The Ethics of Defying Gravity

Maybe it’s my age (I’m 40 this year). Or the fact that I came to running later in life and my body is still adapting. Whatever the cause, I tend to get injured on an annoyingly frequent basis. After running a successful half marathon race at Napa to Sonoma, I managed to strain my high hamstring just days later. I’m working on achieving a fast marathon time at the upcoming Ventura Marathon on September 7, so — as it probably seems to most people whenever they get injured — the timing could not have been worse. The very next week was to be the start of an almost 90 mile training effort. How could I possibly do the daily double-digit easy runs let alone the speedwork or the long run/tempo run combo that my training plan required on a bum hamstring? Enter the Alter G.

I’ve been seeing the fantastic folks over at the San Diego Running Institute (SDRI) since my calf injury in May. One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with medical professionals as a runner is that most of the time they just advise taking weeks off coupled with physical therapy. SDRI is different, and encourages runners to continue doing what they love to the extent they are able to without exacerbating the injury. For me, that meant continuing to run on easy days at whatever pace my body dictates as acceptable. I was surprised to find that my body could indeed handle the stress of running at a slightly modified easy pace even the day after my hamstring injury. Granted, this injury was much milder than my calf tear had been, so the program could be a little more aggressive. As runners, though, isn’t that just what we want when injured: to be able to continue doing the maximum running possible while minimizing the risk of further damage?

Off to one side of the SDRI clinic is an area dedicated to a unique kind of treadmill called an Alter G. I had been intrigued about this from the moment I saw it, but now I had a reasonable excuse to check it out (and justify paying the associated cost). I was told that it would be perfect for the intervals and tempo runs I had planned, work which would be all but impossible otherwise until further healing took place. I quickly scheduled my time. The idea of losing a week of faster runs this close to the marathon was distressing, even depressing. Here, in all its glory, was a solution.

The Alter G works in ways best explained by the folks who invented it, but essentially, it allows you to run in a pressurized air chamber from the waist down, which has the effect of reducing your body weight and allowing for much lower physical stress when running. When the day came, I stepped into the modified wet-suit style shorts, into the chamber, and zipped in. Since my intent was to run for injury rehab rather than as a supplement to regular training, my weight was reduced to about 70% of normal (I think many people run at closer to 90%+ for regular training benefits). The chamber filled with air, and I felt as though I was being lifted up. When I started running, it was nothing less than extraordinary.

My intervals called for a two-mile warm up, 10x 1k repeats at about a 5:45 pace (with two min rest), and a 2-3 mile cool down. As I started the first interval, it quickly became apparent that I was going to need to increase the pace substantially. It was just too easy. I finally settled on a 5:27 pace, but only because this was the maximum leg turnover I felt comfortable with given the injury, even with the reduced weight. Cardiovascularly speaking, I may as well have been running a 10 min mile. My mouth was closed, my breathing normal. I could converse fully. In that respect, it was not a particularly noteworthy or productive workout. On the other hand, below the waist, my legs were spinning at a pace I would not normally be able to hold for 800s, let alone 1k. It took a little focus, but within a few seconds I got into the rhythm and it felt great. My legs had an amazing workout, even if my heart and lungs were missing out on the action.

Tomorrow, I’m going to do the long run with the tempo segment. This involves running 22 miles, with the first 12 and last two at an easy effort and the middle eight at tempo pace. Since the tempo portion won’t require the same kind of leg turnover as Wednesday’s speed workout, I’m thinking I’ll probably be able to run it on a greater body weight in order to try to tax the cardio systems a little more. I’ll have to adjust on the day based on how it all feels, but one thing I know for sure is that I’ll be able to run the tempo portion much faster than my normal pace.

Since my time on the Alter G is a temporary measure, intended to allow my training to continue while injured, and since my maximum leg turnover is limited by the injury even with reduced weight, I feel (mostly) comfortable that I’m not crossing into an ethical grey zone in using it. It did make me think, though, that if I had the resources and the inclination to routinely use this machine while perfectly healthy, I am quite sure it would have a dramatically positive effect on my running ability. Quickly. At the same time, would doing so be fair?

A tangled set of arguments can be made. The Alter G is widely available, albeit at a cost, to many runners across the country willing to seek it out (I drive a 2.5 hour round trip to use mine). Its use is not banned by any athletic association I’m aware of. Many pros use them — most famously, Alberto Salazar and the runners of the Nike Oregon Project. The technology uses the physics of air pressure to assist running. Regular old air. What could be more pure than that? Still, it confers a distinct advantage to those who use it, something I believe is only fully appreciated when a runner actually tries the machine and experiences how profoundly easier running becomes. It’s expensive (even on an hourly use basis), but so are many things that runners regularly use, such as special recovery drinks, and shoes, and, yes, even coaching services — things they believe offer them an advantage over the choices of other runners. Some of these may be only as effective as placebos, but undoubtedly some do confer an edge. In this way, we are lying to ourselves if we think the playing field is ever truly even.

