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…

My Current Workout Routine

jason shen workout routine early 2012

(click to enlarge)

Over the past 6 months or so, I’ve gotten into a pretty great rhythm when it comes to working out. With no races coming up, I thought I’d drop a line on how I’m working and what I think it’s doing for me. Hoping to follow up on this post with an update on my 900 minutes of meditation which I started in April and perhaps another post in general on morning routines.

Disclaimer – I’m not a fitness, nutrition or medical expert. No certifications or anything. I’m coming at this as a former competitive athlete, biology BS/MS and an experimenter with N=1. I am still figuring things out and sharing what I’m learning.

My workout goals

Everyone works out for different reasons – they might overlap but hold different priorities. Here are mine (in order of importance)

  • To keep my body healthy and functioning well
  • To maintain a high level of energy
  • To train for a marathon
  • To stay in shape and look trim/fit

My Constraints/Requirements

I think there are a bazillion number of ways to work out and stay fit. What matters is finding one that fits the constraints of your life. Getting into a routine of working out every morning is awesome, but it means having a few constraints including:

  • Easy on my knee – I don’t do plyometrics or any activities that involve a lot of pounding, side-to-side cutting, etc.
  • Morning availability – I like to workout in the morning, at my own pace, so that means most classes are a no go at the moment.
  • Affordable - Right now I am not willing to budget for classes, bootcamps, trainers, expensive equipment, etc. I work out at a nearby cheapo gym and my biggest expense are race entrance fees.
  • Sub-hour workouts – Since I am working out in the morning, shorter is better for me. My gym is 2 blocks from my apt and only one of my workouts lasts more than an hour door-to-door (the long run).

Workout 1: Heavy Weights

When I was a gymnast, we only did a tiny bit of lifting in the beginning of the pre-season. Otherwise, I generally stayed away. After reading about the work of Pavel Tastasouline (kettlebells) and Brian MacKenzie (CrossFit Endurance), both featured in Four Hour Body, plus reading about Jason Fitzgerald of Strength Running and his gym workouts, I decided to make heavy lifts a cornerstone of my workouts.

Typical workout:

  • Deadlift – 3 sets (6x 225lbs, 6x 245lbs, 4x 265lbs)
  • Benchpress - 3 sets (6x 185lbs, 6x 205lbs, 4x 265lbs)
  • Squat - 3 sets (8x front squat 135lbs, 8x back squat 135lbs, 8x front squat 135lbs)

Why I do it

What I’m learning is that heavier lift but lower reps is a really efficient way of building and maintaining strength without building mass. I want to short circuit the heavy mileage running programs that most marathon training guides advocate and I can only do that with a strong frame achieved through heavy, compound lifts.

In re-reading some of the literature like the “rule of 10″, I am considering raising the amount of weight lifted, reducing reps to 2-3 and increasing my rest time from ~2mins to ~5mins.

Workout 2: Tempo Run

This is the shorter run I do during the week, which should push me a bit aerobically and leave me breathing pretty hard at the end.

Typical workout:

Why I do it

You can’t train for a marathon without doing some running. Long runs obviously help build tolerance for distance, but my tempo runs are for going a bit faster and keeping me from turning into a plodding, slow jogger.

Workout 3: Bodyweight

As a gymnast, I used to warmup and end my workouts with a ton of body weight exercises. At one point, I realized the 45 min routine we would do to warm up for gym practice was hard enough to be an entire workout for me now as a non-athlete. Kind of a sad feeling, but just the nature of my current lifestyle.

Typical workout:

  • 10 mins on bike machine
  • 2x 50 pushups
  • 2x 15 pullups
  • 50 hollow rocks + 50 arch rocks
  • 1 min handstand hold + 5 handstand pushups
  • 1 min plank hold + 1 min side plank hold (each side)

Why I do it

Bodyweight exercises is like a medium-light workout that doesn’t tax my legs too much, works my core and upper body, keeps me active and my blood moving during the week.

Workout 4: Interval Training

High intensity interval training is where you switch between doing really hard activity followed by really easy activity on repeat for some number of cycles. Studies have shown that vigorous exercise burns more calories than “steady state exercise”, increases your post workout metabolism for longer and can even increase your endurance/aerobic capacity in less time than longer, easier workout. Check out more on intervals via this infographic by Greatist.

