Monday, June 26, 2006

Man Cries Wolf!

Last week we traveled to Denali National Park. While the trip had many highlights, including the train trip on the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Denali, the best day was Tuesday's bus tour. Vehicle access to the huge 6 million acre expanse of Denali (larger than Vermont) is limited to one gravel road that stretches from the Park Headquarters, near the roaring Nenana River, to to the outpost (now resort) of Kantishna 100 miles to the west/northwest. The Park Service does issue some permits to vehicles for camping, but unlike other National Parks, most visitors must ride a bus or hike.

Tamara and the boys and I met my in-laws, John and Arlene, on Monday afternoon and at 6:00 AM on Tuesday, still quite bleary, we boarded the bus with about 60 other riders. We took the back two rows, where I sat with Tristan my 8 year old budding biologist. The road climbs through boreal forest for 15 or 20 miles before getting out of the trees and into the ecotone, where willow and alder shrubs shrink down to only a few feet tall and the spruce become widely scattered.

By 8 or 8:30 we had climbed to about 3,000 feet and into the tundra, where trees do not grow. Braded rivers wound through the flats a thousand feet below us. Mount McKinley hid in its ubiquitous summer shroud of gray clouds. The mountain is so big, at 20,000 feet, that not only is it the tallest mountain in North America, it has the largest mass for a single mountain in the world.

The openess of the tundra is excellent for wildlife viewing. At 8:35 to our right (north) the driver spotted a bull caribou about 150 meters off the road. He was explaining the dynamics of anlter growth when I looked out our window to the south and saw a dark silky shape move through the shrubs about 100 meters ahead. I did a double take. Back in the 1980s, just out of college, I worked on wolf research with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minnesota. In nine months in the field I saw three free-ranging wolves in daylight. Could this be a fourth?

The shape reappeared, and indeed it was a canid, dark, but not quite black, with pointed ears and a pointed nose. It was way too big for a black phase of a fox and too dark for a coyote.

Quietly at first, I said "There's a wolf out there to our left." That got the attention of our family and the young couple who sat in front of us.

The wolf darted between and behind shrubs--"There's a woolf out there!" I said louder, and the word rippled up to the front of the bus. For a tense 30 seconds it disappeared, and I almost felt foolish, and commented aloud, "I'm not crying wolf. It's there."

"Where do you see it?" asked the driver over the speaker.

Just when I thought it was a mirage, the wolf appeared again, crouched down, head low, moving serpentine through the shrubs. It crossed the road in front of the bus, and everyone on board gasped.

Finally, when the wolf was about 100 meters below the caribou, the prey detected its hunter, threw it's head back, and ran up the slope toward a low knoll. The wolf followed. The caribou disappeared behind the knoll, while the wolf continued creeping up and went behind the knoll. Within seconds the caribou shot out, heading west at a sprint. We waited a minute or two and the wolf reappeard, trotting down toward the road, not unlike a dog on a walk, pleased to have flushed a covey of birds or a deer.

The driver started up and we headed back down the road. Soon we caught up to the caribou. It was running parallel to the road, briskly but no longer sprinting. About a mile ahead from the encounter we rounded a turn--the driver was in the midst of a discussion--and I looked out the window and just below another knoll was yet another dark shape, unmistakably candid, and no doubt another pack member. Waiting in surprise for the lone caribou which was fast approaching. This time I just pointed it out to those of us in the back--not wanting to have us stop the bus and disturb the action unfolding in front of us.

We had witnessed was a classic case of a pack of wolves working an isolated animal. They would be on the hunt all morning, if not all day. By lunch at the end of the 100 mile run into Kantishna I wondered if the caribou was already a meal for that pack of wovles.

Later in the morning Mount McKinley broke out miraculously of the clouds. First it's peak showed. We were 40 miles away and the top of the mountain was at least 25 to 30 degrees above the horizon. A half hour later, much of of the mountain was in view, with its ice covered slopes and crags only partially covered.

By lunch, at the end our our 100 mile ride into Kantishna, I wondered if the caribou was already a meal for that pack of wolves. On the return it rained and the mountain disappeard again. We were able to see grizzly bear sows with cubs and many Dall sheep, as well as ptarmigan, marmots, and pika.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Getting the Most Out of Your Mileage

Have you ever trained for weeks or months, doing just the right workouts? You trained hard and had some great sessions leading up to your goal race only to feel flat on race day? Or maybe you’re just getting into running, but you’re not sure how to apply all this information flying your way. Whether you’re trying to run 10 minute miles for 5k or can run 10k at under 5 minutes a mile, you will benefit from multispeed training. You can use this approach to prepare yourself to be ready to run a wide variety of distances, literally from the mile to the marathon.

