When writing, I follow a certain rule:

If I’m not making progress for 15 minutes, I step away.

I put down the keyboard and go for a run or work on a new project. Anything but continue to stare at the stalled page.

I set this rule because I regularly found myself in a loop of inefficiency. I’d rework the same sentence for 30 minutes, or flip back and forth from writing to Facebook or YouTube because I couldn’t focus on the words.

That loop is ineffective, frustrating, and a complete waste of time.

So now, I step away.

Applying the ‘Step Away’ Rule to Running

For the past five days I was on vacation in Rhode Island. We visited family, played Catan, went to a Sox game, drank beer, and swam in the waves.

It was beautiful.

But one thing I didn’t do was go for a run. Not a single mile.

The past few weeks of running have been rather intense for me. I’m wrapping up a 4-week vertical gain challenge, and it has taken a physical and mental toll I wasn’t anticipating. By the time we boarded a plane on Saturday for the beach, I was beyond ready to leave the mountains.

For the four of five days leading up to the trip, I dreaded each run and climb — including the one I woke up early to get in the day we left.

The runs weren’t efficient, and they had lost their purpose.

I needed to step away. Even if just for a few days.

Why It’s Difficult to Step Away

The problem with stepping away from writing, running, work, or any other project is that you’re at least in part admitting defeat.

Admitting that you’re stuck, frustrated, or tired, and that not doing it is better than continuing on.

So instead of taking a break, our stubborn asses tend to grunt through it …

… “I’m going to build this IKEA furniture now, no matter how long it takes me!”

… “I’m not going home until this paper is written!”

… “I’m not never going to skip a training run, even if my body is crying out to stop!”

I’ve said each and every one of those at some point in my life.

Even when it no longer makes sense to continue, it’s still difficult to put something aside and let it rest.

Why You Need to Step Away

But sometimes the break is just what you need.

By stepping away, you’re removing yourself from the challenge or task. Even if it’s just for a few minutes (while writing) or a few days (when training), that distance between you and the task can be profound.

It can:

  • Prevent boredom and burnout from the repetition.
  • Give you a new outlook on what’s important or what you really want.
  • Refocus your goal.
  • Examine what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Reduce the frustration, making it more exciting and fun when you return.
  • Give your body a chance to rest and reboot (running).

But just like anything else, there’s a strategy to taking breaks that produces actual benefits.

5 Rules for Stepping Away From Your Running

If you’re going to take a break from running, here are a few rules to follow:

1. Keep the break short and defined.

Set a start and end date to your break … taking just the weekend off, or a break for while you’re on vacation.

Don’t leave it open ended or your likelihood of restarting reduces significantly. By setting a restart day, you’ll subconsciously prepare for the first run back.

2. Stay active.

Short breaks are good opportunities to spend a little more time on the couch, but not an excuse to hibernate. You can bike, swim, hike, practice yoga, or walk around town while still giving giving yourself a break and keeping your muscles engaged and active.

3. Drop running completely.

I’m not truly stepping away from writing if I’m switching back between my newsfeed and WordPress. You’re not truly stepping away from running if you’re still lacing up.

Let it go completely for the short period of your break. Don’t spent much time thinking about it or going on short runs. This is your chance to stop, so let go and don’t feel guilty.

4. Don’t skip your peak weeks or key workouts.

As tempting as it may be to pick the toughest week on your training plan to take a break, don’t. Those weeks are too important. Choose a few days during a down week or average week if you need to, but don’t use this post (or idea) as an excuse to skip one of your key workouts.

5. Don’t make a habit of taking breaks.

Breaks may be just what your training needs, but don’t make a habit of taking them often. Use them sparingly to keep their effectiveness and maintain consistency.

Step Away From the Running Shoes

… Or at least don’t be afraid to.

Returning back to the mountains last night from Rhode Island I was completely refreshed and ready to finish out the 4-week challenge. Almost immediately I hit the trails feeling strong, rested, and most importantly, happy to be there.

Stepping away — or taking a short break — isn’t admitting defeat or weakness. It’s admitting that you’re working hard and pushing yourself and could benefit from a short escape.

The next time you feel like you’re in a rut or completely over worked from training, put down the running shoes and step away for a short break.

They’ll be waiting for you when you get back.

I’ll never forget this one particular psychology exam during my sophomore year of college. I knew it was coming for at least 6 weeks, and I had access to all the materials and topics it would cover.

But I put off studying until it felt too overwhelming to start.

Finally — the night before the exam — it was off to the library at 8:00 p.m. with a double espresso and a backpack full of unorganized notes.

