Saturday, March 29, 2014

Great to be back on Black Mountain: albeit wet and slow

I've seen more than a dozen salamanders on my climb to the top of Black Mountain this morning, great to see you guys! I don't know what your predators are but you are blending so well with brown dead leaves that you are even hard to spot when we run slowly so I hope you don't get killed by mountain bikers.
And it was also great to see you guys and gals from my Stevens Creek Striders club, including a few new and younger faces. A good contingent in spite of the rain.
As you can see, I'm back on the trails and it really feels great after this 16-day intermission. I did post an update on my injury last Monday night and it got the lowest traffic of all the 375 articles of my blog, so it seems like you'd rather me talk about actual running than injuries. Well, me too anyway... ;-)

We always say how important it is to ramp-up back slowly after an injury and I'm not sure I'm really following the adage here but at least I did a progression: 6.2 miles on Wednesday at 7:47, 9.3 at 7:38 on Thursday, 11.3 @ 7:21 on Friday and a jump to 28.3 hilly miles at 8:53 this Saturday.

Looking at my log I realize that I "summited" Black Mountain more than 100 hundred times already, and it's always the same pleasure to get such a hill training opportunity and run in this quiet area, yet so close to the busy Silicon Valley.

A few good news:
  • I'm running again, phew!
  • It has been raining several times this week, at last!
  • No major pain along my right tibialis anterior, even after this long run;
  • Great opportunity to have a social run with the Striders.
Any bad news?
  • Despite some hard cross training, my body had forgotten how difficult it was to run 55 miles over 4 days. Yet, I'll have to run 50 miles in less than 1/3 of day next Saturday...
  • With that, I have all sorts of strange sensations in the legs and it wasn't easy not to "over listen" to my body in this week's runs, and refrain from speeding up and using my tendon and muscle more. Patience...
So, overall, very positive progress over the past 4 weeks, I'll go for a few more runs these next few days then it will time to taper again before next Saturday's American River 50-miles. Today's long run was good enough as a confidence builder and slow enough as a confidence "breaker" so I'm not tempted to start too fast next Saturday. With 1,071 entrants, Julie Fingar and her NorCal Ultras team is preparing another ultra feast on a brand new course which will have more trails than these past 34 editions. And the field has 65 entrants in the M50-59 age group, including Tim Twietmeyer for his 34th participation! The fun is definitely not decreasing with the years! ;-)

PS: more pictures from the run...

Running and chatting make for a good social run, including a club meeting in the rain, brrr....

In the wind and rain at the top of black mountain: no Ocean view today, not even views of the nearby hills...

Some water finally making the Stevens Creek stronger, healthier and flowing:

Rain is timely to make these new packs of concrete (Quickrete) stick (several places along Montebello Road):

The Stevens Creek Reservoir is slowly filling up but, at this rate, it's going to be years before it returns to the usual level:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Running injuries: part of the game?

Although we hate them, injuries have a few benefits. First, they are a vocal expression of our body talking to us. It is so hard to follow the adage "listen to your body" and know when to stop, just before pushing the envelope an inch too far. Minor injuries, although they interfere with our passion and balance or, for some and depending on your perspective, imbalance, are a reminders to put things into context and appreciate even more the marvels of what's still working fine in our complex body and much bigger challenges that others may be going through. Another benefit of some physical injuries is the reminder for more stretching, especially to loosen up muscles opposite to the harmed area, or strengthen a particular muscle in order to protect and ease the efforts on a particular joint and, certainly a reminder to work our on core muscles. I'm sure they are many more pluses to the bad news but the last one I'll mention here is the opportunity to learn more about anatomy in particular and sport medicine in general. This is such a vast field, I certainly don't feel the need nor the courage to go back to school to become a specialist. Hopefully, our IBM Watson cognitive system will do that for me! ;-)

Talking about injury is still quite an uncomfortable topic for me as I had always thought and hoped I had found the miracle recipe to keep them at arm's or more specifically at leg's length... A neutral foot, variety in training intensity, length and grounds and rotating different models of shoes, from minimalist flats to more cushioning. Oh maybe I broke the rules in January, too excited I was to still gain speed and working hard to get a few fast races in my new age group. The pain in the tibialis anterior came 2 days after Jed Smith. A small one which looked like the tear of a small muscle fiber. I took two days off, ran/train again for 2 days, stopped for a week, trained 4 days through the injury, tapered another week before the Nationals, tapered for 6 days between the two 50K races, Caumsett and Way Too Cool, and the pain traveled down along the tendon, now a burning pain which looked like an inflammation except that it resisted anti-inflammatory.

