Grant Muller

Another Southern Odyssey

Exhausted, sore, and half-asleep, I stare into the read-view mirror of our van. While I wait for Jeremy to appear on the horizon behind me, I strike up a conversation with a much younger version of myself.

“We enjoy this?”

“Hell yes!”

The young me grins from ear to ear, gripping a roll of quarters at an all-night arcade lockin. A bearded, haggard, and much older me smiles back before I run off into a maze of video game consoles. Probably to play Tekken.

Jeremy’s head pops up over the ridge, and I’m back in the van. I rub my eyes and hop out into the dewy morning grass, stomping around to warm up. Jeremy is moving slow. Part of me wants to urge him on rather than take his place, but he’s already picked up almost six miles of the eight mile run, he needs a break. In a few minutes, a slap bracelet wraps around my wrist and I’m off again; the two mile run ahead of me will be the shortest and most difficult.

A year ago, I ran the Southern Odyssey, my first 24+ hour relay race with a group of friends from High School. It was a tiresome saga full of ups and downs, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. When John sent out the APB to get the team back together I was all in. We paid our way into the race and had what looked to be a full team. We all looked forward to a milder, less intense Southern Odyssey in 2011.

A year later as I hobbled down a country road toward my next pit stop, I recalled how we still managed to end up with eight runners. There were dropouts related to injuries just weeks before the race. John, initially the organizer of the team, had moved to Malibu several months prior and couldn’t make the trip out to Atlanta to join the team. Then we had injuries along the way. Drew, one of our strongest runners, struggled to get by with a taped up calf. Aaron, himself a sub for a runner we lost to injuries before the race, was run off the road during his third leg. He rolled his ankle so badly it looked like a grapefruit was growing from his leg. We divided up the extra mileage and persisted.

As I rounded a curve on what seemed to be a neverending hill, I heard a long low note. The vuvuzela.

Jeremy, perhaps the most upbeat person I’ve ever met, had brought a host of toys along for the ride. One was a vuvuzela. By the end of the race this $.60 plastic horn would become the sound of mercy on the horizon for our team as we approached a pit stop. You can hear it bellow a half mile away, and the sound means one thing. You’re getting close.

The vuvuzela urged me on. I woke from whatever half-dream state I was in and found new energy to continue. It was a reminder that weariness and exhaustion can easily be overcome with the right stimulation. In my case, the sound of a $.60 plastic horn.

And so it was another Southern Odyssey. Many of the trials and tribulations are the same from year to year, but to truly understand you must experience it yourself. I always come away from it feeling deeply satisfied. Perhaps its the binge eating afterwards. Whatever the case, I can offer this advice:

Buy a vuvuzela. Buy six of them and leave them around the house. Leave one in your car. Leave one in the bathroom. Take it to your kid’s basketball game. Take it to your next board meeting. Use it to annouce the birth of your daughter to the rest of the maternity ward. No matter what the occasion, the vuvuzela is the most appropriate way to celebrate it.

In Defense of Shoes

Go to your favorite hiking trail. Walk down the path, then sit down for a moment and take off your shoes and socks. Keep walking.

Notice where your eyes go.

If you’re anything like me, or the people I’ve watched perform this same exercise, your eyes go directly to the path in front of you. Sharp rocks wait to slice your foot open, introducing hookworms or bacteria into your bloodstream. Tree roots have grown across the path plotting a stubbed toe for every passerby. Acorns roll onto the trail from a nearby oak, lying in wait to do some damage to those tender arches. The path, no matter how well-trod, is rife with danger. So you keep your eyes peeled to avoid even the tiniest obstacles.

But think about where your eyes aren’t.

No longer are you surveying the landscape for a hidden predator. No longer are you keeping your eyes peeled for a blackberry patch or a rabbit, frozen by the appearance of a potential enemy. No longer are you thinking of how beautiful it is to see the blooms of a wild cherry tree as the wind rustles their tiny petals. No, you must keep your eyes on the road ahead.

You can put your shoes back on now, and enjoy those cherry trees.

Shoes have gotten a bad rap lately. Blamed for everything from knee problems to spinal injury, walking shod is starting to look like less of a boon than a liability. But as the exercise above illustrates there are distinct advantages, especially to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, to sporting something on your soles.

Shoes are a tool. Like most human inventions, it gave us a distinct advantage over our competitors and the environment, allowing us to perform a simple act:

Looking around.

The ability to become less concerned with the path under our feet, and concentrate on the road ahead is too tremendous to describe.

To draw a nerd parallel, computer programs often have "watchdog" routines built into them. These watchdogs prevent the program from crashing by performing constant checks to make sure that everything is moving smoothly. These watchdog routines take time. They consume processing ability. They take up space. If you could remove these watchdogs, you’d have capacity for other things. If you can become less concerned with what you’re walking on, you can become more concerned with the beauty of the mountain pass you’re walking through.

Shoes are important. No matter how much our modern minds would like to demonize what walking shod has done to us, its important to remember what walking shod has done for us. Is it clear that poorly designed shoes can cause detriment to our gait and posture? Absolutely, and our modern ability to examine this can in some small way be traced to that fact that we at some point decided that we were tired of training our eyes 3 feet in front of us, and instead began to look miles ahead.

I go barefoot often. I have been running and walking in goofy toe shoes for years. But I respect ancient man’s decision to wear shoes, no matter how poorly we’ve designed them in recent years. The same goes for the agricultural revolution, which has received some poor press in modern times. I may not eat wheat, but that doesn’t diminish it’s importance to our ancestors.

It’s imperative to recognize that human civilization is built with a scaffolding. That scaffolding at times is found to be dangerous, and alternatives are sought and implemented. Bamboo is replaced with pine. Pine is replaced with steel. Then you find that there was nothing wrong with the bamboo and you return to it. It’s just scaffolding, the civilization is what you’re building.

That’s ok.

You live in the times that you live in and you climb the scaffolding that you’re given thinking its the safest place to be.

So respect shoes, even if you don’t wear them all the time. Who knows how much of our modern world depended on that simple innovation.

