Wye Island NRMA

Wye Island NRMA

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Four State Challenge: Part I

We decided to quit during a long, rocky climb between the Washington Monument and Gathland State Park.  After passing 26.2 miles in approximately 4:30:00 - a time that includes our extensive breaks - we found ourselves in a dark place.  Conrad bonked after struggling to digest the food he ate at the halfway point, and I suffered from a throbbing headache, most likely a result of psychological fatigue and caffeine withdrawal.  "I can't take these f'ing rocks anymore," I groaned.

Quitting was logic.  Neither of us were ultrarunners, and, even if we stopped at Gathland, we would have run over 33 miles.  The previous day's deluge made the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Trail (AT) more treacherous and painful to traverse  As we power hiked over ground that was too rocky to run across, we contemplated our failure.  I removed my phone from my hydration vest and attempted to text Melissa to notify her that she should pick us up soon at Gathland, not our intended destination of Harper's Ferry.  Another frustration: the screen, like all of my garments and appendages, was wet, preventing me from texting.  So we ran on.

I first conceived of running the length of the AT in Maryland in the late winter of 2013.  After a weekend long run, Conrad handed me Bill Bryson's cult classic A Walk in the Woods and Ed Ayres' The Longest Race.  In the days that followed, I devoured both books.  It was then that I began to consider a future in ultra and trail running.  I suggested to Conrad that we run the length of AT in Maryland, a journey of 41 miles, before the end of 2013.  He enthusiastically committed.  But our fall racing schedule precluded an attempt.  The following fall we again targeted road marathons.  Another year passed with our adventure deferred.

After spending early 2015 nursing injuries and increasing my trail running, I decided to attempt the AT run before beginning a fall marathon cycle.   Although our initial goal was to cover Maryland's portion of the AT and end after crossing the West Virginia line in Harper's Ferry, we learned of the Four State Challenge.  This popular AT challenge entails hiking the 43 miles of the AT between Virginia and Pennsylvania in 24 hours.  Thus, we extended our proposed course to cover the additional mileage through West Virginia and invade Old Dominion.

Our goal, however, changed not only length.  In late spring, I discovered that Iain Ridgway, an ultrarunner who has competed for the British national team, set a new fastest known time (FKT) for the Four State Challenge in early May, completing the segment in 7:29.  Would we, road racers with no ultrarunning experience, be so foolhardy to attempt this AT speed record?  Of course.

Throughout late May and June, I balanced my road racing goals with my preparation for the AT, completing my typical fare of intervals and threshold workouts while running long runs over rocky and hilly terrain at Patapsco Valley State Park and Loch Raven Reservoir.  The day after our one-two finish at the McVet 5K, Conrad and I completed a long run on the middle portion of the Maryland AT, covering nearly 20 miles.  I often ran in a hydration vest laden with fluid and food to practice carrying added weight and eating on the run.  During these long runs, I experienced euphoric sense that, if required, I could run all day.  I simply didn't fatigue and was seemingly impervious to the rocky trails and steep ascents that had once trashed my legs.

We targeted June 28th for the "attempt."  I began referring to it as "the attempt," perhaps because I subconsciously could not state definitively that we would complete the challenge.  So much could go wrong during a daylong run on a mountain trail.  Despite road racing credentials, we were inexperienced and would likely commit the common beginner's errors enumerated in articles for ultrarunner wannabes.

As the weekend approached, the forecast was mixed.  The heat and humidity I feared would not be factors, but severe storms projected for Saturday would likely leave the trails in poor condition on Sunday.  It seemed a fair tradeoff: the temperature would not exceed 70 degrees, and we would navigate slippery rocks, muddy trails, and fallen trees.  We met on Saturday morning and nervously debated whether to proceed.  Conrad's hesitancy was heightened because he was getting over a severe cold that struck earlier in the week, likely the result of the big mileage days he done in preparation.  Our sport can be cruel in its irony.

After weighing the risks, our deliberations ended with the decision to attempt it.  We worked out logistics and then parted ways, excited and apprehensive for the new frontiers awaiting us on a mountain ridge beyond 26.2 miles.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

This Is the Workout

Brother Colm O'Connell arrived in Iten, Kenya, in 1976 as an Irish Catholic missionary with a teaching assignment at St. Patrick's High School.  Colm had no prior experience with distance running before he assumed coaching responsibilities at the school, which has a student body comprised principally of the children of farmers and ranchers.  With self-study, intuition, and his keen ability to perceive the whole person and not just the athlete, Colm has become one of the most decorated coaches in the world.

