Thursday, December 13, 2012

Looking for some inspiration

Nikki Kimball showing us how it's done

Every Sunday night I sit down with my husband and 10 year old daughter to watch a movie.  We started “movie” night a few months ago with the realization that the quality of movie selection in Hong Kong is not spectacular, and that we enjoy a good, engaging film every once and a while.  The rules are simple:  each week, the selection rotates amongst the three of us.  If you pick a bad flick, then you can be “voted out” – meaning you lose your turn the next round.  So far this form of peer pressure seems to keep the quality high and the competitive juices flowing.  We primarily choose our movies from Netflix, and they typically are documentaries, independent films and nature based films. 

My themes when choosing movies are either sports documentaries or some mix of culture and history, (note,  I haven’t been voted out yet).  I am constantly looking for inspiring stories, especially stories involving sports.   If there is a female role model in the film, all the better.  But the list of inspiring sport movies involving women is short.  Very short.    We’ve watched  Soul Surfer, the story of Bethany Hamilton, which was good, not great.  The biggest shortfall of this movie was that it didn’t feature Bethany herself.  The lead role was giving to a rail thin blonde who didn’t really look like she could paddle out beyond a break.  We do have Lindsey Vonn’s documentary on our list to watch.  And we’ve surfed up some sport movies about women soccer players.  But that’s about it. 

The list of sport documentaries involving men is long – and interesting.  We laughed hard during Running the Sahara.  Cried at Touching the Void.  Laughed again at Men Who Swim.  Yawned a little bit with a documentary on the Appalachian Trail. 

Point is though, that we are lacking good quality inspirational films about women athletes.  Real athletes.  I want a movie that shows us the level of dedication it takes to be the best.  I want to ride the roller coaster of emotions , see and hear the story of what it is to push the hardest and achieve great things.  Things that men haven’t done.    I want Finding Traction  to, well, find some traction. 
This film is about Nikki Kimball, one of the most successful ultra runners in history, taking on 273 miles of technical and challenging trail, The Long Trail, in record time.  I want to see the story of what makes her tick, of how she trains, of where she finds inspiration.  I want to see it and I want my daughter to see it, and I want my daughter’s friends to see it.  I want my nieces and nephews to see it.   I want them to know that women, real women with jobs and relationships, are out there doing great things.  We all are looking for inspiration.  The story is there, like many of the stories of great women athletes; it just needs to make it to the screen. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Going Against the Grain

