Monday, January 24, 2011

Effort as an Organ of Perception

Running is a simple thing. In some ways the simplicity of running--its very emptiness and absurdity as a task that literally ends where it begins--is what makes it fascinating. Running is like an empty page, a kind of tabula rasa, upon which we etch our daily mark.

It is strange to think that all the libraries of the world were once white pages, but inside each book sits a florid and turgid world, a reservoir of meaning carved out of emptiness. Just as the whiteness of the page provides a stimulus to the meaning-making power of the human mind, so too does the simplicity of running call forth a multiplicity of interpretations. Running is many things exactly because it is so simple.

I think I can expand on what I mean by this by referring to the metaphysics of John Dewey. Dewey had a name for the basic character of all experience. The word he used was interaction. He saw that our lives were essentially built out of a multiplicity of interactions. We leave our marks on the world through the exertion of our forces. The world, in return, acts upon us. The basic challenge of every living organism is to maintain a state of equilibrium in its interactions, and through these interactions to grow and develop. At the beginning of his greatest work Democracy and Education Dewey describes the living organism as one that literally makes its life through the interaction with forces:

The most notable distinction between living and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal. A stone when struck resists. If its resistance is greater than the force of the blow struck, it remains outwardly unchanged. Otherwise, it is shattered into little bits. Never does the stone attempt to react in such a way that it may maintain itself against the blow, much less so in order to render the blow a contributing factor to its own continued action. While the living thing may easily be crushed by a superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into a means of its further existence. If it cannot do so, it does not just split into smaller pieces (at least in the higher forms of life), but loses its identity as a living thing.

This is a very profound paragraph, it seems to me. It takes us to the heart of why a simple task like running can come to mean so many simple things. The reason is that meaning of the activity of running taken in isolation is indeterminate--it only gains meaning as an interaction. When we go out to run, we engage with forces that reflect back upon ourselves. Like bats sending out sound waves in order to dodge stalactites, we use our running to make out the contours of ourselves. The meanings of the run are found in these reflections.

The difference between us and bats is that the cave in which we fly is internal as much as external. When it comes to knowing ourselves, we are blind as bats. Our eyes look outward, not inward. Like bats, however, we can gain self knowledge indirectly, by reading ourselves through the interactions we make with the world. The better we are at this task, the more we can learn from the signals that bounce back. Out of the interplay of forces, if we pay attention, we can read a kind of topography of self.

Good picture, but not only do knowledge and action take place with a world outside,
but we also must learn repeat these same interactions with our selves.

Through the different intensities of training, through a variety of races, the failed workouts, the runs with friends,  the daily grind, the hundred mile weeks, the first steps out the door after a long layoff--through each of these acts we send inwards a kind of radar-signal. This signal is what we mean by the vague term "effort." We watch how this effort bounces, how deep it runs, and we react and learn about ourselves through the forces of resistance that this effort encounters. Effort is the name we give to internal vision; it is vaguer and less precise than the vision our eyes give us--perhaps it is not healthy to know ourselves as well as we know the world around us--but effort is still an organ of perception. Racing, running, and training require reading what we find  about ourselves through our efforts accurately and reacting to this information intelligently.

I began this post with the thought of a run as a kind of unblemished canvas, a spur to multiple free creations. My thoughts have drifted now to running as a type of uncovering of a pre-existing self through the organ of effort. How free are we to create the runners that we are? Which of our capacities are predetermined, which are the ones we have created? These are not easy questions. The the space of the interaction lies between these two extremes--our selves, like the world, are concrete and open, not empty or decided.

Each run thus stands before us, and we before it. We do not know what insights it will yield. It appears blank, not unlike a canvas before the artist applies his brush strokes. But we fire up the interaction, first jogging, laying down broad streaks of effort, then the rest of the run follows. We are often surprised by, often familiar with, the selves we find--or is it create?--through the play and perception of the subtle and vague palate of effort. In this way, as living organisms, we maintain ourselves by renewal.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Interview: Jamey Gifford

This interview is the second in a series of exchanges with local elite runners. These are the guys and women who train hard, take their running seriously, and work to compete--and win--on a local and national level. For all of these folks, running is a hobby. None of them make a living doing it. They continue to represent the best of amateurism, the idea that excellence in athletic endeavor is valuable for many reasons beyond financial compensation.

