Running the Rim to Rim to Rim – A story of high altitude, mules and chasing lemonade

In late February I was invited to join a group who would be running the R2R2R in early May.  That gave me around 10 weeks to train and ready myself for what would be a self-supported 50+ mile ultramarathon.  I hired a coach, Tim Long, who drew up a training plan that had me running almost every day of the week.  I could feel myself getting stronger especially in the uphills and with my endurance, but even with that, I was not prepared for what the Grand Canyon would throw my way.

Our group of 15 flew from San Jose to Phoenix airport Thursday morning.  We rented a couple big white vans and loaded them up with groceries from Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s before starting the 4 hour drive to the Grand Canyon and our camp site, a few miles from the trailhead.

Loading up at Whole Foods
Loading up at Whole Foods
Landed at PHX
Landed at PHX

We went to sleep around 10 since we had a very early start the next day.  I filled up my hydration pack and laid out my running clothes in my tent so I could get started as quickly as possible.  I even put in my contacts before going to sleep so I wouldn’t have to do that in the morning.

3:30 a.m. – I am up before my alarm goes off.  I lay in my sleeping bag just a bit longer.  I grab my phone and check on the Warriors score.  They won, beating the Nuggets and advancing.  Good start to the day.

4:45 a.m. – We were still at the camp.  We had wanted to leave by 4 but through a series of events that didn’t happen.  And when we were ready to leave, I somehow couldn’t find my hydration pack!  I scoured the campground and finally found it in my rucksack in the van.  Stressful start to the run.  But finally we were off.

Starting at 4:30 a.m.
Starting at 4:30 a.m.

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-4.4 to 0 Miles – We were 4.4 miles from the S. Kaibab trailhead.  Seven of us would attempting the R2R2R, Shyamal, Fernando, Yann, Mark, Dan, Calvin and myself.  We left camp and made our way to the S. Kaibab trailhead.  The sun was already starting to come up as we reached the canyon and saw the first signs of the sun as it touched the very top of the canyon.

As we ran along the top of the rim to the trailhead, across the way we saw the silhouette of the north side, a distant reminder of where our journey would be taking us today.  As we ran the sun revealed more and more of the canyon and soon we saw the outline of the gorge that would be our path for the day.  It looked long and very, very far down.

Sunrise, sunrise
Sunrise, sunrise
More than ready to start
More than ready to start

0 to 4 miles – “I’m in a candy store!”  By the time we started down S. Kaibab at 5:30 a.m., the sun had fully lit up the trail and we stashed our headlamps.  I seriously considered hiding my headlamp near the trailhead to save on carrying the weight.  Very luckily I kept it on me, not knowing that I would desperately need it later.  What was once a big black hole in the ground had suddently became a stunning and vast expanse of towering red rocks and as we got lower, green expanses of various vegetation and cacti.

I love downhill trail running and the first five miles were pure joy, steep switchbacks that changed from red rocks and red sand at the start to pale brown sand as you approached the river.  In the back of my mind I knew I should take it easy and save my quads but I had been waiting too long to do this run and I said the hell with it.  Fernando flew way ahead and was a speck below me before too long.  Dan described it best when as he was running full speed downhill he yelled out ‘I’m in a candy store!’  Exactly.

Fresh mule shit on the trail was an early indication that we were going to come upon the mule train before too long.  A few miles in I saw the pack of mules moving along the trail below me.  As I reached them, the lead mule rider stopped the train to allow me to pass.  Luckily I caught them right before the bridge since the bridge is too narrow to pass them and would have halted me for at least ten minutes.

Greener as you get lower
Greener as you get lower
Mule tracks
Mule tracks
Mule train below
Mule train below

4 to 14 miles – I arrived at the river and soon after, Phantom Ranch, and took stock.  I was feeling good but knew I had run too hard and already started feeling my right hip tightening.  I stopped at Phantom Ranch to refill my water and happened to catch Fernando just as he was starting off again.  I met a couple from Chicago who were also running the R2R2R which was also their first ultra.  I would see them off and on the rest of the day.

Around mile 6 the trail leads to the narrowest part of the canyon, and you feel like you’re being swallowed by the canyon as you are winding your way along a trail running between two tall, sheer rock faces.  I would look forward to this later on the return as a shaded escape from the sweltering afternoon sun.

