Running the Life of a Trail Runner

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Mt. Tam Start

Running is one of those activities that is so boldly animal and inherently human; an unthinking exercise that is uniting and creates community under a guise of simple common interest. Irrespective of talent or speed, the body is built to run. Similar to meditation or religious fulfillment, running can emancipate the spirit through bouts of physical struggle and suspension, and taking this action to the trails increases our awareness of the self and connection with our environment. Though many of us have lost this pleasure, or are not even privy to it because of contemporary culture and technological convention, there often comes a time when our minds quiet long enough to respond to the beckoning trails outside. Getting over the negative forecast that a run is arduous and, at best, exhausting is the first and only real challenge. Once you are out there, you are swiftly rewarded by the accomplishment of having moved and perspired for more than 5 minutes and, more importantly by the rich satisfaction of connecting your working body to the breathing trees and hills around you.

Trail running is addicting. Like other sports, there is a deep, supportive community that envelops you and encourages you to be the runner you want to be and have fun while training. After making the transition from couch-potato to recreational runner, or cyclist to trail-runner, or gym-rat to 30ker, and you’ve been training enough to the improvements in your fitness and pace per mile, you may feel the incentive to race. When you do a web search for trail running or trail racing, what comes up can be overwhelming and demoralizing. You see the heralded, well-known races, how many participants attended, the popular ultras, the many hours people run. If you’re a beginner, this information creates a comparison that is difficult to obviate. It requires some sifting and patience that everyone starts somewhere and, with effort (and enjoyment), you’ll reach your goals. What you really need is pertinent information and the right training plan. Refine your online search. Don’t be embarrassed by the designation of being a newbie. It’s an exciting place to be because the trail ahead of you leads to so many possibilities.

The following are some training tips for beginning trail runners who would like to embark on their racing career and reminders for seasoned racers. I want to emphasize that the most important training tenet should be safety and health. Depending on age and health history, you should see a doctor to be cleared before starting any new training program. Begin with a modest workload that you can build on and be sure to include recovery days and weeks. Trail running is a strenuous sport and including too many hard days or running for too long will over-stress the body and you’ll take a longer period to recover. The trick is finding the optimal load that will stress the systems enough to stimulate change and enhance performance. For most runners, training 3-5 days a week is sufficient in bringing about physiological adaptations.

Whether you are looking to complete your first 10k or make it through an ultra, you don’t have to put that many hours into training. What is more crucial to success than hours run is consistency. Developing a routine to your day is beneficial for anyone, and committing to getting a scheduled run in, re-fueling and sleeping are the elements to success in trail racing. Not everyone has identical schedules or can dedicate the same amount of time to training, so remember to balance your schedule in a way that allows for you to be comfortable with the hours put in while also maintaining personal relationships and other obligations. As long as you keep one long run each week and 1-2 intensity/skill focused workouts separated by easy days, you will be training enough and avoiding injury and illness.  Be specific.  If you have the elevation profile for an upcoming race, simulate the course during your training runs.   The week before your race, keep most runs easy and short.  Do give a few short sprinting efforts the day before the race as it will open up the legs and prepare you for the challenge the next day.


Find what time of the day you feel you have the most energy and when you are more inclined to commit to running. We all have certain hours where we are in a slump or not as thrilled about moving as we could be. Recognize when you are most dedicated to getting out on the trails or even on the treadmill. If you are a morning person, set your alarm for 4am. Some runners love the dark and quiet hours of beginning a run at 5:00 am and they know they will have the rest of the day for other commitments if they get it done first thing. Other people have jobs and life constrains that allow them only an hour in the evening. If this is the case, hit the streets where there is ample light and wear a reflective vest. Or invest in a headlamp and running group that goes for night runs. In the future, we are wonderful people. We foresee ourselves getting up to hit the gym and make the run, but the trouble is we never get to live in that future, we always live in the present, and in the present, we are not exactly those wonderful people. You may have the intention to get up when the alarm goes off, but the immediate feeling of being warm and on the precipice of slipping back into quiet slumber can dominate the other will. Joining a running group, hiring a coach, recruiting the support of your family, and being accountable to someone else are all great motivational strategies. Break up the workouts if you don’t have a long block of time. If you need to get in two hours, do an hour of tempo during lunch and then an hour of easy running or another focused workout later on in the day.

