Author: cmcgra1

The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) – A microcosm for  . . . everything

The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC) – A microcosm for . . . everything

Let’s take this one from the top.  The Barkley Marathon’s are the somewhat disputed pinnacle of ultra running achievement, or at the least, badassery.  The race takes place each year in Frozen Head State Park (TN), as close to April Fool’s Day as possible.  I will not go into too many details as the internet is filled with the lore and legend of the race, made even more epic by the release of the 2015 documentary, The Barkley Marathons:  The Race That Eats Its Young.  In short, runners start at a random time, one hour after the blowing of a conch shell and concurrent with the lighting of a cigarette.  The course is only sort of marked with “runners” using a map and compass to guide themselves along a 20ish mile loop to randomly hidden books that serve as way points along the course.  Competitors must run the loop in alternating directions for a total five loops (on the last loop, the first one back picks the direction and the remaining runners are distributed clockwise and counterclockwise based on that decision – not that there are too many runners to have to worry at that point).  And by the way, you have to cover the 5 loops of nearly 130ish miles, 54,200 feet of elevation, thorns, poisonous snakes, frigid temps, wasps, and white walkers (the last obstacle is a joke – sort of) in 60 hours.

The Barkley Fall Classic (BFC), is NOT the Barkley Marathons.  It does have its similarities, particularly that both are the brain child of Gary Cantrell (aka Lazarus “Laz” Lake), both take place in Frozen Head State Park, and both cover similarly grueling terrain in the park.  The BFC is held in September and participants sign up to complete a 50K . . . sort of.  The reality is that at roughly 20 miles into the race, at Laz’s checkpoint, you are given a choice, to head downhill another several miles to a marathon finish (which is actually more like 30ish miles) or keep suffering and continue to the end of the 50K (which is actually more like 40-43ish miles).

[READER’s NOTE:  I keep giving miles as an “ish” as GPS is not allowed during the race.  You bring your toy, you go home DQ’d.  You share the map or try to run portions of the course on private property (outside of race day), you get DQ’d and banned.]

2018 will be the the 5th running of the BFC, which was designed to give runners just a taste of the real Barkley Marathons.  And that’s where it all begins.  Word has gotten out about this race, in no small part to the documentary and pop culture coverage of the Barkley Marathons. Not surprisingly, when word go out about registration for this race the ultra running (and running) community lost its collective mind.  Like Cinderella, the registration opened at precisely midnight central time on Saturday, September 23rd.  And literally hundreds of prospective runners crashed the ultrasignup site to snag the coveted 400 or so spots.  With seemingly no rhyme or reason, some folks got invited to the dance and others were smashing pumpkins on the wait list.  Running partners and couples were separated across wait list lines and experienced streakers with plenty of  croix de barques to their name were locked out while newbies on a whim gained admittance.

And then they took to the BFC Facebook page and social media in storm.  Newbies claimed streakers were selfish, streakers felt the newbies should have more experience before facing the task, and some even used the vile word, “unfair”.  There were demands for a registration lottery or showing a “running resume” to level the playing field.  To the credit of Laz, he came forth and “nipped it in the bud” and explained what happened with the website and was completely transparent about the wait list and how some people are specifically jumped to the front of the wait list line to be put into the race (e.g. streakers, some internationals, folks with a real shot to “win” the race, other geographical/logistical reasons) but most will rise and fall with the ebb and flow of drop outs.

And so why do I write this post?  Well dear reader, I was one caught in the midnight masses.  My husband and I have thought of doing this race for a number of years and it just so happened that the stars aligned that we were able to attempt registration this year.  As fate would have it, I registered my husband first and he was one of the lucky (or unlucky ones) who got in and I am wait listed.  Laz does not typically release the wait list as it tends to create a lot of fussiness and unrest so I have no idea how far out of the entrants I sit on the list.  Laz has conceded however, that there are 600+ persons on the wait list.  And I have said very little on social media and have simply watched.  And here is what I have learned:

The BFC is a microcosm for pretty much everything in life.  Sometimes you come prepared and you still get left out in the cold.  Sometimes teams and partners get divided and are forced to tackle a challenge by themselves.  Sometimes life is really not fair and those we see as deserving are not allowed to compete while those we see as wanting are given top billing.  And as is often the case, everyone thinks they are more justified than the next person.  . . and there is epic whining.  What I have learned, is that it’s not about the entrants or the wait list or the social media.  We can only control our training and our racing.

