Set Higher Standards by Ravi

Ramblings from a 30-something ultra-marathoning yogi with a day job.

Posts Tagged ‘Barefoot Ted

Copper Canyon Ultramarathon 2011 Adventure & Race Report

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All runners got a poster for participating in the race

I shouldn’t call this a race report since the objective was less about racing and more about experiencing the culture and the beauty of the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. Arriving at the starting point of the race involved 2 flights, a 2+ day ride in a van and an 18 mile rugged and hot hike down into the canyon town of Urique. The days prior to the race were filled with intense hikes and general overload of the senses with a new language (Spanish) new food (quintessential mexican) and new people (both Urique locals and Tarahumara Indians). I ended up finishing the event, which was my goal. It took me 12.5 hours, far longer than I hoped – but I don’t care too much about that. Crazy and unexpected things can happen after pushing the human body for many hours.

I had an amazing time and plan on returning next year. If you are at all considering doing an ultramarath0n or even visiting the Copper Canyons – I highly recommend it. I felt totally safe the entire time, and see that much of what I had read in the news about violence and killings  and foreign travelers being at risk was overblown. Do your homework before going, but also recognize that the popular media is really good at creating attention grabbing headlines that aren’t always indicative of reality.

The Arrival

The whole crew. Photo from Barefoot Ted (www.barefootted.com).

Day 1: There are many ways to get to Urique Canyon. My method was definitely not the fastest, but it was cost-effective, safe and made for a good chance to meet other interesting people. I flew into El Paso and stayed overnight at a Motel 6 with another racer that I met online. The hotel was clean and safe, and 12 of us were all meeting here to board a van driven by Doug “Diego” Rhodes, who operated a hotel near Urique and served as a guide to visiting gringos. The next morning we awoke to the sight of a large white van parked outside. We immediately wandered out to meet our fellow adventurers. It was exciting to meet the people we would be spending the 10 days with! Everyone was super cool, including a large contingent from Seattle, two people from Ohio, one from California, three from Utah and one from new Mexico. Amazingly, it turned out that 4 people in the van were vegan!

Day 2: We headed south and immediately crossed the border uneventfully (there is rarely much traffic heading south, but always traffic coming back to the US). Heading through Juarez was not a big deal. It’s been tagged as “the most dangerous city in the world” by popular media but it seemed just fine. We past plenty of trucks filled with armed guards, humvees and dudes with machines guns on the streets (military) – but I didn’t see this as much different from other places I’ve been to in South America (Lima or Quito in particular). Diego made sure we moved swiftly through the city.

We departed Juarez after a quick stop to exchange money and continued heading south through a flat and windy desert, stopping in the small town of Cuatemoc for the night. The next day we continued driving to Diego’s hotel…which is more like a ranch. It’s in a beautiful part of the country, with rolling hills pierced by rocky cliffs, pine tree forests, bright blue skies all the time and an elevation of 6000 feet. Here we met Caballo Blanco himself! Caballo is the race director and all around supporter of the Raramuri people (also know as Tarahumara, Raramuri is their traditional name), he would be our guide into the canyon and make sure everything was cool leading up to the race. He is an incredibly genuine and nice dude.

Day 3: The next day we had an off-day, and we welcomed some additional travelers joining us at the ranch. All-told, 27 gringos’ met up at Diego’s place! In the morning I led a yoga class to help get us loosened up. Various groups spent then spent the day exploring. My group went on an adventure that had us hiking and scrambling up the side of a mountain near the ranch. We hit the summit where there was a large flat plateau and started running! We explored a bit and eventually spotted a trail that descended the other side of the mountain toward a small town. We took the trail and made it down into the town, and returned back to Doug’s place via a dirt road. In the afternoon. A few of us went out on another hike to visit Tarahumara burial caves, complete with lots of human bones.

Raramuri burial caves. Photo by Pat Sweeney (bourbonfeet.blogspot.com).

Day 4: After lots of food and a night’s rest, we prepared for our departure to Urique, which required an 18 mile hike up and over a mountain ridge, and down-down-down 5000 feet into the heart of the Copper Canyon. Our luggage would meet us in Urique via van. All 27 of us loaded up on tons of water and food and proceeded on the hike. It was gorgeous, one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. We spotted hawks, buzzards and wandered close to some “grow fields” if you know what I mean. The temperature rose sharply through the hike – well into the 90’s. The trail was at times steep and made of loose slippery rock pieces and dirt. The adventure had begun!

After 13 miles we hit a part of the trail where Caballo let us loose to run the rest of the way into town if we wanted. It was another 5 miles or so, and a bunch of us took off. It was a tough run for me. I was super dehydrated from the heat and my legs had absolutely no energy. I trotted along slowly and eventually made it into town. The first night I stayed at Entre Amigos, run by a gringo named Keith, with about 10 other racers. It was a gorgeous property full of tropical fruit trees bursting with fresh fruit (papayas, grape fruits, oranges, lemons, limes) and a super huge garden that all guests were allowed to raid at will. He had a bunk house with dorm style beds and a few double-bed room. He also had a bunch of campsites. I opted for a campsite, and since I didn’t have a tent, I just slept with my sleeping bag on top of a tarp under the shade of a mango tree and the stars! We had free use of the kitchen – and cooked out own dinner of fresh beets and kale from garden, with rice, salsa, tomatoes, avocados and tortillas we picked up from a small store in town.

