Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To Step or Not to Step - Addendum to Fall or Not to Fall

Saturday while running hill repeats at Oak Mountain I was thinking about the difference between the trails I ran on in the Rocky Raccoon and the trails in here in Birmingham and the South Eastern United States in general.  I don't even remember seeing a rock at the RR although I am sure there were a few.  I grew up in Dallas and there were very few places where there were any exposed rocks at all.  Just dirt.  Those poor, deprived trail runners in Texas are deprived of the opportunity to run trails where you watch every step or DIE!  I guess "crash" is a better term.

I decided to write a post for those less fortunate individuals that do not live near the fourth oldest mountain range on earth, the Appalachian Range.  This post is also for those living near these worn down, rooty, rocky, mountains, but, for what ever reason, just don't run on the trails.  I see there people every year at the Stump Jump in Chattanooga.  There is a section starting at mile 18.8 called the rock garden.  For perhaps half a mile the trail is nothing but a pile of small boulders.  Running along this section you simply hop from one rock to the next.  This section starts out slightly down hill then turning up a very gentle slope.  The entire section is very runnable, yet it never fails, I pass 8 or 10 people in the section because they slow to a crawl  crossing this rocky section.

Many of these people are young and should be flying across the rocks, not being passed by a 62 year old.  I am sure most of these runners live in the area and have the opportunity to run on terrain like that.  The real key is to go out and find a "rock garden" and run on it.  The rocks teach you where and how to step.  If you do no or cannot run terrain like this, here are a few things to remember.
1.  If stepping on the rocks is unavoidable (all rocks, no dirt) you have no choice.  You have to step on the rocks.  Pick out large, solid looking rocks, and step on them.  Avoid small rocks or rocks that have edges in the air as they are likely to shift under your weight.
2.  Always try to step on the flattest part of the rock.  If it is shaped like a bowl, step right on the top.  This becomes much more critical if the rocks are covered in dirt or mud or leaves.  Stepping on a sloping, wet, rock can be a disaster.  Leaves can be just as bad.
3.  If you have no choice but to step on small or unstable looking rocks, slow down and use caution.  Piles of fist size to plate size rock are the worst.  Aim for the most stable, usually the flattest, and keep your arms out for balance.  If you have time, evaluate the rocks you intend to step on.  If it is small, but is solidly packed in dirt, especially if lichens or other tiny plants are growing around the base, you can be pretty sure it is solid.  If it is sitting in loose dirt and appears to have been moving around, it has.
4.  Do not step on pointed rocks or knife edge rocky angled in your direction of travel.  A slight mistake in foot placement could result in a twisted ankle.  Besides, pointed rocks are sometimes painful to step on.
5.  When running down hill, where possible, step behind any uncertain rocks using the rock as a foot stop.  When I first started training for the Imogene Pass Run I thought I would also like to try the Pikes Peak Marathon.  I ordered Matt Carpenter's guide book for training and running Pikes Peak.  In a section on running down hill he said he did not step on rocks on a fast descent.  He placed his foot up against the rock.  There are two reasons not to step on rocks while running down hill.  First, if the rock is not solid, it may move under you weight and dump you off.  Second, even a large, solid rock, as mentioned earlier,becomes treacherous with just a little sand  or mud on it. The sand acts like ball bearings and will send your foot right off the side.  Running up hill or on the flats, slipping of a rock can cause a painful fall.  Running fast down hill it can cause a serious injury.

Remember, going down hill, solid footing is critical.  While running uphill, you speed is usually fairly slow and a stumble or slip can usually be caught by simply putting your hands out and pushing yourself back up.  Falls on the flats usually hurt a little more but cause no major damage although an ankle sprain can sideline you for weeks.  Falls downhill can be serious or downright dangerous, especially in rocky terrain.  Be careful.

