Training Tuesdays: 0 to Ultra in 100 Days?

As of tomorrow, I have exactly 100 days until my scheduled ultra marathon. Up until now I have sort of assumed that I won’t be running it. My latest injury has caused a 1.5 month set back and I doubt I’ll be running for a while yet (at least not in the way that you need to run to prepare for an ultra). I’m back on trails but very slowly building up to more intense elevation gains and distances. And yet, that little idealist inside me wonders if it might not just be the greatest coup ever to go from 0 to ultra in 100 days.

Is such a thing possible? Trusty Google came up short on 100 day training plans for ultras–at least, for people essentially starting at 0.

But then I started to do the math. All I really need is to reach the 18 km mark of the race within 2.5 hours. That means I need to move at roughly an 8.5 min/km pace. If I do this, they cannot disqualify me! No matter how slow I am after that point, they have to let me finish the race. It’s possible that I should apologize in advance to the race volunteers who will be waiting hours and hours for me to walk my way out…

As I thought about the feasibility of this pace and plan, I realized I can actually hike that fast! At my fittest (which granted I am not at right now), I typically hike at a pace of 8-10 min/km on flat to rolling terrain and can maintain a 10-12 min/km pace on moderate incline (which is all the uphill component of the Mount Robson marathon really is). All I need is to run a few a few strategically placed flat sections, which the first 18km of the course is chock full of.

I can almost taste victory! And by victory, I mean simply finishing.

But I still need a plan. So next Tuesday, I will reveal to my tiny little group of followers* what I’m sure will one day be a mass-marketed, highly lucrative, sought-after-by-every-wanna-be-lazy-runner “100 day couch to ultra” plan. And before you get any ideas, you better bet I’m already in the process of trademarking this puppy.

* Obviously as early followers I will offer you a discounted rate on my new plan when it goes viral.


Monday Musings: On Fear of Re-Injury

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been slowly getting back to a state of relative normalcy with my activity levels. I’m still not running at all, but my gym-based activities are really at the same level they’ve always been, my personal training sessions are escalating quickly in intensity, and I’ve been getting back on some moderate trails. While the progress has felt good at times, I’m aware of this dark little cloud hovering over my head any time I’m doing something active.

That cloud is fear.

That is the face of pure menace.
That is the face of pure menace.

Turns out, I am incredibly anxious about re-injury this time around. When I’m working with my trainer, I can feel myself tense up as she increases the weights for certain exercises.  When I go from seated to standing on the spin bike, I’m over-analyzing whether I feel my SI “pulling”.  When I’m on hiking trails, I am descending with extreme hesitancy and caution to avoid an SI-jarring slip. I’m afraid to even ask if I should be trying to run in the near future. I’m afraid my physio and trainer might actually say yes.

This is the first time I’ve had this level of anxiety around re-injury. I’m not one for being cautious or tentative when diving back into activity.  I’m the person who usually pushes the boundaries of healing time.  This time around, though, the memories of not being able to sit and stand without intense pain, of not being able to walk for more than 5 minutes at a time, of not being able to bend to put on pants or tie my shoes, are still very fresh in my mind.  I am terrified that all it will take is one misstep on a trail, one poorly executed dead lift, or one overly ambitious workout to undo all the gains I’ve made.

It’s as though I’ve gone from one extreme to another on my spectrum of responding to injuries. I’ve moved from careless abandon to utter paranoia.

injury response
Totally normal responses right???

I have never been good at moderation.  Somehow I need to find that happy medium where I’m respecting my healing process but not letting my fears hold me back from pushing harder when it makes sense.  As a person who is more comfortable in extremes, in the all or nothing, this is actually a considerable challenge.  Like most things in life, I have no answer for this so I rely on Google to point me in the right direction. I read a lot of really crappy articles and found one that seemed relatively backed by research.

In it, I found my recipe for overcoming fear of re-injury:

  1. Increase personal reflection and confiding in others to allow more understanding of stressors and enable the creation of solutions. Check and check.  In fact, I think this blog counts as personal reflection. I also confide (ahem, whine) to my friends all the time.  So far, no solutions have emerged as a result but I’m clearly on the right path.
  2. Establish regular and graduated opportunities to experience success in ability and to increase confidence through positive self-evaluation in rehabilitation. Check again. I see a trainer weekly and we constantly see progress both in terms of range of motion and the weight I can bear. I get feedback from her to reinforce this. This overcoming fear of re-injury thing is starting to look easy.
  3. Utilise process goals to build and develop a structured path in which concentration is maintained. As each process goal is achieved there are more opportunities to congratulate oneself. Process goals should be set regularly in association with your physiotherapist/coach. Uh, I am on fire here. I have been setting weekly progress goals since roughly week 8 in my training program, and I have a highly structured path to maintain my focus on healing smartly.  This stuff doesn’t just look easy, it is easy.
  4. Provision of relatedness through positive feedback from coaches. Social support will increase self-confidence and reduce re-injury anxiety.  Alright, I was going with this list until I read this one. It seems oddly repetitious of both #1 and #2 on this list and sounds ultra airy-fairy. I like airy-fairy, but not when it comes to diminishing my own anxiety and fears. I declare this point useless. And, if that sounds too defeatist for some, I’ll also point out both my trainer and physiotherapist are full of positive feedback so I am good in this department.