A large mural in Urique

Days 5-6: My friend Jim from New Mexico and I opted to move into a clean and simple hotel room right in the heart of town. Staying at Keith’s was nice but we realize that sleeping on the floor would get old after a few more nights. We got a room with two double beds and a private bathroom at what was dubbed “the nicest hotel in Urique” for 300 pesos per night (less than 30 dollars).

The next two days featured hikes of the entire course, led by Caballo. You might be thinking…”Hey, isn’t it crazy to hike the entire course in the days before running 50 miles?” The answer is absolutely yes!!! Which is why I chose not to do the hikes :). Others did do the hikes, covering 18 miles one day (first major loop of the course) and 22 miles another day (second major loop of the course). The last 10 miles were a repeat of part the first loop and they skipped that. A second reason why I didn’t do the hikes is that I was feeling incredibly sick the day after our hike into Urique. I was massively dehydrated and had a raging headache most of the night. I opted to lay-low and rehydrated. I went out for a 20 minute run in the heat to help acclimatize on each day instead. After a couple of days I felt back to normal.

The best hotel in Urique, and I only saw 1 scorpion while staying there :)

Arnulfo is all smiles as his young kid horses around on his back. He is a Raramuri running champion and featured in the book "Born to Run". Incredibly friendly guy.

The preferred footwear for Raramuri are Hurache sandals made from old tires. They can run incredibly fast over technical terrain with this footwear!

Day 7: Rest, eat, sleep! This was a true day off. The town was buzzing with energy as Raramuri hiked in from all over the canyon. More gringo’s arrived and it was fun just walking around town and meeting people. I led a little impromptu yoga class in the town square which was fun. We had an audience of Raramuri watching us!

Mark from Dallas and I the day before the race, sporting our race bibs!

Pre-race festivities in the town square

There were always bunch of dogs just wandering around town. Most of them were nice - except for the two that tried to bite me while out on a short run! They appeared healthy (as opposed to what I see in some other places around the world). Photo by Laurie Colon.

Crystal (Left) and Laurie (Right) from Ohio with Carlo (far Left) and Jim (far Right) - members of Team USA! Crystal was the 3rd overall woman finisher and Laurie was fifth.

The Course

Urique is nestled deep in the heart of Las Barrancas del Cobre (The Copper Canyons). The race course traversed the canyon floor and climbed several mountains outside of town.

The course featured three loops of 18, 22 and 10 miles – that all begin and end right in the heart of town. In terms of course severity – the overall conditions made it by far the most challenging terrain I have ever run on. Technical trails. Rocky dirty roads that made it tough to run fast even on the flats or downhills. Searing heat (it was over 90 degrees for most of the course, and probably hit 100 in certain spots). Some crazy long and steep climbing. That said, many other gringos who were veteran racers of 100 and 50 mile ultras said the course wasn’t that bad as far as 50-milers go, and that the total elevation change wasn’t super hard (9,000 ft total climbing). It’s all in the eye of the beholder I guess :).

Loop 1: The 18 mile loop had a 10 mile out of back along a dirt road (note: all dirty roads here are riddled with rocks, they aren’t nice and smooth roads like we have in the USA!). This stretch had a bunch of “death hills” (as Caballo likes to call them). The next 3-5 miles was an epic climb on technical single-track up a mountain followed by a winding and long descent on a dirt road back into town.

Loop 2: The 22 mile loop to Los Alisos features a long flat 6 mile stretch on dirt roads before climbing brutally up the side of a mountain for several miles. This part of the course is very hot and exposed with little shade. After hitting an aid station 11 miles in, you turn around and run back!

Loop 3: The final 10 mile repeats the out and back “death hills” from the first loop.

The weather for the entire week of the race was hotter than normal, and race day looked to be the same. Hydration would be super important.

The Gear

Pat Sweeney took a picture of me before and after the start of the race and I look exactly the same! The one on the left is from 6:30am and the right is from 7pm.

My gear was as follows:

  • Lululemon lightweight top
  • Lululemon running/yoga shorts (they have a liner….eliminates chaffing)
  • Bodyglide – use all over or suffer!
  • Headsweats visor
  • Sunglasses
  • Amphipod 22oz handheld bottle
  • Amphipod waist belt with 2 x 10oz bottles and pouch for food/electrolyte tabs
  • Hammer gel flask – holds 500 calories of gel
  • Inov-8 Roclite 295 trail shoes
  • Ironman triathlon socks
  • Medical tape (I tape my pinky and big toes to prevent blisters)

Nutrition

  • Orange flavored Hammer gel bottle (big one) – use this to refill gel flask after each loop
  • Nuun electrolyte tablets – 9 tablets
  • Hammer Endurolytes tablets – 10 tablets
  • Cliff Shot Bloks – two packages
  • Cliff Bars – a couple in my drop bag just in case

Packing for the race.

