24 August 2015

on the run ... with sara hall

A photo posted by Sara Hall (@sarahall3) on

what's it like being married to one of america's greatest distance runners?

you could ask ryan hall that question.

sara hall is in every way an elite athlete, having won a Pan Am gold medal in the 3000m steeplechase in 2011, twice been a member of both the US world cross-country championships team and world indoor track and field championships team, posted a 4th place finish at the 2015 half-marathon championships and most recently crossed the line as the second place finisher at the 2015 falmouth road race outduelling such notable runners as amy cragg, neely gracey and tara erdmann.  2015 also marked sara's first foray into the marathon distance, competing in the LA marathon along with her husband ryan.

while running is a hallmark (pun intended) of her life and career, sara is also most active in the hall steps foundation, a charitable organization she and ryan founded to help alleviate the impact of global poverty through promotion and provision of better health.

. . . . .

1.  In preparation for the 2015 LA Marathon you spent some time training with Ryan (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmq8uKhq0pc) - what were some of the most notable tips and tricks that you picked up from his marathon preparation/insights?
(a) Easy days easy, hard days hard
(b) Start fast and stay aggressive
(c) Listen to your body
(d) Appendix is good? Good!
(e) Other

SH:   'C' - this is something Ryan always encourages me to do. In this buildup the training felt much easier and I responded to the high volume much better than expected so it allowed me to be more aggressive.  Even though the race was disastrous, I don't see that being a result of my preparation but more the course and day I faced.

2.   The work that you are spearheading through the Hall Steps Foundation makes your life direction much bigger than just your running goals. How are these two facets of your life connected?

(a) Both are an expression of faith and an act of worship
(b) Elite athletes should use whatever platform is available to them to effect positive change in the world
(c) I've gotta have something to keep me busy after my running career winds down!
(d) All of the above
(e) None of the above / Other

SH:   'A' - definitely. I try to have my entire life be ministry and worship unto the Lord.  My compassion for people who live in extreme poverty comes from God's love living in me.  My passion for running is also something He created me with and I believe He delights in seeing me use these gifts He's given me.

3.   You've experienced success in a variety of events, from winning the US National Road Mile Championships, to steeplechasing to taking the 2012 American title at the US Cross Country championships. What's left on the bucket list for Sara Hall?

(a) Ironman, baby!
(b) Taking to the trails in something like the Western States 100
(c) Still have sights set on the US Olympic Marathon Trials
(d) Stepping into a coaching career
(e) Other

SH:  'C' - I'm planning to race a marathon this fall to get a feel for the event since I didn't feel like I really got a sense of it in LA.  After that, I'll decide if the marathon trials will provide a viable option to making a team.  If not, I'll focus on the track trials!

4.  There must be some rather unique dynamics in terms of your training situation - while you don't run with a team, you're married to a world-class competitor (who espouses faith-based coaching) and are being coached by Steve Magness (author of The Science of Running). How do you integrate all of these pieces together?

(a) They just all seem to converge on the same principles
(b) Steve is my guy - although he's distracted by the Nike Oregon Project exposé right now
(c) Ryan's approach inspires me
(d) I pretend to listen, but in my head I'm thinking about what recipes I want to try next
(e) None of the above / Other

SH:  'C' - it's been great to be working with Steve the last 3 years, and now that I'm starting to run marathons, it has been kind of a collaboration between him and Ryan and I, especially when I am in a season of marathon training.   Ryan is the one who creates a framework for my main marathon workouts.  Steve is the constant through the different seasons whereas Ryan takes a more active role when I'm doing marathon work.  And he's the one with me on a day to day basis to really process the training - I'm a verbal processor!  Working from afar it really is up to me to tweak things based on how my body is feeling and communicate what I feel I need.

*** for more on sara and the journeys that she is taking on her own and with ryan, visit their website http://ryanandsarahall.com/. many thanks to sara for taking time from her busy schedule to connect with all of us at The Rendezvoo Point!