Jamey Gifford and I trained together every day back in the "glory days" at Baylor High School in Chattanooga, TN. We were a part of back to back state championships. Jamey is one of the greatest high school runners in state history, and he made his mark on the national level. My memories of Jamey, though, have less to do with racing and more to do with the daily hammerfests around the Baylor campus during which we each honed our competitive spirits. Coach Hale gave up on trying to hold us back and just let us go. Before we knew what a "progressive tempo run" was, we executed them day in and day out, half as a training exercise, and half just because neither of us wanted to give an inch. And those were our "easy" days! It occurs to me now that those easy days were probably easier for Jamey than for me!

At any rate, I asked Jamey to write this interview because years later I realize that I learned a great deal about how to run out there, hammering away as a teenager. Those lessons were mute, but Jamey does a great job of putting his take on running into words here, giving his thoughts on what it takes to win an individual state championship, how to break through in racing, what it's like to train with Olympians, and how his religion informs his running. Enjoy!

LLD: What are some of your "career highlights" and performances you are most proud of?

JG: Back in high school at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, I won 5 state championships (2 in cross country, 3 in track), had two Footlocker National XC top 10 finishes (8th in 1995, 10th in 1996), and ranked in the top 10 nationally in the 1600 (4:09) and 3200 (9:04). I went on to Stanford to run collegiately, where I experienced a lot of ups and downs. I rebounded from a tumultuous freshman year to run on Stanford’s NCAA XC nationals squad my sophomore and junior year with a best finish of 62nd. My junior year I ran my PRs of 3:50 & 14:35 for 1500 & 5000 meters. Then at the end of my junior year, a string of injuries derailed my college career as I never regained a fitness level close to where I was before.

After college I hung up the spikes for several years. Then just before I turned 30, I started running consistently again, which turned into actual training, and now I’m racing fairly frequently.

When I think back at my best performances, the ones that stick out may not be the best performances in absolute terms, but rather those where I competed at a higher level than I realized I was capable of:

The first would be the Footlocker National XC meet my junior year. My goal had been just to qualify (I was the 7th out of 8 qualifiers from the South regional). At nationals I was literally nervous that the whole field would run away from me. When that didn’t happen and I found myself in the middle of the pack by the mile mark, I just worked on moving my way up over the 2nd half. After a mad kick I finished 8th.

Then the first year I ran at the NCAA XC championships as a sophomore (actually a redshirt freshman), I came in as our #7 runner, and really had no high expectations. I was hanging just inside of the top 100 for the first half of the race, when I saw our number 5 runner falling back in the pack. I knew right then that we needed someone to step up. I threw all caution to the wind, and just started passing as many people as I could. With a mile to go, I was so excited that I couldn’t even tell how tired I was. I finally started to tie up in the last 100 meters of the race, but I had moved up to 62nd place, which helped Stanford finish 2nd that year. My only regret is that nobody had our splits – I’d really like to know how fast that last mile was!

More recently, I was pretty thrilled with the Humboldt Half Marathon in October 2009. I had been struggling with both longer distance races and workouts. I wanted to run a good half marathon, but just didn’t have the pieces in place. Toward the end of the summer, I increased my mileage, and then added some longer tempos to my training. On the race day, I finally had the confidence that I could run 5:20 – 5:30 splits, and had the strength to hold it all the way to a 1:11:08 finish.

LLD: You were a tremendous runner in high school. What do you think separated you from your peers back in the day?

JG: First of all I really appreciate the complement. I was lucky to start my career in a very ideal situation. My parents were always very nurturing of my running without added additional pressure to perform. I was part of our Baylor team that was really on the rise, which included great coaches and teammates. As an 8th grader and freshman, I had you (Jeff) and the Anderson brothers to chase in practice and races, as we worked toward back-to-back team state titles. Even after the older runners graduated and I took over as the top runner, I always had people willing to help push me through workouts. Beyond that I really think a lot of luck was involved – I never got injured or had any serious setbacks. I enjoyed the training, which made working hard and staying focused feel very natural.

Jamey in his accustomed position, out front.

LLD:  Do you have any advice for young runners who have the goal of becoming a state champion or get to Footlocker nationals?