But perhaps most of what I know is that that just as in life, I do not know the day or the hour (if at all) that I will be called up, so I must be ready.  We are already working on Joel’s training plan and I will be right there doing squats, hill repeats, bear crawls, and every other torturous thing along with him so that he is ready . . . and so am I, if I get the chance.

The Coach’s Spirit

The Coach’s Spirit

I love coaching . . . and I blame my father.  You know those team pictures we all took as kids in recreational sports leagues with the kids lined up in rows, wearing nice crisp uniforms? Coaches kneeling at their players’ sides with whistles and some random kid in the middle holding a ball or a chalkboard with the team name.  I have one of those pictures.  Except the sports team in question is my older brother’s soccer team.  My dad is kneeling down with his players, and my biddy self is standing at his knee with a whistle around my neck and a big smile.

Granted, I was not coaching eight year old boy’s soccer, but I got the bug.  When I got older and had actual motor coordination, I did become a coach.  I was the assistant coach to my dad for a number of years when my little sister played soccer.  I was often in charge of setting the line up and arguing why I thought my line up had the best match ups.  One time, I even got to coach the team by myself when my dad went all Bobby Knight and got himself ejected.  Admittedly, it was girls’ youth soccer.  But also in defense of my dad, the referee was an absolute cretin.

I believe that coaching is an art form that like all art forms is one part genus, one part hard work and study, and one part sheer magic.  When I coached soccer, I watched my dad attend national coaching courses to get licensing.  I also watched what happened with the teams whose coaches did not invest the time . . . lines, laps, lectures . . . and a distinct lack of fun.  When I was old enough, my parents supported me in pursuing coaching licenses.  And now several years later I am coaching a marathon training program for our local Fleet Feet store and I am trying to schedule my training certifications through USATF.  In addition to that, I pour over webpages and pages of books to learn about new techniques, drills, running form, cross training, muscle imbalances, nutrition, and the psychology of sports.

But, why?  What’s the point of spending hours a week studying and planning for very little real gain (monetary or otherwise)?  The point, actually has very little to do with me, and everything to do with . . .you, the reader.  You, the runner.  You, the person who wants to do better than the day before.

The coach’s spirit is one of a tinkerer.  We look to those who come to us for guidance as riddles to be solved, as machines to be tweaked, and as characters to be challenged.  As a coach, the greatest gift you can give someone is the gift of self-actualization.  I see so many men and women with amazing talents who are plagued by self-doubt: “I’m too slow”, “I’m afraid I’ll finish last”, and my least favorite “This must be easy for you”.  Everything is all relative.  Certainly, we have limits imposed on us by our genetics, but it should be the role of a coach to work with their trainees to develop and execute a plan that allows the trainee to grow mentally and physically.   Simply put, to be more than they were before.

Coaches should help their trainees redefine what is possible.  Help them look for solutions, rather than complain about the impossibilities.  And above all, coaches should help their trainees find joy in the struggle and the journey.  Because without the opportunity to face a challenge and the possibility of failure, how will any of us really know the limits of our potential.

I remember the absolute elation I felt when I ran my first (and only to this point) 100 mile race.  The task was a Leviathan and I thought there was no way I could face down the challenge.  I also know that I have never been the same since I rose to the challenge and succeeded.  I look back at that moment and realize that it was one of the hardest things I have ever done both physically and mentally.  And no matter what happens going forward, no one can take away that accomplishment.  From that day on, things haven’t seemed as daunting.  I am not afraid of failure, personally or professionally.  And most of all . . . I got me just a little bit of swagger.  And that, is what I would love to bottle up and give to all the men and women who live with doubt and fear of failure.  But until such time that I can science that into reality, I will continue to coach and offer anyone who is willing to listen and to do the work, their own opportunity to find some swagger.

Feed the Beast – part III

Feed the Beast – part III

In the last segment of our blog on nutrition, I will provide some details on how to fuel on the run and some possible alternatives to the normal “carb-covered carbs” that are traditionally used by runners on the go.

