Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Where to run. Brazos Bend State Park, TX

This article first appeared in the March 2014 ATRA Newsletter.

By Rob Goyen

Hidden from the hustle, bustle and concrete and located just 28 miles southwest of Houston, lies Brazos Bend State Park. The park will host two ultramarathons this year put on by Brazos Bend Trail Races ( on April 26 and December 13-14. The park covers roughly 5,000 acres with the eastern boundary lining the Brazos River in Fort Bend County. This area is considered to have been the first anglo society in Texas and was purchased by the state in 1976-77 and opened in 1984.  Brazos Bend is the flat Texas Gulf Coastal Plan and falls within the Coastal prairie vegetation plan.  The Brazos river bottom land supports mixed hardwood vegetations that includes pecan, elm, hackberry and numerous shrubs and vines.

In addition to the Brazos River, the major water course is Big Creek, which meanders diagonally across the park and is associated with sloughs, bayous and cutoff meanders called oxbows. Two of these meanders form natural oxbow lakes, and two other oxbows are man­made by the channeling of Big Creek. Other lakes, such as Elm and 40-Acre, have been created by levees, dissecting the main channel of the ancient Brazos River. Pilant Lake, a shallow, freshwater marsh, is shared by the park and private landowners.  Wildlife is diverse and abundant. The white­tailed deer is the largest of more than 25 different species of mammals present, which also include bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, gray and red foxes, river otters, feral hogs and several species of rodents.  Approximately 21 species of reptiles and amphibians have been recorded, and the smaller turtles, lizards, snakes and frogs are overshadowed in general interest by the American alligator, which is present mainly in the wetland areas of Elm, 40-Acre and Pilant lakes. Birds of 290 species have been sighted in and around the park. The diverse habitat is a haven for migratory waterfowl, a variety of shorebirds, wading birds, songbirds and raptors.

The George Observatory opens up for the gateway to the galaxy. Operated by the Houston Museum of Natural Science and located in the park, it features three domed telescopes. The telescopes and Challenger Learning Center help to educate and maintain the passageway to the sky.

Brazos Bend has over 30 miles of trails which spans the approximate 5,000 acres. The trails start just to the east of the entrance and course around a 40-acre lake. This spot has an Observation Deck which provides vistas over the vast wetlands and lakes that are below. The spillway trail also leads into Elm Lake which is the main body of water in the park and also had a 1.7-mile trail that runs around the lake.
There is a mixture of surfaces on the trails throughout the park. Most of the trails in the western section of the park are crushed rock. The northern trails have a dual purpose as equestrian and hiking/running trails. The trails become soft under the cover of the canopy and this is where most of the hogs are seen in the park.  With the abundance of trails to be enjoyed, there is no surprise that the park is full on any given day. Join us in April or December this year to race in Brazos Bend State Park.

Strength Training: Plank vs Pushups

This article first appeared in the March 2014 ATRA Newsletter.

By Stephen R. Santagelo

The most popular “core” exercise is the plank and the most popular bodyweight exercise is the push up. So, which one is best for athletic performance and overall structural improvement? First, you have to analyze what the returns are for any given exercise for the time invested. This is smart business. And, will you continue to improve performance by choosing specific exercises which will support your sport-specific strength?

The plank has been touted as the king of trunk stability for nearly two decades. For the most part, this is true; however, it has limitations for athletes. When any of us first began introducing the plank into our training regimen, we felt an incredible sense of structural weakness and thought, “WOW, this is a killer exercise! I had no idea!” We began getting results in our “six packs” and noticed an improvement in several of our strength exercises, as well as in running. After a while we realized time invested was not giving us the returns we experienced in the early stages. The reasons are threefold. After you were able to hold the plank position for 3 minutes, there is virtually no more improvement in trunk strength, even if you doubled the amount of time. Certain exercises will only get you so strong and translate well to sports performance. Second, the plank’s horizontal position does not replicate the upright vertical position of running; therefore, it has a weak translation to sports performance. Third, the plank is an isometric exercise whereas in running, the trunk rapidly fires several times per second. Sprinters who compete at 100m/200m will have a contraction rate of 5-6 per second and distance runners will have a rate of 2-3 per second. Isometric exercises, such as the plank, do not train the deep trunk muscles to fire rapidly and do not prepare the body for dynamic full-range movements. Also, there are limiting variations of this exercise and a variety is essential for athletic improvement. So, why do the plank in the first place? It’s an easy exercise to learn and initially, the results are fast and you get great results in a short time.

