29 November 2013

Longing for the ski season and the mountains

Breathtaking views in Seb Montaz ski film DownSide Up

The snow is still far away here in Uppsala in Sweden even though it has been around 0°C (32°F) the past week. It is good for the volume running, but start to long for the skiing season. In particular watching Seb Montaz new film DownSide Up (T’es pas bien là ?) from the massifs around Chamonix and their finding and execution of really spectacular descents. Kilian Jornet is also part of the film, not surprising as Seb Montaz was the one behind the film A Fine Line with Kilian. For only $9 I can highly recommend DownSide Up.   

25 November 2013

A film from the first Swede to finish PTL in 2013

Tobias Lindström, the first Swede to finish PTL (La Petite Trotte à Léon), the longest of the UTMB races around the Mont Blanc massif, last September just released a film with a lot of beautiful pictures from his amazing race. A really good inspiration during the dark November days. The film is available, together with a longer race report, at his blog and also at Youtube.

Lindström's film about PTL 2013

21 November 2013

Backpack for a long mountain ultramarathon?

This time of the year is usually about long-slow distance volume training and in Sweden this has to occur mostly in the darkness and persistent cold November rains. A light in the dark is therefore that this time of the year also is much about planning for the next race season, entering lotteries and looking at vacation and travel plans. Another light is the process to complement the equipment for the next season. As I am planning to run PTL there are a number of things I need to buy for next season. One of the first things I am looking to buy is a new backpack. I have previously been using Salomon’s Advanced Skin S-Lab Hydro 12 set for all my longer ultras. I love this pack and it is a really smart bag where you can fit a lot so it worked fine for Tor des Géants, even though I had to be really disciplined when packing before and during the race. For PTL it will be too small for me, however, and I have therefore started to look for a bag with a capacity of around 20 liters. I still do want a light race bag, the Salomon Skin S-Lab Hydro 12 comes in at only 320 grams (11.3 oz) so an absolute upper limit for the pack would be 600 grams. I also preferably want a bag with easily accessible good side and outside pockets and a good hydration solution, either through an internal hydration sleeve or good outside pockets for flasks. The contents should be easily accessible also in the main compartment, preferably not only through a top opening. Ideally, I should also be able to use it for my daily running commute to and from work so it should fit a laptop. I am today commuting with an old Marmot Urban Hauler, it has good space and is weighing in at only 340 grams but not stable enough to run in uneven terrain so for longer trail runs it would cause chaffing.

I have done a fairly comprehensive search on the net and also talked to fellow runners and the list below contains most packs under 600 grams that I could envision could be used for a longer alpine ultramarathon. I have certainly missed some packs, and your tips if that is case are of course appreciated. Most bags are designed with running in mind, but only a few are really intended and tested at races. Quite ridiculously, as I am normally not at all into fashion, I am also a litte bit concerned about the appearance of some of the packs – frankly speaking some are really ugly. I have still not made up my mind what backpack to choose, not a single pack appears to fulfill all my criteria. The packs that I am considering most are Inov-8 Race Elite 24, Dynafit X4 Pro, Marmot  Kompressor Plus or Lowe Alpine Lightflite 25. These are all light under 425 grams and have some good features. Quite interestingly, some of the most used racing packs, like Raidlight’s Ultralight Olmo 20 and WAA Ultra Equipmentäs Ultrabag 20 are some of the heaviest in the list. They might have other advantages, however, and since I have not tested any of these backpacks further advice and tips from you are very much appreciated.    

List of backpacks under 600 grams

Pictures of the backpacks

15 November 2013

To Do Not Finish (DNF) or Not?

I have not yet experienced a Did Not Finish (DNF) in an ultramarathon race. On the contrary, I quite often quit races in my previous life when I was competing in shorter 10K, half-marathon and trail runs. The reason for the DNFs was always that I during the run realized that I would not reach my time goal and therefore could not motive myself to continue to suffer the requested pain to complete the race with a good time. I also saw no reason just to jog to the finish line to get a medal for completion. This is clearly different from ultramarathons were my primary goal always has been to just complete the race within the time limits. And, I have so far not even been close to not meeting the cut-off times, probably as I mostly have been running in races with generous ones. I think not meeting the cut-off times is one of the major reasons for DNFs in ultramarathons, looking at the number of participants in most 100 miles and longer races who complete the race close to the final cut-off there is not much margin for the inevitable lows that always occurs during such a long race before a DNF is occurring. I usually start my ultras to fast and even though it will make me suffer more during the latter part of the race and I probably loose time I am usually way before the cut-off times already at the beginning of the race. I have recently read some excellent blog posts about DNFs, in particular Andy Cole´s at his blog “Running Late” ,  James Adam’s at his blog “Running and Stuff – When going through hell keep blogging” , Sam Robson’s at his blog “One Foot in Front of the Other” and Kevin O'Rourke’s at his blog “Ultra Kev's thoughts on Ultra Running”  and I will in this post briefly summarize those thoughts and my own.

