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Pick Your Battles: How to Design Your 2014 Race Schedule

Well, 2013 is drawing to a close. Undoubtedly you’ve enjoyed some time off from running. Maybe you spent some time hanging out with neglected friends on the weekend. (You know, those weird ones who don’t run.) Or watching football. (I forgot how awesome football is.) Or maybe just catching up on life stuff. (Ugh. Mail and bills.) Whatever you’ve been doing, you’ve likely been slacking on running. And that’s a wonderful thing that you should have done. 

But 2014 is almost here. It’s the time of year to reflect back on the past one and look forward to next. And it’s time to do it quickly. Most races will start to open their registration within the next month if they haven’t already. It’s time you sit down and take some time to map out the year ahead. There are a few things you can do today, without moving a step, that will make your entire next year more enjoyable. 

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(Photo credit: Rogue Valley Runners)

First things first. Start by asking yourself a few questions:

  • What did you accomplish this year? What did you learn you were good at? And what can you take from that knowledge and expand on this year?
  • Was there anything you missed out on? Anything you wish you had done but couldn’t or didn’t find out about it until it was too late?
  • How do you see your upcoming year? Is this one the where you try a 100 for the first time? Or maybe it’s the year where pile on the races. Or maybe you graduate up to the big, scary races. Or maybe it’s a quieter year where you want to focus on having fun and training well. What’s your vision for this year?

Now that you have a few thoughts about what you want out of your season, it’s time to grab a race calendar, your wall calendar and a Word doc. Let’s build a schedule.

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The two best resources for race calendars are from Ultrarunning and Trail Runner magazines. They’re not always 100 percent exhaustive so it’s good to check both. One nice thing about Ultrarunning’s calendar is that it rates the terrain and elevation change of each race from 1 to 5, so you have at least a basic idea of what you’re getting into.

When a race sounds interesting, do some quick interest research. Check out the website. Look at the course map and elevation charts. Peep some pictures. (Just be aware that some of the official race pictures may be taken at easy access points and not necessarily the most beautiful sections of the course.) Lastly, find a few race reports and see what people have to say about it in years past.

Start making your list of contenders. Once you’ve got your rough pool, it’s time to whittle them down. Here’s where all your anal, Type A scheduling skills really starts to shine:

  • Start with your goal race. Pick a race where you really want to push yourself. When do you think you’ll be trained and rested properly to tackle your most important race of the season? Usually this will fall somewhere in July or August. If you’re stepping up to 50-milers or 100-milers for the first time, this will obviously be your race. Whatever the distance, it should be a race in which you want to perform well and come out on the other side sporting a huge smile because you slayed it.
  • Pick a warm-up race and increase your intensity from there. Marathons, 50Ks and 50-milers can all be nice early-season races depending on your goal race. Schedule something shorter earlier in the year as a good test.
  • Design your schedule out from there. Plan time to taper down to your goal race. Between your warm-up race and your big one, fill in the remaining months with other runs that interest you. 
  • Give yourself enough recovery time. Pros (and crazies) can race more often. But for you and me, we need to give ourselves proper time to recover physically and mentally. I’m not a rocket surgeon, but my general rule of thumb is to give yourself at least one month between 50s and two between 100s.

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But before you go thinking you’ve solved your Sudoku puzzle of a race schedule, I have a few wrenches to throw into your system. We’ve neglected one key consideration for your year: variety. If you want to have a successful and enjoyable season (never mind, a career) it’s important to take on new challenges. It will make your year more exciting and keep you growing as a runner. Try to work all of these ideas into your schedule: 