Image courtesy of matthetube. Article first published as In Defense of Shoes on Blogcritics.

200 Miles, 8 Runners, 31 Hours: A Race Log

Shirt Introduction

I’ve always thought of distance running as an individual sport. You throw on some shoes, pop in some earbuds and put one foot in front of the other for a long time. Sure you may go out in a group from time to time, but if you can have a conversation than you’re not working hard enough. This weekend changed my outlook on distance running, and opened my eyes to how fun running with a team can be.

Many thanks to Jeremy Freeman for the pictures in this post.

The Race

Early in 2010 John Davenport, on old friend from High School, put out the APB on Facebook looking for runners to fill out a relay team for The Southern Odyssey 200 Mile Relay Race in October. This concept was new to me, so I jumped at it thinking it would be a nice challenge. This was also as I was making my transition from high volume running to low volume high intensity cross training, and I figured it would be a good way to validate my new methods.

The plan was simple. Pile 12 runners into 2 vans and take turns running individual legs of the race until you’re done. The legs were preset by the officials and ranged from 2.8 to 9.8 miles in length. It began in Athens, meandered through Dahlonega, Cornelia, Cleveland and much of Northeast Georgia, and finished in Alpharetta. Within a few weeks we had our team and things went quiet while we all prepped in our own way for the road ahead.

September Shock

2010 rolled along a little faster than I expected and suddenly September was upon me. We ramped up communications about the upcoming race, planning vans, splitting equipment responsibilities, and otherwise taking care of the last minute preparations for the race.

Then we had some setbacks.

The race was meant to be run by 12, and suddenly we were down to 8 for various reasons. I don’t recall if we ever had a full list of 12, or if we just expected to get that many, but with only a few weeks left to race day we were a group 2/3 deep, with little hope of picking up a full team. The challenging part was that the race began on a Friday, and most folks would have a hard time taking off from work with that little notice. We had a few irons in the fire going into race week, but our core team of 8 was set:

  • The Coffey Family (Drew, his wife Andi, and his two sisters Amanda and Alice)
  • John Davenport
  • Jeremy Freeman
  • Jonathon McKay
  • Little old me

Everything was ready to g0.

Race Week

prerace_teamIt happened. I got sick. For the first time in a while I picked up some kind of upper respiratory/sinus bug and spent most of the week before race trying desperately to get rid of it. The thought of dropping out for my health crossed my mind, but I wasn’t about to leave the team short another member, and I was really looking forward to the run, so I told myself I’d suffer through it and deal with the consequences later.

    Not sure if it was the head cold talking, but it was about this time that I volunteered for the longest legs of the race.
    Thursday we met to pile into a few vans and convene in Athens. I learned that two of my other team mates were feeling ill as well. I bought us a box of kleenex to cry or blow our noses into, which ever felt better. Our contingency plan for extra runners fell through, so we were truly down to 8 runners. I think we all expected that to be the case so we nodded, used our kleenex, and stuck with plan A. We made the last of our preparations, settled on race legs, and got a good night’s sleep.
And…Go!

Andi It was still chilly as we made our way to the start line at 8:30 on Friday morning. The race started in waves, and we were set to begin with 6 other groups at 9:00. We milled around, warmed our hands, and waited anxiously to get going. Some of the other teams were sporting custom shirts. Twisted Blister had a fine logo, and the Chuck Norris team was sporting some hilarious Norrisisms on their van (Chuck Norris never sleeps, he waits…get it, its an overnight race). We decided as a team that next year we were doing something with puff paint on T-shirts, 80’s style. Maybe I’ll volunteer to run a leg dressed as Tom Cruise from Risky Business.

Andi kicked us off with the first leg of the race, a 4.4 mile sprint through Athens ending at a church parking lot.

She projected it would take 45 minutes. She got there in 41.

This set the pace for the rest of the race, as we continually came in faster than we expected on our individual legs. As we toiled into night time, our mantra would become “Take it slow, steady”. Easier said than done.

Jeremy took leg 2, another roughly 4 miler while we drove ahead. I was next.

Leg 3 – 4.0 Miles

I crammed my feet into my new Vibram Bikila’s, grabbed a water bottle and jogged around a bit to warm up for my run. I would come to find the waiting to be worse than the running as the race continued, but I bided my time, stretched and stretched some more. Jeremy popped up around the bend and made his was up the final hill toward another church parking lot. He crossed the line posting another better than expected time and I was off.

Failing to remember that this was only the first and shortest of the 4 legs I had to run, I paced myself as if I were running a 10K. The temperature was perfect, the scenery rural, and I was feeling good so I legged it out. Within a minute or so my sinuses felt clear, my lungs opened up, and though I could still tell I was sick, I was feeling much better moving than sitting still. I think remember hearing somewhere that Shaolin monks train harder if they feel themselves getting sick, to remind their bodies that there is much work to do. True or not, I kept that thought in my mind.

I don’t recall my time, but I think it was somewhere around 33 minutes, a perfectly respectable time for the first of four legs. I passed the bracelet (its better than a baton, trust me), to Drew and he took off on the longest leg so far, 6.5 miles. I grabbed a banana, a bunch of sunflower seed and dried fruit, and settled in for…

A Long RestAmanda

Drew legged out the 6.5 miles quickly, something I’m sure the second van of team members were both thankful and rueful for. Waiting is the worst, until you have to run.

We passed off to the second van as the race legs began to get longer. Jonathon took leg 5 for 5.0 miles, John was on leg 6 for 5.9, Amanda took the first whopper, leg 7 for 9.4 miles, and Alice rounded out leg 8 at 7.5 miles. Everyone beat their own expectations, far exceeding the pace we expected for our team of 9:45. We were building a good buffer for when the going got tough.

Jeremy, a photographer for CNN, pulled double-duty and rode with the second van to take as many photos as he could. My hat is off to him; foregoing his rest time, and being one of the ill team members, he certainly earned some kind of MVP award.

Andi, Drew and I went on ahead to Ma Ma Dots Country Store, where I bought some muscadines and laid out a blanket to sleep on.