JG: I think goal setting is a very important aspect of a runner’s progression. I always had a couple of sets of goals – short term & longer term. A short term goal should be something that you are capable of achieving sometime between the next race and the end of the current season. They can be time based goals, or competition based – such as beating a rival for the first time or finishing in the top 10 of a league cross country meet. After you achieve one of these short term goals, think ahead to what your next goal is.

Equally important are your longer term goals. These goals should be your reach goals – goals that will likely take a year or longer to accomplish. Entering my freshman year of high school I had already set winning the state cross country meet by my senior year as a long term goal. Since I was only our team’s number 3 or 4 runner for most the season, I was clearly a long way from achieving it. But having these long term goals to dream about while you knock off shorter term objectives can be extremely motivating. They’ll also help you avoid turning short term goals into mental barriers.

The other key aspect is training – obviously. Anybody who’s ever worn a whistle around their neck will tell you that you need to work hard. A lot of times elite runners are asked about a key workout prior to a breakthrough performance. What is lost in that question is what you did in the months and years prior to that key workout. As you progress as a runner, your body is continuously adapting to handle the intensity and volume. So for most people to reach a high level, they have to train all year round. I would take two weeks off after cross country and another two after track, but I would train 11 months a year, 6-7 days a week. At times, I had to make sacrifices, but I used to joke that running was brushing my teeth – it was just part of my day. I do want to note that this wasn’t 11 months of high intensity training – sometimes you do need recovery – but there’s no other way to teach your body to be a runner, than to be running almost every day.

LLD:  When it comes to training, you seem to thrive on high intensity running. Where do you come down on the quantity/quality debate in training?

JG: I’ve gone back and forth on this so many times over the years, and if I had the perfect answer I’d be a much better runner than I am right now. What I’ve become convinced of over the past couple of years is that variety & balance is the best approach. An “ah ha” moment for me was watching Kara Goucher run 4:33 to win the Millrose Mile in 2009 less than 3 months before finishing third at the Boston Marathon. I’m not a marathoner, but I had never heard people say that higher-end speedwork should be a key part of marathon training. Here you had Goucher running a world class mile just months before nearly pulling off the win at Boston.

In my own running I’ve always liked running fast intervals – it’s something that comes pretty naturally to me. I never liked race pace training, I prefer faster intervals, so that race pace will feel easy. As I’ve gotten a little older, I’m finding that I can’t rely on interval training like I used to. Now the long runs and quality tempo runs are more important so that I’ll have the strength toward the end of races.

My opinion is that all else being equal, runners should run as much mileage as possible. But that all else being equal part is how much volume should I run without getting injured, being frequently run down, and having the energy to handle quality workouts.

LLD: From the very beginning of your competitive career, you've been a great racer. What are some of the things you think about when you race in order to run well? What advice would you give folks to improve their racing ability?

JG: I’ve had times throughout my career where I raced very well, and frankly times when I raced very poorly relative to my fitness. I’ve often thought back and tried to remember what I was doing when I raced at my best. I’ve always been a very analytical type, but in a race, my brain can be my biggest enemy. That’s not to say I shouldn’t think about my pace, position in the race, and realistically how I’m feeling, but I think every bad race I’ve ever run, had one thing in common – excessive mid-race analysis. Racing is tough and painful, so I know the more I think about what’s going on, the more likely feelings of fear, doubt, and anxiety can hijack my performance. My best races are the ones where I can turn that internal monologue off and maintain a hyper-focus on running at that very moment of the race. Sometimes I have to tell myself – shut up and just run!

LLD: What was it like running collegiately at a top notch program like Stanford? You were able to spend some time with some of the very best runners in the country. Were there any common denominators among those folks? Have any Gabe Jennings stories?

