Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A proposal

I first met Jeff at the bike shop 3 years ago at indoor winter trainer sessions. He was a quiet tattooed man who worked harder than anyone else but seemed to suffer alone and in silence. Everyone said he worked out too much and pushed himself too hard in training so he never performed well in races. It is now a running joke that Jeff doesn't have a race mode. When we go for rides at Patapsco or Loch Raven, Jeff is constantly waiting up for me. But for some reason when speed actually matters, like in a race, he stops working hard. His recent refrain has been, "I feel too weak. I have Lyme disease." Which is not true (although as Jeff points out, I can't prove it).

I tried mountain biking for the first time in November 2012 with Jeff. I was atrocious, but I really liked being out in the woods. Even though I got frustrated that I couldn't keep up with anyone, I bought a used mountain bike and kept going out for more. Jeff waited up for me and kept inviting me out for rides. They went sort of like this. Jeff disappeared at his own pace until the trail divided, rest time for him. I bumbled along at my fastest pace until I caught up with Jeff. Then he took off again. No water break for the slow poke.

Jeff told me he wanted to do an Ironman triathlon. He signed up for Mont Tremblant, then convinced me to spend $700 to register for the same race. I made him promise he would drive up with me, since I couldn't afford to get there on my own. He promised. He took 2 swimming lessons before he decided he wasn't a swimmer. He withdrew from the race and got a $150 refund in the mail. He called it a great investment plan because now he had $150 he thought was gone. He still drove all the way to Canada with me so I could race. He kept his word, and we had a run road trip to Quebec.

The first mountain bike race I signed up for was 6hrs of Warrior Creek down in North Carolina. Jeff told me it was most fun course ever. So fast and flowy and nontechnical were his exact words. Ok, I thought. Maybe I can race mountain bikes. I registered. Turned out, the course was so "non-technical" that Jeff crashed twice and almost launched himself off a cliff. He quit the race after 2 laps. I finished with 4 laps, but was shaky and beyond exhausted. Never listen to boys when they tell you a course is easy.

Unfortunately, it took me awhile to learn this lesson. I fell for Jeff's persuasive ways again when he told me about Wilderness 101, a 100 mile MTB race through the state forests of Pennsylvania. It's basically all roads or fire roads, he said. Not technical at all. I balked at the registration fee since I had already blown my bank account for Mont Tremblant. Jeff registered for me. So I showed up on the start line for my 3rd MTB race ever. Needless to say, the course changed a bit in 2013 and included a lot of new rocky singletrack trails. I was in tears by aid station 4. I was cursing Jeff. How could he get me into this? I can't handle these rocks. I'm not really a mountain biker. Somehow, I finished that race. And somehow, I was hooked. I couldn't wait to get better and do more. Maybe listening to Jeff and trying to follow him around on a bike wasn't such a bad thing after all.

Last week, we went for a ride around Loch Raven, where I first tried out mountain biking. I've come a long way in 1.5 years. I've also come to really love Jeff. Apparently, he feels the same way about me. About half way through the ride, Jeff pulled off the trail in a grassy section right next to the water and told me he needed a break to eat a GU. I pulled off next to him, thankful that I was now fast enough to be included in the water/snack breaks. Jeff got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. He offered me a beautiful ring. I was beyond surprised, but also beyond happy. I said yes.

Biking is the bond that brought us together, and I hope there are many more biking adventures in store for us. But I know that if life takes other twists and turns, I can't think of anyone else I would rather have by my side.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Greenbriar Race Report

This weekend, the race on our schedule was Greenbriar Challenge MTB race. Jeff and I both registered for the marathon event since we wanted to get some training miles in for longer races we have coming up in a few weeks. The marathon race consisted of doing as many laps as possible before the 4hr cutoff time.

The race start on a beautiful morning. Photo credits: Marco Demartin
The laps at Greenbriar were tough. In fact, the race itself was not particularly fun. The course was incredibly rocky and any non-rocky section was incredibly muddy. There were a number of rocky, wet technical descents, which Jeff loved and I dreaded. Even the hill climbs had lots of rocks or waterbars in the way, which made them difficult to ascend. Instead of just powering up, you had to pick particular lines through the obstacles, which made the climbing slow. Also, because the marathon event was the first race of the day, I kept getting stuck behind others as all the beginners and cat2 racers took to the course throughout the morning. There ended up being a lot of traffic on the trail, a lot of running my bike on the uphills because there were so many people in front of me already walking, and a lot of riding my brakes as I tried to talk myself into relaxing on the tricky downhills. It was difficult to get into a rhythm.