We discovered the next difficulty in an overnight relay: you can’t always sleep when you want. In what would be our longest rest of the day we mostly sat around, milled about the country store, read a little, but barely slept. It wasn’t long until Alice was racing up the hill to hand off to Andi for leg 9, a 4.3 miler, and we were off again.

Alice

At the next church parking lot there was a hilarious dachshund. When it spotted someone that hadn’t petted it yet it would run up and roll over waiting for a belly rub. I swear it must have made sure it met every human who entered that parking lot. Its the little things that make a trip like this fun.

Andi passed off to Jeremy for his grueling and almost entirely uphill 5.9 mile leg. After petting the dog and letting Andi get cleaned up, it was onwards to my next run, the long anticipated:

Leg 11 – 9.1 Miles

This one started in downtown Cornelia GA, quickly exiting into the rural countryside. The race official in the city was also a local resident, and she let us know that most of this land used to be used for growing apples. Neat.Grant

About 4 miles in I was in the zone. Runner’s high. My legs felt great, it was hot but bearable, and I wasn’t worried about finishing. I even passed another runner. As I took the turn back on the the major highway leading to the end of the leg, things took a turn for the worst.

Feeding off the momentum from the rest of the team, and probably a little overconfident from my first run, I kicked this one off at pace I simply couldn’t sustain. It dawned on me that I hadn’t run anything longer than a 10K in several months. Later a team mate would ask what my longest run recently had been. 9 miles I would reply…earlier today…

Cresting what I thought was the last hill, the runner I passed earlier reminded me that the last few miles are all incline. Really? I don’t remember seeing that on the race map…Sure enough, just as I peeked over the top of this mini-hill I saw in front of me a joint-jarring downhill followed by a hill that looked more like a cliff.

Aw, man.

I started up and immediately had to ratchet my pace down. I’m not sure what the grade was, but it was enough to force me from a stride to a scurry. I was taking steps about a hand in length; it felt more like running upstairs. Except, you know, for a mile. I began to cramp about half way up and my legs did not recover for the rest of the run.

After the hill you turned off onto a gravel road. Nemesis number two. Wearing Five Fingers are great until you’re running on 2 inch jagged rocks, then they’re a liability. Somewhere in here I stepped down on a piece of gravel that would sprain or break something in my foot, I haven’t figured out which.

I hobbled into the rest stop, not a church from what I remember, there were goats penned up for some reason. Drew was ready to go, sporting a running vest and a headlamp; I had run the sun down. I ate some dates, a banana, and whatever else I could get my hands. I tried to walk around but I was cramping in places that I’d never cramped before so I just sat down until the pain subsided. Drew pressed on with his 8.5 mile jaunt, we drove ahead to pass him some water. There were some folks out on their porch enjoying the fine evening and they happily let me stretch out on their lawn. I may have fallen asleep somewhere in here, I’m not sure.

A Short Rest

Drew We met Drew at the next stop where there was space setup for people to sleep if they wanted. I milled around with the relay team as long as I could before grabbing my blanket and pillow and hitting the hay. At this point I was pretty unsure of myself. I felt sicker, I was cramping, and my head was killing me. I could tell this was worrying the other folks on the team as well, so I figured I better try and get some R&R; I had a few tough runs ahead before all was through.

I didn’t get much sleep, maybe 10 minutes before it was time to move on. We stopped at a grocery store on the way to the next pit stop and I rested some more in the van while my team mates fueled up. I took inventory of my food intake so far:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Raisins
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Dates
  • Almonds
  • Pork Rinds
  • Beef Jerky

I was craving a meal on a plate. Bacon and eggs. A big pork chop. My wife Cary and brother James were volunteering at leg 18 in the late hours of the night, so the best I could manage was to call in another banana and a long sleeve jersey to combat the cold. Cary suggested dark chocolate Hershey Kisses, which turned out to be a killer idea. I slept for a few more minutes when we arrived at our next check point. It was beginning to get cold out, so I bundled up and tried to sleep, but to no avail. I finally got out of the car and ambled around. That’s when I looked up.

    JonI don’t often get out of metropolitan areas, and when I do I rarely think to look at the night sky. I’m not sure why. When I’m at home I’m constantly looking up at night trying to find constellations and stars through the din of light cast by nearby cities. Out here in the middle of nowhere, where there were no streetlights or cities to drown them out, you can see hundreds of stars. The milky way is visible. Picking out constellations is child’s play. I spent about 20 minutes with my iPhone Sky Chart just finding stars, locating constellations I’d never seen before, and staring at the milky way. I was starting to feel better.

Our teammates arrived and it was off to the races again, with some extra groaning as we stretched our stiff limbs and tried to make the best of another run on little to no sleep.

When the rest of the team had finished their treacherous run through the back woods of Lumpkin county, Alice handed off to Andi and we were on to our next batch. We met my Cary and James at the next pit stop, I devoured a few dark chocolate Kisses, and we sent Jeremy on his way for leg 18, a 5K. We moved ahead quickly assuming a half hour or so for him to finish. He waltzed in looking like a champ at 26 minutes. I donned the flashing vest and headlamp and I moved on out for…

Leg 19 – 4.5 Miles

Jonathan2 I’m not sure what it was that rejuvenated me. The wide open sky? A hug from my wife? The Hershey Kisses? Whatever it was I set out on this leg refreshed. The course started out of the North Georgia College and State University Campus, down a major road, and then off onto a side road that has never seen a yellow line. I put some space between me a few runners, then turned my headlamp off for a while to get distracted by the night sky. There wasn’t a cloud in sight and anytime the trees cleared I got a fantastic view of the heavens, perhaps just as my ancestors would have seen them. I have to admit, running close to barefoot in the pitch black night, hearing nothing but crickets and howling canines made me feel a bit primal. I should’ve howled.

Of course, turning my headlamp on again and peering into the thickets to see dozens of eyes reflecting back at me made me feel more like a primal wuss. So much for that howl.