The upshot is that when I first experienced the instantly gratifying, wondrous, weightless sensation of the Alter G, I fell deeply, madly in love. If you just close your eyes, it feels like everything running is supposed to be. It is effortless, flowing, fast, and powerful. It wasn’t until I was driving home in my car that doubt about the ethics of using it started to creep in. As with many things this thorny, I don’t think there is any one right answer, but I’m curious to know what others think.

Has anyone else tried the Alter G? Whether you’ve tried it or not, what do you think about the philosophical implications of using it?

Alter G shot


Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon Race Report

Eyes fixed firmly on the clock at the finish line (Photo: Finisher Pix)

Eyes fixed firmly on the clock at the finish line (Photo: Finisher Pix)

Oh man. They got me. One solid road race performance and all I can think is, I wanna do that again. Faster.

It doesn’t hurt that this is undoubtedly one of the coolest half marathon races going. Wine country? Yep. Elite athlete field with — in running circles at least — household name appearances? Got that. Gorgeous scenery? Uh-huh. Fast course? Well, ask new course record holder Sara Hall, who ran an impressive 1:13:16 or defending four-time champ Tesfaye Alemayehu who ran a 1:03:22, and holds the men’s course record of 1:02:38, and I’d venture to say, yes, the course is fast. Just enough spectators to make you feel appreciated and add an energy boost? Definitely. Rare combo of a small town feel, but decent sized race? Yeah, it’s got that too. Apparently there’s also a pretty awesome party on the Sonoma town Plaza after the event, but I had a plane to catch. Next time.

The race begins at Cuvaison winery, with truly awe-inspiring views of rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see. It would be a good way to start, well, anything. The day before, I had driven the course and to be honest it made me a smidge nervous. They don’t call that first incline “butt burner” for nothing. Says an ultrarunner. But you know what? On the day, it barely registered. I should have known. I frequently find hills that seem intimidating from the perspective of car windows are much easier on foot. Plus, since the hill occurs at the very start of the course – with, thank you very much, a nice down-slope leading in to it to get turnover going — I felt like I just floated right up and over. It didn’t hurt that for a few seconds at least I was running only a little behind Runner’s World columnist, 5000m specialist and Oiselle pro athlete Lauren Fleshman. That’s pretty decent motivation, even if I had to cool it after that so as not to race the first few miles like a 5k, which would have spelt disaster. The few rollers that followed were fairly gentle, and net downhill. There was plenty of stunning scenery to distract if you looked, but the truth is, most of the time I was so focused on my race, my breathing, my pacing, that it all went by in a blur. A shame really, but I’d had the whole week in Napa to enjoy wine country already.

My coaches had emphasized the importance of trying to negative split the race, that is, to run the second half faster than the first. Wise advice, especially since my tendency is to go out burning hot and find I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. It’s simply lack of experience, ridiculous enthusiasm for this incredible sport and, yes, unwarranted over-confidence. I’m getting better. Still, I imagine it’s something I’ll always struggle with, particularly over shorter distances which seem deceptively “easier” somehow — which in reality, of course, they are not.

Each mile took focus and concentration to sustain the effort, but I felt in control and capable of more, more, more. Then, right around mile 7, I started to feel an uneasiness in my stomach. Having dealt with some monster stomach issues in the past, this made me, let’s just say, a tad anxious. The plan was to take my one and only gel around mile eight. Aid stations were spaced around miles 7.5 and 8.5 for this portion of the course. If I was going to take my gel as scheduled, I had to choose an aid station, since I wanted a gulp of water to accompany my gel. I took a gamble that the nausea was simply the very beginning stages of fatigue or an indication of my effort-level and that the gel could help, so I downed it right before the 7.5 mile aid station, grabbing some water on the way out. I have great faith in my gels, which has been a real trial and error process for me  — mostly a series of big, ugly errors — and now that I have found ones that work it makes taking a risk with a dodgy tummy at least plausible. (In case you’re wondering, I use VFuel gels and have never, not once, suffered stomach issues with them no matter the pace. Also, no, they don’t sponsor me but, yes, wouldn’t that be lovely. Hey, a gal can dream). Miraculously, the gel settled my stomach and I continued on my way feeling better than ever and determined to keep up the pace until the finish line.

I’ve been reading a lot about mental conditioning for races lately. It’s a topic that fascinates me, especially since I tend to struggle deeply with negativity toward the end of an ultra. I was determined to push any unproductive thoughts away the moment they entered my head. I kept telling myself all manner of reasonably cheesy self-cheerleading things like “you got this!” “stay strong” “make it happen” and my personal favorite “how bad do you want it?” (oh, I want it bad). You know what? Not one single negative thought successfully crept in. I did stay strong. I did make it happen. On that day, I gave what I had to give. I even negative split (who, me? yes, me!).

Now that the race is over, I can’t wait to do it all again at November’s Temecula Wine Country Half Marathon — only, you know, faster.

1:22:54 (PR)

With Olympian, 2014 Boston Marathon winner, and all-around amazing/inspirational human being, Meb Keflezighi

With Olympian, 2014 Boston Marathon winner, and all-around amazing/inspirational human being, Meb Keflezighi

With 2nd place finisher Lauren Fleshman. Who is also pretty darn awesome.