During the race I planned to consume 250 calories per hour and I came in just under that in actuality. I took in 2500 calories total during race day, which was OK given that I was moving so slow for the last 10 miles. I was never really hungry during the race, and afterwards I was so tired I skipped dinner and fell asleep at 7:30pm! Not being hungry is a sign that I took in enough calories, though I was probably under hydrated a little.

I carried 40 ounces of water with me (handheld bottle and waist belt), with 1 Nuun tablet in the handheld bottle and the other bottles just plain. I carried Nuun with me and dropped 1 tablet in my handheld each time I refilled it (about 1 time per hour). I took 6 Endurolytes during the race – at random times and gave some tabs out to Raramuri that I saw cramping. A key strategy for me was to dump at least 10 ounces of water on my head and back every hour if possible. When I saw an aid station, I immediately emptied my bottled on myself before refilling. This strategy totally saved me from imploding due to the heat.

My calorie consumption was as follows

  • Loop 1 – 18 miles – 500 calories of gel, 200 calories of shot blocks, a ~3 banana halves, 5-6 orange quarters and 2 cups of pinole (ground corn mixed with water) at aid stations
  • Loop 2 – 22 miles – ditto
  • Loop 3 – 10 miles – 500 calories gel, 1 banana and 2 pieces of orange

My feet had zero blisters, which other folks found hard to believe while chatting afterwards. I’ve always had pretty resilient feet and been blister free for most of my running life. Also, the Inov-8 Roclite shoes are incredible and wrapping my toes in tape (it stayed on for the first 35 miles) helped for sure.

The Race

Guadaloupe Coronado and the Big Climb (~18 miles) aka “if you aren’t awake you will be now!”

Mile 15 of the race, a young and and old Raramuri are running together. Note the footwear and simple clothing. Neither are holding bottles or carrying fuel. They rely entirely on aid station support. Amazing. Photo by Leah Kangas.

Mile 1: The race start was 6:45am. The Raramuri are known for going out incredibly fast. It was crazy to see about 100 people take off sprinting as if they were running a 5K! The experienced runners (Raramuri included) stayed in the mid pack and waiting for the carnage to take place during the first major climb. I went out nice and easy as we cruised the flat paved road through town and onto a very rocky dirt road with mild rollers for the first mile.

Miles 2-5: We hit some major hills. Caballo calls them “death hills”. They aren’t that bad by themselves, but in cumulative they will crush you. At this point in the race I start walking anything that even smells like a hill! Some folks try to run even the long hills…I don’t know what they are thinking! The weather stays pretty cool and there are quite a few aid stations…about 1 every 2 miles or so.

Mile 6-8: We hit a turnaround point and retrace out steps. I notice that a lot of the locals are cutting the course! They are taking small trails that veer off the road and re-join the road later on. They aren’t saving that much time…maybe a quarter-mile at most, so I ignore it. The way I see it, I get to use my technical gear and they get to use home field advantage of local trails :) .

I really begin to feel that this course if harder than I thought. The footing is tough even on the dirt road, with tons of large and small rocks and sections with soft dirt/sand. It’s super tiring on my feet and lower legs. I start to get concerned about my ability to finish.

Miles 9-13: Turning off the dirt road, the technical single-track and climbing begins. I walk a ton of this…since we climb for what seems like forever. A bunch of people pass me…and then the field thins out a bit. There are no aid stations on the climb. I’m glad I brought both a water bottle in my hand and two 10 ounces bottles in my waist belt. I am pretty sure I’m not going to finish this race…I am just not in good enough shape and my legs are dead.

Miles 13-15: Finally…an aid station! I grab some oranges and some strange “bags” filled with water. They are like the milk bags we used in school, only filled with water or a Mexican sports drink called “Zuca.” I grab one bag and bite the end, squeezing the water in my mouth. I grab a few more and squeeze them into my water bottles. I grab a few oranges and a cup of pinole. Wow, that pinole is good stuff! The route descents down a twisting dirt road. At times the road is too steep for me to run comfortably, so I sadly walk parts of the downhill.

Mile 16: I round a corner and smell like someone is smoking a joint…a big a strong one. I look to the right and left and see no one in the fields. I keep running downhill and catch up to two young kids (they may have been Raramuri or local Urique boys, not sure) who have been racing since the start, they were about 1/2 mile ahead of me most of the race running in jeans, cotton t-shirts and sandals! They looked like they were 12 years old at most. I then notice they are passing a joint back and forth…I laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of being out-run by two young kids in jeans and flip-flops smoking a joint. I can’t make that up if I tried.

Uh Oh! I'm walking on a flat section of road around 15 miles into the race. Photo by Leah Kangas.

Miles 17-18: Reality sets in about how hard this course is. Caballo Blanco passes me with a big smile on his face and some words of encouragement. He is running light and smooth. I am assuming at this point that I am not finishing the race. My legs are totally trashed half-way down the descent and my feet really are super tired from all the rocks. Regardless, I need to run back to town so I continue on and feel better as we enter back into town to complete this big loop. I head to my drop-bag and refill my Hammer Gel flask and grab some more Nuun and Endurolytes. I decide to start the next loop and see what happens.