I must say that I shouldn't complain too much because, although it persisted through these short breaks and prevented me from training these past 7 weeks, the pain is disappearing after a few days off running and pounding, so I can still cross-train and walk without limping. I know many have gone through much serious injuries. For instance, Sarah had months to ruminate or fulminate and, as a result, she produced a superb piece on the topic, illustrating the patience and wisdom required for coming back to a top form. Her friend Olga is still facing a mysterious abdominal issue, but also shares a touching story about rebuilding her life despite and around the uncertainty. And you can find hundreds of injury-related stories in the blogophere... Even the new goddess of ultra running, Ellie Greenwood, was forced to quit running for 11.5 months for a fibula stress fracture. So glad for her that she came back with another win at Chuckanut this month! And I could talk about friends who are battling cancer, my injury is so insignificant in comparison, time to be grateful for life!

Some people think that, based on the level of competition we are going through in ultra running, we must have access to very good medical expertise and advice, like some champions. Well, that's quite not the case, unless you make it to Team USA and are invited to represent our country at world championships. Like the docs who fixed Jon Olsen before he won the world 24-hour championships last year, but that's only at the event, not through the year and even champions like Jon have to deal with injuries on their own, guess what they are and how to heal. I'm so glad my sister is an MD in France and she strives to keep learning, admits when she doesn't know instead of jumping to pre-conceived and quick conclusions that she might have been taught during her many years of training, and reaches out to her medical network, including a few ultra runners.

So, what is this grain of sand which is derailing my training plans? According to both the sport medicine orthopedics and podiatrists who examined me two weeks ago, it is indeed an issue with my tibialis anterior. They didn't ruled out a somehow simple tendinitis but they prescribed an MRI to determine if the tendon might have been damaged by a tendinosis. Quite close words to me but a big difference in Wikipedia's definition of tendinosis (which isn't even a word in Google's Blogger spell checker by the way), and a sentence which I don't particularly like:

"Tendinosis is often misdiagnosed as tendinitis due to the limited understanding of tendinopathies by the medical community."

That reminds me how we say that ultra running is a big experiment. And I'm one of the guinea pigs which was happily running in the spinning wheel so far, it is time to learn more about running mechanics and the moving boundaries of my envelope, from this new episode. Time to be patient, wiser, cross-train, do some strength training, more stretching, that's all part of the game too, and I had easily forgotten when everything was going so well and smooth last year. When I say that injury is a n opportunity to learn, I'm discovering new soreness in muscles I had no idea existed in my legs thanks to the cross training. And I also learned about a new physical therapy technique which may hopefully be more than what I actually need to get back to running (look at this pretty impressive and drastic video of the ASTYM (Augmented Soft Tissue Mobilization) technique to remove scar tissues, ouch!).
In the meantime, the radiologist hasn't spotted anything on the tibia and fibula (phew!), no edema in the muscles (re-phew!), but some potential tenosynovitis along three tendons (tibialis posterior, flexor digitorum longus and flexor hallux longus, thank you Wikipedia again...) but no mention of the tibialis anterior which was the initial culprit. Ah, which trick is my body playing now? I can't differentiate from sure fat from tendon in the image, so better let the experts do their job... I'm now waiting to hear from the reading and interpretation of the MRI by the orthopedic before deciding what to do next...And while I wait, I'm indeed wondering if injuries are not a normal part of running to our best, of this game of determining and finding what are these limits... To the point that injuries would be an integral part of sustainable running... What do you think, should we go that far?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Way Too Cool 2014: ouch again!

