Sky Runs

Taking the long way round

Category: Races (page 1 of 2)

2015 World 24-Hour Championships

I still don’t know what happened physically, so this is the mental and emotional race recounting of what’s still largely a mystery to me. Later I’ll add some more photos, especially those taken by my friend Atsede which are amazing.

There were two sides to the story of how I felt going in to the race. On the one hand, I had trained and prepared better than for any race ever, and I was on a high from the overwhelming support I received from friends, teammates, strangers. I can’t thank all of you enough. I ran consistent weeks of what, for me, at this point in my running career, is high mileage. Running practically every day for three months, with doubles as prescribed, and as much speed work and strength training as I could. To ensure that I would not be worn out at all, I stopped racing, except for one little 15K last month. When I started having problems in my left shin and calf, I got it treated quickly and adjusted my training as needed- big thanks to RunnerClinicNYC, coach Michele Yates, Tiger Ellen, and Dr. Wayne Winnick. I improved my diet, supplemented with CarboPro products (thank you too!,) had plenty of sleep, managed to stay free of any illness throughout the harsh winter, and got to Italy with plenty of time to rest and get over jet lag. For once, I didn’t suffer any taper tantrums, perhaps because I had finally done enough training that the downtime was a welcome respite. And I felt really good on my last few runs in Torino during the week before the World Championships.

The other side is that a lack of ultra racing had brought my confidence down a notch. I’d done a bunch of back-to-back long workouts and long runs on weekends, but my longest run had been only 32 miles two weeks out, and that included many stops along the way. Mentally I missed the challenges of pushing, adapting and regrouping that take place during long races, and physically I missed simply running and moving a singular focus for an extended period. Still, I trusted my training, and reminded myself that a little insecurity before a big race is a good thing- without it one risks hubris and disaster. I’d had no consistent or planned training going into my qualifying race last November, and that turned out okay, so I believed in a real likelihood of something special this time around. My goal: 145-150 miles, but really as much as possible- no limits.

After a quiet week on my own in central old Turin, teammates began arriving and I moved into our host hotel in the industrial suburb of Rivoli. Things got very exciting and I did my best not to get too caught up in it, making sure I still got enough rest and resisting the temptation to go out for a few more runs or another large group dinner with the gang of superheros (sorry, it takes me forever to unwind after a big social meal). My crew arrived and I spent some time with them and prepared all my gear and my detailed nutrition plan, making sure everything was clearly labeled and that they knew where to find everything. I was a frequent visitor to the medical staff’s quarters, as they worked on the remaining tension in my left calf and that little bump I got on my right knee while running on the trails a week earlier. Given my past history of not feeling any pain during races in the areas that have bothered me during training, I wasn’t too worried about any of these.

My sleep was not great the last few nights and I felt a little stressed on Friday with all the final preparations, including an opening ceremony that started at 6pm, but I made sure to be in bed as soon as I could. I managed about 6 hours of sleep before waking up at 5am- a full two hours before my alarm. At least I had slept well while I could. I followed my usual routines of coffee, shower, a bit of food (mostly some Simply Bars) and fixing my hair before getting dressed.

Around 8:30am we headed to the stadium and set up my aid in a section of a table in the US tent, which was the last tent in a long row on the track- this meant we had a bit of extra room next to the tent and access to the cushioned mats used for the pole vault or high jump.

The day was warm but not too hot. I didn’t’ receive shorts with my uniform but instead got a thin pair of bright red compression capris along with another pair of thicker regular capris. I really didn’t want to waste time changing bottoms so I figured I could wear the compression capris and if it got cool at night I could pull the other pair over them- I even made sure they were stretchy enough to get around both pairs of my Hokas. I decided to skip my usual calf sleeves because of the heat and because Doc said they really wouldn’t do anything.

