Dreaming of Ultra (Part 2)


In Part 1 I described some of the background theory and premises of my journey to 50k (31 miles).  On March 23 I was able to complete the race just short of the cut-off time of seven hours. It wasn’t a race of speed, but attrition! In Part 2 I want to detail the work-outs and some of the issues I dealt with during the training.

[Note: Yes, a massive delay between Part 1 & 2. What can I say? Priorities change. If you want to see where most of my energy is going, please visit this Facebook page.]

Let’s start with some numbers, so you can get a handle on just the 12 weeks were like. A little background on my athletic ability, however, so you can understand what I was starting with (my “engine and suspension” did have a bit of tuning prior to the twelve weeks):

  • 2005-2007: Recreational runner, 20-30 miles per week (5k time: ~22:30)
  • 2008: Amatuer road cyclist (5-10 hours per week, non-competitive)
  • 2009: Cat 5*, Cat 4 Road cyclist (10 hours per week, competitive)
  • 2010-2011: Cat 3 Road cyclist (10-20 hours per week, competitive) (I also started weightlifting these years)
  • 2012: Combo of weightlifting, running, rock climbing  (10-15 hours per week, non-competitive)
  • 2012 (September): Started CrossFit (The Ville!)

It’s all relative: by some measures I was “that guy who always works out” and by other measures (often my own) I wasn’t doing enough. Such is the plight of the amateur athlete: when you see others around you training, moving up, getting stronger, you desire that too. Road cycling took its toll after 2011, so I tried mountain biking for awhile (it’s fun!) but slowly moved into weightlifting and got back into running, aided largely by the injury-free method of “barefoot running.” I run exclusively in minimalist shoes, preferring Vibram Five Fingers or super low-profile Merrells and by-and-large it’s kept my injury free. Sore calves and tight hamstrings are about the only real “issues” and that comes with the territory. Bring on the yoga and stretching!

So, those numbers I was talking about:

  • Official training dates: December 31, 2012 to March 22, 2013 (12 weeks)
  • Average time spent per week (CF & Running): 6 hours
  • Average time spent per week (CF, Running, Yoga, stretching, planning): 10 hours
  • Average mileage per week: 7.9 miles
  • Longest run pre-50k: 6.9 miles (Feb 26)
  • 1 RM** Back Squat: 305 lbs
  • 1 RM Deadlift: 405 lbs
  • 1 RM Clean: 185 lbs
  • 1 RM Bench Press: 180 lbs

As I pointed out in Part 1, CrossFit will expose your imbalances: it will highlight your strengths and showcase your weaknesses. After three years of riding bikes and doing squats, guess what – I was pretty decent at doing squats! Deadlifts, too. Upper body strength? Not so much. Try doing thrusters (a front squat into a push press) at 135 lbs over and over and over again…ugh. My body shudders just thinking about it. But I have no qualms about becoming stronger in all areas, be it upper body, lower body, or overall aerobic capacity. The short, 10-20 min workouts that close a CrossFit class (typically an hour long) are the sort of high-intensity intervals that athletes of all disciplines use, and trust me, they are high intensity.

So, the workouts! I have detailed logs for the 12 weeks that I trained for the ultra. There’s the Google calendar, which lists whether CrossFit or some sort of interval was on the agenda for the day (or both), and a training log, which lists the specific work-out (as dictated by my gym) and the interval prescription (as dictated by MacKenzie’s program in The 4-Hour Body).

Those two files are public, so feel free to share them with whomever. A few important notes, however:

  • I followed the plan as outlined in the two files, except for when there’s an “XX” in front of the workout on GCal, which means I skipped it. You can check the training log for a reason why (probably sick or fatigued).
  • I didn’t follow MacKenzie’s plan from 4HB exactly, I modeled it based on what my own CrossFit gym prescribed, and what I was able to do that week. Most of the interval workouts are exact, but I sure as hell didn’t stay within “2-3 seconds” for each one…ain’t nobody got time for that! (Rather, that was just a level of discipline I didn’t adhere too.)

