May 25, 2013

Dare to Cross

Today a routine run turned into a four legged scramble up the side of a mountain. Nothing special, until we emerged from beneath thick chaparral to the top of a ridge and stumbled upon a 70 foot cross. Three hours in got us no more than maybe 10 miles, one of my favorite kind of "runs," even though this one should be categorized as more of a hike. At one point we were forced to turn around by a "trail guide" policing the great outdoors around Blackstar Canyon. Not to worry, it turns out, as this detour led us to our disoriented excursion. What followed were bullet holes, peacocks, vultures, crags, shrub and lots of crosses.

May 20, 2013

Getting Back Up at the Bishop High Sierra 100k

Me and Race Director Marie Boyd (photo Larry Rich)
(excerpt published UltraRunning Magazine Aug 2013)
Falls on trail take many forms. One of the more common is the slow motion fall. These usually happen when you are feeling a sense of gravitas on the trail, a confidence you get from being out there for a few hours. One minute you are running along feeling like you're on top of the world. The next minute your foot strikes something other than the ground underneath you and your body begins falling like a giant sequoia. Timber! Your face, perched like a nest at the top of the tree, is now approaching the ground at an increasing rate.

Your arms begin to windmill desperately. As the nest gains momentum toward the ground your reptilian mind takes over and makes a split decision: either keep flailing your arms like an idiot fighting the law of gravity, or accept your fate and protect the nest. By the time you stop windmilling and position your arms to absorb the impact, you flashback to a time when you were the age of seven doing somersaults on the beach.

Just before slamming into the ground, your reptilian mind tells your body to tuck and roll like you used to do in when you were seven. But it is too late. You hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.  

It was 2:00 in the afternoon. I had been running for six hours. I wasn't sure which was hurting more, my body or my ego. I had fallen five times. Blood, seeping from my hands and knee a few hours earlier, had become a crusted black scab of dirt and sweat. Fortunately, trickling through my veins was a nice cocktail of endorphins and adrenalin.

As I climbed the steep fire road through the Tungston Hills, surrounded by the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada’s, my eyes took stock in the scene before me. I was deep inside a canyon looking up to the blue sky above. Low in the sky was a half moon, rising.

This year’s Bishop High Sierra 100k was the first ultra I seriously considered cutting short, if not dropping out of all together. Early in the race, around mile 20, me knee was throbbing, my calf was cramping and a quad injury I sustained a few weeks before was starting to bark at me. I kept asking myself why not just drop out now?

But ultras work in mysterious ways. As the day progressed, I noticed another runner behind me who is running strong. He was wearing a dark blue shirt and a white cap. While everyone else seemed to be slowing down, this guy was speeding up and running away from people. I pushed a little harder, attempting to stay out in front of him. Eventually, I entered an aid station and he was right behind me. As I reached for some water I noticed he didn't stop and continued on running. I gave chase and followed him through a mine field of rocks, heat and sand. I finally relented and watched him run away from me, alone and into the hills.

Frustrated, I reminded myself not to get too excited and to remember to run my race at my pace. By now I'm in total solitude and was working my way through the final section of the 62 mile course. Across the Owens Valley I saw the White Mountains, home of the 4,000 year old Bristlecone Pine Forest, which I planned to visit the next day. With about 10 miles to go, I still had another 1,000 feet of climbing, then a long six mile decent to the finish line.  

Then I rounded a bend in the trail and saw a runner laying on the ground. He was wearing a dark blue shirt and white cap. Only now he was flat on his back. When I realized he wasn't moving I assumed the worst. I quickly approached him fumbling for my salt tabs and water. I asked him questions to see if he was conscious.  He responded, telling me he needed to rest because he was really hot. I offered my water and some electrolytes. He took both. I asked him if he was OK. He assured me he was. 

I proceeded to the Sage Summit aid station which was only a half  mile up the trial. I explained the situation to the crew and suggested someone drive up the hill and offer help. But before the crew could scramble a car I looked up the hill and saw him trotting along as if nothing had happened. Wow, I'm thinking to myself, this guy is the Terminator. I moved quickly out of the aid station on onto the trail.