Before I knew it, it was time to go line up, I found the US ladies and we took a bunch of photos, and then we found ourselves near the front of the crowd. There were some murmurs about us being too far up front (even ahead of the guys, which I didn’t realize at the time) but I didn’t think it was a big deal, I just didn’t see any point in adding uncounted meters or losing seconds by starting further back. A gun went off but it was not the one to start the race, and then another one and we were off. It was tight at the start with an immediate right turn, and I found myself a bit behind Katalin and Aly for a number of laps. I already had to pee right before the race started, but having already lined up with no toilet in sight, I decided to wait an hour so that I could settle in to the rhythm of the race first. It was pretty smooth and comfortable, and once I went to the portapotty I felt so relieved that I picked up the pace a bit for a lap or two before easing off again.

One of my big worries going in to the race was my GI issues. At the risk of TMI, I simply hadn’t gone enough that morning at the hotel, so I knew something would have to give during the race, and this started to happen about three or four hours in. It had to make a couple of pretty awful trips to the portapotty, and called out for medical help from our team, who gave me a pill and a handful of pretzels. The pretzels were awfully dry but I forced them down, along with pretty much everything else TSP handed me. There was quite a bit of shouting from both of us each time I passed by the US tent- the stadium had both music and an announcer blaring all day, plus I would be coming down a straightaway lined with team tents where all the crews seemed to be calling out and shouting at their runners. The US tent was the last one, just beyond the curve and could only be seen at the last minute.

I had been lapping my splits manually every time I crossed the timing mat, but I had no idea where I was in terms of mileage until I began to approach the first marathon mark. Each loop was 2 kilometers (1.274 miles) around the park and with a lap of the track at the stadium. The timing mat was in the middle of the first straightaway on the track, and there was a jumbotron that displayed runner numbers, names and lap counts at the end of the stadium. While the display was really big, it was hard to see from the timing mat, and by the time I got close enough to read it clearly, my name would often no longer be displayed because so many other runners had passed over the mat by then. Still, I had an idea my marathon split was around 3:50, a few minutes faster than expected but still reasonable, I felt.

Sometime in the fifth hour my right Achilles started to ache, and my hamstrings were feeling tight, so I decided I should stop for a stretch soon and get my stomach issues tended to at the same time. Just after finishing five hours I got on the massage table set up outside the USA tent, and pretty much the full medical staff got to work on me at once as I sipped some ginger ale. Everything got stretched, my stomach was manipulated and I was good to go. I felt great.

The next couple of hours I fell into a steady and slower rhythm on my own, listening to music (the same playlist over and over again) and feeling unstoppable now that I had put my stomach monster to rest. My energy levels felt good, I continued to take in a steady stream of calories, fluids and electrolytes and I looked forward to some cooler temperatures and settling into the long middle hours before really digging deep in the last quarter of the race.

Some time shortly after seven hours I began to notice what felt like a tightness in the front of my right hip flexor- it felt a bit early to be getting tight in the hips but I decided that if it didn’t go away on its own I could stop to get stretched after I hit the eight hour mark- that would mean I’d been running steadily for three hours since my last break and it seemed like a good time for my next short break 1/3 of the way in. I counted down the laps to eight hours, and figured I hit my 50-mile split somewhere around 7:40- right around where I wanted to be. With some expected slowing I would aim to run my next 50 in roughly 8 hours and the final 50 or whatever in the remaining 8:20. My hip was getting a bit tighter and I was looking forward to the break. On my last lap before the break, as I passed by the American tent I saw TSP holding a handwritten sign out that said “take the turns easy, a lot of runners are having hip problems.” Something about the power of suggestion must have taken hold here because the ache was much worse on this final lap before my break and it showed in my lap time: it was about 20 seconds slower than the average lap pace over the previous hours.

I stopped for a few minutes, got the hip tended to and was sent on my way with instructions to start out slower and gradually get back to my regular pace, and not to worry about the hip to the point of holding back. I set off walking, uncomfortably, and this was really the beginning of the end. It hurt, it really hurt, and I wondered if I should turn around and go back to medical for more help, but I was determined to keep going. I started running again on the straightaways and took care to walk through the turns, but I never felt like I got much faster than a shuffle. Every couple of laps I had to stop at medical again and ask for more help, but each time I left the pain was greater than before. At one point, as I limped up the ramp out of the stadium, Traci ran past and told me I should consider dropping with the way I was walking at that point. No, I thought to myself, this will pass, and I’ll be fine later.

