This post from the Smithsonian summarizes some research from the Trans-Europe Footrace on the physical effects of ultra marathons. The click-grabbing headline tells us that ultra marathons will shrink our brains. But, actually reading the article shows this to be grandstanding at best.
According to the article, these researchers studied 44 runners in the 64 day/2,788 mile race performing MRIs and other tests on them before, during, and after the race about every 900 kilometers. These scans and blood/urine tests were used to judge changes over time for these runners.
While noting that cartilage broke down over the course of the first 2500km of the race, the researchers discovered that it began to regenerate even while the runners were still pounding across Europe. Previously, it was believed that cartilage would only regenerate at rest when the load was removed.
Then, there’s the big headline that some of the runners showed signs of brain shrinkage over the course of the race. The researcher don’t know why this happened but malnourishment, dehydration, lack of stimulation, or actual remapping of brain function are posited as possible causes. Basically, nobody knows and the sample size is so small and research so sparse that we aren’t likely to ever really know.
So, now we’ll be reading jokes and breathless blog posts about ultra marathons making us dumb. Let me be clear, ultra marathons are not going to make anyone dumb.
When we realize that this race is really much more than an ultra marathon and represents one of the more extreme running events currently happening, it stands to reason that these changes almost certainly don’t apply to your shorter 50k or 50 mile race. Even this research showed that all the changes were reversed within six months. So, like the sore muscle or the tweaked ligament, these changes go away with rest.
It’s great that this sport is starting to have some research focus on it to help make it safer and potentially more approachable for more people. Thus far, the sport’s icons and most of the business around the sport is focused on the highest achievers. Where 5k runs have generated large mass appeal, it would be great to have some percentage of that attention on ultra running.
For me, the benefits of lessened anxiety, mitigated depression, weight control, and personal time will easily outweigh any temporary drawbacks of brain changes. I imagine if I were to drink a beer the brain damage is probably similar to finishing the Trans-Europe Footrace. I’m highly unlikely to do either of those two things.
As some of you might know, I am training for the Bel Monte 50k in March 2016. This training period has not been an easy one with knee and back problems cropping up on a fairly regular basis. Through treatment, stretching, and specific exercises, the back problems have largely been eliminated.
However, on Thursday last week, my knee problems came back. It’s the typical “runner’s knee.” My left knee was injured pretty seriously while playing football in high school. Since then, I’ve had issues with it off and on. A training plan that sees me running up to 50 miles a week is bound to exacerbate those problems.
This has been a setback in training as I missed a couple of long runs while resting my knee and waiting to let the doctor take a look. I still have nearly three months before the race but it’s tough when I get knocked off track like this. I have to remind myself that I am attempting this race to finish. I want to find my limit. If that limit is that I didn’t do every training run, then maybe that’s OK.
The doctor told me this morning that my left kneecap was grinding against its groove and was improperly aligned. The pain in the back of my knee is from muscle spasms that occur when the knee is injured and is trying to protect itself. He then adjusted the kneecap in an effort to get it aligned correctly. He gave me a clean bill of health to continue training.
So, physically, it would seem that I’m on the mend and the doctor gave me tools to prevent and treat this issue if it comes back. That’s all good news. The real challenge becomes the mental side of having an injury. The problem is that I no longer trust my body to do what I ask of it.
I imagine this is quite common among athletes and I hear it cited often with athletes who have knee injuries. Gaining back the confidence to do the same things we did before our knee was injured is a 100% mental game. Even a coach or a doctor can’t convince us that our knee is as good as it was before. Some part of our brains is always wondering, “If I push myself a little faster or a little farther, am I going to feel that twinge again?”
I don’t have a solution to this problem. My approach is to be consistent and on target with my training plan. I plan to be attentive and diligent in doing the exercises I’ve been given to avoid re-injury. Past that, I know there will be lingering doubts and I know I probably won’t push myself as I was before. Maybe time is what heals us physically and psychically.