Enough! Someone has to speak-up so better be me... I need to stop chasing big goals while I'm injured and blatantly under trained! Only 110 miles overall of running in February, not a single hill, I should just be happy to toe the line, set a conservative pace and finish. But that's so far from the goals I had set for this year, and the level of fitness I had built in January...
The setup for this year's Way Too Cool was perfect though: 25th anniversary, blue and sunny skies, nice temperatures, 45F at the start and 70+ by mid day, soft trails with just enough mud to remind us we are still in winter and a few creeks to cross. After last Sunday's Nationals, my tibia was burning but I was able to ice it a lot at the hotel I was staying at for my customer meetings in New Jersey. No running of course but 2 sessions on the elliptical to get the sore legs moving. At the last minute I made a reservation for Friday night in Auburn, fearing the parking issues with 1,233 participants in this year's edition. Quite a few being from our San Jose QuickSilver running club (20 total today)!
The team in blue even got interviewed!
It was my 94th ultra race, 45th 50K and 9th consecutive Way Too Cool. I must admit that I have a bumpy relationship with this race, mostly love which gets me to come back, but I had quite lows on this course. 2006 was actually my first ultra. I had bee told it was an easy and "flat" course and suffered so much from cold temperatures that I barely broke 4:30. 2007 was even worse with asthma kicking in and a 4:45 finish (still no post as I started blogging late March 2007). A breakthrough on the shorter course of 2008 with a nice 3:56 ("Cool, at last."). 4:14 in 2009 ("Longer, slower.") then my worst finish in 4:58 in 2010 ("Not completely cool"). Back in 2011 with a 4:18 ("My 5th birthday"), 4:06 in 2012 ("Way too what?") and another breakthrough last year in perfect dry conditions with a top 10 finish in 3:50:25 ("So cool!").
With that I only needed to run 10 minutes slower this year to improve the course record of my brand new M50-59 age group. As usual with the very fast top runners and the 1st mile all downhill and on pavement, the start was very fast. I ran the first mile in 6:06 and it felt easy except for some tension in my calves, residual tiredness from racing hard 6 days ago at the Nationals. I was probably in the top 20-25 at the end of the first loop, coming back to Cool at an average 7 min/mile pace which was comparable to last year. My tibia started burning on the rough downhill to Highway 49 crossing at mile 10 but it was bearable.
The next section is a scenic and rolling 4-mile along the American River and I kept the pace slightly under 7 which was slightly faster than last year. The course is not quite 31.1 miles, closer to 30.4-30.5, with the second half harder in my opinion than the first. My Garmin indicated 1:46 for the first half (15.2) miles, that was indeed a fast pace, way under 4 hours. Starting at the half marathon, my calves started cramping so I doubled my S!Caps intake and slowed down a little, letting Karl Schnaitter among others closing on me by the Maine Bar aid station.

Although the UltraSignup statistics were putting me in 31st position in the list of entrants, Race Director Julie Fingar assigned me the bib #17, I always appreciate the faith she has in me, it did pay off last year! ;-) UltraRunnerPodcast's Eric Schranz was taking pictures of us on Lower Quarry Road (see below). That was around mile 14 and he said "Here is Jean, racing again! You are in 15th." So far, so good...
Well, so far, too fast... The cramps worsen and the pace falling down the cliff, 7:20, 7:30, 7:40... I did pass a couple of runners but was mostly passed by a few others. Teammate John Burton passed me just before the mile 19 camera, and he had the top 2 female on his heels which probably motivated him! ;-) Speedsters Caitleen Smith, who encouraged me, and Magdalena Boulet. A mile never felt as long at the one between that livecast camera and the Auburn Lake Trails aid station. I had my Gu2O almost refilled by one of the volunteers when Mark Richtman flew in the aid station yelling "Gu2O, Gu2O!" Over the last 3 miles I was expecting Mark Murray to catch me, but that was the other Mark who showed up first, the 58-year old and ex member of ultra running Team USA. I left the aid station first but Mark was quick to pass me and leave me in the dust. Our average pace at this point was 7:49, if I recall, so I thought he had a shot to the age group record himself.