I was not feeling particularly rested or ready for this race. In fact, I felt very sluggish. After surviving my first lap, my initial thought was how an earth am I going to race for 4hrs out here? Luckily, no one else in the women's field seemed to be challenging my poky lap times. So, I just put my head down and kept pedaling. Sometimes in a race that's all you can do. I finished my 6th lap right at 3:25. I knew I was doing about 33-35 min laps so I figured my 7th lap would be my last one. Thank goodness! On the big hill climb in the middle of the course, I came up behind Jeff. "Hey there," I said. I actually felt a bit better that I was right with Jeff. On such a technical course, he should have been crushing me. Apparently, he thought so too, because after one look back at me, he took off, determined not to let me beat him! I came through the finish line in 3:59:42, 18 seconds before the 4hr cutofff.

I could have stopped there and rolled to the finish. I had ridden my 7th lap like it was my last one, pushing myself a bit harder than on previous laps. But in a split second, I decided to go out for lap #8. I had beat the cutoff time, and I knew I could make myself go for 30 more minutes. I wanted to prove to the stupid rocky course that I wasn't afraid to ride it, even if I couldn't ride it very fast. So I went through those rocks and puddles and mud and up the hills one last time just to stick it to the course. It turned out to be my most fun lap. Almost all the other racers had finished so I had the trails mostly to myself. I no longer cared if I crashed since my 7th lap time had been recorded, so I took more chances, I let loose a little more and actually had some fun out there. Now I was thinking thank goodness for lap #8!

Women's marathon podium
Here is what Jeff's race experience:

"Lining up in a cattle-pen-like area with Patrick Blair and Weston Shempf directly in front of me, Kevin Carter directly next to me and Johnny May just behind me was very cool. For a moment, I felt like a legit racer. That faded pretty quickly as the 4 of them took off up the first hill climb immediately after the start. I had no idea what the course was going to be like, but I heard it was a little rocky. The descents and rock sections were SO FUN. Finally, I was racing on a course where I had an advantage! However, the steep ups started taking their toll on my legs by lap 4, and I was fading hard by lap 6. At all the rocky sections and the giant mud bog, there were people watching and cheering, and I felt like a rock star in those sections because I could ride them so fast. There was no one to witness the horrific uphill sections, so I didn't feel embarrassed on the climbs.

Knowing Carla should be nicknamed "Captn' Consistent" and I should be nicknamed "Admiral goes out too hard and falls apart," I figured she would come up on me toward the end of the race. And she sure did.  When she caught me, we were both around midpoint of the 7th lap, getting to the time were maybe we would make the cut-off to ride an 8th lap, or maybe not. She gave me inspiration to start pushing again instead of being lazy on the ups. I needed that inspiration. I started to feel like I was tapping out on the last long climb, but I remembered she was still behind me and she would tell me I could push harder... so I did.

I think I came in with 2 minutes to spare for the cut-off. I did not see any folks in my category on the last half of the 7th lap, so the results would not change if I raced an 8th lap. I will say 'at some point you are doing more damage than good with big/long efforts,' and that was my justification for falling victim to my real thoughts of 'I'm tired and my legs are cooked.'  A minute or so later Carla comes through, squeezing under the cut-off. She smiles and holds up one hand and one finger and makes a few circles in the air, with that gesture asking me 'one more lap?'  I say 'no way' and was a little embarrassed and awaiting a 'weakling!' comment.  But she just smiled and took off on an 8th lap, sealing the win.  She is silly strong.  Anyway, I came in 8th, and I am happy with my day and really love that course."

