What happens in your mind on a long run is a lot like dreaming. Running is meditative: part of your mind focuses intently on the body's motion (and ideally the terrain), while the more interesting part wanders in thoughts, ideas, and memories. The thoughts I have on a long solitary trail run are like waking dreams, and like dreams, they're very difficult to get back to once you return to reality. I’m new to serious trail running this year, in part because no matter how bad we want it to, running our own business at Bite Me Kitchen hasn’t left us the time to train sufficiently for long-course triathlon, but also because Rose and I both wanted to work on our weakest sport. Earlier this year, we signed up for the North Face EnduranceChallenge 50k in December. Yep, that’s 30 miles of hilly trails just north of San Francisco Bay with 6,331 feet of elevation gain - hey, at least it won't be hot! I don’t blog often (enough), but I wanted to write an account of what I’ve learned so far about gear, pacing, and what you might expect on a hot, dry, suffery trail run if you’re not one of my Running God friends (you know who you are).
After a number of early-summer successes at what we came to call Hell Moro, July and August arrived, and brought some truly suffery heat with them. There were days we’d park in the bottom lot and note naïvely how particularly nice the morning marine layer was, only to watch it disappear like a thief in the night when we finished our first mile into El Moro Canyon and turned to start climbing. After a brutal half-marathon at Honu 70.3 (Sorry Joby, no race report! - again), I resolved to conquer my worst enemy in triathlon – running in the heat. What better way than to train out in the middle of a hilly nowhere with rattlesnakes and cougars and no water, right? Thought you’d agree. Once we acclimated to running hills in the cool, it was time to up the ante by starting later and later in the day. Eventually we were starting in the early afternoon in 80º heat at the beach with no cloud cover – this is where the trouble started, because for me, running in the blazing sun is like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when all the Nazis get their faces melted off - it ain’t pretty.
I thought forcing myself to run in the heat would solve the problem, but for a few weeks in August, I kept going out and coming back defeated with half-completed runs; some far less than half. I’d hit an overheat point where my heart rate was low, but the legs just wouldn’t turn over. I knew it wasn’t hydration, since I pack 21 oz. of water and refill at about 5.5 miles at the park at the top. The only thing I could reason was the heat so I started looking for a way to minimize the damage the sun was doing, as there’s nothing you can do about the air. Like most people who are heat-averse, I run in as little as possible, and I’ll go into a little detail later about some gear I like, and modifications I’ve made to keep it minimal.
Today I went out for 13 miles in 79º in full sun, and finished with 13.1 to make it a round half marathon. It was 2º cooler than my hottest previous complete trainwreck of a run where I came back disheartened for the last time. Here’s what I did different:
I started from the shower at the bottom and doused my hair and DeSoto Coolwings (see Gear below).
One thing about trail running: you’re not going to be as fast as you are on the flats, and there’s nothing you can do about that – except one thing. You can ignore whatever pace you might be running and run on heart rate and cadence. I set a screen on my Garmin 910XT to show Distance, Lap Distance, Cadence, and Heart Rate. Since my decline in speed had been bothering me so much, I thought this would help, and it really, really did. I decided on a mixed pacing strategy: when climbing, I’d run until my heart rate was 155 bpm, then walk until it came down to 135 bpm. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was a little too conservative, and I upped the bottom end to 145 bpm. On the flats I would run 155 bpm, because that’s a pace I can sustain for a long, long time.
All else was the same as usual (see below), but after a bunch of looking at options, I found this amazing (if a little funny looking) garment:
If, like me, you have trouble running in the blazing sun, and don’t mind looking like a drag queen, this piece is fantastic! It works as advertised: it functions like a radiator for your skin, and makes the slightest breeze feel refreshing. Part of the way it works is it needs to be a little wet. If it started drying out, I doused it with a little water from one of my bottles. I found that the 25-30% or so of my water that I splashed on myself to keep my arms and head cool was better spent that way than actually drinking it. I will typically run up to 9-10 flat miles and not bring any water, relying on a strategically chosen mid-run drinking fountain or two.
I know, I know, I should be able to run without music, and I can, but as much as I don’t care about music on the bike, I really like it on the run. I almost always run with a good house mix from Pocket Underground but this time I opted for something older and maybe a little more spiritual, and dropped my entire Led Zeppelin collection onto a playlist and set it to shuffle. Let me tell you, when I was up on the relatively flat Bommer Ridge trail picking up speed and Ramble On was playing, I knew I’d made the right call. As I rounded the turn where the upper parking lot finally comes into view in the distance and the thunderous opening drums of When the Levee Breaks, I knew I had a long way to go, but this run was in the bag. When I did my last little 3 mile out-and-back into El Moro Canyon (again) to make up the difference to get 13.1 miles and Robert Plant howled “If my (Desoto Cool)wings should fail me, Lord, please meet me with another pair.” I couldn’t help but smile.
Wrapping up today’s run by adding distance was really the icing on the cake of a great run after a series of disappointments. I stood in the ice-cold shower at the bottom for a long, long time.
Tips, Tricks, and Gear, in No Particular Order
Bomb the descents to the maximum extent you safely can. You worked hard to gain that elevation, now that gravity’s on your side use it to your advantage! Keep both eyes on the road – this isn’t the time for checking your watch unless you want to go for a major tumble.
Some say yes, some say no - I've done it both ways, and I really prefer my trail runners. Increased lateral stability, but more importantly, TRACTION to keep you in control bombing descents at faster-than-cozy speeds. I love my Brooks Cascadia 8s, even though their D width is a hair narrow for my E feet.
The Survival of Your MP3 Player
Amphibx Waterproof Cases are worth every cent.
I went through 3 soaked-through 6th Gen iPodNanos before I finally got this amazing case that I attached to my customized FuelBelt Revenge R3O. Just remove the armband and slide it right onto your belt.
FuelBelt Revenge R3O
FuelBelt Revenge R3O
3 bottles in back means less clutter up front, and 21 oz. lasts me about 6 miles climbing steeps on a hot day. Cut off the one-size-fits-all straps and have someone sew on some Velcro after you’ve cut it to fit your waist. (It helps a lot if your wife has a sewing machine and knows her way around it.) Here's a photo of my customized kit that bounces hardly at all, even when loaded with all the water I can carry: