Running into the New Year

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Running around in circles near the Golden Gate Bridge

This New Years Eve, I ran a 24 hour race, called the New Year’s One Day. This was the second time I attempted this race – the first time was last year, where I encountered failure head on.

This year wasn’t as disastrous – I ran 70 miles in 16 hours before stopping, which was good enough for 3rd place. Will also did the last 15 or so with me, and we ran into the new year together – the fireworks were visible from the course, which was really neat!

This wasn’t quite the result I was hoping for – I was really hoping to get 100 miles in under 24, but it wasn’t in the cards this night. I was winning for the first 12-13 hours of the race (can you believe it?! I couldn’t). Around that time, I hit the wall pretty hard, probably because I wasn’t eating enough, and it was getting dark – I am a notoriously terrible nighttime runner. The other part that probably contributed to difficulties was the fact that half of the loop was on concrete – I didn’t realize how much that would tear up my feet, but now, over two weeks later, I still have a black toenail or two.

When I stopped, I was in 2nd, and the girl ahead of me had four laps (about four miles) on me. She ended up getting just over 100 miles, so unless I had a major 2nd wind, I probably wouldn’t have gotten there.

Just like last year, it was fun to meet all the runners. Lots of really talented people on the course, including some I’d met last year, back for a second punishment of running. Seeing an aid station every mile is always motivating, and it’s really cool to be able to run with people who are a few miles ahead of or behind you – something that never happens in point-to-point races.

All in, I’m glad I ran it, and I’m pretty proud of my result. 70 miles is no joke – it was more miles than last year! And this race was a really fun way to start the new year.

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North Face 50m, round II

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More speed, less grace than four years ago. I’ll take that trade off. Still running happy.

On Saturday, I broke a personal rule: I ran the same race a second time. The last time I ran it, I had gotten stitches out of my leg the day before. It was a brutal, 12-hour slog, beginning and ending in the dark. This time, I was hoping for a slightly better performance.

This was the North Face 50 mile championship race, in the Marin Headlands of San Francisco. Long story short, I’m proud of the race I ran on Saturday. I finished in 10:40, which is much faster than my time in 2011. I felt very strong, and my spirits were high the entire time. Overall, a good day.

Here are some pictures.

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Crossing the start line at 5:03 a.m. They started us in waves, with each one going off a minute after the previous one. I was technically in wave 4, but they didn’t seem to be aggressively checking our bibs, so I started with 3.

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Running in the dark, before the sun came up. The trail here was pretty easy to navigate, in that it was wider fire roads and not extremely steep. That said, the rains earlier in the week had shaken a lot of debris off of the trees, so there were leaves, branches, and twigs dotting some of the downhill portions. My headlamp’s light was insufficiently bright for the task, so I trusted my night vision and the much more useful headlamps of my fellow runners.

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Sunrise photo, courtesy of Will. The pre-dawn light was welcome – no more headlamp! And the sunrise was gorgeous.

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Heading downhill early in the race. Not actually sure where on the trail this was.

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Charging up some single track.

The course featured lots of hills, and many of this hills were on single track. This meant that you got into place between a couple of runners and were pretty much stuck there until the trail got wider again. This was actually a blessing in disguise; the single-file nature of these hills meant I had to keep pace with the runners around me. No slacking off! This kept me moving at a very brisk pace. Early in the race, I thought I’d regret the speed up these hills, but it turned out I was up for the task.

This dynamic also meant more of an opportunity to get to know other runners, and there were some very cool people out there! They kept me motivated, even as we leapfrogged ahead of each other on different parts of the course.

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Will joining me at the finish line. He came in at 9:18 – a 50-mile PR for him!

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Me at the finish. There was actually a heel click here, but the photographer missed it!

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More finish line joy.

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Will got me a present!
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And here are some of my favorite people on the day after the race. Several Antarctica marathon buddies came out to CA to participate in the weekend running fun as well. It was fantastic to be able to hang out with them, especially during this post-race karaoke session.

Moosalamoo 36-miler: Redefining “runnable” since 2012

This weekend, I visited my friend Patti, in Vermont, who I met on the trip to Antarctica in March. I came up to visit her, provide moral support for her first ultramarathon, and run this race as well. She’s a super enthusiastic, smart, strong woman, so it was a no-brainer to come up here and visit her – especially on such a momentous occasion as her first ultra.

When running a race in an unfamiliar location, there are a couple of key indicators to look for to help judge how difficult the course is. In the weeks leading up to the race, here are the things I looked at:

  • Fastest times. Faster times mean easier courses, and slower times mean harder courses – or not a lot of fast runners have run the race. Before yesterday, the fastest female finish time on this course was 6:52, which is pretty slow for a 36-mile race. So, either the course is ridiculously challenging, or the race is local enough that it doesn’t attract a lot of fast runners.
  • Elevation change. Lots of hills mean harder courses. I looked up the elevation profile for the course, and a race report from 2012 shared the below chart. It may look hilly, but it really isn’t that much relative to some of the more extreme ultras – the highest climb is just about 1,000 feet. I’d estimate that the total elevation change is somewhere in the 3,000-4,000 foot range, and 50k race on the West Coast regularly clock in around 5,000 – with five fewer miles. The elevation profile didn’t seem to justify the slow course record.

  • Weather. Hot, humid climates lead to slower times. Vermont is pretty wet, but it’s not as bad, as, say, Washington D.C. I didn’t think that weather would be the cause of the slower course records.

I assumed that the slow course record was just because it was a smaller race. Only 60 runners would compete in this year’s event, so probably it was just not a race that attracted lots of out-of-town runners looking to set personal records. Boy, was I wrong.