No such luck. I kept trying to run and kept limping more as I did, dragging the right leg behind me. I experienced huge kindness from others as I struggled, with countless runners encouraging me and asking if I was okay. Katalin came up to me and planted a big kiss on my cheek, Maggie walked with me a minute or two, as did a few others- Dennene from Canada, Enrique, Jenny. Even if I couldn’t run I still wanted to experience the full 24 hours of Torino, and if necessary I would walk and cheer on the hundreds of runners from dozens of nations throughout the night. I just needed to stretch this ache out. After all, I could always walk, right? I’d never not been able to walk my way through anything.

Until this night. Shortly after dark I made yet another stop at medical and set off painfully again. I had to stop here and there, until about two-thirds through the lap I found myself doubled over, hands on knees, wondering how I was going to make it half a mile to return to the stadium. I clutched at the railings for support, hobbled and made it back to ask for more help. I was on the table for a very long time as the medical team tried everything they could think of. Before they would allow me to leave again they wanted to watch me walk, and I couldn’t anymore, each step on my right leg hurt too much. Back on the table, I was asked to consider whether I wanted to risk further long-term damage by continuing in the race. Honestly, there was nothing left to consider, the only way I might be able to continue at this point would be on my hands and knees, and even that might be a stretch.

It is what it is. It was an unreal sense of relief. Nothing had really sunk in, yet there was nothing more I could do if I couldn’t put weight on the right leg. I was carried to the back tent where I was helped to changed into my sweats and then carried back to the high jump mat where I could lay under some thick blankets. There was no pain as long as I didn’t try to move my right leg, so for hours I watched the rest of Team USA and all the other countries run their races, a front row seat in a theater of pure determination. I was not sad yet, that would come later along with much more pain. TBC.

Week in Review:  4/6

Monday: 6.5 miles with 10×1 min., strength workout

Tuesday: 4.5 miles easy

Wednesday: 3 miles with 3×2 min.

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Rest

Saturday: 62 miles

Sunday: Rest

Week in Review: 3/30

Monday: 5 miles easy

Tuesday: 7.5 miles easy with a fast finish

Wednesday: Rest, and walking around Turin

Thursday: 12 miles longer intervals, strength training

Friday: 5 miles tempo progression

Saturday: 8 miles with short intervals, strength workout

Sunday: Rest

Mount Butler 15K

I had a short weeklong trip back to Hong Kong and found that one of my favorite races here was scheduled for the only weekend I was  in town. So why not? I had some great luck in a couple of short and hilly races here last fall winning some great prizes, though I can’t say I had any expectations for this one– not that I had any for those either.

I had run the Mount Butler 15K twice before, once in the late 2009 and again in 2012, which was the last year I was in Hong Kong for the race. The first time I finished in the high 1:30s (I think) and I was a little faster in 2012- 1:27:08. Put on by the Hong Kong Distance Runners Club (HKDRC), it’s a big race by Hong Kong standards with up to 1200 runners, and the course presents a decent challenge- there are some big hills, with a nice mix of long and runnable (if you are trained for them) inclines, equally long and crazy fast downhill stretches, and a bunch of non-technical flat single track (some of it paved with concrete or stones).

With the way my left shin has been acting up here and there, running (let alone racing) was a very last minute decision. I got in late on Friday night, and felt fine during an easy early morning run on Saturday, though both my left and right calves decided to have a talk with me while I tried to take a nap that afternoon. After an early dinner and a bit of walking, my legs and the rest of me were totally out of it by 7pm, and I decided to try to sleep as much as I could before the race. I was asleep well before 9pm, and apart from a brief waking interlude around 2am, I slept pretty solidly until my alarm went off at 5:45am. Take that, jet lag.

My plan, insofar as I had one, was to run to the start, about 4 miles away, run the 15K at whatever pace and effort caused no discomfort to my lower legs, and then run back to my hotel. That way I could get some decent distance regardless of how the race itself went—if I had to walk the steep inclines (or even the not steep ones) and take 2 hours to finish it didn’t matter. The number one goal was not to hurt the legs (and that includes no falling either!)