I crested a short hill and made my way to yet another church parking lot. Convinced that dark chocolate Hershey Kisses were magic cramp erasers, I popped a few more, stretched out, and we moved on to meet Drew at the end of his 4.2 mile night run. I hope he enjoyed his as much as I enjoyed mine.

A Short Nap

Jeremy After Drew handed off to our compatriots in Van 2, we rode on ahead and made camp in the car at Amicolola Falls, the site of our next major handoff. We intentionally rushed this ride to the next spot since we were all tired and finally felt that we could get some sleep. I’m not sure that all of us made it there without passing out.

After an hour or so of shuteye Van 2 arrived, but not quite for the handoff. Alice was a lucky girl (at least in my mind) and got to run to the top of Amicolola Falls and back for her entire 3 mile leg. We had to go in specific order from start to finish for our time to count, otherwise I would have volunteered for this one. I can’t imagine many people have had the privilege of running this at night, surrounded by the white noise of the falls. I would’ve loved it.

Bleary eyed we shook the cramps out with the sleep and waited at the foot of the falls for the bracelet. After the short nap nobody was interested in running, but it had to be done, and we were closing in on the finish.

Andi set out on leg 27 for 3 miles, staying tough on her final night run. Jeremy took over on leg 26 up and down a long gravel path to one of the now ubiquitous church parking lots. We drove ahead and I did all I could to prep for the longest leg of the race…

Leg 27 – 9.8 Miles

Really? Nearly 10 miles at the end? I would have thought a more appropriate place to put this one was in the beginning somewhere. Alas, suffering is what I volunteered for, so suffer I would.

Resolved to finish with dignity I took the bracelet and moved out. The gravel path picked back up again causing the pain in my foot to really ramp up. The path was surrounded by trees providing no inspirational view of the sky, and a night fog had moved in obstructing much of the view in my lamp. My head was just as foggy so I put one foot in front of the other for a while until I reached the road.

I was treated to a downhill. This of course is not treat on a long run. Downhills pound your joints to powder, make your liver feel like its coming unglued, and make your quads feel like every step is dropping off a ledge. And as any runner or cyclist knows, what goes down, must come up. Not wishing to disobey any of the laws of running, the road did indeed come up, and I was forced to scurry again up and around a bend to the top. No cramping (thank you Dark Chocolate), but fatigue had set in and I was moving slow.

Then I came to my last hurrah. 3 Miles of sawtooth road to the finish. I was dead tired and my joints and feet were killing me. I was moving slower and slower by the minute, and the last hill became a run/walk mix. Coming around the last bend I could see Drew waiting to take the bracelet so I managed to hobble out the last several hundred yards with no cramping. Drew took off and we jumped in the van to meet him and the rest of the team at the next stop; I may be done, but there were still many miles left in this race.

To the end

PostRaceTeam On the way to the next rest we stopped at a convenience store so we could pass some water off to Drew. He didn’t take much with him and it was a 5.6 mile leg so met him halfway for a refill. I took the time to stretch really well, change into some jeans and a t-shirt, and most importantly, suck down some food. I was feeling pretty good, being done with my contribution to the race, and collapsed in the back seat while Andi drove us to the next van meet up. I zoned out in the back seat and when I snapped to I was surprised to find myself back in Alpharetta again. We pulled into the stop and everyone tried to crash for a little while.

This is unfortunately where my tale ends. I had a previous obligation in the form of my wife’s company party to attend, and I didn’t plan very well in order to make sure I could attend it and the end of the race. Around 1:00 pm on Saturday I called my wife to come pick me up so I could shower, shave, and head off to an afternoon party with her co-workers. It seems anti-climactic, but it was a fun party and I contributed to it so I wanted to make sure I saw that through as well.

My team went on without me, racing through the last 4 legs to the finish line in 31 hours and 2 minutes. That’s a pace 9:21, 24 seconds faster than our projected per mile pace of 9:45.

Conclusions

I learned a lot on this adventure. I learned that I do like playing with a team, and that when 8 people get together around a common goal a lot can be accomplished. Could I have finished 200 miles alone? Maybe, if I had 3 days and did a lot of walking, but I’d be broken at the end and I wouldn’t have gained as much as I did running with my relay team. I had a great time and I made some new friends. Today, a week later and hopefully well rested, we’re getting together as a team to celebrate, and already making plans for next year’s race. First goal: find four more runners!

I validated a big portion of my training methodology. I don’t run long distance weekly, or even monthly. I just don’t have the time for it. My adherence to low-volume high-intensity training served me well in this capacity. I will continue to sprint faster in order to endure longer, because that’s what works for me.

I ran the entire run in Vibram Bikila’s, and while my feet were sore at the end, I walked away feeling like I could run a marathon in this puppies without a second thought. I have some form and gait mistakes to correct, but overall feel pretty good a week after the race. A little sore in the joints and only 1 very small blister? I’ll take that over runner’s knee and shoe blisters any day.

I like what I eat. Nuts, seeds, bananas, pork rinds, jerky, dark chocolate. I popped the occasional gooey electrolyte snack from time to time, but stuck to real food as much as possible and avoided wheat entirely. My stomach felt satisfied and other than a little cramping during 1 leg, my muscles felt well-fed. Changes for next time? Bring some coconut oil (which I’ve been eating by the spoonful lately), and find a way to replace electrolytes on the sunnier runs. Sweet potatoes maybe? Gatorade makes my stomach hurt but perhaps I can imbibe it before or afterwards. We’ll see.

That’s all folks, I’ll see you out there.

An Evolving Experiment in Fitness

33509_151121254902481_134920633189210_454964_590541_nMy lungs are raw from gasping for 7 minutes solid. My vision has only now returned from the blurry and wild eyed stupor I was in just a few hours ago, when I crashed on the gym mat in an effort to get my heart rate down to a safe level. I still haven’t fully recovered from tonight’s workout as I write this and reflect; slightly sick and slightly satisfied feelings mingle with one another and I cannot predict if I will wake up with an upper respiratory infection or the desire to push myself to this upper limit again. Probably both.