  • Return to one race you’ve run previously. It’s weird to think of a repeat race as variety, but it can be. It feels good to return to a race knowing exactly what to expect (or at least as much as you can in an ultra). More importantly, taking on the same race for another year will give you a good benchmark to see how you’re improving. Usually this should be a local race so it’s not as stressful logistically. And it’s better if it comes earlier in the season since it can serve as a nice confidence booster.
  • Pick a race in a state you’ve never visited (or at least never raced in). Before I started running I’d never seen Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Arizona or New Mexico. Races are wonderful excuses to see a new part of the country, if not the world. Plus, taking on new terrain/elevation/local microbrews will make you a better runner.
  • Try a style of race you’ve never done before. Do you normally do big, established races? Find a tiny race in its infancy. The vibe will be totally different. Never done a loop race or an out-and-back course? It could be a good new mental challenge. And I’m guessing you’ve never done a 6-, 12- or 24-hour race before. Why not go for it this year?
  • Schedule a non-race running adventure into your calendar. Don’t skip this. I have an unofficial pact with a few friends to do one every summer. Try a Zion Traverse, a Rim2Rim2Rim or any number of other famous routes. It’s good for the soul and confidence to undertake your own unsanctioned runs. Even if you don’t have specifics yet, add a placeholder date to your calendar and plot your grand adventure later. 

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Yes, this much organization can be a pain in the ass, but take an afternoon to sit down and map out your year. Knowing exactly what 2014 will look like will get you excited and focus your training towards hitting your goals.

Plus, now you’ve got the hard part down. All you have to do at this point is run. 

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Achilles, Snowdrifts and Sleep

The last few weeks have been both though and pleasant. Tough because I’m not able to train hardcore (or really at all) for HURT. Pleasant because it’s forcing me to take a little time off from running and be around the house on weekends. (Who knew football was so awesome?)

I’m afraid I’ve been a little bullish with my return to running, and I may have reinjured myself last weekend in a foolish attempt at capturing a Strava CR (that I learned later I already held). I just need my Achilles/calf to heal so I can stop feeling stressed about being ready for Hawaii.

But that hasn’t killed all the fun. Two weekends ago I got out on Mt. Baldy for an awesome day of playing in the snow with Dom, Katie and George. I may dare to say it’s the most fun day I’ve ever had out on the trails. We hiked up to the summit at 10,064 feet leisurely, then cruised off the other side and into some nice whiteout until we made it down to The Notch for some mid-run beers and fries. (That was a first.) And then we finished it off with a goofy, fun blast down the ski runs. That is what running should be like every day.

And here’s a dumb video I made from it. Because, of course.

Song: Bonde de Rolê “Salta o Frango”

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How Sweet It Is

How sweet it is to be running again. It’s good to be moving. It’s good to be back on trails. And it’s great to see friends again.

The Achilles is feeling better than ever. And by feeling better than ever, I mean, I can’t feel it much at all.

Yesterday I climbed up to Green Peak at the top of Temescal with the usual Tuesday morning crew. Beforehand I didn’t think I’d actually make it to the top, but it felt good the whole way with just a touch of tightness right at the top.

This morning I got out for a glorious morning on Westridge. Ran the fire road up and the gnarly singletrack down. Zero problems.

Let’s hope this keeps up because I am back in love with running. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right?

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Getting Back on the Two-Legged Horse

Before I begin, why is that you fall off the wagon, but then get back on the horse? Anyway.

I’m finally getting back to action, and it feels pretty dern good. I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about being 100% in two weeks time. And it can’t come soon enough. I’m two and a half months out from HURT100, and I really need to get training.

Tuesday morning I took the ole legs out for the first time in three weeks and was able to get in about 2.5 miles before I started to feel my Achilles tighten up slightly (but zero pain). From there, I’ve cautiously been testing and building miles until I feel the tendon start to tighten up: 3, 5.5, 5.4 and then 10.5 miles today.

The test today was up Westridge and over to Dirt Mulholland. It was the first time I tried out any real climbing. The Achilles definitely tightens up a bit on the climbs (which is to be expected with this kind of injury). But it’s taking speed nicely.

So, I just need to be patient, get it to the point where I don’t notice it and then dive headlong into HURT prep. Because that race is going to hurt no matter what, but if I can get some hill training, maybe it’ll hurt a little less.

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Day Whatever: Decanso en Madrid

I’ve been pretty quiet lately. Since Monday I’ve been laying low in Madrid, resting up and taking in some of this lovely city’s sights.

Had everything stayed on course, tomorrow would have likely been the day that I made it to Santiago and finished my 500-mile journey. Instead, it’ll be the day I had back to the States.