That I have not DNF’d an ultra yet does not mean that I have not thought about dropping out during the races – it is constantly there luring as a quick way out. To me, however, a DNF when the goal is to finish the race is really a four letter word. Finishing an ultra is to me over 90% mentally how to embrace and endure pain and discomfort in all sorts of varieties and to DNF,  if it is not physically impossible to finish due to a serious acute injury or medical emergency like a fall or similar, would be to fail completely. I think it much better, and safer, to Do Not Start (DNS) if you have any risk of getting a physical injury during the race making a DNF a necessity. Once over the starting line it really is all about getting back over the finish line. Period. I do not want to be sitting on the “death bus” back to the finish after a DNF feeling like a MTFU just because I had a bad day. The statement “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever” is truth.

On the other hand I think having a “Better Dead than DNF” mentality in absurdum is a sign of real stupidity and immaturity. To continue a race when there is a real risk for physical impairment and even death is like making a summit climb of a high mountain without thinking about the safe descent, or to put it in Ed Viestur’s words “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory”.  At Tor des Géants it was close that I did not get down but instead had stumbled into oblivion when I fell asleep running on the small single-track traversing on a steep ridge the last night of the race. In the sleep deprived state I was in I did not act rational and did not take the right decision to stay in a refugio and sleep for a couple of hours - I would still have finished on a really good time and certainly within the cut-off time limits. Earlier during TDG I had periods of excruciating pain, so severe that thoughts of DNF also entered my mind, in my right knee, my Achilles tendons and in my feet, but these episodes were transient lasting for a couple of hours before improving, with the exception of the pain from my foot blisters and no one has to my knowledge ever died from acute blisters.
The finisher fleece from TDG - it would have been sad to not receive it
Another common reason to DNF is stomach issues and I have had my share of that as well. Proper nutrition and hydration are paramount during a long race and some have even said that “A 100 mile race is an eating contest with a bit of running thrown in”.  When running a short 50 miles ultra called Black River Run 2012 I got nausea and started vomiting after only 20 miles. I refer it to intolerance to the sport drink Perpetuem from Hammer Nutrition, which I had never tried before, and now never will again. The cut-off times were extremely generous, and I could jog and walk to the finish line while I continued to vomit. I guess you are not dying from emesis either. I have felt nauseated also at other races, but always been able to run through the feeling with just a period when I ate less and stuck to water or Coke to drink. When running in rain I make sure my stomach is not getting cold from the outside, something I have discovered can make me feel bad.

There are a number of scientific demographic studies looking at the reasons why runners DNF ultramarathons and the demographic characteristics of finishers versus non-finishers. Wegelin and Hoffman looked at finishers and non-finishers of 3956 individual runners between 1986 and 2007 in Western States Endurance Run, perhaps the most classic 100-mile (161 kilometers) race (Wegelin & Hoffman. Variables associated with odds of finishing and finish time in a 161-km ultramarathon. Eur J Appl Physiol 2011; 111: 145-153). The race was also until 2008 the largest 100-mile race in the US and accounted around 20% of all 161-km ultramarathon finishes in North America. Average annual finish rates at the WSER have ranged from 51 to 80% since 1986 (Hoffman and Wegelin 2009). Factors found to be associated with an enhanced likelihood of finishing the WSER included being a first-time starter, and advancing calendar years, i.e. there were more finishers in 2007 than in 1986 (probably due to the fact that first-time runners had increased exposure to other ultramarathons before starting WSER in 2007 than in 1986), for first-timers and those who had finished at least 75% of their previous starts. Factors that were associated with a lower likelihood of finishing the WSER included advancing age above 38 years and increasing ambient temperature. Women and men under 38 years were equally likely to finish, but beyond 38 years women had a lower likelihood of finishing than men. Furthermore, advancing age between 38 and 50 years decreased the odds of finishing at a more rapid rate among women compared with men. While higher ambient temperature was associated with a reduced probability of finishing, there was no evidence that the higher temperatures affected the likelihood of finishing differently for men and women.

