Tuesday, August 16, 2016

72 Miles at the Burning River 100: A Learning Experience

Back in January, I got the 100 mile itch. It was probably inevitable being married to Jordan and frequently running with a number of accomplished ultrarunners here in Cincinnati. Having finished 50ks and 50 milers, the 100 seemed the next logical step, and I found I wanted that belt buckle. Initially, I was planning to do the Burning River 100 in July of 2017, but Jordan convinced me I had enough time and experience to train for it this year. I worked out a training schedule that included the minimum amount of mileage required to attempt to finish a first 100 and got to work. Training went well, though a flirtation with over-training in early June convinced me a solid week of rest was in order. The missed week required my long run schedule to be even more precise leading up to the early August race date. I got in my last long runs and settled into my first proper taper since training for the Marine Corps marathon back in 2008. I definitely experienced the ‘taper crazies,’ and I’m sure I was a bit difficult to be around as I obsessed over race details, the weather, and who would crew for me while Jordan looked after Fuller. Jordan’s brother Joey was able to come up for the whole weekend to assist in driving and babysitting duties, and it turned out my brother Heath and his family would be in the area ready to pace or crew as needed.

The day before the race was less than ideal. Joey and I left Cincinnati with what we thought was plenty of time to drive the 3-plus hours to Cuyahoga Falls, only to be caught behind an accident that shut down the highway (a disturbingly frequent occurrence). We ended up getting to packet pickup a little after 7:30, only to discover they were out of shirts. It may sound pithy, but this is a BIG thing to some runners (and I’m one of them). To their credit, the race director made up for the mistake, and Joe and I went in search of food. After being turned away from restaurants for our accompanying beagle, finding chicken salad and stale bread at a local grocery store, getting gear ready and taking a shower (the trail gods demand a clean sacrifice), I didn’t get to bed until well after 10:30. Between nerves, caffeine, and a toddler who didn’t like sleeping in a new place (Jordan and Fuller joined us a little before midnight), I may have slept 10 minutes before my alarm went off at 1:45 to catch the 2:30 bus to the start line.

At the start I tried to sit or lay down as much as possible; while I wanted to look for friends who were also racing, any extra time on my feet seemed a waste of resources. Just before the start I ran into David, a frequent running buddy and member of our unofficial ultrarunning group in Cincinnati (we’re working on a name), and it was great to pass the first 11 miles with a friend. The road miles were actually quite pleasant, surprisingly humid (the forecast looked so good, it made me feel I was cheating; clear skies with temps only up to 80) with lots of hills to give us chances to walk. We ended up splitting up just before the Polo Fields aid station, where I quickly refilled water bottles and got back on the trail. There I starting chatting with Taylor, a local runner quite accomplished at the marathon distance, who I would end up spending much of the day with (our paces and goals were about the same). Miles continued to pass by; I did well sticking to my drinking/eating plan (drink every 10 minutes, eat every 20), and I felt I was running well within myself and not burning too many matches too soon.

Things were going so well that I arrived at the Shadow Lake aid station at 22 miles a full hour before my crew expected me to be there. While a bit bummed, my main concern was that I was running out of Shot Bloks, the only food that was working (the aid stations were well stocked, but nothing else appealed to me…). I called Jordan to somewhat brusquely ensure they’d meet me at Egbert, a further 5 miles ahead. Jordan assured me they’d make it, and they did, stuffing Shot Bloks in my vest, handing me the marathon stick (my left calf had been cramping for miles…), and even snapping a few pictures. 
This is as awkward as it looks...
After Egbert, the course featured more proper trail, using a good bit of the Buckeye Trail, which was surprisingly overgrown (this is apparently an issue of too much of a good thing; there are so many accessible trails in the area, these portions of the Buckeye Trail see little use). Next came a 3 mile portion on the tow path, which has a bad reputation for being exposed and very hot. I swear I had a cloud follow me the entire way; those three miles were shady with a breeze. I was living right! It was on this section that Taylor and I decided to split up; he was still feeling spry, and I was starting to take more frequent walking breaks.

