I have made a trail resolution. Run nothing but hills this training season. Two exceptions being, a day for speed work and a day when I push my son in his jogging stroller. Other than that it’s all vertical baby!
With that in mind, I’m working to refine and focus my points for downhill and uphill running which has brought me to the question of gaze. Where is the optimum place to focus your eyes coming down a trail. Roger Bannister said he focused his gaze about fifteen feet into the distance. Gazing so far forward, he felt, helped propel him along the track. But that was a track. Try that on technical and you’re going to end up fifteen feet out on your face. At the same time when I start looking down too close to my own feet everything slows and my footwork gets ridiculously tentative. So where is the visual sweet-spot? Unfortunately like so much of this stuff there is no magic formula, it’s a trial and error game. But here’s a simple cue to get closer to that happy place of smooth, effortless downhilling.
Trust your brain to do what it does best. Every split second our brains are calculating how to respond to our surroundings. The brain does this naturally but when you look down and start thinking about foot placement the process is circumvented and not for the better. You can’t think your way down the trail, we simply don’t think that fast. But our brains do react that fast. Try casting your gaze out in front of you five to seven feet (sure that’s a lot less than 1000 inches) or far enough so that the rocks and ground directly in front of you appear as in the periphery, slightly out of focus. It feels super-uncomfortable but it develops a level of trust between the runner and his/her brain. And it works. Your feet will find there placements and your mind will have the chance to calculate where your feet should go next and respond with ample time. Our minds are quick but they still need time to respond. And trying to run down the trail without placing your gaze out in front of you is like trying to hit the eight ball by only looking at the cueball.
This is a followup to my recent post Five Points for Downhill Running. Running up Mt. Sanitas today it occurred to me that uphill running has its own degree of complexity and is rarely an easy art to master. So here are another five points, this time to get into your climbing groove!
Fancy Feet: Good thing that as trail runners we don’t really care what we look like out there because you can forget the sexy bound right now. The bound has its place but for the most part that part is out on the road doing speed work. You my friend need ballerina feet, dainty, pivoting, light and fluid ballerina feet. If this is just too much for my testosterone driven trail brethren then think Legolas. Sure, he’s an elf but a legitimate bad-ass in his own right. Remember the scene in Lord of the Rings…the company is climbing a snowy mountain. While the men, dwarf, and hobbit slog through chest deep snow, Legolas nimbly crosses over the drifts of snow. Think like an elf, go light up the trail. Gravity is pulling at you and you are doing everything you can to push through its shackles and get to the top of the mountain where all that potential energy can be released and you can fly down the mountain. To fly down you have to fly up first.
The 90° Rule: This follows directly from fancy feet. Out on the trail and especially in an ultra we all have to decide when to run and when to hike. Of course when you’re trying to PR or do hill repeats or are off on a fartlek you’re going to be running as much as possible. That said, in an ultra and even in a trail marathon, at times we have to conserve energy. So we all have to make the choice of when to run and when to power-hike. A useful trick to determine when exactly you should do one or the other is to pay attention to the rise of your knee. If your knee is coming up close to 90° as you move up the trail, more than likely, you should be hiking and not trying to run. The amount of energy it takes for you to raise your leg and push off while trying to maintain leg-speed is immense. A further issue is for all ultrarunners out there. We have to develop the “power” in power-hike and that is only going to come through doing some fast hiking. Numerous times I have passed runners while on a power-hike up a steep section of trail. Running does not always equate to going fast. The 90° rule can keep you efficient and fast on the uphill. Just make sure you still keep your ballerina feet on!
Loose the Foot-wobble: I tend to think that my ankles are pretty strong but running up a technical trail can cause an uncomfortable rolling sensation when your foot lands on thin or unstable pieces of rock. One can obviously work at choosing a route that avoids the more technical spots but you can only do this so often and this can also throw off your rhythm. The main problem is that when you try to launch yourself off unstable footing you may falter or even slip. Overreach is the primary culprit here. loosing track of those dancing feet and overstriding on the ups. The more foot strikes you have, just as on downhill, the faster you can recover from footfalls that throw your balance. Another culprit is overexertion. If you destroyed yourself at the beginning of the climb, then your footwork is inevitably going to get sloppy. It’s the same principle as when you do all-out speed-work, form gets harder and harder to maintain. Of course doing balance drills and ankle strengthening exercises can help but nothing does the trick like practice.
Bound: I know…I already slammed bounding a bit on point #1. And frankly, I hate bounding up trails. After a few short periods of bounding I want to crawl off the trail and die. Still, this exercise is ridiculously good for developing explosive power, which you need to have the necessary spring in the legs to carry you swiftly uphill. For those who do not run with any Nordic skiers or have not seen this technique performed it’s basically akin to performing an uphill sprint. Forget all that dainty footwork stuff and start charging, and I mean charging, up the trail. Knees launching like muscled rockets in front of you and arms swinging strong. Trail too technical? Great! In that case you can really bound, springing from rock to rock. Look forward to a few rolled ankles and maybe even a fall while going uphill for a change.
