Ironman CDA

Tl;dr: a few weeks ago, I completed my first Ironman. A lot of things have happened since then which has left not a lot of time for reflection, but plenty of time for recovery. I am so proud of this accomplishment, of learning new skills and completing the arduous training. And I couldn’t have done it without support of friends and family. You guys rock.

These people are the best

Last year, I ran two 100mile races. The training was brutal and tedious, and at the end of the second one, I was not just physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally exhausted as well. I was tired of running and wanted to find something different – so I signed up for an Ironman.

Background

Ironman Couer D’Alene (still a challenge to spell) takes place in Idaho, in the northern part of the state. The closest airport is about thirty minutes west – Spokane. The area is beautiful. The lake is flat and surrounded by mountains, with a few little stretches of beach along the water. Forest everywhere. It feels like a beach town – happy locals, cute shops, great views, excellent places to eat – except nestled in the Rockies and trying to edge its way into Canada.

Bike course. You do this twice.

For those who don’t know, as I didn’t: an Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile (marathon-length) run. The most difficult part of this particular Ironman course is the bike portion. The 112-mile route is a 66-mile out and back, which you do twice, with something like 5,000 feet of climbing. In a run, this wouldn’t be so bad, but for a bike route, this is a lot of vertical. Of all the parts of the course, I thought this would be the most challenging. The Ironman organization also takes no prisoners when it comes to cutoff times – unlike trail races. In an Ironman, if you are three seconds past the cutoff time, they pull you from the course. I was very nervous that this would be me – if I didn’t finish, it was because I wasn’t fast enough on the bike.

This year – 2017 – was also a special year for this race – it was the last time that Couer D’Alene would host an Ironman. I’m not sure why they decided to discontinue this distance, but it’s been replaced by a half-Ironman a little earlier in the year. So, if it didn’t go well, there wouldn’t be a chance to come back and try this particular race again.

Training

My first triathlon was an Olympic-distance race a few years ago, for which I did absolutely no training and had a fantastic time. I was the only person without a wetsuit, and the guys with $10,000 bikes gave me side-eye for not having bike shoes that clipped into my bike. I knew that this approach – just winging it – wouldn’t work quite so well for an Ironman-distance.

As I started on my training journey, I quickly realized that there were a lot of excuses to spend money on this sport. Buy a wetsuit, buy a fancy bike, buy a fancy helmet, buy three GPS watches, buy a training plan, buy a coach, etc. I kept it to a minimum, although there were a few things I needed (wetsuit being one of them). Training plan, I decided, would not be one of them.

To figure out what I wanted to do for training, I did some Googling and inductive reasoning. Unlike running, which measures training in miles-per-week, I learned that triathletes typically measure their training in hours-per-week. So, it seemed it would make sense to distribute my hours-per-week across the three sports in roughly the same ratio as they would be in the final race, which is about 1:4:2 (swim:bike:run hours).

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was to become a better swimmer. Despite growing up by the water, my swimming capability hasn’t been particularly impressive – I could move around, but not quickly or gracefully or with any particular speed. I wanted to use this opportunity to really learn how to swim. At the beginning, I wanted to over-index on the swim hours-per-week in order to really build this skill up.

I shopped around a bit for a good pool. What I was really looking for was something that fit with my work travel schedule. I found one at the YMCA nearby that worked well. The first few sessions I attended were pretty funny. The coach – an admirably patient guy named Mohammad – had a biting sense of humor that was perfect. The first day, when I got out of the pool, he said “You are really strong, but you can’t swim in a straight line.” Ouch. The next week he moved me into the slow lane and reconstructed my stroke from zero, teaching me the very basic building blocks. A few weeks after that, he gave me a few sprint drills to try, and at the end of that class, said “Let’s hold off on those for a while – when you speed up, you look like you are drowning.” So, I had a long way to go. However, with his help, and Amy’s over the summer, and lots of hours in the pool, I slowly built up a non-terrible stroke. My time in the YMCA pool with these guys became something I looked forward to every week. I’ve never gotten out of the pool and been anything except for happy.

Mike W, a family friend who has done this race several times, repeatedly warned me that the bike was the hardest part of this race, going as far as to recommend that I choose a different one as my first Ironman. This made me sit up a little straighter and think hard about my bike strategy. He recommended two things: 1) spend some time on indoor bikes, especially cycle classes, and 2) do a lot of hill training.

The indoor cycle classes were easy to find at my gyms. Typically, I’d spend two hours on the bike in the morning, twice a week – the first hour doing intervals by myself, and the second hour in a class. These were some rough mornings.

On weekends, I would take my bike out for longer rides, starting with about a 50-mile distance. Initially, these were terrifying rides. Here’s a not-exhaustive list of things I was afraid of happening to me while on my bike:

  • Getting hit by a car
  • Crashing with another cyclist
  • Hitting a pothole and falling off my bike
  • Going down a hill too quickly and falling off my bike
  • Going around a corner too quickly and falling off my bike
  • Stopping at a stop sign, not unclipping my shoes fast enough, and falling off my bike
  • Crossing train tracks at the wrong angle and getting my tire stuck in the tracks
  • Getting stopped by the police for breaking a rule I wasn’t aware I was breaking
  • Getting a flat tire and not knowing how to fix it
  • Getting lost
  • Being silently judged by other cyclists for my poor form / not expensive bike / slow pace / something else that I was too new to know about
  • Getting in the way of those same cyclists for not understanding the rules of the road

Needless to say, my anxiety levels during the first few rides were through the roof.

To tackle the hills, I picked a hard route for training. Will and I had to head down to San Jose a few times for wedding-related stuff, so for some long rides, I’d cycle down from San Francisco to meet him, taking the Skyline Boulevard route to get there. About 70 miles in length, it has about 5,200 feet of climbing – brutal any time, but especially in the summer. Also very good training.

After lots of miles on the bike for training, I can say I’m a lot more comfortable “in the saddle”. I haven’t fallen off my training bike (I did fall off my commuter beach cruiser a few weeks ago in a train track, which was embarrassing). Despite my improved capabilities in this sport, cycling still seems like an insanely risky activity. Unlike running, where I’ve always been able to zone out, I’ve never quite achieved that zen-calmness on a bike – there’s always a lurking fear in the back of my mind that something awful will happen, and I’ll go from fit to paralyzed in seconds. I know that’s unlikely, but I still can’t shake it.

Going into the race, I was still most anxious about the bike portion. Unlike trail runs, where the cutoff times are more like suggestions, if you’re even a few seconds late to an Ironman cutoff, they yank you. Given how hilly this course was and how weak my biking was, I was really not sure I’d make the cutoff for the bike. So I trained really hard for the bike section.

I spent the least amount of mind-share and time preparing for the run. My theory was that I knew how to run while exhausted – I’ve done that a lot – and my years of running training would carry me through this part of the race. I still did a lot of miles, but not in any structured way. Running was a filler between the other sports – something to do to relax and get me back to a place where I was comfortable.

Heading to Idaho

The lake where we do our swim (photo credit: Patti)

One of the coolest aspects of an Ironman, yet one of the least convenient, is the fact that, while an Ironman is technically a day-long event, the actual schedule of activities around it spans almost a week. Some of these things are optional, but several of them are mandatory.While the race wasn’t actually until Sunday, check in started on Thursday, with the last opportunity to check in on Friday evening (as I learned from a fellow competitor on Friday afternoon – thanks Pat M). So it’s a real event.

Vavilovians at CDA! Pat, me, Andrew, and Patti.

In a lot of ways, this race was a convergence of some of the coolest events I’ve had the opportunity to participate in. For example, if you remember the Antarctica trip, you’ll also remember that there were some pretty awesome people there, and some of us ran another race together in SF a few years ago. At this Ironman, Andrew (Antarctica Marathon 2015 winner) was also competing – he was a fantastic listening ear / empathizer during training, as this would be his first Ironman attempt as well. Patti, the infamous Vermont reporter and hands down the best race cheerleader, came with her decked-out motivational megaphone. Pat M, another Vavilovian / Colonia-9er from that trip, was racing this Ironman with her daughter – both of them are experienced Ironpeople.

Car magnet from Mike’s Badwater race – so cool to see this almost ten years later

 And, if you remember my first experience with ultrarunning – the Badwater race – that came back too. Mike W, who I crewed for that race, has done like 15 Ironmans – he gave me some great guidance and coaching leading up to this race. He also reminded me that his brother, Pat W, lives 15 minutes away from the CDA start line. Pat also crewed for Mike at Badwater, and we ran together at the SF Double Marathon last year. Probably against his better judgement, Pat W generously offered up his place to the four of us (Will, Patti, Andrew, and I) to crash for a few nights – we continue to be eternally grateful for his generosity. It was also cool to see some of the Badwater throwback memorabilia, still around almost ten years later.
So, even though the check-in requirements seem a bit absurd, the extra days do provide a really cool opportunity to hang out with people who are also there. Seeing everyone was one of the best parts of the weekend.

I would be remiss in not commenting on how insane the amount of prep work in the 48 hours leading up to the race was. A few things that we had to do:

  • Check in before Friday afternoon – pick up swag (including sweet backpacks) and wristbands (which we’d wear for the weekend), as well as drop bags

    A REALLY helpful volunteer at check in (photo credit: Patti)

  • Procure bike – various options here. I shipped mine using TriBikeTransport (thanks guys – super easy) so I wanted to make sure it had arrived in Idaho and wasn’t wrecked.  I laid eyes on it on Friday and then grabbed it on Saturday –
  • On Saturday, you had to put your bike in the transition area. For those counting, this meant you had to be at the Ironman village on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – all three days
  • Also Saturday, you could drop off two of your drop bags (but not all four drop bags)
  • On Sunday before the race, you could drop off the other two drop bags. You also had to get marked up with sharpie – they wrote your race number and age on various appendages.

For comparison – at many trail ultras I’ve run, I’ve just shown up on the morning of the race, picked up my bib, and started running, sometimes having registered the day before. Definitely a different process.

In between these activities, we mostly ate food, explored the town, and watched Arrested Development. I was really doing anything to take my mind off of the race.

 Race morning

So. Much. Gear. (photo credit: Patti)

I tried to be as efficient as possible on race morning, for two reasons. First, more efficiency means more sleep. Second, more efficiency means less time to panic about the race.

I was really very anxious about not finishing this race. I was giving myself a 50/50 likelihood of having trained enough for the bike portion. To finish the bike portion within the cutoff, racers have to move at about 13.5 miles per hour. On flat road, this is not a challenge. However, this course, as mentioned was really hilly, and it would also be really hot. So, even with my weeks of spreadsheet tracking and calculating paces and projected finish times, I just wasn’t sure I’d make the bike cutoff. Of all of the races I’ve participated in, I’ve never DNFd (dropped out). There are a lot of races where, if I had, I’d be disappointed, but not crushed, because the race wasn’t that big of a deal. However, I’d trained for this Ironman for almost a year. I’d spent so much time and mental capacity in getting ready for it – I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite as emotionally invested in the outcome of a race. Even during my first 100-mile run, which featured torrential downpours and blisters the size of silver dollars, I never really doubted I would finish. For this Ironman, I knew that I could do the miles – just not that I could do them within the time limit. So, despite the training, I was pretty anxious.

Leading up to the race, I shared this anxiety with pretty much anybody who would listen. I got some good advice, and some not so good advice (not so good advice: “You should feel anxious. That won’t go away. Good luck.”)

Two pieces of great advice I got:

Andrew eats pizza for his pre-race meal (photo credit: Patti)

From Amy, one of my swimming coaches: “Remember to rely on your training, and when you get anxious just take a deep breath. I have seen you progress so much even in the last month – just relax into it and you’ll be fine.” This was so encouraging to hear from a coach, and it made me really understand why coaches can be such powerful motivators – they’re typically the only ones who have been with you every step of the way in training. Their opinion is better informed than almost anyone else’s.

Will and me at the start (photo credit: Patti)

From Will: He reminded me that this anxiety was exactly what I’d been looking for last year, when I was burnt out on running. Which is true – that’s why I signed up. I wanted something different – something that was a challenge, with ambiguity, that pushed me in different ways. In my panic, I had forgotten that was the primary reason I’d taken on this challenge. His reminder made me appreciate the anxiety, and feeling it in the moment, in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

The morning of the race, I kept these things in mind as I went through the check-in steps.

Ironman Village is dark in the morning before the start, but the volunteers make up for it with their enthusiasm and flashlights. When we arrived, Andrew and I first for sharpie’d with our numbers, then went to check on our bikes, and we dropped off two of our drop bags. Then we went over towards the beach area to hang out for a few minutes, eat some breakfast food (which, in Andrew’s case, somehow involved an entire cold pizza), and get into our wetsuits.

At what seemed like an appropriate time, we said goodbye to our cheer team of Patti and Will and headed down to the sand.

We were self-seeded by projected swim finish time, so I comfortably positioned myself towards the back third, at the 1:40 mark. After the national anthem, sung in the pre-dawn light, the gun went off, and the race started.

The Swim

Getting ready to swim. Green hat = men, pink hat = women

My wave stood on the sand for another ten or fifteen minutes before we got close to the actual start line. The race sent us off in waves, with lots of space between them, so there was less likelihood of crowding and getting kicked in the race while in the water. That meant that we could see the fastest swimmers taking off down the course, away from the beach, towards the turnaround. The swim course was two loops, each just over a mile, with a little 10-meter run on the sand in between the two loops.

If you’re cool, you look like this guy when you get in the water. He was on the cover of the CDA local newspaper. (Photo credit: that newspaper’s photographer)

As we approached the start line (an inflatable arch), I mentally prepared for the cold water. When it was time to cross, I only started with a few other people – the start wasn’t that wide. I remember feeling excitement, apprehension, and relief that the moment was finally here, and ran into the water, doing the awkward leg-lift thing to get further out before getting down to swim. I did this as fast as possible, to minimize the total time that the body was shocked by the cold (having practiced in San Francisco’s freezer of the Bay).

The water was so warm. I’d spent most of my outdoor training hours in the San Francisco bay, which boasted water temperatures of 54*F in the winter and 62*F in the summer. This may seem like a small range, but on the colder days, spending more than 45 minutes in the water was really difficult; my fingers lost mobility during one swim due to the cold. So, this 70*F water in Idaho seemed luxurious by comparison.

 And I had officially started my first Ironman. The sky was still grey, but turning blue and orange as the sun got closer to breaking the horizon.

I’d also been warned that the water would be crowded, and getting kicked in the face was going to happen with high frequency. However, due to their phased entry process, it actually seemed fairly civilized. You could pretty much see where people were going, and there was never too big of a wall of people that it was hard to pass if you needed to.

Swimmers getting in the water (Andrew’s the one without a wetsuit) (photo credit: Patti)

The swim passed in a bit of a blur. A few things stood out – snapshots in time.

The first was the color of the water – this gold-green shade, but very very clear – you could see the sand at the bottom. A combination of the sun rising and the sand and the hills nearby combined to make this very fresh color.

The second was rounding the big marks at the end of the first loop. There was a big motorboat and a few kayaks, but because we were swimming, I could only catch glimpses of them during breaths. So it was mostly – water water water – part of a boat – water water water – another part of a boat. But there were people there, and they seemed pretty enthusiastic in their cheering.

 The third was getting to the end of the first loop … and realizing I’d swam a mile and a quarter in 40 minutes! That was significantly faster than I had ever anticipated, and I felt great. I didn’t feel like I’d over-exerted myself, and I had a good pace. This was a real boost to my mood. I got out of the water, did the little jog along the sand, and jumped in for my second lap.

Coming out of the water – looking like a happy blubbery seal

The fourth image I had was on the home stretch of the second lap. I felt really good, and very excited about my possible time. I was getting squished between a few folks though, and I didn’t want this to be a dumb reason to lose a few seconds, so I picked up the pace and passed them before they could converge in front of me.

 The last few hundred meters were more than a “jog” but less than a “sprint” in terms of prace, and I finished my swim in 1:23 – about a half hour faster than I had projected. I was really excited about this:
  • I’d worked really hard to learn this new skill, and it turns out I don’t suck at it! In fact, I’m pretty good, and much better than I thought I was.
  • I get an extra half an hour on the bike! At this point, I was pretty sure I could make the cutoff, because I’d finished the swim a full hour earlier than the swim cutoff, which means I could allocate that time to the bike.

The swim was probably my favorite part of the day.

Transition 1 (T1)

Best part of the day. (Photo credit: Patti)

This was easily the most absurd part of the day. Runners tend to be a pretty self-sufficient bunch, and usually at ultra aid stations that take a while, you might get your drop bag, unpack it, sit down for a minute, then get up and get some food, then put your bag away, and keep going. Volunteers at ultras are awesome – they sometimes fill up your water bottle for you! But other than that, it’s pretty self-service.

Going into T1 of the Ironman, I’d sort of anticipated it would be the same. I’d take off my wetsuit, get by drop bag and change, and be on my way.

Boy was I wrong.

I got out of the water and trotted to the transition area. It was loud, and there were easily 30-40 volunteers there. One of them unzipped my wetsuit as I trotted. Two more pulled my arms out, and then sort of gently/urgently made me sit down, so a fourth could pull my wetsuit off from my ankles. Four people helped me take off my wetsuit. And this was just the start.

Next, I picked up my drop bag and headed into the tent, where two women descended on me to help me with this part of the process. One of them took lead, and she hustled me over to a chair and dumped my bag of stuff on the ground (apparently this is best practice to make sure you haven’t missed anything). She brought over a few towels as I changed and as I put my bike shoes on, then I packed everything back in the back (with her help) and she basically pushed me out of the tent.

It wasn’t over yet though – there was an alley of volunteers to walk through, during which you could pick up water or electrolytes on your way to your bike. And at the end of this alley was another spate of volunteers, who directed you to your bike, in case you’d forgotten where it was in the forest of other bikes.

Then you got your bike and walked it out to the street. There was a line on the road (which several other volunteers policed / brought you over to), and at that line you could get on your bike to start the 112 miles that came next.

The Bike

I heard this is a cool thing to do during races because it makes it look like the activity is effortless. It was not. This photo is deceiving.

This was the part of the race I’d been most anxious about, and I wanted to start strong. I knew there was a lot of climbing coming up, so I made the most of the flat that I had at the beginning – a little out and back with some rolling hills along the lake. Of the two laps, I also knew the second would be significantly harder, as it was going to get very hot in the afternoon. So in addition to taking advantage of the flat parts at the beginning, I knew I wanted to use a little more energy on the first lap than I otherwise would have.

I don’t exactly know how many hills there were. It really depends on how you count them. I think there were two each way, for a total of eight – at least, that’s how I remember it. The first big climb on the way out didn’t seem so bad, probably because it was still fairly early and most of it was shaded, and the second wasn’t bad either. There was a flat / uphill-ish stretch towards the turnaround that felt much longer than it actually was, and that was pretty boring and frustrating. I did get to see Andrew after this turnaround – it’s always fun to see people you know!

This part of the day was also going to require some thinking regarding nutrition. I brought my Camelbak and stuffed it with water and PB&J sandwiches. To re-fill water, I assumed I’d have to stop, get off the bike, open my Camelbak, take out the water bladder, open the screw top thing, fill up the water, then reverse the process, which would take several minutes each time – which I wasn’t sure I had, but which needed to happen to prevent dehydration. However, during the first 30 or 40 miles, I’d noticed that nobody was stopping at aid stations. Instead, they’d slow down to 5-10 miles per hour, and a volunteer would be holding out their hand with a bottle of water or Gatorade in it, and they’d do a super quick handoff – the cyclist didn’t even need to stop.

Will took this picture of me and said he thought I’d like it because my stomach looks really tight. He’s right. (photo credit: Will)

I’d installed two water bottle holders on my bike a while ago, but I’d always been too afraid to use them because I thought I might fall off the bike. To get to them, you have to reach between your knees and down a bit. However, after watching a few aid stations like this, and seeing other cyclists doing it, I decided to give it a try – I slowed down to a crawl, held out my hand in the direction of a volunteer, made eye contact, and they handed off the Gatorade to me! It was magic! More liquid, and I’d probably saved five minutes of time. I nervously maneuvered it into one of the bottle holders – and didn’t fall off my bike! We were in business. I didn’t get off my bike for the entire 112 miles.

And it was lucky I’d committed to doing aid stations the “right” way – it got really hot, really quickly.

Near the beginning of the second lap, I saw Patti and Will cheering on the sidelines – always super motivating!

The second lap was much more difficult than the first. The scenery was now not novel, and the big out and back was just a freeway with yellow grass all around. The sun was beating down – no shade from the mountains. I was struggling up the hills. People with fancy-looking bikes kept passing me. That wasn’t super demoralizing – I’m a very slow cyclist and had tons of practice on the road with people passing me – but it wasn’t exactly the most motivating, either.

The other thing about biking is that sweat works differently than running, and that’s something I’d never really gotten used to during training. Because you’ve moving 3x as quickly on a bike as on your feet, water evaporates from your skin much faster, so using sweat to judge how much liquid to drink is not a good way to measure. That said, I knew I had to drink, so I just drank whenever my mouth was dry – which was basically every five minutes. I have no idea how many bottles of liquid I went through, but I will say that I did not have to get off the bike to use the bathroom any time during the 112 miles – so the answer is, probably not enough.

By this point, though, I knew I would make the bike cutoff if I didn’t do anything stupid. So I kept cruising and didn’t worry about the slow climbs.

