What It Feels Like to Hit the Wall

“Hitting the wall” or “Bonking” is a term used by runners and bikers to describe glycogen depletion which leads to sudden fatigue and energy loss. In all my running, I had never experienced it – until recently.

Photo Credit: sebastien.barre

I was looking forward to the November trail race my girlfriend and I had signed up for at the China Camp Basin (she’d do a 10k and I’d do the half marathon).

Unfortunately, we suffered a brain fart and went there on Sunday rather than Saturday and missed the race. Whoops. It wasn’t all bad as we hiked the trail together for 2 hours instead and went oyster shucking at Point Reyes afterward.

Still, I was annoyed at missing the race. I had been looking forward to pushing myself, so I decided to run a fast 13 miles on my own instead. And that’s when I learned what it’s really like to hit the wall.

Getting to Empty

I went on my usual route that followed the Embarcadero along the water all the way to the Marina (the top of San Francisco) and back. I wasn’t feeling super rested that morning, but I was able to maintain around a 9:30-10min/mi pace which is faster than my usual long run, but slower than previous race paces.

I started getting hungry 40 minutes in but waited until the half way mark, 6.5 miles, to eat my one energy gel. As I headed back, I felt myself getting tired, but I really kept pushing hard.

“This is a race! Go all out and finish exhausted!” I told myself.

This pep talk got me through miles 7-11 but at mile 12 I started feeling really tired and hungry. I was frustrated but slowed, recognizing that I still had 2 miles to go.

The Bonk

That 12th mile took forever. I had my eyes closed for most of it (very bad idea, don’t do this) because I was so uncomfortable and just wanted to zone out completely.

When I finally made it to mile 13, I was basically shuffling. I didn’t want to walk because I knew if I did, I wouldn’t want to start up again. I was starving and it felt like the air had become thick and resisting my motions. Every step was a struggle.

Finally around 12.5 miles, I literally collapsed on my hands and knees. I couldn’t go any further. I walked the last .5 miles, just about finishing 13 miles (without the extra .1)

See my Runkeeper activity for this run.

When I got home, I stuffed my face with snacks and microwave meals (I know, the food of champions). It took a few hours of food, drink, shower and rest before I really felt myself again.

What It Means, Physiologically, to Hit the Wall

There’s a lot more science than I can touch on here but basically it appears I ran out of glycogen, which breaks down into glucose and is one of the primary forms of energy in the human body (the other is burning fat).

The more intense your activity, the more glycogen you use (compared to fat). During most long runs, I maintained a 11 min/mi pace, which is much easier on the body. During races, I would typically carbo-load, stuffing extra glycogen into my liver and muscles, and have several energy gels or drink lots of gatorade during the run.

Because I was running hard and didn’t replenish my energy sources fast enough, I ran down to nothing and crashed. Your brain uses a lot of glycogen too which might explain why I wanted to close my eyes – your mind starts working poorly when you’re low on energy, just like your muscles.

Additional Resources

I’m glad I had a chance to experience “the wall” but I don’t ever plan on doing it again. I found some resources on glycogen depletion that you might find useful as well.

Have you ever hit the wall? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!

 

 

 

The Hills Can Kill: A Tale of Two Trail Races

trail runningPhoto Credit: lululemon athletica

I ran two races in the last three weeks. The first was the Mercury Mine 12k race in San Jose (when everyone else in the Bay Area was at Bay to Breakers) and then last Sunday I ran the Lake Chabot Half Marathon in San Jose. Both were super hilly trail runs (hence the photo – I don’t have any good shots of the courses) and made for some interesting experiences.

Mercury Mines 12k – May 20

I was originally slatted to run this race (official race site) in April but strong rain showers moved the date to May 20th (sort of an early birthday present to myself). I ran the race with a friend, Jared Tame, who got into running about six months ago and runs a startup called Bloch, which teaches people how to program. The race started out easy going but about a mile in, there was just an absolutely massive hill. You can see it in the elevation profile: We started running it but about 30 seconds in realized that everyone in the pack was walking. A middle-aged woman walked past us and was like “Yeah, just walk it. That’s the smart thing to do, even pros walk big hills on trail races. Save your energy for the downhill.” After walking for what seemed like forever, we finally clear the peak.