While at most aid stations my goal was to spend as little time there as possible (2 minutes max), I had a lot of things I needed at the mile 38 Meadows aid station; more water (I had a bad habit of handing my bottles to a willing volunteer and then wandering off to tend to other things; to their credit, they always tracked me down), more food, new shoes, marathon stick the left calf, and unloading trash. As I was changing my shoes, Jordan asked, “Do you want the good news now or later?” Turns out, she had worked out a plan that would have Heath start pacing me at 50 miles, then she would take over at 72, so I would have company for the entire second half of the race! That was amazing news! At this point, I was still happy and having fun, but the miles were starting to add up in the legs and feet. I headed out of Egbert (less than 10 minutes spent there, success), knowing that I had a mere 12 miles left to run by myself.
About to enter the Bog of Despair...
Photo courtesy of Mike Terry

I will freely admit, I was not prepared for what came next. These trails included the infamous “Bog of Despair” (bone dry, so a non-issue) and so many steep downhills followed immediately by equally steep uphills that I was reduced to a fast shuffle at best. I didn’t suffer any dark times, but I was definitely having less fun. The day had gone so well that I was entertaining the possibility of breaking 10 hours for 50 miles (a huge PR), leaving me lot’s of time for a sub 24 hour finish, but this section corrected those misconceptions. I got into Boston Mills at 50 miles in just under 10:45 to meet the crew and pick up Heath.

Though leaving Boston Mills would indicate the farthest I’d ever run, I wanted the moment to pass with as little fanfare as possible, as I was still only halfway done. Jordan gave me lots of food and my headlamp (I thought I’d pick it up at mile 72, but she insisted, which turned out to be a really good thing…). With a look and a “You up for this one, Mav?” to Heath (I wanted to give the impression I was still feeling good), we headed out. Heath was a fantastic trail guide, living in the area for a number of years and often training on the very same trails. His knowledge was encyclopedic, letting me know the type of trail and terrain that was coming up. And his excitement was infectious; with a recent career move across the country and two little girls at home, he hadn’t had many opportunities recently to run. He would email me later in the week, “I know you were in pain (so I didn't mention it during the race), but I was literally euphoric for most of it.” We knocked out miles, though walking more than running. He had a GPS watch which proved super helpful; I asked him to set a 15 minute pace and just did my best to keep up. This became harder and harder as time wore on. At some point in this section David passed us; I hadn’t seen him for over 50 miles! He looked good, and I had high hopes for his day.

As we came into the Ledges aid station, I could tell I was working on some pretty sizable blisters on the balls of both my feet. We hadn’t planned for the crew to meet us there (Jordan was putting Fuller to bed right about then), so I decided to push on the 6 miles to Pine Hollow, hoping the blisters wouldn’t get too much worse. We passed Taylor leaving the Ledges (hadn’t seen him for over 20 miles); he saw me and called out, “I think we may have overcooked that first half, huh?” I didn’t want to believe it then, but the next 6 miles would turn out to be some of the hardest I have ever covered.

At this point, the best I could manage was a 15 minute walking pace, but only if the trail was flat and non-technical, which is wasn’t most of the time. Night came, but that didn’t seem to bother me; thank goodness Jordan had insisted we take our lights. My blisters were getting worse, and my lower back began to spasm when I coughed or sneezed (I’d overworked those muscles keeping myself upright as I tripped over roots and rocks). The thought began to creep into my head that I would stop at mile 72 at Pine Hollow. When I mentioned this to Heath, he was appropriately distracting and encouraging, making plans to treat the blisters and get me back on the trail. As my pace slowed even more, and any technical element of the trail brought me to a halt (lifting my leg over a downed tree was torture), the idea of stopping became a certainty. I moved so slowly up the two hills leading to the aid station; I wasn’t hallucinating, but I couldn’t figure out why there was so much traffic on the road beyond (I mistook the hanging Christmas lights for cars…). An aid station worker offered to fill my bottles and direct me to the next trail, but I just wanted to find Jordan and fall down. There weren’t pictures (mercifully), but I ended up curled up on my side, holding a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich, as my body twitched from both fatigue and cold (the grass was wet and the temperature was dropping). Jordan accepted my decision to stop, though not without a fight to get me back on the trail, and let the aid station workers know I was dropping.
This is actually mile 50;
just imagine it dark and more pitiful...

As I look back on this first attempt, I can’t call it a failure. Yes, I stopped short of 100 miles, but I did run a lot further than I ever have before. I thought I had a healthy respect for the distance, but I was not prepared for just how drained I was so early in the race. Most of my training (okay, all of it) consisted of long slow distance runs, with a lot of miles on the roads, which didn’t add up to enough time on my feet in preparation. Nor was I prepared for the hills of northern Ohio; while we have hills here in Cincinnati, they aren’t as steep or as rugged as what’s around that Bog of Despair.

I got a number of things right. After many years, my gear and shoes are dialed in (Saucony, don’t you dare mess with my Kinvaras!). My hydration and eating plan worked great; I never had any stomach problems, and watermelon and grapes were a great supplement to Shot Bloks and Nuun. The marathon stick was a last minute inclusion in the gear tub, and proved a wonderful solution to stubborn muscle cramps. My decision to change shoes and socks at mile 38 was well timed, though in future, I will carry a spare pair of socks and possibly a blister kit so I can take care of hot spots earlier.