Los Olisos Out and Back Loop (~22 miles) aka “a run through the blast furnace”

Miles 19-25: I feel very good during the flat to slightly rolling stretch through the Urique river valley. I pass quite a few people, including a few “gringo’s” that were starting to feel the heat as the temperatures were climbing into the 90’s by now. There were several places to take aid and I enjoyed some banana pieces at each along with 2-3 orange wedges and a cup of pinole. I ran about 80% of this stretch, only walking a few of the bigger hills.

Miles 26-29: After crossing a suspension footbridge I begin the climb to the grapefruit orchards of Los Olisos. The temperature is climbing rapidly and I estimate that is hits at least 100 in this part of the course. The landscape turns into a moonscape devoid of much vegetation as I climb the steep trails. Footing is tough and the trail is narrow. I really struggle just to hike this section. Runners are going both directions on this trail and there are steep drop-offs at some points. I dumb water on my head all the time to stay cool. I’m diligent about taking Endurolyte tablets or dropping Nuun in my bottles. I pass out Endurolytes to a Raramuri who appears to be cramping badly. He is very thankful.

At one point I hit a steep and narrow part of the trail with a cliff on one side and a rock wall on the other. I’m trying to go one direction and runners are coming back at me in the other direction….and a Burro is also trying to navigate the trail amidst all the chaos. I go spread eagle against the cliff until the Burro saunters by and I continue on. Only in Mexico!

Miles 30-33: Hitting the turn-around point I am totally out of water. I ran out long ago and am very dehydrated. I drop some iodine tablets (thanks Mark!) into my bottles and refills at the one aid station (the water was from a nearby spring since they couldn’t carry bottled or bagged water up this trail). I laugh at the sight of the station being manned by a couple big security dudes carrying M16’s! I devour some oranges and carry on back down the mountain slowly. I am super tired and still worried about just finishing. Looking around though, I am inspired by the Raramuri, persisting with little gear or fuel – I keep moving on.

Miles 34-40: Completing the descent I retraced the flat section back to Urique, which is suddenly much tougher than on the way out! My feet are incredibly tired and I run about 50% of this section. I can’t believe that I am walking flat and even some downhill sections but nothing I can do about that. The weather is burning hot. I dump water on my head to keep cool at every chance I get. I run the last mile back into town and hit my drop bag for a refill of Hammer Gel and water. Looking at my watch I realize that no matter what I will finish this course, even if I have to crawl. I have enough time even if I end up needing to walk the last part of the course.

Guadaloupe Coronado Out and Back Loop (~11 miles) aka “death hills”

Miles 41-45: I run out-of-town for a few miles. I see people running the opposite direction towards the finish line. These folks are completing in about 9-10 hours. I’m very jealous! I see some friends and that is cool. Once I hit the first small climb I start walking again, and find running next to impossible. Ever little hill has become a death hill. Caballo was right!

Miles 46-50: It takes absolutely forever to get the turnaround point. All my energy goes into maintaining forward motion and the sun starts to go down and the weather cools. There are fewer people out on the course so there is less to distract me. I’m walking and walking slow. No more power hiking. I try running occasionally and it’s super painful. My friend Bookis rolls up next to me and that motivates me to jog again. We stay together through the turnaround, where I take aid. I tell Bookis (he ran the entire race in Luna sandals!)to not hang with me since I’m not capable of running any more. I continue walking most of the next few miles, and the darkness comes quickly. By mile 49 it is almost pitch black, with just the stars and moon out. I hit a dirt road and occasional trucks passing by force to move to the edge of the road to avoid becoming roadkill. They help to light my way. At one point I almost impale myself on a bull cow that happened to be standing in the middle of the dirt road…lucky for me I heard it’s moo in time!

Mile 50-51: I see the lights of Urique and run back into town. I actually feel a lot better now. Amazing how seeing the finish provides a great burst of energy! There were tons of people in the village, and they were having a finish/awards ceremony on a stage in the town square. There was no post-race tent or food stuff given out. In fact, when I finished it took a few seconds to even find one of the race volunteers to tell him I finished! Surprisingly, instead of him telling me my time he asked me what my time was! I was too tired to talk so showed him my watch, he wrote it down and said good job. 12:32:01. Several hours longer than I thought it would take, but no matter, I finished! I saw some other gringo friends: some recently finished and laying on the sidewalk in recovery while others had been done for hours. I gave some high five’s, took a photo and stumbed about 100 yards back to my hotel room, where my roommate was resting (he got food poisoning and didn’t race).

Start/finish area the morning after the race. Victory!

Nick and Jamil Coury are the only gringo's to finish in the top 10. I think they finished in less than 8 hours. They've both raced here many times. Photo by Barefoot Ted

I met these two kids after arriving in Urique. The one on the right is 14 years old and finished the race last year in 10 hours! The one on the left is the same age (I think). They both finished the race this year, very fast. Photo by Laurie Colon.

The Long Journey Home

Friends departing Urique outside Mama Tita's restaurant.