Another contributor to falls can be those trees and large limbs laying across the trail.  It is fun to launch of a fallen tree but always consider a few things.
1.  If the tree is a fresh fall and is still covered in rough bark, the footing should be solid even if it is angled a bit, so "take a flying leap."
2.  If the bark is worn off and only smooth wood remains and if the tree is fairly level and the wood is dry, it should be fine as well.
3.  If however that smooth wood is wet or muddy be careful, especially if the tree slants across the trail.  Stepping on a slick tree trunk can send you foot off the front, off the back or sliding down the trunk.
4.  If there is frost on the ground, don't step on any smooth wood on a tree trunk at all.  If frost in on the trunk, it is "slick as ice!"  Another profound statement.  If that icy tree is slanted a few degrees, instead of you foot just sliding off the front or back, it may slide down the tree and that can hurt.  And that is from experience.  Remember, sometimes it is much colder in a low draw than up high and sometimes it is much colder up high than down low.  Just because there is no ice one place does not mean there will be no ice everywhere.
5.  Watch those wooden bridges along trails too.  They can be treacherous when wet and especially icy.  "Bridges Ice before Roadway, sorry, Trails."

Saturday I ran the Cheaha 50K here in Alabama.  The trail is about a rocky, with piles of loose, small rocks as any place I have ever run.  There are stretches of 20 or 30, yards or more, where you never take one solid, sure step.  Next throw in sections of loose rock covered in piles of leaves and this is a section that probably need a warning sign that reads "Proceed at  your own risk."  In sections like this there is nothing to do but slow down and step lightly.  Assume that every step will be unstable and you will be fine.  Remember to keep your hands ready to catch a fall and help maintain balance.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Breathing Patters During the Cheaha 50K

Saturday (2/25/2012) I ran the Cheaha 50K here in Alabama.  This is a tough 50K.  I don't know the exact number of feet of elevation gain but look at the chard below.  It is a bunch with a1000 foot climb starting at mile 27 that beats anything I have ever encountered in a race.

I spent a lot of time going up hill and realized I was shifting breathing patterns depending on whether I was running or walking.  In a post the other day I described how I breathe while I run up hill.  At Cheaha I would shift form running along the flats and gentle climbs to steep climbing that required walking.  As I changed to walking up those steep hills my breathing pattern changed.

I would be running along breathing as I described earlier, breathe in two steps, breathe out two steps and repeat this three times.  Then I would do a quick breathe, breathe in one step, breathe out one step followed by a long, deep breathe for two steps and breathe out again for two steps.  As I shifted from running to walking I realized I was shifting to breathing three quick breaths (in and out on two steps instead of four steps) followed by one deeper breath for two steps and exhale for two steps.  That is, breathe in on step1, out on step 2, in on step 3, out on step 4, in on step 5 and out step 6.  Then I would inhale on steps 7 and 8 then exhale on steps 9 and 10.

For about the first 20 miles this worked great.  Unfortunately, all this breathing didn't help me overcome my usual problem of starting out too fast and dying at the end.  I think running Rocky Raccoon three weeks before was partly responsible for my week finish but I need to learn to control my exuberance at the start. I figure by the time I have run another 40 years I might be able to get it right.

I also intended to take my camera a photograph some of the scenery along the course.  It is a beautiful run with with several great overlooks and stream crossings.  There is a section above Lake Chinnabee that is awesome.  Here are a few shots I borrowed from Daniel Ewert.  I hope he doesn't mind.

The run actually crosses this walkway along the river above Lake Chinnabee.

I didn't see any Kayakers but the run does cross the river.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rules for the Trail - Part 3 - Trail Runners Run Trails

I never thought there was any need to write about this, but I now think I need to, so here goes.  I realize 99.9% of you already know all of this, so don't be insulted.  This is just for those 0.01% that are clueless.

During the Rocky Raccoon I was running with a guy entered in the 50 mile who had never run a trail race before.  As we approached a 180deg. turn on relatively flat ground, he suddenly left the trail and cut across to the other section of trail.  In six years of trail running and racing I have never seen anyone cut a trail like that.  I blamed it on having never run a trail race before.

I continued around the trail and caught back up to him in a short distance.  He probably saved 30 yards.  He looked at me like "why did you go all the way to the turn."  I felt like saying "because this is a trail race and I run on the trails."  I think he got the idea.  I made some comment about saving 50 feet, hoping he got the point the 50 feet is irrelevant in a 50 mile race.

For those of you new to trail running, never cut a corner.  The point of trail running is to "Run the Trail."  .  Trails are laid out as they are for a reason.  Stay on the trails.  I cannot tell you how many times I have seen runners across a ridge crest or on the other side of a draw heading the opposite direction and it would have been really easy to cut over to the other trail.  There are two problems in doing this.  First, if someone sees you, they may report you to the next aid station and  you might be disqualified.  The other problem is, if you are not familiar with the trials, you may actually be  moving backward.

