Monday, December 21, 2009

Two years gone by... musings on today's run and stride length

So... I apparently got busy and/or boring and completely stopped communicating with those of you out there in the blogland (aren't I cute? I think people might read this!)

SO rather than try and summarize two years here and still end up with pages upon pages of drivel that no one cares about, I'll just jump right in to my thoughts now...which will probably still be pages upon pages of drivel that no one cares about.

Today I went for a long run from my mom's house - I learned many new things (like where Kent Denver is... though I only know how to get there via trail, so I don't know how useful this find is). I also learned that if you leave a jagged spot on your big toenail, it will rip a hole in your fancy new drymax socks over the course of 20 miles... Much sadness came from this discovery. On the upside, they still did their job and protected my precious tootsies from blisters. On the downside, it appears that the mud they had picked up at the super awesome 2009 Run at the Rock Slip n' Slide Mudfest was not entirely eradicated by 1) a good rinse in the shower, 2) hosing off, and 3) a trip through the washing machine. Poor little socks. I'm very proud of them for being such troopers and doing their job despite their state of disrepair. I have resolved to try and fix their little toe hole so they can accompany me on many more running adventures (and to buy them some friends).

I also happen to be reading Born to Run at the moment, where they talk about barefoot running (which I have been doing on and off since the late '90s... mostly due to not having running shoes available when the urge strikes) and how your stride changes when you wear shoes. What's funny is that the stride everyone describes seeing when folks run barefoot is pretty close to my natural stride in shoes (knees bent to absorb shock upon landing, footstrike on the outer heel, moving inward as the arch collapses to absorb the shock, then moving outward again to toe-off). As a result, when I put on my little Vibram Five Fingers (to ward off the agony of hitting itty bitty pebbles while running barefoot), I have no problem launching into a 4+ mile run despite the dire warnings of other newbie barefoot runners. It also means I generally look goofy in race pictures because I almost never reach full stride extension in long races (and I pretty much don't run short races) and they always seem to catch me when I am in shock absorption phase, so my legs look like they are about to buckle, leaving me in a crumpled heap. For years I tried to overcome this and open my stride to achieve that majestic, long stride for which my gangly legs appear, at first glance, to be built, but this resulted in a series of stupid, nagging injuries and my essentially having to learn how to run again.

Any time I think about running styles, I am reminded of a conversation I overheard between two friends on a run about 7 years ago - the one put forth that there were two kinds of runners out there - the floaters and the grinders. He was definitely a floater, bounding from rock to rock, patch of dirt to patch of dirt, whereas the other friend and I definitely identified with the grinders: each step an intimate, lasting, solid connection with whatever our foot landed on. No bounding, just gears powering and grinding our way through the trails. Not terribly romantic, huh? Grinders also don't tend to be good on the downhills as our long-term relationship with the ground on each footstrike means that should the ground be less stable than we expect or contain a root or rock that we didn't notice, we have already committed our full being to that spot and we are thus more likely than floaters (who have probably already flitted to the next location by the time the ground tries to betray them) to cultivate a new relationship with the ground - this time between our face and our earthen companion.

So where does this all fit in to barefoot running revelations? Well, you see, around this same time, I was also blessed to associate with a number of top notch triathletes who I overheard talking about downshifting to 'granny gear' when riding uphills. While I have never mastered proper gearing on a bicycle, I reasoned that I should be able to do the same thing running: itty bitty quick strides to pull me up the hill with minimal effort exerted per stride. There are very few hills you can't run with this strategy. As a result, I tend to run way more hills than your standard ultra runner. Its not pretty, mind you (I have the race photos to prove it!), but I motor my little self up the hill with my itty bitty strides considerably faster than I would walk and I don't feel any worse for the wear when I get to the top. The problem is I am naturally one of biggest downhill trailrunning pansies in the world, which made me a super annoying freak at races at this point. I would pass people uphill, they would pass me downhill. I never actually got to run WITH anyone because most people excel in the opposite pattern and on top of that, we all ended up mildly (stress on the mildly as trail runners are a good-natured, friendly bunch) annoyed at having to pass every 10 min by dodging each other on narrow single-track trails to pass without falling off whatever mountain/ridge/bank we happened to be running along.

One day, though, I received a revelation. I was running a lovely little "50k" (if you know David Horton, you know what this means) and came upon a rather steep downhill portion of the course. As I began to pick my way down, expecting to see all the people I had passed on the preceding uphill (as was my routine), a gangly mountain man-looking person came flying by me. The thing I noticed about him was that he was not bounding down the hill like others I had seen pass; instead, he appeared to be almost skiing down the hill. It was like a beautiful lightbulb went off in my head: my lack of propensity for bounding from rock to rock like a gazelle did not preclude me from short footstrikes and the glory of blazing down a hill. In fact, this skiing actually might be more energy efficient as it didn't involve much in the way of quad-pounding landings. I viewed the whole thing like more of a conveyor belt - feet just rotating around and around rolling me down the hill. Now mind you, one ill-placed root or rock could still result in a face-to-ground mating ritual, but I reasoned that my wildly flailing arms might prevent too much actual damage to my beautiful mug (ha!) So power granny was born and adapted to up and down hills, with moderate success.