The next step would be recovery. This process starts immediately after your workout. Take a shower, sit down and relax, replace fluids with 20 ounces of water or an electrolyte solution. The recovery period is when development take place. This is where you actually get better and your muscles become stronger. If you neglect this phase, you will impede improvement and suffer some potential over-training symptoms. Sleeping is the best form of recovery. It is when the human growth hormone (HGH) is released, cells divide, muscles are repaired, and your lungs increase in their number of cilia (hairlike structures which sweep fluids and foreign particles out of the airway so that they stay out of the lungs), and the cardiovascular system adapts. Without adequate sleep, your performance will decline and you will have wasted time and effort.  Try to aim for 8-10 hours of sleep, which for most working adults can be very difficult, but you’ll be treating your body (and your mind) kindly if you consistently are well-rested.  If you can, take a nap. Napping for just 10 minutes at a time can increase the HGH in your body which will assist in building muscle strength and endurance.


Another form of recovery which is best suited for more experienced athletes is active recovery. Going for a walk or an easy hike, spinning around town on a cruiser, doing yoga or taking a dance class are great ways to stimulate blood flow and bring oxygen to the damaged areas. Finding something that is enjoyable will produce the reward hormones in your brain, such as dopamine and you will have rejuvenated vigor for your next workout. It is also notable that you should make sure to prioritize. Finding balance will reduce stress and you will get the most out of your workouts. Make time for your family and work obligations, enjoy other interests and check in with yourself to confirm your admiration for the sport, not just for the asceticism of training.

Make long-term and short-term attainable goals. You can make some heavy goals that may take years to achieve, but as long as they remain realistic, it can be a great way to constantly be moving forward and stay committed. Humans have this insidious ability to create stress when there isn’t a need. It is corrosive and will hinder your overall welfare. Examining your life and weeding out unnecessary stresses will anchor you to happiness and success. Take a look at what is the most important factor in your running career. Is it to win? Is it to set a PR? Is it simply to finish? What your goal is will shape the way you invest in your training.

When you are burning thousands of calories in one workout session, you need to eat a very nutrient dense meal. If you do not replace the calories burned, you will not recover adequately and you risk experiencing malnutrition. Dietary intake requirements vary depending upon the athlete’s biology, state of health, energy expenditure, etc. Optimal nutrition is an integral part of peak performance; eating the proper amounts of each macro-nutrient will maximize your training benefits. An example is the 60% carbohydrate, 20% protein, 20% fat diet. The best diet includes foods in their whole state. Eat lots of produce, aiming for 5-10 servings per day of rich, vibrantly colored fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meat, eggs, skim milk, nuts, olive oil, coconut, and vitamin supplements.


The body needs carbohydrates which is converted and stored as sugars in the muscles and brain to provide energy. Depending upon the training routine, athletes need to consume at least 50%, but ideally 60-70% of their total calories from carbohydrates. Depending on the length of training sessions, an athlete’s carbohydrate intake should be between 2.5-6.0 grams per pound of body weight. Before exercising you should consume a meal with 150-350 grams of carbohydrate 3-4 hours beforehand. To avoid stomach upset, the carbohydrate content of the meal should be reduced the closer the meal is to the workout or race. Delaying carbohydrate intake after exercise will reduce muscle glycogen stores and impair the ability to recover. The recommended intake is 0.65 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight that should be consumed within 30 minutes after exercise. This should be followed by an additional carb-meal two hours later or sooner if you feel hungry.

Consume adequate amounts of protein to foster the growth of muscles and repair soft-tissue damage. It is critical to intake higher than normal amounts of protein if you are looking to lose weight. It will prevent losing too much muscle as your over all body weight decreases. Our body needs protein to make enzymes, rebuild injured tissues (ie. muscle), and create new cells. Protein comes from the Greek word proteios, meaning “first” or “of primary importance”. Trail runners do a number on their muscles after a hilly workout or race, and after 2 hours + running there is quite a bit of muscle damage. There is no general agreement within the nutrition field regarding appropriate protein intake for trail runners. A rough guideline is as follows: 1.2-2.5g/kg daily

It is best to immediately consume around 20 grams of a complete protein after a long or very intense workout. I would suggest that all 30-50k runners consume this amount after one of our races as it will repair the damaged muscle. Signs that you may need more protein in your diet include frequent colds, slow recovery following workouts, being irritable, slow hair and fingernail growth, poor focus, sugar cravings, and amenorrhea. You can play with what works for you. The best forms of protein are “complete”, meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids. Here are some fantastic sources which can be consumed by vegetarians as well: whey powder, eggs, peas and corn, and rice and beans.

