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1/1/08 Ready for the crush

Tomorrow it starts. Highway 40 is closing for 2 years. There are three reasonable ways to get into the city by car from the west: I-70 (4 lanes each way, plus 2 reversible lanes), I-44 (4 lanes each way) and I-64, better known as Highway 40. Highway 40 is 4 lanes each way for most of its length, but narrows to 3 in some places. It has a lot of old entrance/exit ramps that snarl traffic. The biggest problem is a rather messy interchange with I-170. In two years, all that is supposed to be fixed. Meanwhile, we're going to have to do without it altogether. The powers that be decided that getting it done in 2 years rather than 3 was worth completely closing the road.

Needless to say, this will have a huge impact on commuter traffic. It will take a few weeks to see what the impact will really be. I'm sure many people will shift schedules and change routes several times before settling into a routine. Restriping has added a lane each way to 44 and 70, but that's still not going to be nearly enough.

I'd be really upset about all this except for the fact that I have such a good arrangement at work for biking and/or running. Having a lot of extra traffic on the secondary roads will take some of the fun out of it, but I don't see my situation changing much on days I ride or run in. The problem will be the days when the weather is really nasty. I have a fairly high tolerance for adverse conditions, but there will surely be a handful of days when I drive. Hopefully, my schedule is shifted enough from the norm (I work roughly 6AM-3PM) that it will be OK.

1/2/08 Dress for success

Bill Langton asked what I wear running in 8-degree (F) temps like this morning. The obvious answer: layers, lot's of 'em. One still needs to determine the composition of the layers. That can be a bit of a chore, but a tip that long-time adventure racer Ken DeBeer once gave me was to simply make a chart. Every time you go out, make a note of what you wore and whether it was too cold, too hot, or just right. After a while, you converge on what works for you. I keep separate charts for each sport, since one obviously dresses differently for a 40-degree paddle than a 40-degree run.

When I have a little more time, I'll post some of my charts. For now, I'll just answer Bill's question:

  • Top: Wool long-sleeved jersey as a base layer. Polypro short-sleeved jersey and microfiber wind shirt on top of that.
  • Bottom: Synthetic briefs, heavy tights, and nylon pants on top.
  • Feet: Thick synthetic crew socks.
  • Hands: Lobster gloves.
  • Head: Polar fleece hat, polypro neck warmer.

It was pretty close to perfect. I was a little cold at the start and was starting to sweat on my back (I was wearing a pack) by the end.

1/3/08 Bailin'

Sometimes you do have to know when to stop. Perseverance is generally a good thing for an endurance athlete, but it can mess you up if applied to all situations.

This morning I was running into work and just felt terrible. It's not uncommon for me to feel bad at the start of a run. I usually feel better after 20-30 minutes. Today I never started feeling good. At 13 miles, I called it quits and got on the Metro Link for the rest of the trip (I had to run another mile or so from the Link to work, but the train ride did cut off about 3 miles).

This is the second time in as many weeks that I've shortened a workout. In the middle of the season that would bother me. Right now I'm coming off of my recovery period and it will take a while for my body to get used to training again. Forcing the issue now would only leave me burnt out later in the season when I'll need all the perseverance I can get.

1/6/08 Toasty

We added six degrees to the record high today, topping out at 73F. Quite a change from the 8F just four days ago. Apparently, the weekend warm-up got the attention of the tics; Bill Langton reported finding one at Babler. I ran at Babler myself today and didn't bother to check; it's just not something I think about in January. Fortunately, it appears I didn't get one.

1/7/08 Leapin' lizards

Here's Yaya at a birthday party yesterday holding a baby alligator. The animals were provided by The Reptile Experience. The speaker, Steve, was really quite good and both the kids and adults had a great time. In addition to the alligator, the kids got to handle lizards, tarantulas, scorpions, and a really big snake.

1/9/08 Honeysuckle

Sucks. It's not even particularly pretty. It basically just fills in all the gaps in the vegetation and turns an otherwise nice forest into an impenetrable sea of intertwined branches and leaves. It does this in a surprisingly short amount of time. In just a few years honeysuckle can completely overrun several acres. In a decade, an entire park can be trashed.