What I’ve learned here is that I clearly have no reason to fear re-injury. I have all the processes in place to train and progress safely. I have all the support and feedback I need.  Grey cloud of fear, I hereby banish you to find another head to hang over.

RWIR #11: Double Hike Extravaganza

We’re back and in a far better mental state than the last few weeks. Why? Because I‘ve spent more time in nature, which makes me very happy and balanced.  Let’s check out the week, shall we?

Activities: Hike + condensed rehab exercises
Relevant Stats: 9km, 300 m of elevation gain
Nature! Trees! More uphill than I’ve done in weeks! A winning combination, made only better by consuming copious amounts of wine and s’mores around a campfire that evening. Bonus: no SI pain or stiffness.

Activities: Hike/Walk
Relevant Stats: 14 km and probably 200m of elevation gain
Our first “trail” was a meagre one mile jaunt with something like 30 m of elevation gain.  It was lovely and went to the beach. I got my first sand dollar since I was a kid.  I was riding an outdoors high.  Our second trail, a forest service road trek of roughly 13km, robbed me of precisely 1/50th of my soul.  It was never-ending and I was just having one of those days where about 5 km in, I wanted the power to spontaneously transport myself back to the campfire.  I’m sorry to everyone who was with me because I was a royal grumpus.

Activities: Walk
Relevant Stats: Rest day
We got home and strolled through the city mostly because I need to be taken for daily walks or I get grumpy.  My SI was quite stiff after the weekend adventures so I also thought the walk would help loosen it up a bit. The wine with dinner helped more than the walk.

Activities: Spin + Rehab exercies
Relevant Stats: 55 min. spin + 40 minutes rehab exercises
Sweet Jesus, bear crawls are not my forte. They are extra awkward when trying to carve out a reasonably lengthy path through a 500 square foot apartment.

Activities: Personal training session + elliptical
Relevant Stats: 60 min. training session, 30 min. elliptical
32 lb single leg dead lifts!!!!!! I also graduated to weighted front squats, and the prowler. For the first time, I had an elevated heart rate and broke a sweat during a training session.  But who cares about all of that because my TRAINER WANTS ME TO TRY A HARDER HIKE!!!! Challenge accepted…on the weekend.

Activities: Spin + rehab (condensed version)
Relevant Stats: 50 min. spin + 15 min. rehab
My ass was sore from Wednesday’s dead lifts. I had zero energy from a bad night’s sleep. The 50 minute spin session was a miracle as I wanted to stop around 20 minutes. But I just kept reminding myself “you get to hike this weekend.”

Activities: Elliptical & Training Exercises
Relevant Stats: 40 min. cardio + 3o minute strength
Observations: It’s Friday. I am tired this week and had zero energy in the tank but at least I did something. And as of tomorrow I’ll be on the trail so at least there’s that.

All in all, it was a solid week of recovery so I give this week a big:

Any chance to integrate Leo into my blog...
Any chance to integrate Leo into my blog…

What’s in store for next week? My goal is to fit in two hikes this weekend, one of which will have at least 500 m of elevation gain.  If I survive those two hikes, the BCMC may be in store for a mid-week trail session…fingers crossed!

Throwback Thursday: Most Terrifying Hiking Moment (so far)

Years ago, when I still lived in Banff, a couple of well-meaning friends invited me to hike the Yamnuska loop with them.

I have to pause here to insert a little-known fact about me (well, except anyone who really knows me knows this): I am terrified of exposure.  As in, I have frozen on hikes and needed to be talked through awkward crab-walking descents amidst much shaking, anxiety and inner swearing (in high anxiety I cannot vocalize anything).  I recognize the irony of this fear given my love of mountains, hiking and standing atop of summits.  Over the years, I’ve grown more comfortable but I still know my limits and avoid testing them with obviously terrifying (for me) exposure.

That was a long-winded way to get to the fact that, when invited to hike Yamnuska, my first question was “will it scare me?”.  These friends knew me. They had hiked with me and actually witnessed my panic while descending trails. And so, I trusted them when they said “Oh yeah, there’s nothing too bad. You’ll be fine.”


