The Appalachian Trail

If you ever find yourself training for a 50+ mile ultramarathon, then you’re bound to notice this one particular long run on your training plan. You will see it just sitting there, tucked between a few reasonable long runs, glaring at you with these evil eyes. The 30 mile training run. The run that all first time ultramarathoners fear the most.

I recently experienced that fear first hand. I was in the midst of training for my first 50-miler, feeling confident about all the upcoming runs except for one. The longest training run I had ever pushed through.

But the good news, and yes, there is good news, is that with the proper preparation, I survived that ultra-training run, and so can you! In fact, I not only survived, I actually enjoyed myself.

Below I have outlined 4 simple steps I took to ensure the 30 mile training run was successful.

Know the Route

It isn’t like me to know exactly where I’ll be running on a long run. I usually take off with a general idea in mind, or a set of trails to explore, but to have something 100% mapped out ahead of time is a pre-run ritual I quit doing on a regular basis in order to run more ‘free’. For this run, I felt it was important to know exactly where I would be going, and when I would be getting there.

This is important for a few big reasons.

  1. You need to know where you can fuel.
  2. You want to make sure you aren’t tacking on extra miles or coming up short.
  3. Getting lost or confused isn’t what you should be concerned about when pushing such a large distance.

I decided the best option for me was to run two 15 mile loops through the local DC park, Rock Creek Park. I mapped out the simplest loop I could find that best mimicked race day conditions. I had the luxury of being able to park my car right smack in the middle, which I knew I would pass by three times throughout the run. This provided for an ‘aid station’ of sorts for the training run.

Fuel for Success

Long training runs are just as much an opportunity for you to learn how your body handles the distance as it is about making your legs stronger. Experimenting with race day like foods and drinks is incredibly important.

Don’t be afraid to eat solid foods. Running for such a long distance at a slower pace allows the body to process the needed calories that solid foods will give you. Most ultras have deluxe aid stations which provide anything from PB&J sandwiches to boiled potatoes. Find out what the aid station menu will be and train with similar foods. In my interview with Mike Wardian, he gave us this advice:

“Make sure you eat, drink, and take salt. No one told me that. If you don’t fuel there is no way you are going to finish. Getting down that nutrition is really important. I think a lot of people get the miles in but then forget about that part, but you need to do both.”

This is also a good opportunity to experiment with new foods you want to try, but don’t know how your body will react. I put my 3 natural alternatives to energy gels to the test again on this past 30 mile training run. I then knew exactly how I want to use the Buddy Fruits, almonds, and sweet potatoes on race day and what combo of other things I needed.

Take it Easy

When training for a traditional 26.2, it is important to mix in miles at ‘race pace’ during your long training runs. With an ultra, that is much less important. For many of us, keeping a pace over 50+ miles is not only not very important, but it isn’t very realistic considering all the things that could happen over so many miles. When running your 30 mile training run, remember to take it easy.

The focus should be on learning how your body handles the time and distance on the trail, not how fast you can do it. Walk the hills if you need to, as you will most certainly walk some hills on race day. Pause at ‘aid stations’ for a rest, as you will most certainly want to pause during race day.

Listen to the body and learn from the experience.

Have Fun

Races are almost always fun. You have the hype of the other runners, the excitement from those who came out to support you, and the satisfaction of seeing all your hard work become a reality. Long training runs usually aren’t nearly as fun. Most of the time you are all alone, and guess what, even if you run 26.2 miles or more, you wont get a medal when you finish.

But they don’t have to be boring, depressing, or lame.

Remember to have a good time and you will not only learn more from the experience, but it will keep you from burning out.

  • Invite a friend to join you for 10 miles at the beginning, or to meet up for your last five. They might have to wait around a little bit, but a good running partner probably wont mind.
  • Mix in a little music. If you are like me, you rarely listen to music while running. I also rarely run 30 miles by myself, so I decided to mix it up a bit. After about an hour on the trail, I turned on some good jams to rally me forward.

30 miles probably seems like a long way to run because it is. But with a little bit of planning, tuning in to the body, and letting loose, you can not only survive the long training run, you can really enjoy it.

The 5:00AM Start

Mud.

I gently push myself up as I slowly slide further backwards down a slip-n-slide of a small but steep trail bank.  Assessing the damage of my fall, I unsuccessful try to wipe off some of the mud caking the leg that just buried itself several inches into the wet earth.  With sore hip flexors and tight legs, it was then that I had my first doubts about finishing and it was only mile 8.

The night before I sat with about 100 other racers listening to a panel of North Face sponsored athletes and race directors for a pre-race discussion.  Outside the skies had opened and the streets of Georgetown were flowing rivers during what would be a 4 hour tornado watch.  It poured for at least six.

“It was muddy when we got to DC and started marking the course earlier this week” the race director Nick Moore said.  “With this rain, you can expect some major mud issues and swollen creeks.”

He was right.

The Race

The gun went off at 5:00 am with about 300 50-mile racers under beautiful clear skies.  As we took off into the dark woods along a gravel road, adrenalin was pumping and everyone was feeling excited.  Around mile 3, we hit our first real patch of mud, which didn’t let up for another 6 or so miles.  Now, I’m not talking about fun splashy mud, I’m talking about the kind of mud which makes braking nearly impossible and sliding inevitable.  For the first several miles I was putting in an 8 and half minute mile effort but clocking 10 minute miles.  People were going down left and right, shoes were sinking deep within the mud suction cups, and those small balancing muscles I only use during yoga were getting a real work-over.

We were all frustrated, and I think many of us were doubting 50 miles of this mess.

