Monday, December 2, 2013

MAF Test - Month 1

A month ago I posted the data from my baseline Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) Test, both on a flat 5km surface and a hilly less-than-5km route. In the past month, I ran a total of 22 hours and 32 minutes at an average heart rate of around 127, I'd say. My target HR range is 121-131.

[A reminder for those who are just joining us: Here is the overview of the Maffetone Method and here is the info on the MAF test.]

Without further ado, here are the latest results:

Sports Complex (5km) at 121-131bpm:

October 31 November 30
Kilometer 1 8:19 8:10
Kilometer 2 8:45 8:49
Kilometer 3 9:26 8:44
Kilometer 4 9:23 8:55
Kilometer 5 9:34 9:00
45:26 43:38
Pace (min/mi) 14:37 14:03

Quite pleased to see my pace over 30 seconds/mile faster, with zero real effort or exertion on my part. I just hit the roads and kept my HR down, and my body did the rest. Now for the trails to see how I did there:

Bukit Padang Trails (2.83 miles) at 121-131bpm:

November 1 December 1
1:03:00 54:37
22:16 min/mi 19:17 min/mi

Okay now that is just insane. An improvement of 3 minutes/mile on hill running? I'll have to wait until next month's MAF test to know if this is a fluke or not. It's possible that at the time of my first MAF test my body was still a bit mountain weary after TMBT and the Climbathon, and that after a month of low-exertion (and mostly flat) MAF training, my legs were much fresher.

Regardless, to this point I'm quite pleased with Maffetone training and look forward to another month of aerobic improvements!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Maffetone: Baseline

Now that my racing season is over (makes me sound like such a pro, haha!), and with nothing on the calendar for me until April 2014, I can take the time to do whatever I want (or don't want) to do in my training. Normally that is a recipe for disaster, since if I don't have a race, I don't run. Sad but true. I need a goal.

So hey, good timing, here comes a goal: improve my aerobic fitness so I can run faster with less effort. I already mentioned this briefly, that I'll be following the Maffetone Method to work towards my goal. And it starts now. I probably won't be posting much here as there won't be much to say, but I'll check in each month with the results of my latest Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) test. The idea is that you run a set distance once a month, and see how long it takes you to do it. If you're doing it right, you should see your times go down each month, while still working at the same heart rate as before. So for my MAF test I'll be doing a 5km (5 laps) course at the local sports complex, and then a day or two later I'll do a slightly-less-than-5km hilly trail course. I'll post both results here monthly. So without further ado, here is my baseline MAF test:

Sports Complex (5km) at 121-131bpm:

October 31
Kilometer 1 8:19
Kilometer 2 8:45
Kilometer 3 9:26
Kilometer 4 9:23
Kilometer 5 9:34


My normal pace for this 5km (regular jogging) is probably a 9:30- to 10-minute mile. At MAF I was expecting to run about a 13-minute pace, maybe a bit slower. As it turned out I ran a 14:37 pace! Wow. But on the positive side, it can only get better from here. Way better I hope. The hardest part was probably passing walkers as it felt like it took me about a minute to actually complete the maneuver! Okay, so let's see how MAF looks on the trails.

Bukit Padang Trails (2.83 miles) at 121-131bpm:

November 1

This route normally takes me around 40-45 minutes, walking up most of the hills and running everything else. So this was about as slow as I would have guessed. But it was much more enjoyable than the sports complex. I could see myself doing this more often. I also felt a bit more in tune with my heart rate and could (usually) alter my pace before my HR monitor started beeping that I was too low or high.

So now I will spend my days running for 30 minutes, 60 minutes, maybe an occasional long run, entirely at or below my training heart rate of 131bpm. I won't be keeping track of my mileage, only time. If I tracked my mileage, I would then know my day-to-day pace and might get a bit obsessive over any minor improvements or setbacks in my training. Once a month is good enough for keeping track. Blogging will therefore also be light, so arm your feed reader if you want to follow my progress!

At the same time, I have a second goal. I'll be working on increasing my barefoot running mileage, following the 12-week training plan in the excellent book Barefoot Running by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee. It'll involve running 2 or 3 times a week barefoot, increasing my mileage (and types of terrain) slowly over the course of the 12 weeks. I'm looking forward to improving my foot strength which will help ward off the typical running injuries that are caused by wearing shoes. You know the ones. More on my barefoot training later.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Race Report: Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon

When I signed up for the Climbathon I thought the same thing as Mariela, who said, "it couldn't be any more difficult than TMBT." I figured since I would have completed a 50km trail run just 5 weeks before the Climbathon, I wouldn't need a whole lot more training in order to be fully fit and ready for this short (23.1km) little jaunt up and down Mt. Kinabalu. Boy, was I wrong.