Check out that sweet bottle of electrolytes in the bike cage! New skill that day.

I will say that it seemed like the bike course was pretty dangerous this year, however. Before the race, I’d looked up deaths during triathlon aces (a pretty dumb thing to look up …). About 87% (if I remember) of deaths are during the swim, and maybe 10% during the bike and 3% during the run. Something like that. However, during the bike event, I saw one guy get mauled by an off-leash dog – the dog literally came out of the bushes and charged the guy, knocking him off of his bike. The dog owner seemed apathetic. I stopped to help the guy out – he was literally right in front of me when it happened – until a volunteer showed up. One guy also got hit by a car between hills 1 and 2, and had to be taken away in an ambulance. I was lucky, given all that.

Overall – the bike was long and arduous. My butt hurt a lot, and my leg muscles were tired of the same motion over and over. My shoulders were cramped. I’d never spent so many miles on a bike before – 112 is my longest bike ride to date. I was so happy coming into the transition.

Transition 2 (T2)

As I got off the bike, the outside edges of both feet immediately started hurting – a lot – almost a bone pain. I’d never felt this before, and didn’t know what to do. I had no idea if I could run a marathon on feet that hurt like this. Worried, I put my bike back on its rack, picked up my bag, and hobbled to the aid station.

The volunteers were super nice, once again – helping me put away my bike gear and getting me ready for the run. But I was exhausted and moving slowly, and my feet felt like they had stress fractures in outside tarsal bones. I asked one of the volunteers if they had any Tylenol or Advil, and they said no, but then she sort of loudly said “I think I saw someone with some …” and another racer happened to have a few tablets. I was so grateful for the help. The volunteer winked and said she knew someone would have them. The other racer even assured me that this sort of racer-to-racer assistance was allowed (there’s a whole list of things that aren’t allowed, such as I think sharing food? Not sure what else).

After 20 minutes of transition time – far more than I’d wanted – and a can of soup, I stood up and hobbles out of the tent. A volunteer slathered some sunscreen on me and I headed towards the exit.

As I exited the transition area, I saw Will. I was pretty nervous about wrecking my probably-stress-fractured-feet, and I told him I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea. He said I should “run it off.” At the time I was like “oh okay, that makes sense, and because Will is saying it and he’s a runner, he probably knows how this works.” So off I went.

The run

Run run run

The run was three laps of just under 9 miles each. Each lap was an out-and-back, so we really only saw about 4.5 miles of new scenery – however, half of scenery was also included in part of the bike race – so really only about two miles of the course was new.

The first lap felt really good. I ran most of it, and Will was right – the pain in my feet went away (however if anyone knows what this is and how to prevent it, please let me know – it’s still a mystery to me). I was initially surprised at how tired my legs were because they hadn’t been running all day, but then also surprised because the feeling felt very familiar. Then I remembered I’d done this kind of thing before – running on tired legs – and this was sort of like being 50 miles into a 75 mile running race.

Still running

Framing it that way – running toward the end of an ultra – made it a much easier proposition. Legs were tired and would remain tired, walking was okay, and any forward motion was good.

Will was amazing during this part of the race. I swear he ran about 10 miles (not with me – that’s not allowed!) but taking shortcuts to different points of the course to say hi. He picked up Patti and Andrew at some point (Andrew had dropped due to heat exhaustion) and the three of them had MacGyver-ed Patti’s cheerleading bullhorn into a boombox by putting an iPhone playing music against the back of it. The three of them drove around blasting music and cheering people on with an energy that was nothing short of incredible.

During the last lap, I was getting a little grumpy at the repetition of the scenery, and I really just wanted to be done. It was also getting dark, so I’d had to break out the headlamp. People were handing out glowsticks too, which was fun. One runner and I had been playing leapfrog for a while, so we dropped into step with each other and ran/walked most of the last lap together. I saw Pat M a few times on the course – she powered right past me during the third loop.

As I came out of the last loop towards the finish line, with about a mile to go, I knew I could run the rest, so I parted ways with my running buddy and picked my pace up to a pained trot. Every step towards the finish line felt like a victory. I clearly remember the turnoff – where sidewalk chalk had indicated “turn left if you’re on your first or second lap, but turn right to finish” – and I was heading to the finish!

A local cheerleading squad was on the course at the finish line, and they’d divided themselves into pairs and trios to cheer the runners in. That’s when I knew I was really close.

I turned left and saw the arch at the finish. It was incredible – bright lights everywhere, and random spectators – a LOT of them – lining the finish chute. Who were these people who stayed out so late to cheer on strangers?

The sweetest part of running through the finish line was knowing I had done this myself – every step, every rotation of the pedal, and every stroke had been mine. I’d learned new skills and fought every step of the way to own them. But I also knew I’d had so much support from my friends and family, and from Will – there’s no way I could have gotten to the finish without them.

Finish line!

After the race

Immediately after the race there were some pictures and celebrations, and then we went home and I went to sleep. I remember, before going to bed, putting my wetsuit out on the railing to dry, and wondering when the next time I’d use it would be. It’s been two months, and it’s still dry.

The next morning, Will had to leave very early for the airport. Pat W and his wife came home, and it was great to catch up with them for a bit. Patti, Andrew, and I went down to the athlete village to see if I could reclaim a lost swimsuit, and after talking to six or seven people, I was able to find it. Andrew took off for a work thing, and Patti and I got brunch before she dropped me at the airport.

I’ve had lots of time to reflect on the race in the last few weeks. A few things really stand out:

I’m still young, but not as young as I was when I started running (more than ten years ago). Learning new things doesn’t happen every day when you’re an adult, and picking up a new skill from scratch is an insanely empowering experience. I am so proud of my swimming capabilities now – capabilities I didn’t have a year ago.

These people are the best

I understand why Ironman athletes are so grateful for the support of their friends and family. Three things about this come to mind.

  • The training is really demanding – more so than I’d ever thought. I’ve never trained so much for any race, even races that were almost twice as long in terms of hours spent on the course. I was sometimes spending 20 hours a week training. 4:30 wakeups are fun for nobody, and you have to have buy-in from the people you’re living with that it’s okay to spend time this way. Will was so supportive on this front, especially because his sleep schedule wasn’t really much better than mine was due to work (and usually worse). I am so lucky to have a guy who understands the crazy drive to do this sort of stupid stuff.

    I married this guy

  • I was new to this sport, and a lot of people gave me guidance and suggestions during training. I asked a LOT of questions about how to do this the right way, and a lot of people patiently entertained my ignorance. Thanks especially to Mike W and Christina for tolerating my really amateur questions.
  • It really does take a whole weekend – really more than a weekend – to do this thing. It shouldn’t, but the way they construct the checkins and surrounding stuff means that it does.
  • No pacing is allowed on the course. I’ve never done something this long without a pacer, and it’s really empowering. But the support crew is still there – just in a different capacity. Patti and Andrew, you guys are rock stars.

I understand what it means to take a break after a race now. The training for this was just so physically and emotionally draining. I’m working out now, but probably about half as much as I was before the race. I don’t have any immediate plans to sign up for anything (although I do have a different sport in mind for another race …) and I’m just enjoying the unstructured time. While I used to want to rush to the next thing, I’ve learned it’s okay to relax sometimes, and just appreciate and reflect the work you’ve done.

I got married a week after the race. I don’t recommend that – it’s hard to plan. But I did get to show off some muscles!

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Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim: 46 miles in the Grand Canyon

(Originally posted August 21 – This is coming a little late, but I wanted to post it before this weekend comes up – another big race on the horizon!)

In May, I ran across the Grand Canyon and back, a feat known as rim-to-rim-to-rim (r2r2r). In this activity, you start at one side of the canyon, then run down to the bottom of it and up the other side, then back down to the bottom and up the original side, to end where you started, all in one day. It includes about 11,000-12,000 feet of climbing, and the climbing and descending comes all at one time. The overall profile looks a little like this:

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This is a lot of climbing (image source). I actually started at the North Rim, so just pretend the first half comes after the second half in this profile.

Will was running a 50-miler near(ish) the North Rim, so my plan was to start from there. My plan also included these elements:

  • Start very early in the morning to avoid the midday sun. It can get up to 100 degrees at the bottom of the canyon, even in May
  • Carry all the water and liquid I would need. I’d heard there were a few water lines that were broken towards the bottom, so I wanted to be prepared to not rely on them
  • Pick up some food at the North Rim, since they have a bunch of little shops and convenience stores and things. I’d be able to get something meaningful, like a burger, to help with the caloric intake

The beginning

I started around 2:30 in the morning. I was feeling pretty good about my early start – I would have several hours to cruise downhill before the sun came up and it started getting hot. I took my time going down – no reason to rush.

After about ten minutes on the trail, I took off long sleeve shirt. It was already really warm, even in the middle of the night. Possibly the first sign that I hadn’t fully thought this activity through. I didn’t use the long sleeve shirt again this day.

I also turned off my GPS at this point, because it wasn’t doing so well in the canyon. It said I was going pretty slow (like a mile an hour), and that was just depressing. I ran the rest of the trail by time and feel rather than distance.

At this time of night, the canyon feels very big. You know there’s a huge empty space in front of you, but you can’t see it because its dark. It’s just a big, gaping, hole. I was very alone – just me, the trail, and the stars.

It was also possible to see the lights from buildings at the South Rim – all the way across the canyon – really ethereal. The distance between the rims is only about 12 miles as the crow flies, so it was easy to see them, especially as nothing was obstructing the view. It made me think a lot about what capabilities we have as humans – there’s really no fast way to get to the other side of the canyon unless you fly. Even though it’s only 12 miles away, it still takes four hours to drive around, and 6-8 hours to walk/run it. (Nighttime running is great for philosophical thoughts).

About two hours in, I saw another headlamp coming up towards me. The first sign of life! Maybe it was a hiker who was getting started early. After a few minutes, he came around the corner – a runner! He had no time to stop and chat, but what I did catch from him was that he was also running rim-to-rim-to-rim … and had started before midnight in order to escape the heat. This was maybe my second hint that I’d not planned as well as I’d thought. He was coming up the canyon as I was descending – my first descent. He was almost halfway done with his attempt, and I was just getting started.

A little later I ran past Cottonwood Camp, where some folks were just waking up. I didn’t know that there was a campsite there, so I was really confused as to why I was hearing voices just off the trail. Too early for hallucinations.

The next stretch, between Cottonwood and Phantom Ranch, was some of the most beautiful miles of the whole trail. The sun was just starting to come up, and the light was reflecting off the water in a really beautiful way. The trail was man-made, and put right between the steep canyon wall and the water. A very cool trail – I hadn’t been on one like that before.

