Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

February 20, 2020

Arizona Spartan Super and Sprint, Feb 15-16, 2020

The Arizona race has been on my bucket list of Spartans since I started racing a couple of years ago.  Although I feel lucky to have picked 2020 as my first year to attend...I hear 2019 was really, really, cold...this year, the weather was perfect!

My first Spartan of the year, so the challenge is on to get my Spartan 2020 goal completed quickly...one of every type of race, and one of each podium spot!  Jim just laughs and shakes his head, but the sooner I complete them all, the less races we travel to, and perhaps we will have time for that backpacking trip I've been thinking about for a couple of years....

The Super this year is now a standard 10k, so shorter than ever before.   I figured doing it twice would be good practice for my Ultra coming up in a month.   Of course, race mornings always seem to start in the dark when it's still a little chilly.  I picked up a hitchhiker to bring to the race, a guy named Lance staying in my same hotel.  Getting a ride with me would allow his friends to sleep in a bit longer, and we drove out into the desert with a tinge of pink lighting the sky. 

I always seem to question my life choices when I am waiting at the start line of a Spartan race.  I'm stripped down to shorts and a sports bra, the sun is barely up, temperature is in the mid 40s.   I'm freezing and I know that the dunk wall will come around in just a mile or two.   Yet when I cross the line and start running out near the front of the pack, everything comes back into focus.

This year Spartan is starting the women's age group waves 90 seconds behind the men,  rather than mixed into a whole group.   This gives us a few seconds to eyeball our competition and get a better idea who may be in front.  I'm starting with two age groups as usual, so I play the guessing game.  "Is she in my age group or the next one older?"   I resolve not to let anyone ahead of me since I've been practicing with speed work.

That lasts until we start, and a couple of women shoot off ahead.  I can't catch them running, I'll have to do it on the obstacles.   And all the hard obstacles are here.  I've been lax in my strength workouts for weeks, and just hope that I can muscle through them all.   The dunk wall is absolutely disgusting, with the kind of squishy, sandy mud which gets in my shoes and socks (among other things) and makes running uncomfortable.

Nothing is worse this race, though, though, than the barbed wire crawl.  It is strung low over a rock hard gravelly path, made worse by deep tractor ruts left after the last rain.   I'm forced to roll over and over rather than crawl, so I can feel the bruises forming on my arms and hips rather than my knees.  This is where you have to ignore the pain if you want to win.   I try to remember that near the end of the 100 meters when everything hurts each time I roll over.   Everyone is still damp from the dunk wall, and there are mutters around me of us looking like sugar cookies, referencing the Seals training on the beach by coating themselves in sand.  I spit out some dirt and it doesn't taste like sugar!

The trail itself is a slow, rocky, uneven, hilly desert, with the occasional cactus just intruding into the path.  Passing is difficult and I'm stuck behind slow runners starting ahead of me.   There aren't any women in sight, and I think maybe I've passed them all.   One can only hope.

My race is clean, I don't do any burpees, and in 1:20 I finish the 10k.  It's good enough for second place.   I'm happy with that and will have to push harder tomorrow on the Sprint (5k) to keep up with the woman finishing ahead of me.   But now I have enough time to re-register and run the course again before the podium awards.   It's a fun run, and I take it easy, failing only the Olympus wall which I really hate anyway.  There's no easy way through the barbed wire, though, it hurts a little worse the second time.  And the dunk wall is dirtier!

My favorite photo of the weekend; some random person clawing their way under and through the sludge!
Sunday morning, I pick up Lance again (his friends racing Open are really happy they don't have to stumble to the race in the frosty dark) and gear myself up for a really hard effort.  It's only about 3 miles and I have to push from the start.  I even warm up a little running around the festival area, which i usually don't bother with.

It doesn't help.  I cannot run fast enough.   I run so fast I might puke and the same woman disappears ahead of me.   Dang.   Most of the hard obstacles aren't on the course today and although I have another clean race it won't be good enough.  The third time through the barbed wire is really horrible.   Just afterward, I see the woman who took third yesterday.   We run together for a couple of miles, and at the finish she's pulled ahead by just 15 seconds.   I'm absurdly happy to have the 3rd place medal.  Don't laugh.   I like a complete collection of things.    If I finish out the year with a 1st I'll post a photo of all of them together.

I had planned on running the Sprint again too, but the thought of a 4th time through the barbed wire is too much for my body.  My brain won't admit it, and I head to the line to re-register.  It's literally a mile long.  Some bus loads of people all just decided on a whim to come race I guess.  I take it as a sign, and rinse off to wait for the podium awards.  By now it's sunny and pleasantly warm and it feels amazing to be sitting in the shade and not racing.


January 30, 2020

Superstition Mountain Traverse

I'm down here in Phoenix, Arizona, and I had plans to run the Rock n'Roll Marathon last weekend.  I really was hoping that I could run under 4 hours, having run a heartbreaking 4:01:37 in Des Moines back in October.   Unfortunately, some random stomach pains/headache but not the flu got in the way, clearing up a day too late for me to even think of wanting to run anywhere but back to bed.

With fresh legs and all the pressure off until I pick another marathon, it's back to the drawing board, and I'm trying to up my speed with Yasso 800's.   Once a week, I'm building up repeats of 800 meters (1/2) mile, trying to keep the same fast pace for each repeat.  The theory is that the time you run the repeat (3:35 in my case) then becomes your marathon time (3 hours 35 minutes).   Anyone found those numbers to be true?  I can't imagine actually running a 3:35 marathon. 

Road marathons don't make me drool the way a tough trail does, though, and my legs wanted a long one.   East of Phoenix, the Superstition Mountains dominate the landscape, rising about 3000 feet above the valley floor.   To add to an already challenging traverse, I started my day at the Hieroglyphic trailhead in Gold Canyon, taking the Lost Mine trail around to the start of the 11 mile Superstition traverse. 

It was a beautiful morning for a run, and I started out to the sound of desert wrens singing in the shadows of giant Saguaro cacti.   It should have been about 5 miles of rolling terrain around to the start of the climb.   However, the trail to the summit was completely unmarked, and I ran right by it while admiring the scenery.  Oops.  About a mile later, I checked my phone map and paled a little.  Nothing like an extra couple of miles added to what the guidebook says is the toughest traverse in the Phoenix area, right?

Back at the right trailhead (signed the Wave Cave, btw), I then immediately missed the next trail junction and found myself heading up the Wave Cave with people that definitely weren't doing the traverse!   Oops again, but not as far, thank goodness.   Finally I was on the right trail, and didn't expect any other junctions until I came down the mountain on the other side.   Unexpectedly, I saw a lot of people on the climb up.   Six groups or more!  Guess they knew where they were going better than I did.

up, Up, UP and away I went.   Near the summit, a short side trail took me to the actual peak.  It was rocky and steep and beautiful, and I could finally see back down to where I had started.   Later on, I was surprised to see a junction heading back down to the Hieroglyph trailhead.  Let me say that I was mightily tempted to take that shortcut!   I almost had to, as it was challenging to find the traverse trail heading north.  I was reminded of my favorite quote from the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time novels.  The hunter Lan was said to be able to "track yesterdays wind across stone by moonlight".   Yet here I was having trouble finding a well worn path across some slickrock.

I don't know why that sentence stuck with me, but I ran along sniffing out the trail using one rock cairn then the next.   The traverse of the ridge started in earnest at that point, just as I was hoping it would be all downhill from here.  Not at all.  The trail went up and over every tiny bump on the ridge.  Some not so tiny.  Every time I thought I was near the end, another rocky outcrop would appear.

