Chasing 42

Life, the Universe, & Running

Archive for the tag “pain”

The SF Chronicles: Tackling Lombard

After a brief hiatus for my previously posted relay race report, I’m back with the final installment of my San Francisco chronicles. Things have been a bit more hectic than normal around the house in the past week with the addition of a new four-legged running partner, but more to come on that later!

Now, utilizing my running shoes as a vehicle to see the city was definitely a major impetus for the mileage I piled up in San Francisco, but I also made sure I wasn’t losing sight of my training. I’ve mentioned before how different the landscape in San Francisco is, and there is no hill more famous than Lombard St. I knew before I hopped on the plane that I wanted to make sure I paid this area a visit and tackled all the hills the city had to offer. Although I had a sense that I wasn’t quite ready, that proved to be quite the painful and satisfying understatement!

I headed east from the hotel down toward the Embarcadero, and to AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Although I’m a life-long Minnesota Twins fan, I wanted to make sure I had a chance to take a peak at the stadium while I was in town. This gave me a chance to run along the Embarcadero again and take in the views from the various piers as I headed north. When I had gotten far enough north, I turned back west towards Hyde St.

SF Stadium-03

My initial plan was actually to run past Hyde and go further west towards Golden Gate Park, and I even passed Hyde by initially. Then I turned around to look up the hill. I had never seen a hill this steep and this long in all my life. It might as well have been a mountain, and I couldn’t fathom trying to punish my transmission going up the hill, let alone running up it. However, the self-competitor in me kicked in when I saw a few other runners, and I knew I would regret not running up this urban mountain.

After the first 50 yards, the 12.4% grade announced itself pretty clearly to my legs. My legs had never felt so strained on a run, and for such a sustained period of time, and I loved it! I made my way to the intersection at Lombard St., which is about 2/3 of the way up the Hyde St. hill, and paused for the requisite photo opportunities.

They don't make hills like this in Iowa!

They don’t make hills like this in Iowa!

Lombard truly is just as beautiful and winding as the pictures had let on, and the sign warning pedestrians to stay the road wasn’t going to deter me from this amazing running opportunity. I wormed my way down to the bottom of the hill, and looked back up to see the beautifully landscaped path I had followed. Although the houses lining the street were beautiful, I can’t imagine living there with the constant parade of tourists. I put in my time living in a bubble when I worked as a residence hall director, and I had no need to return to the spotlight in that way.

SF Hills-03

After experiencing Lombard to my satisfaction, I continued up Hyde St., and was amazed when I made it to the top. The views of the bay were magnificent and I couldn’t help but think about how different my training would be if I lived in this beautiful city. Although the run up the hills was tough, the stress of the descent was probably worse, and my legs had certainly reached a new limit by the time I returned to the hotel.

In addition to being incredibly rewarding professionally, my San Francisco adventure provided the backdrop for some wonderful running memories as well!

Yoga Refresh: Spring Stretching

In addition to using the foam roller, yoga has continued to be an important aspect of my training. Since my initial post about Ignite Yoga, I’ve continued to enjoy the benefits of hot yoga and the deep stretching that comes with practicing in a humid, 105 degree room. During the long winter, there were times when the 60 minutes I spent in the yoga studio were the only minutes I was warm the entire day! By the end of the winter, I found myself wishing I could start and end every day with a yoga class. If only my schedule (and budget) would allow it!

Spring finally emerges!

Spring finally emerges!

Since my initial hot yoga class, and making the connection to running, I seem to continue to encounter more and more evidence reflecting the benefits of yoga for runners and other endurance athletes. Based on the number of professional athletes in more mainstream sports, such as football and basketball, that are taking up yoga, I guess I’m not alone. Now, I will fully admit that yoga is not an instant silver bullet for increased performance, flexibility, strength, and endurance, but these are definitely some of the benefits. Researchers have examined the rates of injury in yoga and found surprisingly high levels in some instances. These conversations, coupled with the hesitations of acquaintances that emerge from time to time, got me to thinking more about the actual risks involved.

Ultimately, the research on yoga is far from conclusive in terms of physical and mental benefits. However, the combination of narrative evidence and anecdotal evidence can’t be denied. Obviously, something positive can happen when you practice intelligently and responsibly. These two caveats seem to be the catch, in my opinion. We (Western society) are a competitive culture. As much as me might deny it (myself included), we love to compete with others, even if they don’t know we are competing against one another. When I’m out running, I’m typically thinking about previous runs and attempting to better myself in some way. When I’m running with folks, the competitive thoughts that lead to pace increases or extra distance always seem to creep up, even if I don’t act on them. In the end, we can’t help it. So, why should yoga be any different?