Next week will definitely be a recovery one for both of us. Thanks so much to Joe's Bike Shop for tuning up our bikes for this race. Despite racing for 4+ hours on rocks and mud, our bikes worked perfectly. No flats or mechanicals for either of us!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A perspective on pain

I just finished reading Hell on Two Wheels, by Amy Synder, which is a book that chronicles the 2009 Race Across America (RAAM). RAAM is a endurance race unlike any other. It starts in Oceanside, CA at the Pacific Ocean and ends in Annapolis, MD at the Atlantic Ocean. It covers 3,000 miles and time doesn't stop until you have finished the entire course. That means that any time you spend sleeping, eating or resting off the bike is time you are not racing. The winners finish in under 10 days (Christoph Strasser set a new record of 7 days 22 hours 11 mins in 2013), and the official time cutoff is 12 days.

If you want to read more about the perils of the race, the impact of sleep deprivation, the hallucinations, the physical ailments that the cyclists suffer through (including life-threatening respiratory emergencies, heat stroke, muscle failure, and nerve damage), the importance of the support teams, and the logistics of competing in the race, I would highly recommend the book.

One of the things that struck me most about the story was how the cyclists deal with pain for days on end. In order to complete the transcontinental crossing under the time limit, racers average 22 hours on the bike per day. Day after day after day. I know how tired I am after 10 hours of racing on the bike for one day. The thought of racing over twice that long for days on end sounds unbelievable.

The cyclists in RAAM have different strategies for dealing with the pain they experience. Some dissociate from it. One cyclist in the book says, "I try not to think about it. I just remind myself what my goal is." The ultracycling legend, Jure Robic, said, "I know it is there because I feel it, but I don't pay attention to it. I sometimes see myself from the other view, looking down at me riding the bike."

Others try to gain control over their pain. They use problem solving skills to reduce their suffering, such as focusing on relaxing when they have cramps in their shoulder blades or changing their seat angle to reduce saddle sores.

Some tackle their pain head on. "Pain is the goal," one cyclist in the book said. "I accept it. It's where I want to be. The key is not to get down on myself." Another cyclists reminds himself that, "Suffering is my choice, so I don't feel victimized by it. If I'm miserable, I've got to remember I've chosen to do the race, and I've got to accept the gift of being uncomfortable."

Strasser uses cognitive distraction to endure pain. During training rides before the 2009 RAAM, he would rub peppermint oil on his skin and think to himself how cold he felt, programming his mind to associate the smell of peppermint with cooling. When some part of his body hurt, he diverted his attention away from the pain by focusing on tapping his fingers on the handlebars or wiggling his little toe. He basically trained his mind to focus on sensations in his body other than the pain.

Finally, at some point in the race, all racers sought out social support for dealing with the pain. They depended on words of motivation from their support crews, phone calls from loved ones at home, or online posts of encouragement from fans.

All of these methods of coping with pain are called adaptive methods because they allow the athlete to reduce the stress caused by pain and to resume his/her previous level of functioning. In contrast, maladaptive methods of coping with pain are more avoidance oriented such as restricting activity or tensing up.

Most studies have found that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than non-athletes, although it is not known if individuals develop a higher pain tolerance from years of training or if individuals with an innately high pain tolerance to begin with are more likely to be involved in athletics.

I started looking for an explanation as to why athletes can tolerate higher levels of pain. Here is what I found:

1. Athletes have better coping strategies, including cognitive distraction and dissociation. In pain tolerance tests, those athletes who can endure the highest levels of pain use used some combination of those 2 techniques. They didn't catastrophize their situation.

2. An athlete's emotional state also influences pain perception. Positive emotions and reduced fear/anxiety about a given task are associated with reduced pain levels. Conversely, if someone is anxious or distressed, he or she will experience an increase in perceived pain. One theory is that athletes associate pain with positive emotions (ie pain is a sign of getting stronger or of getting to the finish line faster) and thus a painful stimulus is perceived by their brain at lower intensity compared to nonathletes.

3. Another theory to explain athletes' higher pain tolerance has to do with something called conditioned pain modulation. According to this theory, if an individual is exposed to a painful stimulus, there is a system in the brain that gets activated and inhibits pain signals coming from other body parts. For example, pretend a burning rod is touched to your arm. It will hurt a lot. However, if your other arm is exposed to pain first, say submerged in freezing cold water before 30 seconds before the hot rod is applied to your arm, the burning pain perceived will be less intense. This time, the same burning rod will only hurt a little. The idea behind conditioned pain modulation is that pain inhibits pain.

