Monday, August 4, 2014

Burning River 100- 2014 Edition

It was 3:15am on August 2nd: Burning River 100. And, I wasn't wearing deodorant.

There have been times when I've showed up to run an ultra not wearing socks. I've forgotten a band and had to run with loose hair. And, I've even admittedly raced 50k without underwear. These things happen when you race after being up all night working third shift. But, this?

I closed my eyes for a minute on the bus, hoping four tampons would be enough, because I wasn't prepared for that curveball either. It was going to be a good day, even if I stunk before everyone else did, and even if I had to wait in line for the bathroom every time I found one. I'd trained hard for this-- really hard. And, I was convinced nothing was going to rain on my parade.

Course changes moved our 10k romp around Squire's Castle to the road, and I was incredibly grateful to see Polo Fields aid station come into view after another half dozen plus paved miles o' misery. I had no idea what kind of time I was making, and promised myself I wouldn't sneak a peek until Snowville at the halfway point, but it felt like I was traveling at a conservative enough pace that I wouldn't blow up later. Aid station crew were friendly and well-prepared, and as always, the fanfare that erupted from spectators and crew was overwhelming but pleasant. But, it was early-- 13.5 miles early, and I just wanted to hit the trail.

After you've jumped into the deep end more than a few times, you get a feel for the water. And, in the case of running 100 miles, you learn that it's ok to walk early if your body tells you it needs it, and to tend to your feet before hot spots and blisters get out of control. I'd meticulously planned my drop bags, having raced BR100 twice already, and having trained on most segments of the course countless times over the past couple years. My first shoe change was slated at Oak Grove around mile 39, but my shoes and socks were soaked by the time I reached Shadow Lake (~mile 24), and I was forced to dry and Vaseline my feet there and return them to the wet shoes and socks. Blisters began to boil shortly thereafter. I also broke my vow and checked the time a few miles later. Five hours and thirty-nine minutes for 29 miles and change? Not bad. I was moving well, and felt fine, even though it took more than 20 miles to find my race legs.

Checking time once tends to lead to a domino effect of constant checks, and for someone who refuses to wear a watch, this means frequent shuffles into the pocket of a handheld water bottle that, on this occasion, more closely resembled a clown car than a 3 x 5 inch pocket that was only meant to carry a phone or a packet of gel. In my case, it was holding the phone I planned to power on to check the time, toilet paper, batteries, a flashlight, tampons, and a Justin's nut butter. As I neared Oak Grove, I was powering the phone on and off so frequently I'm surprised someone didn't take notice and ask if I was ok. I was hoping to hit 40 miles under 8 hours and 50 in 10.5, and somehow seemed to believe if I checked my phone often enough it would propel me to the aid station faster. The course was relatively tame between Egbert and Oak Grove with Alexander road in between, and easy miles on the Towpath where scary clouds and gusts of wind threatened my chi with the fear of lightning and other unspeakable terrors. I made it to Oak Grove unscathed and lightning scare-free, albeit in 8:07-- a few minutes behind schedule. Still, I took my ability to stay reasonable close to my target time a sign that I'd done my job in training, and that I'd planned well.

Getting to Snowville in 10.5 hours wasn't going to be an easy task, and I knew I'd set the bar a bit high. In the past, I'd reached this aid station in 11:31 and 11:58, respectively, and even though it came a mile earlier than in years past (49.6 miles this year), I knew this was an ambitious goal. The Oak Grove loop was harder than I remembered, but I ran when I could and walked when running wasn't in the cards. There were a couple long climbs that put my already labored hill-climb breathing into full fledged Darth Vader mode, and I was grateful to be done with it when I left Oak Grove again, this time for Snowville. I'd been prepared for the worst, but the Bog of Despair was so dry I barely batted an eye as I navigated it. This was a huge mental boost for me, and I began running fast upon leaving what used to be the muddiest soul-sucking part of the entire course. I reached Snowville in 10:45. I was still a few minutes behind, but I'd also spent a little longer than anticipated at Oak Grove. So far, the day was turning out as well as I could have hoped. The weather was holding up despite the clouds, and although I had blisters in the making, nothing catastrophic had happened yet.



I zoned out every negative feeling I'd harbored in the past toward the Snowville to Boston segment, running it reasonably well, arriving at the aid station feeling more like I'd run 54 kilometers than 54 miles. This was a hard section, in my opinion, with a lot of hills, and the next segment wouldn't be as challenging. After that, I just had to focus on getting to the Ledges-- preferably in daylight, where my pacer, Terri Lemke, would be waiting for me.

In 2012, I reached Pine Lane in daylight that quickly faded to darkness along the Bike and Hike path, and in 2013 I made it there at twilight, so getting there over an hour and a half before sunset was another boost. Unfortunately, a thread had started to unravel upon leaving this aid station that was threatening to rip out of control, and before I knew it, I was on the Bike & Hike unable to bring myself to run-- even on the flattest portions. And, while I was marching as fast as my legs could carry me, passing a number of people along the way, I was incredibly eager to find Terri. This segment seemingly took forever. There were signs along the trail once we entered it again advertising that Ledges shelter was only 1/2 mile to the right, taunting me each time I passed one. I power walked my way into the sight of cheering spectators, my sister, and Terri, just before darkness set in, realizing for the first time that my pacer was a pacer and not a savior, and all this hope of reaching her wasn't going to take away the obvious fact that I still had to cover another 35 miles. The first twitches of panic took hold as we left together for Pine Hollow.

I knew I'd lost sight of a sub-24 hour finish, but reasoned that 25-26 hours was definitely still a possibility. I'm known to spend miles doing calculations, even late in races when nothing else seems to make sense, and I was fairly confident that even if Pine Hollow to Pine Hollow and Oneill Woods got the best of me, I should still be able to finish well under 27 hours-- not the kind of finish that gets written about in magazines, but respectable nonetheless, and a hill of beans better than the 29:42 finish I scraped up in 2012.