My biggest fear was tripping on the odd rock and then turtling into a cactus.  I imagined myself stuck there in a huge prickly pear variety, futilely waving my arms and legs while sinking deeper into the thorns.  Thankfully I kept my feet under me at all times and limited myself to a couple pokes from Yucca encroaching onto the trail.

It was beautiful though, and I settled into a fast walk and enjoyed the cactus and rock formations.   At some point near the end of the ridge, I gave up on my goal to do an actual marathon that day by running back to the RV.  It was hot and the afternoon was passing away.  Jim saved me by agreeing to pick me up at Lost Dutchmen State Park.  All I had to do, then, was descend the Siphon Draw.   After not seeing a soul for over 6 miles, I finally saw lots of people again in the draw.  It was about 2000 feet of descent straight down a dry gully.  Very steep and tricky; I recorded my slowest mile of the day going downhill!   45 minutes to slowly pick my way down to the desert floor. 

So, so glad to see Jim drive around the bend to pick me up, my legs were toast after 19 miles.    Anyway I had just taken my last sip of water, which I'd been rationing for a while!

From the summit:  our RV is down there some where in the white blob

Summit box: Darn it, I forgot to bring up a mini bottle of Fireball to throw in the tip jar

At the top of Siphon Draw looking at people on top of the Flatiron

Looking up at the summit of Superstition Mountain

January 29, 2020

AltRed Ambassador

I've sold myself for some bright red little pills.  Lol.  In a moment of excitement, I applied to be an AltRed Ambassador.    You, the reader, though, are the big winner, because I can now share a 15% discount code if you think AltRed could help you.  

Website:   https://shop.sur.co 

Discount code:   dwestrum-altred

Before you start thinking I'm something special, though, know that I'm just one of about 300 ambassadors of this product.   I'm doing it because I researched the product and it should help me in my search for the holy grail of my favorite sport...running faster!  

Do they work?  Well, the science says they do.  The main ingredient in AltRed is Betalains, which are found in beets, but these are 17x more bioavailable than eating or drinking beets or beet juice.   To get the contents of one capsule of AltRed, you would have to eat a lot of beets and all the sugar that accompanies them.  

Betalains increase oxygen delivery, raise lactic acid threshold, and reduce muscle damage.    In one study of 5k time trials, AltRed lowered heart rate, lowered rate of perceived exertion, and increased running speed by a couple percent.  

Here's one of the studies, you can read about it yourself:  

How do you take them?   For an "A" race, you could load with 1-2 capsules a day for 6 days, then take one capsule 1-2 hours before the race and every 2 hours during a longer race.  For normal workouts, 1 capsule before a workout would be enough.  

I first used AltRed at a Spartan race, and although it's hard to isolate one component of my race preparation, I do believe they could make a difference.  I'm definitely getting on the podium fairly regularly!  

December 21, 2019

Oura Ring Data Shows Efficacy of Oral Surgery

UPDATE 5 Jan 2020:  Correlation doesn't always equal causation.   I have just realized that I started taking 30 mg (1/2 grain) of Thyroid medication the month after I got my teeth surgery.  It is quite likely that it is the Thyroid, not the surgery, which had such an effect on my HRV and sleep quality.   I'm going to test this theory by doubling my medication in the month of January to see if that bumps my HRV even more, and then go off the Thyroid completely in February to see the opposite effect.  Of course, the oral surgery was still a good thing, to get cavities, metal, and other infections out of my mouth, and perhaps both changes combined to help my Oura scores get better.


12/21/2019:  I got my Oura Ring in November 2018.   For those of you who don't know, it's a wearable device the size of a normal ring, which tracks sleep trends, temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, movement, heart rate variability, etc.    For a few hundred dollars of investment it gives an amazing amount of data.   It's also the first time I've really ever worn a ring.  Really.  I'm lucky I haven't lost it a thousand times.  

