Why Numbers Don’t Work for Trail Runners

When I started running in 2006, I did it not because I wanted to change my lifestyle or lose weight or run races, but because I was fascinated with the idea that an accelerometer in my shoe could track my distance and pace. More importantly, that I could measure my progress without having to track anything on a spreadsheet.

I latched on to the numbers quickly. Much like any other beginner, all I cared about was increasing speed and distance. I became acquainted with multiple apps and Garmin watches.

A year later, I learned about training efficiency and I crunched even more numbers. I timed the peaks and troughs in my training volume, paid close attention to overload, and meticulously kept track of my resting HR and HR reserve. There was one summer when I ran every single race held by the NYRR.

I was quantifying everything.

Then, I moved to the south of Spain in a small town called Arcos de la Frontera. It was the first time I ran up a hill that was less than 1/3 of a mile broken into three steep sections: it starts at 29% grade, drops to 18%, and goes up to 32% just before you reach the peak. It was brutal.

Suddenly, my average pace didn’t matter as much as keeping my HR down. I also had to learn how to run on gravel. Most of the trails in Arcos are rocky and I always slipped a little whenever I sped up. It wreaked havoc on my pacing.

Trails in Arcos

Last week, I moved to Split where the trails are even greener and the hills aren’t as steep, but the course is more challenging. This is the view from Marjan Forest Park.

Marjan Forest Park

It has three peaks above sea level: Prva vidilica (125 meters), Druga vidilica (148 meters) and Treća vidilica (178 meters). Each peak has a long way and a short way of getting there. I can choose to take switchbacks, longer winding trails, steep or gradual ascents, a paved road, a dirt path, or a rocky terrain.

Split_trail1

Regardless of what I choose, I always have to slow down. Much like Arcos, tracking my pace isn’t as useful on these trails. It would only frustrate me. Paths quickly turn rugged. Big rocks mean uneven footing. Shrubs can suddenly change to cacti! Daydreaming isn’t really much of an option.

Elevation gain is also tricky. It’s only as good as the satellite reception I can get on the trail. Once GPS accuracy gets a little spotty, so does my data. There’s nothing more frustrating than relying on data to validate the effort I put in to a run. I’m better off acknowledging ahead of time that the GPS will be less than ideal.

HR is really kind of the most reliable assessment of my trail running activities. In fact, I probably benefit more from ratings of perceived exertion since a lot of what I measure on the trail is qualitative:

  • These hills are a lot of work for my quads.
  • This descent puts too much load my knees.
  • This terrain feels like work.
  • These sharp turns force me to balance more.

The metrics that I value most on the trails are different.

I care about how difficult something feels so that I know whether to run it on an easy day or a hard day. I care about the hill grade, because moderately hilly terrain is great for short bursts of speed, whereas steep hills are better for bounding drills. I care about the type of terrain, in case I’m doing a long progression run and I want to avoid a surprise ascent in the fastest part of my run.

I imagine that a pretty expensive watch with a built-in altimeter would probably sort out my need to track elevation on the trail but, is it necessary? Not really.

I think the greatest value I derive from trail running is that it keeps me on my toes. Trails are constantly changing so I have to pay closer attention to my running: my form, foot-strike, the length of my stride. It teaches me how to become a more well-rounded runner and, that’s something I can’t really get from my watch.

Now, discovering unmarked trails? My GPS watch is usually pretty good at that.

This blog is participating in the Trail Runner Blog Symposium. Join the conversation at trailrunnermag.com

Home Sweet Home

There’s something to be said about not being home for nearly two years. I never missed the bitter cold of winter, but I always missed the snow. More importantly, I missed the kitchen adventures with my mom – the only person I know who owns a complete set of knives that would rival any decent chef’s knives. Her kitchen is not for amateurs.

There’s always a fully stocked spice rack that sometimes overflow into multiple cabinets. She’s got a dutch oven, a few well-seasoned woks, and a plethora of stainless steel pots and pans that make me feel completely at home.

And reliving the memories of all the hours spent preparing wonderful and simple dishes in the kitchen will always be the highlight of every trip home.

There’s sinigang na isda. A tamarind based soup that can be cooked with whole fish or shrimp. It had me since I was little because I always loved seafood. It wasn’t until later that I learned to appreciate the different flavors and textures of everything else that goes into the dish – the okra, the eggplant, tomatoes, sitaw, and kangkong.

sinigang

There’s also escabeche. Sometimes the fish is poached in the oven, other times, it’s fried. I like it because it’s such a novelty to have sweet and sour fish. Of course, the ginger cuts through the sweetness and, it always surprises me how well bell peppers and carrots go together with fish. Who’d have thought?

escabeche

There’s kare-kare – an oxtail stew with eggplants, sitaw, pechay, and peanut butter in it. It’s one of those things you have to try at some point in your life. It’s an acquired taste, especially, once you add the fermented shrimp paste. You just have to trust me. It’s a win.