Saturday night’s dinner had been light vegetarian fare, so I was also concerned about food– which I didn’t have much of in my room– and coffee– which I had none of. When I woke up hungry at 2 am, I ate half a Simply Bar and half a banana, and figured I could stop by a 7-11 nearby to get more fuel in the morning along with some coffee. But by the time I was ready to leave, I no longer felt like going out of my way to the store Anyways, I knew there was a gas station next to the start area where I could buy something else in a pinch. I had the second half of my banana and a bit of another Simply Bar and planned to eat the rest about half an hour before the 8am start time.

As for leg and body prep, I taped my left calf and rubbed some ArniCare gel on my legs and butt and I took 3 CarboPro Recovery Amino Power capsules before I left. I also packed 4 VO2 Max Power capsules and a MetaSalt electrolyte pill to take after my warmup or 30 minutes before the start. (Disclosure: I’m a CarboPro ambassador and they provide me with these wonderful supplements and nutritional products).

I stepped outside and- RAIN! That was not in the forecast when I checked last night. I didn’t have a visor and was wearing a now very useless pair of sunglasses on top of my head. Time to get moving- walking up a giant hill outside my hotel towards the start of Bowen Road, and then running most of the rest of the way. I made it to the start with plenty of time to get my bib ( a newfangled stick-on type of bib) use the toilet a few times, slurp a free gel and buy some vanilla wafers at the gas station to supplement my caloric intake. My coach Michele Yates is big on getting lots of calorie in for the hilly efforts, so I kept that in mind for this race.

There was an ongoing heavy drizzle and as I went to find some cover I ran into a couple I’ve met at a couple of races- we chatted a bit as 1000 or so others runners gathered by the start, and as soon as I said goodbye and started to move into the pack to get a better position (or any position), an airhorn blasted! There was a bit of incredulity in the crowd as this was at least 3-4 minutes before the scheduled 8am start time. Was that a test horn to get our attention? No such luck. The race had started and there were probably 800 or 900 runners in front of me. Oh well, I guess this really will be a fun run and hike for me.

The start of the race is hilarious: an enormously steep uphill half-mile on a road that is only half closed to traffic. I was in a swarm of runners, so far back that no one was even going out too fast. I ran a little, but the effort of trying to run up and get around people at the same time was too taxing, so I mostly power hiked. The reward came soon after, with a great big downhill stretch. I don’t run uphills very well but downhill the brakes come off and I can fly. I passed dozens and I don’t think anyone passed me on that section.

This was me running in 2012. I havent seen any 2015 race photos. Photo: Lorena Lee

This was me running in 2012. I haven’t seen any 2015 race photos. Photo: Lorena Lee

After that fun came the uphill from hell- a long and winding and completely runnable mile and change. My race memory is limited so I had no idea how long it would be- Garmin tells me it was a little over a mile which means it was a little more than that. I ran as long as I could, then walked when I had to because there was still a lot of race left. I couldn’t seem to run slowly enough to maintain a running pace all the way up, so I kept passing people on my run and getting passed back when I switched to the power hike. There were about three or four ladies who I yoyo-ed with on this stretch- I was able to harness a tiny bit of competitiveness to get past them on the run, but was powerless to respond when they came back to me on my walk breaks. I could really feel the lack of hill training- it’s not something I do enough of to begin with and with my recent shin problems I’d backed off it completely.

All good things, like hills, come to an end. Still on the road, we hit another kilometer of downhill and I took it hard, passing most or all of the ladies who I’d seen earlier. I had to make the most of this stretch because the trails would be coming up soon, where I knew I’d have to slow.

I had to hit the brakes to make a hard left onto the trail, which at first had a generally flat to downhill trend. Slow down, don’t fall were my mantras. The trail was much smoother than I remembered, and I surprised myself by passing a couple of guys- I was fully prepared to be the one getting passed here. Before I knew it I was following some guys the wrong way, but a volunteer or spectator quickly corrected us. As I passed another guy with no one else in sight ahead of me I realized I didn’t really know the course and hadn’t been in this position before-when I ran the race previously I was always surrounded by enough people that I never had to think of where I was going. I had to pause a couple of times at trail intersections or call back to the guys behind me to make sure I didn’t take another wrong turn- I know, front runner problems.

