Monday, 7 September 2009

2 hr 45 min Mountain Race, Fasted, in Vibram Five Fingers

The Event
Making Life Difficult for Myself
The Race
The Vibram Experience
The Fasting Experience
The Training Verdict
More Fell Running?

Location: Snowdonia, Wales, UK
Date: 5th September 2009
The Event
Fell (Mountain) Race: The Peris Horseshoe

From the BBC website: "I've taken part in the 1000m peak race on four occasions... but the toughest one anywhere is the Peris Horseshoe. " Peter John Rhys Lewis, Llandudno

Thankfully, we just did the half horseshoe - but that was tough enough.

Distance: 8.5 miles
Elevation: 4500 feet

Before race:

After the race:

Making Life Difficult for Myself
I hadn't planned on running this race having eating nothing but tandoori chicken all day on the previous day. But I just wasn't hungry in the morning and once it got to 9.30am it was too late, as the race was starting in an hour. A stitch is worse than hunger. In any case, I've been wondering for a while whether I could fuel a race like this without carbs. It would be the first time I'd tackled a long race at race pace since going Paleo. Yet tackling it without any food at all was perhaps a bit extreme.

Footwear: I had planned on trying the Vibram Five Fingers on a fell race - it just so happened that the next race to come along after that decision, was this monster.

So you could be forgiven for thinking I go out of my way to make life difficult for myself. Whilst that may be true, I don't normally try to make it this difficult.
The Race
This was a punishing course and seemed to include every conceivable kind of terrain - large rocks, fist-sized rocks, scree, embedded slate paths, grassy slopes, boggy mud. There was 4500 feet of ascent across an 8.5-mile course.

Here's a picture of the organiser, organising. I should extend thanks to him and his helpers, as it was a great event.

Section 1
At my pace this was a relentless one-hour climb to the first peak, Elidir Fawr, about 2700 feet above sea-level. I am guessing we started at 300 feet. The route first follows mining rail tracks, then zig-zags though a quarry, before finally becoming a steep slog up a scarcely-defined grassy path.

This picture shows the quarry and the peak above, and I think this is the range of mountains we went on to negotiate in the other sections.

After a brief spell of flat and a bit more uphill on a stony path, the final 100 yards is a kind of ridge composed of large granite slabs which must be carefully negotiated. It would be safe to say I was cooked by the time I reached the top.

Section 2
There followed quite a long section of flat slightly downhill terrain, mainly on good paths. I am guessing a few miles. At this height the mist was pretty dense, so I was running as fast as I could to keep the guy in front in view. I was pretty much clueless about the course and relying entirely on others to stay on track. At one point he appeared unsure whether to go left or right when the path forked. I followed him right but had the horrible sense that we might both end up lost. Somewhere in this section I forgot I had no tread on my shoes, drove my heel into a patch of mud and was rewarded with a face full of ground.

Section 3
The flat became a steep slope once again and although the runner in front had disappeared, some walkers I was passing kindly confirmed they had seen other runners pass this way. It took a few minutes for my legs to wake up again. It's always a killer when there are multiple ascents because the legs are never the same after a first one; but after the initial deadness they do warm up again. This was an estimated 900 foot climb up to Garn at about 2700 feet, where I checked in with the marshal and was sent onwards in the right direction. No one visibly in front, no one visibly behind - very disconcerting.

Section 4
For 10 minutes I tackled killer downhill terrain like a cat on a hot tin roof. The small rocks and pebbles slowed my progress right down and laughed at the thin soles of my Vibrams. Finally this gave way to a gently descending path flanked by marshy grass I was able to bound freely down without fear of foot pain. At times I strayed back onto the path without thinking, which by now was made of embedded, immovable stone, and was driven yelping back to the grass.