06 August 2015

the life-altering perils of running

this week i had the privilege of speaking to a group of runners gathered for a symposium at our local MEC store.  the event was called "A Celebration of Runners" and it was organized by my pal and running sensei jim and the team at MEC Barrie.  while i felt completely inadequate and underqualified to be addressing such a diverse and experienced tribe of athletes (including my friend keith, a sub-3 marathoner and prolific 100-mile racer who was sitting pretty much front row centre) i shared a little bit from my own running journey in the hopes of providing some nuggets that might be encouraging or helpful to others who share this same passion/madness called running.  and in the hopes that some of this might be interesting or beneficial to anyone else, i thought that i would publish the substance of my presentation here on the rendezvoo point.

- - - - - -
i dislike running. really.

what i like is sleeping in.  i like KFC.  i like digging into a tub of ice cream and bowls of doritos after 10pm. i like not having to do the laundry every other day.  but since 2009 one of things that i've discovered about myself is that i was born to run – and more importantly, i like what my life has been like since i started running.

and yet it’s not without its perils.  i say that in all earnestness (ok, well mostly earnestness) because i think that as many of us here have discovered running is not just an activity.  it’s not something that you do, its something that has the potential to change your life.  some of the best stories about running are about people who have monumental turnarounds in their weight or health (physical and mental) as a result of taking up this sport.  yeah, it’s got that kind of impact factor.  it can and often does become so much more than just "going for a jog" or "lacing up the sneakers".  the best parts of it we can happily buy into and appreciate – and some of it can be like the force and have a dark side.

i want to share a quick list of  five things that i’ve discovered about what running has done to this human being with the hope that it might resonate with you – even if you haven’t found these to be true of your own running experience, i’m pretty confident that there are some takeaways that will benefit you in your own exploration and journey with running.

how i started into this running thing had everything to do with elvis.  i was cast in a community theatre production as an elvis impersonator, and specifically the version of elvis that appeared clad in black leather tip-to-toe in his 1968 comeback tv special.  the wardrobe person couldn't make the costume for me so she had to take my measurements and try to find the appropriate apparel items at the local thrift shops.  the leather pants that she found for me were definitely marked with the appropriate sizing tags but when i first tried them on they were practically painted on, and i pretty much had to have some fellow cast members help extricate me out of them.  but i was told that that was the best option available so it was my show outfit - and knowing that i had to not only don them performance after performance but also be able to dance around in them i determined that i had to lose some weight.

it was opportune then that my next-door neighbour should be trying to find a new home for his treadmill as he was in process of a downsizing move to a new house - i volunteered to lighten his load and put the treadmill in my basement in behind my computer workstation.  when i first started running i would throw a music video on YouTube and just try to last through the 3-4 minutes ... and as they say, that was the beginning of the end.

given that i started running to lose weight, it's been an issue that has taken up a bit too much of my attention during the past couple of years.  it's not often spoken about - at least not in circles involving the male of the species - but weight issues can be a bit of a struggle amongst focused runners (there are two great articles that i would recommend that can be found here and here).  i for one have found myself at times consumed with desire to lose weight in order to gain precious minutes in the marathon, having read that 1 lb. lost can equal 1 min. shaved off of a marathon performance.  but it's something that can be easily obsessed over - and while it may prompt healthier eating in terms of choices and plate portions, one of the things that i've come to realize and accept is that there are all sorts of different body types and that your ideal racing weight is the weight that you race and feel your best at, whatever it might be.  fuel and train smart and let the results speak for themselves - not the bathroom scale.

in the bible, specifically the old testament/hebrew scriptures, exodus 22:22 says "don't mistreat widows or orphans."  i don't know about your family situation, but my wife is a running widow and my kids running orphans.  don't get me wrong - i love what running does for me personally and the great community of people that i've been introduced to and the new friendships and bonds that i've struck up with others who take to the roads and trails alongside me.  it's just that we each have a set or primary/priority relationships to which we need to stay attentive.  one of the big reasons that i'm an early morning (i.e. pre-dawn) runner is so that i do not shirk my responsibilities at home, which may or may not include getting kids up and out of bed, helping with lunch bag prep and/or serving breakfast. 

i wish that my family shared my degree of investment in running - my wife will take to the treadmill on occasion and has been out for two short runs with me.  as for my kids, aside from participating in the girls on the run/move program at their schools they're not much for running ... so this year when they asked me what i wanted for my birthday i told them that i wanted to run a 5k MEC race with them this fall.  they've indulged me on this - now i just have to get them out the door and training so that they don't show up at the start line with the look that says "what am i supposed to do now?".