In late May 2019 I had oral surgery, a couple of cavities fixed, maybe that's no big deal.  But more of a big deal, according to my dentist, were the cavitations of my four wisdom teeth, black holes in my mouth harboring lots of infection and inflammation.   I had had them removed in the Army 15 years earlier, for no good reason aside from someone said that I should, to "avoid" problems later.  Turns out removing them for no good reason would "cause" problems later.  And cost my pocketbook as well.   My dentist opened up the old holes, cleaned out the infections, added ozone to help them stay healthy, and stitched them back up.   I had no idea if it would help me or not, but figured the ring might give me some informative trends sooner or later.  

Indeed it did.  Honestly, without this data, I might not have though the surgery was worthwhile at all.  But with it, I can tell that it has had an effect on my overall health and longevity.   The graphs below are monthly averages of the data, because daily readings vary wildly as I train, race, recover and go through daily life.  It wasn't until recently when I looked at monthly averages that I even noticed this trend was happening.  

First, Heart Rate Variability is steadily going up since my surgery.    Heart Rate Variability is a measure of the space between heartbeats.  More variability is good, it shows your heart is actively making micro adjustments as needed.   So there's an upward creep after May.  It stopped in October as I worked long days sitting in a tractor and ate lots of fast food.   In December I used an infrared sauna a couple of times, which might have bumped HRV higher than it would have gone otherwise.  

Average Heart Rate Variability

Next, my deep sleep is slowly creeping up.    Deep sleep is really important, and usually drops as you get older.  Note: Oura has sometimes changed their algorithms on sleep data, so that could have had an effect on these numbers as well, but I don't really know without comparing someone else's data to mine over the same time.

Deep Sleep

Even as my deep sleep was improving, my total sleep time was going down.   This might not seem like a good thing, but as I don't set an alarm clock, I wake up when I am done sleeping.  So the amount of sleep I need each night to feel well rested is going down.  The anomaly here is July, when I took too many B Vitamins for a short time and it affected my ability to sleep.  Oops.

Total Sleep

Finally, sleep latency is generally decreasing.   That's the time it takes me to fall asleep.  

Sleep Latency

Obviously these results are just an N=1, but for me, they show me that getting some infection out of my mouth has been worth it.   I still have a couple of root canals which are next up to deal with. 

December 20, 2019

Spartan Beast Central Cali, 14 Dec 2019

My dog broke my nose the night before the Beast.   We were playing on the floor, Spot tried to run through me instead of around me, and my nose met his head.  My nose lost.   I did one of those slow motion collapses onto the floor, after hearing my nose crunch like a bite of cereal, and Spot started barking hysterically as I curled into a ball.  Jim found me there soon after, crying.  It was embarrassing.  I could never make it as a boxer.

Somehow, I never got a nosebleed, and my nose was crooked enough to begin with that another misaligned bit of cartilage wasn't noticeable.   It's still painful now, a week or so later, but as long as I don't try to bounce a soccer ball off my head, it won't be a big deal.

On to the Spartan the next morning.   It was just down the road from Jims' mom's house in central California, so we didn't have to wake up in a strange hotel room.   Turns out it's my new favorite Spartan venue, bar none.   Right off the 101 in Los Olivos, it had plenty of parking, beautiful California Oak trees, and a nice fast runnable course.   So fast, in fact, that I took 45 minutes off my fastest time for the 13 mile Beast course.   This was my first Beast of the year, and it was nice to not have to do a second lap of the course like I had been on my Ultras.

Jim was doing his first (and perhaps last) Spartan Beast as well, and the weather cooperated.  It was cool and foggy, but dry, and he also finished much faster than either of us predicted.  He also finished 1st in his age group, as usual.  He wasn't unhappy about that either!

The next morning I took on a new challenge, the Spartan 10k trail race.   This is Spartans' first year doing plain Jane vanilla trail runs, I guess to give some spouses a race to do that doesn't involve dunk walls and barbed wire.    Speaking of dunk walls, as I waited for my race to start, I kid you not, I saw a couple of people put goggles on their heads to go through the dunk wall.   Seriously.