The day started fine enough with a delightful stroll through tree-lined path.  We progressed to some cool climbing up through hollowed out rock and onto narrower, steeper terrain. Still, I was fine.

And then, then we encountered this:

yamnuskaanother cable
This is not me. I was too busy trying not to crap my pants. And should my friends have taken a picture of me in this state, I surely would have forced them to delete any record of my terror.

There is a very small section of “trail” that is basically a narrow ledge with a sharp drop on one side and a flimsy cable to supposedly provide you with comfort and stability.  I am wise enough to know that my feeble upper body strength wouldn’t help me hold onto a cable for long in the altogether too likely event of a slip.  And so, I was in a bit of a predicament. To turn around at this point would involve a lengthy solo hike going against the grain of other hikers, and I was already super close to the summit.  To keep going, I would have to stop my knees from shaking and somehow keep my wits about me long enough to avoid plunging to my death. These are tough choices, friends.

Mostly at the insistence of those lying liar friends, who kept telling me “it’s really not that bad”, and definitely against my better judgment, I decided (ahem, felt peer pressured) to continue.  I’d also like to add, for those of you who attempt this type of cajoling, the more you say something’s ‘really not that bad’, the worse the person you’re cajoling starts to believe it is. Translation: your overly confident reassurance creates exponentially higher anxiety.

I cannot recall anything about my trip across that (what turns out to be only a 30m) terrifying ledge. Supposedly, I swore a lot and cursed my friends. All I know is that, on the other side, it took my knees a solid five minutes to stop shaking and for my breathing to return to normal.  I have never been so certain of my impending death as on that hike.

Another important side note: I am not-so-secretly convinced that, when I do die, it will be on a mountain. Thus, when I feel hyper anxious on a scary part of trail, I believe it is the universe’s way of warning me that this could be the very moment it decides I’ve spent enough time on this fair planet.

Alas, I survived the hike and realized I’m capable of more than I thought and all that “lessons learned” sort of jazz. But my real learning was beyond the hike itself.  After that fateful day, I learned two important things:

  1. Those friends could no longer be trusted to accurately assess my suitability for a hike. Only the internet could be trusted from that point forward.  And that is, in itself, a sad realization.
  2. The cable on the trail was replaced by a far sturdier chain just about a month after hiking this trail, leading me to (obviously) conclude that I put my life in the hands of a worn-down and likely faulty cable.  I was staring death right in the face, I tell you.

Mid-Week Controversy: Pot & Ultra Running

Generally in life, I feel like I am constantly late to the party. I hear about trends long after they are really trends. I am almost always behind the times.  It seems I’ve somehow missed out on yet another heated debate in the running world: marijuana use during and after ultra training runs or races.

Let me first start off by saying, I have no strong opinion on the ethics of this whatsoever.  I mean, I really could not care less whether a runner chooses to use marijuana or not. I don’t race competitively so the whole debate about whether it is or isn’t performance enhancing is totally irrelevant to me. In other words, this isn’t an editorial piece. My perspective is offered only in jest as, when I read about running high, I immediately found myself contemplating the dire impact this would likely have on me.

And so, instead of taking a stance, I offer only the brief and lighthearted list of potential risks I imagine when evaluating whether to race or train high:

  1. Based on what I’ve heard about being high, in combination with my excessive clumsiness, I imagine myself tripping and either severely injuring myself or perhaps even falling off a mountain.  This seems at best counterproductive and at worst deadly.
  2. It seems that many runners are using it to combat fatigue, nausea and pain during ultra races…which leaves me sort of wondering, if you’re nauseated, in pain or that tired, isn’t that your body’s way of telling you maybe you should stop? I mean, I have never run an ultra so I have no idea what the body goes through. Maybe it’s bad enough that you genuinely need a good high. However, given my aforementioned tendency for injury, I should probably pay attention to things like pain. As for nausea, I always thought it was sort of hard core when Pete Sampras threw up on the court during the fifth set of the ’96 US Open. I’d like to think that if I puked en route and kept going in a race I’d look equally hard core. It’s probably not true.
  3. My brief research also highlighted that some use marijuana to help them wind down and sleep after 17-20 hours of racing.  Well, let me just say that I have zero intention of ever running for 17-20 hours so this will never be an issue for me. But if I were to find myself in that situation, I imagine a bottle of wine would also do the trick. Actually, I presume I would be in such a state of dehydration that a glass or two of wine might be another to knock me into a peaceful slumber.
  4. Like I said, to each his own. However, I think for me the potential costs would far outweigh any benefits. And, since I haven’t been able to run in over a month, I am sort of looking forward to that horrible feeling of total and complete muscular and cardiovascular defeat that comes from distance running. No pain, no gain, right?