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Sunrise in the Grand Canyon – look at that reflection on the water

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Trail on the right, water on the left (of the picture)

At Phantom Ranch, I crossed over to the south side of the canyon and began the climb up. It wasn’t too slow, and I felt fairly good at the time. 95% of tourists to the canyon go to the south rim, so it got a little crowded as I made my way to the top, but people were generally really nice and gave me space (not that I was going much faster). I got to the top of the South Rim around 9am or or so – I’d made really good time going across. I was feeling good and went to find some food for my halfway snack.

The middle

The problem was … nothing is open for real food at 9am. There were a few places I saw to get a burger, but they didn’t open until around 11am – too late. I tried to find a gift shop, but most of them were fancy places that sold things like hand-painted bowls, or chocolate that looked like colorful rocks. Nothing substantial. I finally gave up and bought a huge bag of gummy bears, mainly because I didn’t want to waste any more time. I also tried to get a Diet Coke from a vending machine, but this also did not work as the vending machine was broken. I just refilled my Camelbak and got going.

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Feeling pretty good at the South Rim. Check out that sweet green shirt that got a whole ten minutes of use before turning into a butt cape.

The way back down wasn’t so bad. There were a few people who I saw on the way up who recognized me coming back down and gave me a thumbs-up – that was pretty fun. It was starting to get warm, so at Indian Garden I stopped and got some water (the spigots were working after all). I then got stuck for 20 minutes behind a mule caravan, which was a little frustrating because I was moving pretty quick at the time (e.g. and importantly, faster than the mules). I was pretty patient, but finally made some noise about this being a multi-use trail on public lands, so they finally let me pass (but not before adding another thin film of dust to the collection already on my skin and clothes). I think this is where the toenail on the big toe on my right foot got messed up from slamming the front of my shoe (it still looks gross, five months later).

Phantom Ranch was a bit of a turning point, and not in a good way. It was getting really hot. I knew I had really under-estimated water, and I was getting worried about food too – e.g., that I didn’t have enough of it. Fortunately, the water situation in the canyon was not desperate, so I guzzled from a spigot, doused my shoes, and kept moving.

Remember that beautiful trail I loved so much on the way in? It turned into a hellish oven in the afternoon – no shade, no trees, nowhere to hide, and nowhere to sit. This six mile stretch was just awful. I was dizzy, worried about food, drinking too fast through all of my water, and I couldn’t go for more than twenty or thirty minutes at a time without stopping. I’d sit in whatever sliver of shade I could find right up against the canyon wall, stretch my feet out in front of me, and pray nobody would come by and ask what I was doing. (One group did, but they were pretty nice and didn’t judge too much). It was a pretty dangerous situation, and I was embarrassed at my bad planning.

To take my mind off of the struggle, I dipped into my podcast queue. TED Radio Hour is fantastic for these sorts of activities – just thought-provoking enough to take your mind off of the painful reality of the situation, but not complex enough that it’s confusing or frustrating or hard to follow with the limited mental capacity that often comes with these sorts of activities. I made a rule that I could only stop at the end of an episode (about 40-45 minutes) and kept moving.

(I found out later that it was in the high 90s around this time.)

The food situation was becoming desperate. I’d only packed a few Clif bars, maybe a PB&J sandwich, some Gu, and that gross mess of gummy bears from the South Rim (which were mostly gone by this point). I knew I could make it back to the top with what I had, but it was going to be really tough.

When I got back to Cottonwood, I decided to see if I could call upon my fellow trail adventurers for help. After a bit of chit chat with a couple at the water spigot, they asked how I had packed my food, and I said I had done it quite poorly. Then – to my eternal gratitude – they eagerly offered to offload some of their food to me. They were doing rim-to-rim and had way overpacked, they said, and definitely wouldn’t need a ton of what they brought. I’d be doing them a favor by taking it! This seemed too good to be true, or they were being far too polite. Either way, I didn’t have to think twice to take them up on their offer. And honestly, I’ve never tasted a better tangerine. Thank you forever, nice Grand Canyon hikers. You made my next few hours so much more bearable.

The worst was over.

The end

The last bit of the run was mostly a climb. Specifically, a 4,000-foot climb back to the top. It was a slog, but it was mostly walking/hiking, and it had started cooling down – the heat was behind me. I knew I would make it at this point – just cruising to the finish.

Lots of other people were finishing up their hikes too – it was fun to meet them and play a little leapfrog as we passed each other back and forth. I met a couple of teenage girls who were doing rim-to-rim by themselves – SO COOL! We hiked together for a little bit.

 

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Taking a break on the climb back up

The Grand Canyon is made of layers of rock deposited over several millennia. One of the cool parts about climbing back up the other side was being able to see the sediment color change with each layer. At first the trail was orange dust (to match the orange walls of the canyon at that elevation), then white, then red, then yellow, then green … it was a very unconventional way to mark progress, but at this point, the vertical elevation was a more helpful progress marker than mileage. It felt a little bit like walking through time.

Getting to the end was very uneventful. There was no finish line, and nobody was waiting there [Will said he’d be back at the hotel]. I bummed a ride off of someone to get the final two miles back to the hotel (thanks, Canyon friends)! and tried not to get their car too dirty. They said they were actually shuttling a lot of their hiking buddies back and forth just then anyway, so a little dust didn’t hurt.

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The “finish line”

 

The aftermath

This was one of the hardest runs I’ve ever done. I think it’s the longest “unsupported” run I’ve done. This was one of about three runs I’ve ever completed where, at the end, I felt nauseous, had some trouble breathing consistently, and didn’t have any desire to eat food (unreal).

A few things stuck out about the next 12 hours, and I took pictures of them

  1. This cross-section of the canyon layers in the hotel lobby. The layers take on a whole new meaning when you’ve been through literally every single one of them.

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    It was red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ocher and peach …

  2. This cat painted on a white rock. All of the rocks at the hotel had little animals painted on them, and I thought that was a pretty cool detail for a park to add. (Spoiler alert – it wasn’t a cat. I was just getting very close to hallucination state. It was water / dust damage).

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    But it does look like a cat right?

  3. This book in the gift shop. The canyon is no joke. I wasn’t in any danger of dying, but we runners like to kid that the vultures are always circling. 

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    That skeleton was me

Advice for people thinking about doing this

  • Leave earlier in the morning. Apparently 2:30 wasn’t early enough to avoid the heat
  • Pack more food. Carry it in your hands if you have to. Protein!
  • Bring and drink lots and lots of water! (Also salt – I forgot salt)
  • Late May is probably too late, because it really does get hot

Overall

This was a really fun run. It’s one I’d had on my mind for a few years (one of the main reasons I wanted to do the NPS internship was to possibly have the opportunity to take on this run). It really is an epic adventure in one of the coolest and most iconic parts of the world. The Canyon forces you to reflect on our place in the world, as cliche as that sounds – this is a huge geological formation that no human effort could possibly recreate, and that no human effort could tame.  We keep coming back because of how awe-inspiring places like this are. These places force us to respect them and to contemplate them. They will be here long after we are gone.

For me, running is a way of honoring the space and getting to know it. This run is one I will never forget.

Stagecoach 100: Flagstaff to Grand Canyon

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Running through the Aspens around mile 15

It’s been two weeks since I finished the Stagecoach 100, a 100-mile ultramarathon in Arizona that starts in Flagstaff and ends at the Grand Canyon. There are a couple of reasons for this delay.

  • It was a pretty drama-free race. It was difficult, but not impossible, and I made smart decisions the whole way.
  • It was a hard race, but three was nothing particularly insane about it [e.g. awful weather, impossible terrain, etc]. The elevation was a challenge – averaged 7,500 ft of altitude the whole time – but that wasn’t a huge barrier.
  • For the first time since I started racing, I’m very ready to take a break from racing for a while. There’s nothing coming up on my calendar [can’t remember the last time that happened] and I don’t have any immediate plans to sign up for anything. Feels good.

Pre-race

I signed up for Stagecoach race after running Zion in April. Zion was a very hard race, and, if you remember, they shortened the course to 90 miles due to weather. While I made up 10 miles on my own later, I was deeply dissatisfied with not officially running 100 miles on the course, especially after how awful the training for that had been.  I wanted to find another race that I could run to take advantage of the training I had done and the 100-mile shape I was in.

To train for Stagecoach, I did pretty much nothing in comparison to what I had done for Zion. Zion training involved 30 mile training runs almost every weekend. For Stagecoach, these this is the complete list of long training runs I ran that were greater than 15 miles:

  • A failed 50k in the Marin Headlands, where I only ended up running 18 miles.
  • Canyon Meadow 50k. Somewhat fast race but not eventful.
  • San Francisco Ultramarathon, which is the marathon course twice. I was exceedingly slow on the second loop because I wanted to run with friends. This was a pretty lazy (but fun) race.
  • Mount Diablo 50k, which was brutal and hilly.

And that’s it. Four long runs, one of which barely counts, over the course of six months.

Psychologically, I wasn’t concerned about finishing. It may be cocky, but I didn’t think the training was going to hold me back from completing the race. I felt like I had maintained my training decently. Also, I knew my dad was going to come up to crew me, and Will was going to pace me for a bunch of miles, and those psychological boosts are really helpful.

The race itself

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With Dad at the start. It was cold.

I’ve summarized the race this way: It sucked, then it didn’t suck so much, then it sucked again, then it sucked more, then I finished.

1. First, it sucked. (miles 0-20)

The start line was cold. Runners could start at 7am [early start] or 8am [official start]. I started at 8am because that’s what I’d been planning to do – the 7am option was a late add.

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Runners start running

 

 

Honestly, the first twenty miles were mediocrely fun from a mental standpoint. We started at 7,500 feet of elevation, and spent the first several hours climbing to almost 9,000 feet of elevation. On the plus side, this was the highest part of the course, so it was nice that it was early. On the minus side, it isn’t fun to start a race walking uphill with limited oxygen.

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It really was pretty

I spent the entire section of this race trying to appreciate the scenery [which was gorgeous] and not looking forward to 90 more miles of running. I idly wondered if I should drop out, because I was bored and slow and 100 miles is a long way.

2. Then it didn’t suck so much. (miles 20-65)

At mile 20, I saw my support crew for the first time, and it was a great energy boost. Dad was there, and he brought along a sailing buddy who we’d both raced with, Rollin. Rollin had never been to an event like this, and he was definitely more excited than I was to be there at this point, which was really cool.

This was also the first time I saw Will during the race – he’d flown in late the night before, so I didn’t see him at the start. It was great to see him, and he walked for a few minutes with me out of the aid station.

To get to the next aid station, I listened to a few podcasts. I also met a guy from North Andover who was running his first 100. He was pulling like 8-minute miles, so he quickly left me in the dust – I’d see him later.

I also met an absurdly inspirational guy named Larry, who had just turned 70. This race was his 21st 100-miler (!). Also, he’d run all 21 in just 7 years. The dude has been running 100-milers every four months. I spent a good chunk of time walk/running with him, and we spent most of the next forty miles leapfrogging each other.

