Climbing Mount Everest

This year my university picked Jon Krakauer’s 1997 best seller Into Thin Air as the common reading for first year students. Despite being an endurance athlete who likes mountains, I’ve never had any interest in mountain climbing. So two weeks ago I half-heartedly began reading about the infamous failed ascent of Everest in May,1996.

I enjoyed thinking about what it would be like to try to climb any 8,000 meter peak more than I expected, but I have no plans to scale Mount Rainier or any other mountain. I’m content scaling Tumwater Hill every now and then.

I dig when people have deep-seated passions which give their lives extra meaning. When they’re compelled to throw pottery, write novels, grow roses, brew beer, race bicycles, tie fly fishing knots, follow the Chicago Cubs, or climb over 29,000′ above sea level.

Krakauer’s fellow climbers caused me to reflect on human nature. One of the guides, an internationally renowned climber who survived only to die a year later atop another mountain once said, “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.”

This quote fascinated me because the feel you get from Into Thin Air is that for most everyone on the mountain it was most certainly about ambition to achieve. Ego, reputation, bragging rights upon returning, and avarice were all more evident than Zen-like notions of self discovery and improvement.

I didn’t understand the willingness of the climbers to attempt the ascent with people they knew next to nothing about. Even if one were to go by themself with the help of a world class guide and small group of Sherpas, it would be a life and death gambit, but add in inexperienced climbers in less than peak fitness, and the risks increased exponentially. Why enter into a co-dependent relationship with other people who left to their own devices would fare much, much worse on the mountain.

Similarly confusing was partnering with some character-challenged people who clearly prioritized their own individual success and survival above anyone else’s.

If you see the film, let me know if I should.

Women Pace Marathons Better Than Men

Gretchen Reynolds, a New York Times health blogger, summarizes a study of thousands of marathon runners. Abbreviated version:

• The researchers wound up with information about 91,929 marathon participants, almost 42 percent of them women. The data covered all adult age groups and a wide range of finishing times.

• They compared each runner’s time at the midpoint of his or her race with his or her time at the finish, a simple method of broadly determining pace. As it turned out, men slowed significantly more than women racers did. In aggregate, men covered the second half of the marathon almost 16 percent slower than they ran the first half. Women as a group were about 12 percent slower in the second half. Burrowing deeper into the data, the scientists categorized runners as having slowed markedly if their second-half times were at least 30 percent slower than their first-half splits. Far more men than women fell into the markedly slower category, with about 14 percent of the male finishers qualifying versus 5 percent of the women.

• This disparity in race pacing held true in all age groups and finishing times, the researchers found, even among the fastest runners. The difference, however, was most pronounced at the back of the pack. There, female runners were much more likely than men to steadily maintain the same, less hurried pace throughout.

• Using this data to adjust for marathon experience, the researchers found that men, however many marathons they had completed, were still more likely than equally experienced women to slow during the second half of a race.

• The study was not designed to determine why men more frequently fade during marathons. But the reasons are likely to be physiological and psychological said . . . the senior author of the study. “We know that at any given exercise intensity, men will burn a greater percentage of carbohydrates for fuel than women, and women will use more fat. Our bodies, male and female, contain considerably more fat than stored carbohydrates. So men typically run out of fuel and bonk or hit the wall earlier than women do.”

The study’s senior author also found that men are more prone psychologically to adopt a “risky strategy” in their early pacing. “They start out fast and just hope they can hold on,” she says. She points out that strategy can sometimes pay off in a swifter finishing time. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to push yourself at the start of a marathon,” she says, “if you have not catastrophically overestimated your capabilities. And Hunter notes, “An evenly paced race is not a well-paced one, if you run slower than you were capable of running.”

Reynolds, the Times blogger concludes, “The message of the study, then, would seem to be that an approach to marathon pacing that borrows something from men and women might be ideal. Maybe go a bit harder than you think you can in training, aiming to calibrate what your actual fastest sustainable pace is. Then stick with it during the event, even if your training partners tear away like rabbits at the start. You’ll reel them in.”