The morning after the race we said goodbye to friends departing via bus, and then piled into our van for the long and hair-raising climb out of Urique Canyon via a 90 minute twisting dirt road winding its way up the mountainsides. We had an overnight stop in the small Mexican town of Cuatemoc before continuing on to El Paso. My flight home became more interesting when I missed my connection in Denver (after sprinting across the entire terminal!), resulting in another overnight stay! I finally arrive back home safe and sound.

This Copper Canyon experience is one I’ll never forget. I’m already planning on returning next year.

Raramuri waiting for a bus to take them part of the way home. They will then have to hike 50K through the canyon to their homes outside the town of Batopilas.

4 wheel drive

Copper Canyon Adventure and Ultramarathon

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World class ultrarunner Scott Jurek running with Arnulfo a few years ago before the Copper Canyon Ultra. Source: barefootted.com

Ever since hearing about the Tarahumara from Tony Robbins at a workshop several years ago (Tony was sharing tips on fitness and endurance), I’ve dreamed about visiting the Copper Canyons of Mexico. Reading Born to Run a short while later got me really excited and upon meeting Caballo Blanco (Micah True) and Barefoot Ted in Seattle and hearing about their efforts to help the Raramuri (means “running people”…and is what the Tarahumara call themselves), I realized that the only thing stopping me from doing it was a strong commitment to do so.  So here I go, on Saturday (February 26th, 2011) I’m leaving to visit the Copper Canyons. I’ll stay there for a few days and also compete in the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, an epic 50 mile endurance run through amazing off-road terrain.

View of the Copper Canyons. Source: David B Bell

The race has been organized by Caballo for several years, and serves as a celebration of the Raramuri way of life as well as a fund raiser to support them through the Norawas De Raramuri foundation. Running comes naturally to the people that live in the canyons, as it is their primary mode of transportation between villages, given the terrain is too extreme for roads and cars. Running is also a form of play, with villages playing a “ball game” that often lasts for several days and involves kicking a small wooden ball along a dirt path, covering upwards of 100K+ at a time! Yes, all for fun. For these strong and kind people, running 50 miles really is nothing big. They run in simple sandals made from old tires, wear simple cotton clothing and having fancy in terms of energy gels, bars or camelbacks for hydration. Despite their simple approach, they are incredibly fast! For me, it will be a big mental and physical test and be the longest I’ve ever run in one stretch (when I say run I really mean jog/walk!).

The Copper Canyon Ultramarathon will feature around 20-30 “non-local” runners (mostly from the US) and over 200 Tarahumara runners. Non-local runners have all donated funds that will go back to support local villages, and every local finisher will receive 100Kg’s of corn (their primary food). The top finishers will a lot more corn (I think the winner gets 1 ton!).

Copper Canyons deep in the heart of Mexico. Source: http://www.graphicmaps.com

The canyons, are very remote – requiring a 3+ day journey (each way!) just to get to the start of the race. I’ll be flying into El Paso, Texas and meeting a handful of runners. After an overnight stay at a cheap motel we’ll meet a guide who is taking us via van across the border (very quickly passing through Juarez!) for a 2 1/2 day overland journey to the edge of the Copper Canyons. After a night’s stay at a hotel we will then hike around 18 miles down into the canyons, to the small village of Urique that will serve as the “race headquarters.” I’ll spend 3 days in Urique hiking the entire race course with other runners, exploring the canyons and relaxing as much as possible. I’ll be staying in some very simple dorm-style accommodations. Hiking 50 miles on rugged terrain 3 days before a race might not be the best race taper strategy, but this is more about seeing the canyons and meeting the people than racing per se :) . I’ve also heard they have amazing grapefruit orchards in the canyons – if this is true I’ll be in heaven!

It’s also the case that the diet of the Tarahumara is primarily vegetarian – based on corn, chia, beans and fruits and vegetables. There is some meat in their diet, but it is limited simply due to cost and the limited land for animal farming. As a vegetarian, this is all good with me!

On March 6th, the race will begin. The course will have a lot of elevation change, I think something on the order of 8-9000 feet of climbing in total (and then descending the same). Some of the course is on old dirt roads and some is on single track. Temperatures in the canyons will be a dry 80-85 degrees during the day and as low as 45-50 in the evenings. In terms of aid station, I’m still unclear exactly what will be offered, though I’m assured there will be “enough”! I’m betting on water and fruit along the course in at least a couple of spots since the route is a figure 8 and will pass through the village a couple of times. My race strategy is to use an Amphipod waist belt to carry around 40 ounces, and an Amphipod hand bottle for another 20 ounces. I’ll carry 600 calories in energy gel (in a gel flask), a bunch of almonds, a Cliff Bar and electrolyte tablets (1 per hour at least). If the aid station situation isn’t ideal, I’ll carry another bottle.

My expectations for the race itself are simply to finish with a smile on my face. Under 10 hours would be awesome, but I recognize that it might take around 12 hours. I really don’t know what will happen to my body after 32 miles (the longest I’ve run) so it’s all uncharted territory. The only important thing as far I am concerned is to finish before dark (we start at 6am) and not get lost…navigating the trails in the dark won’t be fun (or safe).