But, with time, the trail began to change.  As we approached the rocky trails of Great Falls National Park, the mud began to show itself less and less.  Finally, we could really run.  And run we did, for miles and miles.

Rock Hopp’n in Great Falls

The course contains 3 ~7 mile laps around Great Falls.  Much of this is very runable, with a few hills and some extremely rocky sections by the river which forced a little hiking.  For the most part these laps went pretty well.  I was greeted at the entrance of the park by my mom and Katie, who were more excited to see me at 7:00AM than I knew was possible, and again at the end of each lap where they sat eagerly waiting my return.

When running back into the main part of Great Falls to start lap three, I was met by not only Katie and mom, but Alex, who would be my pacer for the last 15 miles, and his girlfriend Meg.  It was wonderful to have such a large welcoming committee, and forced me to focus and gear up for the second half of the race.

Lap three started my first downturn, when around mile 32 I had some pretty major stomach cramps.  I needed a break from the Gu, so I downed some salt, boiled potatoes, and a peach.  The sweet juices of the peach have never tasted better.

Just before leaving Great Falls I picked up Alex.  With 15 miles left in the race, this would be Alex’s longest run as well.  We started out at a nice pace, but hiked some of the major hills at the beginning of this section.  I was feeling pretty good, and more than excited to be the hell out of Great Falls.

Then came the mud.  That damn mud.  It was certainly better than the morning, having dried out a bit, but I found myself with little patience for not being able to really run.

It was around mile 42 that the frustrations and the realization that I still had over an hour of running really started to sink in.  Alex’s encouragement, guidance, and patience with me taking a few hiking breaks helped me through.  It was here that I also started dedicating miles to loved ones.  My college friend, Chris, told me (I think jokingly) to dedicate a mile to him.  That was actually a real savior, as I could count down the final miles by running them for the people who support me in times of need.  I was reminded that all this pain, suffering, and exhaustion had meaning.

Relief

Me and Alex about to Cross the Finish Line

We knocked out a few slow miles leading back to the final aid station just 1.7 miles from the finish.  At this point every 50 mile racer was already congratulating each other and the celebrations were beginning.  I grabbed my last handful of chips, gave Alex a high five, and we took off.

The last mile flew by.  The only time of rest came when we crossed the last stream.  I took a moment to clean the mud off my shoes and legs.  “I want to look good for my lady” I said to Alex, not realizing we still had several puddles and patches of mud before actually finishing.

And with that, we made our way to the finish shoot.  With one last high five, my arm lifted in the air, and with Katie, mom, and Meg screaming us on, I crossed the line.

50 miles worth of suppressed emotion and pain came flowing out as Katie met me with a hug.  A moment I will never forget.  This was more than just a race, it was a journey in every sense of the word.

Thank You

A huge thank you goes out to all of my friends and family who supported me both in person and virtually over this run.  Katie and Mom, it was knowing that you guys would be waiting for me that helped to keep me going.  Alex and Meg, thanks for coming out, cheering me on, and Alex, I’ll never be able to repay you for keeping me going, pushing me up muddy hills, and just being there for the low times.  Also, The North Face Endurance Challenge puts on a great event.  If you are looking for a place to run your first ultra, I would recommend them hands down.

Freedom

Food/Gear

Food:

Gear:

 

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own…” – William James

And the winner is….

Ben Colligan!  Just shoot me an e-mail and I’ll set you up with Tim’s new book!

Earlier this week we hosted a guest post from Tim Woodbury of MidpackRunner.com.  He shared with us a delicious recipe for homemade pretzels made with chia seeds.

Chia seeds really hit the mainstream after Chis McDougall’s Born to Run was published a few years ago.  In the book he talks about how the ancient Tarahumara tribes of Mexico use the seeds while running ultra long distances in extreme conditions.  Because chia is packed with Omega 3s to help combat inflammation and retains water to help fight dehydration, they have now become an incredibly popular fuel for runners.

Inspired by the seeds himself, Tim has not only created the pretzel recipe, but a whole cookbook of chia driven recipes.  The eBook Running Recipes:  Chia-Powered Sole Food was released earlier this week, and Tim was generous enough to talk to me about the book and the benefits of chia.

Interview with Tim Woodbury, author of Running Recipes:  Chia-Powered Sole Food

[youtube_sc url=Ll3VGAAEQkg width=430]

Cookbook Giveaway!

And to celebrate his book launch, Tim has very generously offered up one of his books free for one of you!

As with all Rock Creek Runner giveaways, there are THREE ways to enter and win!

  1. Leave a comment on this post about why you want the cookbook!
  2. “Like” Rock Creek Runner on Facebook and let me know in the comments.  If you already like RCR, no problem!  Just let me know in the comments.
  3. Share this giveaway with all of your Facebook friends and let me know in the comments!

If you do more than one, I enter your name up to 3 times into the hat!  That simple.

The giveaway ends at midnight on Tuesday, May 29th and the winner will be announced Wednesday morning.  That means you have the entire holiday weekend to enter and share!

Didn’t Win the Giveaway?

No problem!  You can buy Running Recipes:  Chia-Powered Sole Food by clicking one of the many links throughout this post!

 

Disclaimer:  All links are affiliated.  Not because I’m trying to sell you something I don’t like, but because by buying something through one of the links, you are supporting Rock Creek Runner and helping me get the word out about products I believe in!

This is a guest post by Tim Woodbury of MidpackRunner.com.

The origin of the pretzel is storied and mysterious. Most accounts trace their invention to Christian monks, but these stories are almost as many and varied as the forms of the pretzel itself.

For me, pretzels conjure up images of hot summer days, lemonade, and baseball stadiums. These soft, chewy rings were a treat to be enjoyed in the company of family and friends. Like a warm, bready hug.