Okay, let’s talk turkey . . . well not really but you know what I mean.  The two main issues related to fueling on the run are when do I need to consume calories and how often?  In terms of when, if you come to the race/run with a full tank of muscle glycogen from carb loading (see Feed the Beast – part II) you should be good for at least 45 minutes – hour before starting your fueling regime.  Once the “bewitching hour” for nutrition intake hits, be consistent.  Runners can absorb 200-240 calories per hour, depending on their size and stomach happiness.  For some folks, this is a lot of calories to ingest while running.

In the middle of a run, it can be hard to remember to eat/drink that much so set a timer on your watch or make a mental note to “check in” on nutrition every time you pass a mile marker.  Do not assume that you only need to eat or drink when you see an aid station.  Particularly for longer races on challenging trails.  Just because there is an aid station every 4 miles, doesn’t mean you will travel four miles at the same pace each time.  On some trails, where boulder hopping was the activity of the day, it took me almost 90 minutes to move between aid stations only 4 miles apart.

Unless you have a stomach of steel, it may be easier to try and consume smaller amounts of calories every 15 minutes to get the magic 200-240 calories in an hour.  Another strategy is to mix solid food with liquid calories.  During a marathon you might consume Gatorade or some sports drink every few minutes and then down a Gu with water at an aid station.  Always take gels and chews with several ounces of water to prevent a “gut bomb”.  For even longer events like 50 or 100 miles, you may eat half a PB & J sandwich with a cup of Ginger Ale or a Coke to be sure to get your calories.

When you run ultra-distances, you start to think of nutrition in a different way.  Most of the experts report that carbohydrates are the way to go for your “in run” fueling needs.  But is their a place for other fueling options . . . say protein?  The answers continue to be divided.  In general, the faster you go, the more carbohydrates you use and the less protein and fat that is broken down for fuel.  Breaking down carbs seems to be the body’s general preference to get nutrition to the muscles faster.  But if you are not planning to break the 2 hour marathon record or running 30, 50, 100, or more miles, is protein a good option on the run?  The science currently says that supplementing carbohydrate drinks or gels with protein (in a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein) MAY result in some increased performance, but this is a big MAY as some studies have shown no increase in performance.  Protein has also sometimes been linked to stomach issues.

So the bottom line is, mid-run fueling with protein might be helpful for some runners but it should be taken with caution on a run.  Test out adding protein to your “in-run” nutrition for shorter workouts and build up the amount of protein to see what your body will tolerate.  Here is a list of some possible “on the go” protein options to use during a run:

  • Justin’s Nut Butter – comes in easy to use individual serving packets (just like a Gu)
  • Beef or Turkey jerky – you can buy these in bite size pieces but they can be tough to chew on the run
  • Huma Chia Energy gel – still has the carbs and electrolytes but also gives a boost of protein in the form of chia seeds
  • PureSport – a liquid option for folks wanting lower carb, lower calorie, but with added protein
  • Accerlerade – higher protein drinks and gels
  • Bacon – I’m not even kidding about this one.  Precook some bacon to get it extra crispy and throw it in a bag for a quick snack on the go.
Feed “the Beast” – part II

Feed “the Beast” – part II

The saga of eating on the run continues.  Now that you know why you need nutrition for longer runs, it’s time to dissect what to eat.  During long runs of 13+ miles, the body needs to replenish calories, specifically carbohydrates, and salt.  When we sweat, we lose both water and salt, so the best nutrition options are those that provide quick, readily digestible calories and salt (think sodium and potassium).  There are three main types of in-run nutrition:  liquids, sports gels/chews, and real, honest to goodness, solid food.

Let’s start with liquid options.  Most runners have heard of the classic Gatorade.  But there are a number of options now available to runners as powders to add to your water.  Options include GuBrew, Tailwind, and Sword.  This list goes on forever as new vendors come on the market whispering the sweet Siren song of performance enhancement without stomach problems.

If you’re feeling “hipster chic” you can also try coconut water.  At 90 calories per 16 oz serving, coconut water contains all the key electrolytes including magnesium, potassium, and sodium.  In fact, coconut water contains more 2x the potassium in a banana which is an extra bonus as potassium intake is linked to preventing muscle cramps.  I can’t say I’ve tried this option because I’m not a fan of the flavor but I can see a lot of upsides to this option.

