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Author - IRun4Ultra

hallucinations

Hallucinations: Humorous or Harmful?

by Larry Carroll

They sound like something out of a Road Runner cartoon, or a David Lynch film — hallucinations, mirages, mind-trickery that convinces you something is so real you could reach out and touch it. But as humorous as it may be to conjure up thoughts of backward-dancing dwarves and unicorns, for elite runners such phantasmagoria can be both horrifying and dangerous.

Unlike shin splints or Achilles tendonitis, however, hallucinations are neither easily diagnosed nor treatable. In fact, many runners consider them part of ultra lore, fodder for some good campfire stories the night before a big race. But when an athlete sacrifices body and mind for hours at a time, often in remote areas and into the middle of the night, there’s no way of knowing if hallucinations will hamper your journey — until they do.

“Your mind plays tricks on you,” ultra-marathon legend Courtney Dauwalter said last year in a YouTube interview (Courtney Dauwalter Ultra Runner | Talks First Hallucinations in Ultra Race), stopping just short of invoking the “h-word” to describe what she’s seen out on the trail. “You’re seeing something, and instantly your brain tries to tell you what you’re seeing, and it’s not at all what’s there. One time in Steamboat [Springs], I was running along these trails. It was getting dark — and next to the trail, a woman was churning butter.”

“There was a colonial woman just standing there, churning butter,” she says with a laugh. “It wasn’t real; she wasn’t there.”

In 2013 at the Hardrock 100, Steve Pero was running along Colorado’s remote Bear Creek Trail in the middle of the night when he saw a camper who had set up his tent in the middle of the trail, then came across hundreds of 1970s-style transistor radios. As Jay Sanguinetti, a University of New Mexico research assistant professor — and runner — tells Trail Runner magazine (Ultrarunning Hallucinations Happen. Here’s How to Deal With Them ), such hallucinations are rare but perfectly plausible in their cause, if not their storyline.

“Your brain chooses what data from the optic nerve it wants to use,” says Sanguinetti. “It gets very complicated when it’s dark outside, or very shady…Your brain is saying, ‘This is the best I can do, given that you’ve been awake for two days while running. You’re going to see some stuff, and I’m not sure if it’s out there or in here.'”

At that point, which hallucinations you see out on the trail are as personal as any decision you may make in your daily life — this one, however, is more about your subconscious choice than any you’d willingly select. For Gary Robbins in the 2016 Barkley Marathon, it manifested itself as house numbers on trees and faces on the leaves he was trampling on.

“The first time, it’s like blistering or chafing,” he tells Trail Runner. “It’s super painful. Then, you realize you’re not going to die. Years of experience definitely helped me handle hallucinating.”

But just like a mirage in an old cartoon, as long as the runner keeps moving along the vision offers no danger, vanishing into the ether as quickly as it appeared. As Gary Dudney wrote in a blog entry on Ultrarunning Magazine (Got Hallucinations?), sometimes such visions aren’t even the sorts of thing that should be on dry land.

“Each vision was as distinct and vivid as a cellphone snapshot,” he says of a race in Shenandoah Valley that had him seeing dolphins in the middle of the night. “The dolphin and its wave dissolved when I got even closer and directed my flashlight beam at a big chunk of fallen tree trunk with a bushy little sapling sticking up behind it … A few minutes later I ran through an area full of tree stumps, which at first I could have sworn were robot men.”

For a fascinating read on the realities behind such visions, take a look at “Within the Dreams, Reality and Hallucinations of Ultra-Marathon Runners,” a 2003 study ( Within the dreams, reality, and hallucinations of ultra-marathon runners ) by Andrew J. Mojica that analyzes the visions of Badwater ultra-marathoners and even draws parallels to the hallucinations of the Greek dispatch runner Pheidippides who claimed to see the god Pan in 490 B.C.

According to Mojica, six people out of the twenty study participants reported seeing hallucinations, most between midnight and sunrise, most less than a minute and attributing sleep deprivation as the likely cause.

Ultimately, all you can do is try to minimize your own likelihood of hallucinating (get your sleep, run with a pacer who can assure you they don’t see any butter churners, try to keep your mind from drifting) and if you do encounter one, keep calm. Because as long as they aren’t instructing you to step off a cliff, hallucinations are harmless.

“You’re in a really unusual situation, not faced by most of us,” Mojica tells Trail Runner. “It’s fine. Try not to stigmatize it, and it should be less frightening.”