Kare-Kare

And then there’s pancit palabok. There’s a richer version that’s prepared a bit differently called, pancit malabon, and I like both of them. The rice noodles go perfectly with the intensity of the seafood flavor and it’s got just enough starchiness to balance out the amount of stuff that goes into it: sauteed shrimp, cabbages, toasted garlic, scallions, pork cracklings, pork belly, smoked oysters (sometimes), and an egg! Nommmmmm.

Pancit Palabok

And, of course, no trip home is complete without cornsilog (corned beef hash with garlic fried rice and eggs) because I might have five years of colorful cooking and lots of experimental dishes under my belt but, I can never perfect garlic fried rice like my dad can. Frankly, no one can. In case you’re not familiar with Filipino breakfast dishes, lots of them end with “silog” which is comprised of sinangag (garlic fried rice) and itlog (fried eggs). There’s lots of variations! Tapsilog (with cured beef), Longsilog (cured sausage), Tocilog (cured pork), Dasilog (daing or fried fish) – we’ve got breakfast down.

Cornsilog

Now tell me you’re not noshing for some home-cooked meals.

Runners tracking their data

After nearly a year of revising designs, throwing out ideas, and testing new functionality, we finally released Smashrun Pro. And, it’s truly befitting because, as we approach the end of the year, the concept of how data tracking has suddenly become a huge part of running as a social sport came to mind. Even races are now starting to take advantage of data and sharing it with their participants by indicating far more than just your splits but, also include a demographic breakdown of finisher stats.

I’ve had people ask me before about GPS watches or the best running apps to use. I usually point them towards DC Rainmaker or to this blog post I wrote about running apps and their data integrity. Those same people become one of two types of runners after tracking their stats for a little while: you either become tied to your data and you can’t ever seem to run without your watch or, you’re able to detach yourself from it whenever you need to.

The latter is actually pretty rare.

It’s important to understand that while data tracking provides consistency, structure, and a means for quantifying improvement, it can also hinder your progress.

Coach Jeff from RunnersConnect wrote an excellent article called “Don’t be a slave to your Garmin“. It does a really good job of summarizing GPS accuracy, pacing dependencies, and losing out on your easy days.

I think it’s hard for many runners to remember that tracking your stats can add noise to the big picture of your running. That we have to remain mindful of the variables that we compare. That we have to ask ourselves why it’s important to look at your pace trends, your total mileage, or the length of your streak.

I’m a chronic data tracker and it wasn’t until recently that I realized how much more fun I have when I don’t pay attention to my watch.

I still have to teach myself to just leave it at home sometimes but, for now, I think not looking at it while I’m running is a really good first step.

What It’s Like to Move A Startup to Spain

It was sheer luck that Smashrun recently ended up in Spain. We  needed the change. Something about living in suburbia for the past year and a half felt wrong. We hadn’t seen most of our friends, we rarely went out, we spoke to only two other people on a regular basis and the highlight of our social life was waving to the lawn guys across the street once a week. Our work still felt tremendously meaningful, but our only outlet for stress was running around our neighborhood.

I get that it’s hard to achieve both meaning and happiness but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shot. So, we packed up our bags, including a 30 lb computer tower and two monitors, and moved to a small town in Spain.

A Quick Background on Smashrun

Smashrun is our data crunching analytical site for runners. It started out as one of Chris’ personal projects, which evolved into a full blown repository for run data collected by various apps and devices. We’re a bit of a stats haven for runners, we shamelessly dig deep into the details of your run data, and we let our personality run wild when you break through a running milestone. Really, what’s the point if you can’t stay motivated?

Why We Moved to Spain

Arcos Trails

Sometimes it’s necessary to detach yourself from the familiar to rekindle your awareness of where you stand in your life. Talking to complete strangers in a foreign country can do that to you too. It flushes out your identity and reminds you of all the little things that you might not otherwise pay attention to like: why you’re an entrepreneur, why you moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere in Spain, or why you say you’re “American” when you were born in a foreign country and lived there for 10 years before leaving.

Speaking to complete strangers in a bar or a supermarket in a foreign language is so much worse than talking to a VC. You’re not even asking for capital and yet they want to know everything about your startup. In Arcos, they also want to know whether or not I cook, if I go to church, what my plans are for Christmas, and why I like to run. You’re always answering questions. You can’t not have an answer.

Travel fundamentally changes your life. Experiential lessons are often served more quickly than you might prefer, and that’s okay. Changing is living. This is why we moved.

But, why Spain?

The Spanish economy has suffered quite an economic catastrophe and they’re just starting to show signs of recovery. You would think that means everyone, everywhere, in Spain would be ridiculously and blatantly bitter, but you would be wrong.