From that point, having lost the age group category, the race became a real struggle. The cramping was really bad but, over the years, I learned how to deal with it and keep moving. Albeit quite slowly now. Last year, I was so excited to run most of Goat Hill, this year it was an agony. I briefly stopped at the aid station at the top of Goat Hill to take two small cups of Coke and I had hard time leaving the station, both my legs almost paralyzed. Pictures of me being passed by Michael Fink and Jady Palko, from Galen Farris:
I forced myself to jog the next miles, with more runners passing me, and didn't want to lose more time at the Highway 49 Crossing. The last hill was a struggle and even the last 1/2 mile to the finish with the cramps seizing both my calves (Pictures from Scott Sandow).

While my finish time wasn't my worse here, 4:14:38, I placed 40th and 5th in my new age group, yikes! Here is the screen shot that Greg took from the video live cast at the finish line:
At 58 Mark Richtman had won our age group in 4:02, missing the AG course record by a minute (he had no idea what that record was). Mark Murray also had a tough day with such a fast start and ran a 4:27 (versus 4:02 last year).

The race was won by Chris Vargo from Colorado Springs (3:16:51) beating local elite Alex Varner by 13 seconds, what a finish! To put things into perspective, Max King had set a Course Record last year in 3:08:50 but on a completely dry course so I'd say this year's conditions were not as good, although great for a winter race.

Magdalena won, clocking the 2nd fastest time on this course, 3:53:09, with Caitlin taking second in 3:56 and Jennifer Pfeifer (50!) passing me in the last 1/4 mile stretch to take 3rd in 4:14.

Overall, a masterpiece event organized by Julie and her NorCal Ultras crew, I believe now the largest 50K in North America, and maybe the largest ultra. Apart from the parking (I arrived almost 2 hours before the start and was parked 0.4 mile from the start, some runners having to park a mile away!), it never felt crowded. Well, even it wasn't my best day, I wasn't in the middle of the pack either... I only stopped at one aid station, but thank you to all the volunteers along the course. And to those hanging out at the finish line, I'm sure you spent the whole day handling such a crowd! What another ultra party you spoiled us with!

The first thing I did after finishing is some stretching of my sore legs and get a massage from Ve Loyce, the Monster of the Monsters of Massage. After 17 miles of running with cramps, my legs are still super sore this Sunday morning, but the massage helped me quitting the WTC scene walking... The tibia is burning pretty bad again this morning and I still don't know for sure what the injury is. At least my next race is only in 4 weeks (American River)...

Run happy and safely out there, looking forward to hearing about other WTC stories on FaceBook or the blogopshere!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Caumsett 50K road US championships: more birthday gifts!

I was so looking forward to this run on my birthday weekend, on the second day I became the youngest of a new group of older guys! I worked hard for it, meaning training hard through January. By beginning of February, the hard work started to show at Jed Smith where Rich Hanna was unbeatable (3:13 at 49!) and just wanted to use the run as a long run test, in particular to see how long I could run at a sub 6:20 pace. As usual, I did a recovery run the day after the race, a 10K at 7 min/mile then a slightly faster run on Monday. At this point I felt a sharp pain in anterior tibialis, took a day off, ran again on Wednesday (February 5), then 2 days off which made the pain disappear at least at rest. Did a track workout on Sunday which I had to interrupt at mile 9 because of the pain. There is never a good timing for injuries but I was frustrated that this came at a point I felt in such a great shape. Took another week off, ran for 4 days with pain and took 10 days off to heal and taper. This Friday, I went for a test run and the same pain came up at mile 5 miles, not good, 2 days before the big race... I flew to Newark on Saturday, commuted through New York in heavy traffic but had a good 6-hour sleep in Huntington, close to Caumsett Park. A start at 8:30 am was great to handle the jet lag.
The first good news of the day is that the temperature was a few degrees above the freezing point, overcast skies but no wind despite the park begin next to the Sound and potentially quite exposed to the elements. And the snow was only announced for Sunday night, With that, it was cold but bearable with 2 layers, a hat, gloves and tights. And the bike path was in perfect conditions, clear of the packed snow from a few weeks ago.
Unlike the races I'm now so familiar with in California and where I know so many people, both runners and volunteers, that wasn't the case at all here. But I knew that Scott Dunlap was coming and indeed, he was the first one to wish me a good birthday run.
I was also glad to see elite Michael Wardian, whom I pace a few years ago at the North Face 50-mile championship in San Francisco.
Before the start, I also had a chat with Ian Torrence, and we ended up running the first mile together with Scott. With the injury, I had little expectations of doing great today, yet I didn't believe a slower pace was going to help.