According to Dauwalter, you just have to accept that robot men, dolphins and butter-churning comes with the challenge. “My first hallucination was a pterodactyl and some giraffes and I was like ‘this is not safe!’,” she smiles. “But when I ran by the colonial woman, I waved at her.”

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running shoes

How to choose your next pair of running shoes

by Larry Carroll

For ultra-runners, selecting a pair of shoes is like Han Solo bonding with his spaceship or John Wick picking out a certain weapon of choice. You’re about to head into battle together, the two of you are about to share a special bond — and when showtime hits, you want to make sure you won’t be let down.

Another unfortunate reality of endurance running, however, is that you need to replace your kicks with frequency, and innovation is constantly changing your options. With that in mind, below is a simple breakdown of some questions you should be asking yourself when the time comes to select your footwear.

Trail-runner or road-runner? – Although you’d be hard-pressed to find a lengthy run that doesn’t combine the two to some extent, the first choice you must make is which kind of shoe your needs require. For this discussion we’ll assume trail runner shoes, which are generally designed to prevent foot rotation injuries over control of pronation (the degree to which the arch of your foot collapses upon impact). 

Is my store up to the task? – It sounds obvious, but far too many runners put more thought into shoe brand and style than they do fit. Even if you think you know your shoe size, don’t take it for granted. Make sure that your selected shoe seller has the measuring abilities, staff, and selection to properly fit your feet — then take the time to do so before you do anything else. You’d be surprised at how much impact a half-size difference can have when you’re out on the trail.

Light, rugged or off? – Trail running shoes can largely be divided into 3 categories. If you tend to run on well-groomed trails, then you want something close to traditional running shoes, weight-wise, because a brisk pace is most important to you. Rocks and roots aren’t as much of a concern, so you want to go with a light trail shoe. Rugged trail shoes, meanwhile, will generally give you additional underfoot protection, toe guards and lug patterns to keep you upright and protected — and can range widely based on how crazy you plan on getting out there. Speaking of which, the last category is Off Trail shoes, which offer the most resilient materials and actively guard against twisted ankles while simultaneously satisfying all your weatherproofing needs – but remember, the more weatherproofing you take on, the less your feet will breathe out there.

Be realistic – While some people might think it could be inspiring to buy shoes for a 100-mile race when your training level is only around 5 miles, it’s really just overkill. Be honest with yourself about where your training currently stands, and shop for the races/training in your immediate future. Don’t worry — when you’re ready to run Badwater, you can always come back and get another pair.

What’s your stack height? – Some runners swear that thick, protective shoes will make your runs more comfortable and less likely to result in injury. Others desire less cushioning, wanting a feel so natural that it’s almost like running barefoot. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice — but if you lean towards minimal footwear, just be sure that you build up gradually.

Give yourself a wide berth – For some, a wide forefoot is best. If you’re running very long distances, for instance, or if you happen to have wider feet and need a bit more wiggle room. Shoe width is an important decision, however, because losing fit precision could lead to clumsiness on the course.

What’s the off-set? – It seems like a minor decision, but when you plan to spend mile after mile with a pair of shoes it’s one worth asking: How much lower do you want your toes in relation to your heel? With each stride, shoes with less of a drop encourage you to land on your fore-foot or mid-foot; a bigger drop is ideal for striking with your heel.

Once you’ve considered all this and made your purchase, you get to enjoy the best part: Busting some new shoes out of their box, strapping them on and taking them out for a maiden voyage. Is it weird to bond with a pair of sneakers? Remember, what happens on the trail stays on the trail.

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Is it a good idea to ultra-marathon on a Keto diet?

by Larry Carroll

If there’s one thing that has been around as long as the concept of running for health, it’s dieting for health. Much like running itself, dieting has witnessed the rise and fall of many fads, vast quantities of products touting the ultimate solution, and many programs that prove difficult to stick with. Nowadays, the hot word in dieting is “keto,” and as more long-distance runners are looking to it for an edge, one has to wonder: Is it a good idea to ultra-marathon on a keto diet?

For decades, the image of a long-distance runner in the days before a marathon was relatively clear-cut: Huddled over huge plates of pasta, shoving a banana in the mouth at the starting line, treating themselves to chocolate milk in an attempt to get sugar back to the muscles post workout. Of course, all these images run contrary to the rise of the ketogenic diet, which promotes a high-fat, adequate-protein, low-carbohydrate lifestyle that forces the body to burn fats rather than carbs.