Recently I’ve come to appreciate their value as a post-run recovery food. This recipe contains a healthy combination of whole grains to give you the carbohydrates you need; chia seed for an accessible boost of protein for muscle repair and omega-3s to reduce inflammation; and what pretzel would be complete without coarse salt for electrolyte replenishment?

Prepare the dough

  • ⅓ cup water
  • ¼ cup chia seed
  • ¾ cup water, heated to 110° F
  • ½ tablespoon dry active yeast
  • 1½ tablespoons brown sugar
  • ½ tablespoon molasses
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  1. In a small measuring cup, combine the chia seed with ⅓ cup water. Stir until chia begins to gel, then set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, mix yeast, brown sugar, molasses, and ¾ cup heated water. Stir until sugar is fully dissolved. Let the mixture stand for 10 minutes to activate the yeast before continuing.
  3. Add the hydrated chia, flour, and salt into the yeast mixture. Stir the mixture until it begins to form a dough, then knead by hand until the dough is smooth, satiny, and slightly elastic.

Shape the pretzels

  1. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. Cut it into 6 even pieces. Roll each piece into a log, then set aside for 5-10 minutes to allow dough to settle. Continue to roll and relax as necessary until each piece of dough is about 15 inches long and approximately finger width.
  2. Now the real fun begins. It’s time to shape the dough. Begin with the dough in a horseshoe with the open side facing you.
  3. Taking one end in each hand, cross the right hand over the left. The ends should now be in the opposite position from where they began.
  4. Again taking one end in each hand, cross the right hand over the left a second time. This forms the classic pretzel twist.
  5. Finally, pinch the pretzel lightly just above the twist (or at the bottom of the loop, if you prefer to think of it that way). Leaving the loop in place, fold the twisted ends up toward the top, using the pinch point as a pivot. You now have a completed (if upside down) pretzel.
  6. Once all of the pretzels are, well, pretzeled, place them into the fridge for 15 minutes or until they become slightly firm. While you wait, begin the final part of the process below.

Cook the pretzels

  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 2½ tablespoons baking soda, plus a bit extra reserved
  • Kosher salt to coat

Before baking the pretzels, you want to boil them briefly in an alkalized solution. This activates the starches in the dough, forming a crust that prevents the pretzels from rising too much in the baking process. It also gives the pretzels their distinctive flavor.

Note: Historically pretzels were boiled in lye before baking. Some purists still believe this is the only way to prepare a true pretzel. However, as you are unlikely to have food grade lye just lying about (no pun intended), we’ll approximate it using baking soda.

On a side note, you can prepare as many or as few of these pretzels as you feel you’ll eat. By freezing those you won’t eat right away, you can repeat just this last set of steps when you get a pretzel craving. They are best when served fresh from the oven.

  1. Fill a medium stock pot with water and place over medium-high heat. Stir in the molasses and 2½ tablespoons baking soda. While your pretzels chill, bring the water to a rolling boil.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425° F.
  3. Lightly dust each pretzel with baking soda. Place the pretzels one at a time into the boiling water and cook for 15-30 seconds on each side. Carefully remove from the boiling water and set aside in a collander to drain.
  4. Place the pretzels on a baking sheet and lightly salt them. Bake for approximately 15 minutes, or until pretzels are golden brown.
  5. Enjoy plain, or with whole grain mustard, and your favorite beverage.

Makes 6 pretzels.

What do pretzels conjure up for you? Do you have a favorite recovery food? Share your warm, bready hug in the comments.

Tim Woodbury is the runner and author behind the blog. His new book, Running Recipes: Chia-Powered Sole Food, features 21 unique and delicious recipes featuring chia seed, and more are being added daily.

 

In honor of Bike to Work Day – Washington, DC on May, 18th, I thought I’d tackle 4 bike commuting myths that I think keep people from hopping on their two wheels.

How does this relate to Rock Creek Runner, you ask?  Well, here we focus on healthy lifestyles which both engage the earth and the local community.  Biking to work is not only a great way to get the muscles moving early in the morning or an easy way to cross train, it is also one of the best ways to keep your city or town cleaner and quieter.

Let’s start with my own story.  I started biking to work after pressure from my girlfriend, who had been commuting by bike for awhile.  I was reluctant at first because I was scared to bike in the city, I didn’t want to get sweaty before work, and I didn’t think it would really be that much better.  Besides, I already had an easy commute.

I have an easy commute.  It takes 18 minutes on a single bus line to go from my apartment’s street corner to work’s street corner.  It takes about 35 minutes to walk the distance.  Or, now, it takes 8 minutes on the bike. To give you an idea of how easy it is, I decided to film the commute, both ways.  Down 14th Street, up 15th Street

[youtube_sc url=tATW39U3xUM width=430]
I realize that most people aren’t that lucky, but that doesn’t mean that biking has to be any different for you.

So here are the top 4 excuses I hear from friends and colleagues.  Now, I wish to prove them wrong.

1)  City Biking is Dangerous

Well, yea, city biking can be dangerous. But it doesn’t have to be.  After spending 15 minutes on DC streets, just about anyone will say that most bikers in this city ride like crazy people.  For them, it is dangerous.  If you take precautions and are careful, biking to work can be an easy ride.

  • Wear a helmet.  You might not look cool, but trust me, it is a lot cooler than a busted head.
  • Stop at red lights.  I know, it just seems too easy to blow through those bright red fun killers, but they are there for a reason, and it is the law, so please, stop at red lights.
  • Pay attention.  Cars can’t always see you.  I get just as pissed as the next guy (I’ve been known to kick the backs of cars as I ride by), but many times they just can’t see you.
  • Break out the Bells and Whistles.  Make yourself heard.  Invest in a bell or wear a whistle around your neck.  Yelling works well too, but people on the sidewalk seem to freak.
  • Brighten it up.  When it is dark out, wear the neon, or load up as many flashing lights as you can find.