I already blogged about my trial run on the race course just two weeks ago. I can't express just how helpful it was to have had an advance look at the route. Remember I mentioned how demoralizing it was to find that the uphill "blip" on the descent was actually a brutal 30-minute (or so) nasty ascent? Well on race day it really did feel more like a blip because I was ready for it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning...

I didn't notice when this picture was taken but I'm sure I was looking at Mt. Kinabalu (photo by Paula Blake)

The day started bright and sunny, with occasional clouds racing across the mountain. I feared a bright sunny day since I run much better in cooler weather. I was hoping for solid cloud cover, or rain, or wind. One of those would make for a good day. As it turned out, the race started out sunny but by the time we reached Timpohon gate, the clouds were in control and remained that way the rest of the day. In fact, through most of the race we were enveloped in a very light fog. Beautiful.

I had recorded my splits from the dress rehearsal and finished in 5 hours and 48 minutes on that day, so I knew that if I stuck to those splits this time, I'd meet the 6-hour cutoff time imposed upon veteran men (age 40 and up). The open class (younger than 40) had a 5-hour cutoff time for the men.

The journey from the start to Timpohon Gate, 4.5km, took place entirely on the road, and featured an ascent of about 600m, pretty steep at times! Predictably, most of the crowd rushed off down the road. I stuck to my pace, and hoped to get to Timpohon Gate before the 50 minutes it took me the first time. And I did it, arriving at Timpohon at 43 minutes.

The next leg was Timpohon Gate to Layang-Layang hut. Last time, it took me 1 hour and 21 minutes. I really couldn't see myself going that much faster than that, and this time I knew I would have to deal with race traffic - all those slow people who hadn't done any proper hill training. Sure enough, I found myself saying, "Excuse me" constantly as I swept past tens and tens of people. Thanks TMBT for the legs to tackle that ascent with no problems! I reached Layang-Layang hut in 1 hour and 17 minutes, almost exactly at the 2-hour mark. The crowd which had gathered at the intersections of the Timpohon and Mesilau trails was huge and energetic; I loved it!

Next came the descent: Mesilau Trail to the Mesilau Nature Resort. Last time it took me 2 hours and 11 minutes. And as I descended, I didn't feel like I was going particularly fast or slow as compared with the last time. But I was feeling great, and kept a good pace down. When I got to the river and the bridge crossing (where the "blip" began), I took off my shoes to clear the mud, and to rest a few more minutes before starting to ascend. And up I went. No problems. No pain. Tired, sure, but happy and feeling like I could go forever. It's just a hill. And before I knew it, I was over the blip and back down the hill. When I hit Mesilau Nature Resort it had only taken me 1 hour and 43 minutes. I was now a full 40 minutes ahead of my previous attempt!

After doing the math, I realized that if I pushed myself in this last leg, I would have a chance at a sub-5-hour finish. The last leg is all road, from Mesilau Nature Resort to Kundasang town. Most of it is a good semi-steep downhill, but there are a few uphills thrown in to keep you humble. So I picked up the pace and kept throwing one foot down in front of the other.

Flying down the road from Mesilau Nature Resort (photo by Erwan Kassim)

With every kilometer I adjusted my calculations but it always looked like it was going to be close, so I couldn't relax. And with 1.5km to go, while still being pretty tight time-wise, there came the nasty steep hill leading up to Kundasang. I power-hiked with all my might but saw myself slipping behind. At last I was only 200-300 meters away and could see the town, and I started to run. The official finish line photographer was pointing his camera the opposite direction, but never mind, I made it!