I saw Will and Dad again at mile 34[ish? hard to remember]. Originally, I’d planned to pick up Will at aid station 68, but it was becoming apparent that I might not get there until midnight or 2am, which would be really late. I like to leverage my pacers in the early hours of the morning to prevent me from falling asleep, and I worried that I’d be hitting the sleepy phase long before mile 68. So we re-worked the plan to have him join me at mile 54 instead. This required some herculean logistical creativity on Dad’s, Rollin’s, and Will’s side, which I really appreciated. I left them at 34, looking forward to seeing Dad and Will in a few more hours [Rollin, intelligently, went home and to bed].

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Someone was taking pictures so I had to run into the aid station

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With Will at mile 34

Around mile 45, it started getting dark. We were running through open fields at this point, and there were tons of cows – very southwest vibe. The cows were mooing. By this time, I was pretty much alone – Larry was far enough either ahead or behind that he wasn’t within shouting distance – so I moo-d back at the cows.

Around mile 48, there was a cool aid station with a drone taking video of the race.

Around mile 50, I saw an AWESOME meteor. It was red and firey and shot right across the sky.

Around mile 51, I was getting a little tired, and it was fully dark. Milky Way all the way across the sky was visible to the naked eye. I slowed down a little bit, looking for camaraderie to get me to the next aid station. I found two guys running together, blasting some pretty sweet jams from their backpack, so I ran the last few miles into the 54-mile aid station with them.

At mile 54, I had some soup that Dad prepared and picked up Will. It was a good plan to grab him here instead of much later, and I was very happy to have him this early in the race.

Just after this aid station, we heard some elk in heat. Guys, this is a crazy sound. I thought it was emergency vehicles. Listen to this if you don’t believe me. All that whiny metallic-sounding stuff is the animal sound.

The next several miles were pretty fun. We went to an aid station that had candles leading the way to it, and it was a pretty easy trot to get to mile 68 [at least, I remember it that way].

At the mile 68 aid station, I was getting tired. I took my shoes off and switched socks. It was about 2am at this point, and a little sliver of orange moon started to rise.

3. Then it sucked again (miles 68-?)

Miles 68 through 80 were pretty tough. This was a very very long slog, made slower by the fact that it was dark and the trail was tricky.

I was also getting tired, so asked Will to keep the conversation going through asking me questions. His favorite questions to ask were “What’s your favorite [thing]?”, ranging from ‘What’s your favorite Disney character?’ [Ariel] to ‘marine animal?’ [Leafy Sea Dragon] to ‘tree?’ [Eucalyptus]. We had a lot of miles, so the questions got more granular: favorite book ‘from before middle school’ [I think I said Narnia] and ‘from after middle school’ [No idea what I said here]. He got very creative in finding categories of things to ask about that might include a favorite. When he ran out of ‘favorite’ questions and I got more tired, he started on hot-button political issues, which *really* stoked the fire, as his and my opinions differ materially on many political issues. I definitely was not falling asleep on my feet anymore, so this worked really well.

4. Then it sucked more (miles ?-88)

At one point, it got pretty tough. I’d thought we’d gone about six miles since the last aid station, but then a runner behind us said we’d only gone three. That realization was one of the most depressing moments of the race. Everything seemed pretty hopeless. I really, really didn’t want to keep moving forward. That, coupled with knowing the only way to get out of this misery is to keep moving in some direction, is a really hard thing to balance. Want to stop moving + have to keep moving [even if you want to quit the race] = extremely demotivating.

The only thing to do was truck along. I plugged into some podcasts and kept marching.

At some point the sun came up. This was also depressing, because I still had a lot of miles to move, and usually the sun coming up is the sign of the end of the race. Not this time. Lots of miles to go.

The mile 80 aid station was literally the worst aid station ever [at least, it seemed that way at the time]. Around mile 79, we reached an asphalt road with a sign pointing right. To get to the mile 80 aid station, it was a fairly steep downhill for a mile to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Going down the hill was brutal, because you knew you’d have to turn around and come right back up as soon as you got to the bottom. It seemed like an unnecessary detour.

I also found out later that the cabin was a mile from a great view of the Grand Canyon, which raises the question as to why they didn’t run the course down there and back, and take out two miles somewhere else. Would have been an awesome view.

The next few miles were tricky because I kept thinking I saw the mile 88 aid station. I was minorly hallucinating [nothing compared to Pine Creek]. This time, literally everything looked like a man-made structure. I saw huts, hobbit holes, ski lodges, tents, cabins. Basically, I was wishfully hallucinating the next aid station. Talk about a roller-coaster of emotions – thinking you see an aid station, then realizing it’s a mirage.

5. Then I finished (miles  88-100)

Finally, we got to the mile 88 aid station [it did not look like any of the mirages I’d visualized. Dad was there. I think we got in at 8am, and we’d been planning to get there at 6am, so he was pretty anxious. It was really great to see him there. He’d had a couple of hours of sleep, but not many. After we’d last seen him, dropping Will off at mile 54, Dad ran around for a few hours in the dark helping rangers safely deliver runners who had dropped out to their cars or crew. It’s really neat how much Dad likes to help out random runners at my races – he does this sort of thing pretty much whenever he comes along.

Originally, Will was going to stop running with me at mile 88, but he heroically agreed to continue plodding with me. Ultimately, he ended up doing 46 miles of the race with me, which is insane and awesome in its own right.

The final miles were pretty tough. I was moving pretty slow – mostly walking, but ran as much as I could. Will set his phone alarm to go off every 17 minutes, which was a good goal, because it motivated me to chunk the task into one-mile increments to beat the clock.

The finish line

Was extremely uneventful. We ran under a freeway, then ran down a path, and finished in the IMAX movie theater parking lot. The finish line was literally one orange cone. There were maybe 20 people there. Dad ran across the finish line with me and Will [I wish someone had a picture of this – it was really cool]. The belt buckle is neat. Also, the race director seemed very earnest when he thanked me for coming, which was awesome. He seemed to really care about each individual runner.

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Finisher buckle

When we drove by the parking lot two hours later, everyone was gone and the cone was removed. The race was over.

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Running with Will to the finish line

Reflections

  • Support. One of the best parts of this race was having the support of Dad and Will. Seeing them at mile 20 was a literal game changer. I had been grumpy and not excited for the first few hours of the race, but seeing them come out to support me was really inspiring and motivating.  I’m someone who is motivated by defusing the worst-case-scenario, e.g. I think of the worst-case-scenario and then say “well that’s not so bad.”  In those early miles, I thought about what it would feel like to drop out. Fear of other people judging me for failure is a pretty big deterrent from dropping out, but realizing that Dad and Will would still love and respect me even if I dropped out was really cool. I could fail and they’d wouldn’t be disappointed in me.
  • Data. 45 people started, 28 finished. I’m proud of crossing the finish line. Timing-wise, I finished in 28 hours, which is fine. Slowest 100-miler, but also most difficult. Not sure if I could have gone faster, but it doesn’t really matter to me. Only woman under 35 to finish. 4th 100-miler I’ve run.
  • Decision-making. I made great decisions throughout the race in terms of pacing [go slow and walk a lot], fueling, gear, and asking for support [e.g. having Will come early] . Wouldn’t have changed anything. Very proud of the process.

Overall, I’m proud of what I accomplished on this race. That said, I’m very ready for a break. Running is fantastic, but there’s also an opportunity cost to doing so much of it. Other sports are probably cool, and hanging out with friends is cool. Also, doing more 100-milers, or taking on a longer race, isn’t that inspiring of an idea to me right now. Maybe something will change, but for now I’m pretty comfortable with my empty race calendar.

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Running through the Aspens

Some additional details that may be interesting for runners:

  • Trail was overall pretty runnable. There was a lot of double-track dirt road, and the tire-tread areas weren’t super easy to run on. There were also a lot of pretty rocky sections that were difficult to run on when tired. The hardest single-track was at night around mile 70. Markings could have been closer together to help decrease late-night paranoia. There were no insane stretches of climbing/descending that were unmanageabley[sp?] steep.
  • Aid stations were great. Everyone was friendly. The stretches of 10+ miles were hard, but that would be true anywhere. Carry your own food/gu even if you think you don’t need it.
  • Gear – it was cold at night, but not unbearable as long as you were moving. I brought a running jacket and the inside puffy part of a snow jacket [not worn at the same time] and some light gloves and was fine. Wore shorts the whole time. I like to use handwarmers, but they weren’t totally necessary. Used a handheld 20-oz bottle for water and nothing else. I brought extra batteries because that is smart.
  • Cell phones do *not* work on “most of the course,” which is what the race packet said.

 

 

SF Double Marathon

SF Double Marathon in the books – 52.4 miles through San Francisco this weekend.

This ultra was a fundraiser for Family Assistance Ministries. Together, we raised $1,500. Thanks everyone who generously donated.

Highlights from the race:

  • Starting at midnight and running through a [mostly] empty city.
  • Running with the lead pack for the first loop – a group of talented and intrepid runners. We [mostly] didn’t get lost.
  • Finishing the first loop with Dean Karnazes who I met ~10 years ago as a journalist at Santa Cruz when I could barely run 3 miles.
  • Taking a nap in between loops. Luxury!
  • Running the second loop with Mike W, who got me intro running; his brother Pat, who I crewed Badwater with for Mike; and their brother Chris, who was completing his very first ultramarathon.
  • Meeting up with Antarctica Vavilovians & friends – Dan, Jenna, and Rose – for post-race dinner

Thanks everyone for your support. This was a really fun race.

Finishing the first loop with Dean – look how similar our strides are! So cool

Dean and I match

Taking a nap between loops – we weren’t allowed to start our second lap before the actual marathon began

Finishing the second loop with the Whalens

Zion 100 – Race Report

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Tl;dr: ran 100 miles in Zion. Course was gorgeous, challengingly vertical, and extremely muddy. They pulled us off the course at the end due to weather and mud, shortening the official race to ~90 miles, so I ran another 10 on my own in Zion National Park. I’m feeling great today, and proud of my effort on this very difficult course.

This Friday, Will and I ran the Zion 100 mile race, just outside of Zion National Park in Utah. This felt like my first “real” ultra hundred, because it was deep in nature and on punishing terrain. Featuring four massive climbs, here’s what the course profile looked like:

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Four major climbs

Leading up to the race, we received a series of very scary emails from the race director.

There is a high likelihood that we will be receiving rain during the race this weekend. Of all the races that we put on, this one has always been my biggest worry of inclimate weather due to the potential safety hazards and nasty trail conditions that would accompany it. Approximately 80% of the course is run on soil with a high clay content that turns slippery and sticks to the bottom of your shoes when a sustained, heavy rain ensues.

The race director even allowed runners to defer their entry to next year’s race, which is an option that is generally only offered in cases of very extreme weather.