Section 5
Part of me believed there might not be a section 5. But as I drew close to a lake the mist cleared to reveal a vast rocky swathe on the side of the mountain behind, up which were scattered scrambling competitors. The good news: I wasn't lost. The bad news: I had to follow them. After a few minutes of sluggishness from my legs, they started working again and I grimly proceeded with the final 1200 feet of ascent. The terrain was about as bad as it gets, regardless of shoe type. Big, semi-stable rocks and sections so steep you can lose your balance if you look up as you climb. I had been slowly but surely putting distance between my running partner and me - and when the mist cleared beneath I could see his distinct red top in the distance as he stoically hauled his additional ballast up the rock field, at least 10 minutes behind. When finally the gradient levelled out there was an outcrop of granite slabs to negotiate before the checkpoint at 3000 feet - Glyder Fawr.

Section 6
As I came off the top I got briefly lost with a lady who thankfully had a compass and map she was actually using, and when we were re-united with the path we found my running partner bounding confidently downwards. While he comfortably negotiated the reminder of the course I skittered around like a bad ice skater, catching occasional glimpses of his increasingly distant figure. Had I been wearing my well-studded fell shoes I would have been fine on these wet, grassy slopes; but I was not, so it wasn't. By the time I got down I had fallen over at least 4 times.

As I finished, others continued to the second half. Hats off.
The Vibram Experience
I want to tell you that the Vibram Five Fingers were a great way to do the race; but they really weren't.

Grip Problems
I had about 6 serious tumbles. As I mentioned, the first was in section 2, when I landed more or less flat on my face and the rest were on the grassy final descent. It was fine when I was expecting it, but on one occasion I was not, and flew backwards, cartoon-style, legs cycling in front of me, landing flat on my back like a startled beetle.

Toe Crunch
At one point I did something to a toe in my left foot. It felt like it might be broken, but having followed the steps described here, I have established it's probably just bruising. At the time it sounded pretty nasty - there was a distinct crunching or grinding sensation when a piece slate got wedged between two toes. On balance I think this was just bad luck coupled with not paying attention to foot placement.

Painful Stones
As I mentioned above, the terrain was pretty varied; but for the most part, it was hard ground or stones, most of which seemed perfectly sized to challenge thin soles - too small to step onto, too big to be absorbed by the sole. It slowed me down considerably on some descent sections.

Monkey Magic
Yet on the uphill and on certain stretches of flat, some of the magic I had enjoyed when hiking in the Pyrenees was still evident. There was excellent grip on dry granite and a real sense of stability from being so close to the ground. The extra toe leverage came in handy on parts of the grassy path and when moving on larger stones. I felt agile and monkey-like.

Unexpected Blister
I did manage to acquire a small blister on the big toe of my left foot. That's nothing compared to the monster I would routinely get on my right heel in fell running shoes, but it was still a surprise to get one at all in the Vibrams.

Tougher Feet
This is the first time I have run a fell race in the Vibrams - so I would expect my feet to get tougher with experience. I might consider a future fell race in a pair of Five Fingers if there were a solution to the grip problem, and perhaps a slightly tougher sole.

Are the new Treks the Answer?
Better grip and a tougher sole is exactly what is offered by the new Vibram Five Finger Treks. I have ordered a pair of these bad boys which should arrive next month. Here is a review by Barefoot Ted. Basically, they have more tread and are apparently the Kangaroo skin uppers are very comfortable.

Fell Shoes on the Next Race?
My treks will not have arrived by the next fell race (likely to be the Langdale Horseshoe - 14miles /4000ft.)