All night I crammed. And crammed …

… And crammed everything I could fit into that idiotic brain of mine until my eyes would no longer stay open.

By the time I pulled out my pencil the next morning, everything I had just “learned” was so mixed up I couldn’t make sense of anything.

You can’t successfully cram for a test — at least I couldn’t — but can you cram for a race?

How to Cram For Last Minute Training

Recently I’ve noticed the term “cram” used a lot in the running community, but it’s not a new idea.

Most anyone who’s been running and racing for awhile has experienced the last minute cram, whether it was intentional or not.

Cramming for a race is when you skip the full training cycle — which would typically last between 15 and 24 weeks — and attempt to prepare in a much shorter amount of time. Say 6- to 8-weeks.

It’s a tempting approach when you’ve been out injured and unable to train, sign up late for a race, or simply get behind and put off your training.

But you can also cram for a race within the larger picture of your training. That’s what I focus on most in today’s episode of Trail Talk:

Whether or not cramming is a good idea, and what strategies to take when it’s necessary.

Listen to the episode here:

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Support for Today’s Episode

This episode of Trail Talk is brought to you by the super cool, super fly Rock Creek Runner Technical Trucker hats. If you want to look good in a trucker hat AND have all the benefits of a running hat, you gotta get this hat. Pick yours up now: rockcreekrunner.com/store

And by the Next Level Runner program, a monthly membership site devoted to taking your training to the next level. Learn more: rockcreekrunner.com/next-level.

Inspiration is cheap.

Just scroll through your Facebook feed and you’ll find dozens of short films, articles, and quotes, all designed to inspire.

And they work.

A well written article, for example, can completely shift your perspective on something you never gave a thought to before, and suddenly it will become number one priority … for a few minutes.

Then reality sets in — behaviors must change, more education is needed, you might actually have to do something.

I remember watching the documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. As soon as it was over I jumped off the couch ready to start a new life as a regular juicer. I opened the fridge and pulled out carrots and celery.

Then it hit me, I had no way to juice them. Whoops. And while the motivation felt great in the moment, it wasn’t strong enough for me to drop a few hundred bucks on a juicer.

That was pretty much the end of that dream.

Soft Inspiration vs. True Inspiration

I call this type of inspiration “soft inspiration.”

Soft inspiration goes just as quickly as it comes. It lifts your spirits for a few brief moments, may get you thinking about a run or cause, but vanishes before you head out the door.

Most of us experience some level of soft inspiration every single day.

On the flip side there’s “true inspiration,” and true inspiration sticks around. It consumes your thoughts and stays with you day and night. This is the inspiration that leads to your first ultramarathon, making a major diet change, or committing to a massive goal.

If soft inspiration is cheap, true inspiration is a rarity.

The Problem With True Inspiration

True inspiration is what most of us long for as runners. When we’re obsessed with a goal and truly motivated, great things can happen. But it’s rare.

That’s a good thing.

If we were truly inspired by every quote or motivational story, we’d never get anywhere. Our priorities would constantly shift and we’d have no time to really dive in.

So you’d think that whenever we’re lucky enough to find true inspiration we’d latch on and never let go, right?

Nope. Think about all the times you dreamed of a big change, a new PR, or that bucket list race, only to have it sit on your wish list year after year.

That’s the problem with true inspiration. Even when we do find it, we have to act on it.

And action is hard. And it most certainly ain’t cheap.

Why Most of Us Never Take Action

There have literally been dozens of times in my life that I’ve been inspired — either because of the way I look or because of someone’s influence — to start weight training. Sometimes I even tell people I’m going to do it. One time I even printed out a plan.

But I’ve never once started a regular weight routine.

Not once.

If true inspiration is so great and powerful, you’d think action would be easy. Unfortunately most of the time we aren’t ready for the reality of that goal.

Here’s why I believe we fail to take action, even with true inspiration:

1. It’s scary.

If you’re truly inspired to do something, chances are it isn’t a simple or easy task, but a major life change or goal. Something that drastic is scary.

What if I fail? What if it’s too overwhelming?

With anything big there will be more what-ifs and unknowns than certainties. That’s what makes them big. That’s what makes them scary.

2. We lose sight of the bigger picture.

Even the most truly inspired runners lose sight of that inspiration from time to time.

… They get too caught up in the daily training and forget about the end goal.

… They experience a setback or slow progress, and get discouraged.

Side Note: After you’ve taken the initial action, this is where soft inspiration is helpful. Whether it’s a running video, podcast, book, or running partner, soft inspiration can help get you through the day-to-day.

