Right away let me tell you that this is a true story. And it’s a story where science and hilarity intertwine. It’s a look into the art of fitness enhancement, perspectives on the human experience, and the beauty of deep, lasting friendship.
This story, essentially the road to and from the UPhill ShowDOWN, is divided into 4 parts. Originally, I thought I’d produce this tale over 4 separate posts and really dive deeply into each chapter. However, upon reflection, I realized two things: 1.) You may not find this story as intriguing, exciting, and amusing as I do, and 2.) One missive is entirely adequate to share all the data.
Part 1: Genesis
Just a few months ago I found myself in some online chattah with a few of my old (both in terms of our actual age as well as the duration of our relationships) running buddies. For some strange reason the banter picked up and the artist known as “Kenny” indicated that he, unlike the rest of us, was training for “Nationals.” Now keep in mind that Kenny is a national champion, and that can’t be taken from him. Just because it is an age-group title in the trail half-marathon (yes, such sanctioned events really do exist), a podium finish is still just that, and he deserves to be recognized. Some probing comments were made by the group (and I swear I was not the instigator) and Kenny ended up calling me a “one-eyed fat man.” This apparently struck a nerve because before I could find the “unsend” button on my keyboard, I had suggested to Kenny that we might need to go mano a mano in a race to address his insolence.
Now at this point I think I need to give you a little more information. It had been over a decade since Kenny and I had raced each other. I had significantly downgraded my running due to both evolving interests as well as some orthopedic injuries and surgery that mandated change. But we used to race each other a lot. 40 times to be precise. And the first two times we ran, Kenny defeated me convincingly. But, unfortunately for him, after his second “victory” he made the mistake of trash-talking a bit too much and pronounced to a small group that the only reason he showed up was to Kick my “A!” Well, it turned out that this statement gave me a reason to live, and I took the next 38 straight races. This streak of absolute domination is perhaps the single greatest accomplishment I have attained in my sporting career. My “win to the 38th power” reign of terror had me beating up on Kenny on the roads, tracks, trails, cross-country courses, uphills, and downhills. He claimed we had a rivalry. I say I owned him! Not that he was always a whipping boy. Sometimes he almost altered the finish order, but I always found enough inner rage to rally and remain the dominant alpha. I hope by now you are laughing a bit at a couple of middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-pack hackers participating in such gladiatorial contests. And do know that we have always been and still are great friends.
But a challenge is a challenge. It was on. The ultimate grudge match fight to the death, the world championships of EVERYTHING, and bragging rights for at least a couple of years! We both embody the philosophy that health and fitness are important components of a life well-lived. But we also believe in keeping the warrior ethos alive in our gene pool, as to compete is to bring out not only the best in ourselves, but in our opponent as well. Bummer for me that Kenny’s first career was in the legal profession as a prosecuting attorney. Debating and negotiating with this guy isn’t something in which I feel I have the upper hand. Because of my orthopedic issues, I can’t and don’t run longer distances anymore, and I was hoping for our race to be a 200 meter dash on the track. We bickered back and forth quite a bit and somehow I got stuck with having to race this guy in an uphill 600-yard event. Don’t forget he is a National Champion! Oh, and he also describes himself as an “uphill specialist.” And then he hits me with the fact that he’s coming to do this race on Memorial Day, when I was thinking Labor Day and now I’ve got a little less than two months to train. This is a G-rated blog so forgive me but all I could think was “f” me!
Part 2: Planning
I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who is given credit for the famous quote: “Failure to plan is planning to fail.” To be honest, even though it had been a decade, I kinda liked the way winning felt and wasn’t sure I was interested in experiencing anything other than what I had felt after the last 38 encounters with Kenny. And looking at our little upcoming battle (Kenny’s wife often refers to his athletic endeavors as his “little races”), I just didn’t see me waffling and thinking “Oh, yea, I’m going onto the battlefield and who knows what will happen…maybe my head will be lopped off.” That kind of thinking tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I convinced myself to think positively here and come up with a data-driven plan. Not quite an experiment, since I knew what I was doing in this realm, such as it has been my career for over 3 decades. And not quite a Project, as the ones I have conducted and written about in past years, the most recent being Project JACKED which will be going to press later this month.