Athletes may have greater conditioned pain modulation capabilities compared to nonathletes. Because athletes are constantly working out, straining their muscles, and racing at their maximum, they are constantly triggering the structures in the brain responsible for pain inhibition. This may allow them to produce more powerful pain modulation and have higher pain tolerance levels compared to individuals who are not regularly exposed to pain.

4. Finally, one additional explanation for greater pain tolerance in athletes may be due to the "runners high." Several studies found increased levels of endogenous opioids (endorphins) in individuals after exercise that positively correlated with the level of euphoria athletes felt as well as their increased pain threshold.

So whether it's mind over matter or natural opioids being produced during exercise, one thing is for certain. The racers of RAAM can endure pain unlike anyone else. As Amy Synder writes in the book, "Suffering is a hallowed cultural value in the world of competitive cycling, probably more so than in any other sport. Cyclists equate suffering with excellence, and it's widely believed that those who can endure the most punishment will rise to the top of the heap. 'I won because I suffered the most' is a familiar bike racer refrain. Another is 'Once you learn how to suffer out there, you can do anything on a bike.'"

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mother's Day Mauler

This weekend's race was completely different from all of the races I have done so far this spring. First of all, our team, Joe's Bike Shop, was sponsoring the race, so there was lots to do to help get ready for Saturday. Second, I registered for the XC race instead of the endurance one because doing a shorter race would allow me to volunteer more during the day. And third of all, it downpoured about 30 minutes before the start of our race, which meant that the conditions changed in a flash.

I had a great time helping with race set-up and registration. One of our team members, Bob, has started his own hobby/company called Race Works Gruppetto, which promotes biking and running races. When Bob starts something new, he always goes all out, and for this enterprise, he spared no detail. He has chip timing systems powered by solar panels, adjustable width metal arches for the finish line, computers and printers to post results instantly, a customized database to keep track of race participants, chairs, tables, tents, cones, stakes, tape, signs, podiums and to top it all off, a huge box trailer to store it all in!

Mother's Day Mauler is part of the Patapsco Valley MTB series and takes place in the McKeldin area of Patapsco State Park. The cool thing about this race is the moms race for free! On Friday, Bob, Elizabeth, Matt and I worked from noon till 5pm setting up the timing system, staking out parts of the course that go through grassy field sections, putting up tents, and marking the course with signs. On Saturday morning, I arrived around 7 and spent all morning working registration with Jen. It was really fun hanging out with her and greeting all the racers as they came to pick up their numbers. Jeff spent the morning as a course marshal with Chad and Chris directing racers across the road and stopping traffic as the racers passed.

Course map. The yellow trail is the road prologue
The course for Mother's Day Mauler is a 4.8 mile loop with about 550ft of climbing per lap. There are 3 main hill climbs and 2 sections I thought were pretty technical - one rocky outcropping that most people ran over because there wasn't a good line through it, and another short but steep rocky uphill climb that I always bobbled on. Here is a great sequence: Jeff attacking the rocky outcropping with so much confidence and then reduced to doing push-ups!

Thanks Ty Long for such great photos!
All day, people were talking about how strong both the men's and women's elite fields were, especially for a small local race. For the men, Ethan from our team was racing against Patrick Blair, Dan Wolf, Dan Atkins, and Adam Williams. For the women, a number of local pro's came including Cheryl Sornson, who races for Rare Disease Cycling, Suzie Synder and Marla Streb from the Luna Pro team, and another woman from the Giant Northeast Pro Team. It was a challenging field to be up against!

When I first started warming up for the race, I was really nervous. This was my first XC race this spring - we would only be racing 4 laps of the course. I knew it was going to be a fast race and going fast on singletrack trails is not my strength. I knew that I would lose time on the two rocky sections that I couldn't ride well and because the race was so short, I knew that any little technical error would be hard to make back up. I didn't want to be completely left in the dust. But about half way through my warm-up though, I told myself that I was going to go out there and do the best job I could and as long as I did that, I would be happy at the finish. After I thought about that, I wasn't nervous anymore.