3. The ‘I could nevers.’

“I really want to run an ultra, but I could never find time to do the training.”

“I would love to get faster, but I could never become a track person.”

“I desperately want to lose weight, but I could never change my diet or exercise.”

Sound familiar?

You could. You can. You just aren’t ready.

4. We don’t set ourselves up for success.

Part of taking action is knowing what tools to utilize. Had I simply shown up at the gym thinking I’d get ripped, I’d almost certainly have been the guy who crushed himself under a dumbbell.

Successful action requires planning and structure.

Take Action

The next time you feel true inspiration, don’t let it pass you up. It’s too rare and valuable.

Make a plan. Talk to others. Establish accountability.

And most importantly, just go out and do it.

Whether you’re training for a race, starting a business, or trying to drop weight, the first step is to start.

The fears, the could-nevers, they’ll all subside as soon as you take action.

So take action.

If you’re inspired to become a stronger, faster runner, join runners of all levels — from all over the world — taking action and making progress in the Next Level Runner community. Learn more and join here.

If you’ve been anywhere near trail or ultra running in the past 4 years, you know that Ultimate Direction’s 2012 release of the Signature Series packs changed the way we carry water.

Packs certainly weren’t new to ultra running, but Ultimate Direction’s switch away from a water bladder, towards bottles carried in carefully designed front pockets was a unique idea for most of us.

It meant having liquid and fuel at our fingertips and quicker refill at aid stations. All without taking off the pack.

The red 2012 Anton Krupicka (AK), Scott Jurek (SJ), and Peter Bakwin (PB) packs were suddenly everywhere, but they had their flaws. So by 2014, Ultimate Direction released the 2.0 versions, which included material upgrades and larger, more useful pockets.

And of course, the blue 2.0 packs were quickly found at every ultra marathon starting line. That’s when I first made the switch, and I haven’t looked back since.

The recent release of the Signature Series 3.0 sees several changes and upgrades, plus the addition of the Timothy Olson (TO) Race Vest. The TO vest is designed to fill a void as the other packs morph along with the runners they are named after.

Quick Note: Both the TO and SJ packs were provided to Rock Creek Runner for review. The comments and thoughts are entirely my own, as Ultimate Direction has no influence over or approval of this review.

3.0 Upgrades and the Introduction of the TO Race Vest

I’ve decided to combine the SJ Ultra and the new-to-the-series TO Race Vests into one review because for most of us, the choice comes down between the two. While the AK and PB vest look great, they’re probably to be too much pack for what your average trail or ultra runner needs on the regular.

Many of the features and upgrades from the 2.0 models are the same across these two packs, with the TO Race Vest being more minimal in its carrying capacity.

A quick word on the AK Vest

In the 1.0 and 2.0 versions of UD’s Signature Series, the AK Race Vest had the smallest carrying capacity and was often viewed as the best for race scenarios.

In the 3.0 series, the AK vest has completely transformed into a mountain vest, with much larger pockets and more room than most runners need for supported races. If you’re like me and used the AK vest in the past, look at the SJ and TO vests in these new versions.

Upgrades and Changes from 2.0 to 3.0

Don’t let the same blue color fool you, the changes between the Signature Series 2.0 and 3.0 are many, and for the most part, they’re major upgrades.

Let’s take a look at some of those changes:

1. Pockets: Probably the biggest and best changes come in the form of pocket upgrades. UD has clearly spent time designing the pockets for ease of use during the run. On the TO and SJ vest, the larger pockets below the bottle pockets stretch enough to fit several gels, bars, or gummies, and are big enough to fit a cell phone or small camera. I use the small water resistant pocket above the bottles for salt tablets, and the other mesh pocket for trash.

The back pocket upgrades for both vests come in the way of accessibility without removing the vest. I’ll discuss this further down, but they’ve designed zippered back pockets low enough on the back that you can reach them while wearing the vest. Pretty cool.

2. Material: The two biggest material upgrades are found in the stretchy pocket mesh, which after hundreds of miles of use and lots of stuffing, don’t appear to be stretching out at all, and the very breathable mesh that makes up the shoulder straps and back. So far I’m seeing no issues with rippage on that mesh.

bottles3. Bottles: It appears as though Ultimate Direction has gone all-in on the soft-flask Body Bottles, a sharp departure from the old style hard bottles. I’m not going to lie, this took me a bit of getting use to, but now I’m convinced that it was a good idea:

  • Pros: They don’t slosh! I repeat, they don’t slosh. I didn’t realize how much I hated the sloshing until it was gone. They also don’t bounce on your chest as much (especially when they aren’t full), and you can easily stash them when a bottle is empty.
  • Cons: The clear structural plastic at the top (below the lid) is very hard, and it took me awhile to find a way to have them in the pack without digging in to my chest. They’re also harder to carry in your hand if you want to run awhile holding the bottle.