2) You Can’t Commute in Work Clothes

Simply false.  Sure, I see people decked out in riding jerseys and padded shorts every single morning.  Why?  I have no freaking idea.  I hope that it is because they just rode 40 miles to get into the city, but I highly doubt it.

I commute in my work clothes every morning.  I roll up my pant legs and ride on down the road.  Even in the heat of summer, mornings are usually cool enough to where I don’t get too sweaty.  When I do, I just hit the bathroom for a little papertowel to the head.

On the way home it doesn’t really matter!  Sometimes I strip off my shirt down to just an undershirt for a cooler ride, but for the most part it doesn’t matter if I get sweaty.

For the girls in the skirts, I know what you are thinking.  And I haven’t ever ridden a bike in a skirt (nor do I ever plan to).  But this girl has (link removed for security reasons), so take her advice!

3)  Your Bike Will get Stolen

Maybe.  It sometimes happens.  But thankfully there are some great ways to avoid this from happening to you.

  • Take advantage of office building parking.  By DC law if an office building has a parking deck, they are required to have bike parking.  These are usually secure and nice.  So take advantage of them!  If you don’t have a space at your place of work, lock your bike up in a well trafficked area or ask your employer if you can bring it somewhere in the office.
  • Invest in a U-Lock.  They aren’t perfect, but they are very strong.  These suckers are WAY better than chain locks.
  • Lock your wheels and seat.  Don’t bother bringing an extra chain for your front wheel.  For about $15 you can get wheel locks which will significantly reduce the risk of them being stolen.
  • Learn how to lock your bike properly.  There are good ways to lock a bike and bad ways to lock a bike.  This is a great resource: http://www.sheldonbrown.com/lock-strategy.html

4)  It Takes Longer

For some reason people seem to think that biking to work takes longer than other transportation.  It is possible that a car is faster, but in a city, not much can beat a bike.

In my own situation, I can get to work in half the time it takes me on a bus.  My girlfriend, who doesn’t have nearly as nice a commute as me, can get to work 1/3 faster on a bike than taking the bus.

You might be moving slower than the speed limit, but you are moving a lot faster than those stuck in traffic.

You know what the best part about becoming a bike commuter is?

You don’t have to commute by bike every day!  If it is raining, if the temps are just too hot, or maybe if their is snow on the ground, who cares!   Find another way to get to work.

Bike once, twice, 4 times a week.  That is fine.  Just don’t let any lame excuse stop you from a better commute.

Now have fun and ride safely.

Credit: The North Face Endurance Challenge

Mike Wardian could easily be called the DC area’s best ultra runner, but he could also be called one of the best ultra runners in the world.

For many, Mike Wardian needs no introduction, but for those that do, let me break down just a few of his recent accomplishments:

  • 3 time Olympic Trials Qualifier
  • 2nd place and silver medalist at 2011 World 100k Championships
  • 8th pace at 2012 World 100k Championships
  • 5 time winner of the National Marathon (now Rock n Roll USA)
  • 2nd place at 2011 Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) even after losing nearly 45 minutes for a wrong turn
  • 3rd place at 2011 Badwater Ultramarathon – 135 mile race across Death Valley
  • 1st place at 2011 The North Face Endurance Challange 50k – Kansas City
  • 11th place (1st American) at 2011 Comrades Marathon (87k), largest ultramarathon in the world
  • USATF Ultra Runner of the Year in 2008, 2009, and 2010

The man is a beast.

I was recently honored by the opportunity to speak with him about a few past races, upcoming events, and running tips for all of us who will never run as many races as he is running this year along.  You can find audio from the interview below.

Getting to Know Mike Wardian

Mike lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two young sons. When I told my girlfriend I was going to interview Mike, I listed off a number of his big races, mentioned he has two kids, and that he works at an international ship broker, she said, “What does this man not do!”  That was the correct response.

Mike is known for stellar performances at an incredible amount or races each year, but when not racing, Mike keeps up an impressive training schedule as well.

I run in the morning, run again at lunch and bike to and from work,. Once I get home I’m usually just a dad, and then some evenings I do another work out. So usually anywhere form 2 runs a day to 3 runs a day and then two bike rides, but it is really more commuting, not hardcore or anything.”

With his office located around near Dupont Circle in the District, most of his lunchtime runs are in or around Rock Creek Park.

If you ever find yourself out running around lunchtime, keep an eye out for Mike on the Glover-Archibald Trail or around the great horse trails off Beach Dr.  Those seem to be his favorites.

Or maybe his pre-dawn runs on the Potomac Heritage Trails.

“I’m trying to get ready for Mont-Blanc, so I’m doing the headlamp, early morning, technical, pick your feet up so you don’t smash you face thing.  It’s a great way to start the day.  Nearly poking your eye out on the sharp jagged rocks is a great way to get the blood moving.”

Expert Advice

With so many races and miles under his shoes, Mike has learned plenty of lessons.  He was happy to share some of that advice. 

“The one rule for training is being consistent.  For racing, make sure you eat, drink, and take salt.  No one told me that.  If you don’t fuel there is no way you are going to finish.  Getting down that nutrition is really important.  I think a lot of people get the miles in but then forget about that part, but you need to do both.”

As a proud No Meat Athlete, I had to bring up his diet.  In regards to Mike being vegetarian,

“For me it seems to work well.  I feel like my body works more efficiently that way.” 

But he knows that a plant based diet might not work the same for everyone. 

