Monday, October 29, 2012

The Ongoing War Against Blisters

    If you don't get blisters ever, feel free to skip this.  I used to get blisters especially from racing and I hated it.  I can stay cheerful through all kinds physical difficulties from either end of the GI tract to cramping to late night delusions.  Blisters just *#@#**# tick me off.  I read all sorts of blogs and product reviews during my first year running ultras and I performed all sorts of experiments on myself.  Here's a summary of the things that make a difference for me.

1) The fit of my shoes.  I used to wear my shoes tighter, thinking that I would have more stability and that less movement would mean fewer blisters.  Your shoe will always move on your foot.  The harder it is pressed against the skin the quicker it will generate heat and skin damage so now I wear my shoes looser.  'But Lee, won't that lead to more falls, to rolling your ankles, to your shoes falling off?'  I like stretch bungee laces not only because they prevent me from having to trust in my ability to tie my shoes but also because they have give while still keeping your shoe on your foot.  In an ultra my feet may swell a little over the course of the race.  Almost everyone's do.  I may not notice very quickly or may not want to bend down late in the race to retie my shoes laces (who knows what's going through my head then, but certainly not squatting down and standing back up).  What about a looser shoe making me fall?  If its so loose it can fall off then its too loose.  If loosening your shoe laces or going up just a half size makes you fall on the trails then it is likely that your ankles are weak and that you also are not actually setting your feet down flat (the nervous system can lie to you about this, a blog next month on that topic).  Do lunges with your eyes closed.  Do single leg toe raises.  Will deep mud suck a looser shoe right off my foot?  It's happened. Twice.  It was still lots better than running with blisters and the people running with me had a good laugh as I yelped and hopped around so it was a win-win.  The key thing here I think is to experiment on training runs and see how your feet feel. 
2) Socks matter a whole lot.  I wore cotton socks once.  They ate my feet.  Some of the cheaper synthetics do too.  I like Smartwool, Bridgedale, Balega, and Merrell to name a few.  There are other brands that are similar and good.  I hear a lot of people find happiness with drymax.  For me a thicker sock is better than a thinner one.  The main reason as far as I can tell is that the shoe rubs the sock and there's enough sock there to keep the rubbing from getting through to my skin.  All of these socks perform just as well for me wet as they do dry.  If a thicker running sock makes your shoes too tight consider a shoe with a wider toe box or a half size increase in shoe size. 
3) Lubricating your feet for ultras is a great plan.  I don't bother on training runs because I'm trying to toughen my feet up but training runs aren't generally as long and fast as races either.  What and how much lubrication do I use?  I'm not that picky with the rest of my body, though I really like Body Glide.  For my feet, for an ultra?  Skin Sake.  Its A&D ointment with some other stuff thrown in and is much thicker on the skin than anything else I've tried, even vaseline.  How much?  I coat both feet everywhere my sock covers.  If its the right amount then when I put on my sock and shoe it feels a little bit uncomfortably squishy for the first half mile or so.  I ran an 80 mile mountain race over summer and a 100 miler in September and both involved a lot of water.  I didn't get any blisters at all.  Seriously.   
4) Wet feet are actually good for me.  When I wore my shoes tighter wet feet meant more blisters. With thicker, high quality running socks of the sort mentioned above and with lubrication on the feet (and even without, though the skin sake seems to also keep my feet from turning into prunes after 20 wet hours) wetness seems to just provide extra lubrication and keep the temperature of my skin down.  Surely you've notice the skin feels hot before it blisters?  That a blister from running looks like a burn?  Not entirely coincidental.  Once I sorted out all of the above stuff I found that wet feet ceased to be a problem which is good because you never know what it will do on race day.  What about water proof shoes?   You can try them but expect hot feet.  Also, expect that if you do have to cross a creek (I prefer courses where this is likely because that's the kind of trail race I love most) and water gets over the top of your shoe it will not drain.  No fun at all.  Its also possible for it to rain so much that rain gets into your shoe.  Gamble all you want, if its a race I prefer to sprint right across the creek without worrying about it.  At lower paces and especially in the snow a waterproof shoe may still make sense for some runners.  I just wear all mountain or thick ski socks and older, slightly stretched out shoes.
5) Blisters can be dangerous.  If a blister tears open and then you blister again underneath so that you have gone through most if not all of your skin then you can wind up with a situation as dangerous as a third degree burn.  This has never happened to me (very happily).  In this case infection can set in and spread and turn into cellulitis which can land you in the hospital on IV antibiotics and losing tissue.  First, take your blisters seriously if they are broken.  Keep them clean and covered.  Second, if you are at all nervous about infection but not ready to seek immediate medical intervention then take a pen and draw around the blister, outlining everywhere the skin is red/angry pink.  Keep checking the blister.  If the redness spreads over the line you drew you need antibiotics.  You need them right away.  When you get to the doctor, tell them when you put the line around the redness and how quickly it spread over the line so that they will understand the problem.  I hope this never happens to anyone ever but if it does, its gonna be a whole lot easier to deal with the more quickly you get it treated.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Canadian Death Race (yeah, 2 months ago)

