Soiled But Unsullied: Star Course AAR, part I

“Amazing!” I thought. “If you piss yourself in black running tights, it just looks like sweat!” At least to the casual observer. I was hobbling at top speed through a raunchy part of the Mission district that could have been in a documentary called Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, and fully a quarter of the men there also reeked of urine, so why not me? 

This was the infamous Star Course, a 50-mile (80km) ruck race. In teams of two to five, athletes find their way on foot to a long list of waypoints in any order they choose and report back to the start point within 20 hours. 

At 10am and still only halfway through the course, I was now alone and behind schedule. I had begun the previous night before in a team of four. We had walked through the night down the cliffs and beaches of San Francisco to an old missile base-turned-park 25 miles away, but near first light the team was in trouble. The others had run a half-marathon a couple weeks before and then put their house on the market that very day. They decided to brave the race anyway, but they were starting out on half a tank at best and withdrew once they knew they couldn’t make the 20-hour cutoff time. 

I was marching on alone, still energetic but far behind schedule, but that was not my real problem. No, far worse was that I faced a return trip of 25 miles in broad daylight and needed to drink water by the liter with virtually no bathrooms. Well, more accurately, no bathrooms that would be open to me and—now that every single second mattered—without deviating off course every hour, maybe buying something, and waiting in a line. 

I was seized by the full horror of the problem soon after I gulped down a cup of coffee brought by the angelic Lean Solid Girl. I bottoms-upped a venti breakfast blend without breaking step and felt like a million bucks for about ten minutes, when I understood that I had swallowed a time bomb. In fact, more like a grenade with no pin. In the distance I spotted a baseball diamond and ran for it, but I was much, much too late. There was only time to make sure that the man walking the Boston terrier did not witness my humiliation.

And then it was over. Taking stock of my situation, I found it not all that bad. Yes, I had pissed in my own clothes in public view, but on the plus side, I no longer had to go to the bathroom. Also, I would be walking along I-280, under bridges and into San Francisco, where people defecate on sidewalks so routinely that there is a specialized navigational app to help the discriminating pedestrian avoid human excreta. No one would look twice at a homeless-looking man in a motley ensemble of dirty military surplus and tights soaked with what might or might not be sweat. For sheer human deviance, I might as well have been in the Times Square of the pre-Giuliani years, except that in kindly San Francisco people would be too polite to stare or comment if they suspected my true condition.

And suspect they did. I am certain of it. The elderly Chinese woman walking near the underpass had clearly seen a few things in her time and knew something was up with my tights. The charming French couple at the Moraga Steps seemed to smile a little tensely as I approached. But so what? I would never see any of them again, and now that whole problem was solved. It really is true that once the bounds of decency are first broken and a taboo is ignored, further inhibition collapses swiftly and totally. I would refine my technique a bit, making sure that both legs appeared equally “sweaty” and keeping as much as possible out of my boots, but I was back in the race. I still had to navigate 20 more miles in 5 hours and hit ten more waypoints, but I had moved the dial back down from Completely Hopeless to just Almost Definitely F***ed.

Continue to Part II

Burgerfeet

Human foot or cheap stew meat in butcher paper pulled from a dumpster?

“At GORUCK events, people’s foot care is surprisingly poor,” said the former ultra runner somewhere around Mile 20. I smarted at the comment, but I couldn’t deny it: the inside of my own boot was slowly grating my little toe like parmesan.

You meet a wide rainbow of fellow weirdos at GORUCK challenges with different athletic backgrounds, ranging from Crossfitters (the most numerous) all the way to equestrian gymnast(!). This was the first time I’d encountered a serious distance runner, though, and it became clear that that community was privy to an advanced science of foot health as foreign to the rest of us as architecture was to Visigoths and Huns.

At the moment, neither he nor I had breath for a long tutorial on the subject, but I resolved to study more after our team lost our second member of the night to foot injury and my own foot was being ground up into burger meat.