This is when having a good training partner would likely come in handy. Someone who could provide motivation to show up for training runs and not let things slide. Someone who would encourage me not to cut a run short. I’ve been a solitary runner since I started this journey a few years ago. Maybe it’s time to change that.
This weekend, as part of Thanksgiving festivities, I found myself running in Owensboro, KY where my in-laws live. Besides the fabulous food (try Moonlite BBQ and Old Hickory BBQ for amazing smoked mutton) and our wonderful family, Owensboro is home to the great Adkisson Greenbelt paved trail system that continues to grow. I was happily surprised at the resources and thinking that’s gone into this running/biking path system so far.
The Greenbelt path will eventually encircle the entire city and make crossroads through the town itself. I did my Thanksgiving Day run on a portion of the trail that starts at a sports park and then winds its way to border the local airport with a minimum of road crossings which are well-marked and safe. The path itself is about 10 feet wide and paved with mile markings every tenth of a mile. For most of the trail, there is signage about the flora that borders the trail.
On Saturday, I went back to the Greenbelt for a longer run in a steady rain. This time, I went past the airport and found myself on the newer part of the trail that cuts through some starkly beautiful fields. Despite the rain, or maybe because of it, there was a profound peace that settled over me as I moved through the halfway point of my run. The path is nice and flat so it was easy to keep cruising through my longest run so far.
Turning back to town, the trail becomes more of just a sidewalk and it seems like the city has commitments to improve all the paths and signage as the Greenbelt moves back into the city. I made the mistake of reading the map and assuming all the colored bits were Greenbelt but some of them are bike paths including some roads marked with sharrows. These aren’t exactly great for running but it worked out given that there wasn’t much traffic and there was decent light in the middle of the day.
Owensboro is a city that is very committed to sports facilities and the Adkisson Greenbelt park trail is a great addition to those facilities. Check out the map below and if you find yourself in Owensboro, put some miles in on the Greenbelt.
On Friday, at the last minute, I was able to acquire two front-row seats to see Jason Isbell at the Berglund Center in Roanoke. Danielle and I have seen Jason Isbell play several times before in varying situations. We saw him in a small rock club in Chattanooga and at the Ryman in Nashville. I’ve also seen him at record store promo gigs. While each show had its own character and vibe, the constant is always Isbell’s strong storytelling and gorgeously subtle melodies that stick with you long after the show.
We arrived in Roanoke just in time to catch a few songs by the opener Anderson East who was giving it all trying to elicit some attention and excitement from a crowd still filtering in. I’m sure it was a tough gig warming up a big room full of seated adults and East was gamely pulling people into his set. I really appreciate what East does with his tinge of retro sound made modern through an adaptable voice and a solid band.
Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, played a set with a strong mix of older songs, including long-standing favorites, Decoration Day and Dress Blues, with newer songs off the recently released album, Something More than Free. I was impressed at the flow of the set with some rocking jams leading into admittedly downbeat tunes like Elephant. The entire show was kicked off with an amazing version of Cover Me Up that built from an acoustic base into a full-band rock out.
The Berglund Center is an interesting place to see a show. This was my first time there. It’s really set up for plays and maybe more sedate concerts. It’d be interesting to see how they set it up for more raucous shows. The sound was phenomenal even though we were in the front row which often has pretty sound though we were only feet from the stage.
It was a show that didn’t suffer from the overly reverent and sedate vibe Isbell had at the Ryman and a decent dose of the loud rock we saw from him in Chattanooga. I recommend getting out there and checking him out on this tour.
Sadly, he did not play one of my favorite songs of the Southeastern album, “Live Oak.” I contend that the song owes a debt to Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country which is my second or third favorite book of all time. I highly recommend reading that if you get a chance.
It’s wintertime and that means that if you live in the northern hemisphere, it’s likely dark when you’re running. You’re getting out early in the morning before the world wakes or you’re barreling out after work looking to shed the stress of the day. Either way you are probably running in the dark and that means a few different issues.