By now, I was tired, it was getting dark, and I had blisters. Terri, an ultra running legend, was impressed by my walking pace, and I humbly told her it was really all I could see myself doing for the foreseeable future of our trek together. We made our way to Pine Hollow, discussing a number of running-related topics, and arrived to a chaotic scene of people, bags, food, and tape. I was eager to get out of my Inov8 X-talon 212's and into my 190's-- and also fresh socks and a shirt of my own, having borrowed one of Terri's en route to the aid station, but my bag was missing. Granted, the aid station was jam-packed, but I've never had a drop bag disappear, especially one that was as clearly labeled as mine was. While I realize one or two of my bags didn't have my bib # marked, all of them had my first and last name printed in reasonably large, bold letters. After nearly 10 minutes of searching, only the ziplock bag containing my X-talon 190's was located-- a bag that had been taken out of my drop bag. Why someone would do something like that is still a disappointing mystery, but thankfully ultra runner and BR100 volunteer Hugh Patton offered to lend me a pair of his own socks.

The Pine Hollow to Pine Hollow loop was described as 3.7 miles, and I knew from training on it that it wasn't going to be a picnic, but the amount of time we spent slogging along this trail was nothing short of an eon, and the ground we covered easily approached or surpassed 5 miles. It was the first time I experienced true frustration in the 17 hours I'd spent on the course. Had we missed a turn? Were we on our way to Covered Bridge by mistake? No, that wasn't possible. I knew that segment, and we were heading in the wrong direction. When we finally made our way back into the aid station, I knew I'd lost a lot of time, and it wasn't going to be made up on any of the next three segments.

Along the 6.2 mile hike to Covered Bridge, mental fatigue finally dug its talons into my brain, within minutes of the start of approximately 47 (and it may have been more) pee stops, and the start of the worst butt chafing episode I've ever experienced in my 31 years on this planet. While I knew I'd finish, and probably under 29 hours, all other goals became secondary concerns to finding something to wake me up beside the horrendous burning on and between my butt cheeks. I'd heard tales of butt-chafing that had forced people out of races, but had chalked it up to weakness on the part of the chafee. This discomfort was in a galaxy of its own, and the terrain we covered during those 6.2 miles rivaled the 2013 Bog of Despair at times. I repeatedly lost my footing, sunk my shoes in deceptively deep mud, and generally fell into a funk. I was dizzy and aching by the time we made our way into Covered Bridge, and downed a cocktail of Ibuprofin, S-caps, and Pepsi. I smeared a quarter tube of Desitin on my inner thighs and on my butt, shoved a wad of toilet paper between the cheeks, followed by eating potatoes, banana, and grilled cheese-- the most palatable foods for me at this point.

I liked the next segment, the 4.7 mile Perkins/Riding Run loop, and had run it so often I'd nearly memorized ever twist, turn, creek, and hill, but encountering it fatigued, pained, and in the dark was an indescribable, confusing nightmare, especially muddy as it was with a dimming headlamp. I missed familiar landmarks, and didn't even realize I'd reached the big hill until I was nearly halfway down it, and by the time the trail spit us out onto the road, I had no idea what had just happened. We were done with it? Back at the Covered Bridge? This meant we only had 14 miles remaining...well, at least on paper.

Another quarter tube of Desitin and wad of toilet paper later, we began our hike toward Botzum Parking (mile 91) on what turned out to be the second segment that was easily a mile longer than had been listed. The road section was painful on my feet (and everything was painful for my butt), and the O Woods was full of rocks and fallen trees that kept turning into crawling, writhing CGI animals. It was the only time, like 2012, that I experienced any type of visual disturbance, and also struggled to stay awake and retain my peripheral vision. I'm a logically thinking person, but if ever there was a case for the supernatural, I can assure you it's Oneill Woods after dark. Upon exiting the trail, I was sure the aid station would come into view, but it didn't. There was just more pavement. Unlike the long experience in the Pine Hollow loop, however, I knew we were, without a doubt, heading in the right direction.

We finally reached the aid station at about 6:15 am. With 10 miles remaining and a needed refueling and bathroom stop, I was anticipating a 28:00-28:30 finish. It wasn't going to be fast or pretty, but I was going to get it done. Not long after arriving, however, I found myself doubled over, bile filling my mouth, gagging potatoes onto the ground in front of me. I didn't feel well, didn't want to eat even though I was hungry, and my feet and butt hurt. But with one aid station and only 10 miles separating me from the finish line, there really wasn't any other option but to get up, force something down, and get moving. As I've told countless people inquiring about BR100, if you can leave the Covered Bridge, barring medical emergency, you're going to finish. It is the point of no return. The only question is: how long will it take?

On our way to Memorial Parkway, a steady rain began that didn't let up for the next few hours. For the first time in 20 miles, I began to run. And although it was slow, and barely lasted 1/4 mile, it was something. We continued this walk-run, sometimes at Terri's suggestion, sometimes at mine, all the way to the aid station where, minutes before entering, we found Dan Bellinger running toward us with his dog, thrilled to see us and beaming that we had hours to finish 4.5 short miles. It was a good feeling knowing I was heading toward the last segment, and I was happy that he was happy, but exhausted and not happy that I still had 4.5 miles to cover. We arrived at 7:45 and left about 4-5 minutes later, and I estimated it would take an nearly an hour and a half to finish, or about 18 minutes/mile. Even with the fast finish on the road, I knew the first half of the Cascade Valley section wasn't easy, and there was a long stretch uphill on the brick road after leaving the aid station.

The rain picked up momentum as we headed up the behemoth of a hill that waited in the Gorge and Chuckery, a course change for which I had not been prepared. It felt like we were moving at the pace of a turtle, and at one point my breathing became so labored I thought I was going to faint and barrel down the hill backward, over-Rover rolling, but finally, at the top, after a minute or two of hiking, we again picked up a shuffled jog. The rain made what was typically an easy, somewhat boring stretch puddly and muddy, and a number of people passed us. I didn't care. I just wanted to get done. And, by the time the bridge came into view, I was a teary, bawling mess.

We headed over the bridge, through the rain, and up the paved hill on the other side with gusto, passing one runner and pacer team here and another further down the road. My running picked up pace first just a trifle, and then, with less than a half mile to go and the finish line in view, to a pace I didn't think was possible.



28:18:49

I'd done it. After three 100 mile DNF's in 2013, a lot of heartache, and a hell of stretch of high mileage racing and training over the past few months, I'd earned my second 100 mile buckle. I could not have been more pleased with my pacer, my sister being there to support me from Ledges at mile 66 to the finish, or the journey itself. I got to see several friends finish before leaving. It was a great end to a long, challenging adventure.

