Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pickle Juice: A study with a sample size of one

Yesterday I bought two jars of pickles.  And not just any pickle.   I bucked up and paid for the “all natural, no preservatives” kind that set me back $7.99 a jar.  I am not really a fan of pickles, but that doesn’t matter.  Pickles and specifically pickle juice seems to be all the rage of the ultra running world as a way to “instantly relieve” muscle cramps.

I first hear about using pickle juice to alleviate cramps while I was at an ultra in Montana, Old Gabe (beautiful course, one to put on the list!).  At the finish, the RD, Tom Hayes, kindly offered me some pickles.  “No thanks, sounds terrible” is what I said. But curious, I asked why there would be pickles at an aid station, as it seemed like an unlikely food to offer.  Salty yes, but there is where the cravings would appear to end.  Tom told me that there have been studies showing that pickle juice immediately alleviates muscular cramps.    Must be the salt, I said.  But he countered that the research is showing that the pickle juice works at the nerve level, somehow inhibiting the impulse to the muscle to contract.  But since he didn’t have the research paper in hand, this is where speculation started.

Since then I’ve been bouncing the idea off of other athletes – professional mountain bikers and triathletes, fishing for some info and to see if anyone has tried it.  One speculated maybe it’s the vinegar that acts as an alkalizing substance in the body.  Another, because he had heard of using mustard to alleviate cramps, thought it might be a shared ingredient such as turmeric.  But 0 for about 10 on test subjects.

So, being the smart ultra runner that I am, and knowing I had the Vermont 100 coming up three weeks after the Montana race, I did nothing to either research or test out the pickle juice theory until the day before the Vermont 100.  Although I usually don’t have any problems with muscular cramps during races I knew that the conditions at Vermont would be humid and possibly quite hot, I thought pickle juice might be a nice back up strategy.   

With temperatures in the 90’s and the air feeling like you could cut it with a knife, I went to the store in Vermont and stocked up on jars of pickles (dill, not sweet).    I then disposed of the pickles and put all the pickle juice into one large left over orange juice container and instructed my crew to offer a cup at every crew point with my theory being “Why wait for cramping to set in if I could potentially head it off.”

On race day, temps hit a high of 91 with 65 percent humidity.  I stuck to my normal electrolyte routine, but then I added in the pickle juice.  At 40, 50, and 70 miles I managed to get down two, maybe three ounces of pickle juice.    I can’t say it was a pleasant and sought after taste experience.  Then at mile 80 my taste buds revolted.  I took a swig and then immediately spit it back up.  There was no way I was getting any down.  But, I was also not experiencing any cramps.   And I ran a course record on a very hot day with an un heat conditioned body.  Interesting.  I have to say though, I have never vomited during or after an ultra, but after Vermont, there was profuse vomiting.  Don’t know why.    But pickle juice was definitely a suspect.

So, I forgot about pickle juice until this week.  Since my race in France, my legs have not been their normal self.  They have felt heavy and full, even though they seem to be able to run well.  I surmised it must be some level of depletion from my hypothermic episode.  But no amount of hydration or electrolytes seems to address the issue.  To top it off, in Flagline 50k, even though I was following my normal hydration and electrolyte strategy, I experienced some muscle spasms – something that has never happened to me in a race. 

So, I bought two jars of pickles, saddled up to my laptop and started doing research by googling “Pickle juice cramping.”  Frankly, the mystery is still unsolved.  Many articles point to a recent study done on 10 healthy college aged males at Brigham Young University in Utah.  You can read about it here in a NY Times blog.

Basically the subjects cycled until they lost 3 percent of their body weight through perspiration.  Then one big toe was hooked up to a device that sent an electric impulse, which induced a cramp.   In the subjects that drank pickle juice, their cramps were relieved in 85 seconds.  For the poor souls drinking only water, their cramps lasted 134 seconds. 

But apparently scientists are at odds at what in the pickle juice is responsible for the relief of cramping.    After further exploring the issue, there are also many varying points of view as to what actually starts cramping – is it tired muscles, is it dehydration, is it a loss of electrolytes? 

I found one article to be very interesting and in my unscientific mind, maybe a building block for the pickle juice mystery.

According to Health 911 “Cramps are sometimes caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates your muscles to work. Mustard and pickle juice both have acetic acid which helps the body make more acetylcholine. ”  A quick search on the web identifies vinegar as also having acetic acid.   Looking up acetylcholine confirms it is involved in the function of muscle contractions through the nervous system.