I won’t have internet access while I’m down there, so however this adventure goes down, you’ll get an update when I return.

Hasta Luego!

How to Run 50 Miles: Part IV – Proper Biomechanics

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Read first: Part I, Part II, Part III

I had my running form analyzed last year to debug the cause of a nagging pain in my hip. This photo clearly shows a "hip sway" probably caused by weak glutes that comprises my hip, knee and foot movement. It also puts undue pressure on my lumbar spine. Not a good thing! I never would have known this was happening had I not had video analysis done. Obviously you should get this done by a professional, but you can also have a friend videotape you running on a treadmill and play it back in slow mo to see what is going on.

The third principle I adhere to is that bio-mechanical efficiency is absolutely key. You can fake it for shorter distances, but the longer you run (both in terms of distance and number of years) – your mechanics will either wear you out or build you up. Hopefully it is the later and not the former that happens! Small inefficiencies in form are greatly magnified over long distances.

Research shows that 2 out of 3 runners are injured at any given time. This is ridiculous. The injury may be a nagging thing like knee pain or a severe thing like a tibial stress fracture (I’ve had one!) that sidelines an athlete for months. I truly believe that we were born to run. Each and every one of us. Doesn’t matter if you are 7 feet tall or 4 feet tall. 300 pounds or 90 pounds. Humans were made to move long distances. It has been necessary for our survival and we’re finally tuned endurance machines. Somehow in the modern time we’ve  forgotten this birthright and been duped into thinking we can’t run far and need all kinds of fancy shoes and supports to be health. It isn’t true.

With the assertion that we were born to run, one would then assume that we should not see the majority of runners suffering from injuries. I know ultra marathoners that run 100+ mile weeks and seem to never get injured, they just get stronger with more training! I also know weekend warriors that are constantly injured and running with all kinds of knee braces, orthotic shoes and other sorts of crutches. Personally…I’ve suffered tons of injuries in my past 15+ years of running and racing (2 stress fractures, shin splints, hip pain, knee pain, etc.) despite not doing super high mileage and spending lots of time on soft running surfaces like trails. Why is this the case? It’s almost like some people are naturally gifted to run and others are not. This is a myth, as we are all gifted as runners.

There are some great articles written about biomechanical efficiency, and for any runner (weekend warrior to competitive athlete) they are worth the time to study. I’ve spend the past couple years re-learning how to run. It’s been a long road and taken effort, but I now enjoy running more than I ever have, and my nagging injuries are starting to heal and I’m feeling stronger than ever. In fact, after coming back to running after a year-long hiatus, I ran a marathon and two 50K trail ultra-marathons…with just a month gap between each event. Most people would think I am crazy to run distance events that close together….but  I recovered pretty quickly and never got injured, in fact I felt stronger with each race.

How did I start learning how to run? A few years ago I started running in Vibram FiveFingers a few times a week (just a mile or two) and walking around at work in Nike Free’s to strengthen my feet. I focused on landing more towards the middle of my foot and less on my heel. That was pretty much all the running I did, with most of my other exercise coming in the form of yoga and hiking. Just wearing more minimal shoes helped a lot.

Vibram FiveFinger "Sprint's"

After re-starting run training late last summer, I ditched my old training shoes that I used for most of my mileage in favor of Brook’s Green Silence shoes – that are ultra-light with a fairly low “drop” from heel to forefoot. I rotated using them with a pair of more built-up cushioned running shoes (Mizuno Waverider’s). I built up to the point where running 20+ miles on pavement in my Green Silence is no big deal! The low heel drop helped my feet to naturally land more towards my mid-foot and forefoot. From there…I progressed to track workouts and consistent awareness on landing light and keeping a higher stride cadence (as Barefoot Ted teaches!).

My advice for improving your biomechanics is to:

  1. Study: Read voraciously….spend time on youtube….read blogs…educate yourself. So many people have “seen the light” and rediscovered the joy of running over the past few years. A lot of the learning is posted online…spend some time on Bing and learn what works and what doesn’t…then do try for yourself! If you haven’t read the book “Born to Run“…do it and a lot of what I am talking about will make sense :)
  2. Diagnose: I had my form video-taped and analyzed by a sports doctor (as per the image above). This was incredibly useful! I learned that my hips were “swaying” from side to side, causing all sorts of issues with my knees and hips and feet, even through my foot strike itself was OK. The cause? A weak butt! The solution? Building a super strong ass with one-legged squats and kettlebell swings.
  3. Transition: Take your time to transition. It may be a year-long process. Start by alternating new shoes (if you decide to go the minimal route) with your regular running shoes until your feet get strong. Changing things too radically can cause injury. If you don’t practice yoga, I recommend 2-3 power yoga classes per week, it will greatly improve flexibility in your achilles tendon, hips and hamstrings. This will help you run more effectively.

Here are a two other resources that I’ve found super helpful:

How to Run: Running with Proper Biomechanics by Runblogger: Steve is one of the all-time fastest high school milers and takes a scientific approach to analyzing running mechanics. This post is a great read and you can continue reading his other posts to learn more tips about how to run well.