I read some wisdom bestowed early in the race on another Cincinnati runner who did finish; “See those guys in front? Half of them will drop, and we will pass about a third of those who won’t.” I was one of that half. While that hurts, ours is a sport that rewards experience, and I think I needed this stepping stone between 50 and 100 miles. I will most definitely be back; Burning River is a world class race, the organization and volunteers were fantastic, and the course was beautiful (yes, there is a lot of beauty between Cleveland and Akron; I feel like I live in one of the country’s best kept secrets). I’ve got some timed events on the horizon to get me more time on my feet, and some hilly races to make me in stronger for the next attempt. I will bring home that buckle.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dawg Gone Long 50 Mile: Obstacle Course in the Heat

                Oh, it feels so good to be writing a race report! After a 2 year+ hiatus from ultrarunning, I ran the Dawg Gone Long 50 Mile race yesterday. My goal race for the year is the Grindstone 100, which requires a recent 50 mile finish. Lucky me, there was a local 50 mile trail race that only cost $40 (less than $1/mile!) and I happened to have the day off.
Training for this race was minimal, with weekly mileages ranging from 15-50 and longest runs of 24 tough trail miles at Mt Airy and 30 miles mostly on road. Balancing a 12 month old son and residency hours makes consistent running tough for someone who values sleep as much as I do. I was impressively nervous. I HAD to finish this race to qualify for Grindstone.
The course was 3 loops of a 16+ mile loop at Caesar Creek State Park, on amazingly runnable trail. If you were in good enough shape, you wouldn’t have to walk at all on this course. Enter Thursday morning, when a thunderstorm/tornado hit, knocking hundreds trees across the trail. Add in a high of 89. It was a tough race.
I always have a rough time with heat, so I made a couple rules for myself: 1) I would walk one minute out of every 10 for a least the first half of the race. 2) I would pee at least once an hour.
The race started with a road out-and-back to make up for a section of the loop that had been cut for downed trees. Down into the gorge we plunged and then back up a steep hill that made it easy to keep my promise to walk early. I fudged on the walking rule a few times this lap because of the line of people I found myself in, We waited our turn to climb over huge trunks, pick through branches and leaves, and crawl through underbrush on many detours from the original trail. One detour even took us down a hill we had just climbed and then back up again. I expect all of us to break out with poison ivy rashes tomorrow.
I started the second lap at 3:53, and soon found myself running with a woman named Stephanie. She had run her first 50K 3 weeks ago and found she could have kept going, so she signed up for this race. She was worried about making the cut-off of 8 hours for 2 loops and not being allowed to continue forward. I hadn’t been worried about this, but now I was! She gave me the adrenaline boost I needed to power through the second loop. We ran together most of the way, and I finished the loop at 7:35.
Comforted that I would finish, I set off on the last lap with a woman named Nicole, who was much faster than me but walking more often so we went back and forth for awhile. I saw one other man, but otherwise ran the third loop alone. It was especially discouraging to run through spider webs; there was definitely no one close enough to bother trying to catch. I mostly kept up my walking one minute out of every 10 with only a little trouble from nausea, much less than I usually have in the heat. My IT band flared up for the last 7 miles, probably giving me a funny limp, but not to the point that I had to walk. I stubbed my toes a few times, apparently causing throbbing hematomas beneath both of my big toenails. I finished in 11:49:10, and was surprised to learn that this earned me 3rd female.
Aside from finishing, I was most excited that I was able to manage the heat by keeping a slow pace and giving time for my gut to absorb the water I needed to stay hydrated. It ended up being a great training run for Grindstone!
The aid stations were great, with several of my running friends Pat Farrell, Steve Hamilton, and Geoff Peterson manning them and making my feel like I had my own crew at the race. I didn’t take much more than PB&J and bananas from them, sensing my stomach couldn’t tolerate anything else, but they had a nice spread. Instead, I ate more shot blocks than I care to again for a few months.
Thanks so much to the race directors, volunteers, and Nathan and Fuller for coming out to cheer! Time to knuckle down and train for Grindstone.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Running and Pregnancy: A Balancing Act for a Guilty Conscience

This story actually begins before I got pregnant. Nathan and I struggled to conceive, not as much as some do, but enough to earn the label “infertility” and require medications and metal instruments to begin our entry into parenthood. I had assumed I would be the wonder-woman who ran ultras with a baby-bump, but as the months passed, I started skipping runs in the second half of the month, just in case science was wrong and that would help.  Running became a consolation prize: If I’m not pregnant by December, I’ll do this race, undertrained though I was.