I'd initially decided 2015 would be spent training for a fast marathon, and to improve my 50 mile time, and that I was done with 100 miles for a while. But, I suspect Burning River will call me back for another go on a course I love with the support of a trail running community like no other. People say racing ultras is addicting, but I think it's the atmosphere that draws me in, again and again. It's like nothing else. Magic.



Cheers!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Torture to Taper: 2014 Buckeye Trail 50k

I didn't feel ready.

It's a moment of panic, really, standing at the starting line like a deer in headlights, not knowing what you're going to do. Even worse, standing there without wearing socks or underwear, even though you know you're going to be running in the mud and humidity for 6 hours or longer. I guess I made up for it by wearing two sports bras and an orange hair ribbon. And, I did have water this time...it was just old water that had been in an unwashed bottle for nearly a week.

The projected top 10 lists had been released earlier in the week, lists to which I typically do not pay too much mind in a really personal way. I mean, if it were a local 5k top 10, you'd better bet your ass I'd expect to see my name near the top. But, I haven't really found my niche yet on the mantel of speedy ultra personalities, so I tend to view these lists the way I view an article outlining an upcoming super race like Western States or Leadville. This time, though, it was different. I wanted to finish in the top 10. I just didn't particularly feel like racing.

This was the Buckeye Trail 50k: a trail ultra with a history more than two decades deep, and legends like Stephen Godale who had been there every step of the way. The course consisted of a 25k out-and-back stretch that followed a significant portion of the upcoming Burning River 100 course between Snowville and Pine Lane, some of the worst segments of BR100 in my own humble opinion-- at least in terms of steep climbs and mud. This was home, after all, to the notorious Bog of Despair. I'd run it once before, and recorded a personal worst 50k time; and, though I knew I was much better trained this year, and healthier, I was tired. In the 5 weeks leading up to the BT50k I'd already raced two very challenging 50 mile races, had logged my highest weekly training mileage to date with 90 miles, and had run 40 overnight miles the weekend before. My body was begging for a break. I told myself that break was coming. I just had to get through these 31 miles first.

I started slow, and even considered walking up the first paved incline, much like I'd done at the Tussey Mountainback 50 back in October. My early walking had paid off big time in that race, as I spent most of the last 10 miles picking off runners who'd flown by me in the early miles. My Cliff Young shuffle broke into a wider gaited trot and eventually a gallop as the miles progressed, passing first the Snowville aid station, and then Boston Store. I paid little mind to those who'd passed me, particularly those runners I didn't recognize, expecting their overzealous pace to catch them later when the race actually began. It's a lesson I learned, a lesson most of us learn the hard way. Banking time simply doesn't really work, at least not in a way that is beneficial to one's morale in those late miles when we're all looking for that silver lining and instead find ourselves being passed by droves of fresh-pacing runners.



My friend Andy and I leap frogged for the better part of the Boston to Pine Lane segment. We rolled into the aid station together at the halfway mark in 2:54 and change, but I was out again as fast as I could feasibly get out, stuffing ice cubes down my bra (and joking with my Running Ma Dawn Drasner, "yes, I have ice cubes. Since when are my boobs this big?") and jamming 1/2 of a banana into my mouth. I'd been hydrating well despite the heat, and managing my water ration well, having not come closer than a few gulps from an empty bottle. I'd decided during the previous segment that my legs were in much better condition than I'd anticipated before the start, and I was going to hit the 'Go' switch in a few miles. The leading women weren't tremendously far ahead, and I'd encountered the leading male runner well into the Boston to Pine Lane segment, which meant the head of the field was feeling the effects of the heat, humidity and mud. I had a fighting chance at walking away with a pretty good race under my belt.

Pine Lane to Boston II was a blur. I was running fast and feeling fine, and had been repeating periodically a mantra, sometimes in my head and sometimes out loud: "once you get to Boston, there's only one more aid station". I wasn't cramping or wilting in the heat, but the overall fatigue from the previous weeks was making me impatient to get done. The towpath leading to Boston Store came into view before I knew it, and with 11 miles to go, I was prepared for the worst 5 mile segment of the entire race. Epic climbs. Mud galore. Creeks. Ugly, yucky stuff, especially after 20 miles. I set out for Snowville, my only goal being to reach it before the 5 hour mark. If I did this, even if a rogue boulder rolled out in front of me, a large barking dog chased me up a tree, or some other act of the divine intervened, I would still make it well under 6:30, and hopefully closer to 6:15.

I started encountering burned-out, tired runners a mile or so into this segment. A couple of them attempted to jog when I caught up, but most simply stepped off the trail, looking spent and defeated. I was admittedly feeling a little more tired and anxious as the twists, turns, ascents and descents progressed, wondering impatiently when those familiar, final hills were going to come into view. Up to this point, I'd only checked the time once: the 25k mark at Pine Lane, but now I was checking it every couple minutes. Finally, the steps came into view, and I knew I was about 1/8 mile from the aid station. 4:58. Six miles were all that separated me now from the finish line, but they were going to be the six longest miles of my life, it seemed.



After I filled my water bottle, I took off running. This was my least traveled segment, one I'd rarely seen in training, and one without any real landmarks until I reached the stables near Oak Grove. Unfamiliar miles seem shorter when I'm fresh, and longer when I'm tired, and I admittedly hit a mental wall around 29 miles after which the thought of running was agonizing, but an agonizing necessity. It was here that another friend, Crystal Shinosky, finally took off after having followed or closely led me for nearly 2 miles, and after which I finally passed the stables, knowing I was less than 2 miles from the finish line.

My pace was steady, and a quick check indicated 5:58 had passed. Well, clearly I wouldn't be breaking 6 hours today, but 6:20 was looking awfully good. Looking over my shoulder, I realized nobody was in sight, and briefly I toyed with taking a walk break. But, running downhill on the pavement, I simply could not justify it, especially with a struggling runner walking just 100 yards or so in front of me. I picked up the pace, passed the runner, and, laborious, deliberate breathing pattern enforced and arms pumping like I was executing an exaggerated pantomime of an Olympic sprint, I made my way down the final stretch. My time: 6:21:32. I finished 10th. (Take that, top 10 projection!)

