Saturday, September 17, 2016

Hocking Hills Indian Run 60K: NOT a race (okay maybe a little)

                The last time I won a race would have been on family vacation, at a rest area where my father would pit my brother and me against each other to burn off energy on an otherwise sedentary day of travel. Dad would give a handicap to Joey for his (then) smaller size, but as Joey's genetic make-up was similar to my own, I still won a few times. I have run hundreds of races since then, never better than second place.
                I did not enter the Hocking Hills Indian Run 60k with thoughts of racing. It was intended as my last long run before tapering for the Grindstone 100, 20 days away. I did a regular week of training leading up to it and estimated it would take me 7.5-8 hours to complete the 60K course. A quick glance at last year’s results told me that this would make me dead last. Hmm, must be a quick course.
                The course made the event as much a road race as a trail race. It was a 20k loop run 3 times and made up of about 4-5 miles of pavement, 2-3 miles of single track (unfortunately awkward rather than fun), and the rest dirt/grass road or wide trail. There were some good hills, including 3 climbs that I walked every lap.
                The starting line was typical of a low-key ultra run: I got in the middle of the 30ish runners waiting for the start and everyone in front of me shifted behind me. Oh well, I guess I’ll start out in front. A pack of men quickly separated from the rest of us. Then after a mile, my friend David and several others pulled ahead of me. I found myself mentally counting the women. One, two, three, okay I’m fourth. Wait, what am I doing? This is a training run!
                I spent the majority of the first lap waiting for the real trail, but unfortunately there weren’t any sections I really enjoyed running. We were joined by runners doing shorter races on the singletrack section so it was tough to move quickly through the crowd. I did end up running a little bit with two young boys I assume were brothers who were doing the 5K together. They asked me how far I was going, and I said “60k.” “Nnniiice,” they chorused. I saw them a couple more times and they yelled out encouragement. Someone is raising them right.
                Fairly early on in the second lap my legs started to get tired. I began bargaining with myself about how far I would go before I started to take walking breaks. I had been running everything except those 3 hills. I knew that if I could keep running consistently for the remaining 20 miles despite tired legs, it would be a huge mental boost to look back on at Grindstone. My legs started feeling better during the singletrack section; it was a relief to use different muscles. I passed a woman at the end of the lap, and reminded myself not to race.
                I changed out of my more minimalist trail shoes into my Kinvaras because the pounding on the roads was making my feet miserable, and I felt much better starting the third lap. I kept extending the distance I had to travel before I would start to walk. Every once in a while I saw flashes of neon indicating the woman ahead of me, but I had my own goal: finishing in under 7 hours, which would require fairly even splits. Just over halfway into the lap, I started catching up with her as she would walk short spells. As soon as I got within 10 feet of her, she would take off, running fast. Okay then, if she’s going to be competitive, I will be too! (I actually am quite indebted to her for keeping me moving).
                She encouraged me to go ahead as we approached the singletrack and I didn’t see her again until she finished. I kept up my same plodding running pace without walking outside of my 3 hills. I caught David at mile 35 and he said he had been struggling, but he finished just a few minutes behind me. I finished in 6:56:51, with legs encouragingly feeling like they had during the second loop.
                I called Nathan on the way home and he said he wasn’t surprised I broke 7 hours; he had been tracking my splits online. He pulled them up while we chatted and told me that I was fifth overall and, hang on, first female! It seems I finally found a race small enough to win.
                While the 60k was small, the other races (5K, 10K, 20K, and 40K) had many participants. Even so, the aid stations stayed manned into the afternoon with friendly volunteers. I was so grateful to them for sticking around while we slowpoke ultrarunners finished up, especially as the temperature got warmer.
                $25 is definitely worth it to run a new course and to take the mental difficulty out of a solo long run. Now I get to taper and work out last minute details for Grindstone!

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.