Final point on liquids; whatever you do . . . for the love of puppies, DO NOT HAVE DAIRY!  Science tells us this is a bad idea.  Nature tells us this is a bad idea.  Do not subject yourself or others to this form of explosive GI tract apocalypse.  Save your dairy for a safe post-run chocolate milk.

Energy gels, chews, and beans.  These are a good option for people who can eat anything on the run and don’t want to think about their nutrition.  Grab a gel, eat 3-4 chews, or snag a handful of sports beans.  Each option has 80-150 calories and salt.  Many gels and chews also come with or without caffeine.  There is a buffet of options for this form of nutrition.  These options are tough if you have trouble with the “mouth feel” of the gels or you struggle to chew when your mouth gets dry.  For me, I can’t do most gels.  There is a brand called Gu which I think is onomatopoeia because that’s the sound I make when I try to use most gels.  I have found that the more natural gels made with chia seeds or Stinger honey packs go down a bit easier because of their lighter texture.  Whatever you choose, make sure you consume them with lots of water.

If all else fails, there is always good old fashioned real food.  Ultrarunners are hysterical at aid stations.  At a 50 and 100 mile races I have seen runners eating beer and burgers.  My husband ate a chicken salad sandwich during his last 100 miler.  It all depends what works for you.  If you can eat a chili dog and ride a roller coaster without losing your lunch, this is probably a good option for you.  I can’t even look at food during a run without feeling queasy.  However, if this is your jam, consider a mixture of sweet and salty to satisfy your mood.  Some salty options include, pickles, PB & J Uncrustables, Cheez It’s, PB pretzels, potato chips, or salted boiled potatoes.  For the sweet, there’s Pay Day bars, brownie bites, frozen grapes, dried fruit, watermelon, or bananas.

Lastly, nutrition only works if you consume the right amount on the run.  If you have the best nutrition plan in the world, it will be wasted if you don’t eat or drink regularly during the run.  Make sure you test out all of your planned nutrition options for any stomach issues and taste appeal.  Chews may taste great for the first half of the run but by mile 20 if you’re gagging, they aren’t a good option.

Feed “the Beast” – part I

Feed “the Beast” – part I

When runners move up in distances from 5 K to marathon and beyond, they have to start thinking about nutrition in a way that may seem foreign.  To further complicate the issue, a simple Google search will yield a Golden Coral Buffet’s worth of ideas on what to use for fuel and technical instructions on how many carbohydrates are needed per hour based on the phase of the moon and the length of your mother-in-law’s toe nails.  Certainly, for anyone who has mucked up their nutrition, getting the right amount of calories at the right time is very important, but it does not require a PhD in Biochemistry to get it right.  But just in case it does, I’m here for the people.

There are lots of pieces to the nutrition puzzle, so in this first post we’ll discuss why the body needs nutrition at certain distances but not others.  In part II we’ll talk turkey – what options exist for fueling?  Finally, in part III, we’ll dive into the “soup to nuts” of eating on the run, as in when to eat and how to consume the nutrition to avoid the dreaded “gut bomb”.

Let’s dive into the mystery of nutrition.  As I am a big believer in people taking ownership of their running experience, let’s discuss why nutrition is needed, particularly as the miles pile up.  When you are performing in an endurance sport like running, you use two main forms of energy, carbohydrates and fat.  Carbs are the easiest and most readily available to the muscles, while fat takes longer to serve up.  Now add to that fact, the body can only store a limited amount of carbs “ready to use” in our muscles.  This form of carbs is called glycogen.  Science tells us our bodies can store about 90 minutes worth of glycogen in our muscles.  So . . . what happens after that?  Well, things can get a bit messy when our muscles run out of glycogen and we don’t supply more carbs.  We won’t becoming raging zombies, but we will “bonk” or begin to see a drop in physical performance and mental focus (remember our brain uses a lot of carbs in the form of glucose).