I laid in the cold grass under a tree in fetal position, unable to eat or drink and unwilling to move. It was a great race, and I felt great about it. With three weeks until the big day, I hadn't had a bad race in months. I'd survived the brunt of my hard training, had survived three brutal ultras in 5 weeks, had nearly a half dozen PRs or course PRs under my belt since late April in distances ranging from half marathon to 100k. I couldn't have hoped for better training. And now, it was over. My taper was finally going to begin.

I've given a lot of thought to Burning River. There is a chance I might be paced by one of the legendary ladies of NE Ohio ultra running, and with all that has transpired over the past 3 months, I'm not sure what is waiting around the corner at this epic, grueling race. Is 24 hours possible? I don't know. But, I'm going to give it my best shot.

I feel ready.

Cheers!

Monday, July 7, 2014

A Work in Progress: The Life of One Ultrarunner

Rather than prattle endlessly about this topic or that-- nutrition, shoes, speed work, which book or article I read and how I feel about it, today, instead, I'm just going to share a series of pictures that tell the story of what I do, and the history that led me to this path.


 




 


 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 





 
 

 
 
 
 


Sunday, June 22, 2014

50 Miles of Mohican Adventures

If you've ever been awakened, laying in the back seat of your car in your underwear listening to Mozart, by the blinding light of a police officer's flashlight and not-so-gentle banging on your window, then you understand and appreciate my Friday night plight. But, I'm willing to guess that the vast majority of the general population has never been exposed to this sort of comical humiliation, so I'll let you in on a little secret: it's no picnic, especially when the officer begins peering into the backseat while you scurry to cover yourself a little better, asking suspiciously if you're alone. I wanted badly to say, "I'm listening to Mozart and there's two tons of camping supplies in the trunk. Yes, I've got a couple men hanging out back here." Instead, I explained that there was a race starting at 5:00 in the morning, and I was hoping to sleep for a couple hours before it started. Leaving me to the debauchery of my underwear-clad Mozart-listening backseat shenanigans, I decided I should at least turn off the engine so I didn't wake up with an empty gas tank. Instead, I woke up with a dead battery...because I'd left my phone plugged into the charger, and somehow it had taken down an entire automobile.

        the view from my car, where I slept the night before the race

The day was off to a great start.

On the bright side, once the 50 mile race was underway, I discovered I felt better than I could remember feeling, even into the double digit miles. I can be quoted as saying that nature is my god, trails are my sanctuary, and I have the privilege of attending my church for 6, 10, 15+ hours sometimes. Mohican was my grand experience, my conversion, and over the past two years my affair with trail running has blossomed exponentially. Returning to the place where it all began was a special occasion, and, coincidentally also the pinnacle of my 2014 training for my one and only 100 mile race of the year. I'd hit a peak of 84 miles the week before the Buckeye Buster 52 mile trail race which I'd finished in 12:39:05, and with only two weeks separating that race from this one, I had little reaction or recovery time. After taking a day off, I was back on the saddle. The immediate transition from grueling, long trail race back to training was intense. But, I attribute what has transpired since April to this sort of attitude toward training: I just want to knock out this 100. It's a mission. And, I'm focused.

Anyway, the beauty of the Mohican trail is breathtaking, and I was into the Enchanted Valley-- a section of rocks, creeks, and a legendary root climb, with fire in my step and camera in hand. Even though the low light resulted in a lot of blurry pictures, it was worth losing a couple minutes trying to capture a still frame of what I was experiencing during my adventure through this part of the course. The Mohican 50 consists of two loops: a long loop that is approximately 26.5 miles, and a shortened version of this loop that is roughly 23.5 miles; and, the short loop cuts out this lovely section of the course. Upon ascending the root climb at the climax of the Valley, I was back onto the trail and headed toward the aid station. I felt great.

         the root climb leading out of the Enchanted Valley

The humidity that abruptly ceased as I exited the trail had been the only setback thus far, as temperatures never seemed to climb above the mid-70's. It was pleasantly warm with plenty of shade, but the humidity was like a thick, overwhelming fog that was causing me to sweat more than I'd like to admit, and I was chafing in places where a person should never chafe in addition to blasting through the water in my handheld bottle faster than I could have imagined. While I hadn't run out, and didn't, I came awfully close several times. Coasting past the Mohican Adventures campground, I sucked down the last of my bottle only to realize that the aid station was actually a half mile down the road this year!

I ran the first loop probably much faster than I should have run it, but I felt good and do not really regret the 5:31 split. In retrospect, I think if I'd have been able to reconcile the need to run faster with the shorter mileage that remained, I probably could have shaved a few minutes from my finish time. I also lost a lot of time waiting to go to the bathroom, but despite my underwear-bearing backseat meeting with Unknown Officer A the night before, I really didn't feel up to exposing my rear end to all and sundry on the trail.

I slowed considerably during the second loop, but kept moving steadily, and faster than I'd done during the last 20 miles at the previous race. While I'd lost my top 5 position when Lauren Pearch passed me around the 26 mile mark, I was still focused on beating my past Mohican 50 time by an hour, which meant I'd need to be done in 11:42 or better. It was a challenge keeping this in perspective with so many miles remaining, knowing how quickly things can change in such a long trail race. To stay motivated, I focused on rewarding myself with a walk when I approached a hill, and then I'd reward myself with a run when I got to the top. It sounds ridiculous, but each served as a welcomed break after a while. By the time I got to the Covered Bridge aid station at 38 miles, I was gassed and impatient. I knew I had 12 miles remaining, and this is where the calculations began. I almost wished I hadn't carried my phone, since it served as a continuous torture, each mile marker resulting in another quick check followed by an endless string of calculations. It got so bad that I could have sworn I was going to vomit numbers.

Unfortunately, it was apparent by mile 48 that I wasn't going to beat 11:42, but I was still reasonably confident that, barring a horrendous bone-breaking fall, sudden onslaught of diarrhea, or some other catastrophic mishap, I was going to finish under 12 hours. A couple of men, perched like vultures on the side of the course near the campground reaffirmed this, shouting something along the lines of, "you're a mile away and you're about to finish under 12 hours! Smile-- that's pretty impressive!" I couldn't smile, though, because I had no idea if there really was just a mile or if it was actually a mile and a half; and, my running pace was so mind-bogglingly slow that I was convinced most people could walk faster. I had no idea if I was moving at a 10 minute pace or 20, or if time had bent entirely. I just wanted to get done.