Here’s part of what I learned, most of it from Jon Vonhof’s Fixing Your Feet and friends like Scott H., Nick F., and Sgt. Šileika:

  • Your shoes are probably too small. As I’ve related before, I was wearing a 9½ when I should have worn a 10½ Wide. Ideally, get your feet measured by someone at a specialized store, like REI or a running store. And when you take the insoles out of your shoes and stand on them, if any part of your foot overhangs (or even reaches) the edges of the insole, you need bigger shoes.
  • Your feet get bigger with age, not least of all as they become more muscular with training! That seems strange–I always thought of my shoe size as an immutable given, like my height–but on reflection it’s perfectly intuitive. Feet are made mostly of muscle, and they respond to training like other muscles. If you start doing pull-ups for hours at a time, your back and arms will outgrow your shirts. Likewise, if you backpack for hours at a time, your foot muscles might well outgrow your old shoes.
  • Keep your feet dry. I hate this rule because I like charging through streams and doing water PT and I hate halting afterward to change socks, but it’s helped me stop getting Burgerfeet™.
  • Speaking of dry and happy feet, cotton socks are the devil. Wear wool or one of the new space-age moisture-wicking products. And it seems that most runners wear more than one sock layer.
  • Socks are like holsters: You have to try a bunch to find the right setup. You’ll end up with a drawer full of rejects–live with it.
  • And a sock setup that works with one pair of shoes does not necessarily work with another. (See “socks-are-like-holsters” above.)
  • Moisturize your feet every day. Most of the pros also lubricate their feet before they put on their socks.
  • Athletic tape from the corner drug store has been superseded by things like Leukotape and ENGO pads.

Weekly Training Log: The Beginning of the Taper

I weigh in for my first kettlebell competition in 2001 as Com. Angelo looks on. That day I weighed 156lbs. Granted, I had to cut some weight, but these days I’d have to cut off a leg.

This is an experimental post, summarizing my training for the past week. If I continue to publish these log entries, I won’t allow them to “crowd out” my usual material. I’d welcome your feedback in the Comments section.

July 6: I maxed out on 24kg kettlebell snatches: 32L + 32R. Showing poor judgment, I did this before my longest training ruck of the year. What was I thinking?! (Total snatch volume: 96 poods)

July 7: Rucked 42 miles with 25lbs. Hard.

July 10: Snatches on the minute: 20kg for 14 sets of 14; and 24kg for 8 sets of 6. (Total snatch volume: 327 poods)

July 11:

1) Snatches on the minute:    20kg for 6 sets of 14; 24kg for 8 sets of 7.     

2) Competition snatches:       24kg for 10L (hand kept getting soaked with sweat) + 34R.  

3) Circuit: 2 sets of Eccentric Isometric (EI) pushups; 2 sets of EI pullups +20lbs.; 3 sets of 36 Hindu squats

I’m aiming to do a snatch contest in mid-September where, to win a Class 1 ranking, I’ll need 124 reps. I think I can do this! (Total volume today: 255 poods)

July 12, 2019:

1) “Russian EDT”* snatches: 24kg for 10 one-minute sets at 16 reps/minute. 

2) Timed snatch set: 16kg for 10 minutes at 15 reps/minute. (Total: 410 poods)

3) Circuit: 2 sets of Eccentric isometric (EI) pushups; 2 sets of EI pullups +20 lbs.; 3 sets of 40 Hindu squats

* “EDT,” or “escalating density training,” is a subject for another post. In this case, what’s happening is that I snatch for one minute, rest minute, and repeat ten times. You can find details at Eugene’s excellent blog, Girevoy Sport After 40.

July 13, 2019

Rucked 12 miles (20km) with 30lbs. in 3 hours, 11 minutes. It was a hot morning at 90° F (32° C). I didn’t march fasted, but I only drank a light smoothie before and no food during.

My foot muscles have been tired all week. Also, I found that heavy, sweaty socks add serious weight to my feet! As an experiment, I departed from my usual combination (FoxRiver sock liners and Finnish M05 “sock liners,” which are really light wool socks in their own right). Instead, under the Finnish socks I wore a midweight pair of Injinji toe socks. Perfectly comfortable, but when I peeled all that sweaty wool off my feet, the pile weighed half a pound! (And as we know, an extra pound on the foot is as taxing as five pounds in your pack.) 

July 14, 2019

This marked the last day before I start to taper for the 50-mile Star Course three weeks away. Feet and calves tired from all the work.  

