Sunday, May 29, 2016

I Have Sighted the Escarpment

The back side of the Escarpment, from Duncan Peak today.
Snow on the north side prevented my continuing on.
It will melt fast. And then the Western States is mine.
I will drive it before me and know its wife as it watches.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Blue Ridge/Fiske Peak and the Ohlone Wilderness Trail

That oak is in Ohlone Wilderness, but I did want to document my little trips out to the Capay Valley this spring. Northern California's spring is underrated, and it's already rated pretty highly. I abandoned my initial attempt to get up on the ridge in mid-March in the first quarter mile because the river was out of control, after 2 solid weeks of rain. A few weeks later I came back and it was easily wade-able. Fiske Peak is the northernmost prominent high point along the Blue Ridge, a steep and interesting formation which is little-known to many Bay Area hikers. In some ways it reminds me of Southern California's preserves, even around Stebbins Cold Canyon (very steep eroded sandy ridges, hot in the summer, and inland=drier vegetation). Looking north along the east edge of the coast range you can see that the mountains are a row of several thousand-foot upturned blocks, and this view is hard to appreciate anywhere but up on the ridge. I'd wondered about the complex geology of northern California before. I wish I'd taken my camera!

Fortunately I did take my camera to Ohlone Wilderness. I wanted to get to Rose Peak and back from Del Valle, despite having come down with a cough and fever two days before. Results were predictable. I gave up and turned around at Schlieper Rock, and still feel fried the next day. I are not smrt. At least I got some nice shots.

Above: the trail along the ridge at Fiske Peak. See what I mean? You could be in Orange County. From Below: Ohlone Wilderness in May.

Above: mariposa lily, which I had never seen (or noticed). California Native Plant Society on Facebook ID'd it in minutes of posting the picture. Below: Mt. Diablo to the north.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Sub-2-Hour Marathon by 2019?

Here I predicted (with data) a sub-2-hour marathon by 2038, based on the rate at which previous world records have fallen. (Which by the way is amazingly logarithmic.) [Note - I was obviously wrong. Kudos to Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya for beating the record in 2019! And to his coach Patrick Sang of Kenya. A great day for humans!] A very ambitious Greek running coach and scientist (Yannis Pitsiladis) is trying to produce the first sub-2 by 2019. Here is the article in the New York Times. Their figure showing record marathons (and fastest marathons in each year) has more data and is prettier than mine, so I reproduce it here:
Not super easy to see if I fit the whole thing into this blog's format, but: the Y-axis is marathon time, with the lower edge being 2 hours. X-axis is year, in 5 year increments. The colored dots are the world records, the text and arrow at the bottom middle of the graph is Pitsiladis's goal, and the shaded area is the trajectory records are likely to take going forward. The earlier edge hits the 2-hour level around 2033.

If the record is beaten much earlier than this, I suspect it would be some combination of the following two things: undetected doping, or genetics. Genetics further breaks down to good luck (a new mutation; see earlier article about how this may actually confound endurance sports); better recruitment (many credit Germany's dominance of soccer to this, but running as a sport just doesn't command the profits to accomplish the same thing); eugenics; and discovery of pre-existing genes in previously isolated populations. Maybe there's a group in Tibet or highland New Guinea just waiting to whoop the marathon world's ass! What I don't think will cause an early sub-2 is non-doping training innovations. We mostly seem to be chipping at margins of mature training techniques. A little taking advantage of altitude here, a little better nutrition there...will that really get us there so soon?

As an aside, the importance of human capital in the modern world is demonstrated by this caption from a photo in the article: "The biomedical lab at Addis Ababa University contains hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. But because of insufficient funding and a lack of available experts to operate it, much of it is unplugged and covered by tablecloths."

(Watch Kipchoge cross the finish line here.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Longer the Race, the Weirder the Racers' Physiology, and the Less You Can Generalize From Them

A study by Saugy et al on PLoS ONE makes (or implies) the claim that super-long ultras (as in, 200 miles) don't damage muscle as much as just "regular" ultras of 100 miles.[1] The data for this paper comes from 25 runners (9 completing) the 2011 Tor des Géants (TdG) in the Italian Alps. (Video of that race here). To be sure, it's a cool paper, and I admire them not only for conceiving and executing these studies, but also for getting anyone to put up with their experiment during the race! They do a number of measures on the nerves and muscles of runners before and after the race, and compare against a control group of people who are merely sleep-deprived; this way they can get an idea to what extent the wear-and-tear of super-long ultras is related to sleep deprivation. When races get to be this stupid-long (in space and time), part of the endurance is the lost sleep.

