Runlikely: Trail Training Starts

Whoops. I know it’s been a bit. I went out of town to visit my aunt and didn’t bring my laptop, and then figured I might as well wait until my next long run. So here we are.

The basic update is that, instead of running almost exclusively on roads (there’s a .5-1 mile section of trail I like to run on my neighborhood loop but it’s mainly pavement), I’m doing 2-3 runs per week on trails, including my long run. And that… has upped the difficulty. Trails slow everybody down (maybe especially me), and there are lots of little muscles waking up for the first time in this training round.

I got through all my scheduled runs while visiting my aunt (3/5/3/11/3 for a 25 mile week), including a long run near and around Tully Lake. That 11 miles took me up to the top of Tully Mountain (a 600′ elevation gain, which is small by PNW standards) then back toward the lake and around it. It went fine! No emergency pit stops, I brought enough food and managed to fuel well, and I found a groove that had me cruising the flats and downhills.

Miles: 11.5 (on trail)
Elevation gain: 1,306
Effort: Easy (though I struggle to start easy, I fell into an easy pace by the last miles)
Time: 3:33 (average pace: 18:33)
Emergency poops: 0

The view from the viewpoint at Tully Mountain

I was stoked, because I wasn’t sure if I’d have to cut back my mileage to accommodate running on trails. But so far, my body seems game. It helps that I’m not even hazarding an attempt at running uphills at this point and instead am trying to hike them strong. I’ll be doing some hill-specific training drills, but everyone’s advice for your first ultra is to hike uphill and run the flats/downhills, so that’s what I’m practicing in training. (The idea is that the physical cost of running uphill is more likely to wear you out than save you time unless you’re an extremely fit runner—and there are uphills that even elite runners would choose to hike to be more efficient.)

That said, this elevation gain was a little less than what I’d be facing on race day (which is 2,000 feet of gain in 7 to 8 miles), and a lot of it was small ups and downs around the lake rather than a steady uphill like I’ll be facing at the race. But there aren’t 1,000+ feet mountains to go straight up in western Massachusetts where I was at, so I did the best I could. A good chunk of this run was dirt roads, too, which is way less technical than most single track.

Some stuff that worked on this run is I tried out Tailwind, which is a supplement that is supposed to provide all of the electrolytes and carbohydrates that you need while running—and it’s supposed to be a type of sugar that’s easier on the stomach. I’m not sure if it’s the Tailwind that meant my stomach didn’t turn into knots, or just the more varied terrain/pace of trail running, but it tasted good. I ate breakfast (bagel with cream cheese) about 20 minutes before I started and packed a banana. I had other snacks with me but didn’t need them.

The other real winner of this trail run was the podcast Out Alive by Backpacker, which my friend Wayne recommended to me. They’re true stories about people who find themselves in near-death situations in the wilderness and how they got out. They’re 20-30 minutes long and I’ve been enjoying the heck out of them. (I am very open to podcast recommendations for these long runs! I like stuff about the outdoors, and I don’t like True Crime.)

I wasn’t too sore/wiped out after this run (which was on a Friday–three days of running in a row), but for logistical reasons took the next day off, and then ran again on that Sunday. My ankles/calves were very not into it on that run. I’m struggling a bit because I feel like taking a day off makes it very hard for my ankles/calves to get back into the swing of things, but I do need rest days. I fell off of the strength exercises I was doing to make sure my hips are strong while I was traveling.

OK, this week’s long run:

Miles: 14
Elevation gain: 2,352
Effort: Easy-moderate
Time: 4:23 (average pace: 18:50)
Emergency poops: 0!!

First, the good stuff: I ran 14 miles, which is the farthest I’ve ever run, and I did it on a trail. Cool! My stomach was fine the whole time, though I’m now carrying a ziplock, wet wipes, and a trowel in my running backpack. I followed the same procedure as last time: bagel for breakfast, Tailwind in one of my waters, and banana, but I also had a Huma gel and a Hammer gel because I had less Tailwind than I needed. I also had a oat milk latte with my bagel, which, talk about a gamble. But again: fine! No tummy troubles whatsoever. And the Out Alive podcast was a great companion again, although I have now binge-listened to every episode and will need to find something else.

