Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sisu Ski Fest Marathon

I had signed up early to participate again in the Heikki Lunta Half Marathon in Ironwood, MI and planned to do the Birkie this year when I realized in September that the Birkie has 9000 participants. Since I am not one for big crowds, I switched from the half to the full distance when I got a re-confirmation email from the race organizer. As the date approached I became a little worried of having committed to the longer distance. On on side, the lack of snow and consequent missed opportunity to have long distance training sessions worried me, but on the other I had participated in one of Sisu Skier's Year-Round groups and also trained some on the Twin Cities' various man-made snow trails (Theodore Wirth, Green Acres and Elm Creek Park Reserve). On the last weekend prior to the race I had a couple of fast and long (25+ km) sessions at Elm Creek, and the only reason this did not cemented my confidence was the fact that there were no hills.

I had come across the Sisu Ski Fest because it coincides with our traditional ski weekend together with four families of the Lexau clan, which has been going on for more than 20 years at one location or another, the past half dozen years or so, when we escaped the multi-year snow drought in the Cable, WI area. When I arrived in Ironwood, I heard that the trail conditions were soft again, due to the 18" of snow the area received in the past couple of days. However, it was still much better than the previous year.

Joel kindly gave me a ride to ABR and took the "before" picture. I did a few warm-up lengths and immediately noticed that the base felt soft and the skis felt slow. I wondered whether the Rex LF Black plus  RCF White had been the right combination. I spent some time in the warming house, waiting for the departure of the freestyle 42K. It came quickly enough, as I walked out, the Elites were sent on their way with the blast of a shotgun. Ten minutes later it was my turn. I started farther back in the pack, not wanting to get into some sort of a pile up. But no worries, there weren't that many in the second wave and the field stretched out quickly.
Fairly early in the game, no ice in the whiskers yet. (Photo: Linda Slining)
I did not have very good glide but I was hanging in there. Soon, we were doing the Peltonen Pass Out outside loop for the first time and the steep uphills were testing my cardiovascular system. The soft snow was rather helpful during the equally steep downhills, providing good control in the sharp turns. I heeded coach Ben's warning "Snowplows will be shot on sight" and quick-stepped on the outside of the turns. Overall it seemed that I was doing generally better during the downhills, open field and gradual climbs while I was really struggling during the steep climbs. I am generally a strong climber and wonder whether everyone else had better hill training or better glide wax.

I took one small tumble on the Coyote Canyon loop, near km 13 or so, a moment of inattention. I was back up quickly enough and unscathed, but the incident left me winded. I took a moment at he km 14 aid station to suck my first gel pack and drink a couple of cups of water.
Beginning to pass the classic skiers who started 30 minutes before us in Coyote
Canyon. Told #115 that he must be my Doppelgänger because of the orange top.
(Photos: Linda Slining)

The climbs were moderate, until we returned for a second round of Peltonen Pass Out. Boy, those were hard and I was glad when we moved onto the easier portions at the north end of ABR and then into Norrie Park and the long stretch connecting to the east side of Ironwood. I started also to notice a soreness on the outside portion of my right deltoid muscle, which stayed with me for the remainder of the race.

