Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Running For Beer, Episode II: The Treadmill Strikes Back

After a few crazy weeks around these parts, I'm back with more tales from the human performance lab. When we last left off, I'd attended a meeting, filled out paperwork, drank some beer and read about what I was going to do. I left excited and nervous about being one of a small handful of people doing the testing, and with a bit of a complex when I realized I was the average chick among some really awesome runners in the room. I put that out of my mind and figured I wouldn't think hard about it, and would just show up for each day's activities without worry.

A few days later, I returned to the lab for my very first VO2Max test. First, though, I had to sit in that egg-shaped thing called the "Bod Pod." Let me tell you guys-I was less than excited about this. Nothing like getting down to a swimsuit or tight fitting yoga-type clothes in front of a room full of dude researchers in the lab. Let me be clear...NOBODY was making me feel weird or giving me the judgmental eye. This was all my own doing. It was like going back to junior high again and being insecure with your body. Luckily, this test did not take very long. I climbed in, the door was shut, and I sat inside it, keeping my body as still as I could. This test can take up to five minutes, but the lead researcher let me know after about thirty seconds that it had done its thing one time already, and after it reset and did it again, I was finished. Phew. I spent no more than about two minutes total in there, and ran off to change for the VO2Max test.

Up next would be the beginning of the real guinea pig action. There was a small treadmill set up in the middle of the lab (bummer, I wasn't going to get to run on the "green monster"-photos to come). In order to properly measure the gases coming out of my mouth, I would have to run with this helmet thing with a mouthpiece attached. It had a soft rubber mouthpiece to gently bite down upon-think going to the dentist. The mouthpiece attaches to a tube that runs back to their fancy computer. So, yes, this means that test subjects run with mouths wide open. This would be awkward enough, but to add insult to injury, the nose must be plugged as well. The first time they hooked me up to all this, it was very disorienting. I'm sort of a clumsy treadmill runner but the one thing that has always made it possible for me is being able to "spot" the console on the front of the treadmill. That is, if I just focus on it while I run, I don't get off-balance or shift too far to one side, forward, or backward. This just took away all point of reference to where I was on the machine.

I also do not normally run with a heart rate monitor, but this was another important part of the test. I had more crap attached to me and more people watching me than when my son was born by emergency c-section. Very strange for someone who is used to being a solitary runner much of the time, and with as little as possible to get through the run.

Once everything was properly fitted, the treadmill started. One of the researchers immediately commented "she's nervous" because my heart rate was apparently through the roof at first. The head guy in charge commented that he knew it would come down-other first-timers in the study also had the same thing happen-and sure enough, he commented that it had settled down a minute or two later. They gradually upped the pace until it reached 8 miles per hour, or a 7:30 pace mile. This felt all right, but I knew that soon the incline would be increased every few minutes until I cried mommy. The first increase wasn't too bad, but the whole helmet face thing was quite distracting. I felt like I was drooling out of the corner of my mouth. Yeah, sexy. I could see that there was a VO2Max reading on the screen but couldn't quite read what it said.

When we moved to 4%, I was REALLY starting to hurt. I felt pretty pathetic for being ready to give up already. I knew one of the other women had made it to 8%, and I really wanted to get there too. I pushed on, and the research team was being nothing but enthusiastic and encouraging. The incline was upped to 6%, and I was ready to throw in the towel. The guys were going apey offering encouragement, saying "looking good" and all that but I knew better.

Finally I was sagging and sliding back to the point that I finally did my rescue jump to stand on the side rails, feeling exhausted and a bit like I wasn't up-to-par for what they needed in this test. I was told that it was a gutsy test because I'd actually hit my VO2Max awhile before, and to keep going at all beyond that point was awesome. I am not sure if it was true and it didn't exactly make me feel better, but I didn't have much else to give. I knew one thing, though-I was happy to have that mouthpiece out and the nose plug gone. With that, day one of research was on the books. I was due back in the lab later in the week for my first depletion run and (woohoo) beer and pasta dinner.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Running For Beer-Part One

I never thought that being a not-so-young, not-so-old, slightly higher-than-average mileage, sometime-beer-drinker would get me anywhere out of the ordinary in life. A few weeks ago, though, I got that very special e-mail that changed my life. Oh, okay. It didn't really change my life, but it did present a very interesting opportunity that would allow me to find out a few things about my own fitness, and give scientists a chance to see what effect, if any, moderate alcohol consumption has on training and performance in distance runners.