When I finished the race, I texted Will: “The course was easily the most frustrating, technically challenging, confusingly marked” that I’ve ever run.

5:45am selfie, just before our carpool to the start

Pre-race. Patti had been training for this race for a while, and she was very excited about it. Her house was full of race-oriented, motivational reminders. She’d written inspirational quotes on her bathroom mirror. A chalkboard in her kitchen proclaimed “Discipline. Consistency. Ultramarathon!” Her enthusiasm was contagious. The morning of the race, we left her house in high spirits to carpool with a friend of hers to the course.

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Patti’s inspirational chalkboard

We parked in a grassy field. Several runners had camped there the night before. After our race director, John, gave us some instructions, we listened to the national anthem. We faced a flagpole outside of a rustic inn. Our eclectic collection of athletes had attracted the attention of several guests, who stood on the front stoop of the inn, right behind the flagpole, giving us strange looks throughout our salute of the flag.

Pre-race briefing. I missed most of it due to liberal application of bug spray.

Immediately after the anthem ended, John said “Okay, start running!” With little further ceremony, the race began.

Climbing Moosalamoo. The first few miles were glorious. Blasting down a wide, pebbly road felt amazing. I’d tapered perfectly, my legs felt fresh, and the weather was great. I was leading the pack for a while, even keeping up with many of the 14-mile runners.

This aggressive pace (7:45) was part of a critical early race strategy. The race is named after Mount Moosalamoo, and after these wide roads, we’d be climbing to its summit. Patti’s friend, Erika, who we had carpooled with, had run the course before, and she let us in on a secret: the Moosalamoo climb was very narrow single-track. If you got stuck behind someone, you were there for a while – it wasn’t easy to pass.

The uphill grade wasn’t too bad, and the hill itself wasn’t very long. The main problem was the terrain – lots of rocks and roots. This was more than a sign of things to come; the course was extremely technically challenging, and this early section was no exception. I stumbled several times on this section, and on one rather nasty fall, I split open the palm of my left hand on a rock, knocked my knee, and bumped my hip pretty hard. Nothing show-stopping, although I wasted too much time at aid stations unsuccessfully trying to bandage my hand up. I ended up leaving it open and letting dirt act as a partial coagulant. Maybe not the best solution, but I figured the dirt was probably pretty clean and it was better than messing around with trying to cover it up artificially. I also recognize that this is ludicrous, ultrarunner-type justification for handling an injury and is zero percent of the time a best practice.

Out-and-back. After the first aid station, we had a small out-and-back – just under three miles. Out-and-back stretches are useful because you can see who’s ahead of you. It seemed like there were five or six women ahead of me, and they were anywhere from five to fifteen minutes ahead, so at that point, I was fairly sure I didn’t have a chance of catching them.

This section also included our first introduction to the mud. These were wide pools of quicksand-like slop. There was no way around them, and you were going to get dirty.

I ran through one particularly nasty swamp and felt a sucking at my right foot. Before I knew it, my foot had pulled free from the mud – without my shoe! I looked back into the mud, and there was no sign that a shoe was in there somewhere. It was just a vast puddle of uneven, wet dirt.

This had never happened to me before – the loss of a shoe in the mud – and it felt like a moment from a cartoon. I did the surprised-blink thing that cartoon animals do, then quickly evaluated my options. The only choice was to go in after it.

I stepped back to where I thought the shoe was and thrust my hand into the mud, up almost to my elbow. The shoe wasn’t immediately easy to find, so I dug around in there for a minute before catching a shoelace with my fingers. I tried unsuccessfully to yank it out, then moved my hand around to various parts of the shoe to try for a better angle. After a minute, it emerged with a sucking sound.

I scraped the goo out of the inside of the shoe, re-laced it, and kept going. That diversion probably cost me three of four minutes. “At least that was the last of the mud,” I thought to myself. I was so extraordinarily wrong.

This is definitely not a trail. The next few miles were uneventful, until we passed the half-way aid station. After running across a scenic dam, we descended onto a wide, pebbly trail, which abruptly came to a terminus at a mechanical box.

I looked around, confused – there was no obvious path to take from here, but there were definitely course markings on this mechanical box. I took a few steps towards the curtain of forest ahead of us, but that wasn’t a path.

To my right, seven-foot-tall swamp grass waved gently in the air. It would have been scenic – an unbroken, undulating plain of nature, except that hanging just over it, fluttering in the wind, was an orange course ribbon.

The only thing to do was head towards it.

The next mile or so was battling through this swamp grass on a slanted bank. On the high side was impenetrable forest, and on the low side was an even steeper bank with a river at the bottom. Seriously, though, there was no path here. We were legitimately bushwhacking through the underbrush, creating our own trail. There was no running through it.

At one point, I was so frustrated, and so sure this couldn’t be the right way, that I asked the woman behind me, “Have you run this race before?” She must have sensed my frustration, because she replied in kind, “No, and I don’t think I want to again.”

The loop. The next aid station was one we would see twice: once at mile 22, and once again at mile 31. Leaving the aid station, we made our way along a beautiful, soft, clear trail by a lake. My earlier anger evaporated, because this was gorgeous, and we could run it.

This period of bliss ended all too quickly; the trail turned right up Chandler Ridge. I wasn’t worried about it, because the elevation profile wasn’t offputting. However, these next four miles were really rough; the trail wasn’t even a little bit runnable.

From the facebook group: the race director claims the course is runnable. A race veteran replies with a tongue-in-cheek analysis. This maybe should have been a warning sign.