Pushups, on the other hand, with their infinite variations, provide static strength as well as intermittent firing of the deep trunk muscles. These muscles are the spinaodorsal, semispinal and musculus multifidus. These are the “real core” muscles which stabilized the spine and connect the vertebrae. Pushups have a much greater carryover with their dynamic and ballistic nature. Pushups can be trained in the conventional horizontal position, incline, decline and vertical, as well as angular and unilateral. Secondly, pushups teach you how to move the body in multiple ways, developing not only strength, but, flexible strength as well. Developing movement patterns, such as these, increase the connection between the brain and nervous system due to full body coordination, which translates well to trail running. Third, pushups develop force production. This is the ability to accept impact and functionally operate during a race; and trail running has a tremendous amount of impact on the body with its variety of terrain, uphill, downhill and zigzag patterns throughout geographical locations. Last, pushups provide both concentric and eccentric strength, planks do not. During trail running, eccentric and concentric muscle action is continuous with every stride, so train for this by introducing pushups into your weekly training.

The benefits of pushups far outweigh what your returns are from doing planks. With all its variations, it’s easy for any runner to go from novice to advance and never get bored. This allows the body and the mind to continually get stronger. There are several ways to introduce this method of strength training into your schedule. You can add 4-5 minutes as part of your dynamic warmup or use it as an active rest day. On strength training days, you can do 10-15 minutes of three different variations for timed sequences or you can take just one variation per workout or one variation per dynamic warm up. Find what works best for your training. Do not over think it or over work it. Make it fun and something to look forward to by setting goals every week, month, per training cycle and each year. Most importantly, taper off three weeks before a competition and completely remove them from the week prior to your race. Adding this will spice up your training as well as setting new PRs!

Snowshoe Nationals in the Green Mountain State

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 ATRA Newsletter.

By Laura Clark  
While the Olympics is exciting, inspiring and fun to watch on TV, it is just that…watching.  If you are like me, I would really rather be participating than sitting on the sidelines.  And while our local Dion Snowshoe Series events do just that, I learned that the scope of a Nationals competition adds a unique flavor.  This year we celebrated our own home-grown Olympics at Prospect Mountain in Woodford, Vermont, with qualifying standards, multiple events and athletes from 28 states and eight countries.  Thanks to Dave Newell, race director, Tim Van Orden (pictured above), course designer, and Bob and Denise Dion, snowshoe sponsors, a small corner of our eighth smallest state hosted the largest United States Snowshoe Association Nationals ever.  Woodford, Vermont, is now on the map.

According to Mark Elmore, who conceived and hosted the first Nationals in Plattsburg, NY, in 2001, the Northeast is an ideal location because the population density — no mega cattle ranches here — ensures that reasonable travel time is possible for many athletes.  Plus, no matter what kind of winter the rest of the New England is experiencing, Woodford is getting snow, and plenty of it.  Last year, when the white stuff was scarce, Woodford had an ample supply through April, perfect for all those snow bunnies who would rather ski than color Easter eggs. This year was a different story, with Prospect Mountain boasting 63 inches a few days before the event.

But, before we get there, a few words about an unannounced competition.  We all know that every seemingly straightforward race is top-heavy with friendly rivalries, footnotes to the main story.  So it is with Annie and Sam.  All season long, my Annie has been flexing her studded tires, striving with all her might to beat Laurel’s Samantha to the parking lot.  This time Annie figured herself for a goner, as Sam had opted for the true Vermont experience at a local B&B while Annie was a lengthy commute away.  Still, to humor her, we fueled with one of the higher octane mixes, endured a lengthy sub-zero warmup and were on our way well before the proverbial rosy-fingered dawn.  And this time, refusing pit stops despite the whining of her driver, Annie won handily by six parking spot lengths!  I had met my obligations as a responsible car owner and was now free to concentrate on my race.