Here's the part that the press picked up: in addition to comparing racers to sleep-deprived controls, the paper also compares the results from one race to another - specifically, to the shorter Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc of 2009,[2] which is "only" 100 miles, with 40% of the elevation change of the TdG. Counter-intuitively, runners in the shorter race showed more fatigue and inflammation than in the longer race. Interesting! The authors go on to discuss reasons why this might be, mainly that the pace in a longer race is slower, which is less punishing. Specifically, the pace in the longer race here was 15% slower, and some of the wear-and-tear parameters were 50% or more lower!

That does make sense, but it raises another interesting question they don't address about inter-individual exercise response differences - which I think is more likely to be relevant here than in most experiments. We can't be sure the difference is because of any difference in the race experiences themselves, because the racERS are different too. The longer the event, the more systematically different the racers are from racers in shorter events. Not only will people train differently; more importantly, in these groups of racers at the margins of human endurance, you are certainly enriching for genetic variants that allow this kind of performance and which are likely to affect the response to this kind of stress. You're out at the very end of a long tail, many standard deviations away from the mean. The harder the race, the more you're enriching. Basically, they're a bunch of mutants! Consequently, the clearest support for this theory would require that they sample the same runners. This would be hard to pull off, but it might make a difference.

Above: the route during the Tor des Geants, i.e. what's wrong with you people. From Jiloutside.
Below: a few of the Tor des Geants runners. Get it? From

To my knowledge this has not been studied, but here's an experiment that would test it. Take a group of people who ran a 26-mile road marathon, and another group who have run a mountainous 100-mile ultra. Train them equally, and control for pace so you expect them all to finish in around the same time. My prediction is that even with the same pace and distance and training, the 100 milers would have less wear-and-tear than the marathoners. Because the 100-milers are further out on the tail of the genetic distribution. On the other hand, if the wear-and-tear is the same, then Saugy et al were right not to worry about it. (Part of the improvement in athletic records may be because of new mutations and/or a more efficient sorting mechanism to find these athletes, discussed here in the prediction of 2038 for the first sub-2-hour marathon.)

Granted, the difference between people who run 200 miles versus 300 miles is probably not as great as the difference between people who road marathons and 100-milers. And, it was probably hard enough getting this data for any runners, let alone the same runners in multiple events - and try getting a budget to train people and an ethics board to approve your experimental endurance race. But interesting study and look forward to further results from this crew.


1. Saugy J, Place N, Millet GY, Degache F, Schena F, Millet GP. (2013) Alterations of Neuromuscular Function after the World's Most Challenging Mountain Ultra-Marathon. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65596. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065596

2. Millet GY, Tomazin K, Verges S, Vincent C, Bonnefoy R, Boisson R, Gergelé L, Féasson L, Martin V. (2011) Neuromuscular consequences of an extreme mountain ultra-marathon. PLoS ONE 6: e17059. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017059

Some Jackoff Walking from LA to Boston

The jackoff's name is Ben. Kidding, I'm totally jealous. Thanks for documenting the journey bro! His instagram is here. He really needs your support right now, because he's in Kansas.

Above: some all-American shit that the jackoff took a picture of.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Training by Not Training

I used to wonder what would happen if competitive road marathon runners got on some of the mountainous trail courses in the Western US. My prediction was that, gifted though they were, trail and terrain would be the undoing of people accustomed to flat predictable streets. I finally got at least one data point when a trail runner I'd met a couple times in one of the groups I ran with, ran against a Tanzanian guy who was single-digit finisher in one of the big Northeast U.S. marathons. No doubt the trail runner I knew was a strong runner, but he wasn't a national-level ass-kicker. And sure enough, the trail runner beat the road marathoner.

I can't extrapolate too much from that N=1, but I also wondered if familiarity with the terrain meant something as well. Because the race in question was on Mt. Diablo, which the trail runner knew like the back of his hand. There's something to be said for being familiar with a trail; your body just knows when it needs to gear up for a climb and how nasty it'll be and when it can relax. It's for that reason I was so interested in this great piece by Tommy Rivs about his experience trail racing in Costa Rica. Long story short (but still worth reading the long version), an outstanding college runner got his ass handed to him in a mountain race in Costa Rica by the locals - even after training for it for 6 months. So of course he wanted to know why, dammit. And the answer was that the guys who beat him were porters. Almost every day during the year, they hiked up that specific mountain, with weight, and then ran back down. Not surprisingly, after becoming a porter with them for a few months, he took 30 minutes off his time in a 20-mile race.

Legally you have to put pictures on blog posts. Above, Mt. Diablo from Mt. Tam (from Wiki), below, looking back down Cerro Chirripó in Costa Rica, from

Perhaps also relevant: these porter guys were porters as moonlighters (literally; read the piece). During the day they worked in coffee fields. So no part of any of their jobs involved sitting down.