How One Runner Hacked His Desk Job To Train For 109 Miles Of Alpine Running
Photo by Jordan Carey
Running adventures and ultramarathons are my passion. They’re all about exploring nature in places very few people see. They’re great with friends, or as a solo meditative journey. The community of ultrarunners is like a big family, and the nutrition and physiology required appeal to my scientist side. Not to mention the shared jokes about bodily functions always get a laugh from my inner kid self.
But I didn’t start as someone who loved ultra running, or even “regular” running for that matter. It was a scary medical diagnosis that drove me to find a healthier path.
I was diagnosed with prehypertension in my early thirties in the first physical exam I’d had since college. In 2011, two close relatives had died from strokes, and others pass from cardiovascular disease — all hypertension-related conditions. When I received my diagnosis and considered my options, I realized that I didn’t want to be on medications for the rest of my life. I decided instead to try a diet and exercise approach to managing my pre-hypertension.
My first step was to sign up for the Boston Athletic Association 10k. To train, I started running a few miles a couple of times a week. After completing the 10k, a half marathon didn’t seem out of reach. It didn’t take me long to realize that I liked running, and that it also provided great stress relief. When I discovered trail running, this effect multiplied exponentially.
By 2013, I’d found a great community of runners who enjoyed running ultramarathons through nature, so after my first road marathon I started training for my first 50k (approx 31 miles). I love running while communing with the wilderness, and since then I’ve done 50ks, 50 milers, and 100ks. Running is truly a passion of mine, with mountain races being my favorite.
But my job is rarely, if ever, conducive to training.
How I hacked my desk job to fuel my training
I am an informatics pharmacist. I use my clinical knowledge and background to build medication records and decision support in the electronic health record at OHSU. I build and maintain a very specific and rigorous system that can inform healthcare decisions for all people, regardless of health conditions, while ensuring safety with checkpoints along the way for the hospital staff treating them. I also build medication alerts to help prevent drug interactions, duplicate therapies, and over-medication.
Needless to say, this type of work is very deskbound and sedentary. My job requires intense focus and application of technical knowledge. Earlier this year, I started working from home, which then included meetings via video conferences, which lead to even more sitting. I was no longer walking from meeting to meeting in a standard work environment.
In order to really maintain my physical health, I invested in a Fully workstation so as not to become inflexible and unable to pursue my passion for running.
Sitting all day makes you sleepy; having physical things to do helps me stay focused on the task at hand. It’s nice to have a large table top at standing height when prepping for meetings or packing for a race. I typically only sit two hours a day, but I like having that option to sit, especially if I’m tapering for a big race—or sore after one.
When my work group was preparing to work from home, I did the research and made an investment in my office space as well as my physical health. I picked the Jarvis not only for it’s modern look and sustainable materials, but also the rapid ability to change from sitting to standing positions.
I wanted the Topo Mat so I could stretch and maintain flexibility; all its angles looked good for stretching and improving tendon and ligament stability. I also have a lot of “time on legs” (running, climbing, walking) with my training schedule, so this was an important piece of the puzzle. I like the Capisco chair because it allows me to open up my hips, in addition to having a variety of sitting position options.
Preparing for Tour Mont Blanc — The Ultimate Bucket List Run
In 2018, I decided to take my ultra running journey international and run Mont Blanc.
For the trip, I turned to Territory Run CO, an independent trail running apparel brand created to empower the wild-hearted to chase down their dreams. Through Territory, I met former military personnel, professional moms, educators, interior designers, and cosmetic tattooists who share my love of ultrarunning; I wouldn't have met these kindred spirits otherwise.
Territory Run organized the trip along Tour Mont Blanc (TMB), an existing trail that circumnavigates the Mont Blanc Massif mountain range in the Alps across Italy, Switzerland, and France. The TMB trip was organized by Run the Alps, a trail running tour company that helps provide for the best trail running and logistics in the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps. Run the Alps provides both guided and self-guided trips.
With approximately 109 miles of trail and 30k feet of ascent and descent, Tour Mont Blanc is a top bucket list thing among trail runners. It’s one of the big, amazing runs with spectacular scenery that you do if you can. I decided about 6 months ahead of the trip that I was going, and started researching.
As soon as I’d paid them, I started training. I planned weekly trips out to mountainous trails of Mt Hood National Forest here in Oregon, and the limited number of trails open in the Columbia River Gorge after the 2017 Eagle Creek fire. To get additional steep climbing, I used our incline trainer at 20-30% incline grade for 60 to 90 minutes at a time (this was mentally challenging, but helped a lot).