Its been almost a year since I first wrote about my experiment in fitness. I had to some extent forgotten about it until Labor Day of this year, when I ran the 10K Classic in Marietta GA. Before the race I realized that I hadn’t really spent much time running in the past few months. Since July maybe? I got to thinking that I might not run well given my lack of preparation. “Oh well”, I thought, and pushed my way through the herd to the front of the starting line. “Why not go for a PR”.

I finished the race well, with a time that put me in the top 200. Afterwards I began to ask myself “If I haven’t been running and I still finished well, what the hell have I been doing?”. I certainly haven’t been running long distance; that goal in the original experiment was almost entirely forgotten (though I will be running the Southern Odyssey 200 mile relay race in early October). I got out on the bike several times over the Summer, and I’ve only seen the pool a handful of times, but I know I’ve been training…where have I been?

I guess I keep a training log for a reason, time to check it out.

Winter – Spring 2010: Staying the Course

In my previous post, I mentioned that I would execute the following:

Workout 8-12 times per week. Select 5-6 workouts from one of the sources listed below:

Crossfit Optimum Performance Training MEBB Catalyst Athletics My brother, James. Make something up (keeping HILV in mind)

Perform 1-3 workouts each on the bike, swim, or run using the the same HILV methodology (Crossfit Endurance was my main source for these latter workouts, sometimes substituting old sprint and time trial workouts).

Based on my logs, I continued to work this way throughout most of Winter and Spring of 2010. I slipped from time to time, but I got out around 8-12 times a week, usually focusing on running but throwing in a ride or a swim from time to time to make sure I had the triathlon covered. A look at my personal records during this time doesn’t yield any change from the PR’s covered in the previous post. I stayed the course, making no gains but experiencing no losses. I was fine with this. Then in the middle of July, I made a change.

Summer 2010: CFK

My brother had been asking me to check out a new gym that a friend of a friend had opened up near Kennesaw Mountain called Crossfit Kennesaw. I was obviously  familiar with Crossfit, but had never been able to get over and check out one of the gyms. Either the workout times were inconvenient, or the gyms weren’t anywhere close, or I had already planned my training for the night. Finally I had an opening on a Thursday evening and headed over to check it out.

CFK is your standard warehouse gym: no machines, no nonsense. The gear you need, none of the stuff you don’t. There is a workout on the board. There is an alternate workout. These are simple workouts, much like the ones I was following with my earlier prescription, and I picked right up on the philosophy. It’s greenhouse hot in the Summer, and without a doubt it will feel like a fridge in the Winter. You’re going to be extremely uncomfortable when you start the workout anyway, would the AC really make you feel better?

The workout the evening I came in was a creation of Chris, the proprietor of CFK. 4 rounds: 15 Thrusters and a 400m run. There were 5 of us in the gym that night, 3 of us brothers, so naturally it turned into a friendly competition. I won. “Will you be open tomorrow?” I asked before leaving.

Looking through my logs I have been training at CFK almost exclusively since then. I’ve gone from 8-12 tough workouts a week to 5-6 brutal ones. I spend about 6 hours a week training, give or take, down from the almost 10 I was committing, which is leaving more time open for other things (namely work). I intend to continue training like this, throwing in the occasional 5K, 10K, day on the bike, or swim as I feel like it.

The Results

On the Run
5K time 10K Time
Pre 10/10/09 21:01 44:03
Post 02/15/10 20:36
Post 09/06/10 45:52

This is where the results become hard to decipher. My 5K time improved early in the year, when I was on my old prescription, but not by much. My 10K time is slower, but the results are deceiving. The course between the two times are much different, and I find my time on the recent September run much more respectable.

Other Indicators
Old Max Current Max
Deadlift 335 lbs 355 lbs
Bench Press 205 lbs 225 lbs
Squat 215 lbs 225 lbs
Shoulder Press 135 lbs 155 lbs

Again, not impressive numbers, but still an improvement as I’ve moved through the year. That is the only goal I’ve set. I’ve learned a lot about the squat since joining the crew at CFK, and hopefully the empowerment of my posterior chain will begin to show in the upcoming months.

Also, I can do a proper muscle-up. On the rings. Good enough for me.

Now What?

Here we go with another year. My workout time is down significantly, my performance results are the same if not better. My weight has not changed, my strength to body mass ratio has improved. I will continue to monitor my results.

New goals? I will set them in the future, right now I intend to continue training like I am to prepare my body for…whatever. Next challenge: The Southern Odyssey 200 Mile relay. We have 9 runners right now. If we get up to 10 I only have to run 20 miles. I hope we have 12 team mates…

The Evernote Workout Log

logo A few weeks back I wrote about a little fitness experiment I had started to try and reduce the amount of time I spent training while maximizing results. During the experiment I needed a place to document my workouts so I could review my progress and see if I was meeting my goals, as well as plan future workouts. I had some basic requirements in mind when selecting a logging system:

  • I need to enter workouts as I complete them – I have a terrible memory. By the time I’ve finished doing a round of squats or a half-marathon, I’ve forgotten my time. Its not the kind of thing that I keep in my head. I need to be able to enter workouts immediately. As in, right after I finish the lift, run, swim, whatever.
  • I need to view and measure past performance – Training is one of the only things I systemize. I think I might train so that I have something to systemize. I want to be able to quickly look up what my 5k times are trending. I need to see what my last deadlift max was so I can plan the next one.
  • I need it to be something I actually use – Sounds simple, but if I have to go out of my way to use the tool, I won’t use it. Bonus if the tool is something I already use for other stuff.
    With that in mind I started my search. Here are some of the tools I played with:

Paper and Pen – I think this is how everyone starts. Just bring a little notepad and write it down as you go. This was how I recorded and measured for years, but you try scanning cahier after cahier looking for your most recent 5k time. Recording your workouts is fast…reviewing them isn’t.

Daily Burn – I tried this site out because they had a decent iPhone interface and I could use it online. The tracker is a little clunky, and having to enter the data into the little boxes gets old fast. It seems like it’s geared for people interested in diet and weight loss, so if that’s you’re thing, maybe its for you.