1) “Russian EDT” snatches: 24kg for 10 sets of one minute at just 12 reps/minute. I slowed down so I could keep my heart rate under my MAF number.

2) Timed set of snatches: 16kg for 10 minutes at 12 reps/minute.     (Total snatch volume: 300 poods)

3) Circuit: 2 circuits of (1) EI pushups +35lbs., (2) EI pullups +20lbs., and (3) Hindu squats x50.

Something very strange has happened with my bodyweight: I’m way more muscular than I “should” be. I’ve ballooned to a lean 182 lbs. (83kg). (In fact, I have more lean body mass now than I had total body mass last summer!) And yet I did just three months of barbell lifting over the course of the year, and since the spring I’ve done very little except for very-high-mileage rucking. All I can suppose is that maybe I’ve added so many mitochondria (the “powerhouses” of the muscle cells) that I gained 20lbs.?!

Forty-Mile Ruck: Lessons Learned

To prep for the (in)famous Star Course, I tried a 42-mile ruck march.

I’d read one man’s AAR suggesting that in training you aim for 40 miles (64km) in something close to 10 hours, and on paper that sounded almost reasonable. It’s only 15 minutes per mile, right? Heck, I’ve motored along at that speed in perfect contentment for plenty of 12-mile marches with a 30# pack. So with just 20# dry (not even 10kg), wouldn’t I cover at least the first half of my journey at that pace? And if I allowed myself a full 12 hours, plus an extra hour for lunch, that would be almost leisurely! Right?

That was HUBRIS, and I got punished! Instead of treading a merry 13 hours, I slogged out a tough 15½ hours, and rather than a carefree and gay picnic walk, at times it felt like a death march.

This was a major lesson in all the factors that can slow a march down. Let me count the ways!

What I Did Badly

Feeling so sluggish, I sensed I was in for a long day. But I had no idea just how long.

First was my own poor condition. I’d been training hard, demanding a lot of my foot muscles (which work overtime in yoga and kettlebell lifting too), and the day before my ruck romp, I’d had a small migraine that I tried to cure by testing my rep max in the kettlebell snatch. (That worked pretty well, by the way.) Coupled with a 4am wakeup, it’s little surprise that I felt like hell when I started my walk, and it slowed me down. By mid-morning I was already an hour behind schedule. And that was before other adverse conditions started piling up.

I am blessed to live out in the country. Only problem is, my body thinks it belongs in a different country.

What other adverse conditions? Next was the heat, which is my personal kryptonite. I’m stocky and descended entirely from Northern European bog dwellers. Even in modest heat, a full sun clobbers me like an axe.

I made some poor nutrition choices too. Normally in these long events, I thrive on a scant 25g of carbs per hour and, being keto-adapted, I draw the rest of my calories from body fat. It’s a trick I got from ultra champ Zach Bitter and it makes me immune to the usual nausea and GI trouble of endurance events. But on this morning I treated myself to a big, sugary frozen mocha, and it was way too much carbs and gook. I’ll spare you, gentle reader, an account of the results and just summarize them as “sub-optimal.” Lesson: Just 25g of carbs per hour.

If you want to geek out on this stuff, read the work of Mike Prevost.

By my choice of routes, I also gave myself a (poorly timed) lesson in how much you can be slowed by terrain. The Army has researched rucking speed and found that, even more than pack weight, you’re slowed by factors as mundane as the ground’s surface. And elevation gain is another biggie. When climbing a 10% grade, you cut your speed in half. (EDIT: Researcher Adam Scott finds that it’s only a one-third reduction.)So on one steep 4-mile stretch, I climbed for almost two hours.

Nor did I factor in stream crossings. Foot care guru John Vonhof insists that you remove shoes and socks at streams, carry them across, and dry your feet before putting them on again. I did this each time, dutifully but grudgingly, but I ate up nearly an hour and disliked feeling my way painfully across the stream bottom in sore, bare feet. Lesson: Bring water shoes and a microfiber hand towel. On trips where I’ll recross the stream at the same point, I can even stash them near the crossing to wait for my return trip.