Staying dry before the race start
The start of our race was delayed by a heavy rainstorm. It dumped about a 1/2 inch of rain in about 25 minutes. We all tried to stay dry under one of the pavilions while the rain passed. Luckily, the storm did pass, and the park ranger gave us the go ahead to race. We all lined up in the parking lot (it was a mass start with the men's and women's races starting together) and set off at a sprint. I saw Cheryl disappear in front of me charging up the road with the lead men. She is so fast!

Cheryl is a bit of legend. We raced together all last fall during CX (I probably shouldn't say race as it was always Cheryl out in front and the rest of us racing for second place), but I really like her, and it's always cool to get to line up at the start with someone so talented. She has probably done way harder races, but everyone on my team talks about how one year she raced Cohutta 100 and the Michaux in the same weekend. She's won the NUE series for the past 2 years in a row and often finishes the endurance MTB races with times that are fast enough to be on the men's podium. But despite how good she is, she is still really nice and even gave me hug after the race was over.

I had a good start and entered the woods in second place. I bombed down the first rocky downhill keeping pace with the guys ahead of me. For the rest of the 1st lap, I just went as fast as possible. I kept thinking "Why isn't Marla shooting past me on the downhills? Why isn't Suzie up there challenging Cheryl? Why isn't Jen coming up behind me on the twisty singletrack?" I made it through the first lap and still no one had passed me. On my second lap, I slid out in the mud just before the creek crossing. I tried to make a sharp turn to avoid going over some tree roots, but the muddy conditions made that turn too difficult. I hit the ground. "Shoot," I thought. "Here is where I am going to get passed." I got up as quickly as I could and just started running my bike across the creek and all the way up the hill. Still no one came by. "Ok. Keep pushing, even harder now. Attack every hill to try to make up some time." By lap 4, I was still riding by myself. I had long lost sight of Cheryl, but I couldn't see anyone behind me either. I stopped questioning why no one was overtaking me and instead focused on making them try to catch me. Just before the last hill climb and singletrack section, I crashed again in the deep, thick, sloppy mud that was the trail by the river. Each lap, I picked a different line through the mud, but I never found a good one. Maybe there wasn't one. Anyway, I crashed and now my handlebars were twisted. "Shoot," I thought for the second time. "I can't believe this is happening so close to the finish." I didn't waste too much time trying to fix my handlebars though. I figured if I fully extended my right arm and fully flexed my left arm, I could keep my front wheel straight. There were a few hairy times riding the last singletrack section like that, but at least I was getting myself to the finish. Luckily, still no one passed me, and I climbed up the last hill with twisted handlebars to finish in second place. I was so surprised. 

Jeff had a great race too! He started off mellow on the road section at the start trying not to worry about what position he was in entering the woods. "I quickly learned I should have followed the advice I gave Carla: get to the single track as fast as possible. There were some rocky descents that were crowded with people not willing to take risks, so it was crowded and slow. No big deal...the race will spread out. The climbs were steep and on the first laps I felt fresh and hit those pretty hard. I gained a few positions there. The mud was shooting everywhere. Given my glasses were so fogged-up up and wet from the rain, they were in my jersey. I could barely see in certain sections, and there others I was blinking as fast as possible to try to get the dirt out. On the second lap, I started to fade a bit and the race was so spread out I was basically riding by myself. Looking back at the results, it appears that many people DNF'ed. I DNF'ed in a different way - I 'didn't not fall' (see pic above)! Long story short: I felt tired and like I was dragging up all the hills. But in the end I took 1st place in the 40+ category (one advantage to getting old). I was shocked at that result. I think maybe some folks in front of me might bailed or mechanical'ed. It was a great day and I'm happy I raced XC, which I never do...but maybe this was the little confidence builder to trying some more XC races. Greenbrier? Oh... and I got Carla'ed. Gotta work on that."

At the finish, we were so muddy. We washed off what we could by jumping in the river, but there was still a gritty pile of dirt left in the bottom of the shower later that evening!

Other awesome team results: Kathleen took 1st in the women's endurance race, Ethan got 3rd in the elite open XC race, Chris H got 3rd in SS endurance, Chris N took 4th in open endurance, Jen got 7th in the women's elite XC, Eric got 5th in the elite SS XC race, and Sam got 7th in beginner XC. Go team! What a fun day of racing.