My faulty course memory also led me to believe we would be climbing up Mt. Butler, or some other peak, via steep trail route with lots of stairs that would definitely require walking and break up the race rhythm. I must have been thinking of some other race because with a few miles to go there was still no mountain climb in sight and I (correctly) remembered the later part of this course as being easy. Instead, there was another damn completely runnable rolling uphill mile on the trail. I had passed two more ladies on the trail so far, so I forced myself to run the whole stretch even though it hurt much more than I wanted it to. By this point I was feeling competitive enough that I wanted not to get passed more.

We left the trail again for another mostly downhill stretch on the road- there was a bit of steep hill sneaked in to the start of this stretch, but once we hit the one-way downhill I cruised again and picked off a few dudes. Of course, a couple of them passed me back when we re-entered the trail, which started with a stair climb and a short technical stretch with big rocks and roots. I used this opportunity to re-charge as I knew the end of the course was really easy- a stone-paved path- and I really needed not to fall here. One banged knee and I would be feeling it all the way to Italy. For the first time in the race I looked at the time and saw my watch said 1:03:something. According to my (unreliable) watch there were less than 2 miles to go, and I hoped but was not sure that I could finish under 1:20, which would be a big PR from my 2012 time.

Once the footing got more secure I was able to re-pass one of the dudes from the stairs, and had another in sight until he took what was probably an entirely legal shortcut through a gap in a boulder which I missed until it was too late and he was too far ahead for me to catch in what was left of the race.

It was around this point that I vaguely heard a spectator say “first runner up!” to me. Really? How was that possible?! I was maybe hoping for top 10 and something in my AG but even that felt like a stretch in a 1000-runner race with what was possibly my worst start ever as far as being competitive. Still, I hadn’t seen any ladies in some time. It wasn’t much longer before I saw a high-rise apartment building which meant the end was near, and another spectator there who said I was the second woman. I turned a corner and before I knew it the finish line was in front of me. Already?! That was quick: 1:12:20 on my Garmin, well under the 1:20 I expected in the best conditions.

Some of the race swag

Some of the race swag

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Hong Kong races are a great value. The entry fee for this race was about 25USD, and for this we got two water points on the course plus 1 gel distributed before the race, a tech t-shirt, a sport towel, a commemorative mug, a soft water bottle, a medal and a reusable tote bag. For a 15K.

And prizes

And prizes

And I finally made my long-held goal of winning prize money! 250HKD, or about $30, in cash, plus another 250HKD worth of coupons for ParknShop, a local supermarket chain. And a Polar watch with a heart rate monitor, and a pair of shoes from local trail and ultra outfitter Racing the Planet. And a big ass trophy for being first in my AG (no overall awards in this race, only open and AG prize categories). Interestingly, the first woman (who came in about 2 minutes ahead of me) was running as part of the “team” category, so I got the “individual” win as well. But really I kind of lucked out this year, as the women’s winning times are usually at least a few minutes faster than what I ran. Still I’ll take it.

I’m so happy I got to do this race again and run it as well as I did. After waiting around for a long while for the awards ceremony (I know, prize winner problems) I ran back to the hotel at an easier pace. I had no pain in my legs (even the quads) after all that, so I proceeded to destroy my legs a little more on Monday with 11 miles.

Badwater Choices

The news came as a shock.

 Hello Sky!

Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to compete in the 2015 Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, presented by AdventureCORPS, Inc. You are part of a select group who will participate in what is recognized across the globe as “the world’s toughest footrace.”

Then… PAY NOW!

Shiiiiiiit. Who applies for the baddest of the badass races and forgets about it?! Seriously. I know, I did it “just to see” and figured I had no chance, since I’ve only completed the minimum three 100 milers required to apply. I thought I should start getting my name out there so that the organizers would eventually let me in. In any case, it wasn’t in my race plan, as July was supposed to provide a mid-season break with no racing.

But something happens once you get into a race like Badwater. The “can I do this?” mindset takes over, and since ultra runners tend to have short memories and optimistic outlooks, the answer is invariably “YES I can!”