Unless there’s a large percentage of women with “gas in the tank” at the end of marathons, which I highly doubt, this conclusion strikes me as odd. As the study’s authors acknowledge in the larger post, evenly paced marathons are almost always faster than uneven ones; therefore, it’s logical to conclude that women marathoners, on average, are tapping more of their potential on race day relative to men.

And why are men running out of fuel and bonking earlier then women? It doesn’t matter that men “burn a greater percentage of carbohydrates for fuel” when every race provides ample fluid and carbs every few miles. Why don’t men do a better job replacing what they’re burning? Are women more intentional then men about integrating race simulation long runs in their training? Are men more prone to winging pacing and nutrition on race day?

Even if the study wasn’t designed to address why men are more prone to run too fast too early, I have a theory. I used to run with a friend who routinely sped up whenever we came upon a female runner or two on our wooded trails. He wasn’t conscious of this quirk. That experience, plus two decades of watching mostly male marathoners start out way too fast, makes me think male runners’ egos get the best of them.

When passed by older runners, heavy runners, really young runners, or heaven for bid, female runners, the self conscious male runner is prone to pick up his pace, with disastrous results an hour or two later.

Knowing this, I always strive to run my own race based upon the quality of my pre-race training. Consequently, when you pass me at a future race, I will wish you well.

Postscript—during today’s 5.5 miler, I realized my playlist needs some tweaking. Which of these doesn’t fit?

Bonus vid for making it to the finish line.

Killer Climbs—The Conclusion

There’s one more ride on the itinerary for tomorrow, the last day, but only one of the four of us that are remaining want to do it. I’m going for a run before we head home since I have a total of zero miles so far this week. In the sport of triathlon you “ride for show and run for dough.”

Today’s ride was from Lone Pine through the Alabama Hills and up Horseshoe Meadow Road 24 miles and 6,500′ to the end at 9,900′. There’s some YouTube vids of the road if the pics intrigue you. A large percentage of Western/Cowboy movies were filmed in the Alabama Hills. I worried all day that a massive line of Indians were about to crest the mountains above us.

We left at 6 a.m. to avoid the heat. At the top I had ridden 28.3 miles in 3:10 for a 9.0 mph average. With the return, and a shortcut back to the hotel, I rode 51.4 miles, in 4:11, with 7,008′ of elevation. The descent was not for those afraid of heights. The drops were in the thousands of feet. Truth be told, I was a bit spooked at times. All in all, a very nice exclamation point to a great week of training. My inner voices, for a change, were relatively quiet.

However, there was one inner convo that started with this question, “How can you provide your legion of readers a feel for what it’s like to climb these mothers?” Here’s what I came up with. Go to a fitness club or weight room with a leg press. Figure out your 85-90% max or what you can do about 12 times, working especially hard on the last four. For me it’s usually in the 180-200 pound vicinity. Then divide that weight in half and do slow reps for 30 minutes or divide it by two-thirds and do slow reps for an hour. Turn the heat way up, turn a fan on and don’t forget to wear a cycling helmet so you get a wee bit warmer. Now repeat six days in a row. Welcome to the team.

In related news, loosening my shoes and wrapping the damaged toe tightly with bandaids stemmed the damage I was doing to it on days one and two. Back is still fragile, but with some rest, it should be fine. After absorbing this intense segment of training, I will definitely graduate from “spring” to “summer” cycling shape. The next and final stage is “late summer” shape.

All in all, this past week of climbing was fun and a success. Thanks for coming along. We return to regular programming Monday.

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2011 RAMROP—Ride Around Mount Rainier In One Piece

After five hours of sleep, woke at 3:28a, drove about as far as I hit a driver down the hill to Danos at 4:00a, and arrived at Enumclaw High an hour later.

Cloudless and weirdly light given the sliver of a moon. High 40’s, maybe 50. End of life turtle neck base layer under the jersey, $5 full-fingered running gloves. Dano, who claims he’s from Minnesota, was sporting girly shoe covers.

Lathered my bits(1) with the poor man’s chamois creme, ten year old Noxzema, and was off at 5:47a.