Anyway, the Spartan Trail 10k was a very fast, runnable course.   I did miss the dunk wall and the obstacles but it was nice to do something different.   Anyway, I needed the trail medal to fill out my collection as home. 

Cue Jim rolling his eyes.   

I didn't think I would do very well in a pure running race, but ended up 4th in my Age Group.  That finishes off our last race of 2019.   Next up, the New Year's Revolution run on, you guessed it, January 1st.   And then I've been roped into the Rock n Roll marathon on January 19th in Phoenix.   After running 4:01:36 on my first road marathon in 15 years, I have a vendetta with my legs to see if I can break 4 hours this time.  Stay tuned.

September 22, 2019

Dolomites Via Ferrata "Alleghesi" and "Tissi"

Five days left of our time in Italy with friends Adrian and Andy, but only two days of good weather.  We were going to make the most of them!   This time we picked one of the most difficult, longest Via Ferratas in the region.   To do the whole route, we would need to spend a night up in a high mountain refugio, which we had booked in advance.    After spending the evening before unpacking from that day in the mountains, we repacked for a night and two days out in the hills.   Our packs were slightly heavier, as we now needed to carry extra snacks, toothbrush, sleeping sheet (blankets and pillows are provided) warmer clothes for the cool evening, headlamp, etc.   My luxury item was a single shot of Limoncello which tasted amazing before bed, all 2 sips of it!

Our destination: The highest summit on the left
Our chosen routes were in the Civetta range of the Dolomites, near Agordo.   We drove the winding mountain roads to get over there, and suddenly could see the massif towering above us as the fog cleared.   At the car park, we were scared to see that the first of the two stage lift was down for repairs, but were able to get a bus shuttle to the top instead.   Thankfully.  In retrospect, we may not have made it to the refugio before dark if we had needed to hike up that, too!

Refugio Coldai is tucked up on the left hillside
It was a glorious day for hiking in the mountains, and we found ourselves with small hordes of people all headed up to Refugio Coldai, just an hour from the top of the lift.  For a lot of them, this was their destination for the day, but we just stopped for a coffee and apple strudel.   By 11:30 am we were headed up into the bigger mountains and the start of what would be a long, exposed, difficult route.  This would be twice as long as yesterday's route, with the added factors of more exposure, Class 2 scrambling, and the complete inability to see how far was left to the summit.

Just before the start of the climb, we met a couple who had done it the day before and stayed up at the refugio.   They reported that although the shelter only slept 18 people, they had somehow crammed 24 in there by adding beds to the floor!  The lady also looked askance at Adrian, with his shock of white hair, who turned 72 this year, and seemed amazed he was attempting this.  Perhaps that was a warning of how hard and long the route really was!

We weren't deterred, a plan is a plan after all, and started the Via Ferrata with a few pegs and ladders.   The route alternated between cabled climbs, exposed scrambling, and gullies where we could catch our breath and feel safe for a minute.    The scrambling slowly exposed my fear of heights, as the cables would usually end, requiring short walks along and up ledges without any protection.  The dizzying nose of rock we were on took a nose dive into empty space...I knew because I had just climbed up it!  I really couldn't imagine going back down this route...it's one thing to lean into a rock and climb it, but coming down can be much more dangerous. 

Not helping with my confidence was that very occasionally we would find a loose or dangling cable, which always makes the mind wonder if there would be more broken pieces up ahead.  I really didn't want to go back down and we might not have made it before dark anyway.   The thing that kept me going was the couple we had met.  If it had been irreparably broken, then they wouldn't have done it yesterday.  Right?

At what we thought might be halfway, we put our backs to the wall of a small ledge, and ate our sandwiches.   It was almost 3 in the afternoon and we couldn't rest for long. 