Hill Repeats and/or Uphill Farlek: This one is entirely straightforward. If you want to get faster at running what do you do? Speed-work. Same principle goes for hill work. If you want to get faster at running hills then you have to start running them faster. I’m fabulous at not doing this and I definitely ere towards the fartlek side of things. Regardless of what intervals you choose or whether you go with the fartlek make sure you work your technique on a variety of trails so you can handle going up fast on smooth single-track, rocky technical stuff, boulder hopping, and especially the dreaded stairs.
Bonus Point! Work the bod. A strong upper body and core (abs, obliques, lower back) will give you power. It’s your propulsion system that can keep upward momentum strong when your legs start to feel spent.
My Uncle and I have an ongoing dialogue about falling on the trails. Not just how to avoid falling. The sensation of falling. The thrill of falling. The inevitability of falling. As a mountain runner I spend a good deal of my time on the trails trying to figure out how to run more efficiently and therefore more quickly downhill (and avoid falling). Plenty of us think about falling, although hopefully not while we’re running, and most of us have opinions on the subject of effective downhilling. Some say that we actively choose lines of descent as we run. Some say that it is best to throw yourself down the mountain and move instinctually. Regardless of where you come down on the best approach to avoiding the fall here are some thoughts on the matter. Then check out a followup: Five Points for Uphill Running.
Body Memory vs. Head-game There is a lot to be said for body memory on the trails. That is, most of us get faster at running the trails we run regularly. I think the head-game is the key factor, specifically, confidence. However, there is a degree of experiential body memory that still finds its way into this. Running hills develops balance and proprioception making you more agile and adept at navigating obstacles and consequently you become more confident. But your body also develops a learned response to particular terrain so that it can instinctually respond to trail conditions similar to your most traveled routes. Body memory does not seem to explain crazy fools like my good friend Will, who will barely run a mile and then barrel down a steep section of highly technical downhill without a moments hesitation. That is confidence. This year of running has taught me that the most important line you find is the one you eventually cross over in order to throw your body down the mountain. There is a sense of confidence and trust in your feet that has to be cajoled into your psyche. For better or worse that process has involved quite a few crash and burns and a ridiculous amount of near miss disasters.
The Opinion Mill I asked several fast downhill runners this year how they approach swift descending and a number of them talk about finding a line and following it but there are also a number of running form elements that they consider. Runners are almost as obsessive about form and efficiency as they are about diet. Key points that come up are 1) fast feet 2) keeping your feet under your center of gravity 3) staying high 4) taking the straightest line 5) go zen (quit thinking).
1) Fast Feet. The more foot turnover the more likely you will recover from a near crash. On a lot of fast descents especially on runs lasting more than two hours on technical terrain it’s highly likely that I will catch a toe several times and come close to rolling an ankle an equal number of times. Fast footwork means that these potential catastrophes turn into casual occurrences that don’t send that tremor of fear up the spine. Instead those instances just get factually checked off as attention grabbers “get your legs working”, “take some nutrition”, etc. Most importantly…”Run fast. Fall less.” 2) Feet Under Center. This is an expansion of fast feet. We’ve all seen those images of beautiful models or professional runners bounding over rocks, their legs practically in a forward split. That works for sure, when you have a bomb proof rock or section of trail to land on. Otherwise that’s a recipe for disaster. The downhill lunge as it might be called means you are committing your full weight to the extended leg for your landing. If that foot gives way on landing you do not have a swift recovery available. However, when your feet stay under your center of gravity and you spring from point to point you can allow one foot to land on some seriously sketchy spots including loose gravel, loose rock, slick rock, even ice. Why? Because even if you slip your next footfall is landing only a fraction of a second later. 3) Stay High. Believe it or not running over the tops of rocks even somewhat knife-edged ones can be a better choice than running through a rivet between rocks on the trail. It allows a higher perspective that helps the subconscious mind process the trail ahead. It also gives you more options laterally. If you get stuck in a rivet on the trail the only way is forward or to climb back up on top of surrounding rocks. Both these options slow you down. Granted, if you fall when high it is likely to be considerably more inconvenient. 4) Take the Straightest Line. The fastest way between two points is a straight line. On the trail this can mean taking on some more hazardous footing. That said, an argument for this approach is that it necessitates total commitment and that builds confidence. It also has the advantage of simplicity, you can get out of your head more because you’re not thinking about finding a best way through a particular section of trail. Rather, you simply commit to the most direct route even if it seems more risky. Taking the straightest line is not always advisable but it definitely builds confidence when it comes off successfully. 5) Go Zen. Read…”Think less.” Any thought is your enemy. Most of my slips and near misses happen when I simply see another person on the trail and my brain focuses on them more than on what I am doing. That’s a momentary distraction big enough to cause a good tumble at high speed. If you starting thinking about something like death or serious bodily injury…forget about it, game over. The trail is a great place for going minimal. Most of all go minimal inside your head. The more thought you can annex the better you will run. My downhill experimentation continues in 2015. Plenty of room for improvement. And I know full well that, when it comes to the trail, Learning is often accompanied by his assistants, Accident and Injury. That said I’ve tried all these approaches to downhill running and have found them immensely effective. Early in 2014 I would regularly roll ankles and catch toes but since employing these five points such incidents occur much less frequently. They seem effective ways to help avoid the dreaded fail on the trail. Final word: for those that can’t get enough of this topic check out this interview with Jason Bryant on Ultrarunner Podcast. It is pure trail wisdom. And…here’s a stellar bit of downhill running by the mountain running phenom of our day Kilian Jornet.