Typical workout

  • Elliptical: 6x 1 min easy on Level 10, 1 min really hard on Level 14

Why I do it

I do intervals partly as a way to build speed without doing track work or hill sprints. It’s a lot more convenient and it’s nice that it only takes 12 minutes to do the whole workout. I do wondering if I’m getting the same benefits because I am worried about running being too different from “elliptical-ing” and thus not getting that speed boost. But my aerobic capacity should be benefitting. I think I’m going to start doing more cycles (maybe 8?) while taking the easy portion even easier and seeing what happens.

Workout 5: Light/Rehab

This is a mixed bag. I want to be in the gym but not kill myself before a long run.

Typical workout:

  • 20 mins on bike machine easy
  • Rotator cuff exercises with 5lbs dumbells
  • Single-leg balance Romanian Dead Lifts (no weight)
  • 100 ups (which after watching the video, I realize I’ve been doing wrong)

Why I do it

Most people don’t do enough preventative rehab. I don’t use my upper body as much as I used to but it’s really good to work out some of those smaller muscles in your shoulder and back. Same for the lower body – just doing some drills, some stretch and staying loose.

Workout 6: Long Run

I love this workout. It’s my big test every week – my test of progress. I am constantly trying to extend my long run until I’m easily running some faster paced half marathons and can handle a 15 or 18 miler without issue.

Typical long run

Why I do it

I’m training for a marathon in late July and this is the best way I know how to track my progress. I want to be comfortably running longer distances without blisters or major soreness before I go all out on that 26.2 miler.

I really enjoy my long runs because – 1) I’m usually extra well rested from the day before 2) I blast electronic dance music and get my jam on 3) my runs are along the waterfront of San Francisco and 4) my long runs are usually are also on my cheat day (more on that in another post) so I eat very well afterward

I may write an entire post devoted to the long run later on, but we’ll stop here for now =)

Final Thoughts

When reviewing my workout program, it’s like someone made a smoothie out of running, powerlifting and gymnastics. I realize I may not be realizing the full gains of doing heavy lifting or interval training by only doing it once a week. Perhaps my need for variety is preventing me from getting stronger/faster as efficiently as possible. Writing this blog post has been great because I already have some ideas for changing up my routine.

I will say though that I’ve been doing this routine for a few months and it’s been great. I feel good everyday, never too exhausted during the weekdays and full of energy – and I haven’t suffered any major injuries or illnesses (minus the foot issues and cold symptoms before the half marathon) so it’s achieving my goals.

What’s your workout routine like? How do you structure your exercise? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Out of My Element: Notes by a Former Gymnast-turned-Runner in His First Triathlon


photo credit: Manuls via photopin cc

I’m always evolving and experimenting with my writing style here. On this post, I tried to write in the style of a magazine article, like something out of the Atlantic or Esquire. Not too pretentious, but a bit more literary than my standard ass-kicking fare. Let me know what you think in the comments!

I’m standing in a crowd of people covered in spandex and neoprene.

As a former gymnast, this is nothing new. Seeing muscled adult males squeezed in tight, form-fitting material was once a commonplace occurrence for me. What is novel, however, is that instead of being in a heated, insulated gymnasium, I’m standing in front of a dock, overlooking a small harbor on a chilly morning in early spring.

I’m here to compete in my first sprint triathlon.

For a long time, my only knowledge of triathlons was the Ironman ― the grueling 140.6 mile race that is one of the greatest endurance challenges in the world. It’s a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a marathon (26.2 miles). As the story goes, the competition combined several long standing distance races to settle a debate between several military officers about which sport ― cycling, swimming or running ― was the “greatest”. The first Ironman Triathlon was held in Hawaii in 1978 and has since grown considerably in both participation and renown.

I found out about more manageable triathlons for mere mortals after following a blogger named Joel Runyon, who writes about triathlons [1], adventure travel and doing impossible things. More personally, I’ve been in touch with a college friend – a former swimmer who, in a renewed focus on exercise and weight loss, found a passion for running and decided to compete in a sprint triathlon.

The buzzer goes off and away we go, paddling through the water. I am surprised and pleased by the ability of my rented wet suit to keep the chilly 55 degree harbor water at a distance. The wet suit does not, however, do anything to prevent the salty sea water from entering my mouth every time I take a breath. Even after a month of swim practice at the YMCA, I find myself struggling to keep a good stroke rhythm going.