We have a pile of information on different training plans, but rather than just following a schedule how can you figure out what to do? Below is a simple guide that can be applied to your training to help you reach your goals.

At its simplest, running is about endurance and leg speed. Multispeed training helps you maximize your conditioning while establishing on your leg speed and, if applied correctly, it can be done without mega-mileage or killer workout sessions. You will still need a solid base, and you will tend to improve more by doing higher mileage, but with multispeed training you can get a lot out of a 30 to 40 mile week. Intervals also can help you sharpen, but if you do too many or do them too fast, they can actually set you back–or worse, lead to injury. Let’s get started!

Your Running Gears
Experienced runners know that they have many gears or different paces for different races and training efforts. Your training pace can be divided into five physiological levels, which equate to different running speeds based on your ability.

Easy Running: This is your typical conversational pace. Ideally you want your heart rate to be about 120 - 140 beats per minute. This pace should be one or two minutes per mile slower than your marathon pace, and a good two minutes slower than your 5k pace. Typically the majority of your training is easy running, but to be “easy” these sessions are relatively short, ranging from 20 minutes to 1:00 or 1:20.

Endurance Training: Your endurance pace is often pretty close to your easy pace, but these sessions tend to be longer, and they can include portions that are at a faster pace than easy running. The key with endurance training is to run at a sustained effort for about 1:30 to 2:30 (sometimes more for marathon training), and to keep these efforts aerobic. We used to call this LSD (long slow distance) training, but Arthur Lydiard, who coined the term, would have been the first to tell you that the distance is not always slow, but it is aerobic.

Tempo Training: Tempo training has really come into vogue over the past 15 or 20 years, and for good reason: it works. Tempo runs (also called lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold training) are a little more difficult to understand, and for some runners harder to master. The simplest version of at tempo workout is to run for approximately 20 to 30 minutes at a pace that you could sustain for about an hour. For most of us, the range for your tempo efforts would be from your 10k pace to 10 mile pace. Many training guides suggest that you run these at about your 15k pace (usually about 20 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your 5k pace). When you’re just starting out, it may help to break up your tempo sessions into two or three long repetitions at pace. For example do 3 X 8 minutes with a short rest (1 or 2 minutes), and lengthen the duration of your repetitions and shorten your rest in subsequent weeks so eventually you are running a full 25 minutes at tempo pace (see table for tempo pace that approximates your current level).

Maximum Oxygen Uptake (V02 Max): Now we’re getting into what we call interval training. Some people love it, some hate it. Your 5k pace is the ideal pace for these sessions, but you can also dip part or all of some of your workouts down to your 3k pace (about 6-8 seconds per mile faster than 5k) pace. You want to build up to about three or no more than four miles of running. The distance for each repetition can range from about 600 to 2400 meters. I find that 1000 to 2000 meters are ideal. The interval is the amount of rest you take between each repetition. Generally you want to “rest” (but an easy jog is best) about ½ to 2/3 as long as it takes you to do a repetition (so if it takes you 4:00 to run 800 m, then you would jog easy for 2:00 or 3:00).

Economy: Back in the 1960s and 70s, much of the training prescribed by coaches involved fast intervals with an equal recovery distance. This is ideal training for a miler or 800 meter runner, and if done right it can help you with longer distances. Some training guides simply suggest doing 8 - 12 X 100 m stride outs once a week or so. I have found that mixing in short speed sessions such as 4 X 400 at estimated pace for an all-out mile are great sharpening workouts that help with running efficiency or “economy.” These workouts also build confidence for the ability to kick it in.

How Much, When?
So how can you put this all together and how do you start? Here are two outlines to help you design a training program. One advantage of these is that you can employ multispeed training while keeping your schedule flexible--you can adapt if you are too busy your regular training, or you can move the workouts to suit your recovery. Another key point is to keep these schedules progressive, so you are working toward your realistic time goals several weeks or months out. Ideally, you would want to start into your schedules about 8 to 12 weeks before a key race, but you should have several weeks or months of base training behind you.

Intermediate Schedule: Assuming that you’ve been running for a few months with at least maintenance mileage (15-20 miles per week), you’d want to build up to about 30 miles per week. If you’re not doing any longer runs, this is the time to start. Don’t do it all at once; take four to six weeks to get there. Mix in some hilly runs along the way. Most of this running should be at the easy pace or as endurance runs.