The finish is a cruel play on emotions that are barely intact at this stage in the race, forcing runners to actually pass the finish line on the opposite side of the street, run down a hill and over a creek before turning to run past, yet again, the finish line to do a lap around the grass behind the main pavilion at the finish. Finally, bounding as gracelessly as a rhinoceros, I heaved myself over the finish line after glancing at the clock: 11:50:13. It was done.



 Today, aside from a bit of tenderness in my left ankle and some mild soreness in my quads, I'm walking as though I'm recovering from a typical long run. It is amazing how the body adapts to repeat torture. Sometimes I think I'd have been a prime candidate for a psychological experiment on the brain's remarkable ability to cope with physical and mental stress. Two years ago, I was so devastated by the fatigue my muscles and mind were experiencing that I walked nearly all of the second loop. This time around, I ran most of it, and finished 52 minutes faster, even with the outrageously long 8 minute stop at the Mohican Adventures aid station after I finished the first loop.

After having my car jumped followed by an eating rampage that took out anything and everything edible within arm's reach, I made the 2-hour drive home. I feel good. I feel optimistic. There are 6 weeks until the Burning River 100, and I feel more than ever that there is another buckle in sight, and an epic adventure waiting in the wings. As I told the two vultures who predicted my sub-12 finish, "no matter how many times I do this, it doesn't get any easier", but the familiarity with what awaits me and the exhilaration of seeing the finish line come into view makes it feel more possible with each attempt. I think that's what it's all about, after all. Just as some look to celestial beings to find their way, I lose who I was and emerge anew every time I take on a trail adventure. It's a passion.



Cheers!

Monday, June 9, 2014

To Win, Lose, and Fall Somewhere in Between: Buckeye Buster 52 Mile Trail Race

Buckeye Buster: 52 miles through a tangle of hills, roots, and just enough grass and pavement to make you think, "oh, this can't be so bad". I was prepared for a date with a lively pack of mutant deerflies, and a fairly stiff cutoff, given the difficulty of the course and the mileage to be run. Eleven hours isn't a lot of time on a road 50, if one is having a bad day. On trails in the heat of summer with two bonus miles and a heck of a lot more elevation change? It was unrealistic. Even the modified 12 hour limit was unrealistic, in my opinion. But, I was blindly optimistic, and as well-trained as I could have hoped. Armed with a 50 mile PR of 9:37, a fast 100k under my belt already this year, and weekly training that had recently peaked at 84 miles, I toed the line like I was fighting for Sparta.

I can count the number of times I haven't totally f$^&ed up a race over 50 miles on one hand, but my many and myriad mishaps somehow never wormed their way into my psyche, even after some of the most bizarre events of my running history unfolded as the miles progressed. I started probably a little too fast, covering the first of the five 10.4 mile loops in 1:57, but didn't seem to feel fatigued by the effort. I'd planned to run the first loop in about 2:00, the second around 2:10, and then try to hang on for dear life. I know myself well, and know this course well having run 50k on it in December 2012 and June 2013. I knew I'd slow to 2:25-2:30 or more by the fourth loop simply because the temperature was going to rise and I'm incredibly bad at maintaining an even pace for more than 15 miles or so. So, I expected to finish somewhere in the ballpark of 11:30.

training for Burning River 100 in 2012. I finished the 100, but it was a struggle.

Anyway, this event consisted of three races this year: the 52 mile race that I was running, the 50k I'd previously run, and a 10.4 mile trail challenge. The staggered start meant that while the 50k runners started an hour after me, the shorter distance started two hours later-- or about two minutes after I finished my first loop. The result was a stampede of people sprinting after me onto the trail, lots of passing over the course of the next few miles both by me and by other runners, and a lot of checking over my shoulder to see if I ought to let someone pass. This loop was easily my least favorite.

Four miles into it, or around mile 15, there was a bed of mud that really didn't have any feasible way around it. I didn't remember it posing a problem the first time around, and feeling a little overly ambitious, made the mistake of trying to jump it. My right foot got stuck in the mud, and when I pulled at it, my foot pulled free from my shoe-- the first time this has ever happened to me in 17 years. It was one of those really vulnerable, pivotal moments in a race, I think, where you're faced with something that just really f*&%s with your chi, and you've got to figure out how to get yourself together again. So, there I was, sitting in the mud, runners literally stepping over me like a busted down tree, as I pulled at a shoe that didn't want to come out of the mud. Finally, with the help of another runner who pulled at one arm while I pulled at the shoe with the other, it emerged coated in a layer of mud so thick it didn't even resemble a shoe.

I wasted about 1/2 mile hobbling along the trail in my remaining shoe, hoping I might find a spot close enough to the lake that I could rinse it off. However, after a while I grew anxious and realized that chance wasn't going to come, and I was going to blow myself out of the water and out of the running in the worst kind of way if I didn't start running again soon. So, filthy bottom and hands, I plopped on the side of the trail, beat as much mud off the shoe as possible, slid my foot into its slimy interior, and then laced up. I'd driven 2.5 hours to run, not to piss and moan about getting dirty.
Unfortunately, my little rendezvous with the mud and subsequent half mile of walking cost me more time than I'd anticipated, and I crossed the timing mat at the 20.8 mile mark in 4:14. I'd just lost my lead less than a half mile ago, but otherwise felt reasonably confident and optimistic. The next closest woman appeared to be at least 5 minutes behind, and I felt like I still had plenty of strength left. I'd secretly hoped for a top 3 finish, and knew this depended on not stopping at 50k, which was going to be incredibly tempting given the rising temperature and the row of medals glimmering under the sun.

I felt fast heading into the third loop. The sun was blasting the open portions of the course like a heat lamp and I suspected it was nearing 80 degrees, but most of the course is pleasantly shaded, especially during the early and late miles of the loop. I could tell my walking pace was stalling on many of the uphill sections, and that I wasn't running quite as fast as I had been running earlier, but was shocked when I checked the time at the 27 mile mark and discovered nearly 5:45 had passed. I knew it would take me about an hour to cover the last 4.2 miles thanks to a series of sun-exposed, deerfly infested grassy hills that spanned the greater part of a mile. Upon ascending the last of the hills, I tried to pick up the pace, and found that my running pace had improved considerably from the first half of the loop. I was a bit concerned I might be nipping at the heels of 7 hours again like I did last summer when it was blazing hot and humid, and had resolved to stop at 50k, knowing I wouldn't have enough time to finish within 12 hours. I came through the 50k mark in 6:47, still in second place amongst female runners, and incredibly frantic and frustrated-- not so much as a result of fatigue, but more or less panic and disappointment. I really wanted to go the full distance. As good fortune would have it, two of my friends, Dawn and Gale, detained me at the timing tent where I'd just motioned to chop off my head and pull the plug on my race. "You're not quitting". After explaining I didn't have time to finish within the 12 hour limit, a lady at the timing tent insisted the timing crew from Western Reserve Racing wasn't going anywhere. I was free to continue.