Farewell my friend
A couple of months ago I bid farewell to my morning ritual of toast and eggs or toast and almond butter.  I also kissed goodbye my favorite go to lunchtime meal:  the age old sandwich.  And with a little bit of kicking and screaming, I let go of my standard evening meal accompaniment:  brown rice or quinoa. 
I’ve always been a fan of eating as close to nature as possible, and thought that my diet was fairly “clean,” until a nutritionist friend of mine offered to review a one week log of my diet.   Her advice, after I meticulously documented everything that went into my mouth in a seven day period, was that I had too much sugar in my diet.  I don’t eat a lot of processed sugars, - being only human though, an occasional cookie and maybe some ice cream make their way into my diet.  But that’s occasional, and I don’t sweeten anything with sugar, so how is it that sugars are getting into my diet?  Her answer:  grains.  Brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread – all of these the body treats as sugars and is likely to cause a spike in insulin.  I know, I know, quinoa is a seed, not a grain, but my source informed me that the body treats quinoa similar to rice, and it causes an increase in blood sugar.  Her advice:  eliminate the grains, and increase protein intake and “good fats.”   I was not surprised to hear about the fats, as sometimes when I train hard, for my post workout meal all I can think about is mayonnaise …slathering it on sandwiches, dipping my roasted chicken in it.  I use olive oil generously, and although mayonnaise is not exactly what she meant by adding good fats, it made me realize I need to add more fat to my diet.    I was resistant to eliminating the grains.  Sure, whole wheat bread is easy enough to eliminate– especially here in Asia where most breads, even the “whole grain,” are high gluten sponges that have a similar texture to marshmallows.  But giving up brown rice and quinoa…tough!   How could I survive?  My friend suggested that I persevere, for two weeks only, and if I don’t like the results, go back to my former eating habits. 
Eliminating grains was a very difficult process.  In the first week, I felt like taking a nap on my runs as my body was trying to figure out its fuel source.   Visions of brown rice and quinoa danced in my head.   An apple and nut butter, or eggs on greens didn’t sound appetizing for breakfast when I am used to toast and eggs or toast and nut butter.  But now, I am a convert.    I have eliminated the grains, and quite frankly I feel great. My joint aches are gone, I have less muscle stiffness, and my system seems to be happy.  Once a doubter, I am now a convert.  But what then, I thought to myself, do I take while I am running ultras?  What should be my fuel choice?  Most packaged gels and endurance foods use fructose and or/ simple sugars as an energy source which can create two problems:  1. Spike in blood sugar (great when you are bonking, but may drop you off a cliff after the initial energy surge); and 2.  Can cause stomach issues if taken over a long period of time, something which I am all too familiar.
I went on a search for the right product – as it’s not really reasonable to carry around enough cashews, apples and avocados for fueling during an ultra.  I needed something portable which didn’t spike my blood sugar, and that helped me continue to tap into my fat reserves for fuel while not upsetting my stomach.    I was poking around the internet when I bumped into Vi energy gel.
When I started reading about Vi Energy Gels, I reflected on how sometimes the stars seem to align, and how I suddenly was looking at a product that seemed to be exactly what I needed at the exact right time.  If Vi could deliver on its promises (of whichthere is a long list) , it looked like a full spectrum solution for nutrition while racing.    Unfortunately, actually getting my hands on the product while living in Hong Kong was a problem.  I went on the website and placed an order for a large quantity and put in the notes “will pay extra for shipping.”  We are somewhat desperate here in HK for good sports and nutrition products and it seems like most of the ultra running circle depends on the air mail link between HK and the US for stocking their inventory of necessary high quality running nutrition.    After I attempted to place my order, the website  informed me the company didn’t yet ship out of the USA.  I was crushed!  So I found a “contact us” button and wrote a pleading  e-mail.  Low and behold, this was the start of a great relationship. 
Once the first shipment arrived, I started using Vi on training runs and races.  I have now raced 50k-100k, including a stage race in Nepal, using only Vi.  Here is what I have experienced: 
Smooth energy – Not the energy ups and downs with other gels.  I am the type of person who will set my watch and take a gel on a regular basis – every 30 – 45 min seems to work for me.  With other energy gels, I can tell when I am getting close to the bell – as my energy will start to fade.  But I haven’t experienced this with Vi.  I am reminded by my watch, not my body.
No stomach issues! – I’ve taken 12 gels in a 6 hour race and had zero problems, and I am stomach issue prone.  This is HUGE!!  Cumulatively, I’ve wasted days in the bushes or hampered by nausea and low energy in my eight years of racing, so not having to even think about my stomach is enough to make me leap for joy. 
No muscle soreness – This was the hardest  one for me to comprehend…why was I not showing any signs of soreness after a long run or race while using Vi?    At first I thought it was just a coincidence.  I started used Vi for a weekend of double long training runs.  My first day was mostly steep hills totaling about five hours.  The next day, I went back out for a three plus hour hill intensive training run.  Both days I used only Vi.  My second day out, my legs felt as fresh as the first day.  Wow, I thought, my fitness level must really be building.  How can I not be the least bit sore?    If I solely used Vi then this pattern repeated itself.  As a point of comparison, I supported some friends in 50k of an 80k trail race.  In some races here in HK, support crew can actually run along with a team and carry their supplies.  One of the racers was having a tough day, so the team pace slowed.  Because of the slow pace, I started to get hungry for solid food, so I ate some dried fruit and granola bars.  Even though our pace was slow, it was a hilly, tough course.  The next day I was sore.  I suspect I would not have been sore had I just stuck to Vi. 
The true benefits of recovery when using Vi came through for me in a recent stage race in Nepal.  While I watched everyone around me hobble after each stage, my legs felt fresh.  I was a little stiff, as to be expected from racing hard each day, but no outright soreness.  In the final stage, I was able to run without tightness in my stride or soreness in my quads, which enabled me to tie for the overall win of the last stage and propelled me into second place overall amongst the men. 

Happy and well fueled in Nepal
I asked Michael Hodges, one of the founders behind Vi, if it was my imagination that I wasn’t sore after runs using Vi.  His response was that it is “…specifically the OKG, Citrulline, Magnesium Aspartate, and Potassium Aspartate. Those, working together, do wonders for your muscles. Long story short they reduce, recycle, and remove excess ammonia (created from burning glycogen), which becomes toxic and breaks your muscles down. Flushing this stuff out, especially during long runs or short, intense runs, makes a huge difference in recovery... able to get back out and push the following day.”   This is exactly what I experience when I take Vi.   
I don’t think one needs to be grain free in order to experience the benefits of Vi, but it was the grain free path that led me to this energy solution.  Regarding the grain free diet, as I approach everything else in life, I am not an all or nothing type gal.  I do occasionally have a piece of bread, especially when it’s fresh baked and steaming hot, and I do enjoy the occasional beer (thankfully wine is grain free).  However, I seem to have found a winning combination of eating minimal grains and using Vi for racing.

Update Post Oxfam HK TrailWalker 100k:   I used 20 + Vi gels, + 3 bags of sweet potatoes roasted in coconut oil, and I had no stomach problems!! No nausea, no GI distress,  and solid energy for 14 hours straight.  Could not be happier!  Well, I guess the fact that we as the Blister Sisters broke the ladies record by 2hrs + does make me that much more happy! 

Blister Sisters - myself, Jeanette Holmes, Janet Ng, Claire Price

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reflections of She Who Travels by Foot

Tiger Leaping Gorge, Yunnan Province, China

A year of doing anything new deserves a reflection.  I’ve been in Hong Kong almost exactly one year now.  I’ve had some surprises, met some wonderful people, skimmed the surface of understand Hong Kong Chinese culture, and had some great travels.

Travel by Foot

These feet were meant for walking
I’ll keep my comments here in this post to just trail running, but with one side note.  It’s not cool to “travel by foot” here in HK.   This was one of my first lessons as I was being driven around HK with a local real estate agent.  As I listed off the things that were important to me 1) easy access to the trail system 2) within walking distance of my daughter’s school and 3) walking distance of my husband’s work, I saw her face become more and more concerned.  But given that life is lived in a high rise, there were plenty of housing options.  The real estate agent was confused.  “You like to travel by, by foot?” She said looking down and pointing to her foot.  “Yes, it’s my preferred way, especially since we don’t have a car here.”   She felt obligated to inform this unaware American that in HK, “We do not travel by foot.  We take taxi’s and minibuses, or we drive, but we do not travel by foot.”  Just a reminder here of the class system.  Only those who can not afford a bus or taxi or car must travel by foot.  I appear to be amongst the least fortuned, because walking, even in the heat and humidity, is still my preferred method of transport.  

From a Walk to a Run

What we think of as “Trail” and “Trail Running” in the United States is very different than what I have encountered in Asia.  In the States, our mindset when we hear “trail run, “ especially if we are “trail runners” is that we will encounter a predominately dirt path.  To further our vision, what comes to mind are images of trails created for the purpose of enjoying nature.  Although there are plenty of urban trails in the States, we generally think of trails as those winding through nature or that have a natural setting.  From what I’ve encountered in Hong Kong, Mainland China, and the Chinese Tibetan territory, the definition of trail can be very different. 

Stairway to…Heaven???

Lantau 2 Peaks Profile - doesn't look too bad until you consider those climbs and descents are mostly steps
Hong Kong, being a former British Colony, enjoys a vast National Park and Trail System which was established in the 1970’s under British rule.”   On Hong Kong Island itself, one can run 80+ Km of trails with very little overlap.  Fantastic you say.  Yes, but more than 50% (I think the real number is like 70%, but I am being conservative) of this trail system is concrete or asphalt.  Another large chunk of the interesting trails, the ones that go up and over HK’s many peaks, are chiseled with steps.  Typically concrete steps, sometimes wood with dirt fill, but rarely a hill to climb without steps or asphalt track.   

Last October I ran my first race here – the Lantau 2 Peaks.  Hong Kong’s hardest trail run.  A half marathon.  How tough can that be???  Well, tough enough when you consider most of the 5,000+ ft of gain is on steps.  Ouch.  And the descents are steps too.  There is a little bit of dirt trail thrown in between, but a majority of the race is on steps.  By the 11th mile, there was significant carnage.  Guys lying on the side of the trail holding their quads.  I some how made it through unscathed, but had to pull out of a race two weekends post because my legs were still shot from the down steps running.  Welcome to Hong Kong!!

Mainland China trail running
Terrace Farming in Tiger Leaping Gorge - Yunnan Province, China
Mountains surrounding Tiger Leaping Gorge

Fellow Traveler, Tiger Leaping Gorge
Hong Kong trail running is seemingly unique when compared to the mainland of China.   From what I’ve seen, most of the trails on the Mainland are utilitarian in nature.  The origin of a trail is typically to get from village A to village B.  Herding goats, taking local produce, walking to visit relatives.  I have been on some incredible terrain on the mainland of China, specifically around the Tiger Leaping Gorge. (Action Asia Lijiang 100).  Single track, rugged and smooth, big climbs, steep descents.  Mostly dirt.  Punctuated by 25 goats and a herder, or women carrying what looks like 50 lbs of potatoes on their backs, or trails dropping down into a village, running through a farmer’s bok choy field, rice paddy or apple orchard, then connecting to a trail leading to the next village.  But outside of some hand drawn maps of a touristy section of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, you won’t find a trail map.  So exploring on your own, especially on a short time frame, can be a pretty big swing and a miss.  

Or it can be more of a heart rate work out than you planned on, especially when running in the Chinese Tibetan region of Shangri-La (aka Diquing).  With the plateau starting at over 10,000ft, and the Himalayan mountainous regions going up from there, the Shangri-La region is an awe-inspiring setting. But trying to run…is a challenge at best.  With no formal trail system and no maps, one is left to explore on their own.  Which is what I did on the first day if my trip there last May, meeting up with two friends from Kunming (China) who happened to be in the area at the same time.  We would run up an animal track until it petered out, then basically bush whack down a steep hillside to a road or pasture.  Where we would often find Tibetan settlements guarded by large black Mastiff dogs. 
Tibetan Mastiff - thankfully behind a wall,
Tibetan settlement near Shangri-La, Chinese Tibet
Yes, they will eat you.  They are there to protect the livestock.  You feel pretty silly when you look at yourself from a herders point of view – here are three underdressed light skinned people, with fancy running clothes and packs, usually being chased by a large black dog or better yet, a feisty young bull. 

Kids in Settlement, Tibetan China

I ran the Beijing 100 last May, and in line with trail running on the mainland, it was a selection of steps (starting at the Great Wall of China), rugged single track up and over mountainous passes, animal trails, orchards, rice paddies all connected by roads running through villages and back out to the countryside.    The only hesitation I would have about running that close to Beijing again is the air quality.  Although rain sprinkled the air the night before the race, the beginning and the end of the course I felt choked with pollution.  My lungs burned and I had a nasty cough for weeks afterward.  Like smoking a few packs of cigarettes I suppose. 

But as my friend and fellow teammate Lizzy Hawker advised, “you can adapt to anything.” 

And adapted I have tried.    With a full calendar of racing in Asia starting in October, I am gearing up once again for the start of the season - - the Lantau 2 Peaks and then closely following that with Moontrekker, a night run on Lantau, then more racing on HK island, a quick trip to Vietnam, then off to Nepal and back again to HK.  That get's me through November.  More squats to help my legs handle the steps, a few fewer miles on the hard surfaces so I can actually recover, and cross training to keep up my fitness, here’s hoping that the next season of racing is injury free, filled with more exploration of Asia, and done with a smile, some humor and good memories with running friends. 

Free Range Poultry in the Villages
Peak in Tiger Leaping Gorge
Fun for the whole family - end of race, Tiger Leaping Gorge

Monday, April 23, 2012

Needling your way out of a tight spot

Hurts so good
Wouldn’t it be nice to be indestructible?  Haven’t we all had those periods in our training and racing where we feel like all we need to do is add a little more mileage, a little more quality, and we’ll be right where we want to be?  Then bang, we’re down.  Achilles, hamstring, hip, knee, foot.  What happened?  What was the straw that broke the camel’s back?  You look back and try to unwind how you got to where you are, which is…injured! 

Strength training, core training.  Yes, you’ve heard it, read it and maybe are doing it.  Good for you.  I do it too, but sometimes it’s not enough for the amount of stress we put on our bodies.  What I want to talk about is something a little more unconventional, and something I have used extensively here in Hong Kong that can really help unwind a tight body.  Dry needle therapy.  No, not acupuncture, although acupuncture may help with other issues. 

According to Liam Fitzpatrick, an Australian sports therapist who specializes in trigger point, muscle and fascia release using various modalities, including dry needling, “Dry needling is very useful when a specific trigger point needs to be released. It can be more effective than hands on soft tissue work (massage and stretching) because the introduction of a foreign body into the muscle or other soft tissue stimulates a fight response and the body sends all the 'good stuff/fresh blood' to that specific area to flush out the muscular contraction or adhesion. With massage or stretching, the target is very broad and the response not quite so strong.”  Sound like what you need?  Read on…

Using Needles to Unlock Muscles

My first experience with dry needling was in South Africa.  Four days before Comrades last year, I found myself on a sports physiotherapist table in Durban hoping for a solid rub down before the race.  The physio thoroughly worked through my legs, hips and back, but got to my calves and said “wow, this calf is kind of locked up.  Do you mind if I pop a needle in there?”  Knowing that Comrades was an uphill course that year, and knowing that my calf was my weak spot, and judging from her thoroughness and expertise in physiotherapy (she was the lead physio for all physio stations along the Comrades course), I thought, what the heck, I trust her, let’s see how it goes.   Basically she took an acupuncture type needle that was longer and broader in diameter than a typical acupuncture needle, and inserted it into my calf.  Deep.  Into the belly of my soleus.  I felt a deep ache as if my calf was on the verge of a strong contraction.  Then she cheerfully said “I’ll be back in 15 minutes.  Give a shout if you need anything.”  So for 15 minutes I sweated, ready to let out a cry at any moment, thinking my calf was going to go into a horrible contraction.  Relax relax relax I told myself.  The contraction never came.  Slowly the muscle released.    I was very sore that night and the next day, but I had a range a motion I haven’t had in a long time.  And I had zero tightness or issues running the 54 miles of pavement with an uphill slant that was Comrades 2011.

Right where it's tight
Dry Vs Wet, Acupuncture Vs Sport Therapy

“Dry needling” means that the therapist is not using any fluid for injections.  The needle is dry.  If the needle was a vehicle for transporting anything into the body (i.e. flu shot), it would be a “wet” needle.
How does dry needling differ from acupuncture?  Acupuncture works on a meridian system where needles are inserted into the body along meridians that tie to energy pathways in the body as well as organs (i.e. Kidney, Liver, Spleen).  The goal of acupuncture is to move your qi (pronounced “chi”), and to stimulate different organs that may be in a depleted state.  I have used acupuncture for helping with sleep, digestion, as well as to help recover energetically. 

Dry needling for sports therapy differs significantly in two ways:  1) The needle is placed where the “pain” or tightness is; and 2) Needles are typically longer/larger and are inserted deeper than acupuncture needles.  Often dry needles for sports injuries will be inserted at an angle until the therapist hits some resistance which may signal an adhesion or a locked up muscle.  The needle is then just slightly drawn back and possibly reinserted deeper.  
Package of Needles

There is an art to dry needling.  If you want to try it, make sure you find someone who is trained and well practiced in dry needling for sports therapy.  When I was living in Bend, Oregon I couldn’t find anyone who practiced dry needling, so I asked an acupuncturist to try the dry needling technique.  Unfortunately, I never experienced the degree of muscle release that I was looking for.  Once I moved to Hong Kong, I sought out a therapist who used dry needles, thinking HK was a place where I could find this East meets West type therapy.  Here in Hong Kong, I see Liam Fitzpatrick at Myoactive Therapy.  Liam has been using dry needling along with other modalities on athletes here in Hong Kong for the past 6+years.  He has been instrumental in getting me back on my feet after a hip and hamstring injury left over from tripping on a run shortly after Western States last year.  It’s only been in the last six weeks of consistent dry needling of my hamstring, hip and back that I have been able to get back to running without any pain. 

Running without pain is all we ask for, right?    Then we can add in the mileage and the quality that enables us to do what we love - - run on the edge.