Some context. Lance’s ex, showing no concern for my well-being, pulled a last minute legal stunt and so we were a man down. I knew Gordon was going to be way too fast for us mortals, so it was Dano, me, and the masses. Among other things, Dano is also know as Supplement. Dude had plastic bag after plastic bag of pills of every size, shape, and color.

Supplement is relatively new to cycling. Said he may “have gone a hundred once as a teenager”. Performed admirably on an 80 mile mountain training ride a few weeks back. Learned how to draft. Gained fitness. And confidence. Coupled with the pills, and my stellar coaching, piece of cake.

I knew he had the necessary mental make up. An experienced marathoner, he disappeared one weekend four years ago. Decided to celebrate his 50th with a 50 mile run. In serious heat.

The goal was to make like Malcolm X and help Dan around the mountain by any means necessary. The plan was to ride the flats together and regroup at the top of the three climbs.

I was a firm taskmaster. Let’s bridge up to that group. Pull for no more than half a mile. Don’t forget to drink. I insisted he holler if the pace got too quick. He never hollered. Long story short, he surprised me by riding very steadily all day long. My mountain top waits were shorter than expected. Didn’t even fade over the last 25 miles. Maybe there’s something to the pills.

We rode out of town with Gordon and enjoyed his company for about 5-6 miles until he launched. Beforehand, I predicted he’d finish a few hours before us. Climbed nearly 10,000′, over 152 miles, at 20mph. 7:58 total time, 7:35 ride time. He joked it was a “recovery ride” after last week’s stage race. Sick. Look for him to turn some heads in the Leadville 100 on August 14th.

For the first hour we gradually descend, through fog-strewn farmland, and it was flat out cold. At mile 16 I decided I needed to warm up, so I went to the front of the slowish pace-line we were in and settled in. Sixteen miles later we reached a T-intersection. I was aware of two shadows behind me, but cracked up when I realized my train was about 15 people long. I was not going fast, but still a personal record “pull” nonetheless. At the 33 mile food stop I did some press and signed some autographs.

Then Dan and I took turns gently working some rollers. The early morning cold coupled with my enlarged prostrate (2), made for a bad combo. Despite whizzing at mile 33, at 40 I told Dan I had to take a quick nature break. We were facing 15 miles of a 1-2% grade to the park’s entrance. We were being disciplined about spinning easily, but as I was relieving myself on the side of the road, a beautiful 20 person pace-line materialized out of thin air. “Go! Catch on! I’ll catch up!”

Doing his best Tony Martin impersonation, Dan bolted right by the peloton and then sat 100 meters in front in no man’s land. I had to go get him and drag him back. The people on the front were perplexed. “We’re drifting to the back.” In no time at all, we were nearly at the park. A few pills, peanut butter and honey bagels, cookies, and bananas later, and were ready to begin the ride in earnest.

We climbed together to Longmire, regrouped at the top of Paradise, and descended together. Well, until Dan got stuck behind a slow swerving, human impediment disguised as a rider. Road is pretty sketchy so my top speed was only 40.8 before the Garmin quit at mile 94. I felt great all day and climbed well leap frogging from rider to rider.

One wanker had the nerve to pass me near the top of Cayuse. But he was tatted up and so was obviously more of a bad ass.  Mountain was at its most beautiful, mid-50’s, to maybe lower 60’s in the p.m. Breeze coming off the snow, natural air-conditioning. Ditched the turtle neck base layer at mile 88.

The last 30 miles can be a slog. The key is to leave the last food stop with as many other people as possible. We failed, leaving nearly alone. Turkey sandwich charged, Dan caught onto one guy and the three of us settled in for 3-4 miles. I saw three people about three-fourths of a mile ahead and decided to bridge up. Yes a large gap to make up at that point in the day, but I did it over the next 4-5 miles.