JG: It was amazing running at Stanford during that era. It could be very tough at times individually because if I had a bad race or workout, I could see 10 teammates blow past me, but I wouldn’t trade the whole experience for anything. The cool thing about being teammates with all those guys is that there was no mystery to what it takes to be an All-American, NCAA champion, or an Olympian. I saw what it took every single day. From my freshman through senior year I was teammates with 7 distance runners who ultimately went to the Olympics – and that’s not even counting the women’s team, field events, and a coach. All of their stories were a little different, but I’d say the common denominator was their long term focus to achieving their goals. Jonathon Riley (2004 Olympian at 5000 meters) & I were roommates for two years. Jonathon never felt like he had to be a hero in any particular workout, but he trained so consistently hard. What I really remember about him, was how strongly he believed he was going to be one of the best – even if he was injured or struggling at the time. I honestly don’t think his brain was willing to compute anything else. I remember the day before a big 5000 meters on the track he told me “I’m nervous about the race – this is going to hurt really bad.” He ran right around 13:30 that day, second to Bernard Legat.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Gabe Jennings. The two of us were polar opposites, but we were good friends all through college. I think a lot of exaggerations were written about him – he did in fact have running water growing up – but he was one of a kind. He’s probably the most passionate individual I’ve ever known, and certainly the most passionate runner. When I saw him win the Olympic Trials 1500 meter race in 2000, I jumped up and down on my broken foot without realizing it. The race was that awesome. Stories? I’m sure I could think of a quite a few… I remember one year he was trying to save money – or maybe be more in touch with nature – by living off campus. His idea of living off campus got pretty creative. One morning on I was on a run and saw Gabe walking in the foothills near campus. I said “Gabe what are you doing?” “Oh I’m uh, going for a walk.” Turns out he was camping out in a poison oak patch. Oops.

LLD: Sometimes I think that it is hard for folks who have had success at the highest level of the sport, especially earlier in their careers, to continue running and competing. What keeps you out on the roads? Have your reasons for running changed through the years?

JG: When I graduated from college, I was pretty burned out and ready to call it a career. Over the following years, I would still go for occasional runs – particularly when the weather was nice, but nothing I would call training. Just before I turned 30, I randomly met a guy who ran for a club in San Francisco. I thought it would be fun to go for a workout. It happened slowly, but I enjoyed the group I was training with, and embraced the challenge of getting back in shape. After a while I decided to start jumping into races, and I was hooked again.

In high school and college, I felt like running was my life. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was a professional runner. Now there’s a lot more balance. I have my job, which I have worked hard at, and I’m married and look forward to starting a family down the road. Often now running takes a backseat to other priorities in my life – something that wouldn’t have happened before, but that's OK with me. I’ve really found the joy in running again, and made so many new friends through the running community in the San Francisco Bay Area. But don’t get me wrong, I still want to run fast!

Jamey's still gettin' it done.

LLD: Since this is a philosophy blog, there is a requisite philosophy question: I know you are a deeply religious person. What connections, if any, do you make between religion and your running?

JG: That’s a great question – thanks for asking! Growing up in the church, people would talk about their walk with Christ. For me, I liked to think about my run with Christ. Having faith should be more than just going to church and trying to be a good person, it is about growing in your relationship with God. I think every religious person goes through periods of doubt and stagnation. Faith in God means believing in something that you can’t see and that at times feels very real, but other times does not at all. True faith is an ongoing journey to be closer to God, and to be a part of His work on earth – my run with Christ.

I think a runner’s journey can be very similar. There are times when training feels great and races are going well. But every runner knows there are times when little seems to go well – you get tired, sick, injured, or just generally stuck in a rut. These times are as important as ever to find ways to press on, and not lose sight of your running goals.

The times when I’ve felt faith in God, have given my run a higher purpose, and have given me a peace when I’m out on the trails and roads pounding out the miles.

I always felt like this verse was written just for me:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” -Hebrews 12:1

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How to Run Like a Stoic

The following piece is a guest post by "Scout7," a sporadic but long time poster on the Running Ahead message boards. I asked Scout to do this piece for two reasons. First, he is not a philosopher by training, but I have always found his insights on running to be philosophical--mindful of the place of running within the larger ethical task of living life well. Second, his posts on training and running on Running Ahead have helped me think more intelligently about how to train and have influenced my own running philosophy. I believe both of these reasons will be evident in what he has written below. Enjoy!

"First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do. "  
                   -- Epictetus

Epictetus was a slave. His philosophy, not ironically, was a practice of freedom.
Jeff asked me if I would mind writing a guest post for his blog, and of course I agreed.  I mean, why not?  How hard could it be?  I write all kinds of drivel in various online forums, so this won’t be difficult at all.