Winter training season is hear. An arctic cold front pushed its way down into the Rocky Mountains and Boulder has received several inches of snow. Nothing monumental but enough to make us all a little giddy. This afternoon I took advantage of our fresh powder and set out on Gregory Canyon for a snow run up Green Mountain. Bit chilly at the warm up with temperatures only in the high teens but once my hands defrosted things were going good. Up near the top of the Ranger trail the snow got a bit deeper, about mid-calf but a complete blast to bound through. Took in the summit. Grey, grey, and grey in all directions. Boulder pleasantly nestled under a dark winter shroud.
Trail education for the day was don’t go out on a late afternoon run through fresh snow without carrying your headlamp. Without the snowpack the trail got a bit dicey as it became harder to see on the descent. Thanks to the trekking poles over half a dozen falls were averted. Things got darker a lot faster than I anticipated (shear stupidity on my part) and I decided to bale out onto Flagstaff road for a bit before returning to the trail once the city lights were brightening the night a bit. Lesson learned and none the worse for wear. Actually, feeling damn good to be into the ‘off-season’!
As of yet I have never done an ultra on the track or considered seriously running significant distance on a short loop. But doing laps over and around a mountain, bring it on! On Sunday October 26th I ran seven loops of Boulder’s most trafficked peak, Mt. Sanitas with Adam St. Pierre and Mike Aish. It was bruising and the following weeks recovery consisted of too much candy and minimal sleep. That was part of the reason my nerves were up when on November 1st Adam and I returned to Mt. Sanitas to run a bit longer. Our goal was 24 hours on the knobbly little hill, to see how close we could come to Paul Pomeroy’s record of 24 summits in 23 hours and 18 minutes. And I was feeling sluggish.
For non-Boulder locals; the standard route on Mt. Sanitas for such endeavors takes you from a shelter in a small gully at the base of the mountain up the western side of the ridge that leads to the summit. The trail climbs approximately 1,250 feet in about 1.5 miles. Your first encounter on this amble is a set of telephone pole stairs followed by a series of steppy rock. There are intermittent ‘flat’ sections of about 10-20 yards but for the most part the trail goes up. Two more sections of stairs slow down most chance of running except for very skilled up-hill travelers. Once you reach the summit there’s the affectionately termed “goat-trail” that descends steeply down the east side over some fairly jagged rock (read dragon’s teeth) for about 3/4 of a mile to the Valley Trail. The latter smooths out nicely and the final descent can be quite speedy, on fresh legs at least. Not so quick after 18-20 hours.
The first eight laps went remarkably well. We held a steady 45 minute pace per loop and were both running incredibly strong. At lap nine we started the night and the pace began to slow. This was to be expected and neither of us were particularly affected by the decrees especially since we were both still holding strong. Things started to shift towards lap 13 for me when I realized that we were setting a 1 hour per lap pace and sometimes exceeding it with stops and we had twelve hours remaining in our endeavor. That meant to break the record we would have to hold a steady hour per lap pace, which didn’t seem likely. Even more importantly, we had very little leeway if we hoped to compete against Pomeroy’s record.
We both covered our nutrition well and aside from a case of the hick-ups from hell my guts were good. I don’t think it factored in too much but it was a bit of a head trip to check my watch ascending at 1:20am only to return to the shelter and find it was 1:05am (thank you day-light savings). One of the many things that went right was a tremendous show of support from the local trail community. We had enthusiastic folks running with us every lap except one. We were even brought homemade chicken noodle soup from our friends Anna Carvill and Noah Duncan.