If I do go back to fell shoes, I may not be too worried - the rationale behind a shift to barefoot from traditional running shoes (well documented in this article) is around the unnatural geometry they create. So I am assuming that the biomechanical problems created are worse when:
  1. ...running on flat, hard surfaces like roads, and
  2. ...the soles are larger.
Occasionally fell running in relatively thin-soled fell shoes does not feel like the worst offense against the body, especially if, like me, you spend the rest of the time wearing Vibrams and being sniggered at by kids and drunk adults.
The Fasting Experience
So just to reiterate, here was my pre- and post-race nutrition:

9pm: Tandoori platter with salad

10.30 am - race starts
1:15 pm - I finish
1:20 pm - black coffee while waiting for coach back to our car, where my food was. (All the food on sale was garbage.)
2:30 pm - finally, some food: paleo breakfast of champions (recipe here)
7.30 pm - dinner: cow's tongue with veg, drizzled in extra virgin olive oil and coconut cream

2.30 am I wake up, ravenous, and consume a tin of sardines and a selection of nuts My body obviously knew it needed more and was not willing to let me sleep until it got it!

As a Paleo advocate, I obviously wanted to show I could do this race without needing to pre-load with carbs, take carbs during the race, or guzzle them afterwards - so my assessment is hardly unbiased.

Yet the sheer fact of completing a race without suffering any 'bad moments' means something, regardless of experimenter bias. I must surely have run this race in a state of ketosis. I had a very low carb meal the night before having fasted all day, then had nothing but water before the race.

I have been reading and re-reading this excellent article about how our ancestors might have fuelled their hunting. It is written by Don Matesz on his Primal Wisdom blog.

My conclusions, based on the information in that article are:

I can do events like this on a Paleo diet: I have been eating a nutritionally dense, mostly ketogenic diet for a couple of years, punctuated by occasional carb binges. Therefore, I should be able to fuel endurance exercise like this with my diet.

My glycogen stores were pretty high when I started the race: I had done a Body by Science workout on my upper body two days previously and sprint intervals 5 days before. Each session would have dumped much of the glycogen stores of the relevant muscles; but since glycogen can be replenished via dietary protein, my tandoori chicken the night before the race and high protein meals over the preceding week would have contributed to replenishing my glycogen stores before the race. I'd done no other exercise so dietary protein would have been sufficient and pre-race carb loading not required.

I squandered lean muscle mass: for me the race lasted nearly 3 hours, so although it was steady state cardio, my glycogen stores would have been depleted significantly. By not eating until an hour after the race I probably forced my body to use lean muscle to manufacture and replenish glycogen instead of dietary protein. I am not sure whether lean muscle would have been consumed during the race itself.

Most of my fuel came from body fat: aside from the muscle glycogen question, the fact is that stored body fat would have fuelled much of my aerobic exercise.

I will ask Don whether he would like to comment on my conclusions.

During the race I did have moments of tiredness, but came through these in the same way I remember from my carb-fuelled days. Comparing notes with my carb-fuelled running partner, it seemed we were both pretty much in the same state after the race.

The difference is that whereas he holstered up 3 bars of Kendal mint cake (basically sugar) to consume during the race and downed a sugar-laden coffee and slab of cake afterwards, I ate nothing before or during and waited an hour afterwards before consuming a pretty low carb meal.

Although I didn't feel significantly hypoglaecemic at any point, I will say that during the car journey home I felt on the edge of something like mild hypoglycemia which seemed to fade as the food food digested. By the time I got home at 6pm, I was pretty much back to normal energy levels.
The Training Vedict
My Training before this Race
In the past 6 weeks, you can see from my workout diary that I've been doing less than 30 minutes of training per week - but highly intense. In total, over 6 weeks:
  • 5 x Body by Science 10 - 25-minute weight sessions
  • 1 x hill sprints (10 minutes)
  • 1 x rowing machine tabata (4 minutes)
  • 2 x flat sprints (10 minutes and 8 minutes)
  • 1 x swimming sprints (10 minutes)
Other than that, my only aerobic conditioning conditioning in the past 6 weeks has been:
  • One 90-minute session of hiking/jogging on the Malvern Hills
  • Brisk weekday walking to and from work via train stations (15 + 15 + 10 + 10 minutes per day)
Was it Enough?
Previously, I felt compelled to train for fell races by putting in lots of miles on the hills. I was sure that if I did not, I would not be fit enough. I was wrong - on this occasion I still ran, power hiked and scrambled more or less continually for nearly 3 hours; and I felt almost as fit as I remember feeling before.