In my grand study of one (myself), I decided to see if maybe my body was lacking acetic acid – again in my mind, tied back to my hypothermic experience in France.  So five days after Flagline 50k, I planned on doing a track workout.  I bought the pickles with the intention of drinking the pickle juice the day before the track workout.  My muscles were still funky, so I thought what do I have to lose? 

As I opened the jar and smelled the smell of pickle juice, I had flashbacks to Vermont.  I realized I couldn’t just drink the juice, so I ate two pickles.  A couple of hours later, my stomach wasn’t right.  I felt nauseated and thought I’d have to cancel the workout the next day.  A good nights sleep seemed to help out, but I still could not bear to drink the pickle juice with my breakfast.  So I reached for the apple cider vinegar.  I figured one teaspoon of vinegar was more palatable than two ounces of pickle juice.  So I added some water and down it went.  Horrible.  My eight year old daughter asked me why I didn’t like the wine I was drinking, and I quickly corrected her to tell her it was vinegar, not wine.  I could just see her telling her playmates that I drank some bad wine for breakfast.  

The nastiness of the vinegar didn’t linger too long in my mouth and didn’t cause the nausea that the pickles seemed to cause.  I headed out to the track about an hour later.  Warming up I kept assessing my legs…do they feel normal?…do they feel heavy?…I wouldn’t know until I actually got on the track.  And a pleasant surprise it was.  My legs were back to normal!!!    Solid track workout, no muscle spasms, just smooth contractions.  Very unscientific, no placebos, no control group, just me.  Could it have been coincidence?  Or did the vinegar really work?  Being cautiously optimistic… I vote for the vinegar.    

Monday, September 27, 2010

Flagline 50k - USATF National Championships for 50k Trail

The last thing you want to hear someone say at mile 28 of a 31-mile race is “you’re going the wrong way.”    “Shit” really is the only proper response.  Which is exactly what I said when I ran into Jeff Browning on his mountain bike when he uttered this simple, factual yet annoying statement. 

I was really looking forward to finishing with no drama. 

I asked what the lead men had done, and Jeff said they just continued on, which is what I also chose to do.  Although the altered course would take us almost an extra mile out of our way and require more climbing, it seemed better than the anguish of retracing our steps, adding two miles to the course.   In my mind, I rationalized that a course official had sent me on this route, which is where the mix up was for all the leaders.  Apparently he had received some incorrect information and was routing runners down the wrong trail.   Only one other runner was routed the wrong way, and then the race management changed the flagging to the correct route.

The Flagline 50k started under a beautiful cloudless blue sky near Mount Bachelor, about 20 miles south west of Bend, Oregon.    Last weekend I ran a half marathon under dark clouds and occasional drizzle.  This was enough to give me flashbacks to my France hypothermic debacle (see previous posts), so I was happy and smiling at the 50k start.  Although not quite warm, with temps around forty-five at the start, the day warmed up beautifully into the seventies by the finish.

This was the inaugural run of the Flaglane 50k, and it was also playing host to the USATF National 50k Trail Running Championships. From looking at the course profile, I thought the race would be decided on the second major climb at around 20 miles.  Starting at around 6,000 feet, the climb ascends “only” 1,000 feet total.  But as I found with the entire course, it was hard to get into a rhythm on the trail because of dips in the terrain, numerous turns, and creek crossings.  

I believe most of the trails in the area were built by Central Oregon Trail Alliance whose primary membership for it’s formative years were in mountain biking but is quickly expanding their membership to include runners and hikers.   Some of the race proceeds were going to COTA because COTA is the foundation for trail building in Central Oregon.  It seems mountain bikers generally don’t like to ride in a straight line, thus swervey curves in the trail.  It’s fun to run on this type of terrain, but it requires constant shifting of gears for runners and takes us out of the rhythm of the just running in a straight line.  But that is what roads are for, and why we love to trail run, right?

The course hit some of the best trails that the “high country” in the area has to offer.  Runners and mountain bikers alike revere the Flagline trail because it is closed until August 15th every year for elk calving.  Not taking a pounding for the full season means the trail is covered with a soft base of pine needles. It’s not rutted out like the lower trails, and it has beautiful rock formations lining the route.  The second trail favorite that the race covers is a pristine section of the Metolius Windigo Trail.  This is the trail that climbs out of Happy Valley at mile 20.  And this is where I tend to excel in races, feeling comfortable grinding into the next gear and getting up the hill while most of the runners around me are trying to survive the climb. 

I was happy to finally see the finish, especially since the reroute dealt me with a steady uphill climb for the last two miles on the Cascade Lakes Highway.    Apparently not only did I win the women’s open, but I also was dubbed the fist old person (over forty) male or female, across the finish line.    I never really think of myself as a Masters, but when I can be in front of all the over forty men out there, I’ll take that title too.