On a related subject of things I really never intended to mention in a post, I will say a few things about littering.  I am always amazed at how much trash is dropped on trails at races.  You know it is "race trash" because it is things like GU packs or energy food.  If I ever see anyone throw something down intentionally on a trail I will embarrass them.  There is simply no excuse for throwing trash on any trail any time.  One good idea is to start races with an empty zip-lock baggie in a pocket.  After finishing a GU or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, put the wrapper in the baggie to keep from getting all that sticky stuff all over you.

I have one other comment on littering.  Often at races, aid station workers place trash containers out several 100 yards from the aid station so that you can discard cups and other trash before heading back out "into the wild."  That would make a good book title!  (Into the Wild and Into Thin Air are two of my favorite books.)   Sometimes the AS workers don't put the trash bags far enough out.  If you are drinking hot soup from a cup, it takes a while.  Apparently at RR people suggested they, the aid station workers, move the trash bags further up the trail because later in the race the trash boxes were further out.

If I carry a cup past the last trash box, I will usually stick it in my "Quick Draw" belt in an empty holder.  I usually have one or two empty loops and they hold a cup just fine.  You will also notice there is usually  pile or two of cups further down the trail.  If you simply have no place to carry a cup at least put it in a pile.  Don't just throw it down along the trial.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Proper Breathing - Key to Faster Running

While running Saturday I realized I have read nothing in a long time about breathing while running.  Back in the 80's I read an article, probably in Runners World about breathing and I have practiced the techniques they suggested ever since, at least when I think about it, which is usually when I am out of breath going up a hill.

The article talked about establishing a "breathing rhythm" as you run.  Take two or three regular breaths, followed by a deep cleansing breath, then back to the regular breaths.  You are trying to keep the lungs continuously filled with enough air to keep you going.  But if you take an extra deep breath at regular intervals, you take in more air (oxygen), filling more alveoli than you normal breaths, thus giving you bloodstream a little extra boost of oxygen.  In addition, the shallower breaths allow you lungs to more completely absorb the oxygen taken in during the deep breath.

It is often hard to breathe deeply when you are out of breath yet these deep breath are critical to keeping the muscles in your legs supplied with enough oxygen to keep going.  More oxygen reaching the muscles translates to more endurance.  Training yourself to take deep breath before you suddenly find yourself starved for oxygen is the key.  Here is a quote by Everett Murphy, M.D., a runner and pulmonologist at Olathe Medical Center in Olathe, Kansas.  "Exercise improves the conditioning of the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen, and the intercostal muscles, which lie between the ribs and enable you to inhale and exhale.  When you take a breath, 80 percent of the work is done by the diaphragm. If you strengthen your diaphragm, you may improve your endurance and be less likely to become fatigued."  Deep breathing strengthens the diaphragm.

Here is how I "manage" my breathing.  This allows me to keep taking deep breaths even at the top of a long climb.  I should actually do this all the time while running but I rarely think of it until I need more oxygen.  When I do it properly I start this sequence before hitting a hill.
1.  I establish a breathing rhythm based on my pace.  I inhale and exhale normally, every four steps for twelve steps.  That is (steps 1 &2 Inhale, steps 3 &4, exhale, steps 5 & 6 inhale, steps 7 & 8, exhale, steps 9 & 10 inhale, 11 &12 exhale.)  On step 13, take a quick breath and on step 14 exhale quickly.  Then on step 15 and 16, I take a very deep breath and exhale on 17 and 18.  Then start the sequence all over again.
2.  As the climb becomes steeper and I need more air, instead of three sets of normal breaths, I cut it down to two.  That is, inhale and exhale on steps 1 to 4 and again on steps 5 through 8.  Then breathe in quickly on step 9 and out on step 10, followed by the deep breath on 11 through 14.
3.  If I still need more air I modify the breathing rhythm again as needed while still managing to keep that deep breath in there somewhere.

Here is a crude diagram of my breathing pattern tied to steps.  Maybe it will make more sense.