Again, it feels like although I am clearly biased towards showing my training approach worked, the sheer fact I completed the race without having to rest tells must be significant.

I concede that I would probably have run it quicker 3 years ago (ignoring for a moment the Vibram factor) But I am not sure I would have been that much quicker; and just one more strategically placed long, low intensity mountain training session around 3 weeks before the event could have been enough to achieve parity.

Chronic Cardio
If you are a regular reader you will know I avoid what Mark Sisson calls chronic cardio - regular, long, relatively high intensity sessions. Instead, all my aerobic exercise is done at a low heart rate (55-75% of max) and where possible for a long time. I try to stitch this into normal life - for example through hiking or walking.

Yet one of the things Mark says in the Primal Blueprint is that occasionally blasting out a sustained, tough cardio effort, such as a race, can have excellent fitness benefits. I am hoping this race will count in that way.
More Fell Running?
Two days later my legs are still pretty shot. I also have a stiff lower back and some arm stiffness. It was clearly a traumatic experience for my body so now I must give it the rest it needs. We would have encountered these traumas when evolving but would not have sought them out, so whereas previously I ran hard on the hills every Sunday, now I will save it for fell races. I will build fitness with short intense workouts and long, easy hikes. It might mean I am stiffer after races, but I will probably appreciate the race experience more, and I suspect I will be healthier.

So I have fallen back in love with fell running. Who knows, I might even get better times this time by training less.

The Event
Making Life Difficult for Myself
The Race
The Vibram Experience
The Fasting Experience
The Training Verdict
More Fell Running?


Chris said...

Well done!

I use Innov8 shoes for the hills - pretty minimal as shoes go and very very grippy.

Really good write up

Bryce said...

Thanks for a riveting tale, Methuselah. At the same time, blast you for making me feel as lazy as I do. Unfortunately I have done very little over the last two years that is in any way competitive or personally challenging in the way that these runs are for you.

Perhaps I'll have to do something about that.

I enjoyed the amputation diet piece as well. very funny.

Aaron Blaisdell said...

Sounds like an interesting experience. Count me out! :)

john said...

"he stoically hauled his additional ballast up the rock field"
You have a way with words M .
I would have said that at that point in the race , my sugar fueled fat ass was closing down on your monkey clad feet with avengence , as , the results clearly show :-)
I look forward to the next gripping tale of Methuselah ,half man half monkey, and his side kick "fast twitch"

Methuselah said...

Thanks Chris - I have a couple of pairs of Innov8s myself - Mud Claws and RocLites. Both pretty knocked up but a few more races left in them if needed!

Bryce - let me know if you do somethign interesting. Any decent mountains in Virginia?

John - touché. Your 20:40:19 plays my 2:44:48. It's all about the Langdale Horseshoe now, when the monkey feet may have to step aside. I may even go crazy and have some breakfast that day.

Grok said...

Great write-up!

I feel like I've been performing better lately fasted. My sweet spot seems to be the 20 hour mark for max energy.

I can't wait for the Treks! The smooth Vibram models can get pretty sketchy in places. Wet almost anything and any rocks (especially wet) between 3"-15" are not very cool! You slip, they roll, and I get a bit nervous about mashing toes when it all happens ;)