so in your efforts to go the distance with running make sure that you don't lose the relationships that matter most along the way.

as far as my running is concerned i like to have structure.  since i haven't yet discovered the pure joy of running, i'm motivated by races and PBs - and to be able to put out my best i rely on training plans.  i've used everything from your base-model plans easily found on the interweb to a customized plan crafted for me by my former running coach rick ball.  the benefits of a training plan is not only the structure that it offers but also that it will (if it is thoughtfully and purposefully designed) incorporate different workouts intended to stimulate various adaptations and systems, including but not limited to speed development, fat-metabolizing runs, hill training and recovery runs.

the dark side of training plans is that they can become cruel and unyielding taskmasters ... if you let them.

i remind myself frequently that the training plan is meant to serve the runner, and not the other way around.  it's easy to become 'enslaved' to a training plan, which is different than being committed to one.  commitment recognizes that training plans are useful for pushing you beyond your comfortable limits, and making you fitter, stronger and faster by extending your boundaries.  on the other hand enslavement happens when you or i look at the training plan and try to punch out each workout no matter what - the adverse/dangerous weather conditions, extenuating circumstances (e.g. sleepless night because of kids or special social events), accumulated stress, nagging/emerging injuries.  it's more important to be well attuned to what your body and life circumstances are trying to communicate to you than it is to be able to cross out a scheduled workout on the calendar.  

remember - the dog wags the tail.  the tail doesn't wag the dog.

i have a couple of running friends whom i would consider 'colleagues' in the sense that we started running in and around the same age, are similar in physical build and training habits and overall fitness (i.e. with respect to general activity and injuries).  however, a few of these colleagues of mine have turned in blazing fast times in distances from the 5k through the marathon - the kind that i could only wish for, and i'm left wondering at times 'what's wrong with me?' 

this characterizes a dangerous (and fruitless) pursuit that i'll affectionately term 'the barbie complex'.

you know barbie, right?  the doll from the 1950s/60s that has become iconic not only because of it's dress-up versatility and playability with girls of all ages but for the fact that if she were a real person her proportions would make it physically impossible for her to walk upright or keep her head from flopping over?

and yet she has somehow become an image of feminine perfection, and the object against which all others are compared.

the barbie complex is all about comparing yourself to those around you - which in a certain light can be helpful because we can help sharpen one another in terms of knowledge and execution.  we can and often do push one another to be better.  the thing is that there will always be someone faster than you, and almost assuredly there will be someone who is slower than you.  getting caught up in a game of comparison can be a vicious cycle because you are uniquely you whether in terms of genetics, running history, life circumstances and raw potential.  if you're going to compare yourself against anyone make it against the person that you were yesterday or last week or last month or last year.  a worthwhile goal is to be focused on becoming a better version of you than you were before ... and lay all of the other comparisons to rest.  you'll be happier and easier to get along with that way.

as a rabid introvert these ^^ are my favourite running companions.  that's why i love getting my workouts in before most people's alarm clocks ring, and having the opportunity to disappear out on some rural concessions.  since i live with five women (my wife and four daughters) there tends to be a bit of 'verbal activity' that happens around my place, so running affords me an arena where i can embrace the silence and engage the recharging process.

that doesn't mean that i'm out and out anti-social - in fact, one of the things that i've loved about becoming one of the barrie running ninjas and participating in the MEC group runs is the opportunity to generate new connections, build bonds of friendship with like-minded people and to learn from and be interwoven with intriguing life stories.  what i've discovered is that the running community is an extremely generous one - with most individuals willing to share their time, experiences, accumulated wisdom and even tangible resources with others.  in particular i've found that the MEC running groups encourage a culture of community and not competition - it's not about who can go the fastest or furthest, but about how we can nurture one another to be the best that we each can be ... and wholly enjoying the relational development along the way.  this is the kind of accountability that is attractive and that i will happily buy into ... even as a rabid introvert.