Understand that there is a chance you will be running in a muddy slimy mess with 5 pounds of clay stuck to the bottom of your shoes and slipping all over the place and you could be putting your life in danger on the steep climbs. If you are not up for this challenge, please consider NOT starting the race so that we are not left with a large number of runners stranded at remote aid stations waiting for rides. Due to the conditions, we are offering a full rollover towards any Ultra Adventures race through next year’s Zion event

As you agreed to when you signed the waiver during the registration process, you are running at your own risk- And we could see extremely risky conditions this weekend.

I was already paralyzed with anxiety about this race due to the amount of vertical climbing we’d have to do. These emails from the race director did not help allay my fears, and in the week prior to the race, I was very nervous.

A couple of friends helped me work through these pre-race nerves, saying things like “It’s not like you’ve never run in the rain before” and “what about [your strategy of] not checking the weather until [they day of] and then making a game time decision?”

It wasn’t until a day before the race, when Will and I were in Zion and driving around in the beautiful scenery, that that anxiety finally translated to excitement. In Adam Grant’s new book, Originals, he explains that reframing anxiety as excitement will improve performance, for example, on math exams or in public speaking engagements, so I also employed this technique for my own nerves. As Adam summarizes, “labeling an emotion as anxiety reduced [singing] accuracy to 53 percent [off of a baseline of 69 percent]. Calling [the emotion] excitement was enough to spike accuracy to 80 percent.”

My parents came to crew me for this race, too, which I was very much looking forward to. We had dinner with them the night before, and they joined us at the start line.

The start line was one part expo, one part camp site. Fire pits dotted the area. I found a chair and moved it as close as I could to one of the fire pits to stay warm.

The start of the race was delayed for five minutes to allow a few late shuttles to arrive. Then the race director counted down and said “Go!”- no gun, no timer, literally just when he felt like it. We all wandered through the chute and onto the trail.

Unlike shorter races, there are very few people who take off at a gallop at the start of a 100. There’s a long way to go, so there’s no reason to expend extra energy. We hit a small hill about 300 yards after the start. Most of us walked it.

The cadence of the race was unlike others that I’ve run. Specifically, the terrain would be flat or rolling, then we’d shoot up a vertical trail on the side of a mesa, run around the flat part of the mesa for a bunch of miles, descend the same steep hill, and be back on the flat or rolling areas. We’d repeat that pattern several times.

Flying Monkey – the first big climb

Within the first few miles of the race, the trail narrowed to single-track, and we started up the side of our first mesa on an ascent called Flying Monkey. We could see the trail of headlamps behind us making the climb in the blue pre-dawn light.

This climb was the first of four major ascents, and nobody was running. It wasn’t a challenging climb, because we were full of energy and it was early in the race.

Partway up the hill, everyone slowed to an even slower walk due to a traffic jam at a particularly tricky and rocky section of the trail. A rope had been installed here to help runners ascend a ten foot sheer rock face. I gripped my water bottle with my teeth and, feeling like a pirate, scrambled up the rock, pulling myself hand-over-hand up the rope and mentally appreciating the weight lifting I’d been doing prior to the race.

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Runners heading up the rope. Photo credit: Will Mroz

Once we reached the top of the mesa, we hit an aid station – our first – and started on a loop around the top. The sun had mostly risen, and the reds of the mesa’s sandstone were vibrant.

I was waiting for my body to ‘wake up’ properly – I still felt sluggish. Everything just seemed to be moving a little slower. I wasn’t too worried – there was a long ways to go – but I did notice it.

Until about five miles in, I’d been ahead of Will – a rare phenomenon! He stopped to say hi before passing me here.

We headed back down the same way we came and started towards our next climb.

Guacamole

At mile 15, we crossed a river and arrived at Dalton aid station for the first time. I saw Will coming out of it, just a few minutes ahead of me – that was the last time I’d see him on the course until about mile 80.

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Runners crossing the river before Dalton. Photo credit: Will Mroz

After leaving the aid station, I found my parents at an intersection not too far away, making a surprise appearance. Mom had co-opted a bunch of random spectators to cheer for me, which was energizing. When I talked to runners in the next few miles and introduced myself, they’d say “Oh, you’re the person they were cheering for!” I had to explain that I didn’t know most of those people – just my two parents.

Dad took some great pictures here. This is one of them:

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Cruising a downhill! Photo credit: Andrew Donchak

The trail widened, becoming a dirt service road that wound between horse paddocks on its way to the next mesa. This climb, retrospectively, also didn’t seem too tough, although we did see a few runners coming back down, which meant they were about ten miles ahead of us.

The circle around the top of Guacamole Mesa was beautiful, and one of my favorite parts of the course. The views were stunning, featuring sweeping vistas of the valley below and more mesas in the distance. The trail itself was rocky, and very close to the edge of the mesa, so our views of the mesas and valleys were unimpeded.

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This was our trail and view. Photo credit: Will Mroz

This was our first introduction to the “white dot” trail tracking system, which was polarizing amongst the athletes. We’d been following pink and silver reflective ribbons to this point, and those ribbons were much more sparsely spaced at the top of this mesa. Instead, runners had to intuit that we would follow spray-painted white dots on the rocks, which were not always easy to find, and did not always coincide with the trail that the pink ribbons suggested. Trail finding was a big challenge in this part of the course, and continued to be later on.

After this loop, we headed back down to Dalton aid station, hitting it for the second time. We’d done 30 miles and were about a third done with the race.

Goosebump

After leaving Dalton, we began a very long, straight run to our next mesa. I started running with a woman from Sacramento for a bit, and we shared stories about our training and the running trails there. After about a mile, we were in a wide-open field with huge mesas looming in the distance. They seemed very far away. It turned out that we were heading towards the massive one directly ahead of us. It seemed really, really far. Once I realized that we also had to climb it once we got there, I sunk into a tough period of demotivation, and let the woman from Sacramento run ahead.

I still wasn’t feeling physically great. The mesa was really far away. We were only a third of the way done with the race. And, to top it off, I was questioning my training; I wasn’t sure that it had prepared me for the race. Naturally, I spent the next several miles mulling over my (perceived) poor training choices in the past few months.

In previous hundred-mile races, I’d done a lot of my training runs as trail races, which were fun and had the added benefit of introducing technical terrain for speed. For this hundred, I’d followed a specific training plan, which didn’t involve racing, and I spent a lot of training time running far on flat concrete. Now that I was out on these rolling hills, approaching our third climb, I was frustrated at what I perceived to be a terrible, urban, training plan, since it didn’t give me nearly enough preparation for hills or trails. I was angry at myself because these concrete 30s now felt like “junk” miles, or useless training, which had done nothing other than waste time and make me tired.

(In reality, as part of my training, I’d done 30 miles of hilly altitude in Tahoe, 26 miles of trail hills in Big Sur, and a fast trail 50k, so the demotivation was partly in my head here. But no less real and difficult in the moment.)

Also, I usually added in some longer races – like 50 milers – but this training plan didn’t call for any of those. The longest I’d run in the last four months was 70 miles, and that was in early January – about three months ago, so in my mind, it didn’t count. My training runs since then had all been about 30 miles. Now that I was running miles 31, 32, and 33 of the race, I had run farther than I had in the last several months, which was tough to handle mentally so early in the race.

In short, I was grumpy.

When I arrived at the base of the toughest climb on the course, I realized I had to do something to fix my mental funk. Although I’d promised myself no music until mile 40, I knew I had to get up this hill somehow. I picked a song – one that had motivated me on my first 50-miler – and set it to play on repeat. And started charging up the hill.

The music helped a lot. It set me into a rhythm of climbing – one foot, another foot – and it felt like I was flying up the hill.

To top it off, there was a beautiful red and pink striated rock formation on our right. I got to see it from many different angles during this climb. It was in this moment of the race, more than any other, that I felt that I was appreciating the uniqueness of the environment as it should be appreciated.

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My favorite rock formation. Photo credit: Will Mroz

This section also reminded me of a particularly difficult stretch of the Inca Trail Marathon. During a tough ascent in that race, I used the “take twenty steps, appreciate the view for twenty seconds” approach. At Zion, give myself permission to stop for a few seconds when I needed to – between repeats of my song – to appreciate the view.

Once at the top of this climb, I was feeling energized again. Three of the four big hills were behind me, and the immediately upcoming sections were flat, similar in nature to what we’d experienced at Guacamole.

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Runners on top of the mesa. Photo credit Ryan Weidert

I switched audio gears to podcasts. I’d preloaded two in particular that I wanted to listen to, both from TED Radio Hour. One was about courage, and one was about endurance. Listening to both helped me realize the ridiculousness of my particular endeavor, and how it paled in comparison to the impact that others were having out in the world and the challenges they were facing. Perversely, this minimization of my own efforts was motivating. If other people could do incredible things like fly into warzones or save hundreds of community members from asbestos poisoning, surely I could trot around, selfishly fulfilling a personal goal that benefited nobody else, for another 60 miles.

Onward.

Grafton – I’ll stay until I’m fired

After hitting the Goosebump aid station a second time, we left for a lollipop loop – we’d come back to Goosebump again after another 20 miles.

This stretch, to Grafton aid station at mile 52, was tough, for several reasons.

First, we were back on flat service road, which is boring and uninspiring. Will likes these because he can run fast. I dislike them because they are not technically or visually inspiring.

Second, it had started to drizzle, so the mud was beginning to get tricky, just like our race director had predicted. I started playing through all of the worst-outcome weather scenarios in my head, which did not help.

Third, it was becoming increasingly clear that I was far behind the estimated pace I’d given my parents. I was worried that they would be worried, and also that they’d be waiting unnecessarily for me at aid stations. Prior to the race, my mom had reassured me that it wouldn’t be a problem if she had to wait for me at Virgin (mile 76), where she’d be pacing me, but I was still anxious, because she was going to have to wait a while. Also, I was looking forward to possibly seeing my dad at Grafton, at mile 52, but I would be at least two hours behind the time I’d given him.

As part of that, I also started thinking that I was going to get pulled off the course because I was going to miss a cutoff. In races like this, runners need to reach certain aid stations before certain times to ensure they’re on track to finish before the total time expires. In my mind, during this stretch, I somehow was convinced that I was really close to missing a cutoff and was going to be stopped from continuing.

I addressed the possibility of this negative outcome by remembering something that someone had said at a recent work training: “I’ll stay until I’m fired.” At the time, this philosophy resonated with me. I interpreted it to mean that my colleague was going to stay at the company as long as he could, putting in his best effort and learning everything he could, and not leave until he was kicked out. I resolved to do the same with this race. I’d stay until they kicked me off the course.

Fourth and lastly, it was getting dark. I’d been on the course for 13 or 14 hours, and the sun was very much setting. I wanted to get to Grafton before the sun set, and I also thought there was a chance my dad would be there, so I kicked my pace up for the last two miles of this stretch to get to the aid station.

