TESTING THE LIMITS OF HUMAN SPIRIT

TESTING THE LIMITS OF HUMAN SPIRIT

📅15 January 2014
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 By Charlie Epperson

“I gazed in envy at ultra runners whose quadriceps had the kind of definition that tells you Secretariat is somewhere in their family tree.” – Liz Zelandais, writing about the Dam 50k Run

Mike Campian crosses the finish line at the 2013 Western States Endurance Run paced by his wife Andrea Campian. (courtesy photo)

Mike Campian crosses the finish line at the 2013 Western States Endurance Run paced by his wife Andrea Campian. (courtesy photo)

The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run serves as the crown jewel of ultra running. Never intended to be a foot race, the Western States started as a horse race known as the Tevis Cup in the 1950’s to test the ability of horse and rider to navigate the length of the Western States Trail in a one-day race that gains over 18,000 ft of elevation before dropping nearly 23,000 ft.

In 1973, Gordy Ainsleigh abandoned the race after his horse went lame near mile 30 and attempted to complete the remainder of the course by foot. A year later, Anisleigh would return to become the first competitor to run the entire 100 miles.

A month back I decided to write a series about endurance racing and training and logically thought of two people. My first inquiry was with GSPN’s Patrick Lujan on his interest in running a series that focuses on the heart of endurance competition.

After I received the green light from Patrick, my second email was to my buddy Mike Campian, an ultra runner and doctor, to see if he would be willing to discuss his experiences preparing and racing in the 2013 Western States 100 along with a few of his other ultra running accomplishments. In my opinion, there is no truer test of the depth of human spirit than a 100-mile run.

I was lucky to cross paths with Mike during his short deployment in Guam serving as an undersea medical dive officer on the USS EMORY S. LAND. Mike joined our Thursday night track sessions and we traveled to Saipan for the Annual Festival of Runs held every April that offered 10K, Half Marathon, Marathon, and even a 50K ultra run. Obviously, Mike ran the 50K and I the lesser more realistic 10K distance.  

The prize awarded to sub-24 performances - The Silver Western States Belt Buckle. (courtesy photo)

The prize awarded to sub-24 performances – The Silver Western States Belt Buckle. (courtesy photo)

As an accomplished ultra runner before arriving on Guam, Mike already had a few noteworthy races under his belt; a victory at the Dances with Dirt 50K in 2009, 2nd place in the Chimera 100K, and a sub-24 hour finish at the San Diego 100-mile run in 2010. This past summer, Mike toed the starting line of the Western States 100 in Squaw Valley and less than 23 hours later he crossed the finish line in Auburn, California. Mike earned the coveted Western States silver belt buckle for his effort- a life long goal for many ultra runners.

Mike’s mantra in running and life is “Relentless Forward Motion.” I caught-up with a busy Dr. Campian recently via email and Mike shares some great advice for runners looking to tackle an ultra in 2014. If ultra running is your goal, I highly recommend you seek further advice from runners like Mike.

As far as local advice, I would recommend seeking the counsel of proven ultra runners, such as Rodney Bordallo , Tina Tainatongo, or Fred Schumann – a little advice may go a long way to prepare you for this adventure.

CE: Mike, please tell us a little bit about your background; where you’re from, age, and what sports did you compete in before gravitating into the ultra community?

MC: I’m 31 and originally from Dimondale, Michigan. Ice hockey was my predominant sport. I recreationally played basketball, baseball and ultimate Frisbee. Additionally, I rock climb and enjoy mountaineering now.

CE: What is your connection to Guam, where do you live now and where you headed in the near future?

MC: I was in Guam for 7 months stationed on the USS EMORY S. LAND (AS39). Currently, I live in San Diego, CA. I will be moving to Salt Lake City, Utah in June 2014.

CE: Describe your experience running, training and racing on Guam.

MC: Guam has a really unique environment to train and race. I am familiar with running in the heat and humidity but typically not the combination. Being in Guam during the spring and summer months I had to fight a great deal of heat and humidity. Therefore, you have to be a bit inventive with training. With this in mind I would do most of my training in the early mornings and late in the evenings.

If I had to do any bigger runs I would sometimes split the run up between morning and night. The majority of my training was done on the roads in and around the main Navy base, Agat and Agana. This was unusual for me since I typically train/race on trails in the States. The reason for this was most of the races in Guam are road races. I did participate in a few hash runs, which were on the trails. If I was in Guam for a greater period of time I would have run more frequently on the tropical trails. As far as racing, I did the Guam Marathon and Sea-to-Sea Relay and then several of the smaller races hosted by the Guam Running Club.