Then our miracle happened. We were pregnant! Even more miraculous was our first ultrasound showing two lives latched on to me, with two beating hearts. Whereas my What to Expect book encouraged continuing running for a singleton pregnancy, it recommended discussing any exercise with my OB first for twins. I stopped running altogether, not wanting to take any chances.

It didn’t matter. At our next visit, the ultrasound showed one happy active fetus. The other had stopped growing a week earlier (exactly when my nausea and fatigue had subsided some) and no longer had a heartbeat. As devastating as this was, I couldn’t find a reason to blame myself; we had been exceptionally careful. When I got home from work that day, I went back to my old consolation and went for a run.

I ran over the next few months as I could. Pregnancy affected things in ways I never imagined: a 7 mile trail run gave me piriformis spasms more painful than anything I had experienced. I couldn’t believe 7 miles could cause something so severe when after 100 miles I could at least get up and walk to the bathroom. Later on, demanding rotations coupled with viral infections meant I did little more than work and sleep. I developed a mild anemia from pregnancy, but it was enough to give me the running in water sensation that giving blood had created in the past. Once I recovered from viruses, had a couple weeks of iron supplementation in my bloodstream, and transitioned to lighter rotations, I was ready to get some more miles in.

I have a wonderful friend who was willing to come run with me, even though I warned I would be very slow and have to stop to pee every 10 minutes. I was nearly 32 weeks, and running felt GOOD. Well, it felt pretty terrible in my middle section, but arms and legs and breathing were all working well. We were only 5 minutes down the trail when I tripped.

The impact on my abdomen was enough to make me think I had instantly killed my baby. My friend stayed calm and helped me get safely home, and Nathan drove me to the hospital when my OB said I should be admitted for monitoring. After 16 hours of monitors picking up our son’s heartbeat, kicks, and hiccups, coupled with 2 ultrasounds showing a healthy boy, I was finally reassured.

At first, fear of falling again kept me from running. And it was getting pretty uncomfortable. But once the initial shock wore off, I knew the real reason I wasn’t running anymore. I didn’t want anyone to judge me for being careless after what happened. At the same time, I had heard so many stories of women running marathons or putting in training runs that traveled up mountains at 8 months of pregnancy, and I felt inferior for spending my hours off on the couch.

Yesterday I went for a walk for the first time in a month. It didn’t feel natural to be dressed in my running clothes and not running. I hated that people were passing me, people I could outrun even now at 36 weeks. I chanced it. I ran a stretch here, a minute there, watching the pavement closely. I didn’t fall. And I’m hoping that you aren’t shaking your head at me now for taking the risk.

I imagine that this won’t end when he arrives. There will be years of balancing my needs against his and battling guilt. I’m going to make use of two weapons to start out facing this guilt: an incredibly supportive husband and a running stroller from a thoughtful aunt. It’s time to (slowly) get back to running.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bull Run Run 50 Miler: Not A Fluke

Hoping that my completion of the Lookout Mountain 50 Miler back in December was not a fluke, Jordan and I ran the Bull Run Run 50 Miler up in Clifton, VA this past weekend. As often seems to happen in run-ups to races, my training was cut short by injury. Often this is due to over-training or the wrong running surface; this time around, blunt force trauma was the culprit. Exactly a month out from Bull Run Run, I fell hard late in a 25 mile training run on local trails. I fell with my left arm pinned underneath me, felt my whole rib cage shift to the right, and heard an audible 'crack.' I lay still for a few minutes, cursing the unseen root that had knocked me down, but nothing seemed horribly wrong, so I finished the run in some discomfort and went home. I would later discover that simply laying down or sitting was uncomfortable, and laying on my left side was excruciating. All symptoms pointed to a bruised or cracked rib; the only treatment would be 3 to 6 weeks of rest (or until symptoms went away). I was at the peak of my training cycle (still needed a 30 miler), but suddenly breathing on a 5 mile run was difficult and painful. I fought through the next week and a half, making no progress, and finally took off a whole week to let things heal. I hoped that having finished a 50 miler would give me the mental edge to make up for the lack of miles in my legs.

With things feeling good by race weekend, Jordan and I headed to Clifton in time for the pre-race dinner on Friday night. Over pasta and salad (and even fajitas for the brave) we were implored by the race directors to follow two simple rules: don't die, and lube your b____ (er, whatever needs lubing...).