Lemme tell ya, I was wrong.  I struggled for a week or so, and threw out several variants.  It didn’t help that I really had no starting point.  Unfortunately for me, I need something more concrete than “write about running.”  Who knew?

A couple weeks ago, a common topic popped up online: Recommend some good running-related books to read.  Of course the usual selections were given: Dr. Daniels’ book, Pfitzinger, Once a Runner, yadda yadda yadda.  I cannot deny that those are good books for running (mostly because I haven’t read most of them).  My recommendations were Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and Enchiridion by Epictetus.  For those who have not read either book, neither mentions running specifically.

So why the recommendations?  At first, I was doing it to be obtuse; I do take a perverse pleasure in throwing something out to see what sort of conversation gets generated without providing a full reason behind the initial statement.

But really, there was more to it, and I had to really think about what I was trying to accomplish--especially since no one even acknowledged my recommendations, the Philistines!!  After some soul-searching and contemplation, I’ve come to the conclusion that the general idea behind those books is at the core of how I approach training.

The books are based on the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.  Most people have heard the term “stoic” before and take it to mean suffering through without displaying emotion.  Unfortunately, that misses the real heart of Stoicism.  It’s not that there is no emotion; it’s that you understand the nature and purpose of things.  The goal of the ancient Stoics was to live a life free from the undue influence of externals.  This goal was accomplished by recognizing that we are responsible solely for ourselves, and when we get upset, or jealous, or anything else, we are letting others control our emotions and our actions.

(Note, I am not a professional philosopher, so this is my take on things.  Don’t agree?  Deal with it.)

What does that have to do with running and training?

Once we get past all the numbers, the break down of cycles, the daily workout schedules, etc., what is left?  There are a few core principles that I think are relevant to any runner, no matter age or ability.  First, everything you do should have purpose.  If your goal is to stay fit and healthy, then all of your training should be directed towards that goal.  Every session has a reason for being, and you need to understand, accept, and follow that purpose.  Ignoring the purpose of a workout leads to problems in training.  The idea that most people go too easy on hard days and too hard on easy days highlights nicely the idea of purpose.

Second, no one else is you, and you need to spend time examining and understanding yourself.  To me, this is one of the greatest benefits of running, particularly running alone.  You get a chance to get inside your head, to spend some quality time with yourself.  You need this time to improve both your training and the other aspects of your life.  I have worked through more issues while out on the roads than in any other single place.  By spending this quality time, you get to the heart of your motivations.  Understanding these motivations is the key to determining purpose.  Additionally, it gives you a chance to see how you respond to different things.  Do you do better with more volume, or less?  How many intervals are too many?  All of the questions you see being asked on message boards are probably better answered by oneself, not by a bunch of random people who happened to read your question that day.  The answers you receive give you a starting place, but you need to do the work and evaluate your response to it.

Marcus Aurelius was an emperor and a soldier. This was no ivory-tower theoretician, but a man whose need to think came directly out of his living responsibilities.

Third, you need patience.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was your body.  You have to give yourself time.  Having goals is a fundamental aspect of this point.  With the right goals, you can always go back to them to understand why you are running easy today or why you shouldn’t do that really great-sounding marathon next week.  Goals lend themselves to tempering your responses, and that’s what patience is.  You need to realize that you have to take time to step back, evaluate, and understand.

Finally, and this point is probably hardest to grasp, you are responsible for you.  Not your shoes, not your watch, not anything else.  Those are tools, to be used with the requisite understanding, but they do not take away your responsibility to yourself.  You cannot blame shoes when you don’t pay attention to your body.  You cannot abdicate your race performance to a watch.  None of these things assures or prevents success.  The only factor in all of this is you, the individual.  You have to take responsibility for determining your goals, for examining your motivations, for listening to your body, and for having the patience to make it all come together. 

Ultimately, the thing that makes you a better runner has nothing to do with the types of workouts, the number of miles, or the method you use to monitor effort.  The answer is much simpler than that.  You have to align your training with your goals, understand the motivation behind the goals, build your training in a fashion that matches those goals and yourself, give yourself time, and take responsibility for your training.  You need to be honest about the purpose of your training and whether you’ve been true to that purpose or not.