    The Canadian Death Race website describes the course as 125 K (77 miles) with 17,000 feet of elevation gain and it isn't much longer or hillier than that.  The views of from the Canadian Rockies outside Grande Cache, Alberta are fantastic although we didn't see any grizzlies or mountain lions.  My running partner Gabe and I stayed together for the whole race, finishing in 21 hours and change, still able to walk and talk.  We were pretty happy and then the race people told us only ten percent of first time solo runners finish at all and we were even happier and then we very, very hungry.
    The night before the race we stayed in tent-city, which is a public park set aside for racers and crew to camp in since the town of Grande Cache doesn't have anywhere near enough housing to accommodate the influx of thousands of people over the August long weekend.  Why is it 'August long weekend'?  I had no idea either but apparently in Canada there's a long weekend every month.  Seriously. 
    When we stopped to pick up snacks at the grocery store the cashier asked whether we were in town for the race.  The same thing happened at the drug store.  At five in the morning, as we ran back into town toward the finish people cheered from under blankets on a few porches.  The entire town of Grande Cache knows about and supports this race and the residents are interested in whether you're running solo or on a relay team.  Most racers run on relay teams and solo runners are considered brave, tough, and maybe a little crazy.
    We planned for the worst, in terms of race support, because we traveled too far to wind up quitting over gear or aid station problems.  It turned out to be a good decision since the aid stations consisted of four water stops with water and interestingly mixed Gatorade, some granola bars, and some lunch box size fruit cups.  The person staffing each of these was invariable friendly and usually able to tell us which of the two jugs on the table contained plain water.  Everyone was friendly.  Other relay teams we'd met on earlier sections began cheering for us as we came into aid station areas calling out “go Ohio couple”!  We're not a couple but we didn't care, strangers cheering you on feels good. 
    As we were beginning section 2, where the course ascends rapidly for several miles, we met one of the guys on the barefoot team.  Not Vibrams, barefoot.  He did have on a couple layers and a nice race pack and a set of trekking poles.  We jokingly offered to trade him shoes for trekking poles since they seemed to be all the rage.  He laughed and then told us politely that we were absolutely crazy  trying to run the whole course solo without trekking poles.  He was in the rockies barefoot but we were crazy.  Then he took off up the mountain.  On a side note, though, trekking poles do require practice, there were pieces of broken trekking poles along all the steeper descents and abandoned bent poles at aid stations.
    So what else did we learn that could be useful to other people? Creeks that run through peat bogs on mountain saddles in 23 mile aids station gaps are safe to drink out of, its been over two weeks now so I'm sure.  Vega brand orange gel does not appeal to me flavor wise but when I ate the one I found on the trail it sat well in my tummy.  Bring a lot of food and spare electrolytes and Gin-gins if you run this or anything with a whole lot of hill.  All that up and down beats up a number of systems.  Without the Gin-gins I'm not so sure I could have kept nutrition in.  I decline to address rumors that I raced after spending a week on antibiotics for strep throat but I will say that should you ever make such a decision, and should it effect your ability to swallow and should gels get real unappealing, you can squirt a couple into your water bottle and shake it up and it works out pretty well IF they're fruit flavored.
    If you do run this race, look at the time cut offs closely!  If you're not way the heck ahead on the first one or two then you're not going to finish the race.  The time cut offs don't make sense (to me anyhow) but the race tracks runners and splits very well so you can look up the splits for solo runners who finished in previous years to get a better idea of where you need to be when.  Gabe and I made one of the cut offs by less than 45 minutes and we thought we were moving pretty well!  Spend a whole lot of time on deadlifts and hill repeats if you want to get through these kinds of 3-6 mile ascents and descents.  Don't lose the damn coin for the boat near the end (people do, we didn't).  You will get disqualified and removed from the course AFTER running most of it and getting over all three mountains.  They are serious about that, very serious eh.
    Here's some more really helpful, learn from others' mistakes if you can type info; when its late at night and you're tired and low on calories and its getting real cold, put on your rain jacket and zip it up.  During the day, when you're not doing much or when you're rested and fed, you can tell when you're getting hypothermic.  At three in the morning I couldn't really tell, I just thought I was really tired, I just thought if I lay down next to the trail for a few minutes I'd feel much better.  Suddenly I remembered that at pre-race they told us a guy did that and hikers found him on the side of the trail the next day, severely hypothermic, dehydrated and delusional. 
    Nothing waterproof breathes well no matter what the label says, so if you can manage to keep moving, you'll get much warmer in your rain jacket even if its really thin.  I was still tired once I got warm but not sleepy and I suddenly had more interest in running and drinking my water/gel mix.  Set this information in your mind well so you'll remember it because if you're still reading this right now then there's a reasonable chance cold night time running is in your future. 
    The last part of the race that sticks with me, other than the finish, was seeing what I was dreaming as I shuffled along.  I figured out that the huge, black horse wasn't there because nobody would let a ten year old girl go riding at three in the morning and anyhow my headlamp didn't reach that far.  I figured it out all on my own and it entertained the heck out of Gabe when I explained how that proved I was mentally okay but next time I run a race like this I think I'll find a way to get more sleep the night before!