Sunday, November 10, 2013

Falafels in Paris

Now, let’s get down to the serious business of falafels. In Paris, that means going to the 4th Arrondissement to Rue des Rosiers in the Jewish section of the Marais. Here in the Pletzl, you’ll find a number of walk-up (and sit down) restaurants serving kosher middle eastern food from from nearly identical sets of menus.

Rue des Rosiers on a busy Sunday afternoon.
 Ground zero for Parisian falafel.
To the uninitiated, the collection of falafel joints here all seem pretty much the same. Once you’ve tried the falafel sandwiches from various places, however, you realize that even though the they all use the same ingredients (houmous, salade turque, crudites-boulettes, aubergines and creme de sesame) arranged in a pita in more or less the same way, there are subtle differences in the taste with indescribable qualities that clearly make some falafel better than others. The whole phenomenon of the Rue des Rosiers falafel boom seemed to occur just over ten years ago when a local Parisian restaurant review of Chez Hanna (54 Rue des Rosiers), at the eastern end of Rosiers, placed it among the 10 best in Paris. Not among the 10 best middle eastern restaurants, but among the best of any type of restaurant in Paris. Significant praise, especially since their falafel sandwich sold for the equivalent of about $2 US.

Chez Hanna - After I bought a falafel here, a small
group of curious tourists gathered.
Afterwards, the lines at Hanna’s street-side pick-up window would be 100’s deep. Their prices began to grow as well. The other Jewish restaurant along Rosiers also enjoyed the popularity, but it was Hanna that was king of the street at that time.

That’s changed over the years and Hanna has lost its mojo. There’s really no discernible difference when looking at their sandwich now, but one taste tells you they just don’t have IT anymore. It’s sad because you can now walk right up to their window and there’re no lines, even at the busiest times of the day. They’ll eagerly serve you when back in their heyday, they copped a haughty attitude, seemingly doing you a favor to serve you. Probably added to the mystique.

L'As du Fallafel  - Reigning Supreme
That was then and the undisputed king of the street now is L'As du Fallafel with 2 ‘l’s (32 Rue des Rosiers). Translation: the Ace of Falafel. They’ve reigned supreme for at least several years with their slightly spicy falafel, tangy, with a drizzling of tahini and harissa, savory eggplant and crisp vegetables. They open two serving windows during the busiest periods and have waiters working the lines in the street to take preorders. It’s quite an operation and they’re obviously capitalizing on their popularity to the max.

Right across the street from L'As du’ is mi-va-mi, the self-proclaimed “Best Of The Street.” They’re my slight favorite over L'A du’ and, judging from the lines there (not quite as long as L'As du’), rank as 2nd favorite of the falafel crowds. Their actual falafel is formed slightly smaller than their competitors and has a spicy and slightly more ‘middle-eastern’ flavor to it.

mi-va-mi Falafel - Superbe!
On a recent taste testing expedition to Rosiers, I asked a man waiting in line at mi-va-mi why he preferred it over the others. He happened to be a long-time falafel aficionado and explained that after years of trying the different restaurants, mi-va-mi really had it. Like my experience, it’s a mostly indescribable magic that you know when you taste it. Some have it, some had it and lost it, and some never had it at all. He agreed that Hanna wasn't as good as it used to be, but was at a loss to explain why. I understood.

My taste testing on that day involved first getting a sandwich at L'As du’, then going 20 feet to the other side of the street to get an identical one at mi-va-mi. It was the slow time of the day and neither restaurant had a line at that point. When the preparer at mi-va-mi saw me coming straight over from his competitor L'As du’, he commented to the effect that I must be performing a comparison and he seemed to take it as a challenge. A falafel sandwich can normally be thrown together in under 30 seconds, but he was intent on tweaking the preparation and spent nearly 3 minutes carefully layering the ingredients. I was becoming impatient and slightly suspicious at this point. However, when I later tasted this falafel, it was probably the best I’d ever eaten. Tiff had some and agreed. In falafel gastronomy, I suppose it can now only go downhill from there.