Roots crisscrossed the path like snakes. Every time I’d break into a trot, I’d inevitably trip after about three steps, no matter if we were going uphill or downhill. This was a really rough, disheartening section. I felt strong, but there was no way to break out and stretch my legs.

Direct excerpt from the course guide. There’s just so much danger going on here.

After we left the Chandler Ridge trail, there was an unmanned aid station, then a couple of miles of flag, clear single-track. I was still frustrated, but decided I was going to run the next few miles, no matter what. After a few minutes, I found that the trail was really good, and I still had a ton of energy, so I picked up the pace pretty substantially here.

I came into the 31-mile aid station excited to keep moving. I’d been on the course for about 7 hours. With five miles to go, I felt pretty confident that I could finish in under 8 hours if the trail was good.

Patti was at the same aid station, about to take off on the loop. I gave her a hug and headed out, feeling strong.

The last five miles. The first mile or so was on wide, dirt service road. It was amazing. I felt so strong here, flying up hills and letting my legs stretch out. It this was what the trail was like, it would be easy to finish in 8 hours.

My hopes were quickly dashed when the dreaded orange course markers appeared. Just before a hill, the course abruptly turned off of the delicious single-track service road and plunged back into the dense, wet forest, divided by a tiny little winding trail. So much for 8 hours.

In defense against mosquitoes, I had marinated my clothes in Deet the night before the race. I’d also lathered on more Deet – sunscreen-style, even though it was spray-on – just before the race started. However, by this point in the day, it had all sweated off. I was furious at the bugs as they tried to snack on me, but there was nothing to do but run faster.

Immediately on entering the forest again, we encountered more mud puddles. So many. As far as the eye could see, mud everywhere. There was no way to get through it quickly. Honestly, I also didn’t want to lose a shoe again, and picked my way around the mud puddles as best I could.

I was so disheartened at this point. I felt like I had so much gas left in my proverbial energy tank, but this ridiculous course had stymied my efforts over and over. There was no way to use it up. The course was just too technical.

A quarter of a mile before the last aid station, a large tree hung at about forehead height over the path. Some red plastic picnic plates were hanging on the tree – this was how John gave us directions. One of them said “It’s only ankle deep!”

What’s only ankle deep? Then I saw it.

More swamp grass. Towering above my head. And the grass was standing in ankle-deep water.

I didn’t even think twice at this point – the finish line was just a few miles away, and there was nothing that was going to get in my way. I plunged into it, made it to the other side, and blasted up the hill to the last aid station.

“Wow, women are doing good today,” the volunteer said, checking me off the list. “You need anything?”

“Send me home!”  I replied. “Which way?”

He pointed down a very wide, inviting service road. I grinned. Fast trail.

“Also,” he added, as I took off, “There’s definitely not another woman a minute ahead of you.”

Game on.

With just a few miles to go and forgiving trail, I pushed hard. I was running 9-10 minute miles at this point, which is really excellent this late in the game. I felt really strong.

I came around a corner, and saw my pursuit – a girl named Heather, who I’d chatted with earlier. She also knew Patti, and Heather had run the course several times before. I was tracking her down.

With 1.7 miles to the finish, I encountered another red plate with confusing directional instructions. I yelled into the brush to figure out where Heather was, then saw her behind me and to my right, up a hill. Tons of people got lost at this intersection. I was so glad to be trailing someone who lived in the area and knew the course well.

I caught up to her with about a mile and a half to go, and we picked up the pace. At one point, she said “This is all I’ve got – you go ahead if you want to!” I told her no way – we were going to blast into the finish together. She stuck with me.

We were hauling. It wasn’t competitive – we were supporting each other, urging each other to finish the race strong.

Finally – finally! We burst out of the forest and into a clearing. We could see the finish line, and raced down the hill and into the finishing chute together.

Hardware

Afterwards. Heather and I high-fived, and I found Erika, who had placed 3rd in the 14-mile race. Erika and I came in 4th and 5th respectively for women, and I came in first in my age group, with 8:14. Not bad.

I took a quick shower behind the building and reapplied more bug spray.

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The view from the start/finish. Also the view from the open-air showers. Not bad, Vermont.

Erika and I camped out for Patti, who had gotten lost due to poor course marking. After sending us a message effectively via carrier pigeon – there was no reception – she finished strong, having conquered an extremely, outrageously difficult course. I couldn’t be more impressed with her.

Antarctica was a strangely life-changing experience. I never would have come up to gorgeous Vermont, to take on this extremely difficult race, if it weren’t for meeting Patti on that trip. What a fun adventure, and one that is still paying dividends.

Patti, finishing her first ultra with a smile.

It was such a fun opportunity to get to support Patti during her first ultra, both in the days leading up to it and in the debrief afterwards. It made me reflect on my first ultra – also a 36-mile race, and extremely disheartening, as I was extremely under-trained and finished second-to-last. I’ve come a long way since then; as a veteran, I wanted to share some of the things I learned with Patti and make sure she didn’t think this ludicrous race was representative of all ultras.

This race has also given me a fire to push myself harder. This was a very challenging, borderline frustrating race, mainly due to how technical the course was. Clearly, the difficult trail conditions explain why the course record was so slow (although, both male and female runners broke the course record this year – a really stacked field!).

I have never felt so fresh at the end of a race before, and it just spoke to how much of the course was about technical ability rather than speed and strength. I’m a decent technical runner, having started on trails in Santa Cruz, but these trails definitely weren’t something I trained for. At the end, I felt like I had more energy in the tank, but looking back I don’t know where I would have used it. This was definitely not a “runnable” course.