How was the 12 weeks, you ask? In a phrase: not easy. But not impossible. The first two or three weeks went by pretty fast, and I found myself getting into the “rhythm” of doing the three-on-one-off CrossFit model, plus various intervals throughout the week. Sunday quickly became a day to look forward to, where I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with any serious work-outs. I did find the model outlined in 4HB a bit confusing, and not always consistent. The terminology, apparently written by MacKenzie himself, was often cryptic and sometimes didn’t even make sense. There’s some chatter on the 4HB forum (though old) about this (see this post, too).

During the 12 weeks, I got sick, and had to take close to a week off, and also had a minor injury involving a kitchen knife and my thumb (guess I need to read the Four Hour Chef!) which caused some serious modification of the work-outs for a few days. I tried not to beat myself up over all this, even though I knew that each work-out had a purpose; minimum effective dose, remember? Another challenge was simply getting motivated to go out and do the runs: some of the running intervals would seriously last 10 to 12 minutes total (for example, 4×400 m…that’s no more than a mile!), and in January and February it was damn cold. But I did most of them (at least 80%! Again, think 80/20) and realized that if I wanted to have that engine to run for 31 miles, I needed to fire it up somehow.

Strangely there never seemed to be a penultimate 5k or 10k time trial in the plan, as described in the earlier chapters, so I’m honestly not sure if my 5k times improved. I felt faster, but as the race neared, I wasn’t doing many long fast runs for fear of injuring myself before the big day. After the 50k, I took a break from working out (and got sick, again…) so I can’t tell you the overall effects of the whole thing, except for the fact that I finished.

The race was in Chicago on a day that required running tights, a jacket, gloves, a even a hat to start with. The wind off the lake was quite cold, and after awhile we weren’t really moving fast enough to stay all that warm. You can see the race data from my Motoactv here, and here is a run down of the stats:

Total distance: 31.42 miles
Time: 6 hours, 59 minutes, 7 seconds
Average Pace: 13:20 min/mi
Total steps: 62627
Calories burned: 4204 (questionable)
Total elevation gain: 599 ft (a very flat 50k)

My best pace was at mile 17, surprisingly, at a relatively stable 10:07 min/mi. At mile 15 I hooked up my iPod and blasted some Deafheaven, which really helped me get me through that slump. Miles 0 to 10 were quite easy, and 10 to 15 wasn’t too bad either. The music helped 15 to 20, and then the real pain started…

Myself and Alan (a veteran ultrarunner) somewhere around mile 13.

Myself and Alan (a veteran ultrarunner) somewhere around mile 26.

Miles 20 to 25 were hell. Not hell in the “oh-my-god-this-hurts!” way, but in the “I-am-tired-and-want-to-stop” way. I was still moving, jogging, slowly, but it sucked. My legs cramped in ways I knew not possible, in particular, my hips. My hips became so sore, so inflamed, that by mile 25 I alternated between a slow shuffle at around at 12:00 to 13:00 min/mi, and a walk about about a 13:00 to 15:00 min/mi. Not much difference! As my running partner Alan said “If it hurts to run, walk. If it hurts to walk, then run anyway.” I certainly tried! Stretching, salt, food, music – nothing made a difference at that point, except will power.

That’s the one thing an ultra will teach you, and it will teach you will: how far are you willing to go? Not with intense, brutal, excruciating pain? But with a long, dull, slow pain that you have to deal with for hours. I was sore by mile 10, sure, but it didn’t get bad until mile 20. With 11 miles left, I had to make a decision: go on, or give up. And while all the physical fitness, CrossFit, and minimal training was cool to learn about and participate in, that was the big take away for me: finishing something like a 50k shows a strong dedication, a strong will. I wouldn’t have started the journey down that path if I didn’t think I had one, but doing so allows me to affirm many of the good, positive qualities about myself.

So what now? I had planned to train again for a 50 miler this summer, but haven’t found the time, or motivation to head back into that world of 2-a-day work-outs and such dedicated fitness goals. Along the way to my 50k goal I was able to set a PR on deadlifts: 405 lbs! And since I do love strength training, that might transform itself into another goal this year, deadlifting 500, or even 600 lbs! If that happens, keep an eye out for a video.

