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Race Report: Northface Endurance Challenge

Its been quite the race season for me. My miles have piled up at a rate I didn’t think possible a few years ago, and I’ve fallen even more in love with a sport I have every intention of participating in for the rest of my life. Thus, it was fitting that I finished up my 2012 race season with my third ultramarathon of the year. Not only did I start the year with an ultra, but I accepted my second Northface endurance challenge, which is where my ultra-history began (I make it sound mildly epic, despite the fact that my “history” started last year, and I’ve now run a total of 4 ultramarathons).

The Northface Endurance Challenge 50K in Kansas City, MO is the second to last race in the series, and the only road race on the calendar. After finishing my first 50-miler a few weeks back, I didn’t so much train for this 50K as I did taper after the longer race. This quasi-organized training schedule left me a bit anxious, but I’ve also been pretty busy in other areas of my life, so I luckily haven’t had as much time to obsess over my schedule either. In addition, since neither the beautiful epicurean or I had spent any significant time in KC, we decided to turn it into a mini-vacation, which added to the stress-free nature of the race. In all honesty, this was probably the least I’ve thought about any race this season. By in large, this didn’t prove to be an issue, as my endurance is quite high at the moment (go figure, right?!). However, my lack of observation did catch up to me in what appears to be the theme of my entire year- HILLS!

Friday Afternoon: We arrived in KC around 3:30PM, which gave us plenty of time to head over to packet pick-up. As luck would have it, I ended up booking our hotel is pretty much the ideal location for both the race and the rest of our weekend activities. Packet pick-up was within walking distance, and was relatively well-organized as I expected. Northface contracts with a company to provide “virtual race bags” in order to save both on costs and environmental impact. I’m quite a fan of this, since most of the handouts you receive in your race bag end up in the garbage anyway. We picked up my bib, shirt, arm-warmers, and water bottle, and headed back to the hotel to drop everything off before dinner. The swag for the race alone almost makes the registration cost worth it, so I was quite pleased! We had dinner at Waldo’s Pizza, which had incredible pies and an enormous craft beer selection- I highly recommend it!

Saturday Morning/Race Morning: The starting line was located at Frank A. Theis Park, which was only a few blocks from the hotel, so we left the room around 6:15, getting there in plenty of time for the 7:00AM start. Northface had to change the starting times for all of the races due to city restrictions (I believe), so it was quite a whirlwind as the 7 o’clock hour approached. This is the only race in the series without any participant caps, so the numbers were perhaps a bit higher but still not overwhelming. They had fire pits set up at the starting line for folks to keep warm, which was really nice. It was 38 degrees at the start, and I knew it was going to get a bit warmer, so I opted for shorts and s sleeveless running shirt, along with gloves. I was wearing a new pair of Smartwool compression socks (review forthcoming) which served the additional role of keeping my legs warmer at the start as well. They lined up the runners based on the race they were running, with 5 minutes separating start times for the 50k/marathon/half marathon/10k/5k. This made things a bit crowded but still manageable. Things ran right on schedule, and about 150 or so runners took off at 7:00AM for the full 50K experience.

The start/finish area

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Kansas City was a hilly community! For the next five hours, it seemed as though I was either going up or going down one hill after another. Had I read the race description more carefully (or perhaps just not blocked it out of my memory?), I would have remembered the words “surprisingly hilly” as they described the eb and flow of elevation change from 720 feet to 1020 feet, which seemed to be repeated so often that I felt like the needle of a record player moving back and forth over a broken record. We wound our way through downtown Kansas City, through the University of Missouri- Kansas City campus, and  in and out of historic neighborhoods with grand old houses. One of my favorite areas was down along the Missouri River which we reached after descending what seemed like thousands of stairs down into the Mines of Moria. The banks of the river were a calming respit from the more active scenery of the city, and there are some amazing bridges crossing the river. Alas, going down stairs meant we also had to make up that elevation decline, and I was ready to hurl my water bottle into the fires of Mount Doom when I got to the top.

Have you been to this part of Kansas City?

Luckily, the aid stations were very well placed along the course, and nicely stocked with fluids, GU, and fruit. In all, it was a very visually stimulating course, which definitely helped the miles go by that much quicker. They had countless intersections blocked off so I had plenty of opportunities to thank KC’s finest for their help, some of them more pleased to be out there than others. At one point, after the marathon and 50K participants followed the same course, we split so that the 50K runners could get in the extra distance. These 5 additional miles may have been the hilliest of all! After the last ridiculously steep hill, I got to the top and was greeted by volunteers congratulating me for making it to the highest point in Kansas City. You don’t say?!