Finally, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to wear brand-new boots. Though they didn’t need much breaking in, they still required time-consuming experimentation on the trail, trying different combinations of socks, liner socks, and lacing.

Ridiculous math like this is an example of why the metric Mondopoint system is so great. You measure your feet in millimeters. That’s your size. Simple.

However, there was one thing about these boots that was a godsend: they’re actually big enough! My toes have never been so free. I owe this too to John Vonhof, whose simple trick is to remove the insoles from your shoes, set them on the ground, and stand on them. If your feet lap over the insoles at any point, or even touch the edge, the shoes are too small. That’s how I went from a size 9.5 to a 10.5 Wide!

What Went Great

Aerobic base: Aerobically this trip posed little challenge. As in all my training, I throttled back enough to stay within my “MAF” heart rate (“max aerobic function”). And even on such a long ruck, I found, as long as I stay within my MAF heart rate, I can put my legs on cruise control and motor along indefinitely. My feet might get sore, but my heart and lungs can hack it just fine.

Our Lady of Electrolytes and Mr. Delirium

Electrolytes: At long last, I didn’t cramp! I can’t take credit for this. The unsurpassable Lean Solid Girl met me at my turnaround point with a princely feast of burritos, trail mix, cold drinks, and (best of all) electrolytes.

Blisters: I only got one blister, on my heel. Zero blisters would be better, but I’ll take this as a victory considering this was a distance PR in boots that were new out of the box.

The Great Takeaway

The home stretch. From this bridge, it’s 3 miles to my door. The last time I passed it feeling this tired was only a few months ago. That night I was doing my first 12-miler, but now that’s just a warmup. Reflecting on that was a real morale boost. #cookiejar

I didn’t quit. That’s the great takeaway. At 5:30am, only 5 minutes into the day, I still had a lingering headache from the day before, felt like hell, and had no spring in my step, and I thought, “I picked an awful day to do this. It will be amazing if I actually finish 40 miles today.” And I was right on both counts: it was terrible timing–WTH kind of plan is “be sick all day, then max out on snatches, and then do 40 miles the next day?!”–and it’s amazing to me that I finished it. I should have rescheduled–stupid stuff is stupid, and it would have required effort to choose a worse day for this. But once I (foolishly) committed to it and decided to stick with the (dumb) plan, it was almost a certainty that I’d finish–eventually–as long as I didn’t quit.

Rucking up at Mile 23. Don’t believe the smile, it’s a lie. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself here. Out of the frame, milady’s Prius is whispering, “Give up! I’ll take you home right now. How about some air conditioning?”

And that, friends, is the big lesson. (Cue the “rousing emotional crescendo music!”) It seems that in an event like this–a low-intensity slog played out over a very long time–there’s almost no way to suck so much that you can’t finish. There’s no opponent to KO you, pin you, or steal the ball, and you need zero coordination or athletic talent–it’s just walking. Physically the demands aren’t even very intense or the perils great: you won’t get a concussion or cascade off the side of Mount Everest. You can suck as much as you want for as long as you want, but unless you decide to quit (or you get abducted off the road by a UFO), you are pretty much assured of succeeding eventually. As Goggins says, “No talent required.”

Gear Check

Final installment in my after-action report from the GORUCK D-Day Heavy Challenge.

The faithful, indomitable, light, nimble “Moose Head” rucksack. I love this thing. Made in the 1930s, it was intended by the Swedes as a cheap mass-production item for hurriedly equipping a big army that Germany would choose not to tangle with. Eighty years later, with just a little sewing, it’s my favorite pack.

What Worked Out Great

1. Webbing: I had about 6′ of webbing and it saved me twice. First we had to carry an insidiously-shaped rock a few miles uphill. I bound it up like a birthday gift and then some genius added D-rings and carabiners so that folks could hang it from their pack straps. The final effect was like a newborn boulder in a Babybjörn. It still sucked, but it substantially reduced the Suck Value. Second, I broke a pack strap at dawn, but it took all of 30 seconds to improvise a fix with the webbing. Without it, I would probably have washed out of the event over that petty equipment failure. So write this down, someone: webbing is the duct tape of rucking.

Weight: 40g. Not quitting the whole event over a busted pack strap or wasting everyone’s biceps cradling a f#&%ing rock: priceless.