28 July 2015

race report - The North Face Endurance Challenge Series GORE-TEX® 50 Mile

where's samwise gamgee when you need him?

as much as i was looking forward to tackling this bold new challenge and finally stepping into (what i would consider) true 'ultra territory', i'm not sure that i was fully prepared for just what kind of test this would be.  the very fact that the event has The North Face as it's title sponsor, that it is part of a six-city north american circuit and that it traverses up and down collingwood's blue mountain should have provided me with plenty of advance warning as to how the race would bare its teeth.

but just for good measure let's toss in a humidex reading in excess of 32°C.

it probably goes without saying, but this was a gnarly race.  the best way that i can detail it without drowning out all of you in the minutiae is to recount (appropriately) the ups and downs of my first ever 50-miler.

UP:  pre-race organization
being as high-profile an event as it was, there was plenty of social media interaction and email information sharing leading up to the big day.  everything from the regular updates from The North Face Endurance Challenge Series (TNFECS) organizers, to the 'virtual race package' (including coupons, featured product highlights and promos for upcoming events - which i appreciated as part of its waste-reduction ethic) to my friend cait's facebook posts about the amount of poison ivy located on the section of trail that she helped to mark with ribbons helped this guy feel better about the journey he was about to undertake.  TNFECS also had multiple race kit pick-up points (in toronto and at blue mountain) which made it plenty convenient to not have to cram everything into the morning of the race.

DOWN:  course familiarity
despite living just about 60 minutes away from the mountain, i never did take advantage of any pre-race workouts that would help familiarize me with the terrain.  so all of my hill work was done to 'approximate' the effort required to ascend this section of the niagara escarpment, but nothing really came close to the exertion level and duration of climb/descent that i would encounter.  i'm glad that i did put in as much trail time as i did however, as i think that that probably helped me to remain somewhat nimble during the latter miles.

UP:  companion racers
in addition to traveling with my friend and Barrie Ninja colleague lewis (who was serving at the first of the aid stations) it was great to catch up with my friend robin in the wee hours awaiting the 5:00 am start, as well as meeting fellow Team Running Free athlete glennhaving forgotten to bring my garmin 305 to the race (!) i lacked the ability to determine the time intervals between gels and salt tabs so i was reduced to harassing the other racers for time-checks - which they were all gracious enough to provide.  one runner in particular was good to me - i connected with a guy named scott who seemed to not only be carrying on at a pace that seemed comfortable to me but also had plenty of stories to share.  scott was a seasoned ultrarunner and had completed the western states 100 twice, in addition to the canadian death race and many other well-known and lesser-known ultramarathons.  we shared over two hours of running and chatting together, and even managed to figure out that we had a friend in common from our work days (me former, him current) with nike canada.  it was great to make a new friend and pass a good chunk of time during a long day's workout with a super-nice guy.

robin and i getting ready to take this mountain down!

DOWN:  faster companion racers
i would discover over the course of conversation that scott was a 2:52 marathoner - much faster than my PB over the same distance.  add to that that he was much more conditioned for this kind of ultra (having previously completed the canadian death race as a solo runner, being a 2x western states finisher and with copious numbers of other ultramarathon belt buckles to his credit) and that he was younger by a few years and that all meant that i tackled the first half of the race too ambitiously.  i definitely wound up running a huge positive split (4:22:28 for the first 40.7km, 6:17:18 for the next 40.7km) and felt desperately more banged up on the home half, although i never did hit the black hole of despair that i did in my 56km race last year.

still smilin' at this point!

UP:  traveling light  
being deluded enough to think that i could be competitive in this event i wanted to provide myself with every advantage that i possibly could - and after having read an article that described how elite level athletes carry less with them than most recreational ultramarathoners i decided to leave my AK 2.0 race vest at home (also because it was going to be such a scorcher of a day) and travel with just the SPIbelt passed on to me by my friend/sensei jim.  since this SPIbelt contains only one pocket i managed to wrangle two other small pouches from some other pieces of gear we had lying around the house, including an old nintendo ds carrying case for which my kids had no further use.

 on the left, a small pocket for salt tabs - on the right, the old DS pouch for gels