R 1 in Normal Breath
L 2 in
R 3 out
L 4 out
R 5 in Normal Breath
L 6 in
R 7 out
L 8 out
R 9 in Normal Breath
L 10 in
R 11 out
L 12 out
R 13 in Quick breath
L 14 out Quick breath
R 15 in Deep Inhale
L 16 in
R 17 out Deep Exhale
L 18 out

Now, I don't count steps.  You just get in a rhythm and breathe.  The pattern basically establishes itself.  Sometimes I find it necessary to drop the normal breaths all together.  Then I just take the quick "inhale on step 1, exhale on step 2" and repeat that two or three times, then take the deep breath.  The key is to manage to get that deep breath into your breathing patter.  The breathing pattern will change with the terrain, too.  As you start up hill, you will need more air and running downhill takes less oxygen so in reality, your breathing will constantly change.

Experiment with various breathing patters and find out what works. There is no right or wrong. When I remember to do it, I am always amazed at how much difference it makes in my hill repeats.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Race Planning and LED's

Preparing and planning for the Rocky Raccoon 100 was pretty simple.  The course consists of five 20 mile loops that are pretty flat.  I planned to run a 15 minute pace per mile so the basic calculations were simple.  There are 5 aid stations per lap but two primary ones, the Start/Finish area at Dog Wood and Dam Nation.  Dog Wood is at mile 20 and Dam Nation is at mile 6.19 and 12.2 on each lap.  These two aid stations are the ones I planned to pay attention to.  The calculation for arrival time at each as is simple.  Runners first arrive at Dam Nation at mile 6.19.  Multiply 6.19 X 15 =92.85 minutes.  Divide the 92.85 by 60 =  1.5475 hours.  Convert the .5475 hour to minutes = approx. 33 minutes.  Therefore it will take me 1 hour, 33 minutes to reach Dam Nation for the first time.  I added 1 hour, 33 min to the 6:00 AM start and that gives you 7:33 arrival time.  Actually, I set up a spread sheet to calculate each aid station time which is printed below.

Next, I created the same chart for 14 minutes per mile and 16 minutes per mile.  If there had been a mountain between the start and the first Dam Nation, I would have had to guess how long it would take to hike up the hill, but that was not the case in this race.

The next step is to figure what you will need at the two drop bag aid stations, Dog Wood and Dam Nation.  Below is the chart I used to figure what I was going to need at each.

I used the 16 minute per mile pace for safety.  I figured I wouldn't be slower than that.  I used a one gallon zip-lock baggie for each of the 4 Dog Wood Stops (20,40,60 and 80 miles.)  I also used one gallon baggie for each two Dan Nation stops.  (One bag for 6.9 and12.2.  One bag for 26.9 and 32.2 and so on.)  Each of the baggies contained all the supplies I would need for that segment such as Vespas, NUUN tablets, 10oz. water bottles with Carbo-Pro, etc.  These baggies also contained critical items like flashlight, headlamps, hat and gloves for night.  I then put all four Dog Wood baggies ( labeled, 1,2,3, & 4) in one drop bag.  I put extra socks, shoes, shirts, etc in the second drop bag.  Runners were allowed two drop bags at each aid station.

This system worked pretty well for a couple of laps.  I did not take the time to pick up my drop bag at Dam Nation and sit down with it, so I started looking for what I needed and taking it out of what ever baggie I found first.  The problem with this was that by the last lap it was getting hard to find things.  If I run a race with laps like this again, I am going to organize drop bags differently.  I will try carrying a list of what I need at a particular aid station.  Actually, I knew exactly what I wanted at each aid station stop so I probably don't need a list at all.  Next I will put similar items in one baggie.  That is, I will put all the Vespas in one baggie, all the NUUN tablets in one baggie, etc.  When I arrived at the aid stations I knew what I wanted and it would have saved time.

A lot of runners at RR used small plastic bins with snap on tops.  I realized this would work great for a race where you are going through the same aid station over and over.  You just pull the lid off everything is visible and easy to keep in order.  And there is another plus, they are waterproof!  I am going to check to see if Cascade Crest allows plastic boxes as drop bags.  I don't think most 100 milers allow them.

I almost forgot about the LEDs.  Before each ultra I print out a check list for the race like the one below.  The first column (left) and top right items are things I gather days before the race, sometimes weeks before.  As I pull each of the item and lay them on a table I place a small check beside the item, not in the box to the right.  The box to the right is not checked until I actually place the item in my luggage or in a drop bag or in my hydration pak.  