Halfway through swim I begin to feel my arms lock up as the coldness starts to affect their ability to move. I try to push onward, hoping that I won’t have to cry out for one of the lifeguards mounted on kayaks to save me from drowning pathetically 20 feet from dry land.

“What was I thinking”, I ask myself “when I decided to sign up for this?”

Triathlons come in four flavors: Sprint, Olympic, Half-Ironman and Ironman, each featuring longer and longer distances. For beginners, a “sprint tri” is relatively doable – with swim distances of 400-800 meters, bike rides of 10-12 miles and run distances of 3 miles or perhaps a 5k. While I personally find the term “Sprint” a bit puzzling as the descriptor for this distance, I can definitely see how it is a faster paced race than any of the longer distances.

How I found myself participating in a sprint tri has been a bit of a surprise and mystery to my friends and family. How does a gymnast of 16 years, used to meets where total time on equipment over six events adds up to less than 10 min of actual exercise decide he wants to race in hour-plus long triathlons?

It all started with a life-long shame in my ability to run.

Running has always been one of my weaknesses. I distinctly remember struggling to run a mile in gym class in middle school one year (the 27 laps around our gym’s hardwood floor feeling like an eternity) and my father chiding me for “losing to girls” with an 11 minute something mile. I was able to write it during my years as a competitive a gymnast, since one’s ability to run a mile has little to do with one’s ability to do a two and a half twisting somersault.

About a decade after that middle school mile, I was lost in the psychological wasteland of a former collegiate athlete. Going to the gym and working out felt empty and pointless. It was then that I tried running again. The first “real” mile I ran after college took 11 minutes and 47 seconds, which translates to 5 MPH, a speed reserved for driving in parking lots.

I am finally catching my breath.

I made it out of the water unassisted (2nd to last of the men in my batch) and am now riding the commuter/road bike hybrid I was borrowing from my roommate along the first of three flat lollipop loops that was the bike course. It’s a joy to inhale fresh air without a mixture of salt and the constriction of a suit.

I have, however, entered a new realm of hazards because while the swim portion was relatively contained with just a dozen or so men in my age group in the water, the bike route has men and women of all categories, including the highly competitive collegiate athletes. Sweaty bikers whizz by in gleaming blurs of carbon fiber and aero bars with a distinct zoom that sound more automotive in nature than pedal-powered.

I actually have to pull over to the curb as one fierce biker shouts for me to get out of her away. Did she say “on your left” or “move to the left”? I’ll never know.

Jason holding bike triathlon

A post-race shot of me and my borrowed commuter/road bike hybrid

Undeterred by my slow first run, and fueled by the keen desire to challenge and redeem myself, I began to put more miles on the road. My passion came not just from a need to conquer this weakness of my athletic ability, but of my skelo-muscular abilities as well.

I dislocated my left knee in my junior year of college in a disastrous vaulting accident and have undergone over five reconstructive surgeries to rebuild or trim my ACL, PCL and surrounding ligaments and tissues. Yet somehow running, especially in minimal footwear with a forefoot strike, has not given my knee issues and even my surgeon ― after examining my knee in an annual checkup ― grudgingly allowed me to continue running.

I was determined to turn running into a strength. And in the proceeding months, I did just that ― increasing my speed and distances from 5ks to 10ks to half marathons.

But after training for and competing in my first half marathon, I found myself suffering overuse issues in my feet that were frustrating and kept me off the road. And so looking around Active.com ― a website that lists sporting events and various types of races in one’s local area ― I found a sprint triathlon nearby held by my own alma mater.

I decided to enroll in the “Stanford Treeathlon“.

After getting passed endlessly for miles, I finally settle into a good pace and even catch myself passing a few people. I rip into an energy gel and drink a few gulps of water while trading “leads” with a boy who couldn’t have been older than 15. He’s even gracious enough to give me a “Good Job!” when I passed him. What a sport.

I try to kick it up a notch and attempt to chase down a girl in a white tank top. While I do pass her once, she catches back up and leaves me in the dust. Pulling in after my third loop I’m a little winded and my quads a bit sore, but otherwise feeling pretty good. I’m excited for “my” part of the tri ― the run.