Like most other small towns, people treat you like tourists for the first week or two but, it quickly changes when they realize you’re staying longer. It’s hard to not spend at least 20 minutes at the deli or meat counter without the person asking you about your day. I have to memorize all sorts of small talk before heading out, because I’m worried I’ll look like an idiot for not knowing what to say other than what I already said last time.

Our rent is only about USD $660/month and while our “line-of-sight” included internet is occasionally an embarrassment to be reckoned with, our neighbor and makeshift landlord across the street has run an ethernet cord from his house to our living room (across the street) so that we can average between 7MB/s – 12MB/s and work all day without skipping a beat.

Arcos is also notoriously well known for its hills. These hills stop you halfway up carrying your groceries, because you (at a ripe young age of 27, way younger than the 70-year old man walking past you) have to catch your breath. Chris, describes it perfectly:

There’s this one hill that leads up the side of the cliff face to the cathedral. We’re using that hill to calibrate a “Level 9″ hill difficulty on Smashrun. It kicks off at a 20% grade, and only rarely lets off, but the bit that’s not over 20% grade is hardly noticeable. Well, what with all the the sweat dripping in your eyes and the light-headedness precipitated by oxygen deprivation.

Each time I run this hill, I make it just a few steps farther than I did the last time before I have to start walking. Let me say that again. Before I have to start walking. No. Not slow down, not dig deep and find my inner champion, but walk….slowly…very slowly. And, when I start walking (very slowly) I don’t start running again, because quite frankly, I would have a heart attack and I would die on the spot. And then I would roll head over heels for next 10 minutes until I reached the bottom of the hill. And then this hill, this level 9 hill, would probably send a boulder rolling down after me and crush me with a kind of grim finality usually reserved for cartoon characters and blockbuster movie villains. You know, because, there’s a slim chance that some prospective hero who knew CPR might be happening by, and this is a hill that doesn’t take chances. It is just that kind of a hill.

This is our level 9 hill that we use for calibration.

This is our level 9 hill that we use for calibration.

These paths were not made for runners but, they sure do a good job of helping us perfect our hill index and tuning those performance factors.

Cost of basic goods?

  • 1 fresh baked loaf of bread: €1
  • 2 kilos of tomatoes: €1,40
  • 1 decent bottle of Tempranillo or a Verdejo: €2
  • 1/2 lb of jamón serrano: €2,33
  • 2 kg of mussels: €1,80
  • 75 grams of caviar: €1,50
  • 1 liter of milk: €0.64
This Is How We Did It

There’s really no secret sauce to how we pulled it off. Before the big move, I searched for all the cities in the world where the cost of living is low and where the internet is good. Then I cross referenced it with cost of plane tickets using ITA Software, I looked at AirBnb/HomeAway options, MindMyHouse, and cost of local travel (getting from the airport to the final destination).

My list actually started out with Nicaragua, Singapore, Munich, Panama City, Ecuador, and Buenos Aires.

Nicaragua, Panama City, and Ecuador were ruled out on the basis of unreliable internet, Munich was ruled out on high cost of living, and Buenos Aires was a steep plane ticket from the East Coast. We also thought about Budapest, but the language barrier was a minor deal breaker and, again, the plane tickets were no good in October. On a whim, we checked out Spain and the numbers aligned. We just needed a low cost of living, decent internet, and a good location for running, and we found it.

Startups Move to Connect or Reset

A lot of people would disagree with our decision to move to a small town in Spain without a startup community. You see, I’m convinced that founders uproot themselves for one of two reasons: to connect with other founders and seek funding or to seek change in order to break out of a mental rut. We fit the latter. Arcos is not a bad place to call home for a few months and it’s just enough of a change to jumpstart our creativity and keep us focused.

Trail Running in Arcos

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. –Paulo Coelho, Brazilian poet and writer.

Calvin and Hobbes

Image sourced from Brain Pickings

These days, I run alongside open fields. Just wide open fields. Occasionally, there’s a cute little white dog running around who likes to stand by Casa de Miguel. I think it’s because he thinks his name is Miguel. Other times, I notice the pair of German Shepherds just over the fence of a farmer’s land. They bark but then their wagging tails give them away. They’re actually quite friendly too.

The open fields are always empty. On an early evening run, I can see these trails bordering between peaceful and a little scary. Yet it’s so close to town, which sits on a towering hill that you can see in every direction, that you can’t help but feel safe all the time. It  helps that the sound of the church bells carry out into the valley.

And the orange trees… I only wish I could reach across the fences to grab the ripe ones. Luckily, they also line the plazas throughout Arcos. They’re all over the city!

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I think I could get used to this. And Smashrun could do with a bit of elevation data to test with.