In the end, the real message is that we have to be true to ourselves.  Don’t get caught up in all the little things, missing the forest for the trees.  Find a purpose to your training, and use that purpose to make yourself a better runner, if not a better person.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Interview: Jamie Dial on Ultrarunning

This interview is the first in a series of exchanges with local elite runners. These are the guys and women who train hard, take their running seriously, and work to compete--and win--on a local and national level. For all of these folks, running is a hobby. None of them make a living doing it. They continue to represent the best of amateurism, the idea that excellence in athletic endeavor is valuable for many reasons beyond financial compensation.

Most of these folks are friends that I have met during my time as a runner. They have offered me untold amounts of training advice, motivated me to get out the door, whipped my butt in races, and shared many a post-run beverage. Though this sort of runner is not famous at a national level, they are often locally known and help establish and maintain local standards of racing and training.

I met Jamie Dial about two miles into my first attempt at a trail 50k, the 2003 Stumpjump 50k in Chattanooga, TN. I knew nothing about racing and running ultras; my longest race prior to that one was a 10k. Of course being young, dumb, and competitive, I went out with the leaders Jamie and Dewayne Satterfield. I found the pace excruciatingly slow. I had recently run under 16 minutes on the road in the 5k, and I was used to hammering in training at 6:30 pace. Here we were, in a race, running 8:30 miles and WALKING! the hills. After about two hours of this, I decided this was silly and made my break: hammering up a hill and away. Dewayne would catch me about two miles later. Jamie came rolling by about three miles later, maybe 20 miles into the race. I ended up wrecked, literally lying on the trail with cramping quads and hamstrings, by mile 25. Jamie--a guy I could beat by two minutes in the 5k--would end up beating me in this race by about an hour.

Since then Jamie has helped me train for a few 50ks. My best trail race ever, I shadowed him and just imitated his intelligence on the course. Jamie is not the fastest pure runner, but he is tough as nails. I hope you enjoy what he has to say about running and racing long distances.

Jamie Dial at the Black Warrior 50k, 2009
LLD: Tell me about some of your best performances and give me a quick running resume.
JD: Some of my best performances have actually come in the form of solo training runs in the backcountry. When you think about it, running by yourself almost always guarantees a win!! That being said, I do believe they are harder than races and to some extent more valuable to me. Once you strip away the aid stations, crowd support, race markers and others to pace with, it becomes more of an adventure. Some of my most memorable would be the Four Passes Loop (28m) that circumnavigates the Maroon Bells near Aspen, Co, the Tetons Loop (~37m) in Wyoming and the Appalachian Trail through Smoky Mtn. National Park (72m). In 2009 I had one of my best days ever in the form of a 50m run in East Tennessee’s Cohutta Wilderness. It had just what I wanted- runable terrain with tons of elevation gain. With the help of a few strategically placed water jugs I managed to run it in 7 hours and 45 min. Alone, the run stood out as a great sign of my fitness that year. What made it better was that it came on the heels of what was 3 weekends in a row of 30+ mile training runs, one being a 32 miler at the Ocoee in 4:32.

Best Races-
San Juan Solstice 50m (Colorado) 1st overall
Mt. Cheaha 50k (Alabama) 1st overall
Black Warrior 50k (Alabama) 1st overall
LBL 60k (Kentucky) 1st overall
Oak Mtn 50k (Alabama) 1st overall twice
StumpJump 50k (Tennessee) 2nd overall
Mountain Mist 50k (Alabama) 2nd overall
Tsali 50k (North Carolina) 3rd overall
Tahoe Rim Trail 100m (Nevada) 4th overall
Berryman 50m (Missouri) 5th overall
Mt. Mitchell Challenge (North Carolina) 5th overall

LLD: How long have you been racing trail ultras?
JD: My first race was the Mountain Mist in 1997. It was a month after my first marathon and I had no clue what I was doing. All day I played leap frog with Janice Anderson (USA 100k Team member). While she ran a smooth and controlled race, I let emotions, the terrain and my inexperience get the best of me. I would crush the down hills and then limp up the climbs. In the end, she got me. It was a great lesson in pacing.