Me, Kathleen, Jeff and Ethan on the podium. Chis H made it too, but I couldn't find a photo.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Altitude Training

For two and half weeks last month, I had the opportunity to be in Salt Lake City, Utah. My premise for the trip was a wilderness medicine course taught at the University of Utah, but since we only had classes in the evenings, I had plenty of time for biking, hiking, trail running, and climbing in the Wasatch mountains. One of the great things about SLC is that the mountains are so accessible from the city. I didn't have a car there, but I was able to bike to the top of most mountain passes in 1.5-2 hrs. And within a 3-5 mile jog from where I was staying, I could be on any number of hiking trails leading up into the mountains. For this post, I decided to combine some of the information I learned in my course about altitude medicine with some of the great biking and trail running adventures I had.
Some of the running and biking trails
First off, in order to have biking adventures, I needed some bikes. I actually ended up being able to borrow both a road bike and a mountain bike while in SLC, and I can't thank Peter and Ricardo enough for their generosity. Peter is a friend of a friend who let me borrow his really nice carbon fiber road bike for the whole 2 weeks I was there. Peter's friend, Greg, works at Beehive Bicycles, and helped me tune up the shifting. If you ever need a bike shop in SLC, I would highly recommend Beehive Bicycles. Greg is really nice and helped me fix the bike right when I brought it in. Ricardo is someone I actually met out on the trails. One day, I rented a mountain bike from the University of Utah. I really wanted to try this one MTB trail called The Bobsled - a twisting, turning downhill trail with fun banked turns that drops 1000 vertical feet over 1.6 miles. While en route to Bobsled, I met Ricardo and rode along with him for awhile. At the end of the ride, he mentioned that his wife had a MTB that I could borrow if I wanted to. He gave me his number, and I was lucky enough to meet up with him again and borrow the MTB for the remainder of my time in Utah.
The best rides I did in SLC were the climbs up into the canyons. These climbs were 8-15 miles long with 4,500+ ft of elevation gain. I never get to climb for that long in Baltimore! The roads I biked included Big Cottonwood Canyon road, which ends at Brighton ski resort, Little Cottonwood Canyon road, which ends at Alta, Millcreek Canyon road, which unfortunately ended for me about 5 miles up the road (the remaining 4 miles of road was completely snow covered) and Emigration Canyon road up and over Big Mountain to East Canyon Resort. The views were beautiful, and the descents were sooo fun (although sometimes chilly) and made all that climbing totally worth it!
A view from the top of Alta and a view of Little Dell Reservoir at the top of Emigration Canyon
 SLC sits at 4,327 feet (1,320 m) above sea level, which is high compared to Baltimore, but not really high enough to have significant physiologic effects. In order to get potential benefits from altitude training, you need to be at an altitude of at least 2000m for a duration of at least 3-4 weeks. At these higher altitudes, there is a decrease in the partial pressure of oxygen in the air. Hemoglobin is the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen to your muscles and organs, and at high altitudes, there is less oxygen bound to hemoglobin and less oxygen getting to your tissues.

Over the course of a few weeks, your body adapts to these low oxygen (or hypoxic) conditions in several ways. First, there is a shift in the hemoglobin molecule that allows for oxygen to be released to your muscles more easily. Second, your body increases the production of erythropoietin or EPO. This is a natural hormone (or not so natural if you are doping) that stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells, which means more hemoglobin is around to deliver oxygen to your muscles. By directly measuring EPO, red blood cell volume and hemoglobin mass, researchers can quantify how well individuals respond to altitude training.

Another change that happens at altitude is that you start breathing faster and your heart rate increases even at rest. When you breath faster, you exhale a lot of carbon dioxide (which exists in your blood as carbonic acid). As you breath off more and more carbon dioxide (think acid), you blood becomes more alkaline or basic. To restore proper acid-base balance of your blood, the kidneys adapt by excreting the excess base in the form of bicarbonate. This allows you to keep breathing at an increased rate without compromising the acid-base balance of your blood.

