Friday, January 8, 2016

Second 100 Mile at the Pistol Ultra Run

This weekend I ran my second 100-mile at the Pistol Ultra Run near Knoxville, Tennessee. It went almost better than I could have hoped, in some respects. I finished in 22 hours, 22 minutes, which was somewhat slower than I was hoping... but considering I wasn't feeling 100% going into it, I'm satisfied. More importantly, I felt pretty much even energy the whole way, with no real downs. In that respect, it was perfect.

This post tells a bit of the story, along with key lessons and strategies.

Lead-up: Marathons As Training Runs

I ran the Philadelphia Marathon on November 22. I was hoping to BQ, but hills, wind and tremendous blood blisters made sure that didn't happen. I started out well, but my pace slipped: at the 10k, my average pace was 6:53/mi; by the half, it was 7:05; by 30k, 7:17; and at the finish, 7:37. Finishing in 3:19 was still a PR, but I couldn't help but feel a little bummed because I knew I could have done better if I hadn't gotten the blisters. So I signed up for the Kiawah Island Marathon on the coast of South Carolina a few weeks later, on December 12. (The blisters boggled me because I never get them. Then again, I never run that fast for that long...)

Post–Philadelphia Marathon. Just so you can see I'm not kidding about those blood blisters. Look at the size of that one!

In the meantime I managed to screw up my calf: A quarter-mile into one of my training runs, I felt a sudden, sharp pain deep in my calf, and then I could barely walk for a few minutes. Great. It got better over the following days, but I wasn't sure how the next marathon would go. So I worked on my recovery, wore calf sleeves and hoped for the best.

Lunch on the half-shell at Amen Street in Charleston
The Kiawah Island Marathon went okay. I forgot to factor the weather into my ambitions, so there was no chance of PRing again: I'd been training in the 30s–40s, and it was 75 on race day in South Carolina. Whoops! Anyway, I got another state off my list and got to eat some oysters in Charleston. So slurpable.

I treated that marathon as my last big effort leading up to my 100-mile, so my mileage tapered down. In early November I was running 70–80-mile weeks, and they got down to the 20s–40s as I went into the 100. With my running volume down (conveniently over Christmas, when I was at home with family), I focused on rehabbing my calf.

It got better, to the point where I could run comfortably for 10ish miles, and I was feeling confident. Until, of course, the day before my 100-mile, when the pain and tenderness resurged out of nowhere. A phantom pain, I guess, but it didn't help my sleep. I was up late into the night with my heart pounding. I didn't think I was nervous, but the heart speaketh.

Race morning, the pain was lingering, though only slightly. I came to terms with the fact that I might have to DNF, and I decided I'd just run easy until I couldn't anymore. Then I'd walk until I couldn't anymore. And then I'd drop out, because crawling really doesn't sound that fun except in that slogan ("crawl if you must...").

Race morning. Don't I look well-rested!?

An Easy Run

I swear running 100 miles is not that hard. I'd say it's easy, actually. I tell everyone this, but no one believes me. You run incredibly slow, just for a rather long time. For the most part, you don't really feel like you're exerting yourself. Sure, you get a little sore eventually, but it's still not that bad. And in terms of process, it's dead simple: Keep moving.

Me and some other goofballs milling about prior to running 100 miles

The race format made it even easier. The Pistol is held on a paved parkway trail about 10 feet wide. The course is a 10-mile loop that includes some road running. This was my first real road ultra, and I found it much easier to run, seeing as I didn't have to watch out for obstacles in the path.

Trail runners might scoff at road races as unbeautiful, but this course was really nice. Most of it ran along this little river thing. Here's a view in the morning, when a lovely layer of mist was hovering over the water.

Another factor in the race's easiness was that there were always people around. The Pistol has a 50k, 50-mile, 100k and 100-mile; the 50k, 100k and 100-mile all start Saturday morning, and then the 50-mile starts Saturday night. I never went more than 5 minutes or so without seeing another runner. In the daytime, it was more like 30 seconds, if that. I was grateful to meet some wonderful new friends and have long conversations on the run.

Finally, this was a race I had trained well for in terms of specificity. I do all my training on sidewalks and Philadelphia's paved asphalt trail, which is mostly flat. This course was virtually identical, so my feet were well used to it. This is, I'm sure, one of the reasons my race went so well. Not only that, but lately I've been doing heavy lifting twice a week (Starting Strength routine of squat, bench press or standing press, and deadlift). Notably, I didn't experience any lower back tiredness during the race, which I directly attribute to deadlifting.

Mind Games

Running is the most funnest thing!
At least that's what you can tell
yourself when it doesn't feel like it.
Eventually the conversations subsided, and I geared up for the rest of the race. My calf stayed fine, for which I was grateful, so I let go of worrying about that. It was unlikely that it would flare up suddenly—but if it did, then oh well.

I adopted two fun mind games to get me through the middle stretch of the race. First, I wanted to see how far I could get by nightfall. Sunset was around 5:30, and I was around 50 miles by that point. After that, I decided to see how far I could get by 8pm, when the 50-mile race started. I told myself that I was really signed up for the 50-mile, but all the miles I put in before 8pm would count toward making my race shorter. This proved surprisingly effective: I was around mile 60 at that time, which meant I only had to run 40 miles whereas everyone else in the race had to do 50.


Typically I eat high-fat and spend a lot of time in ketosis. I do about half my runs fasted, and I never eat on the run unless it's more than 22ish miles. Lately, though, I've been eating like a clown (blame Christmas), so I was a bit worried on how my body would react.

During my last 100, I spent many hours with a clenched stomach and low-level nausea. I wanted to work on my in-race nutrition this time, with the goal of having even energy and no gastric upsets. I'm proud to say that this went extremely well! Last time I felt I didn't eat enough, early enough, so this time I consciously ate a little more than I would have normally. (Though I didn't eat for the first two-and-a-half hours.) I just had a bite or two of whatever looked good. At first I was focusing on the trail bars and cookies, but for most of the race I was taking in mostly broth, salted potatoes and these little egg burritos they had. I also had a chlorella packet and Vespa at the start and every 20 miles, as well as periodic vitamin C, vitamin D, CoQ10 and fish oil. (I haven't heard of others using such supplements during races, but I'd love to hear from anyone who does.)

This was related to one of the things I wanted to improve on from my last 100: drop bag strategy. In my last 100, I wasted a cumulative 3+ hours stopped, and I wanted to reduce that as much as I could. Luckily this race was set up so that I could stop at my car twice every loop, so pre-race I organized all the things I'd need to grab and go so I didn't have to stop that long. Clothes arrayed on the front seat, ziploc bags for rationed nutrition, and a bag of treats. For posterity, here are the ziploc bags I had:

  • Morning of: Vespa Ultra Concentrate, 1 cap CoQ10, 1 packet Sun Chlorella
    • I also had a coffee with coconut milk, along with some goat colostrum and my green drink (Vitamineral Green + Vitamineral Earth) and later a big dose of Master Amino Pattern amino acids (8 tablets)
  • Start: Vespa Ultra Concentrate, 1 cap CoQ10, 15k IU vitamin D3+K2, 1 packet Sun Chlorella
  • 20 miles in: Vespa Ultra Concentrate, 1 cap CoQ10, 5g BCAAs, 1 packet Sun Chlorella
  • 40 miles in: Vespa Ultra Concentrate, 1 cap fish oil, 1g vitamin C, 5g BCAAs, 1 packet Sun Chlorella
  • 60 miles in: Vespa Ultra Concentrate, 1 cap fish oil, 1g vitamin C, 15k IU vitamin D3+K2, 1 packet Sun Chlorella
  • 80 miles in: Vespa Ultra Concentrate, 1 cap fish oil, 1g vitamin C, 5g BCAAs, 1 cap CoQ10, 1 packet Sun Chlorella
  • (I should have had a post-race bag, but didn't for some stupid reason)
A note on amino acids: By the time I finished my last 100, I had mostly withered away. Not this time. Partly it was because this race was 10 hours shorter, but also because I consciously took in much more amino acids, which prevented my body from having to metabolize its muscle stores.

After Dark

Sunset was around 5:30pm. I wasn't particularly looking forward to the nighttime because I have not-so-fond memories of the night during my last 100. Not to mention the night in January would be almost twice as long as it was in my last race (June). Luckily the course was lit with streetlights, so the darkness wasn't as psychologically damaging as it can be on a trail. There wasn't even a need for a headlamp.

What was a problem, though, was the dropping temperature that came with the darkness. During the day it was in the 40s, and it got down to the high-20s overnight. Normally I'm really comfortable down to about 20 degrees, so I didn't bring much in the way of layers. But I didn't take into account how incapable the body is of regulating its temperature during the second half of an ultra. I was absolutely freezing. I put on every layer I had (crowned by this amazing cat shirt). The biggest problem was my hands: I'd only brought a thin pair of wool gloves, but I needed more. Luckily my Chicago Marathon jacket has thumbholes and a pullout knuckle covering, which gave my hands a little extra shelter.

Layered up, I was comfortable for the most part. Until I had to start walking more. During this race, I ran for most of the first 60 miles. (Before that, I took a few walking breaks/stops that probably added up to 20 minutes total.) Now, both as a sustainability strategy and a way to mix it up for my mental benefit, I began alternating running and walking every 5 minutes. The problem was during my walking breaks, I got way too cold. I dealt with this the only way I could: By just running more. This probably helped me finish faster, whereas my lazy self would have just leisurely strolled for the final 15 miles had it been warmer out. So, I guess, it was a good thing.

Sandal Straps and the Final Horrible Miles

As the race wound down, things got much harder. My race had really surprised me because, for the first 75 miles, it was actually easy. But eventually my feet started hurting. It felt like the bones—something similar to a stress fracture—and I thought it was the impact from running on asphalt and concrete for 16+ hours. Sure I'd trained exclusively on such terrain, but I'd never run on road for that long. As the pain worsened, though, I realized it was in the areas around my sandal straps: I looked down and saw my feet were terribly swollen around the straps, which were evidently causing some damaging pressure. I needed to loosen the straps, but they were already as loose as they'd go (you may know that I have ginormous feet)—curse you, Luna Sandals, for making this custom pair so tight! I considered shedding them and doing the final miles barefoot, but worried that could be even worse, so I just carried on.

The pain in my feet got worse and worse. Every step felt like someone dropped a rock on both feet. I changed my gait to a flat-foot strike and later a heel strike to distribute the impact, which helped somewhat, but in the final 10 miles I was really hurting—and really going slow. Incidentally I found that it hurt more to walk than to run, so I ran (albeit turtlefully) most of the final miles. I just wanted to get it over with. For the last lap I put on toe socks (note: toe socks are nigh-impossible to put on when you've just run 90 miles and they're a size too small to begin with) hoping it would distribute the strap pressure, but it didn't really help any.

Eventually, though, finally, and not a minute too soon, the finish line came, and I was so grateful to get off my feet. I hung out in the heated tent for a while, had some chocolate milk and then drove home.

Aftermath and Readjusting

I flew home Tuesday afternoon.
TSA was so not a fan of this belt buckle. 
I got home around 7:30 a.m. and wasn't feeling particularly tired, but I blacked out my hotel room and was able to promptly fall asleep. I woke up around 2 p.m. feeling completely rested, ate a crapload of eggs and salad and then basically watched Star Wars documentaries until 10:30 p.m., when I went to bed again. I woke up around 7 the next morning, and I was already back on my normal sleeping schedule.

This was much easier than after my last 100, which took almost 32 hours and completely messed me up.

Also after my last race I had a hard time reintegrating myself into society. That may sound strange. But I'd come to regard the trail, and the act of running, as the real world, whereas my life in the city was a constructed falsity. My apartment, my work... none of it seemed really real. And that malaise stuck with me for over a week. This time, I felt twinges of that, but I was able to bounce back mentally pretty quick. I'm not sure if it was because of the urban nature of the run, or because it was much shorter, timewise, or because it was my second one.

This race was brought to us in part by this giant belighted cow, spokesanimal for a dairy company whose name is presently escaping me but which you could conceivably look up by going to the race website if you really wanted to. It started with M.


Treating myself at the airport. Only $5 for 26 minutes!
I'm writing this on the Friday after the race, and I'm happy to say I never experienced any soreness, really. That was unexpected. Previous ultras had me in gollum-like hobbles for days sometimes. However, that's not to say I recovered immediately: For the first few days, my feet were still so swollen and pained that I couldn't walk. The first day I was about to buy a set of crutches, but luckily it didn't get any worse (on the contrary, it got slightly better each day). I had to travel for a conference on Tuesday, so I donned compression socks, which allowed me to walk more or less painlessly, albeit with a slight limp. Today (Friday) is the first day I'm not wearing the socks, and I can walk without pain, though my feet are still red and puffy. I can also move my toes again, which I couldn't before.

I attribute some of my quick recovery to a high-fat, low-carb anti-inflammatory diet. I've been consuming chlorella and buttloads of other green things, along with plenty of butter from grass-fed cows. Also, herbs: my own herbal product Get Back Up, Yogi Muscle Recovery green tea (which includes a number of herbal extracts), and a slew of other herbs (mostly as tea). I didn't have any fish oil on hand, but I would have taken that as well.


I loved this race! The 8 a.m. start was perfect because I got to sleep in compared to other races. It was great having other runners around the whole way for those words of encouragement. The course was lovely. The aid stations were stacked (I loved me those egg burritos) and the volunteers were delightful and helpful. Finally, let it be known that this race gives more free stuff out than any other I'm aware of. The photo below shows most of the spoils.

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