Just trying to get to the finish (photo by AShe Ek)
Hey cameraman, over here!!! Look, I'm sprinting, really, I am! (photo from Art Sebangkit)

Joyful exhaustion (photo from Art Sebangkit)

So I crossed the line with an official chip time of 4:58:39, which put me at 59th among veteran men, and 194th out of 374 overall. And I did it, I beat the under-40 cutoff time of 5 hours! The total elevation gain for the 23.1km course was 5700' (and 6700' down). Average slope was 15.9% up (15.1% down), and the max slope was  46% up (49.6% down). Quite the punishing course. Here are my times from my first two attempts, as a point of reference for those looking to meet or beat a 6-hour or a 5-hour cutoff time in the future:

October 7 (Test Run) October 20 (Climbathon)
Start to Timpohon 0:50 0:43
Timpohon to Layang-Layang Hut 1:21 1:17
Layang-Layang to Mesilau Nature Resort 2:11 1:43
Mesilau to Finish 1:36 1:16
Total 5:48 4:59

Personally, I loved the race. I went up and down the mountain trails with a perpetual half- to full-smile on my face, and even on the steep uphills I said (out loud, if I was alone), "This is easy!" Sure, I am a mere mid-pack runner, but I truly felt I could go all day. This bodes well for me as I seek to build my endurance and aerobic base (while increasing my speed, I hope) in the upcoming off-season. More on that next month.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon - Dress Rehearsal

Yesterday I went up to Mt. Kinabalu National Park along with a half dozen others to have a look at the race course for the 27th Mt. Kinabalu International Climbathon. Registered participants can get a training pass which will enable them free access to the park's trails; you only need to pay RM7 for insurance.

We assembled at the restaurant located across the street from the Park HQ. It was bitterly cold, windy and rainy and we struggled to stay warm in the kedai while enjoying a hot cup of coffee. Finally it was time to head out. The wet windy cold was so pervasive that I gave in and actually purchased a cheap poncho from the souvenir shop. This was literally the coldest I have ever felt in my 10+ years in Malaysia.

But of course, within 2 kilometers of setting off, the jacket came off and remained off for the rest of my run. The first 4km of the course is on the road, as you head from the Kinabalu Park HQ to Timpohon Gate. It's mostly uphill, with some runnable sections. Once you hit the trails, it's another 4km sharply up to just past the Layang-Layang hut. From there you start "down" on the Mesilau trail. I say "down" because on the elevation profile it appears that outside of a little 'blip', the course is pretty much downhill all the way to Kundasang. We were all quite surprised to find a good bit of uphill, and that 'blip' was a massive uphill that demoralized many of us.

...and these weren't even the worst ones.

Taking time for photos since on race day I may be busy trying to beat the cutoff time!
But the shocker came when we hit the Mesilau Nature Resort, which is where the trail ends (or begins, depending on your orientation). From there you still have about 10km to go on paved roads. And not just roads. Steep up and down roads. I suppose it is mostly down, as my fuzzy memory recalls lots of running. But by that point I was so tired and just wanted to be done, the last kilometers took forever.

At this time, the bitterly cold wind and rain returned with a vengeance. At times I ran with my head down simply to keep my hat from blowing away. I can't even think what the passing drivers thought about this crazy white guy running in such weather. One of my training partners could not proceed any further because of the wind and cold, and hitchhiked the last few kilometers in to Kundasang. Once I finished, I parked myself at a kedai, and within 30 minutes had finished a plate of hot fried noodles and three cups of hot coffee. It took me several hours to fully warm up.

All in all, it was another epic trail run. We said to ourselves afterwards, "Well, it can't get any worse!" And let's hope that's true. But the worst time was before and after we were on the trails. The time on the trails was actually perfect (to me) from the standpoint of the weather. Not very rainy, not very windy, not very cold. And there were also moments of spectacular beauty. At one point I just had to stop dead in my tracks, entranced by my surroundings. A photo will never do a magic moment justice, but it will have to do:

I do it for moments like these.

So now I know what I'm up against! I finished the course in 5 hours and 48 minutes, just 12 minutes under the 6-hour cutoff for veterans (over 40). I plan to write my splits down on my arm so I will know how I'm doing along the way. I should be okay but I expect the crowds may very well slow me down so I need to be ready for that.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Building the Base w/ Maffetone

I knew going into TMBT 2013 that I was undertrained. My weekly mileage was never very high, I almost never (maybe never) ran more than three times in a week, and my longest long run (which I did 3 times) was 24km. Having read the standard ultrarunning books and blogs, I know that having a solid running base is essential to doing well in ultras.

While I was already considering how to build my endurance base in preparation for SAC 2014 and possibly TMBT 2014, I started to more seriously consider the Maffetone Method. For those unfamiliar with this, the premise is that you conduct the great majority of your training at a lower intensity, keeping your heart rate below a certain level (determined through a simple formula plus a modification or two based on your lifestyle and fitness). By training at or below this set level, your body remains in an aerobic state. And by developing your aerobic capacity, the theory is that over time, you will be able to go faster and faster at that same heart rate.