DOWN:  relying on aid station nutrition
don't get me wrong - the aid stations throughout this race were really well stocked with everything from skittles to PB&J sandwiches to the requisite boiled potatoes and salt dip (mmm mmm good!).  the problem was that i thought that i could sufficiently stock up on the gels that they provided (clif shot) at each station and thereby limit the amount of unnecessary weight on-board.  this brand of gel was not new to me so i had no initial concerns with ingesting them ... but i discovered that after about six hours of racing they were much too thick for me to easily consume, and so for the last 10 packets of gel i had to psych myself up each time for the strong gag reflex that would erupt as i tried to down the much-needed calories.  on top of that, i forgot to re-stock on gels at one aid station where the next stop would be 8.4km (a solid hour) away meaning that i would run that stretch calorie- and electrolyte-depleted.  maybe there is something to carrying all of that gear to house your own stuff ...

UP:  post-race festival/festivities
the advantage of hosting a race that starts and finishes at blue mountain village is the guarantee that regardless of season the venue will be a hub of activity.  aside from the expected finish line tents with fruit, electrolyte drinks and water stations there was also an ice bath area (with full tubs to sit in), free massages (with a significant waiting list) and a post-run meal served up in an air-conditioned lodge.  on a sweltering summer's day there were throngs of tourists wandering through the village, many of them kind enough to offer words of congratulation as they noticed the wording on the medal's ribbon - this level of bystander traffic gave an otherwise demure ultramarathon the feel of a large-scale, high-profile road race.

DOWN:  post-race physiology
i knew that i would be tired, but i had no idea that i would suffer from the kind of gut-rot that would ensue after crossing the finish line.  i found myself in that place where i could hardly bear the sight or smell of food even though i knew how critical it was to initiate the recovery process right away.  i wasn't experiencing nausea but felt on the edge of vomiting with the faint hope that doing so might rid me of the disgusting feeling i had in the pit of my stomach.  my friend lewis did his level best to help me to the food pavilion in order to get my finisher's meal - even to the extent of putting my plate together for me - but i could barely down two bites of my burger and maybe a forkful or two of salad.  even the water was a bit tough to swallow - and it might have been even more necessary given that i lost over 9 lbs. from pre-race weigh-in to post-race.  my legs, albeit fatigued, was not the part of my body that seemed to be rebellion.  it took a good six hours before i actually got around to eating anything substantial, and even the next day i felt the lingering effects of clif shots coating my stomach with what seemed to be a semi-toxic layer of slime. 

UP:  mental toughness
with our official race starter dean karnazes providing fair warning at 5:00am that at some point we were each going to encounter pain out there on the course, i prepared myself to enter the hurt locker at least once if not several times before i would be done.  that being said, i didn't feel as if i ever really danced along the edge of disaster and at no point did i ever seriously consider a DNF (although approximately 20% of all of the 50-mile racers who started pulled out before finishing).  i'll be honest, there were two or three points at which i thought that i would have a much better rest of the day if i just sat down at the next aid station and didn't get up, but what kept running through my head was jim's mantra of "take another step" - which is just what i determined to do each time. 

DOWN:  physical toll
without a doubt the toughest parts of the course were the downhills - not that i didn't attack them with anton krupicka-like abandon, but there were so many (amounting to 6300+ feet of elevation change).  the uphills were no bargain even if you power-hiked them, and the worst hills were actually those sections that followed the road ... stretching on for nearly a kilometre of steep incline.

however the toughest section had to the closing kilometre of each loop which was a little over 1000m of descent following a cut-into-the-trail wooden staircase which demanded precision footing.  this was made all the worse when a summer shower during the 9th hour introduced a mud dressing to the stairs - exactly what you want when your legs have already begun to feel like jell-o.