On my first of two passes through Grafton, an aid station volunteer assured me that I was far ahead of the cutoff time, and was kind enough to let me text my parents and Will with a quick update. This helped alleviate a lot of my tension. Dad wasn’t there, which was initially disappointing. I found out later that the mud was so bad on the road to this aid station that he couldn’t get his car up, and that other cars had actually gotten stuck in the mud there, so I was glad he decided to skip that aid station.

There were a number of runners sitting in this aid station tent looking pretty demotivated. I checked in on my body, and despite the tough prior stretch, I realized it was mostly mental, and physically I felt pretty good. My spirits buoyed, I left the aid station and started the steep descend to Cemetery.

The next ten miles would take us down to Cemetery aid station, then right back up to Grafton, on our last of the four big climbs. On the way down, I fell into step behind a runner named Mindy, and her pacer, Rick, who were generous enough to let me tag along for a while. Both ultra veterans, they had fun stories to share, and it was great to have some companionship as it got dark and we descended together down a steep, rocky grade.

At the bottom of the hill, an aid station volunteer gave me a note – from Dad! I was excited to have a special delivery – a message of encouragement – and kept it in my backpack for the rest of the run.

The climb back up to Grafton was challenging, although I was energized again by this point. I put another song on loop and charged up the hill. I passed a bunch of runners, most of whom would pass me back later. I didn’t want to let this burst of energy go un-utilized.

Another runner tucked in behind me, and together we did some extraordinary trail finding on this section. This section was longer than anticipated and not well-marked. We didn’t speak much – a true runner camaraderie, I thought at the time. I found out later he as from Slovakia and didn’t speak English. Once we reached out second pass through Grafton, we gave each other a high-five and parted ways for the time being.

I didn’t spend long at Grafton – I was excited that the last big climb of the course was over. I headed out into the darkness – along the flat service road – again, back to Goosebump.

The darkest hour

It had started raining again. The next few miles were the hardest of the race for me. In these darkest hours, I learned a lot about myself.

I found myself becoming increasingly delirious, and recognized the symptoms of exhaustion that I’d experienced at Pine Creek 100 two years ago. On the trail, I saw a fluffy white and orange cat (a.k.a. a rock – I was hallucinating) and a purple bedazzled skull and crossbones (a.k.a. a bush). I also saw two people creepily standing off-trail (a.k.a. two trees).

All I wanted to do was lie down and take a nap, so I started investigating nearby trees that looked sheltered from the drizzle. I sat down under two or three of them for a minute or so at a time, wishing I didn’t have to and knowing it was a bad choice to do so. But I was really exhausted.

I literally had no idea how I was going to make it back to Goosebump aid station for our third pass through. While I wasn’t as exhausted as I had been at Pine Creek, I was still really, really tired, and the next several miles seemed insurmountable.

I’d read an article a while ago that extreme distance runners often experience brain shrinkage after lots of distance running. One possible explanation proposed for this is that the scenery is so dull and visually not stimulating that the brain has nothing to process. I found this to be particularly true on this flat, featureless stretch of service road, especially now that it was dark. All I could see was flat gravel, just in my circle of light. It was mind-numbing.

To solve this problem of severe lack of stimulation, I’d point my headlamp at the side of the road to look at bushes, and that helped a bit. I also switched from music back to podcasts, hypothesizing that the intellectual storylines would give my mind something to focus on and rally around. This helped a bit as well.

Ultimately, I was still weaving on the road and had a ways to go.

I was saved by Mindy and Rick, my buddies from the Cemetery descent. They caught up to me (I’d passed them on my charging climb) and let me jump in with them. I have no idea how I would have gotten through this stretch otherwise.

The three of us made it to Goosebump – our third pass through. Mindy loaned me a long-sleeved thermal – again, saving the day, as I was freezing (I later repaid the favor in ibuprofen and a flashlight. Runners have a weird exchange rates).

Virgin

The next eight miles would feature a steep descent in the dark and in the rain. This was the reverse of the climb we’d done around mile 35, with the ropes and the pretty white and pink rock feature. Except now it was dark, and we were going downhill, and it was wet.

One of the podcasts I’d listened to earlier that day provided a statistic that, on Mount Everest, eight times more climbers die on the descent than on the ascent. With that in mind, we took our time down this very steep hill, and I made sure to stay with Mindy and Rick.

Two notable wildlife encounters occurred during this section. The first was a very large black cow standing just off the trail. We didn’t notice it until it was directly to our left. Mindy saw it first, and thought she was hallucinating until Rick and I confirmed that it was there.

The second wildlife encounter was a huge black snake, which turned out to be a 20-foot long hose and not a real snake.

Physically, I was still feeling fine. I had some sand in my shoes and one of my toes hurt, but otherwise, everything was still moving and I was in good shape.

Psychologically, I was anchoring my entire mental state on the fact that my mom would be at the next aid station, which was just a few miles away. She’d stick with me for about 18 miles, the sun would come up, and I’d be on my way to the finish line after that. If I could just get to Virgin, mentally, I’d be as good as done, even though I would have nearly a marathon left to run at that point. If I could get there, I knew I would finish.

This stretch of trail was demotivating for many. It was the longest stretch without aid, at eight miles. Rick’s GPS ended up saying it was at least a mile longer than the eight miles advertised. Also, it was dark and the path was winding, so there was no way of knowing how far away from the aid station we really were. Later, Will also told me he really struggled with this stretch, and considered dropping out because of it (he didn’t).

During this part, Mindy, Rick, and I lay down at one point and looked at the stars, trying to regather some energy and enthusiasm. At one point, later on Mindy was angling for another mini nap; I remembered that when I was tired, I liked to talk, so I started asking her questions to get her to talk. That seemed to get us both over the hump, and the three of us made it to the last aid station at Virgin.

End of the line

When I arrived, I asked the volunteer checking bibs if he’d seen my mom. This sounds like a dumb question, and he clearly thought so, because he responded “No, I haven’t seen your mom,” somewhat bemused. I thought maybe my mom had been talking to people at the aid station and they’d know there was a mother-daughter pacer-racer pair, and where to direct me to find her.

Since my first attempt clearly didn’t work, I instead just shouted “Mom?” into the aid station. Hilariously, this worked, as she materialized from around the fire pit. I was really excited to see her and have a buddy for the next 18 miles.

I emptied out my shoes of sand again, got some food, and mom and I took off.

We’d pass Virgin four times, completing three loops in the area, before heading to the finish line. She’d stay with me for those three loops, then let me finish the last six alone and meet me at the finish.

The second loop ended where the first loop began, so we ran into Will finishing his second loop as we set out on our first loop. He didn’t recognize us at first, but after he realized who we were, we said hi quickly then continued on our way.

Mom and I were moving quickly at the beginning, and I passed a few people. I led to set the pace and find the trail. Finding the trail was really challenging, still, and that unfortunately distracted me from our conversation (or I was exhausted an unable to coherently have a conversation. Both are possible.) In my mind, because I had done so much trail finding already, I was well-equipped to recognize the ribbons. In reality, mom may have been better at finding the trail, because she was fresh, she still let me lead.

The end of the loop retraced the same last 1.5 miles from that eight mile stretch, which was disheartening. I was also hungry, and the sun was coming up, so I slowed down a bit here. I knew once I got food, I’d be ready for the second loop.

As we approached Virgin for the second time, I briefly noticed that there seemed to be far fewer people there than on our first pass. I didn’t think too hard about it, because it could have just been my perception, and it didn’t really affect my race plan.

When we checked in, I was ready to grab food and head out again quickly, but we were stopped before we got into the aid station. At first I thought I’d missed a cutoff, but I knew I was in very good shape in that regard.

What we found: they’d closed the last two loops of the course due to weather and mud. All runners were to proceed straight to the finish line. We wouldn’t be running 100 miles that day.

I was stunned for a moment, then I was frustrated.

I *knew* at this point that I was going to finish the race. It was in the bag (proverbially – it would still be hard). I was being robbed of a 100-mile finish, instead running something like 88 or 90 miles. Which was not the goal.

Also, I’d only gotten a measly 4.7 miles with my mom. I was really looking forward to more than that.

At the aid station, Mindy and Rick were just about to leave to head to the finish. With no other choice than to run to the finish line, I followed them out, saying goodbye to my mom.

The last six miles (which, again, ended up being closer to eight) were just terrible. The trail was rolling, muddy, and gross, which is a demoralizing way to finish a race.

While we understood the rationale for the shortened course, we complained that the race committee hadn’t found a workaround to let us get our miles in. For example, they could have measured out a few out-and-back miles on a less-muddy road for us to finish on.

To make matters worse, a few other races were starting that morning, and those runners were about two miles into their runs. They looked fresh, fast, and excited. We looked like wet dogs. They kept telling us how amazing and incredible our accomplishment was. We kept staring ahead like zombies. They galloped up the rolling hills. We slide down them, sometimes falling in the mud.

Mostly, I felt like a failure for not finishing my hundred. 90 miles was not 100. All of their congratulations – of which there were many – seemed like salt in the wound.

Even though we wouldn’t get all the miles in, officially, we’d still receive all the trappings of finishing a race. We’d get the buckle, we’d avoid a DNF, and the race was still a qualifier race for other, harder races, even though it ended up being shorter than advertised. Still, that didn’t make any of it better.

We got to the finish line, and I was grumpy and mean to my parents, which I regretted. They gave us hugs and began their drive back to Orange County.

A few minutes later, after I was in the car, I called them and apologized and said thanks. It really was cool that they came out to support Will and I, and I wanted to make sure they knew that.

Zion National Park

Will didn’t get to finish all 100 miles either – he was cut off before the third loop, so just a few moments after we saw each other. He’d had a challenging race and was glad that it was cut short. A lot of other runners felt the same way.

After he and I took a nap and got food, I was still feeling frustrated about the whole situation. Including getting lost and some longer-than-advertised stretches, I’d run about 90 miles. I was ten miles short of a full century. And it seemed dumb to just let it go. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life saying “Yeah, I *almost* ran 100 miles.”

So after we got back to the hotel, I laced up my shoes, put on my still-dirty race clothes, attached my bib to my Camelbak, and hit the road for ten more miles.

In high school, each student got to customize a small section of our senior yearbook. Most of my peers mushed in collages of pictures, of memories from school and times they wanted to remember.

I left my section Jobsian-white, and included only this quote: “You cannot control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.”

I could not control the course or the weather at this race, and I couldn’t control the final judgement to shorten the course. But I was still going to get this run done. They may have pulled me off the course, but I wasn’t finished yet.

Our hotel was close to Zion National Park, so I thought it was only appropriate to finish the run by going through the park.