First, you need to be seen. Most running-specific clothes these days have highly reflective areas. I’ve found that the most flexible and easiest to use ways to illuminate my body are these Nathan Strobe lights.
Last night while running, a biker coming up behind complimented me on how bright and easy to see the lights were. He said, “Thanks for making it so easy to safe out here.” They are $10 and clip anywhere you need them. I put one on the back of my hat or headlamp and one on the back of my hydration vest. I put a third one on my front and set them all to strobe. In short, you can put them anywhere you need or want depending on what you’re wearing or your personal preference. The batteries are replaceable but at $10, you could likely just get new ones after 100 hours when the batteries run out.
Second, you need to see where you’re going. That means you’ll want some sort of headlamp. I recently picked up the Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp and have found its auto-sensing features and comfort to be absolutely perfect.
The headlamp automatically adjusts the brightness of the beam based on the ambient light. This is great for the early morning and late evening runs I mentioned because it means that as the sun comes up or goes down, your headlamp can automatically adjust. There is an easy-to-access button that can switch the headlamp to a constant brightness which might be handy if you’re on a particularly tricky stretch or just want consistent brightness. For camping or other users, the headlamp has a red lamp that can help preserve your night vision for when you might be hiking or reading in the dark.
The strap is adjustable and I’ve found it to be very comfortable on my large head. The part that sits on your forehead is soft enough to not hurt your head but it’s stiff enough to prevent bouncing. The battery is rechargeable with a power indicator on the side of the lamp. The whole kit can be adjusted via a piece of software and the included USB cable but I haven’t dug into that feature much.
Some runners like to supplement this with a hand-held flashlight. I’ve found that to be unnecessary on most paved surfaces but it can be helpful if you’re out on a trail with lots of tree cover or that’s very technical.
Lastly, you’re going to need to think about your diet and your sleep. As the days get shorter, our bodies react by changing our appetite and our need for sleep. If you’re up early or out late taxing your body with running, you’ll want to be cognizant of when you’re eating and making sure that you are getting enough sleep. This means not cramming in hours of work or chores or TV in the evenings after your run. Eat, maybe read a bit, and then get in bed. Your body will thank you.
Running in the dark can be decidedly peaceful because the distractions of the world can slip away more readily than they typically do when you’re running. It can also be dangerous because you are hard to see and you are not going to see every dip or rise in the pavement or the trail. So, think about slowing down and maybe getting rid of the headphones so you can be more aware of what the night holds.
If you’re interested in how are nights are changed from the nights our parents and grandparents knew, I highly recommend Paul Bogard’s book The End of Night. It examines the role of light pollution and how it has affected not just astronomers or scientists but our health, our society, and our connection to our world.
It’s my first time mentioning this on my blog, but I do a (ostensibly) weekly podcast/radio show where I play music and talk a little bit about the songs and artists. It’s a mix of older music and new. It runs pretty eclectic but has a strong vein of Indie Rock, Americana, and College Rock with occasional tangents into Rock en Español and electronic soundscapes.
This week, the show features the Drive-By Truckers, Josh Ritter, Guy Garvey, and Hello Seahorse! I also share a little Walt Whitman and speak a bit about the terrorist attacks in Paris. I hope you’ll give it a listen below.
This morning, I decided to do my long trail run at Carvin’s Cove up near Roanoke. It’s clear that the trails there are geared to mountain bikers more so than runners. There are lots of constant elevation changes with whoop-dee-dos and berms as well as hairpin turns. I’m sure that’s fun on a bike but those are momentum-killing features for trail runners.