After this race, I’m hungry for another challenge. I feel strong, and I want to see how fast I can go. Bring it on.

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At the start/finish, just after finishing. Check out that flat service road!

Morning-after breakfast with Patti. Matching penguin scarves, in honor of Antarctica!

Nanny Goat Ultra: 50 miles in 9:36

This Saturday was the Nanny Goat race – it’s a local ultra in Southern California, and competitors can run 12 hours, 24 hours, or 100 miles. I registered for the 12 hour race with no real goal in mind, and ran 50 miles in 9:36 – a great pace for me – before calling it a day.

The event was my kind of race, catering to the fringy, fun-loving, and a slightly unhinged ultrarunner demographic. This made for a great atmosphere, so different than what you find at aggressive road races. Characteristic of veteran ultrarunners, everyone at this event was extremely friendly and excited to chat. There were also runners who dressed up in costumes – @runjesterrun was there in full jester regalia, which was really fun to see! Other runners wore pink tutus or grass skirts.

In true strange-ultrarunner fashion, we started the race in a goat pen. To kick it off, they opened the gate and we all stampeded out and on to the course.

Before the race – this is the goat pen where we started

Another view of the goat pen, featuring our starting gate on the left, next to a motivational banner.

The course itself was a 1-mile loop.

Yay snark! Also, check out the guy in the pink tutu on the left – he was [mostly] walking, and his goal was a beer every three laps.

We ran through a horse stable & barn area, and some runners in the 24-hour event set up their mini-camps in the stables.

Part of the course – running through the horse stables

A 24-hour runner’s camp, gear, and supplies for the night

We got to see ponies at every mile, and ran through a tunnel of orange trees.

Coming to say hi

Do you have food?!

Other runners trotting through the orange-grove tunnel

We also met the cone of death every mile at the turn-around. Because this turnaround was so tight – myself included – took to pivoting the other direction around the turn – we’d do a little spin to stretch out the muscles on the other side of our bodies. This worked really well at the beginning of the race, and progressively less well as our muscles got more and more tired.

Cone of death

[By now, you’ve seen basically the entire course, although somewhat in reverse order.]

I was crashing pretty hard around mile 31 – pretty tired, a little dizzy, and bad body-temperature control. I pinged Will, who explained that I was probably tired because I had just run 31 miles. This made sense, and I turned on some pump up music to power through.

To participate in the costumery, I found a cat-ear headband to wear, which made me easily identifiable and also made me some friends. This included one pacer who, after he made dog-barking noises, I coerced into running my last three laps with me.

Cat eats! Surprisingly not at all irritating to wear for 10 hours.

My surprised but surprisingly enthusiastic pacer, in the yellow shirt! Also, does anyone know him? He apparently knows some Antarctica runners from this year. [photo credit: Rose]

The best part was seeing one of my Antarctica shipmates at the finish – Rose, who lives nearby, came to cheer me on for the last lap and a half, and we went to get ice cream right afterwards. Great end to a very fun race.

Just finished! Photo with Rose, Antarctic badass, while wearing my Antarctica shirt [and cat ears].

I was definitely not trained to run a 100-miler this weekend, and that was never part of the plan, but now that I know how fun this race is, I’m thinking about it for next year …

North Face 50-miler in D.C. – a race in three parts

I signed up for this race a few months ago because it seemed like a good weekend to run – with Boston also happening, I knew I wanted to get in some non-road-race mileage in a slightly logistically easier way. This race seemed like a good option.

Part 1 – running in the dawn

The race started at the uncomfortably early hour of 5am. Even though it would reach >70*F that day, it was cold in the morning, and we huddled around fire pits in the darkness before the race started.

This was a larger 50-mile field, with about 300 runners. Because we’d immediately clog the single-track dirt trail, we started in three waves, each a minute apart. They’d slotted me to start in wave 3 – I don’t know how they assigned these – but I snuck up to wave 2, which was a good plan; there was a significant amount of non-passable trail that we had to navigate in the dark, so it was nice to get a decent pace going at the beginning.

The first mile was around a very wet and muddy field. Given that this course was actually 50.9 miles, I’m convinced the race organizers just added this part in with sadistic intentions – we were wet and muddy, with shoes thoroughly soaked through, within five minutes of starting. They’d also set up a photographer at the biggest of these mud puddles, reinforcing my interpretation of these early tortuous motivations.

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Leading a train of headlights

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Running through the mud

When the sun started to come up, it illuminated a gorgeous, lush forest, bordered on one side by the rushing Potomac River. We continued to dance along single-track trail, still energetic with early-race adrenaline, as mist wove between the trees and settled over fields of tall green grass. Bright blue flowers hung from knee-high stalks all around us, carpeting the forest floor.

It was quite the contrast with Philly, and that made it so much more spectacular.

The first 13ish miles were hilly, but not excessively so. I walked the steeper parts and took it easy on the less steep parts, speeding up on the downhills and flats to conserve energy.

After a few hours, we entered Great Falls Park, which looks like this photo below.

Great Falls Park (source: National Parks Service)

It was a great start to a beautiful race.

Part 2 – three loops

The next part of the race would involve running the most convoluted 7-mile loop three times. See below for the illustrative map, which was intended to be helpful.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

Map of the 7-mile Great Falls Loop.

We started at the end of the first leg, then ran long a wider path for a bit, which had a slight uphill. We turned onto some single track, did an out-and back to a turnaround where someone marked our bib, then came back to the wide path. We crossed that, did another out-and-back to an aid-station, then took a side path back to the main, wider path, and headed back towards the start of the loop … only to take a sharp right, down to another out-and-back, then come partway back but take another detour to the start of the loop. Then do that two more times. Honestly, even though I’ve done it three times, I don’t think I could retrace my steps if I went back today. That’s how confusing it was.  The map is still not clear to me.