SpringPad – Ugh, don’t get me started.

Beyond The White Board – If only I had my own personal white board at the gym…I haven’t actually tried this one out, but it looked promising. If you’re strictly a Crossfitter, you should check it out. It does a lot of the tracking for you, and if you’re into the nutrition thing, it can help you track that too.

Training Peaks – Great site if you’re only interested in endurance sports, but since that makes up only half of my programming, it wasn’t a one-stop shop for me.

After exhausting the methods above, I chose to go the freeform route and use Evernote as my workout log. I already use Evernote for everything else, so there was no reason not to leverage it for my workout log as well. I created a basic system in Evernote that allowed me to quickly add my workouts in anywhere I happened to be, get access to old performance characteristics, and to track my areas of concentration to make sure I wasn’t overdoing any particular sport. Here’s how it works:

Create a Notebook for your workouts

This is easy, just create a notebook in Evernote to store your  workouts.WorkoutLog

Enter your workouts right after (or even before) you conduct them.

Make sure you write a review (more on this in another article). This is all freeform so enter any information you need to know. (Note: in the picture I made a mistake…its supposed to be a frightening 50 Power Clean Burpees).EnterWorkout

Tag your workouts.

Tags can be anything from running, cycling, or specific stuff that you want quick access to like “5K”, or “The Bear”. This is especially helpful if you have workouts with bizarre names. You can also have sub-tags. For instance I have a tag called run with the sub-tags 5k, 10k, 13.1, etc. This helps your organize when the number of tags you have starts to get out of hand.TagWorkouts

Create a workout reference.

If you have a workout that is always the same set of complicated movements, its a good idea to create a reference to that workout by creating a new note, putting the contents of the workout in it, then tagging that note with the workout name. Then you can search for the workout by tag, see the workout reference and each time you’ve repeated it. You probably want to keep these references in a different notebook than your workout log to avoid clutter.WorkoutReference

Create Saved Searches to access information quickly.

Examples “All running workouts from the last 7 days” or ”All running workouts from last week”.SavedSearches

If you look at my public workout log most of it should make sense, though I have developed my own personal shorthand (10x10xOHS@145 means 10 sets, 10 reps Overhead Squat with 145lbs). I’ll post a legend some day.

This should be plenty to get you going. With Evernote you can also make your notebook public if you’re sharing information with others. An additional feature of Evernote is it’s open API. This means you can access your notes from script (php, c#, etc) and display it somewhere, organize and manipulate it in various ways, etc. I’m working on extending my personal/shared training log as we speak…but that’s for another article.

An Experiment in Fitness

Poor Bastard Let me start by saying that this article shouldn’t be considered an endorsement of a training methodology. First of all I don’t have the expertise to endorse or recommend anything. Also there is a reason that the word ‘personal’ often appears before training, it’s different for everyone and you need to make your own decisions about what is right for you. These are just the records of my observations and experiences over the course of the last few years and more specifically, last few months. I’ll periodically update this record as I guinea-pig different training methods on myself, and document any successes or failures.

 

In other words, this is what is working for me at the moment; your mileage may vary.

Introduction

During the winter of 2008 I began training for marathon season the way I always had. Run a lot. My typical schedule included something like 10-12 hours of running a week, around 1/4 to 1/3 of that volume occurring on one day. When you pass other marathoners on the trail on these days, you nod and acknowledge that you’re both on your “long day”. These are almost invariably Sundays. On these days you put in 14-20 miles at a snail’s pace to make sure you are physiologically capable of running a full marathon. On other days you mix in interval sets, 10K’s, 5Ks, but nothing too hard…wouldn’t want to weaken your long day performance. These long runs are great if you have a stockpile of audio books to listen to, but they weren’t helping me get any faster or stronger, and they were eating up lots of my time.

This was my predicament: after spending years training like this for every event (including triathlons), I wasn’t any faster than I had been in the first year. A glance at my 5k, 10k and marathon times from 2004 to 2008 will show almost no progress. Four years without progress in areas you dedicate a lot of your spare time to is enough to frustrate anyone. I was weaker than I had been before starting any endurance training. Compound this with a knee injury at the start of 2009, and I was pretty unmotivated to run any marathons. I pushed through the Sedona Marathon (which was worth it) and took a break until I could figure out what to do next.

A little history

I wasn’t much of an athlete growing up. I played some team sports, baseball mostly, but by High School had pretty much settled on playing the drums and video games. I got out of shape, and didn’t really care much. College was much the same; working and going to school fulltime didn’t really lend itself to staying in shape (though I know better now).

After graduating college and entering the workforce, I discovered something magical: leisure time. What do I do with all this leisure time? I decided to try out a triathlon. That turned out to be a lot of fun so I did a few more. After a while it became clear that running was my favorite of the tri sports, so I took it to the next level and gave the marathon a shot. At no point was I ever a competitor in these events, in most cases I was just racing to finish. On a good day I finished middle of the pack. It didn’t matter though, I was in better shape than I had been my entire life, and I felt good most of the time (barring any long runs).

Fast forward 4 years.

Low Volume High Intensity

I credit my brother with turning me on to low volume high-intensity training. Somewhere toward the end of 2008 we both found ourselves at a loss with our typical training methods, so he started suggesting something new. Here is an example:

  • Run a punching bag up a set of bleachers 5 sets at a time, as fast as you can now.
  • Pull another punching bag 20 yards, run to the other end of the rope, do it again.
  • Throw 10lb medicine ball as far as you can. Run to it. Throw it back.
  • Do all that again 8-10 times
  • Roll up in fetal position

Since I was fine with giving up on the marathoning, this training was a welcome reprieve. I had my workouts wrapped up in the span of a half an hour, and only felt terrible as long as it took me to recuperate (which at first was a lot). I began to equate it this way:

My heart beats the same number of times as it would on a long run, I just compacted it all into 20 minutes.

Not very scientific.