CE: How much does your profession as a doctor play into your preparation and racing?

MC: It is the perfect profession for preparing and training for ultra races. Being a physician I am definitely more cognizant of the safety issues involved with running extreme distances in extreme terrain. I’m also knowledgeable with minimize these safety hazards. I am meticulous on hydration and ability to have access to hydration (mostly when on adventure runs or long training runs). This all came about after I DNF’d in my very first ultra attempt with a trip to the emergency department for dehydration. In addition to hydration, I also always carry a mini first aid kit, emergency blanket, epi pen and toilet paper on all my long training runs.

Hydration and first aid only addresses the acute issues of ultra running. I am also “pretty” good at managing the chronic issues (injuries and longevity). I say “pretty” in quotations because my competitive drive does get in the way occasionally. I specialize in sports medicine and rehab so I’m familiar with sports injuries and recovery. This comes in handy since running long distances does lead to injuries. I do have a good understanding of my body and when to run hard and when to take time off. I am also, not a huge mileage runner like some ultra runners averaging 50-70 miles a week. This helps to diminish a majority of the wear on my body.

Mike taking a break on Villager Peak looking across Anza Borrego Desert in California during one of his training runs. (courtesy photo)

Mike taking a break on Villager Peak looking across Anza Borrego Desert in California during one of his training runs. (courtesy photo)

CE: You completed the Western States 100 Miler last summer, gives us an idea of how tough of a race this is and what you did to prepare for it?

MC: This race is notorious for its elevation changes and temperature changes. It has numerous steep ascents and descents. Of note are the ascents of the Escarpment, Devil’s Thumb and Michigan Bluff, and their related descents. There is 18,090 feet of ascent and 22,970 feet of descent. The descent is the more challenging of the two, as it can be a quad killer. The weather is also a huge factor. There are huge temperature swings from very cold in the morning to very hot during the day. There was no snow when I ran the race however some years there is snow and occasionally significant enough to alter the course. They have several snow routes if the snow is too bad. Then there are the canyons that can get really hot with temps exceeding 100. I may not have had snow during my race but I had scorching temps. My race was the second hottest race recorded with temps exceeding 100 degrees. Then there is the whole 100.2 miles!

To prepare for this beast I focused on the challenges I mentioned above. I focused on steep downhill training. I made several trips to Mt. San Jacinto which is in Idyllwild, CA. The skyline trail is 11 miles with almost 8,000 feet. You are able to take the tram up and do just the downhill portion of the skyline trail. I did multiple training runs on this trail. It addition to the great downhill on the skyline trail it can get really hot as it finishes in Palm Springs, CA. Therefore, I got some great downhill and heat training. In addition, I would focus on doing my training runs during the hottest part of the day in CA to prepare for the hot temps.

CE: You recently had an injury in the Javelina Junderd 100 Mile, what happened that led to it and what did you take away from that race?

MC: During the second loop of the seven-loop course I stepped off a rock awkwardly and strained my right achilles tendon. This forced me to walk/run the last five miles of the loop. When I got back to the start, my wife worked on my leg for 20 minutes. The leg just wouldn’t loosen up so I decided to call it a day so I would not significantly injure myself. In the past, I would have pushed through something like this and made what would have otherwise been a minor injury something bigger.

The other factor that went into my decision to drop was that I was only 31 miles into the race. If I was 80 ish miles into the race I may have considered walk/running the remaining miles. This kind of situation is common in this sport. Anyone who runs extreme distances in challenging environments is going to encounter similar situations and have to choose finishing with potential disabling injury vs. living to run another day. This is the conundrum of the sport of ultras!

CE: Can you offer some training advice for runners that desire to get into ultra running?

MC: Training for ultras can be an extension of marathon training for distances like 50ks or 50m to totally unique for longer distances like 100ks to 100m plus. Ultimately it depends on what goals you might have for a certain race and the distance. Some specifics for longer ultras that differ from road racing are obviously training on the trails, training in the dark and spending a longer time on your feet. There is also a much more in depth fueling and hydration component than in road racing as you will be running for so much longer. Finally a major component and arguably the most challenging is training for the mental aspect of ultras. Here are some specifics of my training plan. I like to run 5 days per week – T, W, Th, Sa, and Su. I do my speed workout on Tuesday.