“Other people have had good experience with lean proteins.  It is something very personal that people need to figure out.”

What Mike has Coming Up

I went into this interview knowing that he has an incredibly busy race schedule. I asked him what he had coming up, assuming he might name off a few of his bigger races throughout the year. Instead he listed off an amazing variety of races including two 100 mile races, numerous marathons, and ultras all over the world.

“I have a pretty low key May, just trying to get ready, maybe some local marathons or something like that. I have a 5k.  My boss’s school is putting it on in Landon, it’s the March run this weekend, and then I that is going to be pretty sweet, I’m looking forward to talking to some kids there.  Then I have the Comrades ultra marathon in South Africa again this year. It’s the biggest ultra marathon in the world.  I was 11th there last year, so I’d like to improve on that this year.  I have the Western States 100 miler near the end of June, the oldest trail run in the world. It was kind of the beginning of the 100 mile runs, and is kind of an epically stacked race with fantastic guys coming in from all over the world, so I’m looking forward to that, kind of mixing it up with those guys on trails. Then I have the Grant-Peirce indoor Marathon in July, San Francisco Marathon in July, which I won last year, so hopefully I can go back and do well there. And then I have UTMB in August, which is the, Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, where you kind of circumnavigate Mont-Blonc.  I have the Ultra Race of Champions in September, and then a race in New Findland in November and maybe a race in Chile in November.   Oh, and a race for North Face in November; the Kansas city 50k road race.  December I’m not really sure yet.”

I know what you are thinking, and yes, it is OK to be exhausted just thinking about it.  But even for your typical elite ultrarunner, that is a massive race schedule.

When I asked him how his body keeps up, Mike’s modesty shined. 

“Usually I’m pretty lucky. This year I’ve had more issues that I’ve had to deal with so I’m really learning what it is like to have to battle through injuries.  I’ve never really had to do that much, and it has made me have a really great appreciation for how important it is to try to get some good sleep and eat well, and just kind of persevere. 

Having such a positive outlook on the pain, he continued,

“I guess everyone has to deal with stuff, so it is just going to make me stronger, well, it already has.  I guess once I can kick this foot thing I’m having I’ll be even more jazzed up to push the boundaries even more than I have.”

It was such a pleasure speaking with Mike and I wish him the best on all of his upcoming races.  Unfortunately we will be at Comrades instead of toeing line with me at TNF Endurance Challenge – DC 50  this year, but hopefully we can all run into him on the trails sometime soon.

Listen to the Interview!

Interview link.

Follow and Support Mike Wardian:

You can follow and support on his Facebook Page.

Winner Update

First off, thanks to everyone who joined in on the giveaway and thanks for all of those who are now connected on Facebook!  I have some really exiting stuff coming next week, including a great interview, and hopefully another giveaway in the next few weeks!

And the winner is…..

Kate!  Just e-mail me from the contact page and let me know where to send the goodies.

It is giveaway time!

Rock Creek Runner is finding itself with tons of new readers from No Meat Athlete this week.  So as a thank you to all of those visitors for both reading my guest post on No Meat Athlete and for clicking over, I thought I would give something away!

 Nathan Quickdraw Plus:

In my opinion this is the best handheld water bottle on the market.  With adjustable straps, the perfect size pocket, and a 22oz bottle, it is great for long summer runs when you some extra fluids.  It is a nice addition to any runner’s gear, and something you can never have enough of.

 

 

Buddy Fruits Fruit Snacks:

The other day I wrote a post about 3 natural alternatives to energy gels.  One of my favorite options for long runs is the Buddy Fruits puree.  They are delicious, refreshing, and a great way to get those much needed nutrients during a long run.  Because I’m feeling generous today, I thought I throw in 3 of these fruit snacks for you to try out with the Nathan Handheld!

How to Enter and Win!

There are three, that is right, THREE simple ways to enter this giveaway.

  1. Leave a comment on this post about anything you wish!
  2. “Like” Rock Creek Runner on Facebook.  If you already like RCR, no problem!  Just let me know in the comments.
  3. Share this giveaway with all of your Facebook friends!

If you ‘like’ me on Facebook or share the post, just let me know in the comments.  If you do more than one, I enter your name up to 3 times into the hat!  That simple.

Oh, and on last thing.  Only readers with US-based addresses may apply.  Sorry, no international shipping.

The giveaway ends at midnight on Thursday, May 3rd and the winner will be announced Friday morning!

Cheers!

It is no secret, energy gels like Gu or ClifShots can give runners a much needed boost at any distance from the half marathon to a 100 mile ultra.  On longer trail runs over 20 miles, I’ve been known to suck one down every 45 minutes.  Tons of money and many hours of research have gone into perfecting the concoction of ingredients, both natural and unnatural, to create the best energy gels.

But many people have issues with energy gels.  After having a few, the thought of slurping down the sticky goo can be nauseating.  For many people, the upset stomach feeling can last for hours after the workout.  And (for a reason) they are known to plug you up, making post workout relaxation a bit difficult at times.

So when thinking of a way to fix the problem, I asked myself, what if there are natural, clean ingredients out there that can provide the same benefits for a healthier, cheaper, and better product?  Well, I set out on a journey to find those products, testing three alternatives to the energy gel.

Before deciding what to try, I first figured out what exactly it is about energy gels that make you feel so good.  The important things inside that pack of flavored goo are carbohydrates (for energy), sodium (to replace the salt you are sweating out), potassium (to replenish what is lost from the muscles, to prevent cramping), vitamins (to make you feel good), and a lack of fiber (which is part of what makes most people feel, well, sick for the hours following a run).