Look how pretty the park was!

The first loop was exciting, because we hadn’t done it before. By the 2nd loop, the 50k racers joined us, which was fun – they were pretty energetic, and many of them were excellent cheer captains. I paused at the mid-way aid station to take off my socks and shake the rocks out of my shoes – it was a great feeling to get the grit out, and I felt rejuvenated to knock off the third lap.

Third lap … tired of running … let’s try something different!

Part 3 – the long road home

Passing through the end of the last loop, having run about 35 miles, I felt ready to take on the remaining ~15 miles of the race. That feeling quickly faded … when I realized I still had to take on another 15 miles. Food seemed undesirable – not that there was anything wrong with the aid station options, which were great – my stomach just didn’t seem keen on any of it. I was mostly subsisting on Mountain Dew and water, and maybe a Gu if I could force one down.

The first four miles to the next aid station were challenging because they were flat, so there was no excuse to walk. At this point, it hurt to do anything – walk, run, or sit down – but the fastest way to the finish line was running, so I kept moving at a slow trot.

The remaining ten miles were very warm and humid, and seemed to take a very long time. Even though I was hurting, I seemed to be doing okay – I was passing some of the slower marathoners and 50k runners, and several 50-mile runners as well. Most frustratingly, the trail was completely perfect for running – soft, mostly flat single-track, pretty easy to navigate – which meant there were no excuses to walk. At least with hilly courses you get an externally-imposed walk-break. I found myself longing for the vertical ascents characteristic of West Coast races.

That is, until we hit the final hilly section. Then I immediately hated the hills – they’re hard to climb! – and yearned for the flat trails I’d been on just moments before.

The last few miles were pretty rough. At one point, we reached an aid station where all the shorter distance runners went straight for another mile or so to the finish, but we had to take a sharp right and do a two-mile out-and-back – that was pretty disheartening, because the finish line was right there!

Seriously … I can basically see the finish line.

I fell into pace with a younger runner – Naval Academy student doing his first 50-miler. We picked up the pace and were doing 9ish-minute-miles for about two or three miles during this out-and-back, which is really fast for the end of a long race! He dropped back at one point with just a mile to go. Feeling strong, I pushed hard to the finish.

At one point, I thought I saw the finish-line – it looks like a big red arch. Turned out I just saw a red back-hoe. Disappointing.

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Thanks for colluding, North Face and local construction company

Just a few minutes later, I saw the actual finish-line. And crossing it was great. I had some enthusiastic friends – fellow Wharton students, running the 13.1 the next day – waiting at the finish line, and it was so fun to see them.

Crossing the finish line with #mywharton girls!

Friends at the finish-line!

Overall, it was a pretty great race. Tough towards the end – but what 50-miler isn’t? – yet I’m proud of my performance. I came in 3rd for my age group, and in the top quarter overall [including men!] which is pretty good. My final finish time was 10:28, which isn’t my fasted 50-miler, but isn’t bad considering the hills.

North Face is a pretty commercial ultra series, which means there are a lot of new or first-time runners. It’s always great to indoctrinate newbies into the sport. However, it also means that the spirit of the ultra community isn’t as present at these sorts of races – there’s a sort of camaraderie on the trails that arises from having done a lot of these. It’s an understanding that we’re all out here together, and a great way to get through the pain is to rely on each other for conversation, pacing, and support. North Face didn’t – doesn’t – really have that vibe. But being down there with friends, who would be running the next day, more than made up for it.

On to the next challenge …

Bring it on.

1/3rd of a 24 hour run: thoughts on failure

Pre-race gear

On Dec 31st, I started running the San Francisco One-Day race. It’s a 24-hour race at Chrissy Field, with a great view of the Golden Gate bridge. Runners make ~1-mile loops around a lagoon from 9am on Dec 31st to 9am on Jan 1st, trying to log as many miles as they can.

My goal was to run 100 miles. I ended up running 40 before dropping out. I’ve never dropped out of a race before. It felt miserable. I felt like a failure, and like a quitter, and in some ways, I still do. It will probably take longer than the three days it’s been since the race to come to terms with dropping out.

The race itself: the course was beautiful. The light on the Golden Gate bridge was amazing to see in the morning, and at midday, and at sunset.

As for the running – the first five or ten miles were great. I was trotting along at a pretty good pace, keeping up with some of the top runners in the field. Between miles 10 and 20, I ran by myself, and I had some expected existential mini-crises: “Why are you doing this?” “Wouldn’t you rather be at home, petting the cats?”, but I kept up my pace. I finished 30 miles in six hours, which was right on track with my goal pace. I was also in 2nd or 3rd place for female runners at that point, which felt pretty good.

Around mile 34, my knee started hurting. Yes, that knee, and that same part. It was the injury that took me out for six months in 2012. Last time, it was caused by overuse, and by hitting the hills too hard, to quickly.

This course in SF was a flat course, but I knew what the problem was. I’d gone from running flat in Philadelphia to, before this race, running hills for a few weeks near by parents’ house in California, with no ramp-up time. I’d made the same mistake twice.

In a race, when some part of your body starts hurting, you try to do something differently for a bit. Walk half a lap, change your stride, strike with a different part of the foot, anything that might make the pain go away or allow your body to use different muscles for a bit. I tried a bunch of things, but the knee pain wasn’t getting better. I honestly didn’t expect it to. This particular pain wasn’t one you just worked through – it would just get worse.