Training for the week overall had gone OK—I did a five mile trail run with 1,083 feet of elevation gain on Tuesday and tried to do some downhill sprints to get more comfortable running downhill fast. I did a speed workout (3 x 3 minutes fast, equal recovery) on my neighborhood loop, which went OK, and then an easy run that did not feel easy. I couldn’t find a chill pace and kept speeding up and then walking and trying again. My hip was bothering me—I’m assuming IT pain. I’d fallen off of doing the hip exercises a PT recommended to me but have since started again, and am trying to think “hips forward” while running to try to engage my glutes better.

As far as the long run, my ankles were not pleased. I planned to do a “long” warm up by hiking for 10 minutes but they were so mad that I think it took 40-50 minutes before running became even a remote possibility. At one point, I thought: am I going to have to hike this whole 14 miles? No way, that will take me forever. So I told myself if I’d hiked for two and a half hours and my legs/ankles were still not OK with running, I could turn around and hike back to the car, regardless of how many miles I’d done. (The thought being I could aim for a similar amount of “time on my feet.”) But after 50 minute, I started being able to run for extended periods of time and, voila, 14 miles became possible.

I have some funny magical thinking around hiking—I’ve never hurt myself hiking. I’ve been sore, tired, grumpy, blistered, but never injured. So there’s a part of me that feels like hiking is a low-risk activity. Therefore, the fact that so much of this is going to be about improving my hiking means my risk of injury is less. (Having known many people who have hurt themselves hiking, I logically know that’s not true. But the magical thinking is still there.) But either way, my hiking experience is helping with the trail running. If I hadn’t woken up for several days in a row with sore ankles and still been able to crank out 15+ mile days, I would have been afraid to push on this long run.

The trail was uphill that most of the time going in, which I didn’t realize. The elevation gain mimicked the race’s pretty spot-on, which is great. Sometimes the uphills are obvious, other times they look like flat but feel like hell. I only realized some sections were uphill when I ran the way back and realize I was going flying down. Uh, also my butt seemed to be doing a lot of work on this trip. My glutes felt very… engaged.

I wasn’t familiar with the area I was hiking/running, and so I was having to figure out navigation while I ran, too, which slowed me down, though I’m not sure how much. My Garmin gives me the overall time, but Strava often deletes anything where I’m not moving—and for this run Strava cut a full half hour off my overall time (which would have made my overall pace more like a 16:50). So that gives you some indication of how much time it eats up to be like, “wait, where am I going?” I tried to choose a route that was simple to follow (Tiger Mountain Trail) and went far enough, but then there were trail closures not long in and I had to re-route. That meant several miles on dirt roads rather than trails.

Speaking of which, after I turned back from my half-way point, I ran into another runner who was confused where the trail went. “I just spent a half-mile bushwhacking and I’d like to avoid doing that again. Do you know where the trail goes?” So I showed him the map on my phone. He told me he was glad he ran into me, which was nice—I don’t feel like part of the “running” crowd because I’m so slow, but at least I can still be useful for navigational purposes. I’m glad to be vaccinated and able to talk to random strangers without being nervous about being unmasked.

At the end, I was a half-mile short of my 14 mile goal so doubled back to get that last .5. I was wiped by the time I got to my car. Not the most wiped I’ve ever been (last summer after a hike I had to stop mid-way home to eat because I wasn’t sure I’d make it home otherwise), but not as energetic as after the 11-mile run. My bra started digging into my back with the backpack, so I might need to experiment with other bras.

Oh, and my feet. I’ve been getting recurring blisters at the big toe joint of my foot. I have wide feet, but I bought quite wide shoes and so was confused why I kept getting blisters. Turns out, I think it was the calluses I’d developed there. I’m trying to scrub those away so they don’t keep causing problems. And it seems to be working, because despite 14 miles, no blisters. That’s a big win in my book. (Running is such an attractive sport.)

I got home, ate, drank, but didn’t take a nap because I had socializing plans. Today I’d planned to do an 8 mile hike but I’m tired and got a late start – I’m still debating whether to go on a longer hike or a shorter run, and I think I’m leaning toward the latter.

I am still very nervous about making the cutoff times for this race. It doesn’t seem impossible, but it does seem like I’ll have to hope everything goes near-perfect in training. It’s unlikely that my running pace will get much faster by July, but I think it’s reasonable to think that my uphill hiking can get more efficient, and that I can get better at running downhills faster. Those things will help trim time off my miles and make the cutoff possible.

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