Some of the parks in St. Louis are fighting back with some aggressive removal programs. Forest Park in particular has opened up some very nice areas. Large chunks of Queeny are runnable again as well (although they'd better finish the job or it will be right back the way it was in short order).

Perhaps the worst park for honeysuckle infestation is Laumeier. Laumeier is mostly fields and the wooded areas have a very dense trail network. Therefore, the park is plenty usable for orienteering, even with the woods being basically off limits. This time of year, the growth is just tame enough that you can get through it. Combining some off-trail control sites with fast running in the fields makes for a pretty good transition workout. Even now, it's pretty nasty trying to get through the stuff, but you can do it. With the proper mindset, you can even do it reasonably quickly.

The interesting thing about crashing through honeysuckle is that, unlike most thick vegetation, you don't get very scraped up. Normally my "green woods" workouts leave me with a lot of scratches and bruises. I ran pretty hard through the woods of Laumeier today without getting any new cuts at all.

1/10/08 Splitting the defense

If you're a bike commuter, you don't get much luckier than this. That pink stuff is the freezing rain that I hate so much. My ride in this morning was chilly, but dry.

1/12/08 Cold Nose

SLOC had its annual Cold Nose orienteering meet today at Babler. Bill Langton set some really good courses. I'll write more about them in the coming days, but now I've only got time to post maps:

Blue, Orange.

1/13/08 Left turn

I tend to drift left when I'm running rough compass. I don't know why. Yesterday at Babler the problem was particularly acute. Consider the leg to the right. The route I took is not entirely bad - if it's what you intend to run. But it's not at all what I was intending. My idea was to run just left of the redline, through the big field, and then cut through the short bit of woods to the road. Because I ran this leg pretty hard and lost no time relocating on the flat section because I could see the small field, I doubt I lost much time on this leg. However, running nearly 30 degrees off bearing is pretty inexcusable.

The problem, as far as I can discern, is that although I was running the leg as if my strategy was rough compass, I wasn't actually looking at my compass. I generally don't look at either my map or compass when running downhill because I'm focusing on keeping my footing. I usually pick out a feature that I want to hit at the bottom of the hill and aim for that (or, if I can't see it from the top, try to pick it out on the way down). In this case, I forgot to do that and also forgot to take a bearing at the top of the hill. The result was that I do what I always do when I'm just running loose: I missed left.

The specific fix in this case would have been to use the reentrant system just right of the line as a handrail. I'm not quite sure why I missed that. As for the more general problem of heading left, I have no idea what to do about that other than make real sure I'm never running loose without a bearing.

1/15/08 Reverse booties

A pretty common winter cycling accessory is a pair of booties. Keeping your feet warm is definitely a priority on cold rides. There are two problems with this approach.

First, there's the fact that a lot of the heat is lost through the cleat. Booties don't add any insulation between your foot and the pedal. Second, if you've got big clompers like mine, good luck finding booties big enough to fit over your shoes without squeezing the life out of your toes. (I recently tried on a XXL pair of the Pearl Izumi booties referenced above, and couldn't even get them over my shoes.)

My solution: put the bootie on the inside. I have a winter pair of cycling shoes that is a size larger than my normal shoes. I then wear a moderately thick sock inside a pair of Sealskinz. This gives all the insulation and wind blocking of a bootie on the upper, plus puts a truly waterproof layer between your foot and the pedal. I've found this is comfortable down to around 25F and tolerable into the teens.

1/18/08 What is Orange?

Let me start this critique by saying that I think Bill Langton did an excellent job of setting courses for the Babler meet last weekend. In just his third try, he's established himself as one of our proficient course setters. With a good course consultant, he could probably set perfectly acceptable A-meet courses right now. That being the case, I'm going to offer some insights which I hope will be taken in the most constructive way, because I really need to find another course setter before I put on another A-meet.

For most course setters, Orange is the hardest course to get right. White is all trail, the only real challenge is finding something that's not too boring. Yellow is probably the easiest course to set; just string together a bunch of linear features. The advanced courses require some thought but, unlike Orange, you never have to worry about them being too hard. You can't make an advanced course too hard. (You can make it unfair by using poorly mapped areas and you can make it bogus by setting "bingo" controls, but there's no limit on the technical difficulty).

