over 19.8 miles.  In 5 hours.
We bombed hard, about as hard as we could run, down the Alum Caves trail, really taking some chances and deciding to see how much fun we could have.  We had a lot of fun.  5 miles of downhill!  Completely unheard of in Michigan.  I was very pleased with the way that my North Face Hayasa's held up to the beating that the downhills gave them.  After receiving more than one strange look and encouraging comments, we came to the end of the Alum Caves trailhead.  A short downhill road section took us back to the car we had left at chimney tops.  Interesting stats:  Climb 1 from Chimney trailhead up to AT -->  2000 feet over 3.9 miles.  Total climbing over the 19.8 mile route was 5,500 feet.

Legs were a little sore the next morning from all the downhill, but bearable - so we headed out with Jason's wife, Arden, and his mom, Vickie for an adventure along the AT.  Our goal was to start at the trailhead where the Road Prong Trail met the AT and continue down the AT towards Clingmans Dome.  We agreed to go out for 90 minutes then turn around so that we got in roughly 3 hours.  We ended up stopping a little short of clingmans dome, before we had reached the summit, but we had already been gone for longer than our allotted time.  Almost the entire run was done in the clouds as we had some low lying clouds that had settled onto the AT, which made it slightly surreal.

Jason wanted the ladies to take a picture with the tree stump
A "mere" 2,200 feet of ascent in 3:30 hours (9 miles)
Our last big run in the mountains was a fantastic combination of scenery, climbing, and exploration.  We set out at the heavily used Rainbow falls trailhead, but at 7am it was nearly empty.  From there we had a gradual (mostly) but sustained climb up Trillium Gap trail.  We stopped for pictures at Groto falls, where the trail actually runs behind the waterfall, and then pushed on to Trillium Gap.  We were planning on taking the Brushy Mtn. Trail to the point where it connected with Porter's creek Trail, but Jason suggested with quickly summit Brushy Mtn.  A great idea, and a quick push led us up to a treeless summit that had a fantastic view.  We ran back down Brushy Mtn and took the Brushy mtn. Trail down, down, down, until we reached Porter's Flat, then turned around and went up, up, up.  This was probably one of my favorite parts of the day.  the Brushy Mtn. Trail seemed to have been used very little, we saw no one, very few footprints, and some bear droppings.  
Brushy Mtn summit with Mt. LeConte in the background

Somewhere along the climb up Brushy Mtn Trail I ran out of water.  Jason had packed Iodine pills, so I filled a bottle at a small waterfall that went across the trail.  Never done that before.  Waited 30 minutes for the iodine to work, and then the water didnt taste too bad.  I still have my fingers crossed, hoping that I dont get Giardia.  Once we were back at the junction of Trillium Gap and Brushy Mountain trails, we turned South and headed up Mt. LeConte for the second time in 3 days.  This summit proved to be a little bit steeper than the path we had taken up Boulevard, which was gradual along the ridgeline.  It was a joy.  Somewhere along the way I started hurting pretty bad and had to tuck in behind Jason and just stare at his feet as we continued up.

Just as we reached the top of Leconte, we heard thunder and a quick glance at the sky showed dark clouds moving in.  Lucky for us we had been at the Leconte camp a few days earlier and quickly found water and the trailhead that would lead us back down the mountain.  We descended down Bullhead trail, which also had some spectacular views, but moved quickly and didnt stop for pictures.  There were the usual small stream crossings on the trails and the changing flora as we changed altitude.   We both managed our calories, hydration and salt well and finished the downhill with grins on our faces.  Funny, right as we got to the car, it started pouring rain.  I guess we planned that run out just right.

We dreamed this one up after quite a few beers...

Trillium gap --> Summit Brushy Mtn --> Brushy Mtn Trail to Porters flat and back to Trillium Gap --> Summit Leconte and Descent via Bullhead trail

I was a little taken back when I plugged my Garmin in and saw that our run had 7,600 feet of climbing.  That is easily the most ascent I have ever had in such a short amount of time.  The trails were extremely challenging, I can see why Masseneuten and Grindstone are advertised as being as tough as they are; tons of climbing and challenging footing can really beat you into the ground if you dont keep fueling properly and have a positive attitude.  These running adventures have made me strongly consider signing up for Grindstone, we will see.

This was such an awesome trip, I am definitely planning on going back (already looking into it).  Cades Cove looks like it has some amazing trails, maybe terrain that is slightly more runnable too.  Looking back, I am left with a sense of longing, knowing that I cannot find anything to match this kind of running that is close to my home.  But with a busy race/travel schedule I should keep myself fairly occupied.

Some more pictures from the trip (using a DSLR while hiking).