I was not sure I really wanted to though. I had examined the list of entrants in my age group and could peg roughly half of them.  The rest were wildcards.  Knowing I appear on the bottom half of the results sheet, I rarely get nervous, aiming for an enjoyable experience and a placement within my usual grouping of companions.  But, this was different.  I really wanted to stand on that age group hay bale, never mind the fact that it was cold and windy up there in the open.  I even tried visualizing the course before I fell asleep.  This was a mistake as I ended up with worst-scenario nightmares.  If we had had the same race as we did two weeks previously at the Woodford Whiteout, I might have squeezed by.  But, on this day, although the route was exactly the same, it was more entrenched, less flowy and blowy. We had the same steep hills, the same winding, snake-carved single track, but everything was easier to negotiate, favoring runners who were truly fast and not merely tough and persistent.  The Annie/Sam pursuit continued in human form as Laurel and I passed and re-passed each other with Laurel eventually edging me out by 53 seconds. Did Annie ever rub it in on the way home!

While I have run Freihofer’s Run for Women more times than I can count, that is a pure women’s event and not a divided female/male offering.  While most women were thrilled to concentrate solely on picking off same-sex rivals, I wasn’t so sure.  Although it is slowly evolving, trail running still features long men’s room lines and non-existent female queues, except in the final countdown minutes when guys head to the woods and the gals think about toilet paper.  I am used to running with men in my group.  In our local events, we tend to become complacent, knowing just where we should end up in the status quo.  The fact that I could recognize only have the entrants in my age group left me without a benchmark.

This year females were first up, followed by males.  As I watched the guys finish, I realized that they were similarly clueless, inquiring about my time and then comparing to see if they ran as expected. Later, I worked up my nerve and casually (who was I fooling?) wandered over to the results board.  I was listed fourth among the age group winners.  I thought the ranking was a bit odd, but figured I’d take it.  It was not until I hunted down the asterisk that I realized that only the top three counted.  Unreasonably, I thought that perhaps if someone decided not to accept, I would be the lucky runner-up.  Apparently, oxygen was still being shuttled off to my feet and not to my brain cells.

I had never understood Olympic athletes who failed to embrace the total experience as reward enough, and especially not those who griped at third place.  But I had always empathized with fourth place.  You are torn by the “Couldn’t I have tried harder/trained better?” question mark hanging in the air, mentally reviewing each moment to see if perhaps a few more seconds could have been squeezed out.  As I crossed the finish line, I was in full George Sheehan “no regrets” mode, later I had my doubts.  Coming in sixth or eighth still earns you top-ten credibility, but fourth, while infinitely closer to the goal, merits sympathy.  Eventually, I rationalized that in four years I would crest the 70-year-old age group, which this year was a shoe-in with only one other entrant.  That is, until my husband, Jeff, respectfully pointed out that everyone else would have moved up with me.  Oh well.

While some athletes skipped the closing ceremonies, many of us opted for the final day of fun, which included team relays where four-person teams each ran a 2.5-km loop for a 10K total.  This was basically a section of the previous day’s 10K, but negotiated “backward.”  Which meant that the route was familiar in an Alice-In-Wonderland style.  Sunday, too, brought typical mountain weather—snow, gusty winds, teasing snippets of sun that made the first round more difficult than the fourth tie-breaking loop.  High school cross country ski team members served as cheerleaders and course guides, adding a unique energy to our already tired legs. This was a great opportunity for local kids to show their stuff, and try as they might, some of our team members simply could not pass the nine-year-olds on various kids’ teams!