I ran the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon in April with other members of Territory Run, including several who planned to run Mont Blanc. It was a big training event, with approximately 44 miles and 12k feet of ascent and descent. My training for this run was difficult in its own right, and really kept me on schedule for training for the Alps.
Integrating training into my work was key to success. I do my best to be mindful of mostly standing during the day and integrating balance and stability exercises both while working on tasks and during conference calls. I do concentric and eccentric calf raises and stretches to strengthen the achilles tendon and help improve stabilizer muscle strength. With the number of hills I run, the arches of my feet get very tight.
To help prevent and stave off recurring plantar fasciitis, I used a combination of Topo Mat foot and ankle stretching, and myofascial release using a lacrosse ball on top of the mat. Here are some of the exercises I developed using Topo and my Fully workspace:
Training Exercise, or How I used my Topo Mat to train my feet and legs
This exercise helps to elongate and strengthen the Achilles tendon for injury prevention.
Stand on the back lip of the topo mat on your tip toes and slowly lower yourself downward to the count of 10. I recommend starting with both legs simultaneously and doing 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps, working your way up to be able to conduct the exercise single-legged, alternating left and right leg between sets.
This exercise helps to stretch and strengthen the foot arch for plantar fasciitis prevention and treatment.
On your Topo Mat, balance on your left foot, and use a lacrosse ball or similar object to roll the arch and plantar fascia of your right foot to loosen and strengthen the foot muscles. Do this for 30 seconds and then switch feet. Perform for 3-4 reps each foot.
Single leg stabilization on varying mat topographies
This exercise helps to mimic landing on uneven terrain while running. It also helps improve balance and refinement of stabilizer muscles.
Stand on one leg for several minutes until you feel minor fatigue. Alternate legs and repeat around various topographies of the mat to help engage varying muscle groups. Remember to activate your core and glutes, and maintain proper posture.
The trip arrives! Highlights from Mont Blanc Massif
The trip was a total of six days and five nights touring the Mont Blanc Massif, running two days in France, two days in Italy, two in Switzerland. What started out as a running adventure turned into a cultural tour de cuisine and mindfulness retreat, where running was merely the mode of transportation. I was really able to unplug and enjoy the sheer beauty of the mountains.
The culture was amazing: everyone on the trail was very friendly, as were the locals in the high alpine huts and in the villages. Mountain and extreme trail running is part of the culture there, unlike here, where you’re sometimes seen as a nut. People there aren’t loud or rude, and they’re extremely hospitable and spatially aware. They’re not the center of the universe. There’s a shared understanding that you’ve made this huge trek to experience their culture and nature in a respectful way, and they reward you with their sincere hospitality.
So much of the food is locally sourced, and I had zero tummy problems, despite previous autoimmune reaction GI inflammation issues. I enjoyed the Neapolitan-style pizza, French pastries, and the Barbera and rosé wines without any adverse reactions.
At the end of our first day, we stayed at Hotel Gai Soleil in Les Contamines France. The owners, David and Valerie, served us homemade french cookies and rosé after our run. We took turns wading in a glacier-fed spring that looked like a stone bathtub. It was ice cold, and I was the only one brave enough to sit in it up to my chest. The owners thought it was hilarious, and posted this photo on their business website.
Day four was my favorite day: Courmayeur, Italy to Ferret, Switzerland.
The day started off with the best coffee I’ve ever had. A simple cappuccino made by a hotel waiter, with breakfast of charcuterie, cheese, crepes, and beet juice. Everyone in the group had tired legs by then, and that day started with steep climbs up terrain that might have warranted a ski lift, up to the ridgeline and Rifugio Bertone. Once we were rolling along the amazing terrain to Rifugio Bonatti, I had another cappuccino, dark chocolate, and butter biscuit cookies for refuel.
Photo by Jordan Carey
My pictures can’t do justice to the amazing views of Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco), the south face of the mountain, Grandes Jorasses, and Mont Dolent. Day four also presented the most difficult sustained climb of the trip through the Valley of Arnuva to Rifugio Elena, up to Grand Col Ferret (highest point of the course at near 8400 feet). Our efforts were rewarded with wildflowers covering everything in sight. The Grand Col Ferret border crossing from Italy into Switzerland was also tough. At the mountain pass, we dug into our backpacks for our last pieces of leftover pizza from Ristorante Pizzeria Du Tunnel (#pizzaandpasses). Our run that day concluded with a lush green descent to a family dairy for a Swiss vanilla milkshake, followed by hotel in Ferret full of welcoming dogs and delicious fondue.