After finally making contact, I signaled Dan forward, and sat in back and recovered. 3-4 miles later we were passed by about 15 guys. I didn’t think our lead rider would hook on, but fortunately she did. After sitting in the back for about 10 miles, I was getting annoyed that only about three guys were doing all the work. Feeling the best I’ve ever felt after 130 miles, I went to the front. They wouldn’t get on my wheel despite my slowing down and then passed me shortly afterwards.

Whatever. When the road turned up and the headwind picked up a bit, I went forward again. After realizing I was stronger than all of them, I said screw it, and rode away. That was serious fun. Riding away from about 16 guys after nearly eight hours in the saddle. I waited for Dan at the Mud Mountain turnoff and four of us rode in together. I pushed the pace over the last few miles to get us in under ten hours (9:57, ride time probably 8:50-9:00).

(1) Learned recently that the British sometimes use “bits” to describe male privates. I’d appreciate it if someone from the other side of the pond could explain if “bits” translates more as “balls” or “genitals”. If genitals, I should not have used it in that context.

(2) TMI?

2010 Seattle Marathon Race Report

3:21:32. Overcast, wet pavement, high 30’s. Second fastest marathon. Three minutes slower than my fastest and three minutes faster than my third and fourth fastest. Not bad for an oldster.

The question I set out to answer was how many 7:30 miles can I run in a row? I had logged lots of training miles at between 7:35-7:45 and I figured with tapering, perfect weather, smart nutrition and hydration, that was a good number that would also conveniently result in a personal record.

But just before the race I had a talk with my self. “Forget the watch Self. Respect the distance, stay within yourself, and take what the running gods give you on this particular day.”

Since I had my undivided attention, I continued the self coaching. “Let’s break the race into five parts, miles 1-8, 9-16, 17-24, 25, and 26. First eight are a freakin’ warmup. If you as so much hear yourself breathing, back off. Free miles. Enjoy Lake Washington. Settle into a grove. Remember it’s a long day. Use the first hour to shorten the race with as little exertion as possible. Hit mile eight as fresh as a (just changed) baby’s behind.

Executed this to perfection. Hit mile 8 in 59:30. I was cruising comfortably, and for a bonus, I was ripping off one 7:27-7:28 after another. The out and back on the floating bridge allowed me to size up how far behind Jesse Stevick (neighbor and Oly High cross country/track coach) and Jon Riak (former lost boy from Sudan, St. Martin’s alum and apparently all around great guy) were from the leader. He had seriously gapped them. Turned out his lead at mile seven was at least as much as at the finish. The East African looking winner won it with an especially fast opening 10k. Ballsy.

I struggle with multitasking. I wanted to take my two-mile splits, but I was also drinking every two, taking gel every four, and a salt tab every eight. The running, drinking, gel taking was as much as I could handle so I just let the watch run for the first hour.

Then I cleared it and started the 18 miler. “This is such a nice grove, no reason to get excited or play the hero and push the pace, just maintain it for another hour and you’ll be in very good shape. Yeah, let’s shrink this bad boy down to a more humane distance.” This is a really nice section along Lake Wash and around Seward Park. Long story short, ran miles 8-16 in 59:45. Eight more 7:28’s, 29’s. I passed lots of people during this hour. Still felt nearly as fresh as a (just changed) baby’s behind. Great consistency, everything in control, not frantically sighting the mile posts, not even checking the watch too often, not trying to get ahead of myself. The overarching goal was to shrink it down to a 10.2 miler. A Saturday run around Capital Lake with the posse.

Mile 16. Clear the watch, restart. Self, “You know hour three is going to be considerably harder than one and two combined.” I executed part three of the plan really well too for 30-35 minutes or through mile 20.5. Then things kick up pretty seriously, including a ¾ of a mile steep segment that would prove tough on a 10k training run. By mile 21, I had a definitive answer to my question of the day. I could run 20.5 miles @ 7:30/mile pace.

Weather was perfect, didn’t overeat the evening before or morning of, salt tabs kept the cramping at bay, drank a ton of Gatorade, and ran smart, so what went wrong? Simple. I ran too few long runs (two 20 milers) and didn’t have a high enough three month mileage total to run through to the finish. Had I gotten one more massage and switched out my shoes earlier, things might have turned out differently. At mile 21 I began to fight it big time, and the quads were trashed, which made the steep downhills from 25 to 26 especially slow and painful, but it was a classic case of having to go farther than I was physically trained to go.

During the last five miles Fifteen’s question from the car trip up rang in my ears, “Hey Dad, why the marathon this year?” Over the last five miles I wasn’t fighting the “whimp ass” voice DG refers to as much as a surly contingent of whimp ass voices. It didn’t help that I was running through the half marathon walkers. “Just keep running, doesn’t matter how slowly. No walking, no way. Salvage a great day.” I was as proud of my last much slower five miles as the first 21.

Thanks Denny for the kindness and generosity. Thanks especially to the GalPal and Fifteen for great race support especially immediately afterwards. Dano for being the best training fodder a guy could ask for. Thanks DG for the foot tips and inspiration. Katie, Lance, Courter, the Principal, moms, and other family and friends for cheering me on from a distance. I felt it. And my brother for the 3:31 prediction or whatever it was.

Felt even worse than I looked

Marathon Pacing

There are three types of endurance athletes. The first, which make up about 1-2% of the total, are the elites who race one another in an effort to win. The second and third, genetically speaking are the remaining 98-99%. The difference between type two and type three endurance athletes is that type two-ers bring a lot more discipline, consistency, and focus to their training; as a result, they finish well ahead of type three-ers.

Each group has different objectives—1’s) win; 2’s) set personal records of different sorts, qualify for the Boston Marathon, etc.; and 3’s) finish.

I assume each elite athlete enters endurance events with detailed pacing plans which they often have to chuck when the lead group goes unexpectantly slow or fast over the early and middle stages. Have a plan, but be flexible.

Type three-ers, who may also be known as “one and done-ers” or “bucket-listers” go into races seriously undertrained, inevitably go far too fast early on, aren’t quite sure what to drink and consume, and fade big time over the later stages. I don’t know how they can go into marathons with detailed pacing plans when they haven’t done enough long runs from which to extrapolate.

I’m a two. There are two types of twos, those that lean heavily on science to aid their pacing, and those, like me that base their pacing on feel, or perceived rate of exertion.

My science is checking mile splits. Overtime I’ve learned to adjust my pace based on my breathing and my mental state. More specifically, by listening to how hard I’m breathing and thinking deeply about whether I can maintain my pace for another hour or two or three. Like turning a dimmer switch ever so slightly, I’ve learned to modestly increase, hold steady, or slightly back off my level of exertion. As a result, I usually perform very close to my limited potential.

I have a few different paces in my quiver. First speed is what I label my “steady/all day” pace. When I’m in good shape, hydrating, and taking in calories, this is the pace that I feel I can maintain for hours. Third speed is “moderate-hard/on the edge/85%/half marathon” pace. My optimal marathon pace is splitting the difference between the two. Easier blogged about than done because I don’t know if I’m in optimal shape. Trying to run optimal pace on something less than optimal fitness could backfire bigtime.

To be successful, twos have to learn to let faster people go. When passed, the tendency is to to say one’s self, I’ll show him or her. When marathoning, I wear horse blinders until the last 10k when I sometimes try to settle in behind someone stronger to shake things up and expedite finishing. To refine this skill I visualize my eighty-year old mother passing me with her reconstructed knee.

The exercise scientists would have chuckled at me one morning last week when I ran down to Capital Lake, around it, and back. Eight miles. Felt really good for the first four and then glanced over at the lake and saw wave action. Oh oh. A few hundred meters later and I was heading back into the 15mph wind that had assisted me over the first half hour. My worst marathon (Boston ironically) was one where I didn’t adjust my dimmer switch fast or significantly enough in light of the warm temps and how much I was sweating (I was fooled by the breeze that was masking my sweating). Again, the scientists would say that was avoidable and they’re probably right. But I’m stubborn and I accept the unpredicatability that comes with running by feel.

Here’s a summary of Saturday’s run. Don’t tell the team we were short a tenth of a mile.