Obviously this is a bit of a disappointment, but in the end I think I made the right choice. Even after I bought my train ticket from León here to Madrid I kept wondering if I should keep walking and try to make it to Santiago in the next two weeks. I almost didn’t get on the train. I’d get bold (probably because I’d just taken a 600mg ibuprofen) and think my Achilles was feeling fine and I should just keep moving. Fast forward a few hours later, after the painkillers have worn off, and I realized I’d made the right choice since it was hard to walk more than a few city blocks.

Today was the first day that the ankle has been free from stiffness and most pain. I hope this bodes well for recovery. I’ve got the HURT100 coming up in mid-January and need to start getting my vert on.

But for the most part this rest has been nice. I would’ve wanted to run the Camino if it had been anywhere in the world, but fortunately for me it also happened to be in one of my favorite countries ever. I’ve been taking in lots of museums and downing even more pinchos/tapas and vermouths. (And here I thought I was going to come back from Spain fit and gaunt.)

(Pics in the post below.)

It’s definitely been fascinating to compare my experiences in ancient, small-town Spain to this opulent, cosmopolitan hub. Both are so rich and captivating. Both are pretty amazing to see. One is just better for running than the other.

Who knows. Maybe I’ll be back to take on the Camino. I wouldn’t bet against it. Also, I still ran 288 miles in 8 days so I can feel pretty darn awesome about that. And only three (I think) weeks after a big 100-miler at Pine to Palm.

So thanks to everyone for all the support. It never felt like I was running alone. Glad I could bring you along.

See ya back on the other side of the pond tomorrow.

Grathiasssss.

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Day Whatever: Resting Up and Soaking in Culture

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Day 9: León to nowhere (464 km)

It’s weird to be moving so quickly one moment and then to be suddenly totally still the next.

When I woke up this morning I rolled my ankle around and thought “Ah, that actually doesn’t feel so bad.” And then when I actually stood up on it I thought, “Oh just kidding. That’s terrible.”

The back of the ankle is a little red and swollen, hard to the touch. Classic Achilles tendinitis if I learned anything from my last bout with it. The amazing part is that my legs feel 100% fresh, like I just woke up on a regular week day, not like I just put 288 miles on them in the last 8 days.

Since it’s a Sunday, the streets were pretty quiet here (and of course all the pharmacies are closed). I woke up and walked outside to find some breakfast and—to some grand, cosmic irony—discovered that the city was setting up for a race that would end two blocks from my hotel.

I hobbled around a bit. Toured the insanely impressive cathedral with its stained glass. Watched the runners come in. Tried to push back the weird tears of irony once or twice. Drank some vermouth. Ate some tapas. Iced the ankle. Watched Regreso al Futuro II (Back to the Future II) in my room.

It’s funny. The Basílica de San Isidro here had something called the Puerta de Perdón that was a door pilgrims could walk through to pardon them if they weren’t able to complete their pilgrimage to Santiago. I went to see it today. Guess I stopped in the right city.

If I could walk from here, I might be able to finish the 300 km to the finishing in time. But this tendinitis is mean. It’s going to be a week before I can walk much at all. No way I’m making it over the Cantabrian Mountains like this.

Not sure exactly what the next move is. I still have a week and a half here but I only have this one shirt and pair of pants.

It’s raining now. I think I’ll go find a cinema.

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Day 8: Sahagún to León (409 to 464 km)

I may have officially flown to close to the sun today. But instead of gooey, melty wax-wings, I got an enraged Achilles’ tendon (also Greek). This may have been my last day on the Camino.

Everything started nicely enough this morning. After a good night’s rest, I pushed off into the 34-degree morning. Outside Sahagún, things slowly warmed up as the sun made its dramatic appearance like a pink grapefruit on the horizon.

Then, about 7 km in, I felt it. My Achilles. Instantly I knew that might be it. I got Achilles tendinitis after my finish at the Zion 100 in April. It’s a nasty, tenacious little beast. I can run through sore or depleted legs all day, but when a tendon is unhappy, there’s not much you can do. Honestly, with the mileage that I knew I’d put on my legs, I figured there was a pretty good chance this would happen. You don’t run 254 miles in a week and not pay for it (although, everything else feels frustratingly better than ever).