My right hip was still talking to me so I stopped and stretched it out and just stretched my legs top to bottom.  Amazingly when I started up again I felt completely fine.  I was encouraged.  I crossed several bridges as the narrow canyon followed the Colorado River north.

Shyamal, Dan and Mark
Shyamal, Dan and Mark

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14 to 23 miles – “I want to go home”.  The narrow canyon eventually opened up to a wide expanse of a valley with a continuous but gentle climb.  I refilled my water at Cottonwood campground and the Pump House, the latter being the last refill station until reaching the North Rim.

The rest of the group had caught up to me by this point and together we started the endless ascent to the North Rim.  Living and training in San Francisco, all my training had been close to sea level.  So when we started climbing up to (eventually) 8,000 feet, my body was like ‘dude where’s the oxygen?’  As we got higher up, each breath got harder and hiking up was the best we could do, especially knowing that we still had 30+ miles to go today.

The sun was also starting to heat up and combined with the altitude made for a very tough climb.  We rested a couple of times, and at one point, probably a mile or so from the top, as we were resting in the shade, breathing heavily, Mark looks at us and says “I want to go home.”  We were all thinking the same.  We carried on.

The endless climb to N. Rim
The endless climb to N. Rim
Looking back south
Looking back south

North Rim! – We finally reached the North Rim around noon.  The endless climb did indeed come to an end.  There were patches of snow along the side of the road as it was a bit cooler here than where we had started.  And we received an unexpected pleasant surprise.  There was drinking water!  We had heard the water was turned off and we would have to go an extra mile to refill but instead we refilled at the top and celebrated our ascent with Clif Bars and other such trail running delights.  I met a father and son who had been hiking and camping since March 18, hiking the Arizona trail from Mexico to Utah.  Very cool.

At this point I felt great.  Lots of energy, thrilled to be done with the climb and I would have been fine ending the run here.  Except, we still had an entire marathon left to run to get back.  So without wasting too much time up here, we got back on the trail.

Resting at North Rim
Resting at North Rim
Snow on the north rim
Snow on the north rim

23-31 miles – I once again decided to run down the trail from the rim because a) it’s fun and b) I wanted to get down to lower altitude.  My inner quads began cramping.  I stretched them out and that didn’t seem to help much so I popped a salt tablet.  That did it.  I would end up repeating this every half an hour or so as my quads would continue to threaten to start cramping the remainder of the run.  The last thing I wanted to do was be stuck in the Grand Canyon under a hot sun not being able to move.

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Purple flowers on North Rim
Purple flowers on North Rim

31-40 miles – on to Phantom Ranch.  The trail flattened out and by this point the sun was baking the valley floor to over 90 degrees. I was struggling.  I was tired.  Not even bonking but just tired.  I wanted to sleep.  I wanted to find some shade and take a nap.  I figured that wasn’t the best idea in the world and so I kept moving, albeit at a slow pace.  I did find a shady little alcove beneath this massive jutting rock and sat down for two minutes.  A couple of runners from Colorado passed me as I was sitting here and I wondered how long it would take me to finish if I couldn’t run again.

I felt slightly rejuvenated after this break and when I got on the trail I started running again and even managed to get to sub 12 minute miles, which for me at this point in a long run is great.  I would eventually even pass the two Colorado runners again.  That’s what I love about ultras, that one minute you can feel so tired and done and the next minute somehow finding some new energy to get you going again.  I ran with the goal of reaching the narrow canyon as I knew that would be a reprieve from the glaring sun.

I stopped at a stream and soaked my head in cold water.  Two minutes later my hair was bone dry.  The sun was not messing around today.  I reached the narrow canyon and let out a big ‘wooooo!’ as I knew I would be shaded for a couple of miles.

I met a woman headed in the other direction with an entire mountain bike strapped to her back.  I asked her where she was headed with it and she replied she was headed to the North Rim.  I told her she was crazy.  She smiled and said ‘Thank you, sir.’  So polite too.

Phantom Ranch has a canteen and I had brought $50 along to treat myself to some goodies if I decided to.  As I reached Phantom Ranch I saw a few runners enjoying ice cold lemonade, the condensation on the clear plastic cup a sure sign that the beverage was ice cold.  I was too late.  I had arrived at 4:10 p.m. and the canteen had closed at 4.  I was mildly crushed but that became my new mission: to get some lemonade.