4. Weight: Full specs can be found below, but with new material comes a lighter pack. The TO vest is lighter than the AK 2.0 vest (the smallest option of the 2.0), and the SJ comes in at almost the same weight as the old AK and with a lot more carry capacity.

5. Comfort: The breathability of the fabric, soft bottles, and new fit (if it fits right, more on that next), make this a super comfortable pack.

6. Fit: Ultimate Direction changed their sizing options for the 3.0 vests from a Small/Medium – Medium/Large in the 2.0 to separate Small, Medium, and Large options. Oddly enough I’ve actually found this to make sizing more difficult.

I’m a medium dude in just about everything I wear, but when trying on the TO vest in a medium, I was swimming in it. Unless it’s full of gear, the vest is far too big, even with the below-arm side straps and the adjustable chest straps cinched down.

If the pack is too large, the shoulder straps and neck collar rubbing against your neck. The neck collar now sits further up your back than previous versions, giving it less flexibility in the fit.

In short, the packs run large, and you don’t want a pack that’s too large. For me this was the biggest issue I’ve found with the 3.0 packs.

One final note on fit is that they’ve redesigned the chest straps to be more secure, which is nice, but harder to adjust. If you’re adding or taking out layers or gear mid run, adjusting where the straps sit is more of a process than I want.

7. Trekking Pole Loops: They’ve also added trekking pole loops to all models in the Signature Series. They’re designed to carry one pole on each side of the front of your vest, which makes them easy to store and access as needed. I’ve only used this feature once, and it worked pretty well. The bottom of the poles dug in to my chest a bit, but I believe a few adjustments with how I stash them could fix that issue. I can definitely see why these would be helpful for runners that use trekking poles regularly.

Now, let’s take look at the packs individually.

The TO Race Vest 3.0

TO-solo

The Timothy Olson Race Vest is new to the 3.0 series. If you were comparing it to older versions, it serves as the replacement for the AK Race Vest.

What’s unique about this vest is that a major percentage of the carrying capacity is in the front of the vest, with two sizeable pockets below the bottle pockets, and two smaller pockets above.

The back storage areas are designed to be completely accessible without taking off the vest. You can reach your hand around your back and access both of the pockets. It’s a little awkward, but still very nice. Keep in mind that these aren’t huge pockets, but large enough for items like nutrition, a map, and a small jacket.

Before I go any further with my opinion, let’s jump to the details you need to know.

Here are the specs and promo video:

  • Volume Capacity: 305 in/ 5L
  • Weight: 5.78 oz. (8.23 oz. with bottles) / 165 g (235 g with bottles)
  • Height: 18.1 in. / 46 cm
  • Width: 11 in. / 28 cm
  • Depth: 4.1 in. / 10.5 cm
  • Sizes:
    • SM: 24 – 38 in. / 61 – 97 cm
    • MD: 31 – 42 in. / 79 – 107 cm
    • LG: 36 – 50 in. / 91 – 127 cm
  • Cost: $110 (Amazon)
  • Will it carry your iPhone 6? Yes, in both of the larger front pockets, although I did have my phone fall out of the front pocket when bent over in a creek. Whoops.

My Thoughts on the TO Race Vest 3.0

This pack is perfect for when you want or need to carry more than just a handheld. For most trail and ultra runners, that’s all you’ll need.

The pockets in the front will fit your water, gels, salt caps, phone, and even a bar, and the back pockets can be stuffed with an extra layer, headlamp, or more nutrition.

Here’s an example of what this pack can hold comfortably:

TO-gear

And here it is with that exact gear in the pack:

TO-full

As you can see, the pockets aren’t full, and the top front pockets are not utilized at all in this photo.

The large mesh back above the lower pockets do a nice job of keeping the pack secure on your back without adding discomfort. The mesh is completely breathable.

Because my TO pack is a medium and doesn’t fit me exactly right, I asked my friend and Thunder Rock pacer Paul to give it a full test. He’s logged over 100 miles in it and has this to say:

The TO vest has become an excellent tool for long runs. The multiple pockets include ample space for water, nutrition, keys, and other small supplies you may need. The vest’s straps, once adjusted, fit comfortably and do not shift on the trail.

I’ve found that this pack serves me well up to 20 miles if I don’t have a new water source.

The SJ Ultra Vest 3.0

SJ-solo

While the TO vest is sufficient for most runners, I’ve taken a liking to the Scott Jurek vest. In part because it fits me better (the small), but also because of the features.

The main differences between the SJ and the TO vests are the back compartment — large enough to hold several layers or a water bladder — with bungee cords for out-of-pack storage (think jacket), and the zippered pocket up front. There’s also only one lower back zippered pocket as opposed to the two on the TO.

Here are the specs and promo video:

  • Volume Capacity: 518 in/ 8.5L
  • Weight: 7.11 oz. (9.56 oz. with bottles) / 203 g (273 g with bottles)
  • Height: 18.1 in. / 46 cm
  • Width: 11 in. / 28 cm
  • Depth: 5.5 in. / 14 cm
  • Sizes:
    • SM: 24 – 38 in. / 61 – 97 cm
    • MD: 31 – 42 in. / 79 – 107 cm
    • LG: 36 – 50 in. / 91 – 127 cm
  • Cost: $125 (REI | Amazon)
  • Will it carry your iPhone 6? Yes, in both of the larger front pockets. The one with the zipper is perfect.

My Thoughts on the SJ Ultra Vest 3.0

I received the SJ Ultra Vest a few weeks before Thunder Rock, and while I was able to train in it some, that race was my first real test.

I wore the vest the entire race, storing nutrition, water, and my aid station sheet up front, and an extra energy bar, rain jacket, Buff, lube, and headlamp (as needed) in the back.

In a word, the pack was perfect for what I needed. It was comfortable the entire race and never rubbed or irritated any unusual spots.

To give you a little better idea of what it can carry, here’s some sample gear laid out:

SJ-gear

And here it is all stuffed in the pack. The extra bottle was placed in the larger back pocket:

SJ-full

With an additional bottle stuffed in the back, I’d feel totally comfortable taking this out for an 8, 10, 12+ hour unsupported effort. There’s enough room for layers, aid, and just about anything else you might need.

One complaint is some of the straps — the bottle pocket straps when the bottle is cinched in, the bungee strap in the back, and the chest straps — flap too much. To solve this, I’ve started to tie them down or loop them around something else. The best solution I’ve found with the back bungee is to stuff it inside the back pocket.

Also, be mindful of the fact that if you weigh the front down too much with water and nutrition, the back will slide up, resting against the back of your neck.

The good (great) news is that with well over 250 miles in the vest, there’s little sign of wear, and the stretchy pockets have not stretched out.

Final Thoughts

If you’re a fan of the 2.0, you’ll be an even bigger fan of the UD Signature Series 3.0 vests. I consider the updates to materials and pockets major upgrades to the functionality of these two Signature Series packs.

For the most part I’d recommend the TO vest for the average runner, but the added storage in the SJ vest does not feel like too much even when mostly empty.

The new Ultimate Direction vests are a great option for anyone looking for a trail, ultra, or commuter running pack.

Purchase the Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra and TO Race Vests 3.0

Did you find this review helpful and want to pick up a pack?

Consider supporting Rock Creek Runner and future reviews by purchasing at REI or Amazon through one of my partner links (below and throughout this post):

We’re back with the first episode of Trail Talk’s fourth season! Throughout the last few seasons we covered trail running basics and racing.

This season we’re switching it up to focus on what the majority of runners would say that crave most: Speed, speed, and more speed.

Did I mention speed?

But being a speedy runner is about more than just learning how to run quickly, and in today’s episode, you’ll find out just what I mean …

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Listen to the episode here:

Click here to download the file.

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Running races are almost exclusively set by distance, so it’s no surprise that we also train by distance. A mile is a mile and a kilometer a kilometer, whether you’re running along a flat sandy beach or alpine ridge line.

But I believe we get too caught up in the distance way of thinking.

While a mile is a mile anywhere, the value of that mile is very different depending on your goal.

A flat road mile, for example, is fast, so it’s a great way to work on speed and leg turnover.

A mountain trail mile is slow, but builds massive leg strength and footwork skills.

Depending on your race goal, the value (to your training) of those distinct miles will differ.

Which means that instead of thinking in distance, we’re sometimes better suited to think in other metrics like time or vertical gain.

Why I’m Focusing on Vertical Gain, Not Distance

As you set out to train for a new race or goal, one of the first things you should do is look at the type of training that will help you reach it.