The Base Product – Gu Energy Gel (1 pack, 32g):

Here are the starting stats, as found on the back of a Gu Energy Gel, my gel of choice.

  • Calories – 100
  • Sodium – 50mg
  • Potassium – 35mg
  • Carbohydrates – 25g
  • Fiber – 0
  • Vitamin A – 0
  • Vitamin C – 100%

Sweet Potatoes (1 cup, baked, with skin):

This is probably the cheapest of the three options, and one that I’ll continue to use on any endurance runs, rides, hikes, or backpacking trips that require extra fuel.  I simply sliced one large sweat potato, skin still on, into small disks, lightly salted them on a baking sheet, and slow baked them for about 35 minutes at 250 degrees.  Now the baking time is no science, but the goal is to dry them out with a very slow bake. Once they were ready and cooled, I threw them into a small ziplock and munched on one about every 30 minutes during the run.  They kept in the fridge for about 2 days.

Pros:  The sweet potatoes were actually pretty tasty!  These little potato disks couldn’t have been easier to eat, with little mess and no packaging waste other than the single ziplock which held the 10-15 slices I brought with me.  They were easy on the stomach, gave me a much needed feeling of actually eating something of substance, and went down nicely.

Cons: Because they were chewy, I often found myself munching on leftover specks stuck in the teeth.  Usually I don’t mind food like that, but it isn’t the best surprise when you are huffing up a big hill.  The potatoes also made me pretty thirsty.  The combination of the dry food and the extra salt had me sucking down more of my water supply than I would have liked.  The other downside is the amount of fiber.  These guys aren’t going to send you running deep into the woods, but with 7g, they have a healthy dose of the stuff.

Facts (per cup, 200g):

  • Calories – 180
  • Sodium – 72mg
  • Potassium – Baked, with skin 508 mg
  • Carbohydrates – 41g
  • Fiber – 7g
  • Vitamin A – 769%
  • Vitamin C 65%

Fruit Puree (Buddy Fruits):

These fruit puree blends are awesome.  They are designed as fruit snacks for children, and are small pouches filled with a fruit puree blend with almost the consistency of apple sauce.  I’ve noticed how much popularity the little fruit snack packs are gaining by the variety I see popping up in all the grocery stores.  While they are all pretty similar, these packs can really vary in price.  I found these Buddy Fruits for about $1 at Harris Teeter.  Another brand I would recommend is the Peter Rabbit Organics, which can be found at Whole Foods and Starbucks.

What is inside is literally pureed fruit.  All natural, no preservatives (other than lime juice), and often organic.  This is the easiest fuel I’ve ever taken down during a run, and the best part is, they were freak’n delicious!

Pros:  Super easy to eat, delicious, and cooling.  They didn’t make me thirsty at all, which was a very welcomed change from your typical sports Gel.

Cons:  They are big and bulky.  Not only is the package itself about the size of two ClifShots (which are already bigger than a Gu), the little childproof cap adds a lot to the size both before you eat it and after.  While I can fit two Gus in a typical running short’s pocket, I’m not even sure if I could fit one of these.  You’d need to be running with a running vest or have some other sort of carrying method.  The other downside is even though it is bigger than a Gu, it only provides about half the nutrients.  I did enjoy a good sugar rush, though, from the natural sugars of the fruit.

Facts:

  • Calories: 60
  • Sodium 10mg
  • Potassium – No Info
  • Carbohydrates:  15g
  • Fiber:  1g

Almonds:

Almonds are about as easy as they come.  These tasty little nuts need no prep time, no cook time, and leave literally no waste.  Nuts have been a staple for hikers for as long as hiking has been a thing, and I find that carrying a small pouch with me on the long run can really provide a good snack.  They are high calorie and high in carbohydrates, which make them good for the refuel.

Pros:  They are easy and light.  Almonds are a quick fuel with virtually zero hassle.  Plus they are high in just about all the good stuff you look for except sodium.  The almond is a clean nut with tons of the good fats.

Cons:  You’ll be sucking these pieces out from between your teeth and behind your gums for a long time.  Just be careful when eating them quickly and breathing heavy.  They also don’t have much sodium, so if you have an option for lightly salted, that might be a better pick.

Facts (1 cup):

  • Calories – 680
  • Sodium – n/a
  • Potassium – 206mg
  • Carbohydrates –  24g
  • Fiber – 9g

Conclusion:

I had great experiences with all three alternatives.  They all offered good fuel for the long run and were pretty easy to carry and deal with.  All three were also easier to digest and better on the stomach than a gel.  As far as taste goes, I’d have to say that the fruit puree pouches from Buddy Fruits are the winner.  They were delicious and the cool paste went down very easily.  But they are probably the loser when it comes to the best gel alternative.  The Buddy Fruits were large and didn’t pack the punch that an energy gel gives you.

What I learned by doing this comparison is that it is really hard to find something that targets the areas needed as well as energy gel.  All that money and research seems to have worked in creating a product that provides little more than the nutrients being burned over hours on the trail.  But I also learned that nature gives us plenty of good alternatives to add into the mix.

For my next big race in June, the DC North Face Endurance 50 miler, I’m planning to use a combination of these alternatives in conjunction with some Gu to fuel the run.  Adding alternatives will make everything go smoother on the stomach and the head, as well as give me the perfect mix of foods, flavors, and fuel for a strong run.

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Looking for Other Natural Ways to Fuel Your Runs?

Check out Matt Frazier’s ebook Fuel Your Run with Pinole and Chia!  Made famous from Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run about the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, Pinole and Chia seeds have become a staple for natural sources of energy in the ultrarunning world.  Fuel Your Run with Pinole and Chia offers up everything from pre and post run recipes for things like waffles and smoothies, to portable mid-run treats like natural energy bars. Click here to view more details. You wont regret it!