Good job man. Also trying to cut back a bit on the chronic cardio to keep from punishing my knees so much. It's great to hear you think your basically only resistance training didn't slow you down a whole lot.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Contratulations for simply completing what sounds like a tough race. I lived in Liverpool for a couple of years and hiked in North Wales, but I've never run those hills. It sounds like you are probably a bit undertrained (both your feet and your endurance) with respect to what you are trying to do for racing. Your feet will definitely get tougher with more mileage. I now manage distances up to about 10 miles/2 hours on our local hills with no socks and no foot problems, adding socks for longer distances, but on average the trails are probably more foot-friendly than those you describe. As to race nutrition, you should be able to do 8.5 miles even with a lot of climbing comfortably on no race food at all, but I wouldn't recommend skipping the before-race meal. I have now done several 50K races on very-low carbs before, during, and after. The key as always for endurance events is to start refueling BEFORE you start to get seriously hungry and "weak." While your body may be capable of a certain level of performance in a fasting state, it will likely always give you more if there is fuel in the pipeline. For a 50K event, I eat a solid breakfast (e.g., eggs, bacon, cheese) and then use a mixture of coconut milk and whey protein starting about 2 to 2.5 hours into the race and every half hour or so thereafter. This works well for me, and I can keep going with pretty steady energy.

Bryce said...

M, the area I'm in is actually pretty flat. I want to get back into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, my long time passion that I've sadly been out of for about a year. I think my challenge might be to go through an all day tournament one day fasted.

As for the Doctors' recommendations for pre/peri race nutrition, while this could possibly benefit your times, I can certainly see the allure of challenging yourself to complete the race fasted. Surely there were hunter-gatherers who would pursue large game for several hours in fasted state. Very primal.


Bryce said...

M, the area I'm in is actually pretty flat. I want to get back into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, my long time passion that I've sadly been out of for about a year. I think my challenge might be to go through an all day tournament one day fasted.

As for the Doctors' recommendations for pre/peri race nutrition, while this could possibly benefit your times, I can certainly see the allure of challenging yourself to complete the race fasted. Surely there were hunter-gatherers who would pursue large game for several hours in fasted state. Very primal.


Methuselah said...

Grok - yes, will be interesting to see what those Treks are like. If they turn out not to be good enough for fell running I suspect they will still be great for hiking.

Drs. Cynthia and David - thanks for the advice. When you say coconut milk do you mean the clear liquid that comes from a fresh coconut or the creamy liquid extracted from the flesh? I will certainly be having breakfast before my next race, and plan to have a smaller dinner the night before so that I generate the appropriate hunger! I will also take some fuel during the race (expecting it to be up to 3.5 hours) - but would prefer something natural. How about a sort of primal liquid custard composed of scrambled egg blended with coconut cream/milk?

Bryce - that's exaxtly how I was thinking and why I got such a buzz out of doing it fasted but still feeling okay. It made sense that I should be able to do it. Doing an all-day tournament fasted seems like a good challenge: several consecutive failed hunts, followed by a successful one at the end of the day!

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

The "coconut milk" that I'm refering to is the extract of the flesh: higher fat and lower carb compared to cow's milk. It's generally available in cans from Asian markets. There's nothing magic about coconut; it just happens to be a readily available source of portable liquid saturated fat. You could also use heavy cream. I'm also not necessarily advocating that you must completely avoid carbs for race nutrition. I've been doing it mostly to prove to myself that the carbs are not nearly as necessary as most sports nutritionists would have you believe, even for fairly high-intensity activity (i.e., close to your personal limits). You do have to go through an adaptation phase if you're accustomed to high-carb exercise, but having upregulated the appropropriate processes, you just don't need the carbs. I suspect, but haven't been able to find convincing data for or against, that some carbs may be desirable for elite athletes trying to eek out that last bit of speed for a world-class performance, but that's certainly not me.

A custard mix should be good too. Basically you want something that you find easy to eat/drink under stress--not something (like may protein bars) that is hard to eat/chew with a dry mouth or that makes you nauseous or that is just plain unappetizing to you. I like liquids which I can take in a few quick swallows at suitable intervals. They keep me well fueled without causing any stomach problems.


Methuselah said...