We continued to train this way a few days a week, usually getting together on Sundays and the occasional weekdays, all the while I kept up my normal training with long slow distance runs, rides, and swims (here after referred to as LSD training). At some point my brother mentioned his friends were doing something called Crossfit. I had never heard of it, so I checked it out online.

The Crossfit “prescription” is “constantly varied, high-intensity functional movement”. This is the first time a training methodology has ever “clicked” with me. I am not a specialist in life. At some point I will go into a lengthy article about how I learned not to be a specialist, but for now suffice it to say that finding a training methodology that gave me the freedom to synergize and NOT specialize was exactly what I had been looking for. For a detailed account of their methodology and general physical preparedness, I suggest checking out the site linked above, FAQs, and the “What is Fitness” article.

I began doing the workouts of the day on a semi regular basis in the Spring of 2009 as an experiment while still performing my typical LSD training in the triathlon sports. Having done this on my own now, I would suggest anyone moving to a program of this sort build up a moderate fitness base before jumping in (though you can scale any workout). From dabbling I discovered the following:

  • The increase in strength was having a significant positive impact on an existing knee injury (Runner’s knee). This may also be attributed to running barefoot or in Vibram Five Fingers almost entirely (that’s a topic for a different post).
  • The anaerobic output during the short high-intensity workouts was translating to an increased aerobic base.
  • My energy levels were off the charts.

The latter was enough to make me do a significant amount of research, and dedicate the Summer of 2009 to:

The Experiment

In June of 2009 I threw out my training log and started over intending to answer the following question:

Can I supplant my LSD training regiment with high-intensity, low volume, constantly varied training while still participating in endurance sports at the same level?

The criteria for success is very simple. Measure times for swim, bike, and run sports at a designated level at periodic intervals, while training with high-intensity, low volume (hereafter HILV) workouts. I chose the following test distances:

  • Run – 5k, 10K
  • Swim – 3 x 300m (to get 100m average)
  • Bike – 12 Mile

These distances were intentionally kept somewhat short. For one, testing each once a month at “marathon” levels would not be feasible. Secondly, each is a representation of the leg length of a Sprint Triathlon. Last, Each of these times can usually be translated into longer distances. I’m not suggesting that the act of running a 5k is physiologically the same as running a marathon, I’m just suggesting that as a unit of measure for my experiment, it seemed the most appropriate. A different experiment will test even longer distances (Winter 2010).

If my times for these tests do increase, than the experiment is technically a success. If they get better than its a huge success.

Execution

Workout 8-12 times per week.

Select 5-6 workouts from one of the sources listed below:

Perform 1-3 workouts each on the bike, swim, or run using the the same HILV methodology (Crossfit Endurance was my main source for these latter workouts, sometimes substituting old sprint and time trial workouts).

This sounds like a lot of training time, but its really not bad. Consider that these workouts usually take no more than a half-hour, doing one in the morning  and another in the afternoon on days where there are two scheduled is not as bad as it sounds. This typically totals out to a MAXIMUM of 8-10 training hours per week, but is usually more like 5 to 7.

In practice I ended up spending more time on the run (3 times a week) than the bike and swim portions (usually once maybe twice a week). I followed another “unspoken” rule of going hard for 2-3 weeks, than going soft for 1 week. I would do this regardless of my training platform.

I didn’t modify my diet or sleeping patterns in anyway in an attempt to control the experiment to some minimal degree.

 

The Results

On the Run
  5K time 10K Time
Pre 5/14/09 24:28 49:40
Post 10/10/09 21:01 44:03

This is massive overhaul of my 5K and 10K times. In the past I almost always ran an 8 minute per mile, 24 minute 5K without fail. To see this time reduced this drastically is a huge success. Over the 5 month period in the experiment, I tested 3 times, each time shaving almost a minute from my previous personal record.

In the Water
  300m AVG 100m
Pre 5/14/09 5:26 1:48
Post 10/10/09 4:48 1:36

I tested 3 times over the period, and most of my cuts were made early in the experiment (July). Some periodization may be necessary to get much faster than this, but I’m questioning the need. I’m happy with these times, and if I can eke out a few more seconds I’ll be thrilled.

On the Bike

I have yet to perform the final 12 mile test on the bike, and it’s already getting chilly out there. Look for an update on this later. As far as my training rides go, I know for certain I am moving much faster.

Other Indicators

I always dabbled with weight lifting, even during my long slow distance days. I concentrated on a few core lifts (deadlift, squat, bench press) and very rarely made strength gains. Using HILV training I made the following modifications to my lift maxes:

  Old Max Current Max
Deadlift 265 lbs 335 lbs
Bench Press 175 lbs 205 lbs
Squat 165 lbs 215 lbs

These are by no means impressive numbers, but they do show an significant increase in strength over the 5 month period, which isn’t bad for someone with an endurance focus. It goes without saying that in any area where I lifted frequently I improved.

Conclusion

These are preliminary results in what will be a long experiment. If I were to call this phase one then I would call this phase a success. I was able to adopt a training program that’s flexible, not overly time consuming, and that doesn’t bore the hell out of me while bettering my times in core endurance sports and increasing my strength. Will training like this make me a world-class runner, rider, swimmer or lifter? Probably not, but let’s face it, I wasn’t any of those things to begin with not did I have any intention of being.

What would I do differently?

I would change my diet slightly. I would increase my protein intake significantly. I like to get all of my nutrition from actual food, and avoid taking vitamins, supplements, or anything in “scoop” form, but have since broken down and starting incorporating a whey protein shake after workouts in an effort to recover more quickly.

I would scale the workouts more effectively to my size. At the beginning of this experiment I would do whatever the recommended weight for the workout was, and my results would always be to slog through it. About halfway through I realized that I needed to reduce the weights for timed workouts to something appropriate for my frame. I only weight 165 lbs, so a 225 lbs deadlift 21, 15, and 9 times would not be an appropriate value for a beginner/intermediate lifter.

Next Phase

I had thought about giving up marathoning early this year. I simply didn’t have the time or motivation to train like a marathoner anymore. Given that there are several people who have already applied the training methods I’m using to long distance running (up to and exceeding 100 miles), the next phase in this experiment will be an attempt to run a marathon with the training methods I’ve adopted. Stay tuned for the results.