 

Ed. Note:  You can find part 1 of this two part series here. 

I woke up Saturday morning feeling a bit stiff and tired.  The night had been a been colder than I expected, making for plenty of tossing and balling up throughout the darkness.  I pulled myself out of the sleeping bag and threw on some layers before venturing out of the tent to make some coffee.  With the kettle heating up over the pocket stove, I munched on a bagel and began to get things in order for another long run.

After a slow wake up period, more than a few cups of joe, and a little poking around the site, I finally stripped down to my running shorts and took off up the trail.

The Run:

This was going to be my bigger run of the weekend.  I left directly from the campsite along the AT where I would run south for 10 miles before turning around.  From Lewis Mountain, that is about a 1.5 miles south of the Swift Run Gap entrance.

The run started out fast, with about a mile of downhill right out of the gate.  I breezed past a few trail heads until I came across the Pocosin Cabin.  Out of curiosity, I stopped for a minute to check out the cabin.  Having recently been introduced to the cabins maintained by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, I was eager to take a peak.  Just about .2 miles off the trail sits a rustic cabin built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps with an amazing view.  I took a mental note to check it out when I got home, and turned back up the side trail past a spring and back onto the AT.  It wasn’t long after that the trail switched to a bit of climbing, and things got fun.  The only real rock scramble of this section of trail sat about 2.5 miles from the campsite.  After a bit of a scramble up to one of the best overlooks of the day, I continued on, this time downhill, for what seemed like several miles.  At this point I was flying.  My legs had warmed up, my body was filled with good nutrients, and I was loving the outdoors.  About 6 miles into the run I passed a large picnic area, which seemed to a be a major place starting point for people on day hikes down to a set of waterfalls.  This was really the only place I’d see anyone all day.  On the way out I ran into a group of college aged kids just finishing up the trip down to the falls and on the way back I would run into a large group of about 20, mostly under the age of 10, panting and complaining about the hike being too long.  Outside of this half mile stretch, the AT seemed nearly uninhabited other than myself and a few little animals.

Follow the White Blazes

About 9 miles south of Lewis Mountain I ran into the Swift Run Gap entrance.  The trail spits you out right on Skyline to cross over a bridge before going back into the woods.  In hindsight I should have just turned around there.  My quite tranquil run was blown out by the loud noises of Skyline.  Big over-sized SUVs, loud motorcycles, and diesel trucks working hard to climb the mountain.  After I hit 10 miles I decided to retreat and turned right around.

The run home brought about several sets of emotions.  I was feeling a big down after running back across the bridge.  I’m not really sure why, but I think it had something to do with the realization I wasn’t alone after all.  Of course I knew that, but it was so obvious with so many loud cars flying by.  The worst part was that right when I was feeling low, the trail decided to go high.  What seemed like several mile of climb from about 11-17 were pretty tough.  Sure there was some downhill in there as well, but not nearly as much as the uphill.  Being that it was an out and back, I knew this was coming, but it didn’t make it any more fun.  I just kept chugging along, taking breaks from time to time to munch on a sweet potato round or enjoy an overlook, and gradually that spirit came back.   By the time I reached the first big overlook I mentioned before (at about mile 18), I felt great.  With just a few miles left before reaching camp I decided to take a bit of a longer break and soak it all in.  It had been a great weekend of solo running and I wasn’t ready for it to end.  I found a comfy rock, pulled out the last of my fuel, and took my time.

About 30 minutes into my rest, I started hearing some noises behind me.  I turned around to see what it was, but couldn’t hear anything.  It kept getting louder and louder, the rustling of leaves, crunching into the quite air.  “A deer?”  I asked myself out loud (literally, out loud…I was starting to go a bit crazy).  “Oh man, I hope it isn’t a bear!”  I decided to get up and poke my head around the rock to see what it was.  Tiptoeing from boulder to boulder I closed in on the noise.  I felt the familiar pounding of my heart, only this time it wasn’t from running up a big hill.  I turned on the camera and grabbed my bag, just in case I had to take off running from a giant black bear.  As I got closer, the noise got louder.  But as I turned around the rock, I couldn’t see anything!  Finally, I looked down and saw a bird, several birds.  Maybe a dozen total.  All picking away at who knows what.  Turns out a bunch of birds, all jumping around, sounds a lot like a bear…or not.

In any case, I decided it was best to get on back to the campsite, so I took off down the climb and back up to the site.  The last few miles flew by as my legs left rested and I was happy.  I tacked on a little .5 mile climb (each way) along the Lewis Mountain trail just for one last overlook before stopping at the campsite.

Immediately after arriving the site I was starving.  I took off my shoes, ripped open the cooler, and lit the stove.  I had prepared a bunch of ingredients ahead of time for a quick and delicious Miso soup.  About 10 minutes later I was relaxing in a camping chair slurping down the soup.  Delicious and possibly one of the best post run meals I’ve ever had.

Reflection Time:

Finishing up the run around 4:30 gave me plenty of time to enjoy a quiet evening and reflect on the weekend.  It had been a great one, with hours of solitude on the trail, and plenty of suffering to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment.