Bridge from Bright Trail
Bridge from Bright Trail
Switchbacks going up Bright Angel
Switchbacks going up Bright Angel

40-49 miles – Bright Angel trail up to South Rim.  I didn’t hang out too long at Phantom Ranch before starting up again.  The remainder of the run was 9+ miles with about 5,000 feet of climbing.  I still had a ways to go.  I ran out of Phantom Ranch but by this point running was little more than walking with some heavy arm swinging to try to generate some more forward momentum.  Didn’t matter.  I was moving forward.

I crossed a long bridge and reached the Bright Angel trail and started my ascent.  It was a long, windy series of switchbacks.  Lucky for me the sun had descended beneath the nearby peaks and the trail was shaded.  I heard and saw no one and wouldn’t again until nearly the end.  I ran the flats and hiked the climbs which were the majority of what was left.  I thought of where I could get lemonade when I reached the top.

I had not expected to need it but given the late start we had in the morning and the fact that it was getting dark out, I reached in my bag for my headlamp.  Before long it would be completely pitch black out and climbing would have been a real challenge without light.  I pulled up my compression sleeves for added warmth as the temperature began to drop.  What was interesting is that in some parts of the trail there would be these warm spots, like the warm air had been trapped there.  A few steps later and it would be cold again.  Maybe I was hallucinating.

Getting dark out
Getting dark out

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I had stopped eating Gu as I was sure I would throw up if I tried to.  I did keep hydrating and never stopped walking.  All of a sudden out of nowhere a runner reaches and then passes me.  He had been one of the lemonade drinkers.  Sometimes it pays to be fast.  Not being able to see the top of the canyon to see how much more elevation I had yet to go, I just kept going one foot in front of the other, hoping I would reach the top before I got too cold.  The temperature really started dropping and I was wishing I had brought my wind jacket.  Again, didn’t need it in the morning and didn’t think I’d be running this late.

Then as if angels were singing above, I heard voices from the trail just above me.  I was confused.  And then I saw a house.  I turned the corner and lo and behold it was several members of our group who had run the rim to river earlier and were now patiently waiting for us slow pokes dragging our butts up the last climb.  They were prepared with pizzas and Coke.  I still couldn’t believe I was done but I was.  Finally.  The second endless climb had in fact, ended.

I walked with Sarah and Robyn to their car as the rest of the group waited for the remaining three runners.  Mark and Dan had finished nearly an hour ahead of me, while Shyamal, Calvin and Yann were still enjoying life in the canyon.  I began shivering in the car and Sarah literally gave me the jacket off her back.  Thanks again Sarah!

Gettin’ my lemonade! – I was starving and I wanted some lemonade.  Forget recovery shakes, protein, whatever else you’re supposed to have.  Robyn drove us to the cafeteria that was thankfully still open for another hour.  I must have looked like death because people kind of eyed me funny as I walked in with a sweat stained tshirt and chocolate Gu marks on my shorts.  I was giddy, I was tired.  I ordered a burrito and then filled up a large cup with ice cold Minute Maid lemonade.  It more than hit the spot.  We drove back to camp and I sat in the van, wrapped in my sleeping bag and eating my burrito and drinking my lemonade.  I was happy.  I was done.

Panoramic from the South Rim
Panoramic from the South Rim

Shyamal showed up within the hour.  He had returned on the S. Kaibab trail and then run to our camp.  He was so nonchalant about the whole thing you’d think he had just run a 5 mile easy run.  But Calvin and Yann were still nowhere to be found.  Around 11 p.m. a couple of folks went to contact the park rangers to let them know we still had two people in the canyon.  Meanwhile, Amy, Tom and myself threw a couple of sleeping bags, and some food and water in the van and drove out to the trailhead to wait for them.  As we were driving we saw two people stumbling on the side of the road.  There was no doubt who these were.  We threw the doors open and Calvin and Yann jumped in (more like crawled in).  Mission accomplished.  What an adventure.