- - - - -

it was strangely anti-climactic to finally cross the line after 10:39:46 ... i thought that i might feel a huge sense of relief, or an emotional wave of joy having tackled the longest distance and time on my feet in a single session of activity.  honestly, when the medal was put around my neck i simply focused on keeping my legs moving in order to pre-empt muscle spasming (and to head for the shade/cool).  more than a week later now and i'm still not sure that i've digested it all ... whether or not completing a 50-mile race was really not that big a deal (despite some of the comments shared with me), or i struggle with perpetual dissatisfaction (e.g. i could have run a smarter race, finished with a faster time) or have moved on to the next dot on the horizon already (e.g. october's detroit marathon, what could i run to qualify for the WS100?).  honestly, i was more excited for the people who i knew who were also competing over the weekend in various race distances than i was for myself ... the medal went almost immediately into the top drawer of my dresser (with all of the other accumulated race hardware) and my bib tucked into the envelope housing all of my other race bibs.


it's not that i'm not pleased with my accomplishment - hey, it was a PB for me in the 50 miler. :)  but i think that i've discovered what separates trail/ultra races from your more conventional road/marathon-and-under races ... it really is more about the journey than the destination.  and for nearly 11 hours i had a really enjoyable trek across some of the most gorgeous scenery in ontario.

that's a win in my books!

race gear for The North Face Endurance Challenge Series GORE-TEX 50 Mile:


14 July 2015

when life boils you some hot lemon tea

ah, there's nothing quite like watching the weather forecasts during race week.

some might say that a 50-mile race is a scorcher on distance alone.  no need to add temps that will be pushing the high 80s (°F).

in my previous post i shared a time-based goal that i'd established for myself at The North Face Endurance Challenge Series GORE-TEX® 50-miler.  i'd even positioned it as my 'B' goal, so as to provide myself a bit of cushion on either side should i exceed it or not quite reach it ... and i left open the caveat that the achievement of any of these goals could and would very well be dependent upon the hand that mother nature decides to deal to us ultra-wannabes.  and so it seems that heat will most definitely be a factor.

with the heat (and especially the humidity) we will all have to be extra-attentive to hydration issues.  given that my last attempt at an ultra distance in july saw my blood pressure bottom out i will also be paying close attention to electrolyte/sodium levels - and thus for the first time ever i will be packing  salt tablets as part of my race gear (with a plan to start taking them after about the first 3.5hrs).
i've also been doing some casual 'research' into planning for hot race days and the effect that those conditions can have on your body and race strategy - and one of the best resources that i've come up with is a video from the indomitable sage canaday which is definitely worth 8 minutes of your time if you are also going to be tackling blue mountain this weekend:

control what you can control and roll with the rest of it, that's what i say.  getting amped to hit that starting line at 5am on saturday and #GOlikeneverbefore!

07 July 2015

ain't no mountain high enough ...

it's almost time to get crazy.

with less than two weeks to go until The North Face Endurance Challenge Series GORE-TEX® 50 Mile trail race i'm into full-on fat-loading and taper mode.  so far for 2015 i've logged over 2800km in workouts, a good proportion of that i would consider as build-up for this ultramarathon.  i've gotten in my interval work, long runs, hill sprints (up and down), and time trials.  aside from a few short-lived knee issues i've managed to stay injury-free and post several encouraging race times that lead me to believe that i'm in good shape to be able to complete this event upright.

which means that it's now also time to start thinking about goal-setting.

i've said from the outset that since this is an entirely new distance test for me that my #1 objective in this race is simply to survive it.  however, to be fair that goal was originally considered against the context of my experience running 56km in the 2014 limberlost challenge where i felt like i was trudging through the valley of the shadow of death.  now, having finished my 50k at sulphur springs in a much more encouraging time i feel like i want to be a bit more ambitious (without being presumptuous).

so once again with the intention of having the small circle of people who read this blog hold me accountable, here are my three goal levels:
  • 'A' goal - finish within top 10 for my age-group
  • 'B' goal - finish in between 8:30-9:00 hours
  • 'C' goal - finish and stay out of the medical staff tent.
there you have it!  for now i'm going to be eagerly watching the weather forecast to see just what kind of ambient conditions we'll be facing that day and trying to nail down just which pieces of gear i'll be using.  i know for certain that i'll be wearing the skechers GORun Ultra 2 and using my nathan quickdraw elite handheld and princeton tec remix headlamp, but it's still up in the air whether or not i'll be wearing the original SPIbelt or a bottle-less ultimate direction AK 2.0 race vest to carry nutrition.

and there are still spots available if you're interested - register online and don't forget to use the promo code D30PVON15 for a 15% discount on any race distance!