I then heard about the drama of the men front-runners.  Apparently after being misrouted in the last three miles, the men disbursed and went separate ways because they were not within sight of each other.  At the point of the misrouting, Erik Skaggs was about a minute and a half in front of Max King.  But, since Max is from the area, he knew how to get back to the finish.  When he arrived at the finish line, he realized none of the other misrouted runners had showed up, and he waited,  something like twenty mintues, not willing to cross the finish line until the others found their way in.  Then he graciously took second place, handing the win to Erik.  First class move by a first class runner.

This was the first Ultra distance race put on by Super Dave’s SuperFit productions, and it was beautifully executed with only one hiccup being the misrouted front runners.   Flagline 50k is definitely one to put on the list for next year.

Here’s a link to the top 25 finishers:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Finishing the CCC: Hardest or dumbest thing I’ve ever done?

It was a dark and stormy night in the Alps around Mount Blanc…really it was.  The one hundred and three mile race Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc  UTMB had been cancelled, and in a few more hours, the sixty plus mile race I was in the midst of running for the last 11+ hours was also going to be cancelled because of the extreme weather conditions.  This would have been good information to have, as I climbed up and over the pass connecting the town of Trient to Vallorcine.    A couple of hours earlier, I noticed I was getting a little cold on the climb over Bovine from Champex to Trient because of the relentless wind and rain.  But, as soon as I descended the 2500 feet into Trient, I soon forgot about the chill on the ridgeline as the valley temperatures were closer to 50 degrees and the protection of the trees kept the heavy rain and wind at bay.  Here is where I would make a critical mistake that would cost me the race. 

I felt strong and confident that I could win this race.   The course had taken us over four other major passes ranging from 7000 feet to 8500 feet, and then back down into the small villages that lined the valley that surrounded Mt Blanc, settling in at the valley floor around 4,000 to 5000 feet.  I had run a solid 45 miles, and was ready to put myself into race mode and make my move on the final two climbs and descents that would bring me into Chamonix,.  I felt confident that I could  put distance on Maud Giraud, French trail running champion, who was my primary competition in the Courmanyer –Champex - Chamonix (CCC).

A quick in and out at the aid station in Trient proved to be that critical mistake.  I felt a little sluggish on the downhill into Trient probably because of the chill on the ridgeline and the realization that I hadn’t been eating or drinking my normal amounts.  The constant onslaught of the weather took me off my well-oiled race strategy of fluids, calories and electrolytes .  I should have taken the time to change out of my wet clothes and put on a base layer, load up on food and drink but Maud was also in the aid station at the same time.  I got caught up in the carnival like atmosphere that surrounds these key check points.  It was a race to see who would exit first. 

About an hour of climbing the pass out of Trient, I hit the ridge line around 7000 feet, right about the time the UTMB race, which started at 6.30pm, was being cancelled,.  Rain drops the size of nickels were coming down in buckets.  I quickly put on my waterproof coat, and struggled to stay on the trail as the wind gusts made it impossible to run a straight line.  My body temperature was quickly dropping.  I looked around for a place to stop and put on the extra layer I had stashed in my backpack, but there was not a place to get out of the rain and wind.  The small chill that started turned into shivering as I realized I was in a dangerous position.  Must find shelter.  Typically at the top of each pass stood a stripped down checkpoint, maybe a tent or a tarp with no real supplies, just someone to scan in your number.  I knew I must be close to one, so I put my head down and tried to move forward in the rain.   

I had been in similar situations facing hypothermia twice before in my life – once in my twenties when I was on the swim leg of an Olympic distance National Championship Triathlon in Lake Mead, Nevada.    A cold storm moved in the day before the race.  I was one of the few racers who chose to go without a wetsuit, and found myself off course in the 3-foot swells, and fighting for my life. I was bordering on unconsciousness when a boat pulled me out of the water.  I earned a ride in an ambulance, an IV and complete depletion for days afterward.   I specifically remember my mental talk going from competitor to survivor.  The only difference in this situation was that I wasn’t swimming, and wasn’t risking drowning although I was as soaked as I would have been swimming.    While running, I took a moment to reflect on how thankful I was that I wasn’t swimming. 