Skeptical but desperate, I headed back out with ice stuffed down my sports bra and bounced back into a run almost immediately. I'd wasted nearly 10 minutes at the aid station, minutes I really didn't have to spare. The leader of the 52 mile race, Jason Howland, passed me approximately 5 miles into the loop, smiling but looking fatigued. Even the fastest runners weren't exempt from feeling the effects of the heat and hills. Rolling into the aid station around mile 37.5, local ultra runner Mark Pancake poured cold water over my shoulders and back, and I ate two pieces of watermelon and tried to suck down 1/2 of a gel. I felt pretty good and told him so, but the gel didn't digest well and I regretted it a mile later. As a low carb runner, my favorite food items are typically fatty and filling rather than sugary and light. Luckily, the stomach discomfort passed relatively quickly, and I didn't have to walk off the nausea for too long. I was surprised to find myself running as strong at 40 miles as I'd been running at 20 miles, but I was still tired and mentally overwhelmed when I came through the timing area at the end of my fourth loop.

At this point, there wasn't a shred of doubt that I was going to continue, it was just a matter of how long that last loop took. I could see a look of concern (or disapproval, disgust, horror?) on local running store owner and race director Vince Rucci's face when it became apparent that I planned to continue. But, having been reminded repeatedly that the course would remain open for me, I was determined to finish what I'd started. Dawn saw me off to the trail where I was left to run with the memory of Western Reserve Racing timing man Jim Christ's picture from the previous day of a boat and a fish and a smile. All I could think was, "Man, am I sorry, but the only thing you're going to be enjoying this evening are crickets and mosquitos and the sound of grass growing because it's going to be a long time before I finish this race".



Luckily, the team at Western Reserve Racing made sure my ass stayed in four-wheel drive heading up the hills by sending out Vince after me, a mile into the last loop. My first thought upon hearing his declaration that he was pacing me was, "Walking talking Jesus, they couldn't find someone else?" This guy leads trail training runs at like an 8-minute pace. "I'm going to take a wild guess here and assume I'm in last place." I blurted out, beyond the point of frustrated and embarrassed. How in the world had THIS happened? "Yep", Vince replied. "Well, there is one guy behind you, but we made it clear he was on his own". Wow. Bloody wow. "What in the heck happened to everyone behind me? I haven't been in last place all day. What happened to the rest of the women?" Pure, unadulterated shock. And horror. "They all dropped", he started, "opted to get that 50k medal". Gee. I was silent for a minute or two, trying to reconcile how 2nd place had become last place, and how a 12 hour 50 mile trail race could be swept into oblivion. I'd run slower at Mohican two years before, and finished mid-pack.

Heading into the middle of the loop where I'd lost my shoe hours earlier, an orange shirt came into view. "We caught one", Vince said. It was another runner, struggling over the mud. "We're the chain gang," Vince said to the guy, but he made no effort to keep up, and heading steadily uphill, we easily passed him. I ran out of water not long after this point, halfway up the longest, steepest hill of the entire loop. Luckily, the aid station had become mobile and was moved to the top of this hill. After refilling my water bottle, Vince announced he was going to wait for the guy we'd passed and perhaps Joe Jurczyk (Burning River 100 race director) would scoop me up down the road and finish the last few miles with me. I passed Joe, but he was still tearing down the original aid station, and pressed on past the deerfly home base and the grassy hills. Into the cool, shaded woods I began to run again, realizing I only had about 3 miles to go. A mile later I found Joe waiting for me, and we ran together toward the finish. Joe was surprised to find me running, but I felt strong and relieved to be nearly finished.

As the last long uphill came into view, I asked him to check the time. Twelve hours and thirty four minutes had passed. Well...it wasn't going to go down in the record book for a fastest 52 mile run, but it was faster than I'd run Mohican, and faster than my 50 mile split at Woodstock. It was going to be a finish.

I crossed the timing mat in 12:39:05, 15th of 18 finishers and the 2nd female to complete the full distance. Those behind me on the course had both elected to take the early start, as had one other person who'd finished before me. I earned a nice hydration pack for the second place effort, and devoured a roast beef and swiss cheese sandwich covered in mayonnaise. In retrospect, I'm still struggling to come to terms with what actually transpired during this race and how I feel about my performance. On the one hand, I made no major mistakes. Granted, I probably should have put on the muddy shoe pronto (and probably shouldn't have tried to jump the muddy bed) and definitely spent too long at the aid station after the third loop. But, I ran a good race. I continue to feel a sense of disappointment in having had someone feel a need to pace me when mentally I was exactly where I needed to be, and planned to finish running and strong. I'm unjustifiably annoyed by the strict cut-off. Unjustifiably, I mean, because I knew what I was getting into when I registered. I knew it was unrealistic. And, the race results kind of confirm this. Out of 40 starters, only 5 people finished under 11 hours, and only 14 beat the modified 12 hour limit. But, I took on the burden of trying to achieve what was not realistic given my ability and track record on this course. I wilt in the heat, and there was nearly 7000 ft of elevation change, and this was no Tussey Mountainback with its well groomed fire roads.



In less than two weeks, however, I'll be at it again. Mohican dialed me for another romp in the woods, and I'm feeling up to the 50 mile challenge. Running into the sunset is passion, and trails are an elixir. Together, the combination is a high unmatchable. I am ready.