There are several other notable sources for falafel on the street. There’s King Falafel Palace - strictly entry level falafel. There’s also Chez Marianne, which is more a sit-down, family oriented place that’s often open on certain Sundays when the other restaurants are closed.
mi-va-mi - accepting the falafel challenge
with competitor L'As du.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Diagonale des Fous

The World Slam is in the books! My Diagonale des Fous race report is posted on the ultrarunning site iRunFar.com.

Now, it's back to the grind. And with no training, doing a little more relaxing on trips.


B777-200 at Sunset

Monday, September 23, 2013

Downhill Running for Flatlanders

Downhill running can be the most demanding component to running a big mountain ultra. Although running (or hiking) uphill requires more time and energy for the same distance, it's the eccentric muscle contraction of running downhill that can be the most strenuous. It's also the primary cause of DOMS, or post-run muscle soreness. What I'm refering to with downhill running are, generally, slopes of a sustained 8% grade or greater. Often, much greater.

I have some downhill running techniques I wanted to share (and need to constantly relearn) based on running a lot of mountain ultras, living in Telluride, CO for several years, and having trained with and observed some exceptional mountain runners. I realize that there are varying opinions on downhill running technique, so what you read here can be taken as one runner's opinion. Also, running on a trail requires adaptation to different surfaces and varying technique.

First, try to use your normal running form whenever possible. Don't "swivel" your hips, stiffen your legs, or do anything other than natural, fluid running.

Don't try to lean forward, as I've read many articles on the subject of downhill running suggest (unless bombing something super steep with loose footing). Keep your body mostly "upright." Your torso should feel balanced over your hips. This may feel like you're slightly leaning back on very steep terrain, but you're not. Actually leaning back, or moving your center of gravity back, impedes stride and leads to "braking", which is fatiguing.

Use your normal flat-surfaced or a shorter stride length (don't stretch-out your stride length). However, it should be longer than what you use going uphill. If you've got it in you, keep cadence high (160+). If it's very steep (25% or more), or highly technical, step quickly like you're on hot coals. The higher cadence will unload your leg, which reduces the "braking effect" that trashes quads. A shorter stride can enable you to make quick foot placement corrections. Over-striding and landing forward of your center of gravity can lead to a multitude of problems.

Point your feet slightly downward (plantarflexion) before landing to maximize shoe contact with the ground when possible. This is important in areas where there's is loose footing. In very loose gravel, you may have to land sharply on your heals to "dig-in." Again, adaptation is key. Your foot should land mostly under your body - under your center of gravity if your using good posture. This aids in balance and reduces "braking."

Try to glide and let the ground just pass under you - don't "push off" to stride, use gravity. Step lightly. There should be little to no upper body bouncing (unless you're bounding over large rocks) and you shouldn't feel as if you're crashing down on landing.

Run the shortest, most direct line along the course. Try to run over (not around) small obstacles. Do this because a) it's the shortest distance, and b) the "grass isn't always greener" on the other side of the trail. In other words, generally avoid weaving along the trail as this rarely pays off.

Signs you're doing it wrong:

  • You're sliding foward in your shoes/get black toenails (braking).
  • You need to over-tighten your shoes to keep your toes from banging against the front of the toe-box (braking).
  • You're using a drastically different running style than normal, flat-surface running.
  • You're hunched over.
  • You twist your ankles, trip or stumble (leaning too far forward).
  • Your cadence drops below about 140.
  • You feel afraid of falling down (be fearless and keep your eyes on the trail).
  • Everyone's passing you on the downhills ;-)

Training for downhills when you're a flatlander can be a challenge and requires some improvisation. Keep in mind that downhill running requires a lot of eccentric muscle strength. This can't be developed by flat-surface running alone, or by lifting weights (concentric exercise), or even by running the "rollers" and small hills you may find in mostly flat areas like where I live in Dallas. Certainly not to the extent needed to perform well at a mountainous ultra.

The only way to adequately train your quads for downhills is by sustained (and sufficiently steep) downhill running. This sounds obvious and it is. So what's a flat-lander to do if getting to the mountains isn't an option? Build a mountain. Rather, configure a treadmill for a significant downhill slope (>10%).

(Some disclaimers. Don't do the following 1) with a low quality treadmill, 2) unless you're taking complete responsibility if you get hurt or break a treadmill, 3) at a health club if they don't want you to! I assume no liability whatsoever if things go wrong.)