From Wegelin & Hoffman 2011

From Wegelin & Hoffman 2011
The finding by Wegelin and Hoffman that advancing age beyond 38 years is associated with lower probability of finishing the race has also been found in a small study of the 1989 Leadville Trail 100 by Siguaw (Finishing and racing 100 miles: a statistical analysis. Ultrarunning 1990; 9: 22–23). Wegelin and Hoffman hypothesize that these findings are due to an increasing difficulty at meeting check point cutoff times with aging, and that this issue is more important for women given that they are slower than men on the average. Other studies discussing the age-related decline in endurance performance is for instance the study by Knechtle and colleagues of the 100-km race Lauf Biel in Switzerland (Age-related changes in 100-km ultra-marathon running performance. Age 2012; 34: 1033-1045) and Rüst and colleages of 78 km Swiss Alpine Marathon (Finisher and performance trends in female and male mountain ultramarathoners by age group. Finisher and performance trends in female and male mountain ultramarathoners by age group. Int J Gen Med. 2013; 6: 707–718). In these studie the decline in race performance were found to be at a later age than in the study by Wegelin and Hoffman, and the differences between males and females were also found to be less pronounced, in particular over time. The same research group has also found similar results in the multistage Marathon des Sables, covering 240 km in the Moroccan desert, with improved performance of older “master runners” over 35 years of age in recent years (Jampen et al. Increase in finishers and improvement of performance of masters runners in the Marathon des Sables. Int J Gen Med. 2013; 6: 427-38 and Knoth et al. Participation and performance trends in multistage ultramarathons—the ‘Marathon des Sables’ 2003–2012. Extrem Physiol Med. 2012; 1: 13.). Similar findings were also found by the same research group at University of Zürich in a large analysis of 39,664 finishers of 24-hour ultramarathons, where runners aged >40 years actually achieved the fastest running speeds (Zingg et al. Master runners dominate 24-h ultramarathons
worldwide—a retrospective data analysis from 1998 to 2011. Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2013; 2: 21), and in another study analyzing age and performance of finishers in the Jungfrau mountain marathon and Lausanne flat city marathon (Zingg et al. Reduced performance difference between sexes in master mountain and city marathon running. Int J Gen Med. 2013; 6: 267–275.), where female master runners aged 35–54 years reduced sex differences in their performance in both mountain and city marathon running. There is clearly a need for more studies of this controversial issue.

In summary, I think there are clear legitimate and good reasons to DNF mountain ultramarathons, however, with proper preparations and respect for the environment and current weather conditions I think most DNFs can be turned into DNS or avoided altogether. As I am aging, and if I continue to run ultramarathons, I expect to be closer to the cut-off timelines and thus the likelihood of DNF will increase. Still, however, I am improving my race times on both short 10-k runs (where I am now under 40 minutes) and longer ultras and hope to do so for some more years. I know this is a controversial subject – what are your thoughts? Is a DNF now and then OK or should it be avoided?

13 November 2013

A new film trailer about Tor des Géants 2013

A short film trailer was just released about TDG 2013, "Tor des Géants The days of Giants" and can be found at Youtube on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dI07dLrmuFY  

Use trekking poles to save your feet?

The most visited post on my blog so far is about To use or not to use trekking poles during ultramarathon running. I am certainly a strong proponent of using trekking poles and I use them mostly during uphill climbing. A new interesting article in European Journal Sport Science 2013; 13 (5):468-74 published by Daviaux and colleagues at University of Savoy in Chambéry in France implicates that the use of trekking poles perhaps might be even more beneficial during level and downhill trail running, at least for the feet. In the study, ten runners ran on a loop track representative of a trail running field situation with uphill (+9°), level and downhill (-6°) sections at fixed speed (3.2 m.s(-1)) with or without poles. The plantar pressure decrease in the medial forefoot region during level running and medial heel region when running with poles compared to running without was statistically significantly different and over 10%. I imagine that this difference really could matter when running really long ultras like TDG and I wonder how my feet had looked like without using poles.


11 November 2013

Race plan 2014

It is over one month since I wrote here on the blog. The time now in late October and November, when the leaves have fallen and before the snow has arrived, with its cold fall rains and darkness, is certainly a challenge for the mood. I have struggled with some unforeseen challenges at work and home as well so the melancholy I have felt can probably be related to this and not post-race depression after TDG, even though that this might have contributed to some extent. I am still dreaming almost every night about TDG and the race is making its voice heard daily, it has really carved out a niche in my heart and sometimes I desperately long back – feelings apparently shared by other runners.