By far the most fun events were Saturday’s Kids’ Kilo and Sunday’s Uphill Run for maple syrup.  The photo below shows Solitaire Niles (yellow shorts) running next to Tim Van Orden and captures the enthusiasm of the next crop of snowshoers.  Solitaire had been coming to our events for years, sledding and playing in the snow while her brother, London, competed and now it was her turn!  You can just see the joy on her face.  Jeff and I direct two races in the Saratoga area, and after seeing these kids, are seriously thinking of our own kids’ event.  The uphill had a mix of ages and was one of the most fun things I have ever done.  My goal was not to walk, and I think I succeeded, but the grade was so steep, it was difficult to tell.  I crested, totally out of breath, and was forced to sit down for several minutes before my wobbly legs could support me.

While I didn’t score an individual medal, our Saratoga Stryders Women’s team did win bronze, so I achieved a podium stand after all.  And I believe I was the only one in my ancient age group to score a tri—10K, team and uphill.  Maybe next time I’ll go for a quad with the Citizen’s Race.

A Flatlander’s Training Tips for Altitude

This story originally appears in the March 2014 ATRA Newsletter.

By Herb Kieklak

This article is for all of us flatlanders who live at sea level or “nearabouts,” but aspire to run “at altitude.” If you live in Colorado or other big mountain places, this will only make you laugh, as y’all just have to walk out your front door to “train at altitude.”  I do not have the luxury of going out a week or two before a high-altitude race or buying one of those super-duper tents that mimic low-oxygen conditions. So, I decided to see what I could do to acclimate while living here in Florida. According to textbooks, people will start to notice a change in their breathing at 3,000 feet. Most runners and hikers say that is only if you are out of shape. Most likely, a runner will start to notice changes around seven kilometers while at altitude. At nine kilometers, you will feel a definite change even if in good shape. From my own recent experience as a low-altitude runner at high altitude, I would agree with this. There was a small change at 7K, but the sleepy feeling/fatigue/headaches all became noticeable at 9K.  I opted for two simple techniques while running at sea level to prepare for a high-altitude race: I used a mouthpiece to change my breathing and wore extra clothing to mimic altitude stress. My choice of these two methods was based on lots of anecdotal evidence from other runners and research on the myriad of websites advertising high-altitude products.  Then, after the first attempt in 2012, I did a little tweaking to training, but not the “adaptation method.”

Technique to change breathing
The idea of using a mouthpiece to change breathing while at sea level is  based on the premise that at high altitude you will have a lower oxygen saturation, so if you can improve your lung capacity/respiratory skills at a lower altitude your body will be used to breathing deeply and efficiently when you get to the mountains.  I picked this technique up from college swimmers, who used to train with snorkels that had the air pipe compromised to make them breathe harder in training.  It is the same idea as running with a weight vest and then taking it off for the race – except doing it for your lungs.

I decided to go with a standard mouthpiece and could notice a big difference in how much more I used diaphragmatic breathing. I had tried a double-bite mouthpiece with only a small hole cut in the center to really restrict airflow, but I found it was way too slobbery to use in public. I also looked at all those Darth Vader/ski mask type respirators, but I did not want to spend the money. I also thought they looked way too weird to use while running in town – no need to tempt a cop having a bad day. People didn’t seem to find the mouthpiece weird, and most people thought I used it for either a fear of falling or to avoid  grinding my teeth while running.  If I explained the real reason, I would get one of those blank looks and an “Oh, yeah,” response, and they would move away.

Technique to mimic altitude stress
This technique was easy to work with here in Florida. The idea is to stress your body with heat/humidity, as the blood will go to the surface and leave little for muscles and organs. Less blood means less oxygen, the same as being at high altitude. Seems like a fairly straightforward concept. The small detail is that overheating can be very, very bad for you with puking, passing out, etc., being some of the nicer side effects.  So I took to wearing long-sleeved shirts and gloves and running in midday while training. This earned me an even weirder reputation than the mouthpiece.  When the rest of the running group is either shirtless or wearing a sports bra only, wearing long sleeves and gloves tends to stand out a bit. Plus, in the summer, they are fanatical about running only in the wee hours of the morning.  Now I know how Rudolph felt.