Cheers!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Cleveland Rocks: Rite Aid Half Marathon- 2014 Edition

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: one of the most deliciously tempting endeavors for me, as a runner, is to attempt things that are rather unrealistic...at least given my training habits and rather robust exterior. Challenges are like my badges of honor, being able to take that deep breath, clear my throat, and then say, for all and sundry to hear, "yeah, so I'm going to run a 3:30 marathon, guys". Ok, well, I haven't yet slid off that slippery slope, but I did make it clear that I planned to run in the vicinity of 1:45 at the Rite Aid Cleveland Half Marathon this year. And, considering my previous PR was 1:47:49 (Akron 2012), and that I'm a solid 5 pounds heavier and generally on the cusp of sleep walking thanks to 5 midnight shifts a week at work, I think I'd taken the cake with this one. Granted, I'd used the first 4 months of 2014 to build a strong case for the feasibility of this goal (100k PR, fastest 50 mile split, solid 75k in March, back-to-back sub-23 minute 5k's), but I knew I'd met my match. I had to maintain an 8:01 pace for 13.1 miles. Last November, out of shape and depressed, I couldn't even do that for 5 miles at the annual Thanksgiving event.

On Monday, I crunched down and knocked out 4.25 miles at a 7:44 pace, and then couldn't seem to stop running the rest of the week. Tapering doesn't really happen for me in the conventional sense anyway, much less for such a short race, and despite really wanting to tear up this half marathon, most of my planned 5-6 mile mid-week runs ended up being much longer. On Tuesday I even ran a double: 8 morning miles followed by 4 more at night. None of these miles were particularly slow, either. I decided that I might as well take advantage of feeling good, ran to my heart's content, and then headed into the weekend still feeling like a million bucks.

I wasn't particularly fond of the corral system at this year's race, and chose to ignore mine, lining up instead with the 3:30 marathon pace team. In hindsight, I think it was the right move, and I got the perfect start: slow enough to be considered a warm-up for the first half mile or so, and then a half mile build-up to race pace. Mind you, I do not wear a watch, much less one that indicates pace, distance, and more techy stuff like elevation change. But, I'm an excellent gage of pace and distance naturally, and managed to maintain the 20 yard lead I had on the pace team through the half and full split at the 9.5 mile mark.

              2014 Rite Aid Cleveland Half Marathon: pre race

It was an ideal day for fast running, and I took advantage of the cool temperature, wearing a breathable long-sleeve tech shirt, light Asics retro-style black marathon shorts that I bought on ebay for $2, and my favorite NB Minimus  trail shoes that I think are actually a perfect option for road racing, sans socks or any of my usual costumery (wings, ribbons, bells, whistles, tiaras, tulle). I was dressed in black from head to toe like a badass in mourning for her old, dead PR, and ran with the sunrise on my shoulders and cool of the morning fueling me with good feelings. I didn't eat breakfast, carry water, or partake in the gatorade or gels being passed. It was just me and the road, and I loved the new course from the first mile.

Glitter, tutus, and muddy shoes: how I typically look nowadays when I race

Without any type of timing system during the race (which I thought was customary in these larger events; the lack thereof is my one and only complaint), even with a near-immaculate ability to gage pace, I was still utterly in the dark during the entire race. Based on my 20 yard lead on the 3:30 pace group, I assumed I was running in the high-7 minute range, which is also what my body was feeding my brain. I flew through Tremont, enjoying the residential views and crowds, and headed into the second half of the race feeling more confident than ever. I was going to nail it, it seemed, and in a big kind of way. At the 9.5 mile branching of the half and full marathon races, a quick glance over my shoulder indicated I hadn't lost any of my ground on the pace team, and I sailed up the first hill without a strain or complaint.

Then, the second hill happened: a long, grueling stretch that slowed me to a pained, strained, jog. I knew I was ahead of the game heading into this one, but by the end was convinced I was rapidly falling behind. I worked the flats and downhills as best as I could to try to gain back the lost ground, but I'd become concerned for the first time that I might have fallen behind pace. I'd easily lost 20-30 seconds on the 11th mile. The next mile was no different. My one and only attempt at asking a garmin-wearing fellow half marathoner for our pace was a taste of the vaugiest vaugeness imaginable: "oh, a little over 8 I think", (glances at garmin), "yeah, over 8". Plowing up the final hill around 12 miles, I left him behind, walking as he adjusted his fuelbelt.

Running back into the packed part of the city was incredible: the view, the sounds, the sun on the shops and buildings. I'd lost a minute, probably, I realized, but assumed I'd built enough of a lead on my 1:45 goal that it hadn't hurt me too badly. Flying down the final stretch, I could see the clock ticking through the 1:46's, and actually smiled-- first time ever, as I raced across the finish line. It was a PR, no matter how the dice were rolled. Unfortunately, it wasn't as much of a PR as I thought it was. I'd only started 28 seconds after the horn sounded, so my 1:46:47 clock time only adjusted to 1:46:19. It was still my best time by a full minute and a half, but left me rather perplexed. Was the course a tenth of a mile too long? How could I have been this far off?

final stats: 1:46:19 (8:06/mile); 8:01 pace at the 10k mark and 8:11 from 10k to finish

Nonetheless, the racing season is off to a great start, it seems, and I'm really looking forward to the big ones waiting in the wings. I'm planning to bang out a fast trail 15k this weekend in Wooster, and then prepare for my first really big trail challenge of the summer when I travel to Lore for the Buckeye Buster 52 miler followed by the Mohican 50 mile in Loudonville two weeks later. With a sub-6 goal at the Buckeye Trail 50k in July and the Burning River 100 in early August, I've probably bitten off more than I can chew again. But, that's the way the ball rolls when it comes to my attitude toward running and racing: dig in with gusto, and dream big. Despite missing my goal, I'm still chalking up Cleveland as a big success this year, and I'm blinded by optimism as I prepare for the rest of the summer.



Cheers!
X

Monday, April 28, 2014

Twenty-four Hours of Reflection: O24 (2014 edition)

People tell me not to be disappointed, it seems, when I'm disappointed most...and worse, tend to present this warning as though they're going to be disappointed themselves if I'm disappointed in myself. Make sense? Maybe. But anyway, it's a part of human nature; and, as a runner, I've had my share of good and bad races. I've also had my share of proud "bad" races and disappointing "good" races. It's all a matter of perspective. Not long ago, someone mentioned that there is no such thing as a "regretted" run; one always feels better after having run. There is truth to that statement, I think, but I don't necessarily think it's always true. After having run a 100k PR this past weekend at the Outrun 24 hour trail race, I found myself in this strange sort of limbo where I'm not sure whether I am satisfied or depressed with the outcome. There is satisfaction with the new PR, but there's a sense of regret.

Let me explain.