Speaking of familiar faces, my son Max made me the surprise of driving from New Haven. I discovered him in the crowd 5 minutes before the start. His running experience, his smiles and encouragements at every lap, were a huge boost and made a big difference for me today, what another gift! And he took may pictures of us on the course, never getting tired of seeing us coming through again and again!
The top 3 runners (Michael, above, Ethan Coffy, hidden, took off at a sub 6 min/mile pace and I felt that our first mile was too slow, at around 6:40, so I picked-up the pace with Scott and another tall runner, Alex Hetherington, 46, of Vienna, VA.
We kept rotating the lead around a 6:20 pace, leading us to very even lap times: 20:17, 19:38, 19:37, 19:51, 19:54, 19:59 (each lap being right on 5K/3.1 miles). In the 6th lap, Scott was third and I tried to stay with Alex but I couldn't quite keep up the pace. I was so thrilled that I had only felt my tibialis muscle and inflammation around the half marathon, but the joy wasn't enough to keep the 6:20-25 pace which was required for a 3:19 time, the M50-54 US age group record for the distance.
I closed the 7th lap in 20:58 which wasn't too bad except that I was losing the momentum. I actually started feeling dizzy, feeling pain in my head and neck and my vision being altered so I started alternating walking and jogging.

In the meantime, the format of the course allowed for some look of what was ahead and behind you thanks to an out-and-back and turn-around between mile 2.5 and 3 of the loop. Also, those of us in 5-year age groups (M40 and above) had to display our age group on a special bin in the back of our racing tops (last time I experienced that was at a French Nationals 10 years ago and I don't recall we had such bibs at the World Masters). Here is Max catching me looking at the back of a runner at the end of the 7th lap.
And, yes, that runner was wearing a M50-54 bib, darn, I was going to get caught soon! As much as the beginning of the race was pretty clear with our stable pace, it was a very different matter as the race progressed especially as the contingent of 25K runners started their race one hour after our start. With runners of all ability, from 18 to 75, it was all about lapping or getting lapped. To my surprise, Michael wasn't the first one to lap me in lap 7 but Ethan Coffrey, 31, of Tennessee who won in a blazing 2:53, lowering Michael's course record by 2 minutes.
While some were keeping having a great day, I was drowning in the 9th lap and clocked an abysmal 26:15 (8:27 pace, oops!). I even got passed by this other M50-54 runner and that didn't help. At the end of lap 9 I saw another one behind me in the out and back and, this time, decided to pick-up the pace again to a still painful 8 min/mile in the 10th and last lap. I was glad it was over, crossing the finish line in 3:37. Disappointed with my time but happy to have even finished given the very little training through February, even making it into the top 10 (9th male, chicked only once, phew!). Later I found out that I had actually won the M50-54 competition which was a nice consolation. Good for three more birthday gifts: the finisher medal, a top 10 bronze one and the golden medal for M50-54 1st place, felling blessed!

All results are already available on JMS Racing Services' website., a very professional timing, including a marathon split valid for a Boston qualifying time (mine wasn't so good today, a lame 2:57, still 33 minutes below the M50-54 bar, but not as good as the unofficial 2:49 of a month ago at Jed Smith).

The women race was won by Emily Harrison, 28, from Flagstaff, AZ, with an amazing time and new course record of 3:15! (So fast that she is blurry on this picture...)
 A sincere thank you to the Greater Long Island Running Club (GLIRC) for this very professional yet friendly organization of a national-class event, to the Race Directors, and the many volunteers who spent hours standing in the cold this Sunday.

And the injury? Thankfully it didn't bother me during the race, must have been the cold which served as icing to contain the inflammation. It's pretty hot tonight but not as bad as two weeks ago, there is progress. Let's see how it evolves tomorrow, my next race is only in 6 days, my 9th Way Too Cool 50K, can't miss that!

Thanks for all the birthday wishes on FaceBook, this will help me keeping running for another half century, if not faster, at least farther! And, hopefully, along many of you: thank you for the gift of you friendship, support, emulation or encouragements!