Friday, January 27, 2012

Speed Work: Running with the Devil

Speed work is the Devil!  At least that’s the opinion I take every early Friday morning, which is my day for speed training on non-race weeks.  As devilish as it is, speed work it the only way to develop that demon speed.  If I could channel some poignant but simple way of saying it like Yogi Berra might, I would say something like: “The only way to be a faster runner is to run faster.”  So like it or not, every Friday, I curse the Devil and suck it up.

There are a couple of different camps in regards to the approach or necessity of speed training.  Mention speed work to a marathoner, a 5K’er, or an avid racer of any distance in between, and he or she will spout off terms like “fartleks,” “lactate threshold,” “VO2 Max,” “vVO2 Max (not a typo, but a different term),” and so on.  These racers also know where all the best tracks are, and what times of the week are the best to go use them.  Ask an ultra runner or a dedicated trail runner about speed work, and you’ll more likely hear “meh…what’s the rush?”  Being a marathoner in pursuit of 3:30 and an acolyte ultra runner in pursuit of 50+ miles means I kind of straddle the divide between these two camps.  I embrace speed work as a valuable training tool, but I don’t always enjoy it.  Sometimes I just want to be out there plodding along, ticking off high numbers of miles as I go, but I have to wait until Sundays for that.

As far as the physical benefits of speed work in regards to performance, one can find volumes of information online and in well-respected running literature.  Since I’m not a coach, I’m not going to regurgitate what I know about VO2 Max, biomechanics, and all that geek speak that we runners throw around at each other on weekend long runs.  I can’t teach you anything that you won’t find with Google and Wikipedia.  I will share my “working man’s” approach to speed play, and how it has affected my running for the past year. 

First, I do not use a track.  I have nothing against tracks, and I live near one of the nicest tracks in the North Mecklenburg area, but I’m just more at home doing my speed work on roads.  Besides, a lot of my fast races are on roads, whereas none of them are on tracks.  Not using a measured 400 meter track means I need to rely on my GPS watch and online mapping software in order to organize a speed workout.  I know, I know, GPS watches have a margin of error in regards to distance and pace, but they are good enough for my generalized training.  As long as I am using a consistent distance or time for my intervals, I don’t care if they are 800 meters or 853.  I just need to balance one lap against the next, and the next, etc.  Therefore, I use landmarks like streetlamps and traffic signs to start and stop intervals with passive recoveries. 

More often than not, I do my speed workouts as tempo runs—usually 4-6 miles at 60 seconds/mile faster than my goal marathon pace with 1 mile of easy warm up and 1 mile of easy cool down.  Not only does this train my body to economize motion and energy at prolonged periods of fast pace running, but it tests my resolve.  I know I’m doing it right when I contemplate dropping out of tempo pace while I’m 2 miles in.  “Maybe I can just jog a quarter mile and then pick it back up,” I would think.  No…away with those thoughts!  As the old Native American saying goes: “Pain is just weakness leaving your body.”  By the time I get to the cool down mile, my easy float back home might be only a little bit slower than my marathon pace, but it seems like a relative crawl in comparison.  This is when I have visions of hot oatmeal and some well-deserved bananas with peanut butter. 

I do two forms of intervals: half-mile repeats with a passive (stationary) recovery, and mile-repeats with an active (slow jogging) recovery.  Near my house, there is a fairly flat stretch of road with wide sidewalks and bike lanes.  This is where I do my half-mile repeats.  Since this workout usually starts at 5 o’clock in the morning, I usually have the roads and bike lanes to myself.  Although I say it’s flat, there is the subtlest of inclines on the return direction of this stretch—so subtle that probably no one would complain about it unless they are on the 6th or 8th interval.  I try to do 6 or 8 x half-mile repeats a few times a month.  This is my least favorite workout.  There is no scenery to enjoy; all I have to focus on is 3 minutes of pain, and then 90 seconds of breathing at a standstill.  However, it is a good tune-up in preparation for a fast 5K or 8K race.  I did this workout a week in advance of setting my last 3 PR’s for 5K. 

Slightly less dreadful—but just as agonizing—are my floating mile repeats.  Instead of a tempo run, I will do up to 4 mile repeats at 5K pace.  Between these miles, I will jog at an 8:30-8:45 pace to catch my breath for about 5 minutes.  The perpetual forward motion makes this workout seem a little less like work.  I do these intervals in preparation for 8K’s, 10K’s, and sometimes even a Half-Marathon.  If I’m really hungry for a PR, I will decrease the recovery time between intervals on consecutive workouts until it approaches zero. 

Speed work often wears my ass out more than a weekend long run, but I must admit I feel better later in the day after an intensive tempo run or interval workout.  I immediately recover post-run with a hot, high-protein breakfast, and I usually schedule rest days after my speed days.  That way, my body has time to absorb the training before my long runs.  In addition to the satisfaction of feeling the extra burn, I have slashed minutes off my race times and overall pace in the past 8 months of speed training.  This time last year, I would have been proud of myself for running a 25 minute 5K.  Now, I routinely cross the line at around 20 minutes, and sometimes below.  My PR Half-Marathon pace is more than half a minute/mile faster than my old 5K pace.  More and more, it feels good to run fast.  My form has improved, and I consequently suffer fewer injuries.  So, while I may not be obsessing over splits and intervals during the final miles of my next ultra marathon, I will remember that the Speed Work Devil is partially responsible for getting me to that point in the first place.