The following training technique helped me to finish in the men's top 5 twice at the Hardrock Hundred, the most mountainous 100 miler in the US. If you don't own a good treadmill, it involves going to the gym, which is on the I-won't-do list for most trailrunners. But if you signed up to run a mountain ultra, it's time to suck it up.

Raise the back of a treadmill.

There are various ways to do this. I take a composite fencepost (Lowe's, Home Depot, etc) and saw off two 4"x4" blocks. I use these because they're light and strong. Tilt up one side of the treadmill and slide the block under one of the rear legs. Then do the same to the other side. If the treadmill "incline" can be selected for downhill, do that too. The resulting downhill slope can be measured using a smartphone app with the ability to read an incline. Don't confuse "degrees" with "percent" - they're totally different scales. Use percent, which is the most common for roads and trails. You can go here to calculate the vertical change based on slope percent and distance.

As you get better at running downhill, you can increase the amount you raise the back of the treadmill.

As you train, constantly focus on running form. You can also wear some weights or a hydration pack to load your quads even more. Be carefull as you progress - build up gradually. These techniques can be highly effective, but you can hurt yourself if not performed safely.

So, fellow flatlanders, I've seen you at ultras - tenuously creeping down those steep declines and getting passed by other runners who train in the mountains. I've felt your pain and it doesn't need to be this way. Embrace your inner downhill god (or goddess), suck it up and get on a treadmill. And kick butt at your next mountain race!

One treadmill is not like the others...
3 weights and a piece of fencepost
result in -20% slope


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc

I finished the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB) on Saturday - race # 3 of the Grand Slam of the World is done. It wasn’t an easy race for me. Running three huge mountain races in 4 months has really taken its toll on my legs. Although my training went well in the 6 weeks prior to the race, during my taper it felt like my legs got really “heavy.” At the starting line, it felt like I’d already run 60 miles. Anyway, I gutted it out and crossed the finish line (35:08:49) with my whole family there, which was a very special moment. Yeah, the race hurt pretty bad, but how I do love this sport!

Tiff at the "Troc"
I combined our trip to the French Alps with a bit of a vacation in Paris beforehand. We flew into Charles de Gaulle Airport on Monday morning and stayed at a hotel near Luxembourg Garden. The weather in Paris was great and we did a lot of walking – Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Île de la Cité, the Louvre, Tulleries, Place de la Madeleine. Ellie kept asking when we’d go to the Eiffel Tower and we finally made it there after sunset and it was beautifully lighted. It was all fantastic, but the walking around Paris didn’t help my legs at all.

Ellie at Luxembourg Garden
After two nights in Paris, we flew to Geneva, then drove to Chamonix. The town was already buzzing with excitement for the UTMB and the streets were packed. We stayed at the Richemond Hotel in the center of town. This was the fourth time at the Richemond and we absolutely love it there. The hotel was was built in 1914 and has a storied history, even once serving as Gestapo headquarters during WWII. The hotel has always been owned and operated by the same family and the love they have for the hotel really shows. It may not be the fanciest hotel in the region, but I wouldn’t stay anywhere else.
UTMB Start/Finish

Since this was my 5th time to toe the line at the UTMB and my 3rd 100 miler of the year, I had very little pre-race anxiety. My main goal was to enjoy the experience, then to run decently well and finish without feeling too destroyed. This is mostly how the race played out for me.  One early error I made was playing an iPod. I rarely run with music, but gave it a try this time to stay motivated through the night (the race started at 4:30 PM). My music kept me so well motivated that I’d passed over a hundred other runners through the night. I’d pay for this hard effort later by doing a lot of walking in the final 30 miles of the race.
Trient - mile 86

After the race, we spent another night in Chamonix (celebrating John’s 13th birthday) before flying home by way of Madrid. We got to Madrid in the early evening and headed straight out to the Plaza Mayor area. Camille has been there twice, but for the rest of the family, it was their first time to Spain. We had a great time walking around and eating tapas.

I’ve got one, final race to go this year and it’s going to be the toughest. The Diagonale des Fous (in 6 weeks) has the reputation of merciless climbs and descents and extreme weather variation. Among French ultrarunners, this race is a right of passage and sets the standard for toughness and endurance in the sport of ultrarunning.