Orange is another matter. You want to call in all the skills that an advanced orienteer would use, but you want to do it in a way that doesn't crush the spirit of someone who's still trying to master them. It's a fine line. I think Bill erred on the side of easy, but that's the right way to err. The course is close enough that it makes some sense to look for improvements that would up the difficulty to true Orange.

The map above shows the course with the optimal routes for an Orange-level competitor (the north lines are 500m apart). Ideally, the optimal route uses handrails to an attackpoint and then requires advanced skills in the circle. Having a good catching feature is nice, particularly if the distance from the attack to the control is more than 100m. Legs 2, 4, 6, 10, and 11 all satisfy these criteria; 6 and 10 are particularly good. Five out of 11 legs is a pretty good start. Let's see what we can do with the rest.

  • 1: Well, you've got to get them away from the start area somehow. This is better than simply sending them down the road. Maybe dropping it the big reentrant just to the north would be better, but I don't think this one is worth losing any sleep over.
  • 3: Although the control was far enough from the road that you did have to navigate to it, a road/trail leg like this really needs to have some route choice to make it interesting. The powerline junction 150m SW would have brought the off-trail route into play. The road still would have been the optimal route, but at least the competitor would have to think about it.
  • 5: It's generally better to have the trail portion of the leg in the beginning or middle. The first 250m of this leg (which is perfect Orange) is negated because you're going to hit the trail even if you screw it up. The large reentrant 200m to the north would have taken the trail completely out of play and forced the competitors to stay in contact while following the stream. It also would have setup a slightly better approach to 6, although I think that leg is fine the way it is.
  • 7,8: OK, I really don't know what Bill was thinking, here. It's just gratuitous climb at Yellow difficulty. Toss both of these completely and you have a very nice leg from 6 to 9. The trail in front of 9 is a pretty obvious collecting feature, but you have to a) recognize that fact and b) descend properly down the spur to hit it. Just the sort of thing that Orange competitors should be working on.

So, that's it. Small adjustments to two controls, ditch two others, and you've got an A-meet quality Orange course. Pretty impressive stuff for someone who set their first course just one year ago.

1/19/08 Base nav

I've never been a believer in the "quality over quantity" method of training. It may work for some people, but my best results have always come when I've been putting in a lot of time. That's not to say that quality isn't important, just that it doesn't seem to work for me unless it's coming on top of a big base. However, when it comes to training navigation, almost all my training is highly directed. I rarely just go for a run with a map.

Today, I did. I knew I wanted to give my legs an easy day today. Normally, I would do some sort of control picking to force a high level of navigation intensity, even if the physical intensity was off. I considered doing that today, but instead decided just to go for an easy run in the woods, hitting 16 controls in the process. They were advanced-level controls but, in the wide open woods of Cuivre River, even technical controls are pretty easy to hit cleanly if you're not running hard.

The workout seemed pretty easy both mentally and physically. However, there's no getting around the fact that I was really accurate. I doubt there was any time during the run where I was more than 30m from where I thought I was. Running that cleanly has to be an indication that something is going right.

I wonder if "easy" nav sessions like this serve the same function of base mileage: forcing you to adapt just by sheer repetition of the activity. In the case of base mileage, the adaptations are structural; the skeletal muscles and nervous system become more efficient. Does a lot of low-intensity navigation have a similar effect on the "framework" of how your mind processes map and terrain information? I don't know, but it makes for an interesting hypothesis.

Unlike the body, the mind doesn't need much in the way of recovery time between quality workouts. Simply getting enough sleep at night will do it. Therefore, there's no practical limit on the amount of quality navigation training you can do. If the body was also free from having to recover, maybe base mileage wouldn't be so valuable. While I'm not about to ditch my quality nav sessions for a bunch of runs like today's, I think the session had more value than I anticipated.

1/20/08 Word up

Yesterday, I wrote the following in my training log:

Ran a course easy at Cuivre River (1:15). Since I wasn't moving fast, I took some time to really read the contours. This is informative at CR for two reasons: 1) the visibility is good so you can really see the lay of the ground and 2) the contours at CR are exceptionally well mapped. Fun and I ended up being remarkably accurate.

Peter Gagarin replied:

I sure hope you print this post out and put it someplace where you will read it every time you go orienteering.

Well, one ignores such unambiguous advice from a master at one's own peril. So that's just what I did.