A Western journalist visited Brother Colm's training camp one morning.  Perhaps hoping to discover the Kenyan "secret" or simply marvel at astonishing athletic feats, the journalist timed his arrival to coincide with the daily workout.  When he arrived, the journalist observed a group of young Kenyan men running gently and single-file around a dirt field.  The journalist, assuming that this was a warmup, approached Colm and asked when the workout would begin.  Colm replied, "This is the workout."

I suspect the journalist was puzzled and disappointed by the spectacle of some of the world's finest distance runners - the training partners of Olympic champion David Rudisha - meandering monotonously around a field at a pace that most weekend road warriors could easily muster.  Why would this caliber of runner train so slowly?  It's a reasonable question.  I'll answer it and then invert it.  These Kenyans are the world's best because easy runs are a key element in their weekly regimens. Why then do so many Western runners of modest caliber disservice themselves by training too fast?

For the past decade, I've dedicated myself to becoming a student of the sport.  While I lack the formal education to fully comprehend the science of distance running, I read widely and have conducted an experiment of one.  I'm self-trained, and the results have been promising.  Since I began running 22 years ago, I've only a had a few minor injuries, none of which lasted more than a couple months.  I've enjoyed near constant progress, running personal bests cycle after cycle, year after year, at distances ranging from the 3K to the marathon.

My most significant fitness gains, however, occurred since my late twenties.  I attribute this recent success to years of health and consistent, progressive training.  If I didn't train in a manner that was replicable and, by extension, progressive - more mileage and faster paces - I couldn't have stayed healthy.  Conversely, if I'd been injury stricken, my training would be inconsistent, regressive, and perhaps even erratic.

Like Brother Colm's world-beaters, a central component of my training has been gentle recovery runs.  Once a week, I'll check my pride and slow my stride to a dawdling pace for a truly easy run.  Whenever possible, I complete these sessions on a soft surface, usually along a dirt trail or simply by making loops around a grass field; the forgiving earth aids in the recovery of road weary bones and soft tissue.  Recovery days are shorter than my typical maintenance run, ranging from 20:00 to 50:00.  My pace rarely drops to 7:00 per mile, and it is common for me to average 8:00 per mile.  To put these figures in perspective, I averaged 4:54 per mile for my last 5K.

Recovery runs provide an array of interconnected benefits.  These gentle jaunts replace a day off, allowing me to run 7 days most weeks and thus accumulate more mileage over the course of a month, macrocycle, and year.  I believe that in most cases active recovery is superior to complete rest - I'll let the scientists chime in to explain the neurological and muscular benefits of doing something instead of nothing.  By running as slowly as needed to heal between workouts and long runs, I can absorb my hard and specific training.  If I was perpetually tired and not recovering between sessions, my fitness would stagnant and eventually regress or I would become injured.

Too often I hear disappointed runners attributing their shortcomings to lack of "speed work," victims and unwitting perpetuators of the insidious grind-it-out-or-die-trying mentality of Western sport.  Hard intervals have a place in all training regimens.  And I am not suggesting that all maintenance runs should be slogs.  However, I challenge readers to honestly examine their training paces and embrace the following principals:
  • Complete a true recovery run weekly, in which you average two to three minutes slower than your current 5K pace.  
  • During the bulk of your cycle, when you are completing at least one workout and a long run weekly, run your maintenance runs at a pace that ensure you will recover and, therefore, could replicate your output week-to-week throughout the macrocycle. 
  • Find a soft, even surface to complete your recovery runs and some of your maintenance runs.  I've even begun doing tempo and fartlek sessions on trails to reduce the damage caused by pavement pounding.  Looping around a grass field may be boring, but running personal records is great fun.  
  • Replace some days off with recovery runs to gradually increase your weekly mileage. 
  • If you run twice a day, as I often do, ensure that one run is short and very easy. 
  • If you choose to replace a day off with a session of cross-training instead of a recovery run, the same principals apply: go gently; don't let your heart rate rise too high; and ensure that you are not inflicting more damage on your fatigued body.
Have confidence in this approach.  It seems counterintuitive to become faster by training slower.  But it works, and you'll soon find yourself recovering quicker and, thus, capable of managing greater volume.   Assuming you're also adding all of the right ingredients at the right times, this is a recipe to faster race times. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

And Where Are You Going?: A Race Recap

We were moving fast on Light Street's gradual northbound descent to Pratt in the last mile of the McVet 5K.  There are uncommon moments in a race when things click.  Suddenly you feel strong, fluid, and confident, while covering ground quicker than anticipated.  This was our experience as Conrad and I postured in attempts to break away from the other.