The lone flat section of the course!

Despite the hills, the race seemed to go by rather quickly, and when I reached the 26-mile mark, I realized that I had maintained a pretty consistent pace and was actually at or near my marathon PR time. So much for slowing down a bit, eh? I kept on pushing, and at mile 28, I was fairly certain that the race organizers had made a mistake. We couldn’t possibly be going up this hill, could we? Alas, we did, and I pushed through! Luckily, the knowledge I gained from reading ChiRunning proved very useful and the angled stride strategy probably saved my legs on all of the hills.

In the last mile, we finally received a bit of rest as we hit some nice downhills on our way back to the park. The last half mile was all down hill, which gave me an extra burst of energy (or was I just falling forward at that point?) and I pushed hard into the finish. I crossed the line in 5:06, which almost seemed ridiculous to me when I saw it! I had been shooting for a time somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00, so I was ecstatic. The beautiful epicurean was there to greet me at the end, having arrived extra early after missing my finish in Sioux Falls…I guess she knows me pretty well 🙂

Crossing the finish line…early!

All said, it was a fantastic race, and a wonderful weekend. We stayed in KC a few extra days and did some shopping, visited some museums, and ate some great food…all within walking distance of our hotel. Did I mention that our hotel was on a hill?

A great end to a great race season!

Pour Some Sugar On Me…

Everyone has a collection of music that defines their youth. For me, one of those songs was Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me“. **I’ll pause now so you can click the link and sing along to the music video, and then ask yourself at the end why music just isn’t as good as it used to be** Anyway, in addition to it being a great up-tempo song to run to if you happen to carry music with you while you run, this song could also be the anthem for most of the nutritional supplements we, as runners, are fed every day. Not only are we burning calories like wildfire when we train, but it is very easy to get into the “I’ll eat what I want, I just ran X miles!” mentality. In addition, most folks know that if you are going to be running more than 90 minutes, then you should get into the habit of carrying some form of nutrition with you. The gels and chomps that have become the mainstay of any distance runner have almost come to be synonymous with longer races. They end up in our race packets, they sponsor races, they set up tables at expos and hand out free samples, and we very quickly factor them into our race preparation.

By in large, I think it is safe to assume that many (although not all) runners eat healthier than the average American. Granted, that isn’t terribly hard to do considering the horrible diets and increasing obesity epidemic in our country. However, how many of you have given much thought to the nutritional content of the gels and chomps you toss into your pocket or pack on your way out the door for a long run? I certainly hadn’t, and I think I was like many, who never looked too closely at the nutrition label, but assumed they were good for me and doing good things for me as I piled on the miles. I vaguely understood the need for balancing carbs, fats, and proteins, but not in enough depth to be of much use.

Photo Credit:

As a society, we have developed a collective sweet tooth. Refined sugar (and its many aliases) has found its way into untold thousands of processed foods without us even realizing it. I encourage you to look through your pantry and count how many items have some form of refined sugar in them (I differentiate refined sugars from natural sugars, such as those that come from fruits and vegetables). On average, Americans eat 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, which comes out to around 140 lbs of sugar a year! We certainly do like our soda, flavored coffee drinks, and energy drinks…just ask any college student. The body of research elaborating on the negative health effects of refined sugar is multiplying exponentially- this list does a great job of summarizing the numerous consequences of our processed diets.

What can you cut out of your diet?

In the past few months, my diet has shifted quite a bit. The beautiful epicurean and I have made a commitment to eating an even healthier and more anti-inflammatory diet. Part of that choice has meant cutting out refined sugars. This was certainly a significant commitment for us both, but the size of my sweet tooth meant it was that much more of a challenge for me. The joy of high quality milk chocolate, thick ice cream, or a piece of homemade pie really can’t be beat for flavor, but the sugar levels are also off the charts. Granted, I have probably committed to giving up sweets at 80% compared to her 100%, but considering where I was coming from, that is still a huge shift in my diet. Aside from sweets, cutting out refined sugar has been a rather interesting adventure, and has led us to discover many wonderful new recipes that we wouldn’t have otherwise explored.

Perhaps the biggest change for me, though, has been the calibration of my taste buds. Foods that never used to seem sweet (but contain refined sugar) now seem extremely sweet to the point of being unappetizing. This has extended to all corners of my life, which includes the gels and chomps I have used for nutrition during longer training runs and races. I have found myself struggling to choke down once delicious GU chomps, overwhelmed by the sweetness. Now, seeing as how I’m training this fall for a 50-mile trail race, it is important that I have a handle on my nutrition plan. As such, I’ve begun to explore more natural nutrition sources. Dried fruits and nuts seem to have their place, and I’ve been eating peanut butter (the natural kinds…even regular peanut butter has added sugars). I plan to try some of the other nut butters as well, and we’ve recently begun using coconut mana (imagine coconut made into a spreadable butter).