I was mostly skiing by myself now, only occasionally catching up to another skier or being caught by a pursuer. A couple of the elite classic skiers from the 21K event caught up with me, and as I reached the outskirts of town, some of the skaters passed. I did quite alright and I passed one of the skiers with whom I had been playing tag when he took a breather at the bottom of a hill. Feeling rather cocky and knowing that I only had about 3 km left, I kicked it up a notch. Maybe I shouldn't have, as all of a sudden I felt the start of a cramp on my right inner thigh. I immediately slowed down and a group of four skiers including the guy I had just passed zipped by. This was the last serious uphill of the race and I was cautious not to aggravate the cramp. By the time I made it to the top, the cramp had subsided but the group was too far away for me to catch them. So I did my best to make an effort on the last 1000 m through the city of Ironwood.
Passing the "Finnish" line. Must have left my form behind where I started to
cramp up. (Photo: Joel Alter)
 I was glad to pass the "Finnish" line, glad for the helpful volunteers undoing my skis and for Joel's friendly face and camera work. I was tired and sore but had no trouble walking to the place were our gear packs awaited our arrival. I quickly changed into a dry top, impressed with the good organization which included ministrations to an exhausted skier who looked who was shaking and looked rather grey in the face.
As evidenced by the frost I kept my cool throughout the race. Thank you for
operating my camera, Joel!
I was rather behind on my expectations for myself and I am not sure where I was lacking. The snow was a lot better than during the previous year, even doubling the distance, I improved my pace by 15 seconds from 4:56 min/km to 4:41 min/km (4:34 min/km for the first half, which was much hillier than the actual half marathon distance).  Of course, the snow conditions were quite a bit better than last year but I do hope that part of the improvement is due to my Sisu Year-Round group's relentless work on technique and specific strength and endurance training.

Another disappointment was that I finished farther down in the field as I expected. (see the results, here, Individual and Full) My expectations must have been way too high, all I had for comparison was my one other race, last year's Heikki Lunta Half Marathon, an altogether different distance and a much smaller group of competitors. Based on the first half of my race I would have finished in the middle of the pack of my age group and closer to the top tier in the men's division. So this is a learning experience and I do have to work on improving my long distance performance.

Sadly, I am not sure whether I will make the Sisu Ski Fest next year, as it is held on January 12, on the weekend before Martin Luther King Holiday, which falls on the 21st in 2013.

This was a success, after all, I am not doing this to do better than others but to improve myself. I finished the race, was able to walk away from it and put in a nice 11 km loop with quite a few good climbs in the Wolverine Nordic Ski Area the very next morning. I do have to say that the glide was much better ...

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Year-End Summary

2011 presented a shift in my physical activities. By joining the Sisu Foundation's Master's Year-Round Ski Program, I was part of a focused training effort for the first time since I was a member of LAC Eupen during the 1980s. Being part of Sisu also affected my other activities, especially running. As a consequence, I  felt in better shape than I had been in years.

On the downside, I was plagued with a slew of minor but annoying injuries, especially in my knees. Turning 50 this year, I guess my age is making itself noticed and reminds me that high-intensity training must be consumed with care. With the help of Dr. Abraham, my sports physician at HealthPartners, I was eventually able to overcome all of these small ailments and by the end of the year, I was able to rid myself of most small aches and pains that had been plaguing me for years.

I'll start with my cross country skiing regime since this involves the Sisu program I joined. The '10-'11 winter was probably the best I have experienced since I moved to Minnesota in 1989. Snow, and lots of it, enough to weather any of the thaws that ran interference. That meant cross-country skiing and skijoring, a total of about 400 km. I entered two skijoring races (King Boreas at Phalen Park & the Chuck & Don Skijor Loppet at Lake of the Isles) and the Sisu Ski Fest half marathon in Ironwood, MI. I was happy with my results as improvements over the previous year indicated that I must be doing something right. As the ski season fizzled in March, I had one last adventure when I accompanied James, my younger son and his buddy Joe to Breckenridge. While they covered the on and off piste areas of Breckenridge, Mellie and I took care of the cross country ski trails. It was fun, but for such a short time it was hard to get used to the altitude. I was yapping like a puppy, especially during the first two days. Oddly, the real puppy Mellie did not have any issues, she seemed even to look at me in a funny way like as if to say "what's wrong with you, usually you set the pace."

As mentioned above, I joined the Sisu Year-Round group, meeting every Tuesday at Battle Creek for dryland ski technique, specific strength and endurance training. Our main coaches Ben Popp and Mike Nightingale did a great job leading us, correcting us and motivating us and it was good to be exposed to a variety of skiers at different skill levels. The cardio test which we had every two months led Ben to suggest some training that impacted my running as well.