The bike route gives a great view onto the sidewalk where I see triathletes stumbling away with terrible form, more shuffle than stride. I am excited to knock this leg out of the park.

It turned out training for a triathlon wasn’t very easy. The running was straightforward, but I don’t own a nice road bike, nor did my normal gym have pool access. I found a nearby YMCA and squeezed into lanes alongside senior and adult swimmers just looking to get in their morning dip. I suspect the lifeguards had a good laugh as I splashed away like a maniac, panting and half drowning as I put in my laps.

After swimming I’d get one of the spinning bikes and go for 20 or 30 minutes. Of course while those bikes are better at mimicking a real road bike, they don’t give you any digital feedback on distance or difficulty so I wasn’t sure how close this was to race conditions or even how hard I could push myself on the bike. My one cycling foray on actual road was a 12 mile round-trip ride across San Francisco out to the ocean that, with hills and traffic lights, took nearly 45 minutes each way.

I realized I did not really know how the race would go or how much it would tax me.

I struggle a bit to put on my Vibrams Five Fingers (my minimal running shoes that resemble “foot gloves”), my toes uncooperative and unwilling to slide into their proper spots. Eventually they’re wrestle them into position and I’m off.

Really off.

Everything feels wrong. My legs feel like they’re made out of lead. Shock from each footstrike resonate directly into my chest cavity and my heart feels like the clapper inside a church bell. Suddenly I realize why so many of those runners looked awful ― because they felt awful. I urge myself onward, slowing down my pace a little while I try to get my legs under me.

They come back about a mile in. Finally, I feel like I’m in my element. Foot in front of foot ― I’m moving. It’s pure sport, uncluttered by the brand of my suit, or the material of my frame. I hold an 8 minute a mile pace until I can almost see the finish line, then throw in my final kick, flying through the blue rubber mats that cover the timing machinery.

My total time clocks in a 1:29:40, putting me 2nd to last in the 25-29 year old male age group, and 154 overall, in perhaps 200 something competitors. My splits are 16:08 mins on swim, 43:20 on the bike and 23:28 mins on the run with 3+ minute transition times.

Jason racing sprint triathlon

The final sprint home!

Overall, I am happy with the outcome of my first sprint tri. In retrospect, I think I could have pushed myself a little harder on both the bike and run, though I definitely maxed out my swim. Some smarter racing tactics could have further shaved a few minutes off my time ― for instance my transitions could have been much faster.

There was definitely something exhilarating about running into the transition area, shucking a wetsuit or helmet and switching into new equipment. It felt like a being a Transformer (the phrase “activate running mode” seems like a catch phrase that could go on an ironic triathlete t-shirt).

I can also see the advantages of racing tri’s ― more variety in training and more room for optimization in a variety of area. Beyond just swimming, cycling and running more, improvements can come from learning a skill or technique (for instance, I could really benefit from swimming lessons) and simply buying just better gear. It almost reminds me of those casual Facebook-connected games where you can either earn your currency from in-game activities, or shortcut to them by converting your real money.

I personally don’t find all these areas of optimization very appealing. One of the few ways that gymnastics is similar to running is that the equipment is relatively standardized. While your home gym may differ from other gyms, at the competition, you are all wearing the same kind of spandex, the same wrist supports, hand grips and other attire and none of it guarantees a significant improvement in performance.

Similarly, in a running race, all that really matters is that you’ve got a decent pair of running shoes. Races feel more level and running feels more primal. Distance running feels like the ultimate competition, especially if you believe the claims by Christopher McDougall in his best-selling book Born to Run [2].

I’ll probably race another tri someday. Maybe I’ll even do the Treeathlon again, next year. I’m proud to have completed my first race and have a new level of respect for those Ironmen. But for now I think I’m going to stick with running. I’ve got a full marathon coming up in July and perhaps some fun races in between.

For once, I’m shying away from the shiny new thing, and pushing farther down simple, (but not easy!) road. I’d like to believe I’m doing things the way a real runner would.


FOOTNOTES

[1] In fact, he actually recently wrote an entire guide on sprint triathlons that you can check out here. [2] In the book, McDougall argues that the ability to run long distances is one of the distinguishing features of modern human beings and may have lead to hunting advantages over Neanderthals.

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!