Run fast, so you can be a fast runner…and damn the Devil!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

CRC Trail Race Recap

                Let me begin by saying that this trail race at the US National Whitewater Center is high on my list of favorite local races.  Period.  It’s rare that one can race 13 miles of well-kept single track without retracing one’s steps.  To have such a well organized race at such a great facility is an opportunity all local runners should seize.

                Those who ran the race or paid attention to the weather on January 21st might remember the steady, dreary rainfall that persisted through most of the morning and all of the previous night.  One might think this would make for miserable running conditions, especially on rugged trails, but I think the mucky terrain was part of what made this run so fun.  When running on a road, rain or shine, every step is pretty much the same.  Road races or training runs feel like exercise.  However, on the trails, no two footfalls are the same, and the race or run feels more like a wilderness adventure.  Add slick, muddy, uncertain footing to the mix, and boredom ceases to exist.

                More than 700 runners showed up for this adventure, and just fewer than 200 of us were running the 13 mile race.  The rest were running either the 9 mile or 4 mile options.  I ran into several fellow members of Davidson Area Running Team, including Bill Weimer and Bobby Aswell, Jr., who were running the 4 mile race; and Mike Molina, who was running the 9 miler.  Bobby got a great photo of Bill and me before the race—both us sporting our obnoxious, neon running gear.  Also present were fellow DARTers Emily Hansen, Jason Gardner, Steve Bradley, and Joey Walsh, but I did not have much of a chance to catch up with them before the run.  Mike saddled up next to me at the start.  This was to be Mike’s last run before his marathon in Miami the following weekend, so he was planning to take it easy and have some fun on the trails.  I told him to heat up the coffee and save some food for me at the finish.

                The start of the race made for some fast and crowded foot traffic.  The first 400 yards included a gravel parking lot and some wide foot paths that allowed the large pack to space out before jumping into the trails.  As soon as we entered the single track of the park’s North Point trail, the quick pace slowed to a relative crawl.  A dozen yards into the tree line lay a short but steep downhill covered in red clay mud.  The backed-up traffic forced me to walk down this 10-step hill, which was more than a little frustrating.  I wanted to conserve my energy for the length of the race, but I had to make a move since the pack was moving too slowly to let me get into a rhythm.  With so many runners lined up on the single track, I had to pass 3 or 4 people at a time with short bursts of acceleration whenever I had the slightest opening.  I made several of these aggressive moves in the first 2 miles until I found a pack of 4 other runners who were keeping a quick pace with which I was comfortable. 

                The North Point was a loop of trail that was tailor made for a minimalist runner like me.  The steep uphills were great for high-cadence scampering, and they often led into fast, technical downhills.  My approach to these rapid descents could be described as brazen or perhaps a little reckless.  For me, more speed = more control.  A body at race pace wants to stay at race pace (thank you, Sir Isaac Newton), so if I were to throw on the brakes in the name of caution, I most likely would slide out and lose control.  Instead, I let the downhill carry me quickly forward and so my focus could shift solely to foot placement.  It’s more fun than a roller coaster, and there are no waiting lines to boot.

                After passing from group to group, and making up a lot of quick ground between packs, I had overtaken good 40 or so runners in the first 3 miles of the course.  I found my rhythm and focused on breathing and pacing myself so I wasn’t tapped out before the last few miles of the race.  The North Point gave way to Goat Hill, which contained the most demanding series of climbs on the course.  I settled in behind two 9 milers for much of the climb.  I only passed a few people on the ascent to the top of Goat Hill, opting instead to keep a steady forward jpg on the sharp switchbacks.  Some other racers were already walking at this point.

                After descending Goat Hill and climbing a steep incline on a service road, the course wound its way through the Toilet Bowl.  On the trail map, the Toilet Bowl section of the course resembles a plate of spaghetti, but there were still plenty of opportunities to pass other runners by darting around sharp corners and hopping over rock obstacles Jackie Chan style.  For a quarter mile of this section, the 13 milers split away from the 9 milers to add a few more twists and turns.  Upon joining the same path with them once again, I saw some familiar faces.  Hadn’t I passed these 9 milers a few miles back?  Now, I would have to make my way around them all over again!

Emerging from the Toilet Bowl (…I guess that sounds bad), we crossed an open field between tree lines and made our way toward the Lake Loop.  Here, the 9 milers would break away for the finish, but I still had a few miles left to run.  The Lake Loop was a welcome last leg of a foot race.  It was scenic, relatively flat, and the footing was fairly secure.  If this were a road half-marathon, I would be hurting pretty badly at this point, but the wet trail and the cool temperature kept me invigorated to the very end on this day.