But… The money. I won’t be prepared for this. It’s only five weeks after TGNY 100. TSP won’t be able to come. I don’t have a crew.

And but… If I turn it down now will they ever let me in again? Couldn’t this be my year of really big races? With the new nighttime start rule it will be cool at night, right? Will I regret it if I don’t go? Am I ever going to be better ultra-trained, with the same motivation and means to do this?

I put off making a decision as long as possible. I kept silent as I watched friends Facebook-announce their intentions to run Badwater to hundreds of likes and unanimous congratulations. When I asked TSP what he would do in my position, his reply displayed an appropriate level of maturity: “I wouldn’t have applied if I wasn’t planning to run it.”

I wrote out a check and put it in an envelope and carried it around for a couple of days. I researched nighttime temperatures in Death Valley in July and was alarmed to find that my guesstimate of, oh, around 50-60F was off by at least 40 degrees. I decided I needed to start re-reading Scott Jurek’s book, which I read so long ago I forgot he started it off by recounting how trashed he got from underestimating the Badwater race.

By Friday morning I’d had enough of self-doubt and took the plunge off the deep end. I dropped my check in the mail, posted something on Facebook, and went to work on preparations for the Millrose Games. By the time I checked in again I had enough offers of help to make at least two crews. Poof! My first big worry– vanished. Next up is the logistical challenge of setting dates for travel and booking hotels, flights and cars. And stuff like reflective vests and sprayers, ideally two I’m told. Oh crap, I just want to run. What did I get myself into this time?

No turning back now

No turning back now

Week in Review 2/9

Monday: AM: 4 miles easy to moderate. PM: 2 miles for running mechanics test

Tuesday: AM: 13 miles intervals, strength workout. PM: 3 miles easy to moderate

Wednesday: 3 miles easy, 45-minute pool running class

Thursday: AM: 10 miles with very short intervals. PM: 4.5 miles easy to moderate, strength workout

Friday: 3 miles easy

Saturday: 10 miles with VO2 max intervals, strength workout

Sunday: 14.5 miles with hills, 1:15 easy yoga

Pacing at Rocky Raccoon

Winter officially arrived with the threat of a record snowstorm in NYC that didn’t turn out to be all that and a bag of chips, but still managed to shut everything down, including my gym. I made up for it by doing stair sprint repeats in my building’s stairwell, destroying my calves in the process.

So the timing was perfect for a getaway to anywhere warmer, and when I heard that my friend Yoshiko was in need of a pacer for her sub-20 goal time at the Rocky Raccoon 100-miler, I couldn’t wait to pack my bags. I’ve been curious about the Rocky Raccoon race for some time, as it’s supposed to be one of the “easier” trail 100s, run on a relatively flat but rooty 20-mile loop course.

I flew out early on Friday just as another bout of snow started to drop, experienced a few stressful fight delays but eventually got lucky with my connections to Houston and hit the road to Huntsville with crewman Ken and Jackie, who was also running. We did the usual pre-race stuff: picked up supplies at Target, at went to packet pickup and the pre-race briefing, had an early and excellent dinner at Lindo Mexico, picked up more supplies and attempted to get to bed early.

Saturday morning Ken and I got to sleep in since we had enough cars to go around. We headed to the start/finish area in time to see our runners come through after their first loop. Yoshiko was right on schedule and looking strong. The weather was mild, with the threat of rain holding off during the day at least. Of course, mild weather for running = cold for me to stand around in, so I was ridiculously bundled up out there.

After the first round

After the first round

Apparently in previous years crews were allowed to drive out to the further aid stations, making the job a round the clock one, but this year there was a new rule: no cars at aid stations. From a crewing perspective, that meant we had plenty of time to go and do other important stuff, like eat and take naps. Ken and I went out to pick up some more supplies and coffee and donuts before going for lunch at Bennie J’s Smoke Pit, the real deal Texas BBQ.

Pre-pace meal

Pre-pace meal

We came back to wait for our runners to come from their second loop, the last time we would see them before we started pacing into the night. Yoshiko was behind. I asked runners who knew her and had been near her earlier if they had seen her and was told she was coming soon, 5 to 10 minutes behind, they both said, even though they were about 15 minutes apart.