Conrad and I beneath the Battle Monument, nearing the final stretch
This was my first road race since December 7.  Nearly four months of aches, injuries, and a body out of balance inhibited my training and dashed my ambitious plans for 2015.  In late March, I changed strategies and sought new motivations and challenges in trail running.  The soft surfaces helped my body heal while I regained fitness.   And spending more time exploring the region's forests revitalized my mind and spirit, reawakening dormant memories of my boyhood in rural Ohio.  But my road racing goals still simmered.  

I failed to update my blog regularly throughout this period of rehabilitation.  I logged daily on Strava and Running2Win, but I couldn't compel myself to do the hard work of reflective writing.  To recap, I began introducing fartlek, tempos, and threshold workouts - the vegetable protein (meat) and potatoes of my training regimen - in mid April, completing nearly all sessions on trails at Robert E. Lee Park and along the NCR trail.  Early workouts indicated that I had retained fitness during my quarter-year of fragmented training.  I tested myself at the Seneca Creek 10K, part of the Xterra Mid-Atlantic Series, where I finished first in 35:11 on a challenging trail.

May began with new adventures and additional indicators that my fitness was returning, attributable, I believe, to my embrace of the trails.  We spent the first weekend of May at a cabin in Rocky Gap State Park near Cumberland, a site warranting a blog post.  While there, I engaged tough, rocky climbs on Evitt's Mountain and completed my first 18-mile long run of the cycle along the Great Allegheny Passage Trail.  In the weeks since, my threshold and tempo workouts began resembling the splits I logged last fall.

I toed the line at McVet confident of my rebounding fitness but uncertain how fast I could run.  I also feared the aches and pains would return as I pounded pavement in featherweight flats.  Anxiety dissipated as the starter sent us off at a conservative pace over the gently rolling first mile, which we covered in 5:06.  Shortly after, I took the lead and gradually increased the pace, hitting mile 2 in 10:05 with Conrad on my heels.  Could we finish in the 15:20s?  Faster?

Conrad and I pressed hard after two miles of cautious pacing.  I fought tenaciously to hold him off, wary of my odds in a head-to-head sprint to the finish.  The last half mile climbed north on Calvert Street.  It was near the hill's peak that Conrad broke free and opened a small gap.  I continued digging, but he had momentum and I harbored self-doubt.  The day belonged to him.

We thrashed each other for 3.1 miles, testing each other's toughness and fitness on an honest course that included climbing and sharp turns.  Our rewards were watches that stopped at 15:09.6 and 15:12.6, near misses for both our personal bests at the distance.  More important, I walked away confident in my training, knowing that the trails I've grown to love haven't diminished, but perhaps enhanced, my ability to quickly traverse the roads.

Our holiday weekend wasn't finished, however.  Conrad and I transitioned from competitors to comrades to complete a long run together on the Appalachian Trail the following morn, engaging new challenges and grateful for the opportunities running presented us.  Setting out from Gathland State Park, we covered 19.5 rocky, undulating miles in 2:53:00, the longest duration - not distance - I've run.

The McVet 5K is a stepping stone to a short summer season that includes the Bel Air Town Run 5K and the last two installments of the Xterra Mid-Atlantic Series, including the Big Elk Half Marathon (trail), my target race, on the Summer Solstice in Cecil County.  The next five weeks are going to be great fun.  Onward.  