There may be other ways the body adapts to high altitudes including increased efficiency in the way muscle cells use oxygen to make ATP (the energy molecule that allows for muscle contraction). Some researchers have hypothesized that the mitochondria in muscle cells may adapt to make more ATP with less oxygen, there may be more blood vessel growth in muscles, and the muscles may develop a greater ability to buffer lactic acid or tolerate higher levels of lactic acid before fatiguing.

A view from a trail run out to Lake Blanche
Despite these physiologic effects, however, there have been very few well-designed studies to assess whether altitude training actually improves performance. In fact, the most recent reviews about altitude training conclude that "the scientific ground on which altitude training is recommended is not solid enough, particularly to make specific recommendation for elite athletes," and many authors suggest that any gains athletes experience after high altitude training may be solely due to the placebo effect.

When it comes to altitude training, there are 4 main methods that athletes use. These include:

1. Live high-train high
Basically, athletes who train using this method spend all their time at altitude. In one study of 39 collegiate runners, researchers found that living high and training high for 4 weeks increased VO2 max by 5% from baseline, but there was no improvement in 5000m running performance. The one drawback to this training plan is that being at altitude reduces your VO2 max, which means that peak running or biking speeds will be lower than at sea level, and you will not be able to train at the same absolute intensity.

2. Live high-train low
Athletes who use this method of training get the physiologic benefits of being at altitude, but train at sea level so that training intensity and VO2 max is not compromised. Interestingly, in that same study of collegiate runners, those who lived high and trained at sea level increased their VO2 max by 5% AND improved 5000m running performance by 13.4 seconds. However, in a recent placebo-controlled double blinded study of 16 endurance cyclists, authors found that after 4 weeks of living at altitude for 16h/day (athletes lived in hypoxic rooms at a Nordic skiing center in France to simulate being at an altitude of 3000m) and training outside at an altitude of about 1,000m did not improve hemoglobin mass, VO2 max or power output in a 26km time trial test. One thought is that these cyclists already had high red blood cell counts from years of training and thus, this method of altitude training may increase performance of lower-end athletes, but the same benefits may not be seen in the already elite.

3. Live low-train high and 4. Intermittent hypoxia at rest (repeatedly switch between breathing severely hypoxic air that simulates being at an altitude of 4500-6000m and normal air for short durations of time)
There is no evidence to support either of these methods of altitude training, so there's not much more to say here.
A view from a trail run up Mount Wire

While living high-training high or living high-training low may increase your red blood cell count, total hemoglobin and VO2max, especially if you're not a pro athlete, these changes are very variable between individuals. And, even if increases in physiologic parameters are observed, these changes do not necessarily translate into proportional improvements in racing times. I like to think these studies mean there is hope for us not lucky enough to live in the mountains yet. I can't wait to move out west, but for now, I'm content to know that with enough hard work at sea level, I can still be a fast racer!

If interested, here are the articles I used for this post:
  1. Lundby et al. Does ‘altitude training’ increase exercise performance in elite athletes? Br J Sports Med 2012; 46: 792–795.
  2. Fudge et al. Altitude training for elite endurance performance: A 2012 update. Current Sports Medicine Reports 2012; 11(3): 148-54
  3. Levine et al. “Living high-training low”: effect of moderate-altitude acclimatization with low-altitude training on performance.
  4. Siebenmann et al. “Live high–train low” using normobaric hypoxia: a double-blinded, placebo-controlled study.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

9hrs of Cranky Monkey Race Report

9hrs of Cranky Monkey takes place at Rocky Gap State Park in Flinestone, MD, a little over 2hrs from Baltimore. It is hosted by EX2 Adventures, who always do an awesome job putting on races. With any EX2 race, you can expect great organization and volunteer support, well-marked courses, a free tee-shirt, electronic timing with lap times available for printing on-site, post-race pizza deliveries, and pint glasses for the podiums!

The 2014 course at Rocky Gap was about 8.2 miles. It started off with a 1 mile road climb that ended at a set of stairs, which you had to run up cx-style. After the stairs, we entered a 2 mile section of rocky and rooty singletrack with twisty turns along by the lake. Then after a short time on the road, we climbed up into the mountain singletrack section, which basically consists of a long rocky climb followed by a steep descent with lots of loose rocks. I have a much better understanding of the park name after racing there. The final couple of miles are pretty flat, fast, smooth singletrack power sections. I felt like I could fly through that part of the course. The conditions on Saturday were muddy and wet. On one of the downhill sections, there was a full flowing river down the trail that we descended through. Luckily though, there were guys from Wicked Wash at the race all day cleaning bikes so the mud build-up never got too unmanageable.

Joe's Bike Shop Racing Team was well represented this weekend. Chris and Keith raced in the men's solo category, Jeff and I raced in the co-ed duo category as did Kathleen and her teammate, Tom from the Wicked Wash team, and Kristin raced as part of a co-ed trio team.

JBS Racing Team

Since I have officially finished with medical school, I had some extra time to prepare for this weekend's race. Instead of relying on GU's, slim jims and sugary snacks on race day, I made some recipes from the Skratch Labs cookbook, and fueled my race day with real food. I made apple-quinoa bars, potato and red pepper frittata slices, whole wheat chocolate chip and hemp seed cookies, and savory bread pudding bars. Along with bananas and Naked juice drinks, I was happy I didn't have to eat a single energy labs product.

However, while my nutrition was improved from last week, my clothing choice was not. It was much colder than I expected it to be and everyone who was relaying got really cold between laps due to low temperatures, windy and rainy conditions, and sitting around in wet, muddy clothes.

The race started at 10am and the cut-off time for the last lap was at 6:30pm. I did the first lap for our team because Jeff didn't want to run the Le Mans-style start. So I got to deal with the beginning of the race congestion. It was so fun doing hot laps and pushing as hard as I could each time I went out since I knew I would get a 40 min break before I biked again. I felt great throughout the day. While my times up the hills probably got slower as the day progressed and my legs tired, my confidence in riding the rocky singletrack sections improved drastically. Each lap, I felt smoother through the rocks and turns, and I learned which lines to take through the rocky and muddy descents so by the end, I didn't have to touch my brakes. The race really helped build my confidence biking fast through rocks.

For Jeff, he started out really strong for his first 2 laps. Lap 3 = dark place. On his forth lap, Jeff managed to get lost. It was his forth time out on a exceptionally well marked course, so that takes some skills! Jeff took a right hand turn up one of the climbs too early and ended up in someone's campsite. Luckily, he found a cut-off back down to the road and made the correct right hand turn a little farther up. He had to pass the same people he had already passed once. "Hello again. Hello again." His fifth lap felt great.

I finished my 6th lap around 5:46. We had about a 20 minute lead on the 2nd place team at that point. Jeff said I wouldn't have to go out again if I didn't want to. I told him of course I wanted to bike more, which meant he had to push through his last lap to make the 6:30 cutoff time. I wasn't about to let Jeff get off with an easy, cruising last lap, which is what he wanted! At 6:28 with 2 minutes to spare, Jeff came rolling through the transition area, and I set off on my last lap of the day. Since I didn't let Jeff have an easy last lap, I wasn't going to let myself have one either. I pushed through the entire course as hard as I could. At the start of the lap, the evening sun was shining through the trees and reflecting off the lake. I was so happy to be out in the woods on my bike. There was no where else in the world I would have rather been at that moment. At the end of my lap, the sun was still shining, but it started downpouring! I didn't care at all. I was already covered in mud from head to toe. I was wet, tired, happy and powering through the last singletrack section with a huge smile on my face. As I came into the finish, a rainbow appeared overhead. Some days are frustrating on the bike, some days I want to quit training, but days like Saturday make all the hard work and disappointments worthwhile. It doesn't get much better than finishing an endurance relay in 1st place under a rainbow.

We were the only co-ed duo team to do 13 laps. My last lap time was 42:49, and I actually beat Jeff's last lap time of 42:57! That never happens in a singletrack mountain bike race and will probably never happen again so I figured I should document it here.

Everyone else on Joe's did really well too. Chris is a beast and took 3rd place in the solo male category coming off of Cohutta 100 last weekend. Kathleen and Tom took 4th, and Kristin and her team got 3rd. The 3rd place finishers probably got the best prizes of the day: in addition to pint glasses, they got a Park Tool pizza cutter and spork!

Jeff, Kathleen, Chris and me with our pint glasses!