LLD: What changes have you seen in that time?
JD: First of all and probably most noticeable would simply be the amount of races available now and how many people run them. When I started there really weren’t too many events to choose from, especially here in the Southeast. In addition, they would rarely exceed 100 runners. Now there are too many races to count and participation has increased to the point that race directors are now capping events. Long distance trail races used to be a freaky, word of mouth thing that hearty, (and maybe a little crazy) folks would do. The runners also seemed to be older (30s to 50s) with very few young people. Now it’s common to see collegiate runners drop their respective sport to indulge in the longer events. This has had a huge impact on competition, faster times and better diversity at the races.

Mt. Cheah 50k, 2008
LLD: When you race on the trails, you often beat runners who have much faster road PRs. Why do you think this is the case?
JD: Ha. Yeah, that is weird. I think it’s because I like Jazz, Funk and Bluegrass. Long distance trail runs and marathons are similar but distinctly different. Road racing seems more like constant tempo or really consistent pacing while the terrain of many long course trail runs often resemble a freaky jazz jam or bluegrass breakdown. What I mean is this- a standard marathon course might find an athlete staying within 10-30 seconds of their overall pace for the entire run. To me this seems boring and monotonous. On the other hand, the elevation gain, altitude and footing found in trail races often require the runner to adjust constantly to the demands of the terrain. I’ve been in races where my fastest mile is around 6 min pace and the slowest was around 10 min pace with an overall pace of 8ish.. Many top road runners can’t seem to make (or want to make) the adjustments necessary to cope with the inevitable pace changes. They often try to stick with a pre determined minute per mile pace versus running based on HR or perceived effort. In addition, if you combine serious hills with technical footing, it will often wreak havoc on the roadies. I really, really like running on the trails and try to include this in my training. Becoming efficient fast and efficient on technical terrain is something I strive to do. Keeping a cool head has also made a difference. I’ve noticed some of the faster guys get really frustrated trying to dodge mud, jump puddles and avoid hazards. The amount of mental and physical effort it takes to avoid these things really adds up and would be better spent on staying positive and focused on what you can control, like your nutrition and pacing.

A few years ago I realized that I naturally run the downhills faster than most, so I decided to make this work for me. I could use it to bridge gaps, escape or tweak the pace to test the waters. The way I see it is, if nature is going to give you a hand, take it. Unfortunately this has worked against me too. In my first 100m attempt at the Angeles Crest 100 in California I spent the first 50 miles chilling on the ups and crushing the downs. By the time I hit 75 miles, my quads were toast and my hamstrings were tighter than a good drum kit. It was a good DNF as I learned a lot about the distance and it would be the only time I ever passed Scott Jurek in a race. The Western States 100 champ was having a hard day and it helped put things in perspective for me in terms of living to race another day.

LLD: You've had success both at altitude out West and back home on the southeastern trail running scene. Compare the two different types of trail running. How did you prepare for races at altitude living in Nashville, Tennessee?
JD: Many of the races out west favor the roadies. Races in California are often characterized by dirt roads, jeep trails and smooth singletrack with big climbs. If you have the engine for the long up hills and your quads can handle the pounding back down, you will do well. In the Rockies I find that you have huge climbs, and technical terrain. Rocks, creek crossings, snow, and off cambered trails hamper progress and make running hard. You’d better practice walking for these races! Back home here in the southeast we have a good mix of events that runners of all types can enjoy and it’s not uncommon to experience a variety of terrain in the same race. The biggest difference I have found between the west coast and here is finding rhythm. Out west you might find yourself going uphill or downhill for miles and can settle in to a practical pace. Here it is really challenging to do so as the ups and downs are constantly changing. Flat and fast one minute and scrambling up waterfalls the next.

Mountain Mist 50k, 2009
How to train for altitude in Nashville is a question I get a lot. For starters, it’s not easy. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we have brutally hot summers. Research has shown that training in extreme heat is second best to training at elevation. It taxes your body and requires more effort just like running at altitude. It is also something that your body can get used to, making racing in extreme conditions easier. That being said, If I have a mtn race coming up, I try to run at lunch when it’s really hot out. My biggest philosophy in regards to racing is “race specific training” or trying to match the race course to the best of your ability in your training. This is no different than a MMA fighter bringing in a training partner that resembles his next fight opponent. I’ve had lots of nights with little sleep so I could drive to east TN to find suitable terrain. I can be in the Smokies in 4 hours and run trails that gain 4,000 ft in 10k. That’s just like anything out west and at 6,000 ft in elevation, it feels as if you are running in Denver. While it’s not the big boy mountains, it does prepare you much better than Percy Warner Park would. Places Like the Cohutta Wilderness/Tanasi Sytem near the Ocoee River have also been great to get in big climbs and diversity in footing.