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Good Friday

The best part of Good Friday is that the devout spend their day in solemn observance, or simply stay home from work, slowing the pace of the republic.  Businesses aren't as busy.  Schools are closed.  Roads are less congested.  And I, a nonbeliever, can reap the benefits of this holy day.  An early dismissal from work presented a rare chance to drive north of the Baltimore Beltway without descending into teeth-grinding madness in gridlocked traffic.  Always the opportunists, Tristram and I traveled to Loch Raven Reservoir, near Towson, for a late-afternoon run along one of the region's most scenic trails.  
The southernmost trailhead intersects with Seminary Road, though I don't recall ever encountering a seminarian along the wooded paths that trace the lake shore or the fire road that climbs above Dulaney Valley.  For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the land now comprising this park was part of the Ridgely Family's plantation and within view of their estate, Hampton.  Tristram and I speculated about the area's history and usage, but the hydraulic engineering of the Big Gunpowder Falls and a resurgent forest have concealed the land's past purposes.  I suspect that the Ridgely's veritable army of indentured and enslaved laborers cleared the Old Growth forest and used the timber to fire the furnaces of the Northampton Furnace and Forge during the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. 
In the late nineteenth century, the expansion of indoor plumbing and sewer systems necessitated a new source of water for Baltimore, so the covetous Baltimoreans dammed the Big Gunpowder Falls and, in turn, damned the town of Warren.  While the reservoir still provides water to Baltimore, the land within the park is now solely for recreation.  The fire road is my favorite section of trail because its width accommodates small groups, and its surface is principally dirt with only a few rocky patches and technical segments.  This was our course on Good Friday, which took us from the valley, over a ridge, and into a hollow.  The climb is challenging and nearly constant for three miles, with minimal breaks in the ascent.  However, we both benefited from relatively fresh legs, unencumbered by high mileage or strength-sapping workouts.  

For a competitive runner, moments of vigor are rare, so I whimsically darted up the last hill before the turnaround; my quickened heart rate and searing lungs reminded me of the fitness I had lost over the preceding months.  More important than fitness, however, was our fortune.  Though we may be far removed from our peak strength, we swiftly traversed the good Earth in a forest reawakening from a hard winter's slumber.  Signs of spring abound.  Soon, the trees will bud, the ferns and undergrowth will form a brilliant green carpet, and the wildlife who congregate here will busy the forest from floor to canopy.  For now, the winter forest is generous in its solitude and silence, precious commodities after a enervating week of work.  

We sanctified the run with commune at Union Brewery beneath the mills of Woodbury, toasting to a great run and a good Friday.  Another week of miles and trials had passed, and the weekend held promise: a long run the next morn and an exploratory mountain run in Western Maryland on Sunday. I closed the week with a 90-minute run on the NCR, averaging 6:37 pace and closing in 6:12, my best run in months.  Seven days of running, 55 total miles, and visits to four parks made a holy week.  

Monday, March 30, 2015


As we crested the peak, my Garmin beeped, notifying me that we had completed another mile. Twelve minutes and twenty-nine seconds earlier Tristram and I began a steep ascent on a single-track trail that would take us high above Harper's Ferry, where we started our run. During our climb, we negotiated switchbacks and scrambled over jagged granite.

These same rocks that impeded our progress had tormented the blistered, broken feet of both Union and Confederate soldiers in their efforts to control the strategic town. In light of the region's not-so-distant history, heavy with human suffering, our plight was palatable. Our reward was view of the valley's splendor, which Thomas Jefferson described as "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature." 

We celebrated the first weekend of spring by running along the Appalachian Trail (AT), a course that required arduous climbing.  In the four months since my December marathon, where I attained a new personal best of 2:27, I have been doing nothing but climbing. Two injuries, a fall on the ice that took a tooth and gave me my first concussion, and a body in rebellion against the pavement have stripped me of hard-earned fitness. Although my injuries have healed, my body can't handle the pounding of running on the roads.

Throughout much of January and February, I cross-trained almost daily, which, in retrospect, may have aggravated my injuries and prolonged my recovery. I've had several false starts since resuming daily running. With each passing week throughout the late winter, I omitted another race from my spring schedule. I've now accepted that returning to a high level of training will take time, and I'll have to adapt my ambitious plans for 2015.

I ran every day last week comfortably, without any physical inhibition. I need to seek out soft surfaces as frequently as possible; the body holds up better on the forgiving trails and grass. My recuperation and inability to race is an opportunity to develop as a trail runner and spend more time exploring the region's parks. I spent the last two Sundays on the Maryland AT, something I wouldn't have done within the constraints of a 90-mile week, structured workout plan, and full racing schedule.    
Let's keep climbing.
Weverton Cliffs, Maryland

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Runner's Thanks to the Labor Movement

I began Labor Day with a trail run at Soldiers Delight Natural Resource Management Area, a small state park that protects some of the region's rarest and most endangered species. The park is deserving of a post, and I intend to write about my experiences there in the near future. However, I dedicate this post to the American labor movement and the worker-activists of the past two centuries who fought tirelessly for the noble principles of democracy and dignity in work.