I hustled down the 500 foot descent and out along the trail in the valley below to the turn-around point. Here, like everyone, I grabbed an obligatory poker chip from a bag to prove I had gone the distance. The "my race my pace" philosophy was quickly succumbing to my new found urge to stay ahead of the Terminator. I took a mental note of my time at the turn-around, and I knew that for each minute that passed before I crossed the Terminator on my way back would equal a two minute lead over him. We crossed at 7 minutes and 30 seconds, a fifteen minute lead.     

As I climbed the long switch backs I had just descended I kept an eye on the Terminator. He was was getting smaller as he headed toward the turn-around and I continued to gain elevation. Other runners were making their way down the switch backs and we exchanged words of encouragement. When I reached Sage Summit aid station for the second time I had another six miles of virtually all down running to go. It was then that I finally began to relax and absorb the moment.

Thanks to the Terminator, I reached the finish line with a new found respect for pushing the envelop. I don't know what more one can do than fall to the ground during a 100 kilometer race to show resolve. The Terminator went 120%. What would I have done without him?

I offer a hearty thanks to all the volunteers who provided exceptional support to us runners throughout the entire race, and especially to Marie Boyd for her twenty years of her volunteer service as race director. Marie is stepping down this year as RD and no replacement has been identified. There is talk that this might be the last year for the Bishop High Sierra Ultra Marathons which I hope doesn't become reality. Any takers?


May 7, 2013

Burn Fat for Fuel? An Interview with Peter Defty of Vespa Power

I recently had the opportunity to talk on-line with Peter Defty, General Manager of Vespa Power Products, LLC, the manufacturer of the all natural Amino acid supplement Vespa CV - 25. Vespa supplements are made of naturally occurring ingredients that help tap the athlete's ability to burn fat for fuel and reduce the reliance carbohydrates during prolonged training and racing events. The objective of this fat burning approach is to provide athletes with steady energy levels, less bonking and intestinal issues and ultimately a competitive edge. Many elite and non-elite endurance athletes are reportedly experiencing strong training and race results by incorporating Vespa into their nutrition program.

Will: Peter, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Before we get into the specifics about Vespa, can you tell us a little about your background and experience in the area of sports nutrition?

Peter: Thank you for the opportunity Will. I have a BS in Plant Science from UC Davis so I have the university level biology which gives me the science background necessary to read and objectively assess peer reviewed journal publications, human nutrition and physiology textbooks and all kinds of other related material.

I also have been fortunate enough to surround myself with people of varied science backgrounds not necessarily tied to human nutrition and sports nutrition. I have found it critically important to seek out really sharp people and information even if their perspective  or the information given is not aligned with your own and listen, really listen and consider what they have to say.

In conjunction with all the reading I do, as an empiricist, I work with several athletes, including myself. These athletes are mostly all endurance athletes and their ages and  performance levels go from the super elite athletes who are setting course records to back of the packers who are chasing the cutoffs.  This gives me a great amount of "real world" results and information I can utilize to help others consistently get the phenomenal benefits we are seeing.

Will: Many athletes still believe carbohydrates are the holy grail of sport nutrition. However, there is another school of thought that says fat, or the metabolism of fat, is a superior energy source. This “fat for fuel” concept is foreign to many athletes. Can you explain this concept?

Peter: Yes, but before I start discussing the scientific plausibility for the "Fat as your Fuel" concept, I would like your audience to consider a basic few facts which the sports nutrition "experts" have largely ignored and so many athletes have paid the consequences of  not heeding nature.

To start with the human body has VERY limited glycogen storage capacity yet has virtually unlimited stores of fat, more than enough for even the leanest athlete to run 100 miler, complete an Ironman or ride a double century.  So why shouldn't fat make up the vast majority of our aerobic energy source for physical activity?