I began training for my first ultra in December 2011 when I committed to running-- and finishing-- the 2012 Burning River 100 having raced just a couple marathons after more than a decade of high school, college, and recreational road racing distances under 6 miles. I finished my first 50k in March 2012 in 5:43 followed by 10 hours (46 miles) at O24 the following month. Since then, I've been a loose cannon, signing up at the drop of a hat for anything and everything of any and every distance that falls within a 2-hour driving radius it seems, if I can fit it in my race schedule. In the process, I saw some pretty amazing things happen: my first 100 mile finish, a sub-10 hour 50 miler, 1:17:04 in the 2013 CWRRC Spring Classic 10 mile, a marathon under the 4 hour mark. Last year I managed to log 85 miles at O24 despite some lengthy breaks and an early stop, so not surprisingly I expected to easily top that mileage this year.

                   2013 Cleveland Spring Classic 10 mile- 1:17:04

My training is, I would imagine, laughable to most ultra runners. Working midnights and being a single mom, I can't afford to spend the kind of time one would expect of someone training for a 100 mile race. Most weeks I'm lucky to log 40 miles. I peaked (excluding the week I raced 75k) at just 51, and some weeks I even fell below 30 miles. I'd typically hit 15-18 on the weekend, and then a scatter of 5-7 mile faster runs during the week. My faster finish times have come as a result of muscle memory and sheer will power, I'm convinced, because my training is and has been abhorrent for quite some time.

I went into O24 this year with a cohesive plan, plenty of muscle memory and plenty of memories, in general, of all the things that had gone right and badly wrong over the past two years. It is impossible to unsee what has been seen, and that includes my feet after finishing Burning River in 2012. I also vowed to avoid Mountain Dew and any and all candy. Remembering fondly how great I felt at the Buzzard 100k thriving on baby food and grilled cheese, I thought I had it all figured out. Wearing my favorite red Inov-8 Xtalon trail shoes and after a full night's sleep in my car, I felt reasonably confident.



I walked the hill from the first loop onward, but still came across the timing mat well under 10 minutes, and continued this trend for about 10 miles until I forced myself to slow down by walking the paved stretch leading to the trail. Considering my training mileage was lower than it had been the past two years leading up to this event, I'm still rather surprised to have been moving as fast as I was moving. By the time I reached the 50k mark in 5:47, two things were apparent: I was pacing better than in previous years, and I had already lost my appetite. The latter was a hard blow to take.

My immediate reaction was a forced packet of organic pureed bananas and raspberries that had unfortunately gotten hot sitting in a bin under the sun, even though the temperature hadn't risen above 55F. The warmth of it took me by surprise, and not in a good way, and I tried to wash it down with water that was equally warm. I scanned the aid station contents and grabbed for a cup of cold ginger ale, and only realized after it was in my mouth that I'd chugged a cup of coke. Frustrated, I took off again, not feeling particularly satisfied, and with the bottle of lukewarm water.



Although I was forcing sips of water a couple times per loop, and downed at least 2 cups of ginger ale between 31 and 45 miles, my stomach was turning on me by the hour, and the forced feedings were getting harder to execute every time. The first time I really realized and admitted I was feeling awful was around mile 48 when I stopped for grilled cheese and Cathy Faye asked what mile I'd completed. "Starting 49", I answered, and without missing a beat continued with, "I'm nauseous; I don't feel good". My pace hadn't particularly suffered, and although I was probably running a bit slower, I was still running the vast majority of the back half of the loop. As I crossed the timing mat at the end of mile 50, the clock indicated 10:24 had lapsed-- not a PR, but faster than I'd covered the same distance the year before. I retreated to my tent for a few minutes to try to regroup, found an unopened bottle of diet pepsi, and drank at least 1/3 of its contents. It surprisingly helped temporarily, and when I left to start my 51st mile, I still felt somewhat hopeful. We were just over 10.5 hours into the race, which meant I still had 13.5 hours to cover the last 50 miles. No matter how sick I felt, a 16 minute pace was possible, even with another retreat or two to my tent.

Things started to unravel within a mile or two. I'd gone to the bathroom at some point between miles 46 and 49 and noticed there was blood in my urine, but tried not to worry too much about it. I figured if I drank more water, everything would be peachy. I'd go on, I'd feel better, and I'd have a valuable lesson about hydration to pass on if ever the subject came up again during a long run. Instead, the struggle just continued to intensify. Muscle cramping commenced and then that cloudy-minded haze that I like to call "The Dumb" where simple, obvious things like a 10 minute break to slow my heart rate, calm my stomach, and drink something cold weren't so obvious anymore. Nothing was obvious. I finished my 62nd mile in a personal record-breaking 13:41, and staggered into the bathroom where rusty-looking urine promised me not another mile was in the cards. The Dumb had evolved into The Panicked Dumb, a state from which there's just kind of no coming back, short of sleep and a good, hot meal. I ran, yes ran, straight to my car where I threw a blanket over myself, drank an entire bottle of water, and proceeded to sleep for over an hour. By the time I'd awaken, "kidney failure" and "permanent damage" were so engrained in my psyche that I felt hopeless. PR or ER had taken on a whole new meaning, and I didn't want to wake up hooked up to an IV with twigs in my hair and a really bad story to tell.

I accepted the medal awarded to 100k finishers, and then slept for 5 more hours in my car, after which I felt fresh, new, and fully capable of running again. It's funny how that works out sometimes: you accept it's over just to find strength after walking away. And, that's how this round about comes back to make its full circle. I walked away with a 100k PR. But, I walked away. I didn't wait. I gave up. Again.



So, here I am, two days later, wondering whether or not it was a mistake to register again for Burning River 100. I've finished it once, albeit barely, but missed every other 100 mile finish by a long shot, usually to the tune of 100k plus a few miles. It makes me wonder whether or not it's worth it to keep putting myself through these grueling, heartbreaking attempts, or if it's better to just stand back and accept that 100k is my forte and the distance I really should be racing. I don't know. But, I've never been one to give up. Eventually, all the pieces are going to fall in place, by pure chance if all else fails.

I really believe this year is going to be the year-- the year really special, really incredible things happen with my ultra running, the year I finish the 100 with more than a few minutes on the clock. I believe there's purpose behind everything, and all of these DNF's, tears, and anguish are finally going to pay off with something big.