I needed to take a serious look at what the event would require/demand, where I was right now, and how I could max the process of getting from point A to point B. Not that I was totally deconditioned, but I certainly hadn’t been training for running of any sort, particularly a tough uphill assault. With respect to aerobic training, I was pretty much coming off the couch. I had just spent several weeks doing an investigation into deconditioning (that may be the best way I’ve ever come up with to describe outright laziness) with respect to aerobic fitness. I had proven that I could do almost no cardio and decondition massively in just a few weeks. But fortunately, I never let myself go away from general activity, mobility, and at least some resistance training. And I’d been working with the Project JACKED group on some of their weight workouts, so I wasn’t exactly at ground zero. But I wasn’t ready to run to the penthouse yet. Here are a few of the things I considered:
- Energy Systems: Based on my knowledge of exercise physiology, depending on the grade, I figured running uphill for 600 yards would take about 3 minutes to complete at race effort. That placed the aerobic/anaerobic demand right at about 50/50. So I decided that any training of consequence should either be working on one side of the energy systems equation or the other.
- Lactate Levels: To my dismay, I realized that a 3-minute max effort was right up there with just about the highest blood lactate levels one could achieve during exertion. Ouch. That meant pain. I cursed Kenny a bit for that. I may still be recovering mentally from my Project Full Circle Squared effort of two years ago when I ran a sub-60 400m. That leg-and-lung-burning, going blind, near-barf kind of agony can scar a man and I still shuddered a bit thinking that race day would bring it all back. Oh well, I’m in.
- Shoes: Since I only do a minimal amount of running, all I had was a minimalist shoe, more designed for track and road than mountain terrain. I would need better traction in my footwear.
- Aerobic Conditioning: Kenny currently functions at a level that I’ll never achieve again. He has always had an outstanding lactate threshold, and without the ability for me to do high volumes of training, my max VO2 would never approach his level. What I needed to do was have enough conditioning to be in the race and close near the end to have a chance.
- Power: This one might have been trending in my favor. I’m quick if not truly fast and I had been doing quite a bit of weight training. Maybe I could convert that into explosive power if I put my training together correctly.
- Recovery: I suck at that. Sorry for going PG-13 there. I’ve always struggled with inflammation and post-exercise recovery. You don’t get fit by doing easy stuff all the time, but whenever I did what I call a fitness-maker workout, or something of substance (SOS), I’d always seem to be stiff and sore for days longer than my training partners. It was only recently that I’d learned through DNA testing that there were definitive genetic markers for such issues and there were some things I could do that might help.
- Polish: As in doggie-doo polish, which is what I needed a heavy dollup of to get this jalopy ready. I realized I couldn’t outtrain Kenny, and there was no way that I could show up at the starting line more fit than him. But what I could be was more rested, more focused, and more aggressive. Hmmm.
Part 3: Process
So how does one go about executing (judge and jury come later) a plan for such an endeavor? Pretty basic stuff here. You honestly assess where you are right now, where you want to be at the goal date, what are the things necessary to accomplish that objective, and accept the reality that any plan needs to be dynamic and flexible. Sounds great on paper or screen. I’ll revisit the plan items and describe what the process looked like.
- Energy Systems: The easy side of all this was aerobic system development. Easy to moderate efforts would be necessary every 3 or 4 days to get a training response. Because I had not been running, and only do a limited amount of running during mostly spring and summer, I’d need to find a way to get a bit more volume in. So I basically did workouts that involved either a mile or two of walking followed by same of jogging, only on grass fields, or that same mile or two of jogging on a treadmill followed by an equivalent amount of time on a stationary bike. Consequently, I was able to get in 45 minutes of aerobic work with only a minimal amount of actual running and very little pounding on my delicate knees. In the power realm, the workouts were a bit shorter in time, and only amounted to about a mile total. They included some drills and calisthenics, sandbag lifts and drags, short hill sprints (on dirt), and a few limited reps of 50-200 yards. My training cycle would generally look like an aerobic workout on day 1, a recovery day of walking and mobility work on day 2, a power session on day 3, and another recovery day for day 4. This was a decent platform that didn’t overwork me and allowed me to consistently keep repeating these 4-day cycles. Average weekly running mileage was about 3.5 miles.
- Lactate Levels: I was concerned that if I tried to do some lactate tolerance, or callousing, workouts during this brief training cycle, that I would just break down and not recover. So I elected to just not do longer, harder reps. Couldn’t really get jazzed up to face them anyway. However, I decided to use mental training. I didn’t visualize that racing Kenny up that hill would be effortless or painless. I saw myself just dealing with the pain and eating it for fuel, still feeling it as much as Kenny but minding it less. I even visualized vampiring Kenny’s will to win from him, sucking his life blood away and using it as my own free source of power. Say what you want.
- Shoes: I got myself a really slick, superlight pair of trail racing flats. They are bright blue and although not suede, they still make me feel a little like Elvis in the fringe jumpsuit days. Given the amount I’ll run in them, they’ll probably last a decade. Now I have the traction needed for sand, gravel, rock, and mud.