I started using Evernote as my training log in the middle of the Summer. If you want to see what my typical schedule was, and my ongoing progress, look here:

Training Log

2008: A Year Off

Well, as far as athletic competition goes. Anyone paying attention probably noticed that I added nothing to my race schedule after The ING Atlanta Marathon in March, whereas usually I have at least 3 or 4 races in the Summer, and some runs in the Fall.

What happened? Not sure. I forgot to sign up for the tri’s I usually do. I had big plans at the beginning of the year to do a Half-Ironman, but couldn’t seem to find one worth doing. Not to mention when I started looking at the time involved to get myself up to Ironman level I had to ask myself if this was a job or a hobby. Speaking of hobbies, I have more than a few, and of course dedicating more time to one leaves less for another. Cary got sick early in the year, then my grandmother died. Work of course got out of control with yet another project running against an impossible schedule. I can go on making excuses, really, I’m full of them.

I wasn’t the only one. My brother-in-law rode fewer sub 100 mile rides than he has in years. Maybe we’re all just burned out.

I did have one fun race. Cary and I had such a good time in January at the Disney Marathon Cary decided to sign us up for a 5K in September. Turned out to be a nice weekend trip, and it got Cary involved which was a lot of fun as well.

At any rate, I’ve forced myself to sign up for at least 2 marathons early in the 2009 season. Sedona AZ and the ING Atlanta. We’ll see if that kick starts or stalls the next year.

American Gods and running with the dead

So I finally got around to reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman this past winter, and as it turned out I couldn’t have picked better circumstances.

Actually I didn’t so much “read” American Gods as I listened to it. As narrated by George Guidall, who I am convinced is the finest narrator of audio books I’ve ever had the privilege to listen to.

It turns out the story takes place largely in winter, and since this book was to be my running companion for much of the season it turned out to be perfect. Most of the time anyway. Gaiman’s descriptions of the sub-artic temperatures in Lakeside made my balmy “barely freezing” weather that much worse.

The story itself wound its way through much of the midwest into the south, just as I was training for my pre-season marathon here in Atlanta, and the journey quality to the tale in particular made the 2 and 3 hour runs memorable, even enjoyable. I really got a kick out of the final scenes, which took place in Rock City. Anyone who’s live south of the Mason-Dixon has seen the “SEE ROCK CITY” Birdhouse and can certainly relate.

Towards the end of the cold season I found myself running through a confederate graveyard just across the street from my home, just as the protagonist of the story is beaing lead through the ceremony of the dead. What timing. It was about here that I realized how old the city I lived in was, and how much history I was passing as I ran through it. Later I would realize how much history my city has managed to collect in such a short time, when I’m reminded that:

“In England 100 miles is a long way, in America 100 years is a long time”.

It was a nice experience, and I hope to be able to match my book selection and season again in the future. Its a sunny spring day as I write this, and already I’ve swapped Tennessee Whiskey for tequila and lemon and Doc Martens for flip-flops.

As a last note I have yet to read a Neil Gaiman story I haven’t liked. The way he weaves primal myths into everything from sci-fi to road stories is entertaining at least, timeless at best. I think I’ve read Sandman three times now. When my only disappointment with a story is that it has ended, then it was a fine story.

How to eat whatever the hell you want

…And still lose weight. If I ever decide to write something just to make money, this is going to be the title. Diet books sell, right? I expect I can get a book with a title like this into the hands of at least 500,000 unsuspecting fad-dieters. Here’s the outline:

  • Chapter 1: The food
  • Chapter 2: The training
  • Epilogue?

I’m banking on the theory that most dieters won’t read past the first sentence, so when they see “Eat pizza, drink beer, be merry. The rippling sinews in your mid-section will thank you” they’ll sprint to the checkout. Which is good. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to be doing a lot more sprinting, better that they start immediately.

In reality I could never write this book. My knowledge of nutrition comes mainly from the crap I read on the web, none of which I believe anyway. The first chapter would literally be a paragraph, which I can sum up with the phrase “If you’re not allergic to it, eat it”. That ought to fill up one page. Now what about the remaining hundred or so…oh right, did I mention the HORRIBLE AGONIZING TRAINING? Oh yes, I think I did. It goes a little something like this:

  • Sunday: 8-12 mile run. If you have to build up to this, no worries…
  • Monday: 2500-3000 meter swim. Severe weight training…think 300 workout
  • Tuesday: 3-5 mile run (you can run faster than that).
  • Wednesday: Play your drums for 2.5 hours. No drums? Fine…take a day off…pansy.
  • Thursday: 4 mile track workout in the morning (told you you could run faster) 2000-2500 Meter swim. Sigh…weights again.
  • Friday: Short Ride, maybe 1 hour or 20 miles, whichever comes first
  • Saturday: Swim 2400 meters straight. Don’t stop. Lift some weights if you can bring yourself to do so. Brick workout (2 hr+ ride followed by an immediate 35 min run)

I didn’t say this was particularly healthy way to lose weight. But if thats the sort of thing you’re into (losing tons of weight), this works really well for most of us. There it is, book completed. I guess its more of a pamphlet, or rather, a silly blog post.

Seriously though, If you’re into the whole losing weight thing, the only trick I know of is to eat less than you’re going to burn off in a day. You can either decrease the number of calories you take in, or increase the number you burn. Being a glutton, and not willing to give up pizza and beer to stay slim, I take the masochistic route and really kick my own ass.

If you can’t bring yourself to exercise, maybe you need to rephrase things. You’re not exercising…you’re training. For what? Doesn’t matter, maybe nothing. Then again maybe you get stuck on a desert island and the mainland shore is exactly 2.5 miles away…you can swim that. You’ve been training. Your dune buggy broke down 26.2 miles from any sign of life in the desert? I guess you’ll have to run back for help. Eh, its just a marathon. And while you’re running for help you can figure out how you made it 26 miles anywhere in a dune buggy.

Grant Muller