Pose TV: POSE is a method or learning functional movement. I’ve watched all these videos and they are incredibly helpful. In fact, the way Dr. Romanov teaches running technique is so simple, that within minutes of watching the videos I went out for a run and felt instantly faster. One of the best tips was not to focus too much on landing on your mid or fore-foot but instead focus on pulling your heel quickly up to your butt once it passes under your hips, while keeping your stride cadence high. I’m doing a POSE running clinic next week and will write up my experience then.

Happy running!

Written by Ravi Raman

February 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Weekly Training: Jan 31-6, 2011

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Light week of training. Felt pretty drained during the week, mostly due to work and a variety of other things going on (including getting LASIK eye surgery!). Good news is my legs feel pretty fresh and besides the bottom of my feet feeling pretty sore after runs, I am in great shape and injury free.

Monday, Jan 31. Kettlebells (:6:00) followed by short easy run (:12:00)

4 sets kettlebell swings total. 12 swings @ 16kg. 3 x 12 swings @ 24 kg.  90 seconds to complete each set.
Put on shoes and then went directly for a run around a park to test out my new Inov-8 Roclite 295 shoes. The shoes feel really good. I’m planning to use these during the Copper Canyon Ultra run next month.

Tuesday, Feb 1. Day off.

No good reason for a day off. Just got busy, woke up late, tons of work and then got to go downtown to hear Jean-Michelle Cousteau talk about the oceans, how in danger they are and his family adventures over the years (Jacque is his dad!).

Wednesday, Feb 2. Track workout (:50:00)

Ran with Eastside Runners “Group #6.” 800 warm up then 1600, 1200, 1000, 800 with an 800 jog in between each. Finished with 800 easy. I hit the pre-determined pace times for group 6 pretty much dead-on. What is funny is that I almost bailed on the run, I felt so tired at the start. After the first 1600 I was then going to stop running, but decided to keep at it. I then felt awesome and finished the workout super strong. Goes to show that a few fast laps around the track can cure a lot of problems! My splits roughly:

1600 = 6:08
1200 = 4:31
1000 = Can’t remember…pretty much the same pace as my 1200 though
800 = 2:55 roughly

Thursday, Feb 3. Kettlebells (:8:00)

5 sets of 20 swings with 53lb bell. Took roughly 90 seconds between sets.

Friday, Feb 4. Easy run (:22:00)

Easy run around Medina.

Saturday, Feb 5. Easy run and running clinic with Barefoot Ted (:25:00)

Ran in Vibram Bikila‘s. A few laps around a soft dirt track.

Sunday, Feb 6. Easy trail run (:80:00) in the afternoon and Yoga (:60:00) in the evening.

Nice and easy (wet and muddy!) fun run at Bridle Trails park with Alison. Practiced using my Amphipod waist pack and bottles with Hammergel flask. The Amphipod is so much better than a Fueltbelt. Also ran in my Inov-8 Roclite 295’s and they did incredibly well on the soft, wet and super muddy trails. Yoga was a solid hour of power vinyasa with Dora, with lots of handstands and other fun stuff.

Total training time  = 4:26:00

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Excited for Copper Canyon. Also starting to realize that Ironman CDA is coming up faster than ever. I gotta get on the bike! For now…it’s time to eat.

Written by Ravi Raman

February 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Posted in Training

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Barefoot Running Insights from Barefoot Ted

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Today I got a chance to listen to Barefoot Ted (again) and go on a mini barefoot running clinic with other folks from the Born to Run store in Bellevue. About 30 people showed up at the store for Ted’s humorous and insightful monologue about the reasons for minimalist running and a little insights into his background.

There was also Q&A and we got to hear stories from a variety of people who have had pretty profound physical transformations due to rethinking the way they move and what they wear on their feet. After the Q&A, we headed to Bellevue Downtown Park for about 20 minutes of short drills and light jogging.

Here’s what I learned:

  • If you look at old yearbook photos from high school track teams, especially from California, you’ll see most runners were barefoot!
  • West of the Cascade mountains, most native Indian people were 100% barefoot year round, East of the Cascade range moccasins were worn due to the cold
  • Young Indians would train with a leaf tied under their moccasins, they had to move without breaking the leaf!
  • Shoes serve a real purpose in the modern world, the issue is with shoe companies that have gotten a little carried away with fancy technologies and needing to have new models come out all the time
  • Most indigenous people had some form of footwear, but the footwear was not changing year to year – it worked for the long time!
  • Cadence matters, keep a high cadence all the time while running – this is where having lightweight shoes is helpful
  • Focus on landing on the ball of the foot
  • Focus on being quiet when you land
  • Focus on using your whole body to absorb shock like a giant spring – practice jumping up and landing softly by bending the knees!

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Training for Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon is cruising along. I’m taking a ton of days off training for with light training. Better under than over-trained I think! Barefoot Ted is running in his Luna Sandals. He bets that whoever wins the race will be wearing sandals (either a Tarahumara or Pat Sweeney).