At this point, everything is an experiment. I have yet to find any natural nutritional products marketed to runners that limit refined sugars, although some do a better job than others.I’ll be trying some recipes I’ve found online for some homemade nutritional sources as well, so be on the lookout for recipes!

Summer To Do List

Normally Memorial Day week brings with it comfortable temperatures and signs that summer is just about here. However, this hasn’t been a normal weather year, so the fact that it was in the 90’s today somehow is not a shock to me. None-the-less, it did prove to be quite a sunny afternoon for the loads of yard work that awaited us, an ongoing project courtesy of some less-than-attentive prior home-owners.

In addition to the constant project that is yard work (which is quite a new item on my to-do list, having grown up without a yard, and been an apartment dweller my whole life up until now), this long weekend is a great time to not only reflect on our history, but also to think about running to do items or goals for the summer. With the exception of a few shorter races, the months of June, July, and August are off limits for racing- the summer heat is not my friend, and if you saw how much I sweat on a regular basis, you’d agree!

I’ll be running Dam to Dam (20K) next Saturday, and then driving up to Minneapolis with some friends to run the Minneapolis Marathon. Dam to Dam was my first long distance race, and I love the Minneapolis area, so I’m looking forward to a final race weekend of the spring season. After that though, it’s time to start thinking about my summer training goals, and where I’d like to focus my energy. I’m sure you are doing the same, either because you’ve already committed to some fall races, or because you are thinking about whether or not you should commit. Here are some “goal” areas to consider for the summer.

Speed Work: Summer is about the only time that I think more intently about working on my speed, and the local high school track, which is only a few blocks away, and always open, will provide a great venue for that work. The proximity and ability to easily stay hydrated will make this a no-brainer…hopefully 🙂

Ok, maybe not quite that fast…

Hills: I’ve done much better about my hill-work so far this year, but I want to be even more intentional, so I’ll be looking for as many opportunities for hill-work as possible. This isn’t necessarily an easy task considering I live in Iowa, where corn fields make up a rather large percentage of the landscape, but there are a few hills that can still offer some challenge!

Biking: Aside from the fact that I committed to ride the entire week of RAGBRAI, I have found that I love cycling in general and the window of opportunity for getting on the saddle is much smaller so I’m planning on taking advantage!

Or quite that intense…

Nutritional Experimentation: This will be happening on two fronts. First, the beautiful epicurean and I will be trying a plethora of new summer recipes as we strive for healthy and anti-inflammatory eating. In addition, I hope to use the summer months to experiment with some new running nutritional items, so stay posted!

Change of Scenery: When I started running, I quickly learned the roads of my small Iowa town much better than I ever did while driving on them (I’m a bit directionally challenged). However, there are still some roads in the areas where my feet have yet to fall, so I aim to change that.

but definitely a change of scenery!

Now, “speed’, “hills”, and “food” mean many different things to different people, so perhaps these goal areas can serve as a jumping off point for your own summer to do list. Once you start setting those goals, I’d love to hear them!

Hydration Highlights

It may only be the beginning of May, but with the unseasonably warm temperatures around the country, it’s already getting pretty darn warm! Although properly hydrating is always an important concern as a runner, it is doubly important during the summer months, when the heat sucks the water out of you that much quicker. Dehydration is a significant concern and should be dealt with appropriately to avoid health concerns and maintain optimal performance. This has not always been a strength of mine, and I generally need to work very hard just to drink enough water during the day. Now that my workout levels have increased, I’m realizing that I’m going to need to pay even more attention to hydration than I ever have before. With that in mind, there are a few areas worth commenting on for the purposes of proper hydration.

Dehydration & Hyponatremia: If you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. For some reason, this advice from my high school gym teacher still sticks out in my mind. In more technical terms, dehydration results in nausea, dizziness, weakness, and cramps. Water loss varies by person during a run, so in order to find out how much you lose, weigh yourself nude before and after a run. One pound of weight loss typically equals 1 pint of water loss.  From there, you can calculate how many fluids you should be consuming per hour. On the flip side, you can also very easily fall victim to the voices telling you to drink constantly, and literally become drunk from too much water consumption, otherwise known as hyponatremia (low blood sodium levels). For this reason, it is that much more important that you understand just how much water your body is losing, and replace it efficiently.