I stayed on the course for another hour, mostly walking and occasionally jogging, giving the knee time to change it’s mind. I was hoping it would tell me “Just kidding! I was just messing with you. You can keep running.”

It wasn’t going to happen. Part of me knew it wasn’t going to, even though I was giving it time to stop hurting. I made it to 40 miles at around 8 hours, and dropped out. Spending the next 16 hours on the course, in pain, potentially damaging my knee irreparably, just didn’t seem like a good idea.

I took a shower at a friend’s place and immediately started driving back to Orange County.

The next 9 hours, as the clock turned to 2015, were spent alone in the dark, on the open road, or sleeping in the back seat of my car. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone.

I felt like a complete failure. I’d been looking forward to this race for so long – it had been a race I’d wanted to run for years. The idea of honoring my sport by finishing 2014 and starting 2015 with running seemed very symbolic. Now, I had to get over those sentimental notions. The calendar’s an arbitrary creation anyway.

I’m taking the next two weeks off from running, to let my knee – and the rest of my body – heal. After a year with 17 marathons/ultras, an average of ~50 miles per week, and almost 2,500 miles run in total, and crossing the 10,000 lifetime-mile threshold, it’s probably time to let my body recover for a bit.

However, I’ve had some time to reflect. Ultimately, this is an expected value calculation, where two outcomes were possible. In the first, I would have stayed on the course and finished the race; I most likely would have injured myself even further, which would mean being off of my feet for at least six months, and maybe much longer. In the second, which I chose, I stopped the race, take two weeks off, give my body time to recover, and get back to running slowly after that. Sounds better to me. While I’m not happy with the outcome in the short term, I know this was the right choice for the long term.

Handling this failure isn’t easy, but it’s also a good learning experience.

Also … I’m also now pretty sure I can run 100 miles in 24 hours. Running 40 miles in 8 hours is a pretty damn good start. I think I can do it again … and, next time, keep on running.

First, rest.

Check out the bridge in the background! This was our view all day.

Race Report: The Hardest Race I’ve Ever Run (Pine Creek 100-miler)

I ran my 2nd 100-mile race this weekend. It was the hardest race I’ve yet run, and in some ways, gave me a new appreciation for ultrarunning. I’d read a lot about some of the most difficult, trying parts of long races, but hadn’t really experienced the full extent of real challenges ultrarunners face until this race.

Background

Last year, Will and I ran something like seven road marathons. Road marathons aren’t my favorite; they’re usually painful due to the speed at which you have to run them and the pounding of the pavement, and they aren’t very scenic, especially in comparison to trail runs. I was getting burnt out on road marathons.

I convinced Will to sign up for a trail 100 with me.  He suggested the Pine Creek Challenge, which he’d run as his first 100. This race was a good fit for several reasons. It’s located in Pennsylvania, so it would be a good way to see a part of the state I hadn’t seen before and probably wouldn’t have the chance to see again for a while. It was also after summer (yet before classes really got going), so we’d have ample opportunity to train.

Leading up to the race, I ran lots of solo 30-mile unsupported training runs, as well as a 12-hour race and a 50-miler trail race. These were all great experiences, especially because they represented the best part of running to me – the adventure of trying something new. Also, none of them were road marathons.

After our internships ended, Will and I visited several national parks. We took on a lot of the more challenging, iconic hikes and runs, including Angel’s Landing in Zion, hiking from the Grand Canyon Rim to the Colorado River and back in a single day, and Half Dome, all in the name of training. We may have overdone it here – we probably should have left more time for lazy tapering in preparation for the 100 – but these opportunities and the scenery were too good to miss.

Leading up to the race, I felt I’d trained well, especially given the long work hours at my summer internship and the erratic travel schedule afterwards. I’d logged more than 1,200 miles in the six months leading up to the race, including ten marathon-or-longer distances. While I wasn’t “pumped up” for this 100, I felt ready.

The Race

Pine Creek Challenge is a 100 mile race on relatively flat, wide gravel trail in upstate Pennsylvania. The first 20 miles consisted of a five-mile stretch, which we ran out and back twice, finishing that portion at the start line. The next 80 miles were one long, 40-mile out-and-back – again, ending at the same place we started.

The weather forecast was questionable for the week leading up to the race, alternating between ridiculously humid and largely rainy with possible thunderstorms. I wasn’t concerned about the rain, as my last 100 took place almost exclusively during a deluge. I wasn’t concerned about the humidity either, as New York City had been pretty brutal to train in over the summer.

Part One – The Beginning

The start line (photo credit: Will)

We arrived at the start line around 5:15 in the morning. It was humid enough outside that I put on a bit of bug spray, and warm enough that I didn’t need a jacket. That should have been my first warning sign; the best weather conditions for races are ones where the temperature is just a bit below comfortable.

Will and I arranged our drop bags, which contained our gear that we could pick up at different aid stations, and headed to the start line. The race itself had 62 registered runners, which is pretty small, even for a 100.

As a result, the start line felt very informal and not at all crowded. A few people were sitting on the ground adjusting their shoes. When they played the national anthem, we all turned towards the flag; someone had inconveniently placed the port-o-potties between the start line and the flagpole, so runners would come out of the restroom, see everyone staring in their direction, get confused, then turn around and face the flag once they realized what was going on. Nobody was toeing the line; thirty seconds here was not going to make or break anyone’s race, and it’s very foolish to start out too strong on an ultra; you’ll burn out quick.

At about 6am, we started off. Will and I together for the first five miles; he was planning to hold back a bit so he didn’t burn out too early.  I was aiming for a sub-24 finish, but didn’t really have any strategy other than run at my usual pace for as much as I could.