Runner’s often talk about carb loading the night and/or days before a big race.  Here’s the reason:  Runners want to top off the glycogen in their muscles.  By race morning, we want our muscles completely full with glycogen so that we can go faster and farther before needing to tap into other energy sources which are less efficient.  So how much do you need to carb load?  Again, we go to the science.  Women are less responsive to carb loading than men of equal weight, so we need roughly 8 g/kg of body weight, the day before the race or long run.  Guys, you can get the same effect with a bit less – sorry, you can skip the extra doughnut.  So for those of us who don’t work in kg, that equates to approximately 3.6 grams of carb/pound of body weight (if I did my math right).  For a 150 pound woman, this equates to 540 g of carbs the day before the race.  That’s quite a bit of carbs.  To put things in perspective, a banana is 27 g of carbs, 1 slice of 14 inch, regular crust pizza is 36 g, and a single pancake, 6 inches across is 22 g of carbs.  If eating this many carbs is a big jump from your norm, definitely try a bit of carb loading before training runs of 14+ miles.  You want to know how your stomach will react to a bolus of carbs on a long run and not on race morning.

So now you understand why runners carb load and how carbs can effect performance.  The last piece of the puzzle is nutrition on the run.  Energy sources designed for runners such as, chews, GUs, sports drinks, etc are formulated to be digested rapidly and used quickly by the body.  That being said, anything we eat/drink on the run still has to be absorbed into the intestines, passed into the blood stream, and shuttled off to the muscles.  This explains why runners want to maximize glycogen because it’s already at the muscles and ready to use and why it’s so important for runners to time their nutrition during a run.  If you wait too long to take in energy, you will use up your glycogen before the new carbs come to town and  . . . “bonk”.

Stay tuned for the next post where we will sidle up to the runner’s buffet to sample the options.

Running Adventures – Sewanee Perimeter Trail

Running Adventures – Sewanee Perimeter Trail

One of the parts I enjoy the most about running is the storytelling.  Our sport is so unique in the fact that we share much of our running lore and knowledge through mentoring and storytelling.  We have all been through grueling races and training runs only to spend hours reminiscing the misery and adventure later.

Last weekend myself and several members of our running group, the Mad Cow Running Company (credit to Tyler our “hype-man” for the videos and water drops), visited the Sewanee Perimeter Trail.  The trail stretches roughly 20 miles along the perimeter of the campus, within the Boundary of the University of the South and follows the bluff line of the Cumberland Plateau.  The trail is mostly single track trail but does cross a few logging roads and runs on a paved portion near the local farmer’s market.  The primary users of the trail are hikers and trail runners but there are some mixed use portions for horses and mountain bikes.

Our herd met at 8 am on Saturday at the Memorial Cross.  We parked at the few spaces afforded by the small gravel lots near the cross and took a moment to check our gear and water, as well as, to take in the view of the cross and the valley which it overlooks below.  The temperatures were already in the 80’s and forecasts called for temps to soar into the 90’s by noon with heat advisories and “real feel” temperatures expected to hit well into the hundreds.  Two of our cows were kind enough to do early morning water drops at 8.4 and 14.2 miles.  With temps as they were, we knew that we would easily go through our multiple liters of water during the 20 miles.

Five little bovines set off on the trail going counter-clockwise away from the Cross.  For most of the first mile we did “power hiking” as the trail winds through some rocky portions that required a bit of finessing and climbing over rocks.  In my opinion, the first mile is the prettiest but doesn’t have the great overlooks of the later portions of the trail.  The sweaty herd alternated a mixture of walk and run intervals with the goal of taking it nice and easy to keep from getting overheated and planned to average about 15 minutes/mile.

The trail was a mixture of more technical portions covered with roots and rocks with more groomed portions that were very runnable.  It goes without saying that there were hills.  Many hills.  The herd made it to the first water drop without major incident.  We did have to make a few minor detours as parts of the trail were “under construction”.  We were all grateful for the water drop as we had all nearly emptied our supplies of water in the first 8 miles.  I won’t share the indecent comments made during the exuberance of having ice cold water.

And then the herd was off again.  After a few miles, the cow in front of me stepped off the trail to let two oncoming runners pass.  Said cow yelped.  Not being the yelping type, I looked up to find said cow flailing and yelping and running away at speed. . . and a nest of yellow jackets.  With no time to spare I changed course and shouted a warning to the runner behind me.  But the damage was done and one of our herd had picked up a half-dozen or more stings.  According to Wikipedia, yellow jackets are a hazard on this trail – nailed it.