1/21/08 Time bomb

Normally, I don't eat during long workouts unless they are really long. The idea of long training is to dip into reserves, so I don't replenish until afterwards (I do replenish water and electrolytes, just not calories).

Today, I went for what was supposed to be a 2-hour orienteering workout at Hawn. I started out a bit faster than planned, but it felt good and I was being very accurate, so I continued at that pace. At about 70 minutes, I started having difficulty concentrating. I bobbled a couple controls and then really messed up a long leg. By force of will, I got back on my game for a bit, but fell apart again about fifteen minutes later. Not wanting to spoil an otherwise good day, I decided I was done for the day and cut the workout short.

Interestingly, my legs were fine throughout. My pace dropped off a bit in the second hour, but it was my brain that really succumbed to fatigue. My theory is that your legs can keep going burning fat, but your brain is dead without sugar. Running back to the car on the dirt road, I felt dizzy but was still able to cover the ground OK.

I reviewed some of my bigger errors in 2007 and found that most of them occurred between 60 and 90 minutes. I've always felt that I don't need to eat until around 90 minutes. I've run half marathons without eating and finished strong, but that doesn't require a whole lot of thought (in fact, having your head shut down during the final kick is somewhat desirable). Now I'm thinking I need to move that up a bit for O-meets. Seems like it only takes an hour of competition pace to get my blood sugar down to a level where disaster awaits.

1/24/08 Retirement party

One of my favorite tough workouts is the Rockwoods Test Loop. It's a 5K loop at Rockwoods Range. I've run it around 20 times with a PR of 32:24. As much as I like it, I think it's time to move on.

I really don't even have to look at the map to run it anymore. That's not an entirely bad thing in a test loop since you are training speed in the terrain more than navigation. However, a big part of terrain speed is being able to read the map on the run, so I think it's good to force yourself to look at it at least a little bit. Also, I've come up with a new 5K loop out there which uses the trim markers. That will save me the trouble of having to re-tape the loop every few months and will allow more people to give it a try.

The original test loop started as an actual course for a local meet. I want to send it off that way as well. So, on Saturday, February 2, we'll be holding a mini-meet on the Test Loop. Show up at the Dogwood shelter at 8AM for a warmup and we'll start running for real at 8:30.

1/25/08 Why is fast slow?

Peter Gagarin recently ripped me (in a constructive way) for trying to run too fast in O-meets. When you try to run too fast, you make more nav errors. Even rank beginners, know this. There is an optimal speed at which any additional pace is cancelled out by navigational mistakes. That pace is generally slower than any of us would like to admit.

I take no issue with his main point: getting around a course accurately is much faster than one would think, even when not running particularly hard. I know this from my experience with the Rockwoods Test Loop. The fastest I've ever raced at Rockwoods is 7:05/K (5:57 adjusted for climb). I routinely do that on the Test Loop, with a PR half a minute/K faster. Yes, I'm running fast, but it's the complete absence of errors that makes the fast time possible.

What I don't think is well understood is why speed causes mistakes. There are several popular theories, all of which seem to make sense at first, but in my mind they don't stand up to closer scrutiny. Over the next few days I'll look at them and offer some thoughts of my own.

1/26/08 Conventional wisdom

OK, before we get to some of the more interesting ideas, let's deal with the conventional wisdom surrounding the (correct) perception that going too fast slows you down. My impression is that most people just accept it as inevitable. If you drive too fast, you crash; if you run through the woods too fast, you boom. This is clearly bunk, but you can't really fault casual competitors for not questioning something that is obviously true. However, if you want to get past a performance limitation, it behooves you to understand why the limitation exists.

It does not exist for the same reason that driving too fast lands you in the ditch. The laws of physics put a very real limit on how fast a car can go around a corner. The limit on navigation speed is all in the mind. And the rules that govern our thinking are neither immutable nor well understood.

Of the plausible explanations, the most common by far is that the brain gets deprived of enough oxygen to make good decisions. There's something to this, of course, but I think it's overstated. I've previously cited research in this blog about how the ability to deal with new information degrades as heart rate goes above about 80% of maximum. This does explain many of the "what was I thinking" type mistakes made by beginning and intermediate navigators.