We were not even two miles in. Continue reading…

13.1: Finishing My First Half Marathon

Race: Brazen Racing Coyote Hills Half Marathon
Distance: 13.1 Miles
Date: Saturday, January 29th 2012
Notes: First half marathon – very happy overall. Pushed through some blistering and tendonitis on the side of my right foot. Great views. 

Last weekend I ran my first half marathon! Woot. Here’s how it went:

Training

After my 10k’s at Stanford and Eugene, I backed off a little bit, then started pushing my long runs again, getting to 9.2 miles before winter break. I did my best to stay in shape over the holidays and ran a bit in the chilly New England weather.

I’ve basically had a rough pattern of doing a threshold/faster run of 2.5 to 3 miles during the week (usually on treadmill) and a longer slower run on the weekend (to train farther distances). In between that I do elliptical/bike workouts, interval training, body weight workouts and at least one heavy lifting day (deadlift, bench and squat/leg press/pullups)

I was pleased to complete a 9.8 mile run the week after getting back to San Francisco and planned to do one more big run two weeks before the half. However, that run got cut short by some GI issues and I stopped at 8 miles.

Pre-race troubleshooting

That wasn’t so bad, except that then my foot started bothering me the next day. There was some soreness on the side of my right foot that got more painful as the day went on. By Sunday night (36 hours after the 8 miler) I was hurting pretty bad just walking around.

The pain didn’t go away with ice and ibprofen. After some googling, I figured it was either a stress fracture (BAD!) or an inflamed tendon on the side of my foot. Since I didn’t want to take any chances, I went to see a podiatrist. At this point I figured I was not running the half.

The diagnosis was – “It might be a stress fracture, but it’s more likely tendonitis. Tape your foot up, ice and see how you feel in a few days”. That weekend I tried to say off my feet. Early next week, I was starting to feel pretty good.

Doc says it might be ok to do the race, knowing that I really want to, but first try running a few miles. So I did. Unfortunately the taped up foot and lack of running meant I started feeling hot spots just a mile in. I wasn’t feeling much pain so I bailed on the extra miles, deciding that I knew enough about my foot status to go for it.

The race itself

The race took place in a regional park in Fremont, CA (East Bay). It was a nice day, a little chilly, but by the time the race started, t-shirt and shorts were fine. The route was a big loop plus an out and back.

I was a little nervous. Not only was my foot just getting better but I was worried about getting blisters early in the race. Additionally, I had felt a little sick in the days leading up to the race and didn’t really do of anything activity-wise. But as I’ve heard – better to go into a race under trained than over trained. And I was definitely the latter.

MILES 1 – 6

The race started off well. I tried to get into a good rhythm. They had aid stations set up nicely which was great, and my track selection “Swedish House Mafia 2010 Creamfield Extended Mix” really helped. What was NOT nice was that the Vibram Bikila’s did not do a good job protect me on some of the more gravely areas. Definitely took some pebbles to the foot. But was able to push through.

The first loop went pretty well all things considered. But remember, I had never actually run more than 10 miles so today I was going 30% farther than my max distance. The first loop was a lot of me going - Ok, I feel pretty good now, but can I run what I just ran X more times???

MILES 7 – 9

One thought I kept trying to re-iterate was this: when you think you really can’t go anymore, you’ve got about half left in the tank. This is actually going to be the basis of a whole future blog post but anyway, the point is that I had to keep reminding myself this was something I could complete.

It’s also true that the 2nd time around things go by a little bit faster. But around mile 8 I was starting to drag a little. I lived moment to moment for the next announcement from Runkeeper that I’d gone another half mile. At one point I was starting to run with my eyes closed, until I realized I was going to run off a cliff.

MILES 10 – 12

Around mile 10, I reached an aid station and and ate an energy gel which helped perk me up (though it left my hands pretty sticky). Also, I just read an article on energy gels and apparently half of the effect is just in perking up your brain. Interesting.