As the sun started to set that evening I took the short trek back up the Lewis Mountain trail for one last view of the valley during sunset.  I sat quietly, fiddling with tiny sticks and watching the lights from homes deep in the valley grow brighter.  I thought about this journey to 50 miles, and why I would want to do that to myself.  What I realized is that something you really love doing shouldn’t always be easy or fun.  If it is always easy, you’ll never learn or grow from it.  What I love about running isn’t always the act of running, but the life lessons learned from each mile.  In fact, sometimes I really hate running, but every time I hit a low, I always come out.  Every time I’m suffering and want to quit, I’m always about to break through.  And every time I put my mind to it and fight my way through the pain, I do something I didn’t know I could do before.  Now running isn’t always the perfect metaphor for life, but if I can approach life with this understanding that when things really suck and pain is all I feel, that I can get through that and become stronger by just dropping my head and fighting up the hill, well I think that is a great way to live.  It makes those sweet times that much sweeter.

I stayed up late that night drinking beers, watching the fire, and enjoying the full moon.  When I woke up Easter morning, with stiff legs and a dry mouth, I felt so satisfied.  After a quick breakfast of coffee and fruit, I packed up my stuff and loaded the car.  I was excited to return home, see Katie, and keep moving forward.

An Epic Widowmaker on the Lewis Mountain Trail
Wildflowers along Staunton River Trail

 

Katie and I do a lot of camping.  Last year alone we camped probably a dozen times throughout Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest.  We really love our little escapes to the mountains from the city.  It not only refreshes the mind, but also the body and spirit.

So naturally, as I plan for the next big thing with my running, The North Face Endurance 50 Mile (DC), I decided a weekend out to Shenandoah to refresh and jump start the mind and the body was a good thing to do.

The past several months of running were a build up to the Rock n Roll Marathon a few weeks ago.  The plan was to train with that in mind, and just shift from there to train for the 50.  The two weeks following the marathon, I cut back on running a bit to give my legs a bit of a break, with the plan to really get things started with a weekend out in the woods.

The Plan:

The plan was to go up early Friday afternoon and spend two nights camping and two days running.  I decided to do this one solo so that I could really focus on wrapping my head around the upcoming 50 miles, and well life in general.  Plus I knew that if Katie was with me I’d much rather spend my time sitting around the fire with her than off running by myself.  So come last Friday morning, she packed her bags for a girls weekend in New York, and I loaded the car with a tent and cooler, kissed Katie goodbye, and went off into the woods.

Now let’s be real, unless it is December and snowing out (which we have done a few times now) you are rarely alone in Shenandoah National Park.  With well over 1 million visitors each year, it ranks within the top 20 most visited national parks in America.  But on an early April weekend with cool temperatures and high winds, crowds were pretty low.  I grabbed a  nice campsite at Lewis Mountain Campground, the smallest in the park, and set up tent.  Turns out I got a little excited about the camping side and lost track of time on Friday.  After setting everything up, gathering some firewood, and wandering around a bit, the day flew by and it was already 3:30 before I laced up the trusty MT101s for a run.  While the wind made standing still a bit chilly, I kept to shorts and a long sleeve T for warmth.  I filled the Nathan vest with water and a few other snacks (more on that to come in a future post on Gu alternatives) and headed down to the Bear Church Rock trail head for an 11.5 mile loop.  I chose this loop for a few reasons.  The first was that I knew I’d be spending most of my time on the AT Saturday and wanted something different, and secondly because it was right at the perfect distance for me.  On top of the miles, the 11.5 mile loop housed nearly 2,400 feet of elevation gain, and let me tell ya…if you were to add up all the hills in Rock Creek Park, I bet it would come no where near 2,400 feet of gain.

Lightly Traveled Cat Knob Trail

The Run:

The run started out great.  I took off for about .4 miles on the AT with a climb right out of the gate.  I was feeling excited, so moved swiftly up that section of trail and got into a good rhythm as I dropped down along a series of other side trails to Bear Church Rock.  Things were feeling great when I paused at an overlook around mile 5 to take in the view.  It was around here that I saw the only other people out on the trail that afternoon, two backpackers about to set up camp for the night.  Soon after that the trail dropped significantly into the ridge along a creek.  The further I dropped, the more I noticed that the sun was setting fast on the other side of the ridge.  It was still early, and I knew if all went well I’d have plenty of time, but I wasn’t totally sure when the sun would set and really didn’t want to find out alone on the trail.  It was also right then that I realized I was carrying the wrong trail map with me, one that just had an out and back instead of the full loop I had planned.  Feeling confident in what trail directions I could remember from studying the map earlier, I stuck to my plan and continued down the valley.  Then I missed my first turn.

Jones Mountain Trail

I reached the Jones Mountain Cabin deep within the valley sometime around 5:00.  I knew I wasn’t supposed to reach the cabin and remembered it was only about a half a mile back to where I should have turned, so I kept my cool, turned around and kept running.  This time I made the right turn and started to climb back up along the Stauntan River.  This is beautiful trail, lined with signs of Spring like wild flowers and budding trees.  I was on a real roll through this climb, loving the run.  But I was also beginning to focus more on the sun, which was now completely on the other side of the ridge and starting to concern me.  Really this was probably for the best, as it just put a little more pep in each step.  I was running with a little sense of urgency.

With the added adrenaline from losing the sun, and a little luck with choosing all the right trail turns, I made it back to the AT with plenty of time to spare.  Flying down the last .4 miles of trail back to the car, I felt a great sense of accomplishment, and a real appreciation for the mountains.  It was a great way to start my weekend of running.

Camp at Lewis Mountain

The sun ended up setting with a beautiful display of color around 7:30, well after I returned back to the site.  For the next several hours I poured a few beers, grilled a few veggie burgers on the open fire, and lost myself in a book.  After the flames began to die, I curled up in my down sleeping bag and called it a night.

The weekend had just begun, but I already knew this was a successful trip.  My mind, body, and soul were feeling refreshed and ready to keep exploring.

Look out for Part 2 to come soon, complete with the story behind run #2 and reflections on the weekend.

Looking Over the Valley at Dusk