Among weekly group run schedules and race announcements, one special item caught my eye in our running club's weekly email. Beer drinking runners, 30+ miles a week, ages 25-44 were needed. Free beer and food would be served. We would go through a battery of tests that would normally run a pretty penny, but for study subjects, they would be free of charge. Are you kidding me? Where do I sign up? I filled out the short questionnaire and received word pretty quickly that I would be included in this study. About ten days ago, I showed up for my first meeting with the other test subjects and researchers. I recognized a few faces in the room but there were others there as well, and everyone was very excited to be doing this "research."

We filled out paperwork and consent forms, and were served an amount of beer that had been calculated by our weight and gender to bring us up to just under .08 BAC, the legal limit in my state. I was served 2.5 beers of what I believe to be Fat Tire, a favorite from my home state. All the while, I thought to myself "This is a first-drinking beer in a lecture hall desk on a college campus." I kept waiting for the cops to show up and break up the party....and then, there they were, smiling in the lab doorway. Two campus police officers in plain clothes appeared, and came into the room with the breathlyzer kit to see if the researchers had nailed our blood alcohol content.

As we went around the room, it seemed that they had gotten things right for most people. One guy who had just eaten a gigantic burrito before showing up only blew .034 after his four beers. I stood up for my turn, and they watched excitedly as my numbers climbed up.....up.....up.....and then stopped at .072. Yep, I do it Price Is Right style-the closest without going over. I was actually pleased with this. My cupboards had been practically bare at this point in the week and I'd snacked as much as I could so I would not have an empty stomach, but it wasn't quite as much as I normally would have eaten at this point in the early evening. One of the researchers kept hollering "you're goin' to the pokey!" with each person's turn on the breathalyzer, and it cracked me up. I thought these guys were going to be serious lab coat folk. Another guy must've had a particularly empty stomach, or his weight had fluctuated, because he blew a .09 on the four beers they had calculated for him. Whoops. Just 3.5 beers for future testing, sir.

The police officers actually enlightened us on several things having to do with traffic stops for suspected drunk driving, one of which was the fact that your eye will do an involuntary twitch when you are impaired. This is why they always do that field sobriety test in which the subject is asked to follow the officer's finger with their eyes. This came into play when another one of the women who was actually part of a post race food and drink gathering I was part of last winter was overserved on her beer. She was supposed to get only 1.5 beers and was leaning back looking VERY relaxed in her seat after 2.5 beers. I thought it seemed off that a girl several inches shorter and clearly a good 20 lbs or more lighter would get the same number of beers as me-and it was. She asked them to field check her, and I had to get up to watch. She was focusing like mad, intent on outsmarting the test-then I saw the eye twitch. Yep, you're going to the pokey! (BIG DISCLAIMER....under no conditions were any of us allowed to drive at all following testing that included any alcohol consumption. And it goes without saying that this wasn't about heavy alcohol consumption that obviously messes with performance, training,a nd health and general. Even if you blew barely over zero, none of us was anywhere near a car.) Whoops.

While we drank our beers for calibration purposes, I went through my study information in more detail. The next visit would be a VO2Max test on a treadmill, complete with oxygen mask and nose plugs. For most of us, this would involve increasing our speed up to 8.0 mph, and then an increase in incline by 2% every few minutes until we gave up and cried mommy. From this test they could determine not just our VO2Max, but the pace and incline we were running when we reached 80% of that VO2Max. The 80% mark would be very important for future test runs.