Puerta del Sol, Madrid

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hardrock 100

I finished the Hardrock 100 last weekend. That makes the 6th finish for me at that iconic race in the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado. It was sort of a different experience, as I felt little pressure to perform and tried to just appreciate my time there with friends and to enjoy the area's natural beauty. I felt I ran a strong race finishing 17th (32:56), but didn't push it to the limit for the last 30 miles of the run. This made a huge difference in my recovery and just 24 hours after finishing, I was feeling little soreness at all. So, the 2nd of 4 races in the Grand Slam of the World is complete!

John at Sloan Lake near Handies Peak
View from our campsite
I went up to Silverton, CO with John a week before the race to acclimate. We camped the first four nights south of town at the Little Molas Lake campground (elev. 10,900'). We'd camped at the same spot in years past and in what may be one of the most beautiful campsites in the area. We had an ambitious second day by climbing Handies Peak (elev. 14,048'') which was a 10 mile round trip. The next day we relaxed in Telluride and then at the Ouray hot springs before returning to our camp. Each night we barbecued hamburgers or steaks we'd picked up in Durango at James Ranch followed by s'mores. We had a great time!

Ouray aid station
By the day of the race, I was well rested. I began the run strong and had my fastest split ever to the first aid station at Cunningham Gulch. I continued the pace through mile 42 at Grouse Gulch feeling very good. In the rain and strong winds heading into Ouray, I slowed slightly. Tiff and the kids met me in Ouray and did a great job of crewing. In the dark and rain, I headed out of Ouray for Telluride. The rain stopped long enough for me to make the high steep climb to Virginius Pass and descend into Telluride, where I met the family again.

From the start through Telluride, I'd been running mostly with eventual women's winner Darcy Africa, but out of Telluride, Darcy picked up a pacer and they quickly dropped me on the climb up to Ophir pass. Not without offering to have me tag along however, which I appreciated. My goal wasn't to push it this race, but to finish in good shape for UTMB and Diagonele des Fous in the coming months.

Little Molas Lake at sunset
For race nutrition, I made my own drink mix which was excellent as usual. I've really got this part nailed after years of adjusting the recipe and I credit this as much as anything for my strength during the race and quick recovery after. For shoes, I wore Hoka Rapa Nui, which aren't yet available in the U.S. These provided great cushioning without too much weight. I did make quite a few alterations to the shoe which should be the subject of another post on "How to Fix Your Hoka's."

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Grand Slam of the World Update

La Misión is out, La Réunion is in.

The originally planned 4th and final race of the Grand Slam of the World (GSW), La Misión, will not be held this year and has been rescheduled for February 2014. This change of date didn't come as a complete surprise to me since Uruguayan and 2012 La Misión finisher John Tidd mentioned this may happen when I spoke to him at UT Mt Fuji last month. Well, the change was recently announced. Since the purpose of the GSW is to complete 4 of the world's toughest 100 mile ultramarathons during a calendar year, I had to find a substitute for the ultimate race.

And find one, I did. It's La Diagonale de Fous (translation: the madmen's diagonal), located on the
Cartoon-ish graphic belies pain that awaits
Indian Ocean island of 
La Réunion. Yeah, I had to look it up on a map, too! The race is also known as the 
Grand Raid de la Réunion and is in its 21st year. I'd be lying if this race didn't have me a little concerned. At 102.5 miles, its got 35,400' of climb. That's 3.5 miles longer and 8,000' feet more climbing than La Misión (and 1,400' more than Hardrock!). Plus, the race will be held in October, compressing the GSW by 2 months. Now, each race in the GSW will have a total climb in excess of the altitude of Mt. Everest and the combined climb of all 4 races will exceed 125,000'! It's going to be a challenge.

Here are videos for last year's Diagonale:




Monday, May 13, 2013

UT Mt Fuji and a R2R2R

It's been a busy two weeks of traveling and running! On April 26th, I finished the Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji (UTMF) 100 miler, which is the 1st event in ultrarunning's Grand Slam of the World. Then, two weeks later on legs that were still pretty shot, I ran the Grand Canyon double crossing (aka Rim to Rim to Rim).