Once I got to mile 11 I knew I was almost there. I started to pick up the pace.

Mile 12 came around quick. I had been walking for bit every mile and pushed myself to run the last 2 miles

The loop ends on a pretty brutal hill so that was pretty rough to keep jogging – and there’s also a crazy downhill section with a lot of rocks. I almost crashed sprinting to the finish but luckily I stayed on my feet. Didn’t even really feel out of breath at the end of the race like I usually do – but perhaps the longer distance just affected my body in a different way.

Post-race

After the race I just felt really drained. Not panting but just tired. I sat down for a while and felt a little better. Then I felt A LOT better when I saw what they had for snacks/post race food.

Ice cream sandwiches from Ikes, Apple Pie with whipped cream and other amazing foods. I made myself sick with all of it – and it was glorious.

Debrief

I ran a 2:09.09 (chip time) 2:09:31 (gun time). The average pace was 9:52 but really I was around 9:30 for the first half, and got slower and slower in the 2nd half til I was probably running 10:30s or something.

That put me at 197 for the race (out of 347 racers) and 18th out of 25 males ages 25-29. I’m below the median – but that means there’s more room to go up!

Ultimately, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. I had some massive blisters on my foot, my tendonitis was flaring up a little bit, but otherwise I made it out alive. My calves have been sore for the past few days but that’s to be accepted. My knee is doing great.

Runkeeper data (it’s a little whack)

Next Race

My next race is going to be a little different: a trialthon! I’m doing the Stanford Treeathlon – a spring distance tri on Feb 25th 2012. I did my first swim workout a few days ago and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun!

Any triathlon readers out there? Would love to hear training advice!

Going the Distance – Back-to-Back 10ks in Stanford and Eugene

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I pretty much don’t do things halfway. So it won’t surprise you to know that despite having never completed a 10k distance race before I found myself entered to compete in two of them, one weekend after another. Here’s how that went.

Stanford Habitat for Humanity Home Run – 11/12 

Great race. As an alumni, I was excited for an opportunity to see the campus again and I was not disappointed: the organizers put together a scenic windy tour around Stanford. I raced in a new pair of shoes (yes, another pair!): the Vibram Five Finger Bikila’s (named after Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian who won 1960 Olympic marathon barefoot). [1]

I LOVE my Bikilas.

They weigh about the same as my other shoes (~7 oz) and have the same shape, fit and road grip as my VFF KSO’s, but more of the New Balance Minimus MT20′s “cushioning”. I think the MT20 are better for trails and the KSO’s are more flexible / truly barefoot-feeling but the Bikilas seem to exist to help you run fast. This praise comes with a warning: they really encourage you to run with a forefoot strike, (more than the KSO’s because of the 4mm Vibram outsole) not and even as a guy who runs exclusively in minimal footwear, my calves get a serious workout every time I run with the Bikilas.

My goal for the Home Run 10k was to run a smooth race and not push myself too hard. I aimed for a 9:20 pace and was able to stay roughly on target. I definitely spent most of the run chasing middle aged runners which didn’t do particularly much for my self-esteem [2]

I ended the race on a strong kick as usual and had a great time. Below is a screenshot of my race as tracked by Runkeeper. I was happy with how it went and of course, the money went to a great cause as Habitat for Humanity was studied in Forces for Good as a high impact nonprofits.

My official time was 54:57, putting me in 116th place out of 223. See official race results here.

EWEB Run to Stay Warm – 11/20

The second weekend I took a trip up to Eugene Oregon to compete in EWEB Run to Stay Warm, their gas/electric provider’s charity race which helps householders in tough financial conditions keep the heat on during the cold Oregonian winter.

Why did I pick this race? It was featured in Runner’s World’s run of the month! And also, it gave me a chance to rideshare up and down via Ridejoy!

I was Couchsurfing in Eugene and was fortunate enough to have my host, Jesse, drive me to the center and he ended up bandit running the race (that’s Jesse in green in the picture).

