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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Love of Running

People fall in love with ideas; they fall in love with illusions, with ideals, with utopian realities that really aren't any more real than purple elephants or 25 hour days. People fall in love with people; they fall in love with things. I fell in love with running. Often, it feels as though it's where the fabric of my very being belongs, and had I not two young children with the obligations that accompany said motherhood, I sometimes wonder if I'd have ended up one of those off-the-gridders that appear in National Geographic magazine living in the hollowed out trunk of a dying tree in the Redwoods, running 30 miles a day, filthy and eating squirrels and crabapples. Okay, so that last part is a bit of a split from the truth. But, I remember fondly the first time I found myself alone on the trail at Mohican in the summer of 2012, the sun peeking through the tree branches, setting all the green that surrounded me aglow. I'd never experienced anything like it.


The beauty that swallows me whole when I slip into the woods is overwhelming sometimes, and I marvel at how lucky I am to have found something so special when it seems like everyone around me is satisfied with a reality devoid of so much nature and beauty. The combination of sights, sounds, and smells is intoxicating. It is a lovely place to walk with someone special. It is a wonderful place to run.

Unfortunately, not every run begins and ends with the sunrise or sunset peeking through the leaves on the trees, glittering over a lake, the scent of fresh rain on pine trees and rich soil. In fact, many of my runs begin and end on the streets of the town in which I was born and went to school, walked to my first job, and ran my first miles as a competitive runner. Granted, it has gone through a metamorphosis over the past couple decades, but, aside from a few boarded windows, new graffiti, extra shards of colored glass, and cracks in the asphalt offering a glimpse of the bricks that once paved the way from block to block, Warren is still a cocoon holding onto the memories of what it once was. And, as everything is perpetually in some phase of creation and destruction, it holds as much hope and promise to me now as it did nearly two decades ago when running was something new to me. It is a place to be explored. It is a place that tells a story. Many stories. My stories.

I was born in what is now a vacant series of buildings but were then known as St. Joe's hospital in 1983 when Warren was still home to a population that had been heavily reliant on the steel industry throughout the 60's and 70's. We moved when I was 3 to a working class neighborhood full of pre-WWII single family dwellings that all had porches and small yards and mostly gravel driveways fit for the family car-- if the family had one, so close to the neighbors you could hear their phone ring from your living room. Most of us were poor, my childhood friends, eating cuts of government cheese with our Kool-aid smiling mouths, filthy and barefoot with skinned knees and tangled hair in the summer sun. We'd walk to the corner store for ten cent candy, and play hide-and-seek until the street light came on at night, and then catch lightning bugs in the front and back yard until it was time to go to bed.

Summer evenings from the time I was 8 until I turned 13 were spent running after foul balls for a local amateur baseball league for $1 a game, before and after which I'd wander through the woods across the river to pick wild blackberries and catch frogs. I ran and walked everywhere I went by the time I was 13-- to and from school and sporting event practices, to the Laundromat carrying garbage bags of clothes, to and from the grocery store with my mother when we didn't have a car. The stores are all closed now, and the neighborhood largely overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. The childhood neighbors have all long since moved on.

Two years after winning the track and field distance run at 13, I decided to give running a go. It didn't start out with a glorious victory, Chariots Afire playing in the background as I triumphantly sashayed across the finish line. I failed to finish my first 5k at 15, blasting through the first mile so fast I couldn't breathe, and was escorted off the course to the medical station where I felt like a complete and utter failure. My only 5k finish that year pegged me 10 places from last in 29:39. I'd jogged the entire distance with a cross country teammate, just hoping to spare myself from disaster again. The next year I won my first age group award in a local road race.

I used to wake up at 4am, and hope to dodge the stray dogs and slowing, grumbling cars that each seemed to want my ass for different reasons. I'd try to get to my 5:15 swim practice faster than the time before. Only the fa├žade remains now of my high school; the new school now sits safely in the distant background, a modern marvel in the midst of the crumbling chaos that surrounds it. Most of the shops that we'd frequent during lunch and after classes have closed their doors. Cash advances, liquor and convenience stores, and pawn shops have taken over like cockroaches; and, the people that watch me run by do not say "hello".

Fifteen miles still takes me through the dregs and past mansion walls, but the contrast is now like black print on white with little grey connecting the space that sits between them. As I cross Atlantic Street on my fifth mile, the sun shining overhead, the houses change from wooden slats and slabs with dogs tied to iron posts to well-groomed yards that surround vinyl sided homes. The asphalt is no longer a peek into brick-lain yesteryear. The cars that pass me are mostly silent.

Downtown Warren still resembles what I imagine it must have looked like in its heyday: quaint shops with obscure names that cater to the daytime crowd that hustles and bustles within its parameters. By evening, it's transformed to a ghost block, and like so much of the city, swells with vagrancy and pollution once all the businesses close their doors. The difference is that it'll rise again with the sun. Little else there has changed: drivers still honk as I run across the street, my reflection still follows me for an entire block. The old Greek church still sits an anomaly, strangely out of place amidst the auto shops and administrative buildings.

I pick up momentum, just as I did 10 years ago, as I cross the Summit Street bridge. At least once this month, someone will yell "run, Forrest, run!" as I make my way past what remains of the Water Works: a slab of graffiti-covered concrete a safe distance from road. The grass that now grows where the asbestos-filled buildings once stood looks more like a graveyard than a vacant property.

But, as I accelerate one last time with a quarter mile separating me from my endpoint, I'm full of hope. I'm at an 8:31 pace, and if I can really kick it up a notch, I might make it under 8:30. I might make it home before the last of the sun has disappeared behind the rooftops and trees. These streets are where I started. They're where I ran my first mile, where I trained for my first half marathon. There is life within them still.

This evening I felt special. I've had the luxury of experiencing a kind of beauty that might be hard for others to appreciate. It wasn't in the decaying corpse of a city, its closed shops and crumbling roads, but in the memories. And, more than that, it was in the gratitude I felt that 17 years later, I'm still doing this. I still want to do this. I can still wake up at 4am and run to the place where the school once stood, and try to get there faster than the time before. I can still see my reflection as I run down High Street. My body is healthy and heart full of hope. The passion has not died; and, there's been no disillusion. And, though I tried to walk away, I still found myself again, staring at the pinks and oranges that spilled over the horizon, my breath in a familiar rhythm, perfectly in sync with the footsteps making their way across the dirt, gravel, pavement and puddles. In the same way that we find the hand of a trusted partner in the dark and without a word, can speak a volume of poetry with a smile barely visible in a beam of light, this is my love story.