When we set out for weekend races or long runs or simply lace our shoes for a post-work evening jaunt, we rarely reflect on how exceptional and privileged we are. Amateur runners, the majority of our sport's participants, depend on leisure - the free time outside of our professional lives to engage in sport. Without the extra time beyond that which is necessary to acquire our most immediate needs, we could not be competitive runners.

Unions of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century understood the importance of recreation, leisure, and socialization for the health of the human body and spirit. The battles for fair wages, remuneration of labor, and a reduction in working hours were to create a life worth living - a life that included time for expression, enjoyment, and self-betterment. The early labor movement existed alongside urban reformers and the budding conservation movement, both of which promoted health through exercise and exposure to natural spaces. But how could one take advantage of these social goods without time, energy, and income?

And so with strikes, sit-ins, countless publications, rallies, campaigns, and ballots, unions, and all those who wished to form or join unions, fought for and built the foundation of a great society. Over time, however, work on this project slowed and nearly ceased, and that foundation, carefully laid over many decades, began to crumble and decay under the endless assaults from malignant forces. We now have much work to do to restore that foundation and protect the rights of all workers. Much like an athlete after a long layoff from injury, we must regain lost ground before we can progress.

But back to running. Thanks to the labor movement and the nation it built throughout the twentieth century, I've enjoyed access to quality education, which I then used to attain a good job with union protections and benefits. My forty(ish)-hour workweeks, weekends, vacations, and holidays afford the time and freedom for expression and personal growth, which include running and writing this blog. I lament that the vision of progressive labor unions is far from reality, and the benefits that I enjoy, which I consider to be basic human rights, are merely a social privilege. Thus, I feel both a great debt to the labor movement and an obligation to all who lack the work-place protections, fair wages, and security that allow me participate in my beloved sport.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Running and Recreation at Robert E. Lake Park

Sitting in my car on the Jones Falls Expressway, I felt like a caged animal. After a long work week, I was anxious to hit the trails. But instead, I was in purgatory, crawling north in a vast herd of cars with like-minded drivers, all of whom were dreaming of being somewhere else to start their Labor Day weekend.

Despite the traffic, I arrived at my destination, Robert E. Lee Park, well before 5:00,  and my hopes of finishing the run in time to attend happy hour were not yet dashed. REL, as I've come to refer to it in my training log, has experienced incredible changes since the summer of 2009, when I first visited it after moving to North Baltimore. Back then, the park was under the jurisdiction of Baltimore City. But the City was a negligent steward. The park's facilities were in terrible disrepair, its trails unmaintained.  A few years ago, the County absorbed REL into its park system and began restoration, creating a welcoming spot just beyond the city for outdoors enthusiasts.  

Lake Roland, Robert E. Lee Park, October 22, 2012
I set off on my nine-mile run determined to spend 90% of it on soft surfaces to assuage my achy feet, which have suffered lately from a diet of pavement.  However, it was my psyche that needed the green spaces most of all - a mind that was tired of computers screens, electric light, and the seemingly endless fucking sea of concrete. Running at REL was freeing. This is what we labor for - recreation. And what better way to recreate yourself than an immersion in the therapeutic environs of a wooded park?

Two-and-a-half miles. The principle north-south trail in REL is not particularly long for someone who logs up to 100 miles in a week. But for five years the park has sustained me, providing relief during workweeks when the more extensive regional parks were beyond reach. Like most urban parks, REL has a high biodiversity of the birds and mammals whom we crowd out of city neighborhoods. On any given run, I encounter Great Egrets and Hooded Mergansers in Lake Roland, Belted Kingfishers in the Jones Falls, and Barred Owls perched above the easternmost trail. My most spectacular wildlife sighting at REL occurred in the evening twilight of a late-winter day. As I strode along the lakeside, I spotted a Bald Eagle at the edge of a thin strip of land that jutted into the lake. For over 22 years, I lived in a wooded, rural area, but it wasn't until I settled in Baltimore that I saw our national bird in the wild.  

Those who crave soft surfaces and seek interesting, varied landscapes are much like the animals who congregate in parks like REL. We escape congested streets and noise and filth and stress and the conveniences of our urban homes to revitalize our bodies and renew our beleaguered spirits. The short trails of REL have allowed me to accumulate high mileage season after season while avoiding the impact and overuse injuries common among runners who toil on city streets. Like so many species, human runners are adaptable and can even thrive in our plains of pavement. However, we are most at home and at our best striding easily, fluidly along the soft, forgiving earth.