Mike running the sandstone trails of Zion Nat'l Park. (courtesy photo)

Mike running the sandstone trails of Zion Nat’l Park. (courtesy photo)

This typically involves a tempo style run on a flat trail unlike 800-meter track workouts. Wednesdays I do shorter, easy trail runs 5-7 miles. Thursdays I do hill training on a hilly trail or one of the local mountains. I do the majority of my miles on the weekends doing back-to-back long trail runs. These can range from 20 to 50 miles split between the two days. This gives me a chance to work on my hydration/nutrition, time on my feet and mental training.

I average 50-70 miles a week on normal, which is far less than the elites but is what I have time to do. Regarding nutrition, you should consume about 150 kcal/hr up to 200 kcal/hr. A good rule of thumb for hydration is to find out your sweat rate. This can give you a general idea and then you can adjust depending on altitude and temperature. Generally, you want to drink when you are thirsty. Drinking too much water can make you nauseous as not drinking enough water. I also use salt tabs to maintain proper electrolytes and typically take 1-2 tabs/hr. I can go on forever, but this is a good start.

CE: Any secrets to how you keep moving in a race that can last over 24hrs?

MC: Run aid station to aid station to break the race into short distances. Learn to hold a conversation while running. Typically you will be running around other runners and holding a conversation can distract from the running. The great thing with this is you can learn some interesting things about your fellow runner, to running tips, to other races. Find a good crew and pacers. The crew can provide encouragement throughout the day in little spurts. Pacers are typically allowed around mile 50. They can provide some much needed support and distraction when you need it the most. And, find races that will interest you. If you don’t like to run loop courses then don’t choose that type of race. It will not be exciting or rewarding and can actually increase your chances to DNF.

CE: What are some of your favorite trail foods and nutritional supplements during a race?

MC: I really like skratch labs nutrition drink. It is all natural and light in taste providing 40 kcal/serving and perfect balance of electrolytes. It is normal osmolality so it doesn’t drive a bunch of water into the gut and make me nauseous. Typically I like to carry ginger chews (anti-nausea) and homemade rice bars that contain eggs, bacon, soy sauce and brown sugar, which contain about 100 kcal/serving. Then at aid stations I like to ginger ale, potato chips, boiled potatoes dipped in salt, watermelon, oranges and gummy bears. I also carry Salt Stick electrolyte tablets. I shoot for 165 kcal/hour taking most of it as nutrition drink.

CE: As much as you can, explain how you balance your training with your career?

MC: As I mentioned above, I am not a big mileage runner because I just don’t have time. I also find that “junk” miles are not useful. During the week when I am busiest I run the three days I mentioned averaging 15-20 miles, which takes 3-4 hours. These runs are usually done in the evening before dinner right around my house. Then I get up early on the weekends to get the big runs in and not kill my whole day. The 20-50 miles takes me anywhere from 4 -12 hours. I pretty much run when I can squeeze it in my schedule. I hardly ever get the chance to sleep in and sacrifice a lot of down time. I’m okay with that and have been pretty successful. The key with me is trying to stay consistent. Consistency is huge in ultra running but you don’t have to be so finicky that you stress yourself out if you have to miss a run or two. This is not going to make or break your race.

CE: What are your goals in 2014?

MC: I have a few goals this year. I am continuing to rock climb two to three days a week indoors and hope to make some trips to Joshua Tree National Park. My main focus this winter is my first ever winter mountaineering trip. I will be attempting a winter ascent of Mt. Whitney on Jan 19. Once that is done, I will turn my focus back to running. I am planning on running the Old West Trails 50k in March, then PCT 50 in May and then San Diego 100 in June.

I am planning to attempt the 8000 meter challenging running and summiting the three largest peaks in San Diego County: Mt. Baldy, Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio. I’m sure there will be more adventures that will come up between now and San Diego 100. After SD100 I have nothing planned as I will be moving to Salt Lake City, Utah to start my PM&R residency and my life will be a bit hectic for awhile.

CE: Thanks for your time and advice on the sport of ultra running – how completely different it is from the running I know. Best of luck to you and Andrea as you continue your journey.

 

Charlie EppersonSend comments to Charlie Epperson via Facebook at www.facebook.com/rcharlesepperson

 

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