The training has resumed its normal routine and I average a modest 80-100 km/week with the focus on my daily commuting runs to and from work. Not particularly uplifting, in particular as the track is largely on asphalt roads and regretfully not very undulating and hilly at all. I feel very strong, however, and my legs are swift and alert even after my long runs and I feel no ankle or Achilles tendon pain as I did last pre-season period. I am probably quite slow now, however, and my aerobic capacity is probably not on top level as I have not done any speed or interval training the past month. But, I guess it is a good thing to long to the hill repeat training as well.

Strenuous downhill and uphill training is certainly going to be needed if my race plans for 2014 are fulfilled. I have signed up for the Hardrock 100 2014 lottery, and even though my chances of being drawn in the lottery are slim to say the least. There are now 1024 applicants to the 140 places and the registration for the lottery is not closing until the end of November so I guess there will be more runners signing up. Interestingly, there are three Swedes in the lottery this year, besides myself Johan Steene, a member of the Swedish national ultrarunning team and among other things a finisher of Leadville 2013, and Daniel Skog, who also finished Leadville 2013 for the qualification. No Swede has to my knowledge yet participated or completed Hardrock 100 – Camilla Ringström tried to get a starting place this year, but was unlucky in the lottery draw. Hardrock is considered one of the world’s thoughest 100 mile races, being held each July in the Southern Colorado's San Juan Mountain Range in the USA. It starts in Silverton and passes travels through the towns of Telluride, Ouray, and the ghost town of Sherman, crossing thirteen major passes in the 12,000' to 13,000' range, before returning to Silverton. The race is alternating between a clockwise and counterclockwise route and for 2014 it is the clockwise route – believed by some to be faster as there are more long runnable downhill road sections in this direction, but on the other hand some major climbs are coming later in the race.

Altitude profile of Hardrock 100
I think the major challenge with Hardrock 100 for me is not going to be the distance or the climbs, even though the race has an impressive D+ of 10361 meters leading to a D+/km of 64.4 (which can be compared with UTMB’s D+/km of 57.1 and TDG’s of 72.7), but the average and maximum altitude. The average altitude of Hardrock 100 is around 11,000 feet (3253 meters) and the highest pass, Handies Peak, at a staggering 14048 feet (4282 meters). The first rule in the Runner’s Manual for Hardrock is “No Whining” and runners with acrophobia are strongly urged not to participate. In the beginning of December I will now the outcome of the lottery and if I am lucky the race is on July 11 next year.

My major goal for 2014 is however La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) with a start in Chamonix on August 25, the longest race in the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) family. PTL is not a competitive race as it is run in teams of 2-3 persons and there is no official classification. To participate at least one team member has to be a previous finisher of either the full UTMB, or Tor des Géants (TDG). I really hope to be part of a team in PTL for 2014 and I am in discussions with another very experienced Swedish runner who is setting up a team for next year. The PTL course is different each year and next year’s course was just made official on the UTMB webpage. It is without doubt going to be the thoughest course so far with a distance of 307.1km (190 miles) and a D+ of 28,272m (92,756 ft), which gives an absolutely unprecedented D+/km of 92.1. This is higher than all other comparable ultraraces. The course is going to be extremely spectacular as it will pass several passes over 3000 meters (9,843 feet) in a new high altitude route between the valleys of Trient and Entremont down to the Aosta valley by Valgrisenche coming back to Chamonix via the high passes which dominate the Petit Saint Bernard and finally Mont Joly.  

PTL 2014 Course
The major peaks and cols during PTL 2014 will among others include some high altitude technical passes at Cabane de Trient at 3170m, Mont Rogneux at 3083m, Col de l’Ane 3033m, Col de la Sassière 2841m and Col de l’Argueray 2853m. I think PTL 2014 is going to be an absolutely epic race if the weather is favorable permitting the full course to be run. There is no lottery to PTL, but I expect the 80 team slots to be quickly filled when registration opens on December 19.

PTL 2014 official time, distance and altitude chart

If I am not successful in securing a place in a team at PTL 2014 I will most likely enter the TDG lottery again and forfeiting my coefficient of 2 for the regular UTMB 100 mile race I got when I was unlucky in the last draw. After having run, albeit in the opposite direction, a small part of the UTMB course between the Bonatti and Bertone huts in TDG, this race somehow lost the magic it previously had in my mind. TDG on the other hand is now more than ever in my thoughts and I know there are plenty to discover during a repeated race.