March 29, 2009

Sycamore Canyon 50k

Today brought my first race of the season and with it a strong sign that my training regime, and strategy, is on point. The Sycamore Canyon 50k is part of the Pacific Coast Trail Run series and is a very well-run event. I’m a real fan of single track trail and this course was an awesome venue for it. Rob M and Jeff P joined me for the 2 hour drive from the OC to the run in the Canyons.

The race started with the 18k, 30k and 50k runners embarking together. We started down a fire road for about a mile until we turned up a single track for the first 1,100’ climb. I hunkered down on the winding, narrow trail as we climbed up the side of the Canyon under a cool, cloudy sky. Around me were runners from every event, the 18k to the 50k, but I couldn’t tell who was running what. I welcomed the company but not the questions entering my mind. Was I running too fast? Are all these people in the 18K?

As we topped Ray Miller trail I looked to see the Pacific Ocean beckoning us back down to La Jolla canyon, the next canyon over. We were now running down the 1,100’ foot decent that we would, eventually, have to run back up, twice. Once in La Jolla canyon, we continued up another 1,000’ climb, around Magu Peak, through a brilliant, green meadow with lush rolling hills, and then back down more single track with some technical sections. Just as we entered a difficult rocky section with some precariously steep drops, we were six running in lock step. Jokingly I said “hey guys aren’t the views great here?”. And just like that I was tumbling down the side of the mountain, caught only by sturdy bush. As I struggled to right myself, I looked up to see Tom Wilson’s hand reaching back to pull me up. The running gods had spoken. A stupid joke on a technical trail!

We pushed back up Ray Miller, crested, then descended back down the knee pounding fire trail to the start/turnaround. We then had to turn back and up again! By now, 20 miles in, fatigue was creeping up on me. I realized that counting my breath in sets of four helped me stay focused, especially on the climbs. By this point in the race, I had been running with Rob most of the way. We ebbed and flowed, over the hills and down, until the last climb. By this point I wanted this thing over so I pushed up the hill without slowing until I reached the fire trial at the top for the final decent into the finish. Call it adrenaline, endorphins, or just a childlike response, once I started this last descent I ran like all hell was about to break loose. I knew I was in the top five, and ultimately finished 4th with a time of 4:44 and an average heart rate of 156.

I recommend this race. It’s a great single track course with some demanding hills and beautiful scenery. It was a good day for me and it was also great to meet ultra goddess Sue Johnston and Coyote Two Moon RD Chris Scott at the finish, and talk a little trash about Rob with Luis Escobar.

Rock it!

March 28, 2009

Polar RS800CX Run -- Five Things to Know Before You Buy

Several weeks ago I purchased the Polar RS800CX with Stride Sensor technology. I’ve been an owner of polar heart rate monitors for nearly fifteen years so it was kind of like putting on an old sweater.

Polar is the world’s pioneer of heart rate monitor technology and they have dominated this market for decades. But their market share has ebbed in the last five years as athletes turned to GPS technology from Garmin and other companies. I’ve been using both the Polar RS800CX and a Garmin 405 in training and have learned a lot about the strengths, and weaknesses, of both. Here is what I found:

You’re Not Having a Heart Attack! Even though I’ve been using Polar monitors since 1992 I haven’t always been a happy customer. In the early days it seemed like false heart rate readings were the norm. I can’t remember how many times I’d be running along at a leisurely pace only to see my heart rate fluttering around 240. Oh my god, am I having a heart attack?! Fortunately after so many false readings my worry was eroded by buyers remorse. Thankfully those days are over. The most recent Polar monitors I’ve owned, including the RS800CX, have given me consistent and accurate heart rate readings.

Batteries Optimal - As an ultra runner, battery life is a huge issue for me. If you're training for over eight hours at a time, it will be for you too. The battery life on my Garmin 405 is less than eight hours. This is not an issue for a 5k runner, even a marathoner. But what if you train or race for eight, twelve, even sixteen hours or more? This is where GPS technology starts to falter. Its all too common for me to look down at my Garmin 405 GPS to see a blank screen from a dead battery on runs over six hours. Sure, other Garmin models (201 and 301) might last a little longer. But until technology improves, consider GPS devises a luxury with a short leash, that leash being a limited battery life.

Battery life is not a concern with the Polar RS800CX. Not only do you get accurate heart rate readings, but your distance traveled can be measured using Polar's Stride Sensor without the timing limitations inherent with GPS units. This is a water resistant foot pod that measures your speed/pace, distance and cadence. Based on my own experience, I found the Stride Sensor to be quite accurate. On a recent long run the Polar Stride Sensor was within 3/10s of a mile of my Garmin around mile 30 before the Garmin ran out of batteries. Better yet, you don’t have to charge the Stride Sensor every time you use it! For an additional cost, the Polar RS800CX comes with an optional GPS unit that can be used in lieu of the Stride Sensor. I chose not to purchase this.

Cadence, Dear Friends, Cadence - When Lance Armstrong assumed the throne in the cycling kingdom, “cadence” was knighted his silver bullet. Fast, efficient peddling at 90 RPM, it was said, launched Lance from zero to hero. So happens, 90 SPM (strides per minute) is the magic number for runners -- that is if you want to run as efficiently as the elites in the sport. Anything slower than this, regardless of pace, is not as efficient. Once I realized the RS800CX measured cadence, I measured mine right away. I was pleased to find it was between 86 and 88 SPM. I was less pleased with the concentration it took to maintain 90 strides per minute. What’s cool about the Polar RS is that it monitors your cadence real time—up hills, over trails, on the street—then gives you an average cadence for each run.