According to a recent article by CNN (https://money.cnn.com/2018/09/17/news/companies/keto-diet-trend/index.html), “With the help of social media and word of mouth, demand for keto-friendly products have gone through the roof … Interest in keto has far outpaced interest in other fad diets. A Google Trends chart over the past year show searches for ‘keto’ have dwarfed searches for ‘paleo,’ ‘Whole 30’ and ‘intermittent fasting.'”

Naturally, when something the media describes as a “fad diet” hits such pervasive proportions, it is going to bleed over into the world of athletics and fitness. It’s no surprise, then, that someone like Zach Bitter is giving interviews talking about his recent setting of the record for fastest 100 mile trail run while crediting a diet with virtually no carbs.

Remembering his high school and college days, Bitter tells Men’s Journal (https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/zach-bitter-100-mile-american-record-holder-he-also-eats-almost-no-carbs/): “My diet was clean, but probably 60% carbs. Then, in 2010, I started participating in ultra-endurance events and noticed that things weren’t ideal — not being able to sleep consistently through the night, having big energy swings during the day, chronic inflammation in my ankles, things like that.”

After meeting with Jeff Volek, an Ohio State University professor/expert in low carbohydrate research, Bitter changed to a diet that now has carbs accounting for as little as 5% of his diet. “The inflammation went away really quickly, and within a month I was sleeping way better, like getting through the night,” Bitter explains. “And I noticed that my energy levels were consistent throughout the day.”

Whenever any athlete decides to go Keto, the primary question seems to be the same: How can you fuel yourself during an endurance race?

According to Kristin, a blogger at Madcity Eats, it was just a matter of time before her body got accustomed to burning fat, not carbs. “I started training for a 50k after being on the keto diet for about four months At that point, I was fully fat-adapted, meaning my body had shifted into a metabolic state where it was using fat as its primary fuel source.,” she writes (https://madcityeats.com/my-first-ultra-marathon-on-a-keto-diet-eb6e66840cce), observing that the fat in her diet made her less hungry than in past training, allowed her to skip breakfasts and rely on fuel from the previous night’s dinner, and like Bitter led to her recovering from workouts faster. “I know the ketogenic diet is working for me  —  not only in my day-to-day life, but also in my endurance pursuits.”

Much like Atkins and other low-carb diets, keto puts your body in a metabolic state called ketosis. Your body becomes efficient at burning fat for energy, and supplies energy for the brain by creating ketones in the liver. Reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels are common, which can result in health benefits. However, health experts have voiced concerns over ketoacidosis — a dangerous condition that occurs when the body stores too many ketones — which could lead to liver, kidney or even brain damage, particularly in diabetics. Even if you closely monitor your transition into the keto diet, the so-called “keto flu” should have you expecting to feel tired and in some sort of gastrointestinal distress for several days.

Then there’s the matter of a recent study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness where Edward Weiss, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, found with some colleagues that participants actually performed worse on cycling and running tasks after 4 days on a ketogenic diet than that same window on a high-carb diet.

“Just losing a few pounds is enough to give you a huge advantage on the bike, but I’m very concerned that people are attributing the benefits of weight loss to something specific in the ketogenic diet,” Weiss tells Health magazine (https://www.health.com/weight-loss/keto-diet-side-effects). “In reality, the benefits of weight loss could be at least partially canceled out by reductions in performance.”

Not exactly music to the ears of an ultra-runner hoping to improve their time on the trail.

Ultimately, Kristin at Madcity Eats may sum it up best: “What I learned is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to training and racing while in ketosis. Everyone is different and has different fueling needs based on factors like body composition, how long you’ve been fat adapted and the duration of your race. Some athletes can train and race in a fasted state; others need to eat before and during a race. Still others opt to break from ketosis in the days leading up to an event and consume more carbohydrates for optimal performance.”

As the TV commercials say: Consult your doctor. Together, perhaps you’ll decide that keto offers the right path to reach your training goals. But until then, you might not want to throw away all those boxes of spaghetti just yet.

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get your dog fit

How to get your dog fit for long distance running

by Larry Carroll

Ultra-runners can be divided into two categories: Those who prefer a running partner, and those who prefer silence. Throughout centuries of undying companionship, dogs have earned the term “Man’s Best Friend.” It would make perfect sense, then, that the ideal state of training for many runners is alongside a 4-legged friend.