If this had happened in a race, I would’ve dropped in a mile or two. But I was in Absolute Nowhere, Spain, miles from the nearest anything or anyone and also more than halfway into my crazy quest. So for the first time I downed some Tylenol and pulled out my earbuds to use music to take my mind off the pain. The first song that came on was “Falling” by Haim (http://youtu.be/AIjVpRAXK18). The end of the song just repeats the phrase “Never look back and never give up.”

Listen, I’m not above admitting that I started crying to some chick rock (and some poppy chick rock at that). But in my defense, there’s something about being pointed down a desolate highway with 265 miles behind you and 235 in front of you with your dreams melting away in front of you that will get you both a little emotional and a little fired up.

I ran as best I could (partially along Ancient Roman roads) until about 38 km I made it to the town of Mansillas de las Mulas where I had lunch at an albergue. The owners were kind enough/foolish enough to give me a bottle of wine as self-serve. Sadly I learned, tendinitis cuts through wine pretty well.

From then on I swallowed my pride and forced myself to walk the 18 km into León, which took me almost four hours. It was also incredibly painful. Basically I was in excruciating pain for about 10 hours today. (Welcome to ultrarunning!)

So, I’m not exactly sure where that leaves me. At the moment, I found the only hotel room left in León (and its smallest one at that). I’m going to rest here tomorrow and then see how things feel. (Also, León seems pretty old and awesome.) I could still compete the Camino if I walked from here with some really long days, but I’m not sure the Achilles will oblige. Even the slightest incline today was nearly impossible, and we’re about to go over two mountain passes (which I had previously been really looking forward to).

So we’ll see. I probably pushed a little too hard, but it’s the only way I know. I can’t give up yet, but I’m definitely emotionally exhausted after thinking about this all day.

Vamos a ver.

(And picture below.)
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Day 7: Frómista to Sahagún (351 to 409 km + 2 bonus km)

Not a whole lot to talk about today. It was frankly rather boring. Not like yesterday’s glorious boringness. This was just a kind of trashy boring.

It started nice enough with a beautiful, cold sunrise outside Frómista that quickly got swallowed up by the thick cloud cover. The morning temp started somewhere around 35 degrees and it didn’t get much warmer until the afternoon. Thick clouds blocked any sun or heat so I bumbled up in my GoLite rain jacket for the first time and trudged along. The first time I got lost was trying to find my way out of town. The second was 30 minutes later in the next town when I took a turn-off for an alternative route and had to backtrack so as to not add even more mileage (hence the bonus 2 km).

Besides the meh weather today, the route paralleled roads almost all day. In the morning we ran along highway P-980 for an exceptionally long time. Then after Carrión de los Condes we were on a totally featureless and serviceless gravel road for 17 km. Then we spent a good part of the afternoon running alongside highway N-120. It was sort of just mindless. (But I suppose if makes sense since this is probably the most direct route to Santiago, as is the highway.)

(Pictures in the post below.)

The first highlight of the day was churros y chocolate at secondbreakfast in Carrión de los Condes. I had just been thinking a few kms prior about how I hadn’t seen churros y chocolate yet and how awesome it would be. And when I walked into the bar for a bite to eat, whaddaya know? (Bonus high point: Going through a town called Carrion of the Counts. Badass name. Supposedly from a legend about El Cid killing some counts that married his daughters then tried to rob him. It was crazy times back then.)

The second high point of the day was an amazing lamb lunch I had in a town that used to be a stronghold of the Knights Templar. (Today may be the first day I actually gained weight.) Also, Spain is the only place in the world where you can run 30 miles, drink two glasses of wine and then go out to run another 8 miles.

The third high point was right after lunch, I walked out of town, feeling a little beat as I has already run 30 miles and just eaten a huge lunch. I walked a km or two just as the sun finally came out for the first time all day. So I took off my jacket, leaned up against a route marker and lay down in the grass to drink in the sun. Why run all this if not to enjoy little moments like this? As I lay there, I realized this was almost exactly the halfway point for my journey. And somehow that seemed appropriate.

So yes, I’m officially over halfway done with this crazy journey. Never in a million years did I think I could run 254 miles (or 409 km) in one week. I’m not sure I really know how I expected to feel. Amazingly, my legs actually feel less sore now than they did after the first day or two. They get less tight. They’ve stopped complaining and just gone along with it.