With all that preparation we were all eagerly anticipating winter and a snow pack to match last years. Unfortunately no such luck, one of the warmest and driest Decembers on the books and we are lucky that several places around town make snow for xc-skiing (Theodore Wirth in Minneapolis, Green Acres in Lake Elmo and Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove). I did not participate in any of the races, I had to forfeit he two (Test the Lungs freestyle and skijor) I had signed up for because of illness (head cold and ear infection, nasty).

As usual, the first run of the season was followed by some sore leg muscles. I am promising that I will keep up a light running schedule even in the middle of winter. After that, I fell quickly into my running routine. After an early season bike ride with Jack and Martin from work, I experienced some knee pain left. I took it easy even though running did not seem to aggravate the aches. I eventually caved and went to see Dr. Abraham at HP Como. She did not think it serious but recommended stretching ("You are pretty stiff") and "listening to the knee." Consequently a big change in my running routine began, something I should have done years ago. During my years with LAC Eupen, no training session began without first a light 10 minute jog followed by a 15 minute stretching and core routine. From now on, I ended every session with 15 minutes of stretches. The results were quickly noticeable, my chronic back pain eased and eventually vanished, and the knee aches began to subside, too.

These troubles made me also take another look at the wear patterns on my running shoes. I had noticed before that my right shoe was slightly worn in two locations, the very tip and the outside of my heel. My current Nike Air Pegasus + 27 had the same wear, here is a picture after about 620 km.
I don't think the wear is excessive for 620 km. However, abrading the tip of my
right toe like this does point to some inefficiencies and a lack of equilibrium in
my running. The sole of my left shoe is worn perfectly uniformly.
Never thought much of it but as I took the Nike Air Pegasus Trail WR into service, I decided to do start an experiment: I would begin alternating direction of my customary routes. Heretofore I had always been running them in a clockwise direction. Switching off like that is probably better for my joints, too. Will see if this makes a difference.

One of the recommendations coach Ben had made was to work in some 2-3 hour long sessions, biking or running, keeping my heart rate below 130 bpm. So I started to add two to three long runs per month to my routine. The biggest challenge for me was to run slowly enough to keep my heart rate low and steady. I did not find the distance overly taxing, my legs were tired but I did not have any issues with sore joints.

I had some fun running in Belgium and France, for the first time with my boys, especially Colin did a great job hanging on. I also reconnected with an old school mate, Reinhard, who met me for a jog around the Eupen Talsperre (reservoir). In France, near Eze, I did some serious hill work between the Corniches overlooking the Cote d'Azure.

I participated in eight orienteering meets and vetted the Veterans Day Night O with setter Pete Wentzel. I wasn't so happy with my results this year, rather than speeding up I need to slow down and take time to read the map and make better routing decisions. I contracted two major heel blisters at Chester Woods, courtesy of My Inov-8s and a toe injury at Interstate Park when I stepped into a hole and hyper-extended my left big toe joint.

I ended up aggravating my sore knees further by trying a boot camp class at the YMCA. I dropped out after two sessions and returned to Dr. Abraham for some further diagnosis. After some additional pulling, twisting and bending of my legs she declared also this newer injury less than serious and she prescribed further stretches and some strengthening for the quadriceps' vastus medialis, which she declared "mushy. "

After my poor start to the cycling season I did not have the stomach to get onto more longer rides. It did not help that I had changed jobs and that my new place of employ added about 30 km to my 45 km (two way) commute. However, there was light at the end of the tunnel as my new company was going to move in, making bicycle commuting an option again. I had put my injury woes behind by the time of the move in early November and I decided to take one ride, on the second day at the new office near Hopkins Cross Road and Wayzata Blvd. Except for some cold toes it went very smoothly and, due to the absence of real winter I repeated the ride in the week before Christmas. In spite of a little additional distance compared to my previous commute to Eagan I find this ride a lot easier due to the fact that the majority of the stretch is covered on trails. I am looking forward to many rides during the next warm season.