Running with a dog, however comes with so many questions. Which breeds are best equipped? How can you get them accustomed to running long distances? How much equipment will you need to add to your own? And, perhaps most importantly: How do you get them to stop chasing every darn squirrel they see along the route?

Cushla Lamen is a fitness instructor, Canicross racer and canine myotherapist — and she says the key to getting your dog out on the trail with you is simply treating them like anyone else. “Dogs need to build up to long distances slowly and steadily, just like their human companions,” she recently told Trail Running magazine ( HOW DO I TRAIN FOR A MUD RUN? ). “By taking your dog with you on training runs and building distances together, you’ll ensure you’re both race fit. Start with 5km to 10km, then add an additional 3km per week up to 20km. Overall, it’s down to the dog; if they stop, so do you.”

As much as you and your dog may come to feel like a team, it’s unfortunately impossible to sit Fido down and explain that you’re about to do a 5K, a marathon or a simple run to the corner market. Some dogs, however, may come to recognize something like a backpack you wear as an indication that it’s time for a lengthy run.

They are also likely to recognize the harness/bungee line/waist belt combos preferred by those who have embraced Canicross — a cross country sport that views the human as a driver and the canine as a sort of engine, responding to voice commands while embracing a team aesthetic that engages both the dog’s body and its mind. In the Canicross world, runners go hands-free and often use mushers terms to drive their dog, brief commands like “Go Gee” (go right) or “On by” (ignore, keep going) — but ultimately, you can use any terms you like in training your dog out on the trail, as long as they are consistent and easily understood.

If you don’t yet have a tail-wagging trail buddy in your life yet, there are certain breeds better suited to the task than others. Consider such breeds as Weimaraners (muscular, love to be alongside their masters), Vizslas (long gait, enjoys exercise), German Shorthaired Pointers (built for mileage) and Golden/Labrador Retrievers for unrivaled companionship. If you’d prefer a smaller dog — after all, at some point you need to stop running and bring the dog home, and a one-bedroom apartment might not work for a Rhodesian Ridgeback — Jack Russell Terriers are very active and eager to learn commands, Fox Terriers are great for running in heat, and although their prissy reputation may not call it to mind, poodles were bred for long, slow runs. If you’re more inclined to rescue than adopt from a breeder, dogs with any combination of the above breeds are likely to satisfy your needs.

As for equipment, if you’re not looking to go the full Canicross route you could crib some notes from record-setting trail runner Alicia Vargo. As she told Outside Magazine ( The Best Gear for Running with Your Dog ), her dog runs through Arizona’s pine forests wearing a pack that carries its own water in two 0.6-liter collapsible hydration bladders — and attaches to a quick-draw, two-foot-long leash that can be stashed for off-leash runs. “It gives him a sense of purpose or makes him feel like he is working,” she says. “He is a border collie, after all, and needs to work to be happy.”

Other products worth researching include Musher’s Secret (HDP Invisible Dog Boots Wax-Based Cream Mushers Secret )– a balm for rubbing on dog feet before they run on particularly hot or cold surfaces; Zuka Bowls (ZUKA TRAVEL DOG BOWLS) — easy to fold, holds 10 or 16 ounces of water and comes with a carabiner; and of course, you can’t run without treats to reward good behavior such as Zuke’s Mini Naturals (Zuke’s Mini Naturals Healthy Moist Dog Treats Variety Pack – 6 Flavors (Roasted Pork, Wild Rabbit, Roasted Chicken, Delicious Duck, Savory Salmon, & Fresh Peanut Butter) — small, yummy and perfect for bringing on a run. Also, you may want to consider bringing dog booties and a first aid kit in your supplies.

Much of running with a dog is simple common sense. Before becoming an ultra-runner, it’s wise to speak with your doctor; similarly, consult a veterinarian before asking your dog to become one. Just as it’s wise for us to avoid warmer temperatures, you’ll want to consider the same for your companion. Finally, don’t feed the dog just before or after a long run — just as you wouldn’t do that to yourself.

Ultimately, running with a dog is about the two of you operating as one. So be sure to take time and listen to how the dog is breathing during your run, keep an eye on their gait and make sure they aren’t showing signs of injury or exhaustion, and be prepared for some days which may go better than others — just as they would if you were running solo. The best part about running with a dog may just be at the end, when it’s time to kneel down and give out a treat and a well-deserved pat on the head — knowing that together, the two of you have just accomplished a shared goal.

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