The last ten miles of my personal 100-mile run were peaceful and calm. I ran as much as I could and walked the rest. I saw a beautiful rainbow, a turkey with its feathers all out, and a pair of deer. And it rained, and it grew dark, and I was happy, because I finished 100 miles.

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Rainbow on my last ten miles.

Epilogue

Immediately after we finished the official race, Will was furious and forcefully declared that he never wanted to run a 100 mile race again. I agreed immediately, relieved. Training for something like this takes over your life. Mentally, it’s anxiety-inducing for weeks leading up to it. The race itself is really bad for your body and it can take weeks to recover. Parts of the race are miserable and challenging. Afterwards, you don’t feel energized – you feel emaciated and exhausted. I’ve never felt proud or accomplished immediately after finishing a 100-mile race. Just glad that it was over.

A few days later, we’re feeling less forceful about our decision. Maybe we’ll run another. But this was a really hard race, and we’re not going to run headlong into another one without some serious consideration.

Physically, though, I feel phenomenal. I don’t have any muscle or joint pains other than one toe hurting. I attribute this to the variety of terrain –Rocky and Pine Creek were fairly flat, and it took quite a while to recover from those because the same muscles were used. But I feel great after this race, probably because of the climbing we did.

Overall, I’m really glad I ran this race. A long race like this is mostly about troubleshooting, and I felt like I did that well. I was able to manage myself mentally, and I gave myself permission to go slow and walk without beating myself up about it. I encountered difficult situations and knew how to handle them.

And the course was just amazing. Being out in nature like that is a very rare opportunity.

To summarize:

  • It’s okay to walk.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Stay until you’re fired.
  • You cannot control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.

Until next time.

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Will and I at the finish line (after a shower and a nap)

Getting past the burnout – 2nd place at Redtail Ridge

This is a race report about the Redtail Ridge 50k at Lake Chabot, put on by the illustrious Inside Trail Running.

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On Saturday, at 8:05 a.m., I was sitting in a car in the parking lot of a park. My race started at 8:30. I hadn’t put on my shoes, and I hadn’t picked up my bib. I was not motivated or excited to run this race. I was feeling burnt out.

Last week, I posted a depressing call for help on a running message board. Here it is:

Hi runners,

I’m training for my 3rd 100-miler. Race is in early April. I’m running 28-30-milers almost every Saturday, plus whatever the training plan says for the other days. Between work and training for this race, I feel really burnt out – if I’m not working, I’m running, and there’s no time for anything else. I’m starting to dread my workouts [even non long-run days], and that hasn’t really happened before.

I haven’t felt this way when training for my past races, which I did primarily by running some 50s and 50ks [fun!] and then just running the race. This time around, training seems like an inescapable slog. I’m wondering if a) I’ve hit my limit of interest for the sport b) I’ve been overtraining or c) training is hard and I wasn’t doing it right before.

Help me out, guys – another four weekends of 30-mile Saturdays just seems daunting, miserable, and not worth it, but not doing the training seems like a bad option too.

Suffice to say, the last few weeks have been rough. I was tired, overwhelmed, and not excited to run. And in the car on Saturday morning, I wasn’t excited at the prospect of another run. It just seemed like so much work.

I thought about my options. I could either get out of the car and run the race. Or I could let Will run and go do literally anything else for five hours. Anything. I could go read a book or visit with friends or just wander around and explore the area. I was really grasping at any reason to not run this race.

But, ultimately, I was basically at the start line already, and I’d already paid. Two really uninspired reasons to run. So I got out of the car, picked up my bib, and started the race.

I’d run a couple of races in this park before, so the trails were familiar. The first few miles were along a lake – flat and forested, before we started a steep climb to the first aid station.

I wasn’t pushing it too hard at this point in the race. I’d gotten food poisoning on Thursday, so wasn’t sure how much energy I had in the tank. This race was also supposed to be a training run, so it was more about the miles and less about the speed. As such, I hadn’t tapered at all, and had run back-to-back ten-milers on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was moving slow, and I was okay with that, because I wasn’t motivated to run anyway.

That said, I was watching the color of the bibs around me. The 30k race had started at the same time as we had. They had green bibs instead of our yellow ones. Even though I wasn’t going for speed, I definitely looked at a racer’s bib color any time one passed me, which happened frequently, and hoped their bib was green. Runners going shorter distances should be running faster, so it doesn’t feel completely devastating when someone running a shorter distance scoots ahead. For a while, I didn’t see many yellow bibs at all, which was motivating.

After the second aid station, we ran along a rolling, wide dirt road in verdant green pastures. The trail was sloppy with mud from recent rain, made worse by the … generous … presents that grazing cows had left us along the way.

I took a quick pit-stop in the bushes and retied my shoes before the trail plunged back into the forest.

I hadn’t brought my watch on this race. Sometimes, looking at your distance during a race can be more depressing than helpful. At the beginning of the race, I felt like I had so much going against me mentally already. It didn’t seem worth it to add to the misery by knowing how many millions of miles I had left to go.

So, I’m guessing when I say it was somewhere around mile 10 when I picked up the pace a bit, for no reason other than it seemed like a good idea. At some point, I caught up to another runner, and fully intended to pass her, but she opened a conversation as we rounded a corner and stuck with me.

I’m really glad she did. We spent the next six or eight miles together. I learned about her running past [she used to live in Hopkinton, where the Boston Marathon starts!] and we chatted away a few hours of running.

I felt like I could have gone a little faster at this point, but I was more excited to have company and someone to talk to. Finding kindred spirits is one of my favorite parts of long races.

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My new friend and motivation for the middle stretch of the race

When we reached a downhill stretch, she and I parted ways; I’m a strong downhill runner and was feeling good.

The 50k course included all of the 30k course; we headed back to the start line with the 30k runners, then turned around and went out for another 12 miles after that.  As I headed back to the start line, I was feeling pretty good, energized by running with my new friend and excited by the prospect of running another 12 miles on the course. I would see her one more time on the course as I headed back out and she reached her finish line.

I like courses that have little stretches of out-and-back. Some runners don’t, because it can be demotivating to run in the opposite direction of where you’re ultimately headed, especially when part of that is at the start/finish line. However, I think  it’s fun to see the other runners on the course who are ahead or behind. It’s also an easy way to figure out how well you’re doing relative to other runners, because you can count who’s ahead of you. I hadn’t seen that many women with yellow bibs, and none that had passed me.

With just a few miles to the turn-around at the start, I started looking out for runners coming the other way. I saw one – she was moving pretty fast, and she was about 2-2.5 miles ahead of me. I saw one more, but she had made a wrong turn and wasn’t running the 50k anymore. And then … I reached the turnaround.  There weren’t any other women ahead of me.

I was in 2nd place.

And, even better, I was feeling good, both physically and mentally.

Neat. I turned around and took off, trying to widen the gap between myself and whoever was behind me. I quickly saw two women neck-in-neck, both 50k runners, about a mile behind me. So that meant I had to not lose a minute per mile to them, approximately, over the next 12 miles. It was 2nd place or 4th place.

I was glad I had left some gas in the tank, because the next few miles were back up that first hill again. I paced myself, running the hill where I could and taking walk breaks on the steep parts where I needed to, and made it to the first aid station in good shape.

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Cruising up a hill

There were three aid stations in this stretch, and I knew that if I made it to the 2nd one without getting passed, I could defend my position and sprint the last six miles to the finish. So the next few miles were somewhat anxiety-filled. Every walk-break, I was second-guessing whether or not I was wasting time by walking. This strategizing was kind of fun, too – not something I normally did in races, because normally I don’t compete for any meaningful prizes in races.

I made it to the 2nd aid station – another out-and-back – and hadn’t been passed yet. As I left the aid station, I saw one of the other women behind me. She was still about ten minutes back. I was pretty confident that she wouldn’t catch me, but I didn’t want to take any risks.

The last six miles were great. My legs had started to fatigue a little bit, but I knew I could go this last stretch without hitting the wall. These were the miles where I could feel my long runs paying off. I felt strong and prepared for the distance.

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Flying

After the last aid station, it was all downhill, and I flew all the way down to the lake. The last mile or so was little rolling hills along the lake, and I really pushed hard. At this point, it wasn’t because I was worried about getting passed, but because I was feeling good and I wanted to leave it all on the course. Will came back and ran with me for the last couple of minutes too, which was motivating and fun.

I crossed the finish line at 5:41, which was my 3rd fasted trail 50k time. And – I came in 2nd!

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Will pacing me to the finish

 

I had a really great time out on the course. I had been feeling really burnt out on running. A fun race – which turned into a competitive race – ended up being just the thing to get me back on track. Training for a 100-mile race is hard work, and it was nice to take a mental break and see some of that training pay dividends.

Sometimes we forget why we do the things we do, and it’s hard to get over the hump. This race helped to remind me about the reasons I run.

Running is a very multifaceted activity, and it draws people in for a variety of reasons. Some people love structured training, getting lost in the wilderness, racing competitively, or breaking PRs. As for me, I’ve always loved showing up to a race with no agenda, knowing that the time doesn’t matter, and also knowing that all I have to do is have a good time in nature. I don’t have to worry about the distance or about getting lost or about making sure I get home in time for something. All of that is taken care of, and all I have to do is relax into the trail, maybe make some friends, and appreciate being outdoors in a body I’ve worked hard to make strong.

 

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Swag. Bottom middle is the 1st-place age group medal, which is what they were giving out instead of 1st-2nd-3rd prizes. Also, what a great bib number.

 

Quick reminder: I’m still fundraising for the SF double marathon. Check it out: https://www.crowdrise.com/sanfranciscodoublema/fundraiser/brbrunning 

San Francisco Double Marathon – Fundraiser for Family Assistance Ministries

tl;dr: Help me raise money for a really important organization! Click here to donate: https://www.crowdrise.com/sanfranciscodoublema/fundraiser/brbrunning

 


 

Hi all,

This year, I’m running the San Francisco Marathon – twice, back-to-back! Only 100 runners each year do this, and we’ll be doing it as a fundraiser for a charity of our choice.

I’m fundraising for FAM – Family Assistance Ministries – which is a 501(c)3 organization that my father and grandfather are both involved with. Its mission is to assist those in need in southern Orange County (my hometown) with resources for food, shelter, and personalized supportive counsel and aid, helping clients bridge the gap from dependency to self-sufficiency.

I selected this organization for a couple of reasons, which might help you as you think about donating:

  • It’s close to home – all of these people live in or near my hometown
  • My family has been actively involved in helping out this organization for several years
  • This is a smaller organization, so the impact of our donations is much bigger than a similar donation to a larger organization

As you know, I don’t do a lot of fundraising around my running – this is only the second time, and I’ve done 50+ races. However, this is a pretty important cause to me and my family.

Thanks for reading, and let me know if you have questions. =)

More information:

In case you forgot since the top of the post, the link to donate is here: https://www.crowdrise.com/sanfranciscodoublema/fundraiser/brbrunning