If you’re running the flat Chicago Marathon, your main focus should be road speed and endurance. If you’re goal is the mountainous Speedgoat 50K, road speed should be one of the last things on your mind.

See what I mean?

Let’s take a look at my situation:

I have a few casual races planned for the fall, but my overarching goal is to become a stronger mountain runner. I love running through the mountains, but know there’s still work to be done.

So when I think through how best to lay out my training for the next few months, I have to look at what will best help me reach that goal.

If I train for distance, I know there will be days that I’m tempted to run road routes for efficiency and ease.

If I train for time, I’ll have the same problem, even if I end up running more miles.

Vertical gain, however, requires me to get up and into the mountains, and it requires the type of running that will make me a better mountain runner.

Running for vertical gain means:

  1. Time on the trail, since many of the biggest climbs in my area are on trail not road.
  2. Lots of descending. What goes up must come down, and part of being a strong mountain runner is feeling confident and fast on the descents.
  3. Both distance and time. Building a high vertical number will require a substantial amount of both time and distance by default.
  4. More time spent hiking up hills, which will make me more efficient on major climbs during races.

In other words, by running for a large vertical number, I’m training specifically for my goal.

Focusing on Your Weaknesses

Even the best runners have weaknesses, and most of us know exactly what ours are. They could be …

… just to name a few.

I know that climbing is one of mine. I’m a confident runner on technical flats and descents, but when you put me up against other runners on the climbs, I know I’ll fall behind.

So what do you do when you know your weakness?

Focus, work, and turn it into a strength. Which is exactly what I plan to do to help me reach my goal.

The Value of a Challenge

When I have a problem or want to make a change, my first instinct is to turn to a daily challenge for help.

… I used a 7-day challenge to kick-start going vegan.

… I used a run streak to stay motivated during a busy time in my life.

… I used a push-up challenge to establish a strength routine habit.

Challenges establish a timeline which makes it more approachable, motivation to keep you focused, structure to provide a roadmap, and a measurable goal towards whatever it is you want to work on.

And with a non-measurable goal like “wanting to become a stronger mountain runner” being my current focus, introducing that structure and measurable progress is vital to my success.

So I’ve decided to start a new 4-week challenge.

My 4-Week Vertical Challenge (Will you join me?)

Starting next Monday, July 18th, I’m challenging myself to 40,000 vertical feet in a four week period.

Number of miles. Time length of each run. None of that matters.

I’ll be running exclusively for vertical gain instead of distance.

Right now I average roughly 5,000 feet of gain per week, so this challenge will require me to double that each week. It’s an amount that is sure to be difficult and require a lot of work, but not so much that I can’t do it.

Unfortunately for this challenge (not for me, though), I’ll be at the beach in flat Rhode Island between the third and fourth week, which means I’ll really need to step it up those weeks to make up the gain. That’s just part of the deal.

There’s never a perfect time to tackle a challenge like this, so if you really want to make the change, you have to pull the trigger and go for it.

Will you join me?

Will you join me in setting a vertical challenge for the next four weeks? I could use the company.

It doesn’t have to be 40,000 feet, but instead could be 5,000; 10,000; 50,000; or whatever feels like the right amount for you. Here’s how to get started:

  • Look at your vertical gain numbers from the past six to eight weeks and take the average (Strava is a great tool for this). From there I doubled mine, but choose the right amount that feels challenging without feeling impossible.
  • Set the measurable goal of hitting that number over the course of four weeks. Make sure you’re going after a target number and not just challenging yourself to run more hills.
  • Set weekly target goals to stay on track, but remember the main goal is to hit the number within the four week period. You can always make up some gain if a week falls short.
  • Share your goal on Twitter or Facebook (and tag me), so we can hold each other accountable and check in throughout the challenge.

So what do you say? Are you ready to step your running up (literally) a notch and focus on vertical gain instead of distance?

I hope to see you up there.

“What do you eat during a race?”

It’s a common question, yet the answer is never straight-forward.

Race nutrition depends not only on the length of the race, but any number of variables like terrain, weather, and your personal preferences.

There are, however, a few strategies and rules I like to follow when planning out my race day nutrition. In today’s episode of Trail Talk, I share my basic approach for fueling a marathon on up to a 100-mile ultramarathon.

Here’s what I covered in today’s show:

  • How many calories should you eat per hour?
  • Why I stick to mostly energy gels (even during an ultramarathon)
  • Consuming real foods from an aid station
  • When I switch from a handheld to a two-bottle pack

Technical Trucker Hats: Stock is running low! Pick up yours today.