- Aerobic Conditioning: I made peace that I would get what I would get from my training efforts. But what I could do was tweak things a bit. I am not crazy about the term “bio-hack” but I used a few tricks. First was sleep. I got after it. I always go to bed early and have a pretty good evening ritual, but I made sure to stay consistent with that. I stayed in bed as long as my early-riser genes allowed me to and banked mojo. Then I went all-in on supplements. There is some research-based evidence, although let’s not say it’s all hard science, that a few key ingredients might increase one’s aerobic fitness by a few percentage points. The first is cordyceps mushroom extract, and the second is beet juice powder. I religiously added those to my smoothies several times per week in the hopes that I’d get a few of those incremental increases. Fitness from a blender versus the roads. Also, I don’t have a sauna but I went to a local club to use one a few times as this has been shown to provide a low-grade aerobic enhancement as well.
- Power: I’d mentioned in the energy systems comment what I was doing for training but I also applied a very cognitive approach to the sessions. You could even call it mindfulness in training, since that’s such a popular term these days. Whenever I did a jump, a drill, a lift, or a sprint I always made sure to use the absolute best posture, form, and technique that I could muster. The PT in me said “teach the body optimal movement, and it will learn to do only that.” Sounds like friggin’ Yoda-talk. But in reality this is so true and I write about it a lot these days. We sometimes, or maybe not me but everybody else, gets a little too caught up in the metabolics of training but they forget about the mechanics. Never let that happen to you.
- Recovery: Ok, so we all know that smart training, excellent nutrition, optimal sleep, and reasonable stress levels help us recover. Check, check, check, and check. But I’d also been deep into a rabbit hole of genetic testing and analysis, and supplementation in that regard. I’d realized that I could use a little help with my methylation and folate intake, so the leafy greens and cruciferous veggies were maxxed out. I’d looked at key nutrients for antioxidant pathways such as vitamins C and E, and Selenium and put those into my regimen. But what was really exciting for me was that I’d recently learned about superoxide, the reactive oxygen species we produce in the presence of inflammatory stress like infection or in particular, strenuous exercise. The enzyme which degrades these training by-products, superoxide dismutase, was like many things genetically modulated. I happened to get dealt a crappy hand there, but new studies support that supplementing with pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ) and Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) can enhance superoxide dismutase performance in “deficient” individuals like me. So my supplement stack started to include those items, but only on power training days. I found that taking them post-workout was more effective than pre-training for me and the results seem to be more than just placebo (unlike many of my supplement experiments over the past 4 decades, which just resulted in brightly colored urine, double-over gut cramps and absolutely no positive results). I have two friends in the runner group mentioned at the beginning of this post who are chemistry professors. I bet they’ve known this for years and haven’t been telling the rest of us.
- Polish: Knowing the difference between Shineola and everything else is a great challenge. In the past I just would have trained hard, trusted in that process, and used it as a confidence-builder going into a race. This time around it was more about ignoring doubt, being ready to rise to the occasion, and executing without distraction. Fun stuff, really. Believe and achieve? We’ll see.
Part 4: Judgement Day
Coming up for a name for this final section brought lots of options to mind, but since I’m a fan of The Terminator series, you see my rationale. As race day was rapidly approaching, I had intended to write this story, regardless of the outcome. That’s only fair.
First, I had the assignment of laying out the course. I went to one of our beautiful local forest service access roads, which was gated for several more weeks and only open to foot and bike travel, to set the stage for the UPhill ShowDOWN. Wonderful to have a closed dirt road on which to hold a private “little” race. On the side of a mountain, with beautiful valley views, amidst the Douglas Firs, I scratched off “S-1-2-3-4-5-F” lines on the road. 597 yards. 198 feet of elevation gain. 6000 feet of elevation. Average grade of 11%, although the section from 300-400 was almost flat, and the following 100 was what appeared to be a near-vertical wall. The course was set and it was equally panoramic and demonic. Which gets me to one of my gripes. I live in one of these western “B” towns (Bozeman, Bend, Boulder to name a few) that is crazed with the idea that a running race is always better if it takes all day and all night and leaves people covered with a mixture of mud as well as their own blood and feces. I’m not so sure.
Because of Kenny’s schedule, we had more of a pre-party than an after-party. One of the gang hosted a cookout (Texans get really uptight if you use the term BBQ and don’t smoke for 24 hours prior, just sayin’) and we all gathered to reminisce about the old days as well as realize these are pretty darn good days also. Kenny and I were gentlemen, and discussed all sorts of things, including the race (it was not a topic we were going to avoid) but everything was polite and pleasant.