This is intricately interwoven with the second thing I would like the audience to consider which I will go through below. This is that for most of human existence we ate concentrated sources of carbohydrates 3-5 times a year, NOT 3-5 time a day!, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, DECADE AFTER DECADE. So when fruit was ripe or berries were ripe or we came across honey, brief periods during the year where these food sources were available, we gorged ourselves on carbohydrates and went back to where the main source of calories were from animal fats (including grubs).

So, while we are uniquely adapted to being able to consume concentrated forms of carbohydrates in their various forms this adaptation was not necessarily meant to be utilized constantly because there are "unintended consequences."

We have been led to believe carbohydrates are the answer and eating loads of carbohydrates is necessary for performance and vital health. What the nutrition "experts" missed (or have failed to tell us) are some  basics of human physiology. Let's just start with diet and the complex interplay of carbohydrate ingestion and the hormone, insulin.

When you do the math regarding fasting blood sugar in a human this works out to amount to 1 teaspoon of sugar, as glucose, in circulation, one teaspoon! This is normal and this is where your body prefers your glucose levels to be. Blood sugar is VERY tightly regulated.  So, say someone eats a whole wheat bagel. Basically they just dumped 8-10 teaspoons of glucose into their blood stream when the body likes to have 1 teaspoon. The body deals with this by secreting insulin so this toxic level of glucose can get back down to fasting levels and do so quickly.

But, just as importantly, to help promote glucose use high levels of insulin suppress fat burn via beta-oxidation in the cells and production and use of ketone bodies for brain and nervous system function. On the receptor sites of adipose (fat) tissue insulin functions to promote fat storage and strongly inhibits the release of fat. These are the immediate "unintended consequences" of concentrated carbohydrate consumption. There are many other possible "unintended consequences" that can crop up over time like intestinal issues, insulin resistance, weight gain, energy swings, heart disease, cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome etc.

The alternative is optimized fat metabolism, or OFM. By focusing on optimizing fat burning capacity (which is aerobic only) not only does the athlete tap into the virtually unlimited energy source but even the "strategic" use of carbohydrates becomes a much more powerful and sustainable part of the OFM equation.

Generally carbohydrate sources contain 3.5-4 calories / gram while fats, especially saturated fats can contain up to 9.6 calories / gram. But because the pathways to unleashing the tremendous energy stored in fat is so much more complex and not as well studied for sports nutrition, lipid metabolism has only been considered for low intensity physical activity for most athletes and, at best, moderate levels in well-trained endurance athletes.

Phil Maffetone was one of the pioneers in fat metabolism as a competitive tool with his Maffetone Method of HR training which happens to be an important part of the training component of OFM. Phil, via Mark Allen and others, demonstrated pretty clearly from a results/observational evidence perspective that fat does, indeed, play a vital role. If one follows Phil's writings you can see his shift more and more into the camp of carbohydrate restriction as another means to enhance this ability to tap into fat at higher and higher levels of physical activity.

So,  if consuming lots of carbohydrates induces a strong insulin response, then sharply restricting them obviously brings insulin levels down and increases insulin sensitivity. When this happens at the level we are doing with the VESPA/OFM program the body makes a profound metabolic shift in which it prefers to burn fat aerobically, especially saturates. So now the saturated fats, the ones we have been told are harmful, become our most potent source of base energy.

This level of carbohydrate restriction is termed "Nutritional Ketosis" and the goal is to get an athlete at or near this level for a prolonged period during their base building or off season so this fundamental shift can get set. This is the foundation for the program. Once this occurs the hormones and enzymes necessary for the various pathways of fat metabolism are up-regulated and insulin levels get down and in metabolic balance only then can the true power potential of fat be truly realized.

Unfortunately almost all the studies done in the past 60 years utilize a diet which prevents fat metabolism to be fully expressed because there are too many carbohydrate calories in the baseline diet for an athlete to get themselves into nutritional ketosis or a "fat adapted" state. This, by definition means the athlete is going to get a carbohydrate response because the athlete is much more dependent upon carbohydrates for aerobic fuel no matter how much their training has helped them to burn fat.