Start the training at your current level of fitness and work toward your goal pace. For example if you are currently running 21 minutes for 5k and you want to break 20:30, you would start your V02 max training at about 6:44 per mile and you would want to work toward getting more and more of those sessions at about 6:35 per mile. Likewise, over a number of weeks the pace of your tempo runs would go from about 7:20 to 7:08. As you get closer to your goal race, more of your pace work is at that goal pace. However, make sure that you are getting adequate recovery training between these faster sessions.

If this type of training is new to you, you might try the intermediate schedule for a season or two. The principles of the training are the same, but with this schedule you will be doing your faster running more frequently, and you would also want a somewhat bigger base (40 miles per week or more) before you start.

How Long Can I Train Like This?
You can maintain a fairly intense schedule like these for about three months (give or take a few weeks). After your goal race it is a good idea to take a break, from a few days to few weeks, before starting on a base buildup phase, which should be at least a month and can be several months of aerobic training. It's advisable to ease up on the intensity, but if you can keep your mileage going, you will find yourself ready to keep improving.
Some Tips for the Road (Trail and Track):
Step away from each workout knowing that you could do more—leave your best running for the race.
If workout recovery takes more than 48 or 72 hours, then you are probably pushing too hard.
Train on the track about once per week, if that—but mix up your workouts so you learn to calibrate your different multispeed paces on the track.
Find a training partner with similar goals—run hard, but don’t compete in the workouts.
Finally, the sample schedules provided are ideal if your goals are in the 3000 meters to 1/2 marathon range; if you want to focus on the mile or marathon, you would want to incorporate some more race-specific training to your schedule (i.e, more mile pace or 800 m pace workouts if you're a miler, and more marathon pace and tempo runs if you're a marathoner).
Daniels, Jack. 1998 The Daniels Running Formula
Dellinger, Bill and William Freeman. 1984. The Competitive Runner’s Training Book.
Pfitzinger, Pete and Scott Douglass. 2002. Road Racing for the Serious Runner

Running Update

This blog may suffer from lack of focus. Some bloggers have multi-sites to cover their interests, but for now I'm keeping this one stop shopping: endurance sports, biology, conservation, Alaska. So far I've been blogging in relative obscurity. I need to link this site up with some of the regular sites that I visit. However, the art of self-promotion eludes me.

Only seven weeks have passed since I put away the skis this year, and my transition was short, too short maybe. Nevertheless, we're well into running season so I just jumped in. Who knows how long I can keep this up?! Or want to. Still I love to be in top shape and just feel better about life when I can train an hour or more a day.

I'm up to 60 miles a week now, plus have been doing a little cross training. The first couple races (5ks) were just tune-ups but those went pretty well. Two weeks ago I ventured onto the track and ran a 17:17 5000 meters. I'd hoped for sub 17, but could tell all week that my fitness level and psyche just weren't there. In the 5000 you have to prepare yourself mentally to push through 8 or 10 minutes of running when you're just gasping for breath and wanting to slow down. If you don't commit--usually before the race even begins--you will slow down over the last mile.

Things turned around last week. I just felt strong again--not fast yet (if that will ever happen anymore!)--but strong. On Tuesday I did a stellar "Oregon" type workout that included 2 miles at pace followed by some 300 m surges with 200 m recoveries. It felt invigorating to cover 3.5 miles a little over 20 minutes of continuous running on the track. Then at an all-comer's meet on Thursday I managed a 4:56.0 for 1600 m (10 yards less than a's an arcane American thing), about 5 or 10 seconds faster than expected.

Looking at the USA Track and Field Master's webage for June 12, those track times would be top 3 for the 45-49 age group so far this year:

This I find unbelievable. I'm the n'er do well runner who never broke 4:30 in college. A lot of people made fun of me back then. A 4:56 does not seem that special, even for 48, and I think there should be dozens of guys who could run faster. Where did everyone go? This age group is tough, especially in the longer distances like the marathon. Anyway, I'd like to bring that time down a bit in the Flint Hills Mile (a true mile) on the 28th. I won't submit the 1600 to USATF, but plan to do so for the mile. A sub 4:50 would probably rank in the top 5 or 6 for the year. The mile isn't even my main focus this year, but it's a fun and challenging event.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bird Evolution Q&A

The Evolution Wars continue, but they have been fading in recent days. But we had this gem of a rant from the infamous "Brutal," a man who nearly brought down the internet on his own back about 1999-2000, when he ventured into various track and field and running discussion groups and proceed to wreak digital havoc with his strongly worded opinions on, well, everything. The thread appears to have gone by the way of the Dodo, but below are his questions and my response.