Conclusion – the real conclusion here is don’t believe anything you tell yourself at the end of a run.  While I was doing the endless climb up Bright Angel at the end I told myself I never needed to do this again.  But now a couple of days later, all I think about is seeing the morning sun filling up the canyon, the amazing group of runners I ran with, running in the valley over rolling hills, speeding my way down the South and North rims.  And I have to say I could definitely see myself doing it again.  I would prepare for the heat and altitude more.  I would start earlier.  I would not eat Amy’s Chili for dinner the night before.

But I would still fly down the starting trail down to the Colorado river because that was just too much fun.

Running the Rim to Rim to Rim – A story of high altitude, mules and chasing lemonade

Picture: From home to my long run

As I was looking at the map of this morning’s run, I realized:

  • how beautiful the mountains look from above, and I’m just talking about the topographical map
  • how close my apartment is to where I run.

The picture below shows both of these together.  I live in Pacific Heights which is right at the bottom of the map.

My apt to my run
My apt to my run
Picture: From home to my long run

Race Recap: Tamalpa 50K

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Finished!!  I ran my first ultramarathon race this past Saturday, completing the Tamalpa 50K in 6:54 and getting in under my goal of 7 hours. All 29 of my Team In Training team mates completed their ultra as well AND we raised a whopping $86,000 in the process. Not too shabby at all for this little band of rugged runners.

The race began at 8 a.m. and the weather was foggy and chilly and remained that way the entire day. There were under 200 runners total and I really liked the small feel of the race. I was chilly standing at the start line but 30 seconds into the race I had already forgotten about the cold. It was time to run.

The beginning – Coastal Trail

The first two miles were relatively flat as we approached the Coastal Trail, but after that is was pure climbing for the next couple of miles. I noticed that I wasn’t as quick on the up hill power hikes and I think it’s because my feet slide around in my shoes too much. I don’t wear socks but may need to. Anyway, socks would be the least of my worries in a couple of hours. I made sure to hydrate early and often and eat my GU gels every 45 minutes.

Two hours in – The Miwok Trail

At the two hour mark I looked at my watch and I had done 10 miles, and the 12 minutes a mile pace was a great pace for me. In my training runs I’ve been at 13+ minutes a mile. I hit the first aid station and saw a few teammates and our coach Mama Lisa. Several teammates ran the Skyline 50K two weeks prior and had come out to support us. I always got a boost seeing their familiar faces at the aid stations. I refilled my water, ate a GU and continued on. I didn’t want to spend more time than needed at the aid station. I had a race to run!

The next climb was the Miwok Trail which is one of my favorite trails anywhere. It has a steady one mile climb at the beginning before descending down a series of switchbacks to Tennessee Valley where I reached aid staiton #2. There was a great support crew there as several of my teammates were there. I had set up a drop bag which I tore open, grabbed a couple of GUs and Bonk Bars and shoved them in my singlet pockets before moving on.

The Miwok trail continued with a steady and steeper climb this time before descending down a series of switchbacks that led into the first covered portion of the trail. The Tamalpa 50K is a beautiful course where the first half is completely open as you run along the coast before you enter the covered sections which comprise the remainder of the course. At three hours I was at 15 miles and still hitting the 12 minute pace. I felt good but little did I know things were going to take a turn for the worse, big time.

Three+ hours in – Dipsea

Dipsea (noun) – 1) A steep trail that leads from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. 2) The course of the oldest trail race in the U.S. and second oldest race after the Boston Marathon. 3) Where my race took on a very different complexion and I began wondering how I would ever finish.

If you drew a teepee you would have also drawn the elevation profile of the Dipsea. It is 2+ miles of a steep climb that can drain your will if you let it. Knowing I should conserve my energy for the flatter and downhill portions of the race, I decided I would walk up most of the Dipsea. With one step I felt my right calf tigthen. That was weird, I thought. A few minutes later, my left quad did the same, then my right quad. Soon enough, my entire leg muscles began cramping and I was taking barely more than half steps. In seven months of training this had never happened and I was not sure what to do. I went through my mental checklist: GUs, Bonk Bars, water, electrolytes. I had done it all. I could not figure it out. I drank more water thinking I was dehydrated. That didn’t help. In fact it turns out that probably stoked the fire more.