There are several benefits to a high rate of fat metabolism. First, it is much more efficient from a standpoint of ATP production, producing 4 times the ATP per molecule. Due to this efficiency of oxidation the RQ is lower. When you make a shift toward higher fat oxidation then you have less oxidative stress and less lactate load. In real world terms this results in less muscle soreness and the much faster recovery VESPA/OFM athletes see.

More interesting is that VESPA appears to keep athletes in high levels of beta-oxidation / ketosis even when they take in carbohydrates, so the carbohydrates work even better because they are being used on top of the this huge aerobic fat burning base for threshold aerobic and anaerobic effort levels.

Will: Vespa is not a  fuel, an electrolyte replacement or an energy drink. What exactly is Vespa and how does it work?

Peter: While every ingredient is important the key fat burning ingredients are the Wasp Extract and Royal Jelly which are Peptides from the Asian giant wasp and European honey bee. You can think of VESPA as a fat-burning catalyst which triggers a significantly higher rate of beta-oxidation in the muscle and ketosis in the liver.

Will: What is Vespa made from? How does it differ from other branch chain amino acid supplements that can be purchased over the counter at your local pharmacy?

Peter: VESPA is a synergistic blend of naturally-occurring, minimally processed ingredients. VESPA is not just another Amino Acid supplement composed of a mixture of synthesized amino acids in their various forms. Naturally-occurring peptides and proteins are very different than a product composed of free branch-chain amino acids that are formulated to mimic the composition of the naturally-occurring substance. It would be like hydrolyzing meat and getting the amino acid profile of the proteins and then trying to make meat synthetically. It can't really be done. This makes the cost to produce VESPA ridiculously expensive compared to other products and there is no scalability in site.

Will: Do you recommend using Vespa in training? Or just in races? Please explain.

Peter: If the athlete is really serious about their performance and health then using VESPA in training is vital. Because of the lower oxidative stress and lactate load etc. the recovery is phenomenal which means the athlete can withstand a higher training load whether duration or intensity and be able to recover and adapt quicker and at a higher level.

A couple of caveats to make this work well: Always do a long slow warm-up to prime the muscles with oxygen so you can burn fat at a high rate. This takes patience and time but pays huge dividends. This includes and is especially important for fat adapted athletes before doing a workout that is high on intensity rather than cardio.

Use VESPA as directed for all training except for easy shorter recovery workouts.  The exception would be if you were doing a recovery run during the morning or day and you had to work after. Then I recommend you use it so you are not dragging yourself through the day and having to resort to caffeine, sugar etc. to get through.

Stretch out both your VESPA use to 3-4 hours along with trying to minimize caloric intake to help train your body to stretch itself in terms of fat burn for your long duration training.

Hydration: When you shift toward higher fat burn you need to be more on top of proper hydration. This means loads of water and electrolytes, mainly salt, while exercising.

In terms of cost, while VESPA seems very expensive on the shelf on a per unit basis, most long term VESPA users actually comment on the value and that it really does not cost that much more than the conventional approach (some believe using VESPA/OFM saves them money!) because when using VESPA you are dramatically reducing intake of calories of other supplements like gels or shot blocks and you are not needing to take a ton of supplements and not eating nearly as much. This is separate from how much better they feel, that they no longer bonk, get sick or are sore for days after an event.

Will: What other food/nutrition, if any, should be taken when using Vespa?

Peter: VESPA/OFM makes "Strategic" use of concentrated carbohydrate calories in the diet and fueling for that synergy translates into game-changing performance. So what we find for many is to sharply restrict carbohydrates in the weeks leading up to an event, especially in the taper then, depending upon the type of event, "sneaking" some carbohydrates in with the pre-race meals. This is what we call our "Carb sneak."   It is not a carbohydrate loading per se but enough to top off glycogen levels without wrecking your insulin sensitivity and fat burning capability. The night before a race many of us eat a medium rare ribeye, NY or T-bone steak with a baked potato buried in butter, sour cream and salt. The fat from the butter and sour cream not only serves to provide loads of fat calories but, more importantly serves to sharply blunt the glycemic load of the starch in the potato. This way you do not get a sharp and rapid increase in blood sugar thus no huge insulin response.