Sports Drinks vs. Water: Sports drinks are designed to hydrate, as well as maximize performance by including carbohydrates and electrolytes. Gatorade and Powerade have become common drinks for athletes and non-athletes alike due to the high sugar content. Thus, you shouldn’t be replacing your water intake during the day with a sports drink. However, they provide crucial energy during a run as you work to maintain fluid and nutrition levels in your body. I’m partial to mixing sports drinks with water during long runs, as it seems to be easier on my stomach. I’m also taking in nutrition in the form of GU Chomps or Gels, so this balance works out well for me. If you are interested in a more in-depth analysis, checking out Running Times’ Guide to Sports Drinks and Gels.

Listening to your Sweat: In addition to the above mentioned signs of dehydration, I’ve found it very important to pay attention to your sweat. Especially when it’s getting hotter out, I tend to sweat profusely, so I’m losing more fluid than I would during a January run. For this reason, I Know I need to focus even more on hydrating. I plan on carrying a water bottle with me on longer runs this summer as well, which doubles as good training for many trail races, which require you to have your own hydration container.

Water Bottles vs. Hydration Packs: Last year, I bought a camel bak hydration pack, thinking it would be a wonderful addition to my running arsenal. On many trail blogs I have read, they sing the praises of hydration packs for longer runs and races, and logically, it made sense. I figured I would try it on the road first and see what I thought. Unfortunately, I chose to try it at the Okoboji Summer Games Half Marathon, which is a rather unpleasantly hot race, run mostly along an exposed highway, in JULY. This was not a good choice. I felt like I was running with a small child on my back during the entire race, and by the end, the warm water wasn’t refreshing anyway. Now, granted, these may not have been optimal conditions, and I know I need to give it more of a chance for running purposes, but as of right now, I’m sticking to water bottles for running. I do enjoy the flexibility carrying water can give you though in terms of route adjustment, and it makes it easier to regulate your hydration, especially on hot days where you should be drinking 4-8 oz. every 15 minutes most likely. My personal favorite right now is the Nathan Quickdraw Plus. You can check out a few other options here as well.

You should also remember that water-rich foods such as cucumber, watermelon, and plums can help with hydration so think about adding them more regularly into your diet. You may also want to keep in mind that warm water is absorbed into the bloodstream slower than cold water, so think about adding ice to your bottle when you go out, or even freezes your bottle the night before and letting it melt during your run!

If you’d like to read more about hydration, check out this great list of links. And, at the end of the day, keep your water and your pee flowing clear! 🙂

Carb Loading: Entering Final Race Prep!

Ok, it’s finally here…the race is less than 48 hours away! I’ve run plenty of races at this point, and my nerves haven’t been much of a factor. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad bit nervous. Luckily, I’m equally excited and ready to dive in 🙂 Now, I’ve always read plenty of anecdotal commentary on the importance of carb-loading before a big race, but I hadn’t looked into it nearly as much. Once I started doing some reading, I found that it was actually much easier than I thought, and at the same time all the more important!

In order to effectively carb load, the old standby has always been pasta. I can’t tell you how many races include a pasta dinner the night before. This is certainly a great first step, but you can do much more for your body. Ideally, it seems as though there is a fair amount of agreement on the value of beginning to carb load a full three days before your race, in order to give your body adequate time to increase its glycogen stores. In that time frame, your body will begin to store more glycogen because you are running much less (the beautiful taper!) and thus not using as much.

Advice varies on the amount of carbs you should be consuming, but a recent Runner’s World article suggested 4 grams of carbs for every pound of body weight (i.e. I should be eating 4 x 160 = 640 grams of carbs, which equals around 2560 calories). Although I love pasta, I don’t know that consuming 2500 calories of pasta is my best bet. Luckily, there is a much wider variety of foods to consume when upping your carb intake.

Photo Credit: boulder Running Company

Running Times has a great article, with a full list of available foods to consider:

Starches: bread, pasta, rice, cereal, bagel, oatmeal, pancake, English muffin, tortilla, couscous, low-fat muffin, gnocchi, polenta and quinoa

Starchy vegetables: potatoes, peas, pumpkin, squash, beans and lentils

Fruit: bananas, apples, peaches, pears, pineapple, oranges, cherries, mango, kiwi, any form of dried fruit, canned fruit

Dairy: flavored low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt

Snacks: pretzels, animal crackers, Fig Newtons, low-fat granola bar, low-fat crackers, baked chips, and graham crackers

Beverages: flavored low-fat milk, juice, sports drink, Boost or Ensure, low-fat smoothie

Sports Bars/Energy Bars: PowerBar Performance Bar, Clif Bar, Honey Stinger Bar
(Some sports bars are geared toward high protein, not high carb. These are not the bars to choose when carb loading.)