Ok now try your very best to grasp what is being said here. Pay close attention.
Where are all those failed birds? Remember something "evolved" into a bird. It didn't just one day take off flying. So where are the failures? What did we have as evolving failed things? What were they called? What did they look like? It wasn't no bird, then the next day, a bird. Ok now once our thing did become a bird, how did we get the hummingbird,eagle,crow,hawk,sparrow etc etc etc? Where were the hawk failures? Where were the hummingbird failures? What a hummingbird over night?
Why don't we have any records of things in the process of evolving? The lion was a, then a,then a,then a..hmmm?
So all animals can trace their roots back to something that walked,crawled out of the ocean once upon a time? Then after millions and millions of years, it would become a goat,horse,camel,gorilla,bear,etc etc etc. Do you really believe that?
What determined what things would evolve into a mouse or an elephant? Where did we get the insects? Didn't they come from those same things that gave us the giraffe?
Do not send me to some site on evolution. I want you to explain how that worked. I'll even jump start ya....
I want you to end up with an black widow spider.
Once upon a time.......

My Response:
Although the fossil record is not complete, there is good evidence for transitional species. Paleontologists have found about six specimens of Archaeoptrix, a transitional species that had both bird and reptilian features.

Birds evolved from thecodont reptiles. And yes there is a decent fossil trail. The ancestral animals, existing more than 200 million years ago, were quadrapeds (they walked on four legs). Later bi-pedal thecodonts evolved. These creatures were closely related to the carrion-feeding Compsognathis, which had a minor role in the movie "Jurassic Park." Fast-running little dinosaurs, about the size of a chicken. Some of these types evolved from a running lifestyle to arboreal habitats. Initially they would leap from tree to tree--much like a squirrel does. Over time and by natural selection, some branched off and developed feathers, which helped in gliding between trees. The fossils suggest that Archaeoptrix was a transitional between a glider and a bird that had actual active flight.

Keep in mind that this didn't just happen in one day, as brutal implies, this was over 100 million years. After Archaeoptrix another transitional species existed, called Sinornis santensis. Fossils of this bird have been found in China, and they are dated to about 140 million years ago. The bone structure of Sinornis was better adapted for true flight. Fossils of loon-like birds have been dated to about 100 million years ago. Most of these birds became extinct at about the time the dinosaurs died out (65 milllion years ago), but a few lineages of toothless birds survived the apparent cataclysm of that era, to evolve into what we know as modern birds. The major lineages of modern birds can be dated to about 60 million years ago. By 55 million years ago what we know as water birds (loons, auks, gulls, ducks, cranes) had evolved. Woodpeckers became the dominant tree-dwelling perching bird by about 40-45 million years ago. Kingfishers and hornbills evolved about 25 million years ago. Then things really took off about 10 or 15 million years ago, when, in conjunction with the explosive co-evolution of flowering plants and insects, modern perching birds evovled to take advantage of insects, nectar, fruit, etc.

About 100,000 species of birds have existed, and over 9,900 species are on earth now. So there are a lot of "failures."

Per the other questions brought forth--once again, new species typically just don't pop up out of the sand or bud off the appendages or cranium of a progenetor (there are some amazing records of single generation speciation with some plants, but with vertebrate species, no). Evolution works through natural selection. No two individuals within a population (or species) are exactly alike--there is always a little variation both in genes (genotype) and form (phenotype) [and genotype is always more variable within a population than phenotype]. Survival and reproductive rates vary within a population. Due to environmental pressure (predation, climate, food niche, available mates, etc.),some die out before they get a chance to reproduce or maybe they don't reproduce as many offspring. The ones that had the favorable genes pass those genes on to the next generation,,,and so on. The population begins to diverge, maybe into subspecies.
Now at some point there may become a barrier to reproduction between the original group and the new ones--habitat, geography, dispersal into new areas....this is where speciation occurs. And over many generations of separation the populations no longer can or do interbreed, you have a new species. There is not set clock on how long this takes.. it can be 10s of millions of years or it can be relatively rapid (as with the example of cichlid fish, where some several thousand new species have evolved from just a few in about 12,000 years).
Hopefully this will answer some of the questions.

Gill, F.B. 1994. Ornithology. 2nd edition.