Fat is the major, if not most important, fuel for light to moderate intensity exercise. The body needs fat to dispense energy, cushion your organs and allow the body to absorb necessary nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E and K. Athletes that consume high-fat diets typically ingest fewer calories from carbohydrates though no attempt should be made to cut out fat completely. Following a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet is important for athletic health.

Trail running and ultra-distance athletics takes a lot of energy and demands a nutrient dense diet to support muscle repair and depleted electrolytes. As runners, we feel the normal hunger once you regain an appetite after a long or intense run, but we don’t always focus on the mineral content of our food. It’s easy to consume meals heavy in carbohydrates and protein which are necessary to make fitness progress and maintain health, but it’s just as important to take in adequate iron. Iron deficiency can occur from excessive sweating and will mimic over-training symptoms leaving you limp and no amount of desire can force those muscles to get stronger. Spinach, meat (especially organ meat), pumpkin seeds, lentils, blackstrap molasses, and fortified cereals are all great sources of iron. If you take a supplement, drink some orange juice to wash it down as the citrus helps the body assimilate more of the mineral. And avoid drinking coffee or eating wheat when you ingest iron as caffeine and wheat impedes synthesis.

Patrick McKenna

Sometimes there is ambiguity regarding whether you are training too hard or not hard enough. Some runners like to wear heart rate monitors to document and receive live updates on their efforts. I think rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and feeling what your body is going through is a better gauge for training intensity. Though there are some advantages, heart rate monitors can be deceiving since your heart rate is affected by how much water you’ve had to drink, daily stress, illness and other factors. As your fitness increases, your heart rate will decrease as it adapts and doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood throughout your body, but it will also lower if you have fallen victim to over-training. Trying to get it up to a certain training zone could actually be setting you further back from your goal. With RPE, you are measuring your own feelings of effort, strain, discomfort, and/or fatigue and adjust your level of intensity based on what you are experiencing. Regardless of what method of intensity measurement you use, when you monitor some aspect of your physiological response to training you are taking a peek into your body through only a small window. You have to couple the monitoring with other quantifiable data. If you know how many miles you’ve run along with how long it took you and you consider how you felt during the workout, you will have insight into how you are progressing. You can use a GPS device and download the data after to see how you’re improving.

If you can revisit these ideas throughout your training program, you are well on your way to meeting your goals. You are in control. Make decisions that are prudent and conducive to crossing the finish line safer and faster. It takes commitment and a little flexibility to be a great trail racer. Eat, drink, run, sleep, enjoy your family and friends, and make time for other interests outside of running. It all comes together if you want it to.

Coffee Perks

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Caffeine is one of the oldest and most accessible performance enhancing aids. It is a metabolic stimulant that affects the central nervous system and decreases the perception of fatigue; studies suggest that caffeine may even enhance muscle contractions. Fat is known to slow sugar absorption and digestion, allowing you to feel satiated longer and have stable energy release instead of a spike. A benefit of caffeine is that it increases fatty acids in the blood, thus reducing the reliance on limited glycogen stores in the muscles. Glycogen is the body’s energy source and when it is depleted, the body is forced to slow down or stop.

Over the past 20 years, numerous studies of caffeine’s effects have produced various contradictions, though most have produced auspicious results for endurance athletes. However, most studies have shown that caffeine is only beneficial for intense events lasting an hour or longer when 300-600 milligrams (two to three cups of coffee) are consumed 45 minutes to an hour before the start of a race or workout. If you are an athlete that drinks coffee in the morning on most or all days, it would be a benefit to continue that habit before a race because otherwise you’ll be in a cranky fit of withdrawal. Whether or not it causes a complex chemical change in the muscles that stimulates more forceful contractions has yet to be confirmed.