The two things that are bothering me the most now are the bottoms of my feet which feel fairly bruised just from the constant beating they’ve taken. The other problem spot is my left knee which seems to start off the last few mornings with some kind of pain, but usually that dissipates by mid or late morning. (I’m really hoping it’s not tendinitis. Although, if it were, I don’t think it would go away with MORE running.)

I did notice today that my energy level is just a bit lower. I think the grind is finally catching up with me. Also, I’ve been subsisting on baguettes and cured ham and coffee so my body probably isn’t operating at optimal levels.

But halfway gives me a lot of excitement. I can’t believe I’m this far this fast. It also means I have a lot ahead. But I have big plans. I’m angling to arriving in Santiago on the 18th, in under two weeks and a day before my birthday. Then, if I’m feeling up to it, I’m going to walk up early on my birthday and run the extra 86 km to Finnisterre, the End of the World (aka the coast). We’ll see.

I’m excited. And I smell horrible. And I’m humbled. And I can’t wait to do some more.

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Day 6: Burgos to Frómista (286 to 351 km)

What a difference a day makes. After yesterday morning’s doldrums, today was a wonderful, wonderful reversal. In fact, it may be my favorite day on the Camino so far.

There’s no particular reason. It was just pleasant.

It was slightly hard to leave my hotel room in Burgos, but after a hearty breakfast I hit the road in the dark around 7:45. It was cool for an hour or so, but the clear skies meant it would turn nice. And it did.

Outside of Burgos, I entered the true Meseta. This is the vast, sprawling fields until big blue sky. Think Don Quixote. There was really nothing to take in except lots of earth and even more sky. As I ran alongside André and his bike later in the day, I realized what made it so special: space. Living in LA—or, to be fair, lots of other places—you’re crammed up against thousands/millions of other people. You can of course escape it, like I try to do on morning and weekend runs in the mountains, but it’s still an escape. This was true… space. Physical and mental I suppose. I just ran. And that’s all I did all day. Run through fields of space. And there was a warm sun shining above. Just a complete and all-encompassing joy.

It was so good that I ran 65 km (about 40 miles) to the sleepy agricultural town of Frómista. (I’m plotting an amazing dinner of lechazo asado, roasted suckling lamb, at a fancy pants restaurant where I’m currently sitting outside by the fountain enjoying a local artisanal spiced microbrew.) That’s my second biggest day yet (although perhaps the flattest too). Tomorrow, Day 7, I cross the halfway point of my trip. Feels pretty incredible. Even better, I’m still feeling very good. Much better than I thought I’d feel running 351 km/218 miles in less than one week. (That’s an average of 58.5 km or 36 miles a day! Holy crap.)

But beyond all that, the other thing that I loved about today—today’s theme if you will—was the little interactions with people along the way.

- Getting scammed by some weirdo German guy in a random highway café. I gave him 20€, knowing his sob story was probably a sham, but being a pilgrim, it’s important to complete acts of kinds towards others. About 10km later a Dutch bicyclist randomly mentioned that he gave some German guy in a bar 40€. Sweet game. It was worth the 20€ for the entertainment.

- Watching the shop owner in Hornillos de Camino scurrying around tending to people. He was super-interested in my guide book for some reason and read it for about 5 minutes while I just stood next to him. Loved it.

- Having lunch at the delightful little bar in the lovely medieval town of Castrojeriz. A pair if construction workers were mystified by the fact I was running the Camino. They said I was going to lose so much weight (sorry, Liza) and then asked if my mom was OK with that. Also they loved how small my pack is and actually took pictures of it.

- Everyone along the way at albergues, hotels and restaurants/bars that keeping asking where my bike is. “I don’t have one,” I tell them. “I’m running.” It’s pretty fun to see the reactions.

- Meeting up and running with André. Once again, we ran into each other around the “469 km a Santiago” sign and then again at lunch. For a while we ran/rode together chatting for a bit. It’s interesting that the bicyclists tend to be loners too since they’re traveling so quickly, but it’s been the cyclists that I keep coming across and chatting with most, especially André. We may end up arriving in Santiago around the same time.

So, yes, a lovely day on the Camino. I think tomorrow will be more of the same.

¡Buenas!

UPDATE: The lechazo may be the best meal I have ever had in my entire life.