Written by Ravi Raman

February 5, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Running Clinic with Barefoot Ted from Born to Run

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(L-R) Me, Barefoot Ted, Sean, Rashida, Oliver (pic shamelessly pirated from SeanDH.com!)

Had the chance to meet with “Barefoot Ted” (featured in the book Born to Run) for a fun clinic on natural running and a quick tour of his Luna Sandal factory. I’ve met Ted a few times in the past year and he is a great guy. I learned a lot in just an hour of listening to him, asking questions and going through some drills. I’ll distill down a few of the main things I learned, but highly recommend doing your own clinic if you are ever in the Seattle area.

We met in the Luna Sandal “factory”, which is really just  small room where he is making very traditional sandals, akin to the kind of footwear worn by native people for centuries in many locales. He gave a brief talk on his perspective on natural running, the problems we face in a society so fixated on measurement, tracking and “times” and totally out of touch with the natural rhythms of our bodies and the sheer joy of movement. I have no doubt that Ted could talk for days about running technique and history, he really does know a ton.

We then headed out to a nearby park for some drills. I was with a few friends: Sean, Oliver and Rashida. They all wore Vibram FiveFingers, but I just opted to go barefoot for the full effect! It was quite cold out and raining. We did drills for a short while to focus on three main things that Ted things focused on.

  1. Soft landing. We went back and forth along a flat and wide sidewalk, first walking and then slowly jogging; all the while careful to move without making a sound. This is tough to do! Ted’s feet were barely audible as he was landing so softly. Even in my bare feet I could hear a little thud with every landing. The focus was to land on the forefoot and then allow the mid-foot and then heel to lightly land.
  2. Quick turnover. Taking shorter and quicker steps was key. The goal was to have the feet land directly under the body, as opposed to reaching the foot forward beyond the hips and landing towards the heel of foot. Extending the foot too far forward causes a breaking action and excess stress in the knees and hips. It also eliminates the potential for efficient energy transfer from stride to stride. We did some drills of moving quickly with much shorter strides at faster cadence, all the while maintaining more of a fore to mid-foot landing.
  3. Balanced movement. Ted stressed that head position and core stability were super important. The most efficient method of running is to keep the head (which is heavy, at 10-12 pounds) stacked over the shoulders and the shoulders stacked over the hips. Running in this way it is easier to balance, and the feet have a role to play in this as well, with the big toe helping the body to balance. We did some drills walking along a curb and keeping our core slightly tense and moving forward using our core, with head stacked tall (not dropping forward!). Ted says that if you run properly and keep your core active, running will help you build a very strong core.

Next, we practiced jumping.

Humans were built to move in all kinds of ways, and jump and bound for all kinds of purposes. However, adults nowadays hardly ever jump! We practiced simply jumping up steps, focusing on landing without making a sound and with soft knees. The soft knees allow the body to absorb the movement vs  jarring to the body that happens with overly stiff knees and hips. Ted made the point that with proper and natural technique, running and jumping can actually make the body stronger (joints too!). The old thinking of running wearing down the body are only true if you have poor movement patterns.

Finally, we did an exercise where we ran softly up a circular staircase inside a watch-tower in the park. The tower was an echo chamber, making it easy to know if you were pounding the stairs in any way. Ted moved without making a single sound! I pounded more than I though (I had my shoes on for this exercise – Brooks Green Silence).

All in all, it was great fun to do this clinic. Ted is a fantastic guy and I highly recommend checking it out if you are in the neighborhood. I also got measured for some Luna Sandals :) . Will be picking them up in a few weeks.

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Thanks to everyone who has filled out the survey. If you haven’t, please do. It will help me learn more about you and the kinds of things you are interested in reading on this blog.

I’m finally recovered from The North Face 50K. Did a ~22 mile run yesterday (I ran to and from the Barefoot Ted clinic with Sean! ~11 miles each way). Legs feel good, though knees and ankles are a little sore. A few more short to medium distance runs on tap for this week and then I’m going to take at least 2 weeks off.

Written by Ravi Raman

December 12, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Vibram FiveFinger Spint Review – Amazing!

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The Vibram FiveFinger Classic (left) vs Sprint (right). For running, the Sprints win hands down!

The Vibram FiveFinger Classic (left) vs Sprint (right). For running, the Sprint's win hands down!

You all know by now if you read this blog or follow me on twitter that my new favorite hobby is barefoot running. I can’t explain how much fun it is. You just need to go out and try it! While I was in Portland this weekend I hit up REI to see if they had any good sale items. I saw that they had Vibram’s FiveFinger Sprint’s in stock (I previously used the Classic’s) and tried them on.

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Written by Ravi Raman

September 9, 2009 at 7:24 pm

New Vibram FiveFingers Model for Running

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I’m a huge fan of the Vibram FiveFingers (VFF’s) as I wrote about in my previous post. Watching The Raw Food World show on Youtube, I saw that Matt and Anglea swung by the Vibram offices and had an impromptu discussion with their President. In the clip, they will scan over several models (including some new prototypes) of the the FiveFingers.

Vibram’s President also announces that they will be releasing a brand new version of the VFFs for running in February 2010! I can’t wait! Below is the full clip.

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