                I broke out of the tree line 800 yards from the finish.  A pursuer in a white tech shirt—who I later learned was called James—caught up to me and passed me looking strong.  The wide open double track turned into a steep, muddy downhill, so I punched the throttle.  I whizzed by James and 3 other runners, but James tenaciously kept me in reach.  We were shoulder-to-shoulder when the finish line appeared ahead, and we tacitly were egging one another on.  “C’mon, man!” I urged.  By the last 100 yards, James had passed me decisively, but having that competition to the very end provided for a strong and satisfying finish.  I greeted James at the end of the chute and thanked him for pushing me, and he acknowledged me with a hand shake and an out-of-breath smile.  My cheering wife was waiting at the finish, as well as Mike, who snapped a nice photo of me at the finish line.  I ran the 13 miles in 1 hour, 42 minutes, and 16 seconds for a 7:52 minute/mile pace.  Considering the hazardous conditions, I am very pleased with those numbers.  Out of the 13 mile pack, I finished 18th overall. 

                It’s worth mentioning that I definitely chose the right shoes for the job.  New Balance really hit the nail on the head with the MT 110.  It’s light, it grips a hundred times better than previous NB trail racers, it has a snug, secure fit from toe box to heel cup, and it drains pretty well after having been submerged in muddy water a few times.  I decided to wear socks to keep from getting blisters, and I’m glad I did.  The socks (which came free in some other race packet a few months ago) were totally wrecked by the end of the day, but there sacrifice was well worth it.

                I also must say that I am happy I chose not to wear my GPS watch for this race.  First, the winding trails would have caused the GPS readings for distance and pace to be highly inaccurate.  Second, even if the GPS were spot on, this is a race where one really should be paying attention to his or her surroundings instead of obsessing over splits and average pace readings.

                The more time I spend on the trails, the more I fall in love with them.  If you do not consider yourself a trail runner, I suggest getting on some nice single track—or even some finely groomed cross-country course—and finding trail legs on a few easy run days.  Running on trails can be addictive, but we runners already know a little something about addiction.

Next on my race calendar (for now):

2/4/12: Winter Flight 8K – Salisbury, NC

3/2/12: Umstead Trail Marathon – Raleigh, NC

5/6/12: Long Cane 50K – Abbeville, SC

9/29/12: Hinson Lake 24 Hour Classic – Ellerbe, NC

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Get to know the Sockless Runner

About Me:

Greetings!  My name is Chas and I like to run…a lot.  But there will be plenty of running talk to come.  Outside of running, I am an elementary school teacher in Kannapolis, North Carolina, and I am a part-time musician who plays local bars and coffee shops near my home in the Lake Norman area and in nearby Charlotte.  Two years ago, before I started running in earnest, I was seventy-five pounds heavier and subject to most (legal) vices that cause one’s life to shorten.  After fifteen months of obsessive running and cross-training and unwavering support from my then fiancĂ©e, I acquired the highest level of physical, emotional, and spiritual fitness I had ever known.  For the past year or so, my running obsession has driven me to love racing and pursue increasingly lofty goals.

My Running:

After numerous adaptations to my form and style, and an equally numerous list of running shoe models, I have found my niche as a minimalist runner.  I run nearly all of my workouts in lightweight shoes with a heel-toe differential between 0-4mm (whereas conventional running shoes average a drop of 12mm).  Most of my running footwear is designed to be worn either with or without socks, so I opt to go sockless whenever possible—hence the handle of this blog.  Although I occasionally go running in completely bare feet, I would not consider myself a barefoot runner.  I am too much a fan of shoes!  Besides, on long runs exceeding 20 miles, I am known to wear shoes with some more conventional cushion.  My complete transition into minimal shoes remains a work in progress.

As far as my training, my area of focus is preparation for marathons and ultra marathons.  While I have only one marathon and one 50K ultra under my belt, I currently am registered for more of these long distance races in the near future.  Two of my intermediate goals are to finish a marathon under 3:30 and to complete an ultra of 50 miles or greater.  I still love to race half-marathons, 5K’s, and everything in between, but I often schedule these shorter races only when they conform to my training plans for the longer distance events.  I do most of my training on roads, but I love to hop on the trails whenever possible.

I am lucky to have found a really positive running club that has caused my progress as a runner to slingshot forward over the past several months.  The Davidson Area Running Team (DART) continues to be a big inspiration for me, and I enjoy contributing to their ranks both on and off the courses.  You may find some of my recaps appearing on the DART blog ( as well as here.

The Purpose of This Blog:

I love to teach.  I love to play, write, and record music.  I love to run.  I read whenever I can, but I also love to write, so I would be lying if I said this blog wasn’t at all self-serving.  That being said, I do not intend this blog to be a virtual trophy case for me to boast my own personal achievements.  Rather, I want this to be a place for me share successes, hardships, and discoveries with the rest of the running community in hopes to perpetuate an ongoing dialogue about training, racing, nutrition, and physical maintenance.  I also hope to provide entertainment as well as information.  I do not pretend to be a scientific authority in the realm of running, but like everyone else, I enjoy a good conversation among peers.

I look forward to posting race recaps, gear reviews, training epiphanies, nutritional input, and whatever comes to mind for your reading enjoyment.  Thanks for browsing, and keep running!