Now when using VESPA and being OFM fat adapted athletes are advised to use concentrated forms of carbohydrates during their competitions and hard workouts which simulate race conditions. Since the athlete generally takes in significantly less calories using VESPA and being fat adapted and  we want to make this as  easy as possible we recommend the athlete use whatever calorie sources work best for them whether it is gels, shot blocks, fruit, potatoes, aid station foods, etc.

The only thing we do say is to never take in a large slug of food at a time when exerting significant physical activity. This keeps the digestive tract working despite down regulation of blood flow to the internal organs during exercise and prevents any significant spike in blood sugar. During exercise there is an insulin "muting" response so insulin sensitivity is higher and less insulin is secreted.

When hot we recommend focusing on hydration and restricting calories to simpler sugars and as a "sugar drip." This is because at high temps the body sharply down regulates blood flow to the internal organs and sharply increases blood flow from the muscles to the skin surface to sweat to cool the body.  The capacity for digestion is simply not there.

During the cool temps we advise higher intake, especially if cold and wet to maintain core body temps. The athlete is also able to process/digest more complex foods that would have higher levels of fat and protein under these conditions.

Will: Who are some of your more notable athletes that are using Vespa? How has Vespa helped them achieve success?

Peter: Naoko Takahashi put VESPA on the map in 2000 when she won the Sydney Olympic Marathon and set the world record at the time in Berlin. She then got sponsored by a Japanese company who made a synthetic version and never did do anything after. VESPA has had several athletes win Olympic gold medals and other world class events that get a lot more press than ultra-endurance. Sammy Wanjiru used VESPA. In the last 2 years of Pro Cycling VESPA can compete because the policing for banned substances has really gone up. Tour du France leader in 2011 and "King of the Mountains" Winner in 2012, Thomas Voeckler uses VESPA. These big name athletes do not say anything because it is their competitive advantage and we do not pay big money sponsorships because we cannot afford to due to the cost to make the product and keep the price point where it is.

In ultra-endurance there are several notable athletes / performances from VESPA/OFM athletes. These include last year's (2012) winner and course record setter of Western States; 2012 USATF 50 Mile Champion, 2012 Mad City 50K Champion, 2012 Ice Age 50 Mile Champion, Zach Bitter. More recently, Mike Morton did the unthinkable and ran weekend to weekend back to back 100 milers, won both and set a CR on the second. Mike started on the VESPA/OFM program in December and has noticed the difference. Jon Olsen and his performance at the World 100K (Second US Male) and winning North Coast 24 hour 13 days later coming within 7 miles of the US record at that time. Elite Women like Nikki Kimball, Devon Yanko (formerly Crosby-Helms), Caren Spore, Jennifer Benna and Jenny Capel are all on the program

But, just as important as elite level performances there are VESPA/OFM athletes who are doing equally phenomenal performances. Betty Smith, age 61, finished The Bear 100 Miler in under 30 hours. She was the first female over 60 to ever finish The Bear.  If you look at the finish times you can see that finishing The Bear under 30 hours is quite an achievement. Bill McCarty, age 65, finishing weekend back to back 100 Milers (Razorback 100 & Beyond Limits 100) this past March. Compared to Mike Morton's back to back 100's Bill took twice as long for each. Bill is set to run Keys 100 in early May and has 6 100 Milers on his schedule for 2013.

Our goal is to get people of all ages and abilities back to burning "Fat as your Fuel." Not only for optimal performance but, more importantly, for optimal health. VESPA/OFM is a fully integrated, cutting-edge program which, observationally, is getting those results. VESPA is one crucial component of the larger OFM picture.

Will: Peter, you have provided some very thoughtful responses and have given my readers an important perspective when it comes to nutrition and ultra running and endurance sports in general. Thank for sharing your insights here and for taking the time for this interview.  

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