First off, it’s freaking cold in Oregon. I know all the race organizers get a laugh out of the fact that not only are we helping keep the heat on through the race, but we personally are staying warm in the 37 F weather through running.

I don’t think I prepared adequately for the race and struggled quite a bit in the middle. Here’s what I learned:

  • Dress appropriately
    I knew it was going to be cold so brought a jacket and a long sleeve Under Armor shirt. Sounds reasonable except that the jacket wasn’t meant for running and the compression from the Under Armor shirt made it hard to breathe [3] I spent half the race with a bunch of crap tied around my waist, which wasn’t great. Next time I do a race in this climate I’d make sure to either have a running-specific jacket, or at least arm warmers and perhaps longer shorts or tights that fit not *too* tight.
  • Don’t drink too much coffee right before running
    I drank a big cup of coffee less than an hour before the race — it was really cold (see above) and drinking a hot beverage made me feel better in the moment. However, later in the race my stomach was not doing so great and I think it was in part because of the java.
  • Get more rest before the race
    The week leading up to the race there was a lot going on at work, so I don’t think I rested adequately, which is unfortunately a tradeoff you have to make when running a startup.

I was able to pull it together toward the end of the race and finish strong but it was definitely not easy. I am sort of amazed I finished slightly faster than the Stanford race. I definitely worked a lot harder…

Check out the differences in the splits (from Runkeeper)

Eugene Run to Stay Warm Stanford Home Run

Official finishing time was 53:57, placing 86 out of 272 runners. Official results here. Runkeeper link here.


Now that these two races are over, I’m taking a little time to rest, recharge and prepare for my next race. I’m jumping into a half marathon distance, which I’ve been told is a bit of a leap up from the 10k. We’ll see what happens! As always, I’ll keep you updated on how things go. Shoot me questions or comments down below!

FOOTNOTES


[1] I’ll be honest, I’ve coveted the Vibram Bikilas since hearing that Vibram was building a version of the shoe specifically for runners, but since I already owned KSO’s and then getting  the New Balance Minimus Trails, I didn’t feel it made sense to get another pair. But I’ve kept hearing good things from my running friends and when I got linked to a special 30% off deal, I took the plunge. [2] I’m mostly kidding – it doesn’t necessarily feel great to get passed by someone 20+ years older than you, but after reading the book Run Faster from the 5k to the Marathon, I’m heartened by the author/running coach’s rule that most runners don’t hit their peak until 30 and no matter what age you are, if you haven’t been much of a runner, it’ll take about 7 years of serious training for you to reach your lifetime best. So I confident to know there’s so much progress I can look forward to making. [3] I don’t know why but after getting this shirt as a gift, I always want to try to wear it for running, despite the fact that it’s a little too small and exerts force against my chest cavity opening and closing – making breathing just that much harder. I definitely learned my lesson this time.

Loud. Arrogant. Rebellious. Asian.

Or: Why I proudly strive to break racial stereotype.
[warning, this post contains graphic language]
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, then you know I’m a get-after-it kind of guy. Some examples of that:

I also happen to be a Chinese-American immigrant: born on foreign soil and raised and naturalized in the US.

The attributes I described in the first paragraph run directly counter to our society’s conception of Asians – meek, quiet, humble people who are sexually non-threatening (this applies mainly to men), don’t cause any trouble, and do what they’re told.

Well I’m not interested in abiding by that bullshit.

 

Believe it or not, there was a time in my life when I was shy and quiet, primarily interested in books and got bullied / beat up after class. And I did bust my butt to get good grades and good SAT scores so I could attend a top university like Stanford.

But at some point I realized the lie that my Chinese mother (unknowingly) told me:

Working hard and doing well in school will get you a good job and make girls want to be with you.”

Perhaps that worked in China, but it doesn’t work here.

Turns out, being successful at work OR in romance requires you to make noise, take risks and be aggressive. These lessons and many others are ones I’m still learning and striving toward. It might be simpler to just keep my head down and my mouth shut, as I see many of the men of my father’s generation do, but I know that that strategy won’t help me retire early or ask out that cute girl I just met.

And I won’t accept that. Continue reading…