I followed this chart (below) to the letter for Rocky Raccoon.  There were two minor problems however.  First, I thought my hand held flashlights used AAA batteries.  I had a lot of backup AAA batteries both in my hydration pak and in drop bags.  Trouble was, the flashlights use AA batteries.  Both back up flashlights went out within a hour of turning them on.  One in the morning and one that night.  No problem, they were backups.

Personal Items

Race Clothing



Drivers License

Light Jacket – Keep in pack

Race Entry Registration

Running Shorts – 2

Credit Cads

Running Socks – 4


Compression Socks

Lodging Info

Coolmax tops – 2 or 3

Alarm Clock

Fleece Top – Light

Light timer

Fleece Top –Heavy

Clothes to wear home

Fleece Pants

  Extra Shoes and Socks

Hot Chillies – top

  T Shirts

Hot Chillies – bottom


Tape -

  Coat -cold weather

Tape -

  Rain Jacket

Ankle Brace



Sun Glasses

A. Cap

Sun Glasses Strap

B. Sun Cap

Reading glasses

C. Toboggan – Light


D. Toboggan – Warm

Paper Towels


Extra Baggies

A. Light


B. Heavy-Warm

First Aid Kit

Rain Jacket

Extra Running Shoes

Rain Pants

Sun Screen

Tights – 2 Pair

Hydration Pak – 2 Lit

Extra Shoes

Hydration Pak – 3 Lit

Advil PM

Toe Nail Clippers

Day Before Race

Coarse Toe Nail File

Charge Camera

Sports Tape

Charge Phone

Ankle Brace-Old


Ankle Brace-New

Label Drop Bags

Add to Drop Bags


Head Lamps

Extra Batteries

Sun Screen

Coolmax shirts – Light

Hats and Gloves – Cold


Ice chest


Folding chair

Fleece or Hot Chilies


Hearing Aid Batteries


Sun Glasses

Add to Back Pak

Extra Batteries


  A. Lithium – CR123A

Light Rain Jacket

  B. AAA Batteries – 6


  C AA Batteries – 2

Paper Towels

  D. Hearing Aid Batteries

Nathan Hydration Pack –3 Lt

Rain Pants

Nathan Hydration Pack –2 Lt


Hand-held Water Bottles – 2

Extra Baggies

Extra Hand Held bottles – 2


Nathan 10oz bottles

Trekking Poles

Head Lamps – 2

Heart Pills

Flash Light – 2

Aspirin & Advil

Belt (waste) Light

Sports Tape

Stop Watch


Trekking Poles



Camera & Holder

Pace Chart

Sun Glasses & Strap

Course Maps & Info.

Drink Mix Powder in Bottles

Electrolyte Tablets/Pills

  A. NUUN Tablets

  B. Honey Stinger Waffles

  C. Enervit Tablets

  D. Thermalites

  E. PBJ mix & Bread

  F. Tums

Race Morning

Drop Bags

New Hearing Aid Battery

Sun Screen

Fill 2, 10 oz bottles – 

Paper Towels

Nip Bandages


Situate Run Number

Heart Pills



Hat, Gloves


Head Lamp


Belt Light

Mole Skin

Trim Toe Nails

Sports Tape

Apply Glide

Sun glasses

Arm Warmers

Arm Warmers

Road ID Bracelet

Ankle Brace

What I didn't know until I read about LED lights "after the race" is that they get much dimmer with time.  Both of my LED headlamps have been used for five 100 mile races.  Each has a lot of hours on them.  They were also stand-in lighting following several power losses at our house, including a tornado that missed our house by 200 yards in the April 2011 tornado outbreak that struck Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.  We had  no power for almost two weeks.  We have a generator, but it is not a whole-house generator so we just used it to power major items, like the "frig." and TV to keep up with the world. We used the headlamps at night.  

Both headlamps were pretty dim.  I could see but not very well.  I started depending on the hand held flashlight much more than usual.  I needed them to find my way around the worst of the mud puddles, some of which were several 100 yards long. That is, I depended on them for an hour.  After that, negotiating the mud became pretty hopeless.  I plan to amend the check list to note backup flashlight batteries are AA.