About a week later, we would return for a carb depletion run in the evening. This run would last 45-50 minutes and would be at more of a moderately hard pace-not piece of cake but nothing that would suck the life out of us either. No oxygen masks or nose plusgs-just a nice little run. This would be followed by our designated amount of beer, plus pasta, salad, and bread. The next morning, we would return for a run in full lab rat regalia...oxygen mask, nose plugs, heart rate monitor. We would then go at that 80% VO2Max pace until we could not run anymore. Now, this pace does not necessarily come 80% of the way through your VO2Max run. It could be right before hitting that 7:30 pace, maybe some other time. Then we'd come back again that night, do the depletion run (yep...another run the same night after wearing ourselves out), drink, eat, get up in the morning and do it again. At some point during the testing, we'd also get in this thing that looked like an egg with a window, or maybe a spaceship. It was called the Bod Pod, and it measures body composition.

When all was said and done, they'd have some interesting data to analyze, and each of us would be given a packet of valuable training information with details about our VO2Max, heart rate, body fat/lean muscle mass, and a variety of other information that the researchers could deduce from our testing as far as what we could use most in our training and where our weak spots lie. This was stuff I'd always wanted to know, and I was stoked to say the least that I was getting to sit in this lab for the testing. As I called my husband and waited for my ride home after the orientation/beer calibration meeting, I felt both excited and very nervous about beginning this experience as a beer drinking, running lab rat.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Prehistoric 5K

We could go with the alternate title of "I Suck At Cherrypicking Races," but somehow that's even less catchy than the actual title. Rather than making blogger excuses regarding posting frequency, or that the race I am writing about was almost two weeks ago, let's just dive straight into the race report for the annual race at the dinosaur museum.

This event has taken place for many years, but numbers have dwindled in recent years. It's been different distances and has been held at different locations, but last year marked what I believe is the first time that both a 5K and a 10K were offered. I did the 10K last year with lackluster energy, marking my fifth race in six weeks, and finished second in the small women's field, getting pretty well pummeled by a collegiate runner who was unable to accept the non-advertised $100 prize. Meanwhile, the women's winning time in the 5K last year (also a $100 prize for that race) was well over two minutes slower than the slowest 5K I've run in the past three years. Sure, my legs could have been whapped off by a passing car on the hilly course, but barring that kind of calamity I should have easily been able to run faster that day. Though I wasn't out to pick a distance based solely on my chances, I did kick myself a bit for doing the 10K.

This year, there was no doubt in my mind that I would do the 5K. The main reason was that both courses were very hilly and tough, and I would still be working pretty hard in the shorter race. I thought the 10K would be a bit too much for me to handle just two weeks after my summer marathon. I half-seriously joked, though, that I was cherrypicking for the shorter race. We have a lot of expenses around this time of year with school starting soon, and it's really nice to be able to offset race registration fees whenever possible. I showed up at 6:30 a.m. on a very warm summer morning, registered there (this is a new trend...NOT planning things out and making gameday decisions on races), and did the usual hang with the usual suspects. I noticed that among the usual suspects was the woman who is two age groups older than me and who also routinely thrashes the field.

In the past, I may have been disheartened by this, because she's a couple of notches above me as a runner with a great finish kick to boot. The best I've done in the past is staying ahead of her for a mile in a 5K before she passed me, along with the other five women ahead to win the entire race. She's that good-her first mile is just for warming up and faking you out before the burn. This time, though, I thought-screw it. I had some cool new lightweight shoes that just feel like buttah (tried them on at the Boston expo, resisted the unconscionably high price for a long time, found a coupon that made them merely shamefully expensive, and got a pair). I didn't feel dreadful in the warmup, and the new shoes gave me a pick-me-up I'd never felt when trying to go fast. I just said "Screw it...when she kicks it up I'm gonna try to stick with her. Even if it really hurts." This is total fantasyland-think-I think my "closest" finish to her has been by about a minute, but hey, you've to take some risks to start making a little progress.