However, elite orienteers rarely succumb to such errors. Some of this is good management of effort, but clearly the mind can be trained to work adequately at very high physical outputs. Despite our tendency to think of orienteering as the "thinking sport", just about every sport involves fairly complex decision making under duress by at least some of its participants. Overcoming the "thinking while pushing" barrier is one of those things that nearly every athlete needs to do to join the ranks of the elite. The fact that people do it is proof that the oxygen deprivation theory is a little weak.

And yet, even at the elite level, there is an optimal speed that is exceeded at the competitor's peril. We'll look at some of the more sophisticated explanations next.

1/28/08 Blindingly fast

Another common explanation for high-speed mistakes is that you don't see things when you're moving faster. Maybe you pass a feature and don't realize it or maybe you fail to note some important detail on the map. While this makes intuitive sense, I don't think it stands up to much scrutiny.

There are two reasons why going faster would impair vision: 1) things are going by so quick they are blurry and 2) the act of running fast makes your vision blurry because it's harder to keep your head still. The first is obviously nonsense (we're still talking running speeds here, not jets). The latter is partially true. There's no denying that when you are really running all out, your vision gets a bit blurry. However, even if you were to run that fast, you wouldn't likely do it for very long. The difference between a comfortable running pace and a sustainable hard pace is not that great. Furthermore, if your vision is a little blurry, you could always slow down for a few strides to read the map without significantly affecting your average speed.

The bottom line is that you can either read the map and terrain on the run or you can't. Once you've mastered map reading at an easy running pace, you can do it at a pretty stiff pace as well. As for terrain features, speed is often an asset: things come up quicker, so you don't have to remember what's coming for as long.

Now, all this assumes that you're still employing good technique. That is, you're attempting to read the map and anticipate what you see on the ground. If you forget to do these things because it's inconvenient while running fast, you're obviously likely to make some pretty big mistakes. But, choosing not to do something is a lot different from being incapable of it and what I'm after is why speed necessarily leads to mistakes. So, the search for a good explanation will continue.

1/29/08 Distracted

I noted that the motivation for this series was a comment by Peter Gagarin that I was too worried about running speed and would be better off focusing on navigation. Peter's view (one that turns out to be shared by Spike) is that if you're thinking about running fast, you're not thinking about navigation.

Between the two of them, that's a lot of international experience (and no small amount of success) talking. It's important to frame their remarks in the context of that experience. Neither of them are suggesting that going slow is a good thing or that fitness doesn't matter. Their point is more subtle: you should focus completely on navigation and just let your body run. If your training includes a lot of speedwork in the terrain, you will automatically select a reasonably quick pace without needing to think about it.

This is true as far as it goes, but I think it's again overstating the case. If one was to run at the intensity of a road race, where it requires constant force of will to maintain the effort, there's no question that navigation would suffer mightily. But, I don't know anybody who does that. Even when I choose to "push" a bit (for example, if I find myself running on a road, or up a particularly steep climb), I'm still well below the power output of a comparable length running race. The decision to lift the pace takes less than a second. Certainly, there are greater distractions out on the course.

With all due respect to my esteemed colleagues, I think they've correctly identified the problem, but missed the root cause (or, I may not fully understand their position). Consciously choosing your pace is not a particularly big drain on mental resources. However, what happens after that choice is made can be. I believe that's the real issue, and it's what I'll look at tomorrow.

1/30/08 Priorities

When you are navigating through the woods, you make dozens of little decisions every minute. Some of these are important and we remember them after the run (take the trail or go straight through the light green). Others are so trivial that neither the decision nor the outcome is noteworthy (left or right side of that tree).

In between those two extremes are decisions that are made with little or no thought, but do affect the outcome. Included in this group are decisions of how often to look at the map and whether what you are seeing matches what you expected. When you are consciously trying to cover ground quickly, your brain makes lots of subconscious adjustments to these smaller decisions. You may take an extra second or two between map glances. You may require a larger deviation from your expectations before you decide to stop and reconcile.

The short story is that while running fast doesn't necessarily impair the big decisions which demand conscious attention, deciding to run fast biases all the little decisions towards being less careful in exchange for speed. If you choose to navigate and let the running pace be what it may, all these decisions get biased back towards being accurate.

Then, again, I may be completely off base, here. But, it seems the most plausible theory to me and even if it's not completely accurate, I think it does provide a useful context for thinking about how to use speed in the forest.

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