2. Spare shoelace: Whipped this out to secure the flag to the pole better. Again, it nullified what could have been a huge pain in the butt for essentially zero added weight.

3. Rocky S2V boots: Thank you, Sgt. Šileika! The Rockies were champs. My search for the perfect all-round boot is over!

I’m blown away by the contrast to the Moab Ventilators that I wore last year. The point of the Ventilators is that, with their mesh sides, they let water and sweat flow out and let air rush in. It’s a great idea for running trails, but not for sloshing around in surf and sand because your shoes and socks fill with sediment. I got grit between my shoes and socks, between my socks and sock liners, and between the liners and my skin.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the other teammate who wore Rockies completed a “Heavy-Tough-Light” (i.e. he is a freak who did three events back-to-back over 48 hours, totaling well over 70 miles). And the teammate who wore Ventilators got a silver dollar-sized blood blister so heinous and unearthly that I expected an alien to spawn from his heel. (Amazingly, he just cheerfully popped it, dressed it, and walked on it for the next 12 hours without grimacing. People are freaks, and this guy must have the pain tolerance of a barn animal.)

4. Synthetic fabrics: Impressed by Lean Solid Girl’s successes, I left behind most of my old-school cotton, wool, and hair shirts and wore so much stretchy space-age fabric that I felt like Spider Man. And it worked great: I stayed warm, dry, windproof, and free of chafing.

It was only at midday that I wore a cotton shirt (one of the dozen awesome $4 Bundeswehr quarter-zips that I stash everywhere–#notaffiliatedIjustlovethem). But as soon as we got wet, I changed back to polypro gratefully.

5. Tights: Goofy yoga shorts are still great, but in water and wind, I was even happier with running tights. Even better, mine had built-in knee pads.

6. Categorized bags: Since my old-fashioned ruck only has one big compartment, I sorted gear into four marked bags: Food, Shirt, Jacket, and Head & Foot Stuff (hat, headlamp, sunglasses, socks, and foot care supplies). It worked great. Next time, I’ll color code the bags too.

7. More sock changes than a Madonna concert: I brought two extra pairs of socks and sock liners, and I rotated through all of them. Again, cheap insurance. I’ve had great success with the combination of Finnish M05 “liner socks” (which are socks unto themselves here in temperate climes) and FoxRiver liners, so I won’t mess with success.

8. Tailwind and GU: Here too, I owe Lean Solid Girl, who’s a past (and future?) runner, for initiating me into the secrets of distance athletes.

9. My hydration bladder: Our team had at least two burst hydration bladders, which did not enhance their owners’ lives. Usually I’m the first person to cheap out and get suckered by a false economy, but I’ve never encountered this problem even after hundreds of miles, so I’ll keep using Hommitt.

Dumb Ideas

1. Powerlifting knee sleeve: It’s stupid to change your game plan at the last minute, and that includes switching to gear you haven’t tested. I grabbed a squatting knee sleeve on the way out the door because I worried about padding my sore knee. It guarded my knee from abrasion, alright, but over 40 miles it knotted up some soft tissue behind my knee from the pressure.

2. Leaving my electrolytes to chance: I prepared for pushups poorly enough. I didn’t need cramped arms on top of that, but I chose to trust that I’d get all my electrolytes from the Tailwind. Dumb. Electrolytes are cheap insurance, just like webbing or an extra shoelace. Without Mike the Forester’s generosity, I’d have been in trouble. Next time I’m bringing extra electrolytes.

3. Poorly secured pill bottle: To help with pain, I cleverly brought some CBD, ibuprofen, and caffeine pills, but I foolishly hung the bottle from a carabiner with my gloves, and within an hour it was lost.

“Those the gods would destroy, they encumber with a TRX instructor”

It’s always some heavily muscled personal trainer. My toughest moments at Goruck challenges are when I must fireman’s carry a teammate, and it’s never the vegetarian triathlete who works for a socially conscious startup. I always get the dense, hypertrophied Paleo stevedore-type who runs a gym.