Lining up with everyone else, I thought "oh boy-I paid money to run a Personal Worst-worthy course!" Oh, and this was my second black tee shirt in as many July races. Really? Do other runners really like being as hot as possible in the hottest month of the year? But I digress.

We got our countdown and headed off down the road, which started out flat but then began to climb. Speedy 50-something was already ahead of me, but this was one of the first times that I was more or less right behind her at the start. This was good. Some very excited high-schooler struck up a conversation with her and she made small talk for a bit. Yeah, honey, wear her out with conversation! I checked my pace-it was brisk for this course but I was feeling strong today so I kept at it. At about three quarters of a mile, I actually witnessed the moment when she looked at her watch and kicked it up a notch. Now there was a ten or fifteen second gap between us, but I kicked it up too and kept it from widening further. I was energized that this wasn't a first round knock out yet. Mile 1: 7:04

The second mile runs down the main drag in a subdivision with some huge hills. This is a double-edged sword-they sure do slow you down compared to a flat road, but after a summer of twice-a-week hilly trail runs, I've had decent practice at running steadily uphill and carrying that momentum into the downhill with good turnover and a short stride. The speedy lady inched a little more ahead, but still wasn't on fire the way I've seen her. "Struggle" is certainly not the right word, but on the relative scale of how smooth she normally looks, she was working harder than I'd ever seen. I did my keep on keepin' on thing and ran like I had a chance even though I knew the gap was even bigger now. When we reached the turnaround I could see that I also had a little company. There was another high school girl who was close enough to overtake me if I let up, or if she could have a strong finishing kick. Mile 2: 7:49

That felt like a reasonable slowdown for those big hills as we doubled back for the big finish. There were two good hill climbs, and then a bit of a reprieve with the gradual downhill and flattening out to the finish. Somewhere around 2.25 miles, I got my last look at the competition ahead as she kicked it up another notch. I pushed hard to pick it up but my maximum output was just slower than hers. She went over one of the hills and by the time I crested it, she was long out of sight. This was MY race, though, and I focused on pushing ahead hard and keeping some distance from the third lady.

I hit the peak of the last hill, and passed this boy that I know to be the same age as my oldest daughter. They were in swim lessons together about eight years ago, and have done some of the same youth track meets in the past. Let's just say that when this kid mockingly said "He has TERRIBLE form" about my then 4-year-old son at one of those meets (just before we found out that he needed orthotics and some PT because of weak muscle tone and a severe inward roll at the ankle)-well, I needed to pass this little turd. So I passed him. And this made him think "this lady who older than my mom just passed me." So he kept trying to push past me and finally got a bit ahead with about three tenths of a mile left to go. Crap. Mile 3: 7:12. I kicked it toward that finish line with a time of 1:34 for what my Garmin measured as .21 miles (so, maybe a little long) and finished in a slow 23:39.

This was not a personal worst, but it was the second slowest 5K I've run since the first one without a kid to pace back in late 2007. On those hills, though, I'll take it. Even though that second mile was obviously going to be the slowest one for everyone, I have a history of big positive splits on the third mile. Rebounding in the third mile was a bit of a baby step forward toward better 5K racing. That high school girl wound up being a mere five seconds behind me, so if I'd allowed myself to be lame-o for even a second, I would have been back another spot. I did win my age group (Yay! A nifty dino trinket...seriously, I do like the plaques and medals they give at this event) but the overall win and the dough went to the Masters speedster. Oh, and the kicker....yeah, you guessed it. I picked the wrong race for big money with the winning time in the other race being several minutes off what I ran the year before. Ah well. Reminds me of a conversation in The Big Lebowski:

{insert awkward segueway here}

Speaking of bars-hey, remember that study where somebody gives me beer to drink, food to eat, and then has me do all kinds of lab rat tests? I'm in the middle of it-only we're not drinking at a bowling alley bar. More on drinking and running very soon.