So after running the numbers, it looks like my maximum heart rate, which I should not exceed, is 131 beats per minute. Yikes, that's low. I think when I go on a simple jog, my pulse gets near 150 bpm. So at least in the beginning, I will probably be walking. But I am looking forward to trying this new approach to see what happens!

My baseline test, which I will conduct monthly, will consist of the following:
  • 5km at a nearby track. Flat and easy, 5 laps.
  • 2.83mi on the trails near my place. It's a set course I often run, and has 636 feet of ascent (and descent).
I'll measure the time it takes me to do those two routes (not on the same day) at 131 bpm, and record my progress.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Top Ten Things I Love About Trail and Ultra Running

So the folks at TrailAndUltraRunning.Com have issued an invitation: post about what you love most about trail and/or ultra running, and you might win an Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest. Now I would have no problems writing that kind of post for free. So I will. That's how much I love trail running. But if I ended up winning an Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek Ultra Vest, I would probably enjoy trail running even more! So here goes, in the form of a Top Ten List:

Top Ten Things I Love About Trail and Ultra Running
  1. I love finding a new path on an old trail and seeing where it goes.
  2. I love attempting a familar route in an unconventional way.
  3. I love entering thick jungle and being embraced by silence.
  4. I love running through thick grass early in the morning and being refreshed by the dew.
  5. I love bombing down trails that are slightly beyond my ability. Half out of control is half the fun.
  6. I love the comradery that exists in the ultra community, whether online or in person.
  7. I love water crossings!
  8. I love how an ultramarathon can give you access to local village trails typically unseen by the general public.
  9. I love how extreme adversity in an ultramarathon (such as the one I just ran) makes the local ultra community stronger and closer.
  10. I love knowing that yes, I can.

Race Report: TMBT 2013 Ultra Trail Marathon

TMBT 2013: "The Most Beautiful Brutal Thing"
September 14, 2013

I signed up for the 50km version of this race nearly a year ago (very soon after the last TMBT was run). Although this was TMBT's third year, I had never heard of it before; but within a week of hearing about it, I was all in. I had run 4 road marathons before and was eager for a new kind of challenge.

The night before the race, I stayed at the Taginambur Homestay, which is only about 15-20 minutes away from the start line. Most of the competitors were staying in Kota Kinabalu and riding to the start line in buses on the morning of the race. As for me, I did not want to have to get up at 3am or 4am just to sit in a bus for 2 hours while wondering if I would be able to poo when I got there. I found the homestay quite welcoming and relaxing, and enjoyed a leisurely evening and morning before heading to the start. And the poo? No problem. I knew you were wondering.

The view from the homestay. The shirt seemed appropriate for the occasion.

The organization at the start area was quite efficient. I found the van where I was to drop my finish bag, and was registered in minutes. The bright and cheery yellow-shirted volunteers, combined with the clear skies, made for a festive atmosphere.

Yeah, it's all happy smiles now...just you wait!

Supposedly one of the buses took a wrong turn [edit: was rerouted due to a landslide], so our start times (7:00am for 100km, 7:15am for 50km, and 7:30am for 25km) were delayed. And delayed. And delayed. I think we finally started around 8:00am or 8:15am, and because we started so late, they just had us all start at once. Of all the things that went wrong that day, this was probably the only one that the organizers can really be blamed for. For you see, only 1.5km after the start line, there is a hanging bridge which was limited to 7 people at a time. And close to 800 runners were lined up at the start.

Shouldn't the 'Start' sign be facing the other way? :D

Knowing that, I hung back and intentionally exerted zero effort. I found myself literally in last place. But sure enough, when I neared the hanging bridge I saw the mass of humanity clustered like sheep awaiting an ultramarathon. You know how sheep do that. But I did the Malaysian thing and took a bypass (a simple ankle-deep water crossing while everyone else crossed a bridge) to overtake about 75 people just like that. Nevertheless, I waited literally 60-75 minutes to cross that bridge! So at about 9:30am, I finally started the race.