The most substantial perk to consuming caffeine is that it simply spares muscle glycogen allowing an athlete to maintain a fast pace for a longer time as it conserves precious fuel. Another beneficial effect of this stimulant is one that doesn’t influence performance, rather it assists in recovery. Scientists are finding that consuming a moderate amount of caffeine with your post-workout meal increases the rate of carbohydrate assimilation. What this means is that when your muscles are needing to be replenished, caffeine will deliver the nutrients and replace glycogen faster. Beware that caffeine inhibits calcium and iron metabolism.

Having one cup of coffee does not execute its diuretic effect on frequent users. Coffee drinkers absorb the fluid just as you would a drink sans caffeine as long as the caffeine content is limited to around 180 mg. Most studies find that 1.4-2.8 milligrams of caffeine per pound of body weight taken an hour before exercise benefits most subjects. For athletes without a caffeine tolerance, it may bring on a few unfavorable side effects such as anxiety, the jitters, gastrointestinal cramps, diarrhea, and nausea, though studies suggest that the benefits are more pronounced in non-coffee drinkers than for regular users.

My conclusion is that a modest amount of caffeine taken before a long workout or race is, at least, slightly beneficial and worth practicing. It’s not illegal, it does not set you apart unfairly and it’s rather enjoyable. Coffee is the first thing I think about in the morning and creates just enough excitement for me to get out of bed after hitting the snooze button 2 (or 5) times.

Fuel and Hydration…Just Do It!

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How many of you neglect to eat and hydrate adequately during or after a run? How many of you simply forget to drink your sports solutions and sip water at aid stations? Hydration and fuel for your event are fundamental concepts, yet they are often discounted or repudiated. The key to optimal performance and adaptation to training is proper nutrition. For both athletes and couch potatoes, balanced diets are what will prevent disease and the onset of pernicious cognitive decline. To maintain energy levels and be fresh for a race, you need to consider planning meals according to their place on the glycemic index and time when you eat what type of food. This means leading up to race day, keeping high glycemic foods (high sugar, super refined, white starches) to a minimum, except immediately following an intense or long workout. Consuming sufficient intake of protein and good fats along with complex carbohydrates and other low-glycemic, slow release foods. Save any acute dietary changes for non-race weeks so that any unanticipated results will not negatively impact your performance.

During a race, your ability to execute at a high level is determined by the available fuel in your body. The principle fuel for high workloads is glycogen (the stored form of sugar in your liver). The amount of glycogen is limited as your muscles burn up what is readily available and then make the turn toward breaking down stored fat for energy. If your physical demands surpass the amount of quick release glycogen, you will become dependent on fat burning which is adequate for low-level intensity, but will cause the notorious “bonking” if you are attempting to maintain a hammer-fest when your body needs more sugar. To spare glycogen stores for the hard efforts, maintain a steady intake of small amounts of carbohydrate (e.g. gels, candy, Clif shot bloks, bananas bites) and eat before you feel hungry. If you wait until you are hungry, your body has already seceded from its previous intensity and you will begin dragging unnecessarily.

Hydration is considered by most sports authorities to be the most important aspect of nutrition and it is still the most overlooked. Avoid depleting your body of precious fluids. Sometimes the sluggish feeling isn’t because of depleted glycogen at all, it’s that you are dehydrated. Pre-hydration is just as important as remaining hydrated during training and competition. As you sweat and lose fluid, your plasma volume decreases causing your heart rate to increase to produce the same output of blood. While training, aim for 12-20oz. of fluid intake per hour. Drink as often as possible, especially on hot days. If you hear sloshing in your stomach, back off. This means that your body is having difficulty digesting and assimilating nutriment. A general guideline for fluid consumption during exercise is ~10oz. 15-20 minutes. During exercise that exceeds one hour, drinking a light solution of carbohydrate and sodium can increase the rate of absorption. A 2 percent reduction of body weight from fluid loss will slow a racer by about 4 perfect.If you find salt crusted on your body and clothing after a run, you need to take extra care in replacing sodium and potassium which both influence the function of your heart. Some people sweat more than others and you’ll have to play around with what works for you. Hydration systems such as Hydrapak and Amphipod hand-helds make carrying water convenient and comfortable and they are the remedy to any excuse you fabricate as to why you aren’t drinking.
Make sure you drink throughout the day, every day. Keep track of how often you visit the restroom and, at the risk of sounding vulgar, take a notice of the color of your urine as it can indicate if you should drink more. Be careful not to over-hydrate, it can be just as dangerous as becoming dehydrated. Find the balance and listen to your body.