Training Tuesdays: On the Importance of Good Form (and the role our brains play in it)

If nothing else, I should win bonus points for the longest blog post title ever.

I’ve written already about how I’ve been doing strength training for years, but that I’ve also been doing it all wrong. The extent to which this is true has become glaringly obvious after just three personal training sessions. Over the course of these sessions, I’ve discovered several propensities that have counteracted any gains from my strength training efforts including (but not limited to):

1. My right hip “hikes up”
2. I “tuck” my tailbone
3. I hinge at my back instead of from my hips

In other words, I am a mess.  I’m not the kind of mess you’d see from a mile away, with the obvious and cringe-inducing bad form.  I’m the kind of mess that looks like she’s got her shit together until you start using dowels and yoga blocks to show her that she’s, in fact, a bit of a disaster.

My most recent demonstration of the critical importance of form was when I awoke with significant glute stiffness (i.e. my ass muscles hurt) after doing three sets of 6 single-leg dead lifts using 25 lb. kettle bells.  Yes, that’s right, a measly 18 dead lifts left me with more DOMS than I’ve experienced after doing 100 squat jumps, 50 dead lifts, and five minutes straight of walking lunges (side note: that’s a fun little superset if you want to give it a try–with proper form of course).  In short, it’s been sobering to see just what a difference proper form can make to engaging the right muscles.

You’d think armed with this knowledge and starting to get a feel for the “right” form that it would be easy to just get on board with this new way of operating. You’d be wrong. Turns out these damn brains of ours sure like to hang on to old habits.

See? That stubborn brain of mine just wants me to be tilted!
This may look like good form, but trust me it’s not. 

Changing my form is really an exercise in changing some very hard-wired, neural pathways. In essence, I am changing my brain.  On the plus side, I have always been fascinated by how we overcome bad habits and adopt new habits. It’s a large part of the work that I do every day, so I’m largely game for the challenge. On the down side, it is bloody hard.

I am amazed at how quickly I can shift from proper form to improper form. As soon as the muscles start to fatigue, as soon as I get distracted by shiny objects (which is often), or as soon as I get complacent and think I’ve “got it”, my lovely little brain goes on autopilot and my form goes to hell. My brain isn’t an idiot.  It knows the path of least resistance is always easier, and that path is poor form.  But it’s also fully capable of learning a new path that will, in time, become its new path of least resistance. All it takes is concentrated repetition.  That’s it.

Nerdy brain science moment: “whenever you repeatedly engage in any behaviour…the brain circuits supporting it strengthen and the behaviour becomes a preferred routine” (courtesy of a fabulous book called You Are Not Your Brain). There’s a little something called Hebb’s Law which basically says habits are created and maintained when nerve cells are activated in the same ways over and over again, because it causes them to form a brain circuit. That’s when we consider something to be hard-wired.

Seriously. Even if you think you hate science, that stuff is cool.

What this means for my training is that I have to notice and accept the discomfort of holding the correct form, and push through that discomfort anyway.  Over and over and over again.  Sure it’s easier to tuck that tailbone just for a second, but that is exactly the kind of action that will keep me from forming new patterns.  And I, for one, have never believed that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Take that, brain.


Monday Musings: On the Restorative Powers of Nature

We just returned from an altogether too short long weekend in Washington, complete with many a camp fire (the smell of which is still stubbornly clinging to each and every strand of my hair), many a bottle of wine (so that no one grows concerned I won’t mention the actual number), way too many s’mores (why does fire have to transform boring marshmallows into something so much more magical?!?), and a whole lot of time outside.

Aside from last week’s brief trail adventure, it has felt like a long time since I have spent considerable time in nature. And I have missed it.  I have been more irritable, more stressed, more anxious, and generally less pleasant a human to be around.

This weekend we were able to explore some (very moderate) trails and I forgot how the simple act of walking in the woods, surrounded by fifty shades of green (see what I did there?) and sometimes with a little elevation gain for good measure, can uplift the old spirit.

I have always found the act of hiking or walking in nature to be almost meditative in nature. Nature, preferably forest or high mountains, is the only place in which I can truly clear my mind. My shoulders, which are inexplicably and constantly in a state of tension, immediately relax.  My breath transforms from shallow to deep. I feel calm and even my biggest sources of anxieties begin to feel small in relation to the vastness of what surrounds me.

This weekend was no different. After just three days, I feel relaxed. I feel energized. I feel ready to tackle some legit trails next weekend.  My soul is very happy.  Happy Victoria day, everyone!