For the most part the only thing that went wrong was that the mountain wore me down. By the time we wrapped up our 22 laps we had covered around about 70 miles of ground and had climbed about 28,000 feet of vertical. We both had our dark spots, Adam between 3 and 5 and me between 5 and 6:30. Oddly, my legs only felt significantly beat-up for a while around laps 13-14. The experience was more of overall body fatigue. Despite all the downhill pounding, all the forced hiking probably made the experience a more well rounded sort of physiological abuse. You are always provided the opportunity to work with you mind, probably the biggest reason I go in for this sort of thing. At some point in the middle of the night, probably around 3am, things started to get pretty dark. I put the thought in my head, “if you can’t stay strong here you’re never going to make it through Hardrock.” That was enough to pull things back from the brink, at least for a couple hours.
This was a great first encounter with the 24 hour challenge. In the end we finished up with 22 laps in 22:45. It was probably possible to get one more round in but in the end we decided we had accomplished what we needed to on the day. I believe that the Pomeroy record is achievable but it will take careful planning. As Adam has already noted in his run report, the attempt would be better in a different season with more hours of daylight. An earlier start time would probably help, around 9am or so. Finally, we would have to have highly regimented breaks that were strictly timed. I was the one who got a little lax on these when Adam tended to be ready to go more quickly. Running is always a learning experience and the mountains have a tendency to “learn yah” as they say in The South. They definitely learned us but we came out the other side strong.
Many thanks to Hillary, Jason, Drew, Matt, Mike, Collin, Brian, Tobias, Anders, Wendy, Boots, Jean, Kerrie, Nick, Tony, Eric, Morgan, and everyone else who showed up. Also, a big thanks to Adam for dreaming this madness up in the first place.
Summited Longs Peak this Saturday September 27th for the first time in four years. Back then the hike/climb took a bit over ten hours. This time managed it in 4:43 at a moderate pace. The current FKT for Longs taking the Keyhole route both directions is 3:35 so I’ve got work to do. Given a very moderate effort today 4:00 should be achievable under good conditions but that will have to wait till next year with the first snows soon to come.
It was a perfect day. Mid 60s throughout and barely a cloud in the sky. My body was not up for a hard effort exactly two weeks out from Run Rabbit 100. A good excuse to take in the views and take some pictures. Longs terrified me the first time I stepped past the Keyhole. It’s one of the most deadly mountains in Colorado and in June of this year it claimed it’s 59th victim, an experienced hiker out of Fort Collins, CO. The mountain commands respect and I probably played a bit fast and loose with it…took three sliding falls on the Trough and one on the Narrows. The latter shook me into reality. Thin air thins the senses, including those of danger. You have to know when to run and when to take your time, keep some humility beside your gel packs and above all enjoy the majestic scenery.
I’m standing on the West shoulder of Bear Peak and the skyline stretches to the North. Green Mountain, Flagstaff, Sanitas. There is a definite choice, either run those peaks or run your race in two weeks. A fun little hundred miler in Steam Boat Springs CO called Run Rabbit Run, perhaps an allusion to Dark Side of the Moon, perhaps race director weirdness. The pain in my leg is not definite. Better to call it discomfort. A dull throb in the right leg that migrates but always returns to a source around the inside of my right knee, the MCL. Right now it’s most likely a strain. There is also a deeper fatigue that my mind rebels against. “Pull it together you bloody pussy!” it bellows. I love this voice. I feed this voice. I nurture its belligerence and will it to antagonize any element of weakness that should appear within me. But right now it has to be quiet. There are times when the mind has to override the body’s instinct. In the case of the modern human the mind should override the body’s instinct 90% of the time. The urge for comfort and the expectation of ease is so ubiquitous in our current climate that to push the boundaries and feel life the way it was meant to be, as a live and emphatic cauldron of blood and sweat, we have to ignore much of what the body has to say. So when do you listen? Who knows. Only you know, for yourself. I was starting to know, either hike down the trail, suck up your pride and hike back across the Mesa or risk going injured into the event you’ve been preparing for over the past year.
This is the point at which I start talking to the rocks and the mountain. I look over at Green Peak. Any advice. Sure enough the mountain answers. We are patient. “Easy for you to say,” I think. “You’re a giant hunk of fucking rock.” None the less when the mountain talks you either listen or it might just expose your hubris in other ways, a loose rock that cracks your ankle, a root that sends you sprawling in the dirt, a granite slab that catches your foot and rolls it without care or sympathy. So I listen and hike down the mountain my ego screaming with the site of every hiker or runner I pass. It’s impossible to hide wearing brightly colored short-shorts and racing vest. A lean, greying gentleman in his late fifties gives me a wry smile, “Shouldn’t you be running right now?”
“I should. Don’t I know it, I should be running,” I say.
That’s a lie though. The same thing that pushes you to go beyond the limits is the same thing that can break you. Right now the only thing that should be done is what the body says it needs to do. So I recite the words of the mountain and walk down the trail.