The quickest way to accelerate recovery immediately following a race or workout is to ingest around 60 grams of high-glycemic carbohydrate along with around 20 grams of complete protein and begin replacing fluid. This is where sports drinks and protein shakes are more than just sugary beverages, they really aid in athletic improvement. A product that I really enjoy and I’d like to introduce other runners to is Orgain, an organic nutritional shake with 16 grams of protein, 10 certified organic fruits and veggies, 23 vitamins and minerals and it is free of soy, preservatives, artificial sweeteners and corn syrup. It only contains around 30 grams of carbohydrate, so I recommend eating a banana or some pretzels with the drink. You can also make your own recovery sports drink by filling up half of a water bottle with water, 1/4 bottle juice, 1/4 tsp. table salt, 1/4-1/2 tsp. sugar and top off the rest with water.

Who Doesn’t Like to Win?

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Inside Trail Racing Team member, Victor Ballesteros, dominated the illustrious Jed Smith Ultra Classic 50 miler this past weekend in Sacramento, CA. The course is a flat and somewhat monotonous 5-mile loop of paved and dirt path that delivers some of the fastest 50k and 50 mile times in recent US history. Such a race places a tormenting stress on the legs and diligence of the runners. It requires a fine assembly of seemingly contradictory qualities to complete the race with speed and vigor and not fall behind in the drudging routine of running a circuit race. Participants need to be willing to push hard and feel the discomfort of hovering just below the red-line yet also relax into a meditative, halcyon state of feeling light and swift; translating the ache into a tickle. It takes a person of incredible talent and psychological perseverance to finish and a willingness to ignore looming personal obstacles and a powerful spirit to win. Victor was that person on this particular day.

Having had some hamstring pain develop the Sunday before the race, he entered the 50-mile course with caution and hesitance. Some minor physical ailments can be ignored and won’t hinder training, but then there are those insidious strains that provide you with the true excuse to drop out of a race (ie.Tim Stahler’s groin in the Napa Valley Marathon last year). Victor began his race with the knowledge he may have a flare up and feel the sting of both injury and a DNF–the swirling wonder of what might have been. Often, in situations like this, he finds one of the best strategies is to try and find his happy zen place, or whatever comes closest. By concentrating on distant landmarks, passing them and then focusing on the next, he was able to press forward and not give up. He ran conservatively as to not aggravate his hamstring yet still managed to pull ahead and run solo for the entire race. It was an auspicious feat that his injury remained quiet for the bulk of the race except for a tense moment on the second to last lap. He felt the impending affliction, eased off and completed the race in an unbelievably fast time for holding back as much as he did. It’s an unambiguous and ostentatious example of determination and humility as Victor was delighted by his win, but displeased with the inability to really hammer, having run a PR 5:53 at last year’s slightly hillier and not so monotonous Last Chance 50 miler. I don’t often have the ability to wish I could have burned my matches up if I already have the win. Victor came blazing into overall first place with a time of 6:07:15, a pace of 7:21/M…for 50 miles. Did you get that? Yeah… The next male finisher, Chad Worthen of Sacramento, came in at a time of 6:47:00, 40 minutes behind Mr. Ballesteros.

Not only did this unrelenting speedster walk away with the win, he also limped away with a beautiful little blood blister under his left toe, his first time for such a nuisance during a 50 miler.

How does this even happen?

How does this even happen?

Victor will be taking the next few days to recuperate and charge up for his next endeavor, in his words, “the ridiculously stacked” Lake Sonoma trail race taking place 4/13/13 in Healdsburg, CA. Other Team ITR members accompanying Victor include, Gary Gellin, Christopher Wehan, Jonathan Gunderson, Sarah Lavender Smith, and our very own, Ken Michal. We are excited to hear how the race goes for Victor and hopefully he’ll be happy he has the chance to break his legs with an all-out effort…as long as he crosses the finish line first.