With hands on quads, taking baby steps I slowly worked my way up the Dipsea trail. My watch said I was on a 50+ minute pace. So much for a great finishing time. I stopped caring about that as I wasn’t sure how I would complete the remaining 14 miles with two cramped legs. I’ve read several race recaps of ultra and endurance athletes where they completely hit a wall and somehow managed to bounce back. I knew I had hit a wall, my legs had hit the wall and I was not sure how they would get better if I still needed them to run over a half marathon.

The Blue Angel

And that’s when a blue angel appeared.

I call her the blue angel because she was wearing a blue shirt and she appeared from seemingly nowhere and saved my race. As she was coming up behind me on the trail she asks “How are you doing?” I tell her I’m cramping up big time and she gets herself right in front of me and says “Stop right now. You need salt big time.”

Salt! That was it! I had 20 salt tablets on me but hadn’t even thought of them. For high intensity workouts they suggest taking 3 per hour. I had taken 2 in over 3 hours. She gives me a couple of salt tablets from her backpack and I take them. She continues on her race while I continue my slow upward trudging pace and hold out hope that the salt works.

The salt kicks in

20 minutes later I was walking with full strides again. The salt had absolutely worked. I was still hesitant to push myself too hard because I could feel that a cramp session wasn’t too far away. But from then on I began taking a salt tablet every 15 minutes. It was time to get back in this race! The final portion of the Dipsea ascent is a cruel joke called Cardiac Hill. You are searching for foot holds among massive tree roots while battling the steepest ascent of the race. Luckily it does come to an end and when it does you come out into a wide opening and every runner’s favorite place, an aid station! I took my time at this one. Two hours earlier I had been in a rush to get in and get out, spilling water as I hurried to fill my water bottle and get back on my way. Now I was taking my time, handing my bottle to a very helpful volunteer, perusing the offerings and deciding on a quarter of a pbj sandwich and a few GU to replenish my onboard stash.

Stinson Beach

With my legs beneath me again, I began the four mile downhill ran the four miles down the Matt Damon (aka Matt Davis) trail to Stinson Beach.  I wasn’t moving nearly as quick as I was a few hours earlier and was passed by a few runners but I couldn’t have cared less.  I was just happy to be moving again!  As I emerged out of the trail and onto the road where the aid station was, I got a huge surge of energy from seeing my teammates and my good friends Chad, Bonnie, Thad and Melita and their children hanging out waiting for me to pass through.  I hung out for a minute or two and after some serious high fives and f*** yeahs!, I knew I had enough to climb up Steep Ravine, a 4 mile trail and the final climb of the race.

AND…The Finish

I completed Steep Ravine but not without more cramping at the end. The uphills were what were killing my quads and again I just kept taking in salt tablets to help.  The good news was that on the flats and downhills I felt fine and once I was done with Steep Ravine, I reached the last aid station at the 6:10 mark.  With 3.8 miles to go I knew I could still get in under the 7:00 mark with a steady 12 minute pace.  The 3.8 miles was solely flat or downhill.  Given everything that had happened during the race I would be pumped to get in under 7.  I filled up my water, stuffed a handful of potato chips into my mouth and then got on my way.  I was on the Coastal Trail again and the fog was thicker and the wind stronger than when we started that morning.  After a couple of miles, I reached the final 1.3 miles of the race, a series of switchbacks snaking their way down the side of a mountain, dropping me off to where I started almost 7 hours ago.  As I approached the end I heard friends and teammates cheering me on and the very distinguishable sound of our team’s cow bells ringing.  And it got even louder as I ran the final 50 meters to cross the finish line with Chad and Thad running alongside me up until the end.  And for a grand finale I attempted a hopscotch as I approached and crossed the finish line, but with how tired my legs were it came out looking like I cramped right at the end.  I guess I need to work on that more.

Mini Recap

Being out in the woods and trails and in nature for several hours and being alone with your thoughts and facing challenges along the way and fighting through them because you know the people you’re raising money for are fighting much tougher battles every day is an unparalleled experience.  Can’t wait to do another long race like this soon!

Race Recap: Tamalpa 50K

My fueling strategy for the Tamalpa 50K

I’ve got my Nuun tablets, Gu’s, Bonk Bars and Endurolyte capsules spread out in front of me and I’m putting together my fueling plans for my first 50K this weekend. I like to have a plan ahead of time because it can be too much to try to figure out what you need to do while you’re running.  And when I wing it I tend to under-fuel.