Lift heavy, run fast, go vegan!

*See a description of cycling categories here. In general, Cat 5: beginner, Cat 1: elite, with gradation in between.
**One rep max

Dreaming of Ultra (Part 1)

marathon shot

Reviewing the last twelve weeks of training – a mixture of Crossfit in all its forms, running intervals, yoga, and recovery – makes me realize just how much I did put into training for a 50k (31 miles). It wasn’t easy. But in the end, I did it: I ran 31 miles within the race-imposed cut-off time of seven hours, was able to walk (poorly) the next day, and probably would have been working out the week after if I hadn’t gotten sick. Whether my illness resulted from the race, the weather, or simply traveling all weekend (Louisville to Indy to Chicago and back all within 3.5 days) I can’t say.

I was a disappointed that I didn’t get to test the hypothesis that a strong body would recover quickly – the aches and pains I got from being sick (still not sure if I was a cold, flu, or some weird virus thing) overrode the hip and leg pain from the race so by Thursday after the race I was still sore – but there will always be more races, more recovery, and more testing. What makes me happy is that 1) I am an ultrarunner (or ultramarathoner) and 2) I completed my goal of training for the race on less than 10 miles a week, with a lot of strength training, and minimal injury. Read on…

This plan, known to Tim Ferriss readers as “5k to 50k” is laid out in his second book, The 4-Hour Body, as being put together by Brian MacKenzie, a Crossfit instructor and teacher from California. MacKenzie runs the site (and wrote a book called) Crossfit Endurance, where he merges the aesthetic of Crossfit – varied, functional movement that isn’t specialized – with classical endurance sports like running, biking, and swimming. The idea is to take the uncommon approach of training for long, endurance events like a marathon, bike race, or triathlon by using a large amount of Crossfit and high intensity interval training (HIIT) on the sport(s) of choice.

So, for example, instead of running 30-40 miles per week with a long run or two on the weekend, you’ll do a ton of Crossfit – squats, snatches, kettlebell swings, burpees, rope climbs – and then several high-intensity runs such as 4x400m or 8x100m throughout the week. The typical schedule as laid out in The 4-Hour Body might look like this:

Monday: Crossfit in the AM
Tuesday: Crossfit in the AM, Intervals in the PM
Wednesday: Crossfit in the PM
Thursday: Intervals in the PM
Friday: Crossfit in the AM
Saturday: Crossfit in the AM, Intervals or Trail Run in the PM
Sunday: Off

Does this seem like a lot? I ask honestly, because at times this seemed overwhelming, and other times I really enjoyed it. Towards the end of the 12-week program I was able to “get in the zone:” I did Open 13.1 twice in one day (and had pretty consistent scores!), would run without injury, and increased the weight on almost all of my lifts.

Crossfit, for those who are unfamiliar, will showcase your imbalances. After taking a year and a half off from road cycling, my high-end endurance was nearly gone, so the WODs (Workout of the Day) that required a “Zone 5” level for 20 minutes wore me down quick. On the other end of the spectrum, back squat days were a lot of fun. I learned how to front squat, clean, climb ropes, do the tortuous “Glute Ham Raise.” These highlighted by strengths. Overhead squats, snatches, and handstand push-ups displayed my weakness exquisitely. I’ve been doing Crossfit since September 2012, and it still kicks my ass every day.

The model behind MacKenzie’s Crossfit Endurance approach is that one can lower the volume of endurance training (running, in my case) while upping strength and conditioning, focusing on excellent form, and correcting imbalances. This, according to the model, will accelerate gains in the chosen sport in a similar manner as traditional “low and slow” training would, while keeping injuries minimal, and time spent at a premium. Ferriss has represented this idea in each of his books with the “80/20 principle,” the 80% of the results come from the 20% of the training or input. So, the theory goes, find that 20%, and make it count. Much of this theory can be detailed on the – you guessed it – Theory page of MacKenzie’s website.

So, how did it all work out? In short, I finished. I trained for a 50k in 12 weeks and was able to cross the finish line. But, it wasn’t easy. In Part 2 I’ll detail the work-outs and talk about my experiences over the course of the three months.