Race day dawned and after a leisurely morning, we all (yea, all 11 of us) made our way to the parking area just after lunch – which I didn’t eat since I figured there was a really good chance of a finish line barf. We laughed a little before we started up the road about how many hundreds of times we’d all done this sort of thing and now the challenge was less about suppressing nerves and more about getting revved up. Kenny chose to accelerate this process by jogging the two miles up the road to the start while the rest of us just walked along. I’d say this was a tactical error on his part but in reality the guy is very fit and runs a lot so this may have helped him whereas it would have wrecked me since it would be over half my weekly mileage just getting to the starting line. Kenny reported that he runs about 35 miles a week on average so a 2-mile jog is nothing for him.
Once at the race area, everyone walked the course and surveyed the situation, coming up with their respective strategies. Mine was fairly simple. In a race this short, you really only have one move to make, and you need to decide when that should occur. I was banking on my finishing ability, so I was thinking that the latter ⅓ of the race was going to be focus time for me. My assignment was to stay relatively close to Kenny to make any attempt at a kick fruitful. I realized that going uphill negated much of the ability to kick in the first place. I’m sure Kenny knew that was my race, and I figured his was to go out strong and hang on, as was his preferential pattern. We did a few strides and then toed the line. It was go time.
The starter said “Go!” (we didn’t bring a gun) and off we went. As predicted, Kenny surged to the lead immediately and looked focused. I was doing a rapid systems check and assessed that I was somewhere between 7.1 and 8.8 on the energy scale (a typical “day at the office”) and so I immediately knew I didn’t feel great but at least lousy wasn’t on the table. At 100 I eased up to Kenny’s shoulder and just tried to relax. I could already feel the pace and the incline but it was what it was, so I just thought, “get to 200.” At 200 the pitch steepened and I eyed the upcoming switchback in the road, which had a bit of camber to it. I moved to the outside of the turn and chugged along. As we rounded the turn and approached 300, I started to think about being competitive. I eyed Kenny’s form and he looked a bit ragged, and I thought he was actually breathing harder than I was. Passing 300 I thought to myself “Only 300 left, just GO!” So I did. I hit the afterburners, turned on the jets, and roared past Kenny, down the almost flat stretch to 400, and then launched onto the Big Wall going away, blasting up the hill, turning the corner, and crossing the finish line with nobody in sight! I put 19 seconds into Kenny over the last half of the race. That last 150 was just as tough as I thought it would be, but it seemed to hurt Kenny a bit more than me. And I didn’t barf!
In Kenny’s own words, I crushed him. Yes, I did. But, to be fair, in post-race analysis, let’s look at a few things. I got my absolute best performance given the limited potential I was dealing with. There was a lot of calculation and execution in that, but probably also a little bit of luck. And I don’t think Kenny had his best day. He really did look lean and fit, but he seemed a bit tired. I’ll take the victory for sure, but it was only one. Although I must admit, number 39 felt pretty powerful.
Couple things to say about Kenny. He’s AWESOME! He called me out, got me off the couch, and made me rise to the occasion. I owe him for that. There was a lot of handshaking and hugging before and after, and my life is enriched because Kenny is in it. He is a guy who can go at it with you tooth and nail, in an uphill bloodfest, and then never think about it again. A true class act. I salute you Kenny. Love you man. And we’ll both savor this event for a long while before concocting the next encounter of excellence. Kenny has indicated that he wants to go uphill twice as far but I’m putting my foot down and saying enough of this BS, if we race again it’s on the track, where it matters and counts for something.
And while I’m on a gripe, here’s the thing. There’s no way I should have beaten Kenny. He has way more talent for such a thing than I do. And in literal terms, he runs 10 times as much mileage as I do. But, and this is a big butt (like the glutes of people I train), I used the science. I showed how to use training and other forms of preparation to make the best of a situation and upregulate an outcome. That’s what education and professional experience can yield. I’m a fitness professional. Have been for 35 years. I continue to be amazed at the disconnect I see in so many people about health and fitness coaching professionals. If you blow the engine in your car, you tend to go see a professional mechanic. If you are in a sticky tax situation, you hire an accountant. If you find yourself wrongly accused of a crime and believe yourself to be innocent, you don’t defend yourself but instead go directly to the best attorney you can find and afford. So why is it when so many people want to get healthy, lose weight, or really kick it with a fitness goal, they just make up some homemade bullcrap scheme or even worse, do the same thing they always did that might have worked 30 years ago but sure as heck doesn’t work now? I’ll leave it at that. Catch you next time.