After a quick assessment, our wounded cow was still able to continue and did not appear to be majorly allergic to stings.  But, after a few miles our cow had itchy hands, swollen appendages, full body hives, and looked like he just got punched in the mouth.  So as our herd often does in the case of an emergency, we huddled up and problem solved.  Mercifully we were close to our next water drop which was also near a road.  By taking the road, we were only 2ish miles from the cars rather than the 5-6 miles remaining on the trail.  Half the cows ran to get their cars.  One car to gather the wounded cow; one car to grab Benadryl and Zantac.

And this cow, this cow called our herd nurse who wasn’t able to join us but knew exactly what to do.  She provided me with precise dosing instructions of what to take and how often.  Let me just say, a person can consume a lot of Benadryl before they will overdose.  Thanks to the quick work of the cows, we had a happy ending with everyone making it home safely and one cow having one heck of a Benadryl hangover.

The moral of this story is stick together and carry a better first aid kit on the trails.  As for the future, the cows will be out running this trail and many others in the future.  And in time, this story will move into the annals of running lore where 6 stings became 50 stings and yellow jackets become dragons.  And more importantly, where cows become legendary.

Do What Moves You – part II

Do What Moves You – part II

In the second part of this blog series on “motivation” we will discuss finding motivation during recovery and in returning to running after injury or a long hiatus (see part I on the elements of motivation).  Not surprising, there is a huge field of study on the “psychology of sports injuries“.  There is no way around the issue, injuries are awful.  According to the NCAA and Sports Science Institute, “injuries can hinder performance and negatively impact . . . athletes’ mental health and well-being, including: threats to self-esteem, social isolation and motivational demands associated with rehabilitation. Therefore, injury is one of the most arduous physical and psychological tests confronting . . . athletes.”

Sound familiar?  The scope may be different for us amateur athletes (i.e. no shoe contracts or college scholarships at stake) but the similarity of the human experience in injury is largely the same.  LeBron James and myself are likely to react in a very similar way to being injured and sidelined from the sport we love.  So if injuries are such an “arduous” experience, how do we athletes come back from injury and stay motivate?

We science the heck out of our recovery!

Science tells us that “greater self‐efficacy is the ability to perform prescribed rehabilitation modalities, stronger beliefs in the treatment efficacy, and higher value attached to rehabilitation, were all related to compliant behaviour.”  Say what?  If we believe we can succeed (self-efficacy) and we believe in the value of the treatment/therapy, we will be good little recovery runners and do our work without pushing too far, too fast.

Now is the critical point.  We need to find the motivation to recover and the self-belief that we will recover.  To achieve this goal, we will utilize the strategies of motivation from my first blog post: Autonomy, Value, and Competence.

Autonomy – we control the outcome.  In order for us to feel “in control of an injury” we need to understand the in’s and out’s of our injury.  What is the injury, how did we get it (i.e. overuse, muscle imbalances, bad form, etc) and we need to understand how we can prevent the injury in the future.  We also need to have a clear idea of what recovery looks like – how long it will take, what are the steps of recovery, and what does success look like at each step.  We need milestones for performance during recovery.

Value – recovery is singularly important to us and our running tribe.  Value is perhaps the easiest for us to find.  We want to be better and back in the race.  To boost value, we need to tap into our social network.  Our network of family and our running tribe become our recovery team.  They help us see the value of little accomplishments and keep us connected to our running even when we are sidelined.  I have good friends that have been injured but quickly became the hero of the long run when they showed up to provide mobile aid stations during hot training runs.  The injured runner values their return to sport and their community values them and their recovery.

Competence – we will recover and be better than before our injury.   We must approach our recovery with “tenacious attention“.  The athlete must make their singular focus to do all the million little things correctly that will lead to recovery.  With this laser focus, there is no room to doubt the possibility of recovery.  The runner must stay in the moment.  The worst thing a runner can do is reminisce about who they were as a runner.  That is not the runner we are at the moment and it is an unfair comparison.  The runner must focus on every fine detail of a task and push their bodies precisely to facilitate recovery without crossing the line.  Every precise execution is the opportunity to build competence and prepare for the great return.