Know your limits :)

Know your limits 🙂

Whether you are stepping into a studio for the first time or the thousandth time, those thoughts will probably emerge. Any good yoga instructor will tell you, as my primary instructor reminds me each week, that the practice is your own and the intent is to become more in touch with your own body. Since I began going to Ignite Yoga, I’d say I’ve gotten much better at focusing my energy on my own practice, but I still catch myself looking around from time to time. I still find myself with moments of frustration when I can’t extend a pose as far as I’d like or my body doesn’t bend the way I want it to bend. I also catch myself pushing too hard at times to try to reach that next plateau of flexibility. Now, if I’m aware of what I’m doing and I’m still doing it, then it stands to reason that plenty of folks are doing with and completely unaware at the same time. I would also venture to guess that these same folks are operating under the assumption that they can push it just a little bit harder, as they do when they are out on a run. Thus, the resulting injuries should come as no real surprise.

This is where the 75% rule becomes important. A few weeks ago, our instructor mentioned this idea, that you should try to limit your practice to 75% percent of your available energy and focus on maintaining your breathing and calmness throughout the practice. This was an exciting idea for me. Although I don’t as much anymore, when I began practicing yoga, I viewed it as a new athletic challenge and I pushed myself to work as hard as I could. Although a certain level of pushing can be healthy, I think going all out can defeat the purpose of yoga. If you are spending all of your time trying to extend a bit further or get into more and more difficult poses, you aren’t benefiting from the mental training that comes with yoga. When I walk into that steaming room, it is my opportunity to let go of all of the stresses of the day and the week. In addition to the aches and pains I may collect from the rest of my endurance activities, I collect mental aches and pains throughout the week. In yoga, I have a chance to let them all flow out of my body as I give myself the comfortable stretching and relaxing routine I really need.



In a way, yoga serves as my spring thaw after a long, tense, and tight winter of gearing up and pushing through the snow. 75% is the prefect level for a quality mind and body refresh!


Rub it Out!

Just to be clear, I’m talking about your legs. What did you think I was talking about? This really isn’t that kind of blog…although that is my area of research, broadly speaking of course, so I’m sure we can work it in somewhere. Wow, the puns just keep coming, don’t they? Ok, seriously, it’s time to get down to business. Ahh, I just can’t help myself!

Deep breath…

With Mother Nature finally beginning to relent (knock on wood) and clear away some of the debris from the roads and sidewalks, my runs are once again much smoother and less treacherous under foot. Winter running is definitely excellent training for my legs, and it helps keep me in shape for trail running, but I’ve definitely noticed that it can be harder on my calves, thighs, and IT bands. The uneven surfaces, ice patches, sand, salt, and pot holes all present additional stress on my legs in various ways. On the plus side, recent research has found that runners are more likely to run on their forefoot on hard surfaces, so perhaps the winter running has helped my forefoot strike consistency. These facts have made me focus a lot more on foam-rolling my legs and making sure I am stretching properly after my runs.

Is it finally over?

Is it finally over?

I will admit with a modicum of guilt that I have historically been pretty inconsistent when it comes to using the foam roller on my legs. Intellectually, I know it can help sustain my legs and ensure that I am doing my best to prevent injuries. However, when I get back from a great run, I am usually looking to jump straight in the shower, and then relax. The last thing I want to do is sit around in my sweaty clothes and roll out my legs (even if that’s exactly what I should be doing!). However, the intense pain I’m met with on the occasions when I do roll my legs out makes a pretty clear case for consistency. Thus, I’ve been trying to focus on using the foam roller when I get out of the shower, as well as using a more dense rolling stick before bed. We affectionately call the roller massager the “pain stick” in honor of the screaming and tears it elicits during a vigorous massage. It can be hard to remind myself that it is for the best sometimes, especially when I’m screaming into a pillow, but my legs always thank me the next day!

The "Pain Stick"- very effective if you can stand it!

The “Pain Stick”- very effective if you can stand it!

There seem to be quite a few specialized foam rollers on the market claiming to provide added benefits due to different contoured forms or raised portions. In my experience, and in speaking with several PT friends, the only benefit is in your head and in your smaller bank account. The simple white foam roller I have has worked incredibly well, and has proven very versatile for all of the various massage techniques I utilize. I will spare you the detailed descriptions of each of the routines I implement, mostly because Runners World does a much better job, and they include videos as well!

My nice and simple foam roller.

My nice and simple foam roller.