The crux of the route came as we got our first glimpse of the western side of the mountain, and a new view.  All day long we had watched a finger of rock across a scree slope, first tower over us, then diminish way below us.  The western side of the mountain was a sheer cliff (not that the east side wasn't, really!), but at least it was something new to look at.   The route transitioned between two rock pinnacles, with several thousand sheer feet of exposure on the both sides.  At just that saddle, which was a couple feet wide and about 10 feet long, the cables ended on both sides.   In the lead of our group, I may have hyperventilated for a second.   I felt that frozen grip of fear, and told Jim to give me a minute.  It took a couple of deep breaths before I could gather my courage and more or less crawl across.   Of course, Andy and Adrian made it look like they were just strolling along a city sidewalk!

Just when we get this lovely view to the west, the exposed traverse along this cliff about makes my heart stop!

That about did in my mental game, although just after that we met a couple of mountain guides coming down the route, perhaps from doing some rock climbing.   Not only did they not have Via Ferrata gear clipped into the wires, they just strolled along not even holding on to the cables!   I really couldn't imagine....not only did that take a lot of confidence, but also a little stupidity.   It would be really easy to slip on the loose rock and slide to your death.

By that time I was more than ready to be finished for the day, and we all felt the same.  Unfortunately, the bad weather route to the refugio (in other words, the short-cut) seemed to be uncabled along what was a very tiny ledge, and just looking at it gave me the willies.  We stuck to the cabled route, which took us all the way up to the summit of Civetta, at about 3000 meters, or 10,000 feet.   The summit was really beautiful, and definitely worth being on.  We arrived at about 5:30 pm, along with four Frenchmen, who had rock climbed the western cliff, and seemed a bit worn out from their efforts.

From the summit, we could see the high Alps of Austria and probably Switzerland, as well as Mt. Triglav in Slovenia.  It was crystal clear, calm, sunny, and warm.   I would have stayed much longer, but for the first time, Refugio Torrani was in view.   All we had was a few hundred meters of steep scree descent to get to it, thankfully without any danger of falling off a cliff this time.

Our final count for the day was 7000 feet of ascent in 9 miles!   That's about as steep as it gets.

The Refugio was a small building tucked into the cliff, much smaller than some of other ones in the area, with just 18 beds.  A single guy was running the place, pumping out rock music and beers with a smile when we arrived.    Several of the climbers showed up soon after, and we moved into the main room, which was packed with triple level bunks, two rows of dining tables with benches, a bathroom and the kitchen.   Mr. Rock Music started a fire, which we were grateful for, and after everyone found drinks, started banging out dinner in the kitchen.   Twelve of us eventually showed up, and we were all served fresh bread, pasta with marinara, and bacon and eggs.  It tasted amazing.  The four of us were tucked into our bunks soon after the meal, and with earplugs I was able to tune out the loud Frenchmen and a couple of late arrivals and get some sleep.   I even slept though a group of people banging around at 3 am to get to the summit for the sunrise.

A red sunrise warned us that the weather was changing.   We were eager to get back down off the mountain, and there were two other ways than our ascent route.  The "normal" way promised lots more cables, exposure, and steep descents.  We opted for the longer, other Via Ferrata route, which we found amenable.    The Ferrata itself was down very steep, almost vertical rock, but to my relief, it was well built and well protected, with very little free scrambling.   I quite enjoyed it!

The placemat at Refugio Coldai

Of course at the bottom was quite a bit more descent on scree, but it wasn't horrible, and at least we didn't have to go up it.  From there it was a nice traverse back around the side of the mountain, and soon we found ourselves back on yesterdays trail.   The clouds were moving in, and the wind was changing, and it was a good time to be going back down.  We stopped for a meal at Refugio Coldai (they have at least 100 beds), knowing that we just had another hour to walk down to the lift.  With rain for the rest of our time in Italy that would be the last of our adventures but at least it was a doozy:)

Via Ferrata Alleghesi (translate from Italian)

Via Ferrata Tissi

The map makes everything look much flatter than it really is!

Some exposed traversing

Civetta summit at about 3000 meters