Overall Strategy

My overall strategy is to:

  • consume 250 calories / hour
  • replenish my electrolytes often enough
  • drink 22 ounces water / hour

GU GELS STRATEGY

One Gu gel gives me 100 calories and a boost of caffeine.  My Gu gelling strategy is very simple:

  • one Gu 45 minutes prior to the start
  • one Gu 15 minutes prior to the start
  • one Gu every 45 minutes after the race starts

This translates into a Gu at each of these time intervals: 0:45, 1:30, 2:15, 3:00, 3:45, 4:30, 5:15, 6:00, 6:45, 7:30 (hopefully I’m done by this point!)

Aid Station Strategy

Aid stations can be overwhelming with all the options.  Pretzels, M&M’s, Gu gels, PBJs and lots more.  I like to know ahead of time what I’m going to look for so I’m in and out pretty quick.  So at each aid station I plan to:

  • refill my 22 oz water bottle.  It should be close to empty if I’m drinking enough.
  • grab a couple of Gu gels to replenish my onboard supply
  • slam a Dixie cup size worth of electrolyte drink.  Usually this is something like Gu Brew, Ultima or Gatorade.

Protein Strategy – 2+ hours into the race

Once you start reaching beyond 2 hours into the race, it’s essential to give the body some protein to help fuel it, or else it starts taking it from your muscles which can lead to bonking and serious fatigue.  I like the Bonk Bar brand of bars.  They are 25o calories and taste great.

So starting at the 2 hour mark, and at each full hour mark after that, I plan to:

  • eat half of a Bonk Bar (125 calories)

With the Gu schedule above, this will give me 250 calories an hour which is what I’m shooting for.

ELECTROLYTES (ENDUROLYTES)

I first learned how valuable electrolytes are when I somewhat accidentally drank a sports drink at an aid station during the Double Dipsea.  My body felt refreshed after that and I realized that I was not taking nearly enough electrolytes.  I would prefer taking a Nuun drink but that would mean carrying a second bottle, which I really don’t want to do.

Instead I’ll be taking Hammer Endurloytes capsules.  So starting at the first full hour, and every full hour after that I’ll take:

  • two Endurolytes capsules every hour at the top of the hour

RECAP

If that seems like a lot of stuff to remember, it kind of is.  But after having done this for a few months, it’s not quite second nature to me yet but it’s getting there. I can definitely say I felt a huge difference in my energy levels when I made it a point to consume 250 calories an hour and began eating Bonk Bars during my long runs.

Less than 48 hours till race day.  Time to hydrate!

My fueling strategy for the Tamalpa 50K

The Recovery Run

On our training schedule, Sundays are noted as ‘Run on Tired Legs’. On Saturdays we have our long runs (we’re now up to 12+ miles) and for the first month of training the last thing I wanted to do the next day is run again. So for the first few Sundays, rather than run, I counted my walking around the city as my ‘tired legs workout’. I mean, have you seen the hills in San Francisco? They’re a workout in themselves.

But these past two Sundays I decided to go out for a real run and I’ve made running from my place to the Golden Gate Bridge and back my recovery run. It’s a flat 6 mile run that never gets old as there’s always people watching and sailboats and the bridge to watch. And after running up and down hills the day before, it’s a welcome change of pace to just run flat.

A different type of Recovery
I can definitely say though that running on concrete and asphalt puts more shock and impact on the body, especially the knees and hips. Trail runs cushion a lot of that.

A couple of coaches and experienced runners I’ve talked to say the recovery run is one of the most important parts of the training schedule. It makes your legs work a bit harder before you rest them for the next two days and this process helps build up strength. It’s too early for me to tell that for myself but one observation I can share is that it definitely makes for a more tired Sunday. Both weeks I’ve come home and needed to take a nap.

A bit more from this article:

Additional research has shown that when athletes begin a workout with energy-depleted muscle fibers and lingering muscle damage from previous training, the brain alters the muscle recruitment patterns used to produce movement. Essentially, the brain tries to avoid using the worn-out muscle fibers and instead involves fresher muscle fibers that are less worn out precisely because they are less preferred under normal conditions.

As you may know, I am running an ultra marathon to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Please consider making a donation.

The Recovery Run