After what seemed like too long, I saw what I thought was a giant white tent.  Stoked, I made my way toward it.  Then it vanished, absorbed by the cloud and fog that made up this hallucination.    Finally, after what I felt was a long spell, I saw a tarp set up that was open on three sides, but tilted in the direction that protected the volunteers from the driving wind and rain.  As I approached, they looked at me curiously and asked a question in French.  All I could say was “hot tea”.  Thankfully they had a large thermos of warm  sugary tea.  I set myself down on the only chair and drank eagerly, my hands shaking as I tried not to spill the tea on myself.  There were no other supplies, no blankets, and no food, only tea.  I started to peel off my wet layers as best I could and struggled to get into my extra layers – leggings and a nylon jacket.    Knowing that this post was no place to hang out as night descended on the ridgeline, I knew I had to get down to the valley where I would meet my crew and drop out.  

Forever and a day is what it felt like it took me to go the five miles down to Vallercine.  I could not get my legs to move.  I was still chilled, but warmer than I was out on the ridge.  My head was foggy and I struggled to stay focused on the trail.    Night was falling, so I stopped and pulled out my headlamp.    It seemed like people were flying by me.  Most asked if I was OK, and I would nod, confident I would make it, but also looking forward to ending the race. 

My running diminished to a plodding walk.  I was about five minutes behind Maud on the ridgeline, but that then turned to 30 minutes as I sat in the shelter, pounding tea and then plodding down into Vallercine, the 50-mile point in the 61-mile race.

My crew of Ben and Sven, two product managers from The North Face Europe office, two all together great guys, were concerned but encouraging as I entered Vallercine.  “I’m too cold on the ridgelines, and I fear the next two…I can’t stay warm” I said as I shivered in the aid station.  “I’m wasted and can’t run.”  “I want to stop” is what I kept telling myself, but I couldn’t say it out loud.  “Let’s get you dry, let’s change your clothes, you’re so close, you can’t stop now”.   I knew I only had somewhere between 10 – 12 miles to go…nothing really. I took off my soaking clothes, did a complete change, put on four layers on top, ate bread sausage, drank cup after cup of hot tea and grudgingly set out again.  At least I had a chance of being  warm and I was fed.    Only a few more miles, shouldn’t take long, maybe I can warm up and start running again. 

The second time I found myself in a near hypothermic state at an endurance race was a 100k race in the Marin Headlands with unusual driving wind and rain.  I was staying on the edge of warm until the moment I ran through what appeared to be a mud puddle but turned into a deep pool.  It went from ankle to thigh deep in one step, and I found myself face down and totally submerged.  My “OK but wet” state quickly changed to “cold and starting to shiver.”  Again, turning from a competitor to just wanting to survive, I was able to see my crew in about a mile.  After clothing change and the addition of a heavy jacket, I trudged on.  It took 20 miles to get my energy back, but when it came back, it roared back.  And I ended up winning.  So I knew it was possible to come back from a deep chill,  I thought I just needed to be patient.

Four hours is what it took me to cover the last eleven miles.  In that four-hour period, I saw an amazing almost full moon peek through the thick fog and clouds.  I walked in what seemed like a river for a really long time.  I followed the light of a headlamp which I thought must be a check point, up to the top of a ridge, only to find a man holding out a cup of tea speaking to me in French.    As I reached for the cup, he pulled it away and said in English “the trail is down there” pointing with the now withdrawn steaming mug. 

On the downhill I thought I could let gravity do it’s trick, and just let my legs roll.  But they refused.  The downhill’s turned into the same slow walk as the uphill, I was toast.    At the last aid station, La Flegere, I took the time to change the batteries in my headlamp, not knowing how long it was going to take me to cover the last 7k of downhill.     I must have looked as trashed as I felt.  The ladies manning the station insisted that I drink  a cup of chicken noodle soup.  It sounded terrible, but I didn’t have the energy to refuse.  So I drank it in one gulp, and then ended up re-experiencing it LIFO style - - Last in First Out after I crossed the finish line. 

I keep asking myself why I became hypothermic…I’ve woken up in a 7 degree tent at 17,000 feet with a wind storm raging around me (Denali), I’ve been on the Alaskan Tundra pulling a 40 pound sled in minus 30 degree conditions in the middle of the night (Iditerod).  I live in Oregon where a mid winter runs happen in snowstorms with temps can hovering in the low teens.  But when it comes to heavy rain and running, or open water swimming in extreme conditions, I just don’t have the body fat to fight off the cold.  Something I need to remember, and I know I won’t soon forget.

Although a disappointment, finishing third female in the CCC maybe one of my all time “hardest thing I’ve ever done.”  Maybe dumbest too, as I was trashed for the next couple of weeks more so than  any other endurance race I’ve run.    But as any ultra runner’s mindset, maybe it was just good training -  running after a hypothermic experience seemed equivalent to carrying a refrigerator on my back for the remainder of the race.  Wonder how strong it made me.