After leaving the Bennett Springs parking lot, I started out on the Hi-Dee-Ho trail with the intention of turning off onto the Four Gorge trail but the trail markings are in a strange spot so I missed the turn. The Hi-Dee-Ho trail climbs up and up and up to Brushy Mountain Fire Road. I realized my mistake just at the foot of the hill but I decided to climb up it anyway. I had planned my route and it was about two miles short of my desired workout, 11.5 miles. This climb up and down Hi-Dee-Ho would add the two miles that I needed. It was a great choice because I was treated to views like the following.
I’m not a great or even good descender, probably due to fear of injury and existing weakness in my knees and ankles. So, you might notice that I don’t get the big pace bump that many folks do when descending hills. It was also made difficult because much of the trail was buried under intense leaf cover. Often, it was to my mid-calf or higher. You can see an example of it below.
After finally getting back down almost to where I started, I turned off onto the seemingly poorly named Four Gorge trail. I didn’t count but it seemed more like the Fourteen Gorge trail. This trail is absolutely beautiful but difficult to run. The trail picks way around over and across several gorges, or gulleys, challenging a runner with lots of turns and no consistent elevation. There’s always some climbing or descending going on. It was difficult for me to get a consistent pace going.
Now, about five or six miles into my run, I made my way to the Kerncliff trail which at this point winds back and forth under some big power lines. It’s here you can see the devastation to an ecosystem when power lines like this are installed. They appear to tear out all the existing vegetation and so lots of crowding of species that take advantage and maybe don’t fit well with the rest of the ecosystem that’s there already.
While the area was without its tree roots and ground cover, erosion begins and the Kerncliff trail shows some bad signs of this erosion especially around the intersection with the Jacob’s Drop trail. It’s sad to see because I suspect this could be ameliorated with some smart trail design or maintenance.
I eventually turned left onto the Comet trail which makes a steep climb and even steeper descent down to our only glimpse of Carvin’s Cove Reservoir. There is a boat dock on the opposite side of the reservoir from the trails I was on. There are quite a few stream crossings here. Along the way, I also found a guillotine tree that would be pretty scary for the cyclists using the trail.
After crossing a few streams and getting my Altra Lone Peaks soaking wet for the second weekend in a row, I moved onto the Tuck-A-Way and Enchanted Forest trails which got me back to another fire road called Happy Valley. Along the way, I was followed by a couple of deer that didn’t run away but just walked along occasionally looking up at me.
Happy Valley got me up to the Songbird trail which turns back toward the Bennett Springs parking lot where all this got started. It’s a gorgeous trail that hugs the side of the ridge opposite the valley from the ridge we were on top of at the top of Hi-Dee-Ho. The Songbird trail still has a bit of challenging sections but it’s much more consistent and even sports a special Holiday surprise.
I had originally planned on getting back to the parking lot via the Rattlin’ Run trail, which is somewhat new and isn’t even shown on the maps at the trailheads and parking lots at Carvin’s Cove. The Rattlin’ Run trail continues along the same path as Songbird which dips back down into the valley to meet up again with the Happy Valley fire road. When I got to the Rattlin’ Run/Songbird junction, I found this sign.
I only had about 1.5 miles to go to finish the run and I made a command decision to not tackle the double black diamond trail with a warning sign on those tired legs. I did walk a bit onto Rattlin’ Run and about 20 yards in I couldn’t even see where the trail went. Instead, I followed the Songbird trail down to Happy Valley and found the end of Carvin’s Cove Road where there’s a barn. Horses can use these trails and there were a lot of trailers and trucks parked there. My wife is a horse rider so I was excited to discover this new spot for her to come ride her horses.
I had a pretty easy one mile run on Carvin’s Cove Road to get me back to the parking lot where I was extremely happy to see my car get something to eat that wasn’t a Gu.
While the run was slower than I’d like with more walking and stopping than I typically do, it was likely a good training run helping me practice dealing with some mental adversity and some challenging trail conditions. I’m not planning my next run to be at Carvin’s Cove but I’ll come back before all my training is done and see what I can do. It’s great having such resources this close to home and I want to make sure I take advantage of them.