A few simple exercises

A few simple exercises

Aside from the foam roller and the pain stick, I try to utilize some simple DIY massage techniques throughout the day to try to keep my legs as relaxed and stretched out as possible. This is especially important because I spend a lot of time sitting in front of my computer. After transcribing interviews for my dissertation for several hours, some stretching and leg massage is a welcome break!


The weather is warming up, and there is talk of 50 degrees by the end of the week, so I couldn’t be happier. I’m going to be ramping up my training in some new ways in the coming months, and experimenting with some new things, so stay tuned, and happy spring!

Why Do You Run?

It’s December, which means the new year is right around the corner, and a new crop of folks will list “start running” as their resolution for the new year. As with so many resolutions, the odds are stacked against them as time/work/motivation/family/time/work (yes, purposefully listed twice!) get in the way. Ultimately, I’ve realized that the motivation, desire, and will to not just start running, but keep running takes a bit more than simply writing it down on a piece of paper or announcing it on Facebook (although peer pressure can be a powerful tool!).

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

In the short time that I have been running, one of the things I enjoy the most about the sport is meeting and engaging with other runners and listening to their stories. Perhaps it’s the former Residence Hall Director in me that loves connecting with people on that level. I’m constantly amazing by what I learn about people while we are running, whether I’ve met them for the first time during a race, or I’ve known them for years. Running brings to the surface a whole new crop of thoughts and running together with someone seems to make being a bit vulnerable somehow ok. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of interesting and at times very personal conversations with folks while out on a run as well. I simply love getting back from a run,  and having that “huh!” moment as the gravity of what I learned sinks in. People run for a lot of different reasons, and those reasons change over time.

why do you run (1)

The beauty of such a simple sport is that you don’t need to be a professional athlete, and you don’t need to be on a noble mission or part of a larger organization in order to decide to participate. We talk about competing during races, placing in our age groups, or challenging our friends, but ultimately we are simply there to compete against ourselves (and perhaps the clock). Although I wish I had the speed and ability of Ryan Hall, I’m still quite satisfied and proud of my own accomplishments.


I started running as a stress reliever, and a way to shake off some pretty heavy things going on in my life. In the process, I found friendship, and grew to love it for how it made me feel and the opportunities it presented me with every time I leave the house. Now, I run because of love and addiction. That may change tomorrow, and that’s ok.

So, I toss the question to you- why do you run?

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!

My Impressions of ChiRunning

I recently finished reading the book ChiRunning: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Runningby Danny Dreyer and Katherine Dreyer. Now, I know the book came out in 2009, and perhaps I’m a bit behind on my running-related reading, but give me a break! I had barely run a 5k when the book came out, and I certainly wasn’t thinking nearly as intentionally about my running as I am now. Thus, this book was “new to me” and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I read this book throughout my fall ultramarathon training, which gave me plenty of miles to experiment with the various techniques emphasized in the book.

When I began running, my intentionality didn’t go much further than making sure I had my shoes laced, and a house key in my pocket. The most important step was lacing up and getting myself out the door, and that commitment certainly got me off to a great start. However, as my mileage has increased and my goals have gotten bigger, I’ve enjoyed the analytical side of running. In general, I enjoy immersing myself in a new subject, learning as much as I can about it, and utilizing the knowledge I have gained. Thus, it was an obvious next step in my running journey to start picking up a few books to see what the “experts” had to say. Up until this point, I was certainly a faithful Runners World subscriber, and I loved every bit of Born to Run when I got my hands on it. However, ChiRunning is the first technique-oriented text I have picked up, with the goal of finding ways to improve my running experience.

ChiRunning is an overall technique that has gained a lot of attention from various sources for helping runners run smarter and find themselves with less injuries. There have been follow-up books, as well as instructional DVDs and in-person running seminars. The ideas are based on many of the principles of T’ai Chi, an ancient Chinese tradition which involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner while your breathing is controlled. The health benefits are far reaching, including the reduction of stress and anxiety.

There are several specific aspects to the ChiRunning philosophy, and everything else, in one way or another, stems from these core principles.

1) Body-Sensing:  By spending more time sensing how you are feeling, where things feel out of line, are abnormally sore, or where you are carrying stress, you can focus and relax so you are using your entire body for the running experience. We often simply accept that various aches and pains are a part of the running process, but if they don’t go away, there is really nothing natural about them. Something is off.