Extras: honey, fruit preserves or jam and maple syrup

In addition to consuming the correct amount of carbs in order to get your glycogen stores up, it’s also important to remember not to over-do it on the fiber, lest you find yourself making frequent stops at the porta-potty! It’s also a good idea to eat smaller meals at more frequent intervals. You’ll feel less heavy and sluggish, and be able to draw on the energy you are consuming more easily.

Most of all, trust your body. I’m going to try my best to remember that more than anything. I’ve trained hard over the past 4 months, I know what it feels like to hit longer distances, and I can tell when something is or isn’t sitting well in my stomach. I know I’m not going to be breaking any course records, and that as long as I finish, I’ll be achieving a PR (the beauty of running a distance for the first time), so I’m going to go out there and have fun!

If you are interested in digging a bit deeper into pace and nutrition calculations, I’d highly recommend the endurance calculator as well.

Photo Credit:

Digital Running: Pick Your App

After education, my two biggest passions in life are technology and running. Therefore, it makes sense that I tend to obsess a bit over any and all pieces of technology that can track, calculate, or otherwise influence my running. As an Apple iOS and iPhone fan, it then stands to reason that I would always be on the lookout for the most elegant, sophisticated, and technically exact application to track my running. However, if you did indeed guess that to be the case, you’d be wrong. Up until a month ago, I rarely used my iPhone for running. In fact, it was probably one of the only aspects of my life where my iPhone didn’t factor.

Then the GU 100,000 mile Challenge began. This competition, organized by Strava, provided the added internal competitive incentive I needed to check out what the field of running apps had to offer. The goal was to reach 50, 100, 150, 0r 200 miles in total running distance between March 9th and April 9th. Various GU prizes are then awarded, with the top prize for reaching 200 miles being a 24-pack of GU and GU Roctane. This was all the incentive I needed to test my mileage and try out the Strave iPhone app along the way.

I had always avoided using my iPhone in favor of my Garmin Forerunner 405. I like the small, compact size of my Garmin, and love being able to walk in the door and have it wireless sync via bluetooth with my computer and upload my data to the Garmin website. The thought of wearing my iPhone around my arm seemed like a hassle. However, after doing so for a month, I didn’t end up minding it nearly as much as I thought I would. I still wore my Garmin to check time, distance, and pace while running, because I didn’t need to stop. However, the Strava app proved just as accurate, and the interface and website design proved to be quite efficient and well-organized. I have enjoyed being able to connect with other friends through Strava and compare runs, and it has given me a little extra boost in terms of my own motivation over the past month.

Prior to using the Strava app, I had downloaded and played around with several other iPhone apps, including iMapMyRun and RunKeeper. Both offer similar advantages and do a nice job of tracking your progress. The iMapMyRun app has the added bonus of connecting with the MapMyRun website, which allows you to map out routes ahead of time and then send them wirelessly to your iPhone. This is certainly a nice touch and that level of connectivity gives it a slight advantage in my book.

The reality is that running and exercise apps are a large and growing category of iOS applications, with each one looking to be the “next big thing” (much like every other category of applications, I suppose). Folks have their own preferences, and there is no shortage of reviews online to give you a myriad of feedback. At the end of the day, you really just need to select a few and find one that works best for you, depending on what you want out of the application.

Are you interested in simple tracking or are you a statistics junkie?

Do you want to link your data with social networking sites or external websites?

Does the application back up your data somewhere in case your phone crashes?

Are you looking for additional features such as calorie-counting, training plans, etc.?

Do you want to pay for the app or is it not worth the $$$ to you?

Is it going to be your primary tracking device or a secondary tracking device?

These are all important questions to ask yourself. However, don’t spend more time than you need to looking for the perfect app. You aren’t going to find it. You can, however, find one that fits in well with your running routine, without causing you any additional hassle. Here are some additional review websites that you may find useful:

Mashable: 10 Essential iPhone Running Apps

RN Central: 50 Awesome iPhone Apps for Runners

Lifehacker: Roll Your Own Nike+ iPhone App Readers Choice Best iPhone Running Apps

Oh, and in case you are wondering- I hit 264 miles this month. My GU is in the mail…in 4-6 weeks!

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