Prior to the running adventure the cable car trip up to Aiguille du Midi at 12,680 with up close views of the summit of Mont Blanc was breathtaking. These pictures don’t even do it justice.
I discovered Salade Nêvê, which is basically a charcuterie plate of meats and cheese atop fresh local greens. But the true winners were the peach and blueberry tartes, which were great fuel for our big climbing days. The french desserts were out of control, with fresh berries, delicious flaky pastries, and local dairy products. I initially started tracking the number of pain au chocolat I ate, but quickly lost count. I sometimes have a hard time digesting gluten and alcohol at home, but nothing flared up on the trip.
It was always a pleasure meeting physically fit elderly Frenchmen who were cheerful to talk to foreigners about their pride in their country and landscape. They were excited to point out peaks and summits and valleys. Even though there was a language barrier, we were able to muddle through a conversation of love of nature.
At one multi-intersection while waiting for friends, my buddy Jordan offered to watch my bag while I ran this steep climb 675 feet up to Col de Balme (altitude 7,462 feet). When I got to the top of the mountain pass, there were two old French dudes with a grandson my age, wearing alpine gear. I asked “Parlez vous anglais?” and slaughtered “J’ai parle français un petit,” and asked if they’d take a photo of me. They chuckled and pointed to their grandson, who translated — sort of — in English, enough to get the point. As soon as they took the picture, the men started pointing out the major summits. I said “Merci beaucoup!” and headed back down the trail. It was the coolest cultural interaction I had.
The most challenging parts of the trip were the long-sustained climbs, quad-busting downhills, and the mid-80s (Fahrenheit) weather. Though I had only a few minor blisters, if I were to do it again, I’d give my feet a little more TLC before the trip — they’re definitely the MVPs of this trek. I also found my new arms in hiking poles. Prior to this trip I’d never really used them, other than brief experimentation in the Grand Canyon. In the Alps, the poles became extensions of my arms up- and downhill because of the steep technical terrain.
Next up: Mountain Lakes 100
My next ultramarathon is the Mountain Lakes 100, my first 100 miler. It’s located south of Mt Hood, starting at Olallie Lake and ends at the Clackamas Ranger station. The course travels past more than 25 mountain lakes, features Oregon’s technical rocky sections, mountain peak views in every direction, and 60 miles of the lush Pacific Crest Trail. Three of my four crew members are part of Territory Run CO/Runners of the Wild from my Grand Canyon and Alps trips.
My big learning: my training was key both for physical assurance of completing the trip, and also my peace of mind — knowing I was in good enough shape to complete the route with ease allowed me to enjoy the whole experience that much more.
Having a Fully workspace allowed for daily conditioning of the body with time on feet and legs, and passively strengthening muscles tendons and ligaments. Overall, it helps stave off afternoon sleepiness, and makes it easier to get out the door at the end of the day to exercise. Because I haven’t been sedentary, I do not get as stiff and my hamstrings don’t tighten up, nor do I get a sore lower back from sitting.
I feel my work performance has also improved because physical movement and changes in posture help with mental stimulation, and reduce the temptation to zone out during monotonous and/or repetitive tasks and database work.
Chad S. Stashek, PharmD, M.S. is an inpatient clinical informatics pharmacist at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). He was born and raised in North Central, Wisconsin. He earned his PharmD and MS in Health System Pharmacy Administration (HSPA) from the University of Wisconsin. He completed an ASHP-accredited HSPA at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. His first job post residency was the Central Pharmacy Operations Manager at OHSU from 2007-2009. He then spent 6 years in Boston at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where he was the Medication Safety & Technology Manager.
Chad returned to OHSU in 2015 to join the pharmacy informatics team. Chad is also the chair of the Vizient Medication Use Information Technology (MUIT) Committee and is a member of the Vizient Executive Committee. What Chad loves most about OHSU are the people he works with, multi-disciplinary relationship building, and the plentiful professional opportunities and challenges of an AMC. His professional interests include clinical decision support, workflow and systems design, and leadership.
Chad enjoys living in Portland thanks to all of the food and outdoor activities it offers. He loves playing with his rescue Formosan Mountain Dogs, Roxie & Ruby, and supporting his opera singer spouse, Sadie. His hobbies include trail- and ultra-running, and nature photography. He recently completed the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim trail run, and just finished a fast pack trip around the French, Italian and Swiss, Alps completing the Tour Mont Blanc.