2) Cotton & Steel: When you focus your energy in your core, and strengthen your core, your legs don’t need to work as hard. As a result, your core (steel) is doing most of the work, and your legs (cotton) are simply along for the ride! The result is far less tress on your knees because you aren’t impacting the ground and pushing off nearly as hard. It’s the best argument for doing more core work I’ve heard in awhile.

3) Posture: It should seem relatively obvious that good posture makes for better running, but we often lose track of our posture as we get tired. The book discusses the need to focus not just on upper-body posture (which most people stop at), but also lower-body posture, and correct pelvic tilt. Checking your posture periodically can help the other aspects fall into place more easily as well.

4) Lean: This was probably the most profound aspect of the philosophy for me. I’ve heard discussions of the benefits of a mid-foot strike before. However, this takes that one step further and uses the example of an alpine ski-jumper to demonstrate a correct lean while running. By leaning forward (while maintaining your posture), you are not only enabling a mid-foot strike, but you are letting gravity do more of the work for you!

The book went into much more detail, not only on these core aspects, but various other components of good running technique and body mechanics. Dreyer also addressed training, healthy eating, and various other aspects of a holistic approach to running.

Although I haven’t attended a workshop or received any expert instruction, I can honestly say that I’ve noticed a positive change in my running as a result of these basic ideas. As with any change, practice makes perfect, and I will continue to work on my form and technique- always a work in progress!

Sneaking Up On Hills

Of all of the lessons I learned from my most recent ultramarathon experience, the most significant was the importance of hill work for trail running. Without question, the trail races I’ve run have included far more significant elevation change than any of the road races I’ve tackled. This is not to say that hill work is not important for road races, because it certainly is, but it seems much easier to avoid hilly courses when you are looking at all road races! Despite my significant training for Surf the Murph, my lack of preparation for the hilly course proved to be a major factor in my overall experience. Granted, I thought I was familiar with the area because I grew up there, and I clearly blocked out the actual terrain from my mind, but had I done more hill work, I would have seen even better results.

I certainly wasn’t prepared for 6000 feet of elevation!

What’s probably most ironic about my hilly experience is the fact that I thought I had done more hill work than in past training cycles. In looking back at my elevation changes, I wasn’t wrong, but I also wasn’t nearly as intentional about the hill work as I could have been. Arguably, this is no easy task in a state like Iowa, where the entire central region is about as flat as can be, and actual trails are few and far between. However, there are enough hills to provide me with a challenge to negate any excuses I might come up with during my run. Ultimately, all it will take is a bit more planning on my part, and that’s exactly what I intend to do.

I’ve actually been thinking more about speed lately, and am toying with the idea of picking an early spring marathon I can use to break the 4-hour barrier for the first time. This will involve some more significant speed work over the winter months, which I have traditionally avoided. However, being more intentional with my hill work is going to help me reach my goal as well. The benefits of hill work for running are rather significant and well proven, and I hope to reap all of them. In addition to more generally building strength and speed, various running sources have found that hill work has the following more specific perks:

Physiologically speaking, hill running…
1) Increases your aerobic capacity that enables you to use less oxygen at increasingly longer distances.
2) Improves your running economy that enables you to use less oxygen to run at a faster pace.
3) Increases your stamina that enables you to run farther at a given pace.
4) Builds strength in your gluteals (buttock), quadriceps (front of thigh), gastrocnemius (upper calf), and soleus (lower calf) muscles.

Biomechanically speaking, hill running…
1) Improves your stride length (from uphill running) and your stride frequency (from downhill running).
2) Increases your ankle flexion that enables you to “pop” off the ground more quickly, so that you can spend less time on the ground and more time in the air.
3) Teaches you how to run relaxed.

All of these results make it a no-brainer that I would work more intentionally on hitting the hills. One of the struggles folks have with hill-work, both going up and coming down, is maintaining an effective stride and avoiding the “braking effect” that can cause additional stress on your knees. The trick for me seems to be shortening my stride, paying attention to my posture, and focusing on a mid-foot strike as I go uphill, and then letting the hill do more of the work downhill while keeping my feet and center of gravity under me on the way down (thus avoiding a more forceable foot strike). My stride inevitably lengthens on the way down, and that is ok. I’ve also experimented with running up hill with my feet at a 45-degree angle, while maintaining a mid-foot strike. This has the added bonus of using different leg muscles, which are fresher and ready for the task. This works much better on smooth surfaces than on trails, but is still a viable option. Ultimately the combination of good technique and a structured plan is hopefully gong to pay off!

I’ll be traveling to the Phoenix area over the holidays, and looking forward to hitting the area trails, elevation and all! Hopefully, with more focus, I’ll be ready for them 🙂

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: