Fastest Known Time Attempt – Arizona Trail (2 months to go)

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I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when my coach suggested I fast-hike a 12 hour running race. To say I was not enthused by the idea would be an understatement. I positively rebelled to begin with but then slowly appreciated his wisdom, given that a sizeable chunk of my Fastest Known Time Attempt (FKT) on the Arizona Trail (AZT) is likely to be fast-hiking. Not just for the technical sections but also considering there will be 110,000 feet of vertical gain, not to mention how tired my body is likely to be after running day after day, for many hours at a time.

There is a skill to fast-hiking to be sure. Not only does it use different muscles to running (which my poor sore glutes can attest to), but actively trying to walk as quickly as possible takes a lot of mental power. For me, in the past, I have equated hiking to giving up. If I am no longer running, I have run out of energy and need a break or it’s just got too darned difficult. Fast-hiking, as I am learning, however, is a powerful tool if it can be harnessed correctly.

So with the support of the Arizona Nordic Village and the Race Director, Ian Torrence, I entered the Parhelic 12 hour race. By the time it got to race day, instead of feeling glum, I was actually excited by the prospect. You try walking as fast as you can and see how long you can sustain that power. I had set a challenge to keep that power going for 12 hours with no stopping. I was planning on being The Terminator, a machine! It was also a good opportunity to start getting used to my Leki poles. Up until now I have refrained from using poles on the main but figured they could well be an asset with tired legs.

The race consisted of a 2 loop course and you had to finish a complete loop for the mileage to be included in your time. I managed to cover 43 miles with 5,000 feet of vertical gain in the 12 hours, maintaining an average pace of just under 16min/mile which I was pretty pleased about. Lessons learned:

  • I wasn’t able to match my arm stride with my foot cadence, so poles on the flat felt more like a hindrance than a help.
  • I developed blisters under my heels and I never normally get blisters from running. I have since discovered this could be due to over striding and not activating my hip flexors.
  • I stumbled ALOT!! I definitely need to engage my hip flexors more or just pick up my feet.
  • I kicked up a lot of dirt and debris into my shoes – I have since discovered Kahtoola‘s INSTAgaitors and after wearing them on a 10 hour training hike without not even one small stone, pebble, or grain of dirt in my shoe, I now will not leave home without wearing them when hiking. Seriously, a game-changer.
  • I can eat what I want when power-hiking, my stomach held up just fine on a mixture of real food and GU delights.
  • I need to figure out how to fast-hike on the downhills. This felt more cumbersome to brake against gravity to hike rather than run.
  • I definitely need to build my hiking muscles as I was more sore the following day than I would have been if I had run for 12 hours!

So, a good challenge to start off my training block and a test of my strengths and weaknesses. It feels good to be back in the thick of training, pushing my body and testing my limits. This last week my legs have felt like lead as they have adjusted to the weekly mileage increases and intensity but a meaty long run on Sunday helped to turn the corner and I feel like the training is starting to kick in and my strength is increasing. Here’s a summary of my first 4 week training block:

[table id=3 /]

*because I don’t have a car, I have to use my 2 legs to commute everywhere. I personally believe movement is medicine and this is good for active recovery, but the miles certainly add up!

For the data geeks out there you can find more detail in my Strava

Miles and mountains = my happy place.

I truly believe that if you don’t enjoy the journey then really why are you doing it?

At first glance, this looks impressive and if I was training for anything else, it would really be a confidence booster. Averaging 10,000 feet of climbing and 80 miles a week. BUT then I think, wait a minute, I have to cover 10 times that in the space of only 15 days consecutively and I’m like, “oh crumbs!” I have faith in my coach though, and the training plan. Its going to be fine! (nervous laughter ensues).

I like to do everything in my power to give myself the best possible chance of success. Being committed to my training and giving it 200% is one element, getting a good night’s sleep and making the most of precious rest days are also very important to give my body a chance to repair and build strength. The other key area is making sure my body gets all the nutrients it needs for enhanced performance and recovery.

After going for dinner with a friend who follows a plant-based diet, I was intrigued to learn more. Being Greek and from the island of Crete where the animals roam amongst the mountains eating the plants and are free from chemical intervention, I have grown up always eating meat. Living in America or even in the UK where we aren’t luckily enough to be able to eat such free range goodness I have still eaten meat but not a huge amount. To give up salmon, mackerel, Greek yoghurt, cheese, my post race medium rare burger with bacon and blue cheese though? That would be a test for sure.

First of all, what is plant based? As I see it, it means eating whole foods, minimally processed and low in fat. Personally, I still eat nuts and seeds and “good” fat foods such as avocados as I feel the nutrient benefits outweigh any negatives. I also have learned that my body functions well on these foods. So, I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, beans, grains, oatmeal.

I started researching and discovered a myriad of health benefits of going plant based. I was concerned as to how it would affect my performance though…would I be able to get enough protein? Would my energy levels sap? Would I still be able to get all the nutrients I needed? Learning that some of the top athletes (Michael Wardian, Venus Williams, Scott Jurek to name a few) are plant based gave me confidence that if anything, my performance should be improved. So, from the beginning of June I gave up eating all animal foods and animal derivatives to see if I could enhance my performance and health and see for myself what affect it might have.

I was surprised to find that the only item I really missed was melted cheese, particularly in the context of a burrito!! (Thankfully a friend put me onto Daiya and that problem was easily solved). I certainly feel leaner but honestly, with a ramp up in my training it is difficult to tell how it has impacted my performance or my recovery. I considered myself to be a healthy eater before going plant based, eating lots of fruit and vegetables daily and avoiding processed foods as much as possible (don’t get me wrong I am no saint and I believe life is always about balance, so you’ll still find me eating cookies and cake at certain times of the month), but apart from eating more beans or tempeh there probably wasn’t as much of a step change.

The only real way to see how my body has been affected would be to take a blood test. I have been using Inside Tracker now for 2 years and in that period I have had 5 blood tests. This means that I have some good intel with which to look at trends. Through the support of Inside Tracker, I was able to take a blood test at the start of this training block and they reviewed a set of 42 bio markers pertinent to athletes and I compared these against a blood test I took 3 months ago prior to going plant based. The results were interesting.

The categories they review and the summary of my test are as follows:

[table id=4 /]

For me, the positives were that my HDL, LDL and cholesterol levels have improved since going plant based. Vitamin B12 is a watch out for me, although still optimised this has decreased and I know its difficult to get without eating meat. I already take a supplement, but perhaps I need to increase the dose to remain optimised. I had finally after 2 years managed to optimise my Ferritin levels but in the last 3 months it has dropped back down again, although my iron levels have significantly increased, which would have been a worry for me not eating red meat and my TIBC is finally optimised. I do take an iron supplement and I continued to take the same dose, so the only thing that has changed has been my diet which appears to have positively affected these results.

The at risk areas highlighted were Cortisol and SHBG. My cortisol levels have always been at the higher end and this result didn’t change much in the 3 months, albeit it has reduced slightly which is promising. With SHBG, this has doubled since 3 months ago and this could be related to my caloric intake and protein levels, so I’ll be looking to focus on increasing both of these.

The main takeaways as I see it are:

  • Continue taking B12, Vitamin D and Iron supplements
  • Ensure I am adequately eating enough calories, including protein for my increased training load so as not to put further stress on my body and aid recovery
  • Ensure I get enough sleep and allow my body to recover
  • Continue with the plant based diet

I will take another blood test at the end of the 3 month training block, prior to me starting the FKT attempt in case there is anything I need to address to ensure I am optimised for performance on the trail and then I will review again afterwards to check my recovery and see how my body has been affected by 15 days of non stop activity! I am really interested to see the findings. I find all this kind of stuff fascinating and even more so when I get to use myself as a guinea pig and see firsthand the affect changes have on my body and my performance.

I feel like I am juggling a lot at the moment. Training, planning the logistics of the FKT, drumming up support and sponsorship and raising awareness of the Arizona Trail Association (ATA), as well as my volunteer obligations. All of this was put into perspective a few weeks ago (was it only a few weeks?!) when we suffered a fire here in our local forest in Flagstaff. It was the first time I had experienced such an event and honestly, I felt devastated. It’s difficult now for me to even bring to mind the fire as I would like to pretend it never happened. However, I know the fire’s brutal reality will hit hard when we’re allowed into the area again to see what were once some of our most cherished trails.

Like many of my neighbours, I felt helpless witnessing firsthand the burning of those forests, feeling sick to the stomach but unable to take my eyes off the billowing smoke coming from our mountains while hearing the constant thrumming of aircraft overhead as they battled against the fire. All the while, we knew our amazing first responders were out there, facing off the flames hour after hour, working their hearts out to protect our beloved outdoors and our town. One of the most difficult things was feeling like there was nothing I could do to help.

It will be some time before it’s safe enough for us to begin restoration work on these recently damaged trails. It reminded me how precious and how lamented our trails are and while I definitely don’t take for granted how lucky we are to have such a great trail system, I do feel guilty that I have done very little to contribute to their maintenance.

Through preparing for this FKT attempt, I have been working really closely with the ATA and I have come to learn how much they do and contribute to our outdoor spaces. As a way of giving back, I decided to organise a Trail Day for September 15th in conjunction with the ATA where we will be building new trail at Babbitt Ranches, converting the old double track into sweet single track. I am really excited to learn more about how our trails come to fruition and have the opportunity to contribute positively to the community and the outdoor space I love to recreate in. That way next time I am enjoying our trails I can feel proud that I helped make that possible. If you want to learn more about it, please check out their website here.

I’ll let you know how I get on in my next blog post, but for now I’ll leave you with this thought:

Life is like running trails… you want to look ahead so you know where you are going, but there’s no point in looking too far ahead as you can’t be sure where the trail is going to lead you.

See you in the mountains!