The first five miles were mostly in the pre-dawn light. Some runners had headlamps. I opted not to wear mine, instead enjoying the tranquility of the morning.

As the sun came up, we were able to appreciate the beauty of the scenery. A light mist covered lush, green farms on either side; we’d occasionally run past cows or a mossy pond. When the mist lifted, the early morning sunlight pierced through the clouds, turning the whole landscape a dewey golden yellow color.

Part of the fun of out-and-back sections is seeing where other runners are along the course and how they’re doing. I was excited to see that three of the top five runners were female. It was fun seeing Will after he took off, too.

By mile 17 or so, I’d seen the same scenery three times and was ready for a change. I made it through the start-line aid station around mile 21, and at this point, I felt like the real race was beginning.

Part Two – Things I don’t Really Remember and Early Challenges

Somewhere on the course – it was pretty! (Photo credit: Will)

I’d be lying if I said I could accurately describe the next 8-10 miles and my state of mind. I know the scenery was pretty, because the trail had lots of trees making pretty tree arches and because I ran it on the way back. I know there was an aid station around mile 24, but I don’t remember it. I know the next aid station after that was 7.7 miles away, which was pretty far. I saw two horse-drawn covered wagons along the way, as well as several very happy Amish women on bicycles. This bridge fits in somehow, and it was very pretty.

A bridge we ran across. It looked a lot creepier at night. (Photo credit: Will)

 

I do remember being pretty happy to be in such a gorgeous area. The trees and the river nearby were really just beautiful.

After those 7.7 miles, we had another long stretch – 8.3 until the next aid station. I fell in with another runner from Philadelphia – he’d completed an Ironman (!) and was an all-around excellent athlete. We paced each other through that long stretch to mile 40.7 before splitting up. He looked like he was doing well, but said he was struggling; I think he dropped out at some point.

We were reaching the early afternoon, and the hottest part of the day. This is the first time I really started struggling, for two reasons: my GPS watch and, as mentioned, the heat.

One: I’d been relying on my GPS watch to determine my walk breaks. I soon realized I was getting grumpy, because the watch was demoralizing; seeing the distance kept reminding me how far I still had to go. I decided to change my strategy and take my walk breaks based on a technique I’d learned from one of my ultrarunning friends: counting your breaths. I would run for 100 breaths (about 400 steps) then walk for 20 breaths (about 80 steps), repeating as necessary and adding either to the run or walk portion if I wanted to. This allowed me to disconnect myself from the watch and be more in-tune with my body and with nature. Studies show that the fastest runners are not the ones who focus on their distance or their own bodies, but the scenery around them. Additionally, part of the reason I like trail running is the experience of immersing myself in my surroundings; it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly staring at a digital screen.

Two: the heat came in fast. I recognized what was happening before it fully hit; I’d experienced the same thing at the 12-hour race I ran in New York. That didn’t make it easier to handle. By mile 43, I was getting dizzy during my walk breaks; I didn’t get dizzy during the running parts, but I couldn’t just run through the heat – that would be disastrous.

At one point, I think around mile 44, I reached a man on a chair; I think he was taking race bib numbers, but it wasn’t really clear what his role was.  He said something horrible: “You’re almost at half way!”  I muttered “Thanks” and kept going. There’s really nothing worse than being reminded how much further you have to go.

About a minute later, I couldn’t take the heat anymore. I remembered reading the article about Tim Olsen, an elite ultrarunner who struggled at the Hardrock 100; at one point, he decided that laying down on a mattress in a pile of trash was a really excellent choice for taking a break. I took a page of out his book and just collapsed on the side of the trail, back to the gravel. It felt great.

Another runner passed me asking if I was okay – I was, and she seemed to believe me, so she continued on. I was up just a few moments later.

Around mile 45, it started pouring – torrential downpour. My kind of challenge. I was ecstatic. I felt revived, revitalized, and excited to be alive. I was happy to be running again. I felt strong.

Mile 46 brought an aid station, along with a lot of runners huddling under it. I grabbed a trash bag for rain protection (I ended up not using it, because it was till warm) and took off again.

The rain subsided pretty quickly, but the happiness I’d felt during it lasted for a few more miles.

I also knew that my pacers would be meeting me at mile 53; that thought buoyed me through the next stretch.

Part 3 – Running with Friends

When I saw my two pacers at the next crew station, I was so happy I almost started crying. I couldn’t believe I had friends who loved me so much that they’d drive four hours on their weekend to run in the middle of a forest – probably in the dark, and slowly – while I was most likely (read: definitely) a terrible conversationalist. I felt so honored and humbled – and I was really, really looking forward to running with them.

Christina joined me first. She initially was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with me for the 16 miles we’d talked about, but was quickly dissuaded of that notion when she saw how slowly I was going (I was probably running 13-14 minute miles at this point, which actually isn’t that bad for a 100 … but is very slow for any other time). She took me to the turnaround and back to mile 68. We had some pretty deep conversations – the kind you have when you’re out in the forest at stupid-o-clock in the dark and nobody is around.

Jess would pace me for the next 12 miles, up through about 80.5. These were really hard miles for me, and Jess was so supportive, even though it definitely could not have been fun for her. I was still awake and moving, but I was moving very slowly. I was starting to feel the effects of the earlier humidity, and I repeated my earlier trick of starfishing out on the gravel.