I brought Camille with me to Japan for the five day trip. Her passport has been getting quite a few stamps in the past year. We lived-large the first night at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo located in Roppongi. Roppongi is an area of Tokyo known for plentiful (and expensive) shopping and restaurants. It had been raining for several days before we arrived and was still sort of drizzling our first night. That didn't matter to us since we were both exhausted from the long trip and weren't there to shop anyway. We had an early night after going out for sushi. Both Camille and I are sushi lovers and were really looking forward to some authentic Japanese sushi. The menu was all in Japanese, so we ordered a set dinner course and spent half the time trying to figure out what bizarre sea creatures we were eating. Some Japanese dining at the sushi bar were celebrating something (maybe just being off work for the day) and kept offering sake champaign. I'd never heard of it. Thinking I still had a day and a half before the start of the race, I had a few glasses. I taught our new Japanese friends to say "cheers" and they went a little nuts with it the rest of the night.

The next morning we had a wonderful breakfast next to the hotel at a 'hipster-ish' restaurant and afterwards took a bus ride down to the Mt. Fuji area. On the bus, we met a runner from Hong Kong and one from Italy who'd we see off and on while at Fuji. We stayed at a small, traditional Japanese minshuku (guesthouse) on the banks of Lake Kawaguchi which was set up by a group associated with the race called Avid Adventures. Avid not only set up hotels for foreign runners, but their crew also acted as personal aid station helpers during the race. Their enthusiasm for the whole event was great and their crew was a lot of fun. The guesthouse was full of other foreign runners as well and it was great meeting them and hearing their ultrarunning stories. Our room was completely traditional and had no beds, just a tatami and some thin futons to sleep on. Camille channeled the Princes and the Pea and stacked at least six futons on each other trying to make a comfortable bed. No matter how many futons she'd lay down on top of each other, it just never got softer. It really wasn't that bad and we slept OK.

The race started at 3:00 PM the following day (Friday). We were all thankful that the rain that had been in the area for days had moved out and we continued to have great weather for the entire race.  As far as my race went, I ran at a leisurely pace with the goal to just enjoy the experience and to finish. UTMF is only in its 2nd year and already has the reputation of being one of the hardest ultras in the world. It has over 30,000' of climb and some 3rd class rock climbing in the race's latter stages, which really came as a suprise. Also, for five weeks before the race, I'd been in flight training for the Boeing 777 and didn't have much time then to even run. I've done enough of these types of races, however, to know how to pace conservatively when I'm not 100% and avoid cratering. It was a tough run (maybe one of the toughest 100's I've done), but I managed to get myself to the finish in the top 10%.

video

After we got home to Dallas, I was "on-call" for work but not used for the next week. This gave me time to further recover and also knock out a few projects at home I'd been putting off. I'd also been looking at buying a 2nd car since Camille would be getting her learner's permit to drive next month. I found the one I was looking for in very good shape out in Sacramento, CA and decided to get it and make a cross-country drive home to Dallas. I love big drives out west and the open road. This would also give me a chance to attempt something I've wanted to do for years: the infamous Grand Canyon double crossing in a day.

So, after flying to Sacramento, buying the car and driving to my in-laws in Reno for the night (with flowers in hand for Mother's Day, I might add), I then headed for the big ditch. I got to the Grand Canyon Park near midnight on Thursday night and took a couple hour nap in the back of the car. The next morning at 6:00 AM and somewhat later than I'd planned, I left the South Kaibob trailhead for the ~42 mile roundtrip. The run was as beautiful as it was hard. I still hadn't fully gotten over my Mt. Fuji run two weeks earlier (hey, I'm 51 now!) and the last 5 mile climb out of the canyon in 100F heat near the end of the day was a real effort. The trip was great, lived up to the hype I'd read, and was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Grand Canyon selfie


On the trip home over the weekend, I picked up John and Camille at the Albuquerque Airport after they'd flown out from Dallas. We spent the night in Albuquerque, then drove all the way back to Dallas the next day. They were very excited for the new car. Of course, no trip through the Texas panhandle would be complete without stops at the Cadillac Ranch and the Big Texan in Amarillo. My kids are a complete blast to travel with!!

Cadillac Ranch
Black Bridge Grand Canyon