LLD: Are you a high mileage guy? What's your basic approach to training for an ultra? Do you train differently for a 100 miler than for a 50k?
JD: I used to be a low mileage guy, only averaging 25-35 miles per week and tried to capitalize on key workouts to get by. That worked out ok, but mostly because I was getting another 6-12 hours a week in mtn biking, paddling, rock climbing and other workouts. In recent years I’ve had great success with higher mileage weeks. In 2009 most of my weeks were in the 70-80 mile range with several 100-140 mile weeks during big training pushes. I really try to not get too caught up in hitting mileage goals, rather focusing on solid training cycles that incorporate quality recovery. For example, I might consistently train for 2-3 weeks with solid miles and effort that are followed by an easy 30-40 mile recovery week.

My basic approach is to find my key race and start working backwards from race day. For 50ks in the southeast, I’ve found that the gold standard is 2x the Red, White and Blue trails at the Warner Parks. I’ve done this workout more times than I can remember and it seems to prepare me well for the terrain here in the south. Sometimes it might be a slow, steady effort and other times it might be a barn burner with some buddies.

For 50k’s I think a basic marathon schedule would be practical with a few modifications. The most obvious, is to spend more time on the trails. If you are racing on the trails, then you need to be training on the trails. Secondly, I focus more on stamina runs. Without trying to over simplify things, I think there are 3 elements you need to train on in addition to nutrition, pacing, gear, etc. These things are speed (The ability to run fast), endurance (the ability to run far) and stamina (the ability to run far, fast). Maybe I’m the only one that wasn’t getting it, but it seemed like I either had the ability to run far or run fast, but couldn’t run both at the same time. I started mixing in some Lactate Threshold runs and some slightly slower long runs. One of my favorites was to hit the Bowie Nature Park Trails. I would warm up with a 5m easy run around the perimeter trail. Then I would run 5-7 laps of the 1.1 mile Loblolly loop at Tempo pace, then head back out and do another 5m cool down.

100 mile training is different. Some folks like to race their way to the 100. For example, one year I decided that I would race every month for my long run. until my 100 in July. There were of course other long runs during this period, but these stood out. It went like this-

Jan- 50k race
Feb- 40m race
Mar- 50k race
April- 72m training run
May- 50m race
June- 3day Stage Race plus 50k
July- 100 mile race

In 2009 I did it slightly different. Starting in January I raced every 3-4 weeks doing 4 ultras in 10 weeks. During this time I was only averaging 60-70m weeks and was hanging on by a thread. Starting in late March I backed off the racing and focused on quality long runs. I did this for months and was in the best shape of my life. Key workouts included 40m runs in the smokies, 3 weekends in a row up at the Ocoee trails and a solid week in California. That week was fantastic and one day stuck out in my mind. That morning I did a 31 mile run in the High Sierra that included 4400 feet of climbing. After some lunch and a creek soak I headed back out for a 14 mile road/trail run at 7 min pace. 2 days later I would suffer through a 26 mile trail slog with a fever and chills. Weeks like this make you mentally and physically stronger (once you recover…)

Cranking it, 25 miles into a 100 miler.
LLD: How did you get into racing ultras? What keeps you motivated?
JD: It was part of a goal I set for myself in 1996. That spring I wrote down a bunch of things that I wanted to accomplish. After living in Yosemite and other climbing areas for most of the year, I came back to TN and started running. A few months later I was running my first 50k. In the beginning it was just something I wanted to finish. I loved trail running but had never done a race on them. After that I was hooked. The motivation early on was just to see how far I could take it. I did a few 50ks, then tried a 40 miler, then a 50m…. and the story goes on. Somewhere along the line I began to enjoy it more and more and my competitive juices kicked in. It became an outlet for everyday stress and allowed me to compete in something I loved doing.

Jamie at the top of the final climb of Stumpjump, having broken your humble blogger.
That John Deere hat still haunts me.
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