At my last 100, I’d almost run out of batteries for my headlamp a few times, which would have left me completely in the dark. After that experience, I developed a weird pathology about light, and Jess had to put up with my constant worrying about whether or not the flashlight we had would run out of batteries. I probably mentioned it something like 20 times. We found more batteries for the flashlight at an aid station, and at mile 80 I’d also have my headlamp – but on reflection, I realize this fixation was definitely symptomatic of having run 70+ miles.

I was terrified of what would happen at mile 80. Mile 80 was the start of some long, solo stretches (remember the 8.3 + 7.7?). It was going to be dark, and I was tired, and I’d be alone. I was really nervous about it.

Part 4 – The Darkest Part of the Race

Jess and Christina left at mile 80.5. I was so happy to have had friends on the trail with me for so long – it was so motivating. The rest was up to me.

I downed about 12 ounces of Diet Coke to wake me up and grabbed my jacket, extra headlamp batteries, and my iPod, and charged into the darkness. It was me, the forest, the trail, and the night.

The next three miles were amazing. I felt like I was running downhill, and I ran most of them with very few walk breaks. I was listening to really upbeat Australian folk music about dingos and emus, so I was pretty happy. Then I had to pee three times in thirty minutes, the caffeine wore off, and I was exhausted again. This is when it got bad.

At this point, I couldn’t even walk straight. I was zigzagging back and forth on my little rut of the trail, and I was I was resting on the gravel every two miles or so. Literally, that gravel was the most comfortable bed I could imagine. A woman on a bike pacing another runner passed me while I was on the ground – she somehow looked like an underwater octopus.

I got up after one rest, and behind me I saw a shadow. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but it was, in fact, another runner – he just wasn’t wearing his headlamp. He and I somehow fell into step together and made it to the next aid station.

From there, we only had 11 miles to go. We shambled back onto the trail.

I can’t begin to describe how hard the next 4 miles were. I was exhausted. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’m sure I was sleep walking at some point. I had my first real hallucinatory experience; I saw 10-foot long shoes (they were trees), a two-story apartment complex (also trees), a huge covered bridge (still trees), a bunch of miniature footballs on the trail (leaves), a pile of white index cards that someone had drawn smiley faces on with red pen (leaves), and even the new iPhone 6, which wasn’t announced yet (leaves). The strangest part was seeing these things and knowing they weren’t real, but my body thinking they were. I gingerly stepped over the iPhone 6 so as not to crush it, even as I told my subconscious mind to make the vision go away.

I was also borderline hypothermic. I was wearing a long-sleeve jacket, but not a very heavy one. If we stopped for more than a few moments, I’d start shivering uncontrollably.

The last half-hour before the sun came up was the most miserable half-hour of running I have ever experienced. I am so, so thankful to have found this other runner; I know he was in just as bad of shape as I was, and I think we both felt better that we could look out for each other.

Physically, I wasn’t in any particular pain. My feet were fine, and my muscles and joints felt fine. I was just generally fatigued, and my body was confused that it still had to be awake.

When the sky finally lightened, my new running friend and I could not have been more thrilled.

I woke up immediately. My body felt like a new day had begun, and mentally, I felt awake and alert. Basic math skills returned somewhat (they’d literally been nonexistent earlier – we couldn’t do things like add 0.9 to 8.3. That was challenging).

We reached the final aid station at mile 96.5, and I was ready to take on those next 3.5 miles. My runner friend and I parted ways, and I took off.

I was thinking about just a few things over those last few miles:

  • How outrageously hard this race had been, and how I didn’t yet feel any sense of pride for having finished it, even though I knew at that point I would finish it. It had just been hard and miserable.
  • That Will was waiting for me at the finish line, and the faster I got there, the faster I could see him.
  • How fortunate I was to get to be immersed in nature on this adventure (and survive).
  • Bed and sleeping.

The same yellow glow from more than 24 hours ago was filling the farm valley. As I saw people beginning their Sunday morning, I thought about the fact that they’d had a whole cycle of life since the last time I’d passed through there – eating, drinking, seeing friends, sleeping, and waking up again – and I’d just been running the whole time.

The final turn back into the parking lot was surreal. It was simultaneously overwhelmingly emotional and also starkly apocalyptic. The 0.1 mile driveway to the finish line seemed long and empty. There was a car sharing the driveway with me, which was weird and anticlimactic after being on a trail for so long. Will was in our rental relaxing (he’d finished a few hours before me) – he waved out the window as I passed, then got out of the car to follow me to the finish line.

There were only about eight people at the finish line – all race coordinators who I didn’t know – and they seemed wholly separate from the experience I was going through as I crossed under the finishing arch. I was just happy to be done. They clapped and waved cowbells, but I didn’t really know them and they didn’t really know me, and it seemed sort of hollow.

I thanked them and smiled and turned around, limping back to Will, who hugged me. The race was over. I began shivering again as we walked back to the car.

Will and I at the finish line, just after I crossed it

Afterwards

It took me a couple of hours to write this, but it took a few days to really think and digest my thoughts about the race. I obviously struggled a lot during this race, and I’ll probably go back later and add more color about just how hard it was. I thought about dropping out basically nonstop, and, the weird part was, I didn’t think I’d even care that I hadn’t finished the race; I’d just be happy that the pain was over. I’d never felt that apathetic before.

But, you can only make the decision to drop out at aid stations, and somehow, whenever I was there, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.

62 people registered to run the 100-mile distance. 54 showed up at the start line. Only 37 finished (possibly less – that was the count when I arrived, and there were many people still on the course behind me).

I know I want to do another 100-mile race, and I know it may be as mentally challenging as this one. That scares me a little bit.

For now, I’m just enjoying relaxing and thinking about the shorter races I have coming up.