My bananas and bamboo poles got quite the reaction. (photo by Vincenzo Izzi)
I can't even say we were moving slowly. Just standing still...
...although it could have been worse - I could have been way back THERE.
Finally crossing the bridge (photo by Glen Florian)

Like probably most ultrarunners, I took this race in stages, from one water station (WS) or checkpoint (CP) to the next. The first stage, to WS1, was only 4km, and involved me stopping only long enough to top up my bottle. The next stage, another 10km or so, was a bit more trying. It wasn't just the rising temperatures that made it difficult, but the pace: anytime we reached a steep uphill or downhill, there was absolute gridlock on the trail, as we all still hadn't spread out very much after the hanging bridge. I was a bit frustrated with runners who clearly were struggling with the hills but who did not have the presence of mind to yield to those behind them. But I tried to have a positive attitude, thinking that these bottlenecks were keeping my pace down and reserving the glycogen stores in my body that would definitely be called upon later in the race.

The first two stages were some of the most beautiful and striking (and the least brutal). We had numerous river crossings, using hanging bridges or just walking across. Some of the course led us right alongside the river, with gorgeous green rice fields on the other side.

This section was probably the most tiring as it was getting hot and I was getting thirsty. I'm a big water drinker and felt the pressure to ration my 2 liters during the 10+ kilometers (and about 6000' of elevation gain) to WS3.

But then it started to rain, and my whole race changed.

I love running in the rain. I have yet to experience any blisters in my Cascadia 8s, so I don't fear wet feet. I have yet to experience any chafing, so I don't fear wet clothes. The only thing I 'fear' is running out of water. But when I'm cool and wet, my hydration needs plummet and my spirits soar.

Around the time the rain transitioned from 'light' to 'torrential' I descended into the Miki Camp loop - an out-and-back section that should probably take around two hours. As it turned out, the trail here is actually a run-off which I suppose is dry most of the time. But on this day, it was an intense, fast-flowing, stream of water, silt, mud, leaves and other debris. For the next three hours, I was basically running and walking through muddy water, whether on the flat or on steep ascents or descents. And for the most part, I loved it!

Being an out-and-back, there should have been two-way traffic on the narrow trails, and at first, there was. But after 15 minutes, I stopped seeing people coming back. What was going on? I finally found out when I encountered tens of people heading my way all at once. A river crossing just prior to CP2 (which I was about 200m from reaching) had become too dangerous to cross. A length of bamboo which spanned the river even broke, and a runner was actually swept away (but was fortunately saved by a human chain of runners). The organizers turned back all runners at this point, directing them to proceed out to WS3. I suppose some of those behind me were turned back even before they had barely begun to descend the out-and-back; I was happy that my 50km distance was still mostly intact since I was not very far at all from CP2 when I had to turn back. Here's a video that another competitor took of that treacherous water crossing:

From this point back up out of 'Jurassic Park' to WS3, we had to deal again with the traffic jam of runners who were turned back at the river crossing. Whenever possible, I passed them as I was feeling pretty good (and was far less hesitant in navigating the 'river trail' than others were). I also had my first Gu at this point (Espresso Love), the caffeine from which I believe gave me an incredible burst of energy and power on the steep uphill.

After topping up my fluids at WS3, I was off for the 'dip', which was a steep down-and-up section (mostly on paved roads) that lasted less than 5km, bringing us all to WS4. By this time I had been on the road for more than 11 hours, and was operating outside the official posted cutoff times (which I believe had been thrown out the window anyway). And I'd only gone 31km at this point!

But I had new energy, thanks in part to the iskiate I brewed at each WS, and thanks in part to the occasional Gu. From WS4 to the finish, I was a man on a mission. My uphill pace was a brisk and purposeful stride, and on the downhills I still had the feet and legs to break into a trot. I reeled in every runner I saw, and didn't have anyone pass me until the final uphill mile to the finish. I crossed the line feeling just fine. (I'm not bragging - I probably finished around 150th out of 300-something!)

One of my main training buddies and I, finishing within 5 minutes of each other

So how was TMBT 2013? Since it was my first ultra, and my first trail run, I really have no basis for comparison. I thought the organization was overall excellent, with the one exception I already noted regarding the hanging bridge choke point. (But I'm pleased to see that no one seems to be beating the Race Director over the head with this issue, but are focusing on the things that the RD's crew did well.) The route was outstanding, the views were fantastic, and the terrain was very challenging. This is no easy course, and the fact that you have to run it practically unsupported (only water was provided) makes it even more difficult.

Would I do it again? Without a doubt. Would I do the 100km version? Maybe one year. But for now, I'm content to stick to the shorter 50km and 50mi distances.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

First Post: Purpose and Content

First posts are boring, but for those who are curious:

This blog exists for me to have a place to post race reports and to post about epic or noteworthy trail runs. I will not update frequently so I'd advise you to subscribe to this blog (feed) if you want to be notified of future posts!