It’s amazingly easy to fireman’s carry someone, but it’s surpringly hard to keep it up for long. So today’s game was called “Desmond Down,” in honor of the barrel-chested personal trainer whom I had the horror honor of helping to carry for the last mile on Saturday, when he was suddenly designated a “casualty” by cadre fiat. I trudged up the Rock of Faeries shoulder-carrying the 150# sandbag.

You’d expect the climbing to be the worst part, and you’d be right, but I was surprised by just how hard–I’ll bet the last 150 vertical feet took close to an hour. And it wasn’t much easier to lift the bag onto the shoulder in the first place. In both cases, the golden rule seems to be keep your hips directly under the bag. “Duh,” right? But you can let the hips drift without noticing, and even a couple of inches increases the stress and heart rate.

I’ll do this one again, but not on rocky slopes. I have plenty of good training ideas that don’t risk falling on igneous rock, and if I had attempted this in the shallowly-treaded Goruck boots, I’d be blogging from Valhalla right now.

D-Day

Today’s the day, friends. 24 hours, 40+ miles, with logs, sandbags, PT beatdowns, and surf torture along the way.

Wherever you are today, get after it! Hammer along with me and (I’m completely serious about this), please remember my team and me in your thoughts and prayers. I may be Buddhist, but I’m not choosy about where I get my numinous intercession.

GORUCK Heavy SitRep

I am 20 days out from the “GORUCK Heavy” event. Normally I reserve this blog for content that I think will have general interest, not “training log” entries. But this month will be a little different, as I leave a sort of memo for my future self, and this post is a snapshot of my training right now.

What is a “GORUCK Heavy Challenge?”

For 24 hours, you and a team carry backpacks full of bricks and various sandbags or logs, with assorted calisthenics mixed in and periodic plunges into cold water. If I’m not mistaken, the evening begins with a PT test (a timed run, pushups, situps, and maybe pullups), followed by a timed 12-mile march. After that, a vomitous PT beat-down sardonically called the “welcome party.” And then you march around together carrying stuff for the remainder of the 24 hours. Typically the team covers 40 miles and the completion rate is 50%.

Last year I did a shorter version of this, called the “GORUCK Tough,” that lasted only 12 hours. All of our people completed the event.

Diet

Last year I trained in full ketosis and only started eating M&Ms and the extremely awesome caffeinated German military chocolate during the event. This year I’m follow low-carb endurance champ Zach Bitter’s approach instead, allowing myself 15-30% carbs to support a high training volume in this last month. When I start my taper, on about D-7, I’ll go back into ketosis and stay there except for a wee little carb load on D-2 and D-1.

Resistance training

Last year I competed at 162 lbs. and 9% bodyfat. For me that’s tiny. This year, I was persuaded that muscle mass pays in ruck marching so I decided to carry an extra 10 lbs. of muscle. As of today, I’m 175 lbs. at 11% bodyfat and I’ll probably stay right here. 

I got both arms injured in a car accident, and they’re only now returning to something like normal, so I feel that I’m behind on resistance training. I’m relying on GTG and ladders for pushups and pullups, and a few days a week I do one high-rep set of 16kg kettlebell snatches if joint health permits. (If you’re not familiar with GTG and ladders, stay tuned. I’ll cover them soon for the “lazy strength” series.)

Aerobic training

Amazingly, right now this is my strong suit. For months I’ve been racking up lots of volume, roughly using Stu Mittleman’s approach. (I’ll cover this soon too.) Most of it has been actual ruck marching, including lots of 12-mile rucks and one 24-miler, but there’s been some variety too: a little biking and running and sometimes wearing ankle weights. (Since the upcoming event will start with a 2-mile run, during the next couple weeks I’ll have to practice a few of those, just so that my ankles and calves remember what to do.)

Recovery

My recovery stinks. Rectifying that has to be Priority #1. April is my busiest month and my sleep schedule was torn to shreds. For the remainder of this month, lights-out is 10pm.

The Morning After the Birthday Party

A whole new twist to weighted carries: when the terrain rolls and footing is unpredictable, it introduces a whole new level of evil. This walk was lighter than usual and much shorter, but by the end I was cooked.

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Dirt-cheap and eminently useful East German assault pack and Austrian ODs, from the awesome Finnish milsurp site, http://www.varusteleka.com.