Beam me up, Scotty – one of the things I found with the RS800CX is how easy it is to transfer data from the device to my computer. Polar utilizes infrared technology to send data from the device to a pod that plugs easily into any USB port. My experience with this system, despite very little patience with software in general, has been very good. I hold the Polar up to the pod, push go, and within 30 seconds my workout information is loaded on the computer. Polar uses a proprietary software – Pro Trainer 5 – which provides extensive analysis using charts and graphs. Distance, heart rate, pace, and cadence are all tracked real time and graphed out automatically for you to see visually on your screen. Averages for all of these data points and outdoor temperature are also recorded.

Running Index, Flatlanders Only? The RS800CX contains a unique fitness measurement program called Running Index. This is designed to measure your training progress and fitness changes. This is simply a measurement of your running economy. The faster you run at a give heart rate, the better your score. This is a great method to track your condition, but it's not without its flaws. When testing myself, I've scored a 62 on certain runs ("very good"), and under 50 ("average") on other runs. What I've learned is that this system is only good for running on flat courses, because it doesn't recognize when you're climbing hills. For example, if you happen to be running up a long mountain hill, all it knows is you're running slow and at a high heart rate. Result? A low rating. You might as well be fat and out of shape. Nonetheless, you can still use the index to measure your fitness progress by comparing your score from week to week on the same course.

Do I recommend the Polar RS800CX? I'm not one to make hearty recommendations for products. What I've learned is that people have their own biases for and against products. What one man says is great another man despises. Yet, if I were to compare the Polar RS800CX to the Garmin 405 which I also own and have used extensively, I must say I prefer the Polar. The Polar doesn't have limited battery life, it provides good distance and heart rate measurement, it measures cadence, transfers data easily to my computer and, yes, it looks cooler!

Replacing the battery on the wrist watch is not without its challanges. It would appear to be an easy turn of the seal on the bottom of the device. This I did. Getting the gadget to come loose of the watch once turned is the challenge. I broke one my best steak knifes trying to pry this succer out! Polar, help!

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March 22, 2009

Nature and Running

"Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you"

Frank Lloyd Wright

Just when I was feeling beat up from traveling 6,500 miles this week, I laced my shoes up this morning under a dark, ominous sky. A mere glimpse of the thickening clouds near the top of Saddleback Mt. gave me shivers. "They're saying 70 mile an hour winds today", said Rob, as we layered up at the base of Holy Jim trail. Wow, I pondered, I don't think I've ever been in seventy mile an hour winds in my life, let alone while running on a mountain. "Maybe I'll throw that fleece top on under the windbreaker" I mumbled.

We worked our way up Trabuco canyon trail, a long, rocky, gentle grade shrouded by weeping vines, overgrown oaks, and bold pines. A thundering roar billowed from the trees. Wind? No, just frozen rain. Onward we pressed. I then turned around to see Rob reach down to pick something up from the trail. As he observed his prize I approached to see two beady eyes gazing at us. These were the eyes of a small, brownish salamander that was making his way across the trail, accompanied by dozens of his buddies. "Why are they all going up hill", Rob mused.

We carried on, turning north on Main Divide to Bear Springs, down Holy Jim, up to Holy Jim Falls, then down Trabuco road and back for a total of 22 miles. All in all, despite the cold, wet weather, this was a good day on the mountain.

March 8, 2009

Running the San Juan “Gutter” Trial

I’m not usually one to rant, but on this day I can’t help myself. Today I ran the San Juan trail that connects San Juan Hot Springs to Blue Jay campground. Apparently this is a popular route for mountain bikers, especially the sort that like to go real fast, downhill. I've been running for 20 years and I’ve never run on a trail so rutted out. It’s virtually a ruined trail for runners.

I have no beef against mountain bikers. Many of my friends are mountain bikers. Hell, I even own a bike that I ride, timidly, down the slightest grade. But here’s the deal. Single track trails only have so much surface area. When bikes descend these delicate paths, particularly those made of loose, soft terrain like the San Juan trial, erosion ultimately sets in. Long, deep trenches form. These are three to five inch wide, foot deep trenches. Turn a corner, and poof, trail turns to trench! If you don’t go head over heels, your feet slide into a bone crunching rut.

So what is the answer? I suggest the San Juan Trail be allowed a break from mountain bikers. Call it a furlough, a hiatus, a recovery! Just some time off from the whirling dervishes. After all, aren’t there hundreds of other trails to ride out there? During this time I think some serious work should be done by the US Forest Service and California Parks and Recreation to determine how to keep trials like this from getting mutilated. Maybe they should rotate the use by mountain bikers of single track trails like San Juan to every other year. Then, maybe, they would have time to heal. Then again, maybe they’ll never have the time to heal.

March 1, 2009

A Good Day on the Dirt

Today marked my first “long” run on trail this season, and it was good to have company! I was joined by the original Elvis Jeff P. and ultra veteran Sena H. We kicked off the run at 7 a.m. under a clear blue (and warming) sky. What a day! The California Wildflowers are definitely on the rise, beckoned no doubt by the radiating sun over our heads.

We ran the from the ocean up the El Moro trail to the Laguna Nix Nature Center, back out, then down to the Laguna Canyon Ranger Station, and then up to Top of the World via the ever intimidating “Stair Step” trail. This was some good climbing folks.

I ended the day at 32 miles. Jeff P, training for the Miwok 100k in May, took it out for 30 miles (right Jeff?) and Sena, training for the Pasadena Marathon put down 20. Thanks for the great run Jeff and Sena!