Listen to the episode here:

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This post is written in partnership with REI

As runners we spend months training for a big race. We put everything we’ve got into crossing the finish line. Then, after a short post-race celebration – maybe a fancy dinner or beers with friends – it’s back to work and normal life with little more than a medal to remind us of the adventure, never truly processing the journey or what we learned from the entire experience.

After the recent Thunder Rock 100, I was determined not to let that happen. Instead, I wanted to spend time reflecting on the experience and pull lessons from the challenges of the race, like letting go and accepting the things I can’t control.

The best way I know how to do that is to head out into the woods. A simple camping trip – just the essentials, the great outdoors and me.

Bringing Simplicity Back To Camping

Recently it seems that camping has become overly complicated. We scramble to get the right gear for every worst-case scenario and over-plan every mile and meal. All that fuss can feel too overwhelming for last minute trips.

Making a good home is about simplicity and flexibility. Embracing whatever gets thrown at you – rain or shine, hot or cold, bugs or not. That’s what my adventure was to be all about. A bare-bones approach to camping with enough time for spontaneous outings and reflection, no matter what the weather had in store.

Passion-Packed & Ready To Explore

Just 5 days after returning home from Thunder Rock, I packed my gear to head back out on the trail.

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My mission was simple:

  • Pack light to eliminate the fuss
  • Get out of my comfort zone to run and hike new trail
  • Spend time alone to think back on the race experience and soak in all that the wise old Appalachian mountains have to offer

Thursday morning I got an early start to the day, loading up the car before my wife was even out of bed, and headed straight to the Black Mountain Campground at the base of Mount Mitchell – the highest peak in the Eastern United States.

Even though it was leading up to the Memorial Day holiday weekend, this beautiful campground in Pisgah National Forest still made for a quiet retreat and home base along the South Toe River.

Making Home

I quickly set up camp, pitching my tent, rolling out my sleeping bag and pad, and pulling out the trail map. My Fly Creek tent has become my go-to for quick adventures, since it’s easy to pack down and set up – perfect for this trip.

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After months of training for a 100-mile race (where I attempted to plan every single detail), this day was all about spontaneity. I chose a few trails and summits that looked interesting, threw snacks and water in my fastpack, and hit the Parkway to chase them down.

First, I ran up to the fire tower at the summit of Green Knob along Lost Cove Ridge. Next, I headed over to Pinnacle Mountain where I trail ran my way to the rocky 360-degree overlook. The views completely blew me away, and I ended up sitting here for nearly 45 minutes without realizing it.

By now it was getting warm and I remembered a sign for Crabtree Falls a few miles back. “Should I? Sure! Why not?” I caught myself asking out loud.  After a quick 1.5-mile trip down the trail to the falls, I was greeted with water crashing down on the rocks below. It was pure bliss.

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I ditched my shoes and dipped my still blistered and swollen feet at the base of the falls before heading back to the campground to prepare dinner and settle in for the evening.

Recharging & Reflecting

The soup I brought along for dinner felt great for the soul and the warming fire tickled my feet. No TVs, no pressure to work, clean, or take care of a to-do list. Just me, memories from the past week, and the quiet night. Oh, and the few beers I threw in the pack at the last minute.

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The next morning I woke up to the sun’s glow lighting up the tent. I relit my campfire and started on breakfast. Coffee, oatmeal, and then back to the trail map.

The Black Mountain Crest Trail was calling my name that morning, so I ventured back to the Parkway, up to the summit of Mount Mitchell and along the Crest.

No lie, I could feel my soul relaxing as I wandered down the trail. I didn’t care about how fast I was going, or even the number of miles I covered. It was just about letting go, being present, and moving through the woods. Transporting me back to the race, and the strength I needed to keep going.

Ditching Structure

As runners, we rely so much on structure: Our training plan acts as a guide, nutrition strategy keeps us energized and moving forward, and our race plan keeps us on track. But are we processing the experience along the way? There’s nothing holding us back from escaping outdoors for a night or two other than ourselves, and it requires incredibly little effort to put together. But the benefits – the time to relax, process, and de-structure – can be massive.

So the next time a racing chapter comes to a close, why not continue the adventure and wrap it up with a camping trip and time of reflection? I know I will.

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Gear List

For those that are curious, here’s my gear list from this trip:

Camp Gear:

Food and Cooking:

Clothing and Running Gear:

If there’s one thing I truly excel at when it comes to racing, it has to be the planning phase.

Super cool, I know …

But I do it well.

Runners put a massive amount of effort into training, gear, and nutrition, but too often fall short when pulling it all together in the final days before a race.