With 2nd place finisher Lauren Fleshman. Who is also pretty darn awesome.

Pounding Pavement

I get the impression trail runners aren’t always thought of as serious athletes outside of the trailrunning and ultra community. Undoubtedly, many ‘normal’ runners might wonder, why go for a slower time on the trail when you could be honing your speed on the track and setting a blazing time in a half marathon or 10k? I think this completely misses the point — it takes a different skill set altogether to run mountain terrain well. Still, on one level it makes sense. There’s a lot to be gained from the discipline of a traditional approach to running that includes intervals and tempos runs, and that type of structure is easy to neglect when miles of gorgeous single-track are calling. Sure, being fast is no guarantee of trail and ultra success, but at least at in distances up to 50 miles I do think it carries over and offers a distinct advantage. You can see what I mean if you look at recent trends in ultrarunning, with 2:26 Olympic marathoner Magdalena Lewy-Boulet and 2:32 marathoner Emily Harrison setting blistering paces at ultra distances up to 50 miles. Or take the road-fast, but largely ultra-newbie Nike men’s trail team similarly kicking ultra-butt when they emerged on the scene this year.

I’m going to make a confession. I sort of skipped the road part on my journey to ultrarunning.  When I started running, again, after several half-hearted similar attempts over the years, it was on the treadmill. In the garage. Hey, it got the job done while the kids were napping.  With my husband’s encouragement, I finally decided to check out the 44 miles of hilly, technical state park trails located less than a mile from our home that I vaguely knew existed. It was such a revelation for this (at the time) full-time mama. That first run, and the countless that followed, were such life-affirming, ‘oh-my-god-the-outdoors-is-amazing!’ and ‘oh-how-wonderful-it-is-to-experience-serenity!’ experiences that they quite literally made me want to dash over and hug the nearest tree. I became an addict. The crack was free, my adoration boundless. Needless to say, the roads barely got a look-in and my dear husband probably wishes he’d never mentioned it.

Soon, with the encouragement of a surprisingly ‘strong to the last’ and reasonably successful 50k debut behind me (5th at the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k Championships in Marin), I moved up to 50-milers. These also went better than I could ever have guessed they would, with top-ten finishes at two national-class Montrail Ultra Cup Races, Santa Monica’s Sean O’Brien (8th) and Sonoma County’s Lake Sonoma (10th). Remember, I’m just a 39-year old Mom who likes to run trails. I never expected that I might actually become even remotely decent at it. Then, the combination of a fortuitous association with half-marathon race company Destination Races via an old book-club friend and a calf tear at my latest 50-miler (Ice Age) invited me to take a temporary step back from trail-mania. I decided maybe it was time to go back to basics and give the asphalt a little love too. After all, I reasoned, any speed I might gain can only help the ultras I have planned for later in the year.

So it is that I find myself training for Destination Race’s Napa to Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon (July 20), the Ventura Marathon (September 7) and the inaugural Temecula Wine Country Half Marathon (November 15). I’ve done a couple of these race distances before, but this time I’m actually training for them, not just running them on a whim because there happens to be a road race up the street next week and I thought it might resemble a tempo run. I even started thinking I might be able to get kinda fast (this is a relative term, mind). On a really, really good day in my July half-marathon, a top five finish, perhaps?

Then, the press release went out. I mean, the Napa-Sonoma Half has always attracted a strong field, but I had no idea that the likes of Olympian Ryan Hall, his wife, elite speedster Sara Hall, Runner’s World columnist/elite 5000m meter specialist Lauren Fleshman and a bunch of other pros would be lining up come race day this year. Paced by Olympians Meb Keflezighi and Mary Decker Slaney on Elliptigos, no less! That’s a lot of Olympians. For crying out loud, these people have their own Wikipedia pages. And then there’s — you know — me. HA! Humbling, to say the least. Well, maybe it will provide additional motivation to PR, now that my admittedly always rather optimistic hopes of a top-end finishing place have been well and truly eviscerated. Joking aside and much more importantly, it will be a true honor to line up somewhere near-ish, but definitely a wide berth back from, these amazing and inspiring professionals who will leap at the gun and make my pace look like I’m standing still.

With my calf tear healed and a decent chunk of training in the bank, my only question remaining is, which shoes should I wear on race day? Have readers tried any of the racier Newtons? I’m in love with the Gravity IIIs* and the Distance IIIs*, but haven’t tried any of their racing offerings. Alternatively, I’ve had good success with Brooks T-7 racers — well, except for that blister they always give me on my right foot. Suggestions and comments most welcome!

Training in the rolling hills of Temecula's wine country: could be worse!

Training in the rolling hills of Temecula’s wine country: could be worse!


*Full disclosure: I received one comp pair each of the Gravity’s and Distance’s in relation to my role as an Ambassador for Destination Races (with no expectation that they be so much as mentioned here or in any other context). No matter. It doesn’t change the fact that these are hands down my favorite road training shoes ever. I honestly love them about 10x more than any other road running shoes I have tried and fully intend to plonk down my own $$ on my next pairs. I also don’t plan to race a half marathon in either model, since I tend to go pretty minimal on race day.