Race morning began comfortably chilly (that wouldn't last), and with the bugler sounding the Calvary Charge, we were on our way.  I quickly lost my arm warmers as we ran the lap around the parking lot to spread out the field, raucously cheered on by the race directors and spectators. Jordan had stressed the importance of being well placed in the group, as the most technical portions of the trail occur within the first few miles, right along the river. Due to the long winter, the blue bells weren't out in force, but I was happy to be feeling comfortable after the previous month spent worrying about my ribs. Having decided to run our own races, I soon pulled ahead, wanting to bank time on the flat sections (I still had some sub-10 hour illusions). The first aid station and turn around were packed with runners going and coming, and the excitement of passing so many runners seemed to make us go faster.

I returned to the start finish at mile 16 without incident, dropped off my arm warmers and trash, an headed out for the second part of the course. The day was quickly heating up, and my right knee continued to give me trouble as it had during the previous week (we don't have anywhere in Charleston to effectively train for downhills). It eventually quieted down, only for my left knee to begin painfully locking up every 15 minutes. I'd experienced something similar at Lookout Mtn, and thinking it was due to muscle cramps, began drinking NUUN as well as taking salt caps at the next few aid stations. While these didn't help my knee, they did help my overall race, as my body was able to use the 44oz (2 bottles) I was trying to drink every 3-5 miles (although peeing orange is always surprising and never pleasant...) I continued to stay ahead of my sub-10 hour pace, though my time buffer earned in the early miles was shrinking.

Throughout the course, I was surprised how many places I remembered from crewing for Jordan four years ago. It's a gorgeous area, though without leaf cover (another causality of the long winter), it had a bleak, hard look as the sun crept higher in the afternoon. I remembered that the Do Loop maintained an infamous reputation, and it did not disappoint. The steep, punchy hills came rapidly in the second half of this section, and I was forced to walk most of it. I kept up my sub-10 hour pace until mile 40, at which point my knees dictated that I would be hiking the last ten miles back to Hemlock. If I could maintain 15 minute miles, I just might have a chance to 'score' for the South.

But it was not to be; the hills, mud, and rocks that had been minor obstacles on the way out became big challenges on the way back, resulting in 17 minute miles at the last point I bothered to do the math. I wasn't upset; I think pushing oneself to cover 50 miles in one day is accomplishment enough, no matter how you go about it. Jordan passed me, running strong, with about 4 miles to go; after pulling ahead in the early miles, I don't think I was ever more than 10 minutes ahead of her at any point during the day. Remembering the map, I knew that once we got back to the river, we were close. When we started climbing away from the river (one last gut-buster of a hill), I knew we had to be really close. Once I could hear the race director's megaphone, I decided I wasn't going to walk anymore. I ran in the last quarter mile, even struggled for an awkward and painful sprint at the line that almost knocked over the waiting race director, for a time of 10:47:37, almost two hours faster than at Lookout Mtn.

The 'awkward' sprint to the finish
Photo: James Williams

I can't say enough good things about this race. The course is beautiful, challenging, well marked, and really well organized. And the volunteers were unbelievable: I have never felt so spoiled and well taken care of as a runner. Not once was I allowed to fill up my own water bottles; I was greated at each aid station (and sometimes before!) by a voluteer asking what I needed. There were folks to drape wet towels on us (a brilliant idea), someone with a hose waiting to give us a shower, another handing out popsicles (the popsicles, more on that in a minute), another literally putting my water bottles back in my vest when she saw me having trouble with fine motor skills. I always had the feeling that the volunteers had been in races and heat, and knew exactly what we were going through and what we needed. Finally, we knew we'd been spoiled when the service at the mexican restaurant we went to that night paled in comparison to what we'd been treated to all day.

And oh, the food! It is obvious where the race fee goes; each aid station had two tables (and often more) of every food one could possibly want during a race. While I had to stick to my trusty Fig Newtons and Pringles, I did have some fresh cut strawberries (so good!) and four popsicles. A note on popsicles; they're a great treat, but shouldn't be considered a replacement for food while running. The high sugar content made me euphoric (like, happy to the point of tears) for about three minutes, and then I'd quickly crash. I finally figured out the corolation on the last popsicle, and remembered to eat my Shot Bloks. The finish line did not dissapoint either, as they had burgers and hotdogs a-plenty (I told a few folks the story of watching a volunteer give the last burger to the guy in front of me after finishing Lookout). I even had a Fat Tire to go with it, as I was surreptiously directed to the right cooler by a kind volunter.

The finish line at Bull Run Run is perfectly set up for spectators to sit in the grass and watch folks finish, which most people do. There was a wonderful sense of community amongs these wild and crazy people who like to spend so much time in the woods. We stayed and ate and cheered for almost 2 hours, and as much as I wanted a shower and to go to bed, I really hated to leave. Thanks to the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club for giving us such a great day in the woods.