Mayr. 2001. What Evolution Is.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

An Example of Speciation: The Cichlid

Muddled in the festering maw of the evolution debate has been the concept of speciation. Creationists blithely dismiss that evolution is even possible by zeroing in on knowledge gaps on specitation. Although the record is not complete, scientists have gained ground. Ernst Mayr has said that evolution is no longer a theory it is fact (Mayr 2001), and today we have many examples of speciation.

By studying the relationship between genetic variation and differences in outward characteristics (shape, behavior, ecology, physiology) among species that are closely related scientists can document evidence of speciation. So rather than drawing on correlation between a wide variety of species (which may or may not be related), the next generation of evolutionary studies will attempt to tie population genetics with molecular genetics of closely-related species.

However, one problem with evolutionary biology is the arcane terminology, and speciation is no exception. With terms like allopatric, sympatric, and parapatric speciation it’s no wonder that people–even many biologists–get tongue tied and confused. The classic concept of speciation has focused on how new species arise out of geographic separation. This concept has helped explain some aspects of evolution, but not all. There is also evidence of speciation when the populations are not separated, but they diverge in adjacent areas. Nevertheless for decades many biologists dismissed the idea that speciation could occur in overlapping populations. But more recently, acceptance of new species arising within the same geographic region has been studied and documented. How can this be? Ecological and sexual selection, and reproductive isolation (subtle changes in the timing or behavior of reproductive processes) are examples of how species can differentiate within an overlapping area.

So what are some living examples of speciation: everyone is familiar with the Galapagos finches, which diverged from a few species into many. Other examples include the Arctic char (a trout- like fish from northern latitudes), anole lizards (like the chameleons you can get at the pet store), and the honeycreeper from Hawaii (long-billed birds that have different bill shape based on feeding strategies). Cichlid fish are another spectacular example, and there has been extensive research on these fish in recent decades. Let’s spend some time on cichlids.

The Cichlid Model
Kocher (2004) provides an excellent overview, and the text below is a synopsis of his paper.Cichlid fish inhabit tropical and subtropical freshwater lakes and rivers in three continents (Africa, southern Asia, and the Americas) and Madagascar. Their diversity is greatest in East Africa, where some 2,000 species exist. The speciation of cichlids has been relatively recent (geologically speaking), over the past 10 million years. What’s particularly interesting is that the “radiation” of species (i.e., speciation) has not necessarily occurred through geographic separation. They have diverged through other means: habitat separation, changes in shape, and variation in color pattern and behavior. The fossil record has documented the radiation of these fish, and scientists have used genetic analysis has been able to chronologically document the relationship among species.

For example, scientists have shown a phased evolution of cichlids. In the first stage, these fish diverged by habitat separation–some became rock dwellers and others became dependent on sandy habitats. The next phase, driven by natural selection, resulted in more species that became different by exploiting different food sources–thus their feeding style, and anatomy, changed (diverged) over time. Species that evolved most recently developed color variation, primarily based on sexual selection. Sexual selection is through mate choice, where the female selects
mates based on color, pattern or behavioral traits. The recent rapid radiation of many varieties of cichlids may be largely due to sexual selection. This phased evolution of species has also been documented in the char, anole lizards and honeycreepers.

The divergence within lakes is incredible. For example, in Lake Tanganyika alone there are 1,000 species of cichlids. What has happened over the past 2 million years is that sub populations splinter off, very close geographically to the parent population but they stay within their subpopulation without much intermixing (known as gene flow). There is enough difference in habitat type, feeding opportunity, and predator pressure that over time and through natural selection they become a slightly different fish. And then, through sexual selection (typically by females selecting their mates) results in a greater species diversity in color patterns and behavior.

What makes the cichlids particularly useful for study is that with new genetic techniques biologists can develop analytical links between theory and observation. They can posit a hypothesis, study populations of closely related cichlids (e.g., habitat use, feeding strategies, coloration and mating strategies) and link that information with genetics. It is through this type of science that we will learn much more about speciation and how it works. What is being learned about cichlids is also being applied to other species such pocket mice and salmon.

What makes the modern study of evolution so robust is that a number of independent sub-disciplines, such as genetics, anatomy, paleontology, geology, ecology, and animal behavior have come together and synthesized information that corroborates and clarifies much of what has been theorized since Darwin’s time.

Kocher, T.D. 2004. Adaptive Evolution and Explosive Speciation: The Cichlid Fish Model. April 2004, Volume 5.

Mayr. E. 2001. What Evolution Is. Basic Books.