Results in 2012
I ran in the Flagstaff Endurance Run, which goes up, down and around the San Francisco Peaks in Buffalo Park just outside of Flagstaff, AZ, in September, 2012. I arrived early on a Friday afternoon with the intention of using the “get in and get out” strategy as opposed to spending a week acclimating. I spent the afternoon walking/hiking around town and the park to get acquainted with the area and felt no effects of being at 7,000 feet. My biggest problem was a lack of sleep, as the hostel that I was staying at was within spitting distance from a late-night dance club with an outdoor deck.

The race started early the next day, and I got in with a group from Phoenix, and they were also doing the race for first time, but had much more experience with desert mountains. We ran/walked a cautious race. All seemed to be going well until I left the next-to-last aid station. From there, it was an eight-mile downhill and back up to the last stop and then homestretch. I was psyched because, even with a slow time, I felt good and had only a bit of a headache but none of the fatigue or dehydration that I had been warned about.  I was keeping up with original pack of semi-local runners. WHOO-HOO!

Then it all crept up on me. The downhill was very technical and my quads were screaming – now I know what all those stories in Trail Runner were about. My pacers were now way ahead; the sun was up and hot. I quickly drank all the water in my bottle plus the extra I was carrying in a pack. The next four miles back uphill seemed a nightmare. I was parched like never before, hot and miserable, and I had an overwhelming urge just to lie down and sleep. Somehow I managed to make it up to the top and collapsed at the aid station and asked for a ride to the bottom, as I was sure that I would pass out and get injured if I tried to keep running for the next downhill stretch. This was my first DNF! and at mile 26, no less.

Lessons Learned
1) Acclimate better – Next year, I would go one day earlier and hike more as per the advice of race director Nick Coury. And found a different place to stay, with a good night’s sleep!
2) Minimize time at the top – When I got down to the race finish line, I was amazed at how must better I felt. That was the aha! moment of realizing that the symptoms at 9,000 feet will go away when I get to lower altitude. This would be HUGE for shaping future training. Get stronger at climbing and somehow get better at downhills. The sooner I could get to lower elevation, the faster I would recover, with less of a chance of getting hammered.
3) Get used to being dehydrated – Sounds simple, but doing it was not pleasant. Plus, it was a mean combination with the heat stress training. But if you can adapt to being dehydrated and overheated, that is big plus in the world of ultramarathons.
4) Hydrate better – Drink lots more at each aid station, even if not feeling thirsty – again per the advice of race director Nick Coury. This would play off training technique number 2: If you train dehydrated and then on race day make sure to hydrate well at each aid station, your body will feel like it is being given the royal treatment.  A nice counterbalance to technical aspects and massive climbs that cannot be trained for in advance.
5) Train for the red zone –  I realized that all the trail running in Florida was doing zippo in terms of preparing me for desert mountains and running on rocks, especially downhill. So I began running at the local football stadium and using the bleachers instead of steps to go up/down. This made me take those big uncomfortable strides going up, and the coming down was impact after impact. My quads slowly got stronger and my body used to the pounding.
6) Resisted Breathing – Continue with resisted breathing (mouthpiece) and heat stress as they had helped me make it to mile 26 when everyone at the start of the race thought I would be a goner way before that point.

Results in 2013
In September 2013,  I ran the Flagstaff Endurance Run again and successfully completed the race with a decent time. I was the only person from the East Coast in the race. It is definitely possible to live at sea level and compete in high altitude events with a little ingenuity and dedicated training. The only variable – one of the biggest – was the scale of climbing/descending, plus the rocks. Here in Florida, the biggest hills/interstate bridges/etc. are just a fraction of the climbs on real mountains. Just as swimming in a pool is nice, it is not the same as the open water swim in a triathlon.

In the future, I would really like to do well in a high-altitude race as opposed to “just finishing.” As I plan my next race, I think it would be very beneficial to travel to a venue well in advance and get used to the terrain and altitude.  I think that the heat stress and breathing resistance are good but will only get you so far. Then the other tweaks are improving your speed and technical skills to minimize the time that you are “at altitude.”