For full results please visit:

I think, therefore I am…

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Animals didn’t develop to consider long-term consequences and long-term planning even though it may be written in our DNA to behave in ways that will secure a future existence.  We have to remind ourselves that we are animals and we act according to an ethical code and to the hormonal ebb and flow within our bodies.  Impulse control is something that needs to be learned and practiced–we are confronted with this struggle daily as we crave and enjoy the units of life that instill the most pleasure.  We can actually augment the overall pleasure in our lives if we, at times, delay gratification (something that is uniquely human) and execute patience.  Creating and working toward goals provides us with an increased personal satisfaction.  We feel productive and motivated if we implement something to look forward to.  If we meet our goal, or come close to it, we feel successful and inclined to make more.  The pride experienced after meeting a goal influences our ability to grow and feel good about taking risks.  What we sometimes dismiss is that in that journey, when smaller milestones are met, we receive instant gratification and immediate feedback on our progress.  Those small successes can make or break our ability to stay with a project or event, which is why I think it is something that athletes should evaluate and integrate into training.  

Ultra-runners and other endurance athletes are voluntarily subjected to extreme physical stress, a condition which is actually unnatural and often avoided by other mammals.  Outside of our infrastructure and super-markets and insulated homes, our metabolisms shift to accommodate our current welfare and we try to conserve as much energy as possible.  Thousands of years ago, we would move swiftly and with great effort in an attempt to track down an animal or find the best field to collect resources.  Food wasn’t abundant and we would sit, and sit, and sit, and sit some more so that we wouldn’t deplete our brains and muscles of precious calories.  Sit with a group of hunter-gatherers from the African grasslands and explain to them that in our world we have so much food and so much free time that some of us run 26 miles a day, simply for the sheer pleasure of it. They are likely to say, “Are you crazy? That’s stressful.” Throughout hominid history, if you’re running 26 miles in a day, you’re either very intent on eating someone or someone’s very intent on eating you.  But, here we are running longer and longer distances, climbing taller mountains, pushing our bodies to see just how far we can go.  
The body is pretty magical as we are spectacularly adaptable, and it isn’t just our cardiovascular and muscular systems that have this amazing ability.  It is our psychology and cognitive flexibility that is the most adaptable of all.  We have this “superpower” to manipulate our environment and how we experience it just by changing the way we think.  So, if we return to the original thought of not committing to the long-term, we can shift the way we think so that we can suffer now and claim our aims.  We are extending our endurance and amplifying our tenacity.  If you are in a race, the goal for most is to finish and feel good about your performance.  Sometimes that finish is a good 5 hours away and you’re on a steep hill already feeling heavy and sore and ruing your spouse for snoring all night or for not using the port-a-potty one last time before the start.  If you think in terms of long-term in this situation, you have a pretty good chance of letting yourself drop out because it’s hard.  Our bodies are “designed” to stop an activity if it’s uncomfortable which is also a reason why, during exercise and labor, we produce hormones and opioids to block our pain receptor sites.  What we need to do is take our big block of long-term goal setting and segment it into smaller, more digestible goals.  Tell yourself a story, sell that story to yourself.  If you can just make it 5 more minutes you’ll allow yourself to walk, if you make it to the next aid station you can reward yourself with M&Ms or that kiddie-crack neon-yellow sports drink, if you can make it to the tree 100 feet up you will treat yourself with a nice beer and a burger after the race.  If you keep giving yourself these little mental rewards, you will find that you can cover a lot more ground without stopping.  The stories you create can carry you further than you thought your body would allow.  The trick is to champion the future by making the uncomfortable present feel more pleasurable and the ultimate goal seem less important.  What we think or expect is largely what constructs our reality.  These are live, instant successes that increase your performance endurance, and change your focus from your legs to the modest accomplishments along the way.  Each time you reach that “mini-goal”, change it so that your cognition is sharp and doesn’t fall prey to muscular fatigue.  So, the next time you’re on a long run or in mile 20 of your 50k, sell it to yourself.

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