It’s like taper week is an excuse to do nothing at all.

My experience has shown that the better a runner prepares mentally, physically, and logistically, before they toe the line, the better they race. Sounds simple, because it is.

Simple preparations mean:

  • Race morning will be less hectic, and you’ll start the race relaxed and focused.
  • Your crew will run smoother, transitioning you through the aid stations with ease.
  • Dropbags will have what you need, so you’re not stuck looking for something you forgot.
  • You’ll be prepared for mental lows, and can move past them quickly.

And it all comes back to not procrastinating. To putting logistics and organization at the forefront of your race week.

3 Principles for Race Week Planning

With race week preparations, I follow a set of three principles. Principles I can use as a framework before a race of any distance:

1) Start Early

As soon as tapering begins I start some sort of race day prep. The first step typically involves putting together lists (see below), but it might be as simple as reaching out to my crew for a check-in.

Whatever it is, I’ve found that it’s important to get the process in motion so you aren’t starting from scratch at the last minute.

2) Get Organized

Lists, lists, and more lists.

Look, I know we’re trail runners and the laid-back anything-goes approach is what drew us to the sport in the first place, but the better organized you are ahead of the race, the better organized you’ll be during the race.

It’s just fact.

Well before race day I’ve put together to-do, packing, nutrition, and gear lists, to begin to organize everything for the trip.

3) Communicate

This one is predominantly for runners who have a crew, pacer, or spectators.

Start communicating with anyone that will be part of your race several days before it begins. Share important details like where to be and when, and exactly what you’re expecting of their participation.

They may or may not read your emails, but the more information you pass along, the better they can prepare themselves (and help you in return).

The Ultramarathon Race Week Planning Checklist

To help make planning for your next race a little easier, I’ve put together a simple race week planning checklist which you can print off and use to get organized.

Download it for free here:


Get the Checklist

Don’t let race week pass you by, and end up scrambling the night before to get everything ready.

A relaxed but thoughtful approach to final preparations mean you’ll show up on race day with all the tools you need to conquer your goals.

And that’s what this is all about.

Dear Future Self,

You’re doing it again.

It’s the night before a big race and once again you’re tossing and turning because you’ve started to doubt the hard work and training. You’re questioning whether you can handle the miles and mountains, and overly concerned about that final long run or the week you took off while on vacation.

This is what you always do.

You doubt. You get scared. And frankly, I’m pretty damn tired of it.

So listen up … and I mean really listen. I know you’ve worked hard and put in the training, and I know you can tough it out when you need to.

How do I know?

Because I know you, for one. And because right now, as I’m writing this letter, I’m committing to the training dedication you’ll need.

I’m committing to time on the track to build speed. To strength training — even though I don’t enjoy it — because I know you’ll be better for it.

Right here, right now, I’m committing to training consistency, and training variety. To trying new routes, high mileage days, and lots of climbing. To running more with friends who will push me. To stepping out of my comfort zone, and to working on the fundamentals.

And I’m pretty sure I’ll cut back on the vegan doughnuts too. No promises.

It won’t always be pretty — you’re not perfect, after all — but I will make you proud.

We cool? Cool.

Now for the pep talk I’m sure you were hoping for …

You’ve got guts. You might not be able to see it through the nasty cloud of doubt, but you’ve got ’em.

So stop comparing yourself to others (I know, I know. Ironic coming from me …), and thank yourself for all the blood, sweat, and hard work. And the tears, there are always tears.

Just by signing up for this race, let alone taking action and getting out there day after day, you’ve proven to yourself that you have guts.

So trust them.

They’ve gotten you through a lot with your running. They’ve pushed you past terrible lows and helped you run through nausea, chaffing, and blisters. And no matter how ugly or magnificent those adventures were, you always made it to the finish line.

If one day you don’t, that’s OK too. It’s just a race — you’ll forgive yourself.

Alright, I know you’re a little scared, so instead of hiding from it, let’s talk about it.

(I think that’s something our Psyc professor taught us to do back in Psychology 101.)

Go ahead and admit that whatever it is you’re about to do is scary (it better be, anyway). Now use that fear just like you have in the past.

Remember when you used it to train extra hard before your first big race? And how it was fear that helped you make smart training choices and dial back when you needed to?

As long as you don’t hide from it, fear has always been your ally. Go ahead … lean on it again. Everything will be alright.

So quit it with that fucking doubting, would you?

You’re a runner, damn it. You can do this.

–  Doug

P.S. – Get some sleep, tomorrow is a big day.