David - great, thanks for that. I am a regular coconut cream guzzler, but had seen 'coconut water' advertised as a kind of healthy energy drink so wanted to be sure you didn't mean that. As you can guess from my experience I am pretty well adjusted to not using carbs for fuel during exercise, so I am sold on the coconut cream and egg custard fuel. In fact it's not a lot different from my typical breakfast, except perhaps in the proportions and the absence of a little fruit. I will 'up' the coconut cream so it's more liquid and perhaps add a little water too - then it can be dispensed via a bottle. Thanks again.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

I wanted to add that I think you did remarkably well on such little training, notwithstanding the difficulties with "monkey clad feet" on slippery and stony surfaces. It sounds like a blast, but hard no matter what nutrition and training you used to prepare. I'd love to see those hills sometime.

I wouldn't presume to tell you how to train, but my understanding is that short intense type training like you are doing will not encourage fiber type switching of type IIx fibers (to become fast glycolytic) and hence you will have a higher proportion of pure type II fibers. So your training (the intense stuff anyway) should give you good strength but not so good aerobic glycolysis. Maybe the easier stuff you do provides effective aerobic training- seems good enough anyway, and maybe a good strategy for hill running. You also seem undertrained, but that may be a good thing since you'll avoid injuries that us obsessives tend to get, and may end up being able to train more consistently as a result. It's hard to really know what works and what doesn't, especially since if you keep training over years, you'll most likely improve no matter what you're doing.

I'm tapering for a 50K this weekend, and did sprints today at the track, or what passes for them these days. It was quite fun and refreshing, but I need to be a lot stronger. I've lost a lot of my fast twitch!

Good luck with your next one!


Methuselah said...

Hi Cynthia - thanks for your thoughts. There is definately a sense in which I am deliberately undertraining to see whether I can have my cake and eat it - in other words get all the fun of racing without the injuries and fatigue I used to get from overtraining.

That said, I think you are right that I need to do a little more ensurance work. I plan to get out on the hills more often to do low intensity training - maybe a couple of times a month do a really long, vigorous hike. We're off to Buttermere tomorrow - no better place that that!

I have been hoping and assuming that the sprints (swimming and running) and tabata rowing sessions are building me a fitness base - for example making it easier for me to recover from the steeper sections on which much greater effort is required.

Good luck with the 50k - look forward to reading about it on your blog if you post something...

Asclepius said...

I am not sure I would tackle a race in Vibrams, but given your experience, maybe it wouldn't be that bad! I did the Cuillin Ridge in very basic trainers and found it fine.

When I did the Welsh 14 3000s a few years ago the Peris Horseshoe was on at the same time (IIRC), and these guys flew past me. Very impressive levels of fitness!

Don said...

Hi Methuselah,

I expect you did use some body protein to complete the race. During endurance activity, up to 10 percent of energy comes from protein catabolism, the most when carbohydrate/glycogen stores have depleted. Since we have no store of dietary protein, this could only come from lean tissue. This is one reason that endurance athletes (even on mixed diets) have higher protein needs than sedentary individuals.

"Most of my fuel came from body fat: aside from the muscle glycogen question, the fact is that stored body fat would have fuelled much of my aerobic exercise."

I agree completely with that. Regardless of glycogen stores, 60 to 70 percent of energy consumed in endurance activity comes from fat. this includes sitting at your desk. Glycolysis plays a dominant role only in high intensity activity where you generate energy in the absence of adequate oxygen intake.

Methuselah said...

Thanks Don - appreciate your feedback. I'll be eating plenty of protein before during and after future races of this duration and just hope I can minimise the use of lean protein for energy. The egg & coconut cream mix seems like the way forward!

Methuselah said...

Thanks Asclepius. I am building confidence with the Vibrams. And foot strength I think. I nailed a pretty tough fell over the weekend in them and felt as if my feet were capable of taking more abuse than before. Post on that in the pipeline...

Asclepius said...

Don - when you talk of 'protein catabolism', wouldn't this involve cellular autophagy where the weakest/sickest cells are 'recycled first'? In which case, an occasional push in to a catabolic state under these circumstances would be a good thing.

Both Mike Eades and ADV have talked of this de-gunking mechanism.