The hardest part of crewing for me is the waiting. I am the extremely anxious one standing at the edge of the course, neck craned trying to spot my runner, worry mounting over each minute of lateness. Yoshiko arrived about half an hour behind her 20-hour schedule looking a little flustered- her hands were puffy and she had gotten very dizzy on the course: sodium imbalance, possibly too many electrolytes. She didn’t seem to be dizzy anymore, so I told her to stop taking electrolyte pills and to drink only plain water and to eat non-salty food until the swelling started to go down, and gave her some ginger candy and coke to calm the tummy. It was too bad, she said the dream of sub-20 was gone, but she would still finish.

Crew city

Crew city at Rocky Raccoon

After our runners left Ken and I went to the car for a nap before we came back ready to pace. I slept solidly in the back seat for close to two hours, then dressed and readied up for the long night. As I waited for Yoshiko there was a little rain, it got dark, and Ian Sharman came in for the win. Yoshiko was not far behind and we headed out after a brief break for her.

I had forgotten that I’m still pretty uncomfortable running trails in the dark, especially with my crappy headlamps that just got crappier. Due to a baggage snafu at The North Face 50-Miler in December, the headlamp I had dropped off at the designated aid station after sunrise never made it back to me, but a staffer from the race production company’s Dallas office kindly offered to give me some of the other headlamps that were never claimed, and it just happened that he was coming down to Rocky Raccoon to volunteer. I was hoping for a Petzl Nao but instead I got two older but usable headlamps, each with their own flaws. Worried about relying on an unfamiliar piece of gear to do something important, I mostly stuck with my old backup headlamp, a Petzl Tikka with a cover that keeps popping off at the wrong times.

The course was not quite as rooty as I expected, in that the roots were spaced apart pretty nicely, but that is the thing that lulls one into a false sense of security, and with my crappy light source it was very hard to make out exactly where all the roots were. I fell twice in the early miles- the first time was an easy slow-motion tumble that I brushed off as no biggie, but the second came with a hard smack to the right knee, the kind that forced me to walk it off for a few minutes as I questioned my fitness for this treacherous overnight pacing gig. I knew I would pay for this later with swelling and discomfort, but at least I hit a new spot near the top of the kneecap, not further down where it had been hurt a few too many times before.

Yoshiko had asked me to run in front of her early on, but I kept getting too far ahead and I didn’t like that feeling, so after about 12 miles I asked her to go in front and I would pace her from behind. This worked out better as we could stay close together and when the trail opened up a bit we could run side-by-side. We came back in to the start/finish after around five and half hours which was good, it meant we were not losing much time on each lap. Yoshiko wasted no time getting out of the aid station as I was still fiddling with my gear, I’d catch up to her in a bit. It was still warm-ish so shed most of the excess clothing I had carried (windbreaker, buff, gloves and the outer layer of socks) but I kept my poncho just in case.

Even though our second loop together took a bit longer, it went by quicker because we were chatting more and we knew it was the last round. We had a bit of pouring rain, enough that I was glad to have the poncho handy, though of course as soon as I put it on the rain would ease off significantly. Once the sun started to rise and we hit the last stretch, Yoshiko took off at a fast enough pace that I wondered whether I should have pushed her harder earlier on. Her hands had still been puffy throughout the night, and given the uncertain risks I felt more comfortable keeping her company and making sure she was safe and taken care of.

The course became downright lovely in the daytime, and the roots were much easier to spot, though I’m still unsure of whether this will be one for me to race, as I still managed to fall (lightly) one more time after the sun came up. The organization was really terrific, with well stocked aid stations and kind volunteers and all the good stuff you’d expect from a well-run 100 mile race, including some very cool awards.

Week in Review: 1/26

Monday: 6.5 miles easy to moderate

Tuesday: AM: 3 miles easy out in the snow. PM: 17 x 1 minute stair intervals

Wednesday: AM: 5 miles walking. PM: Pool running class

Thursday: AM: 7 miles short intervals. PM: 3-mile tempo and strength workout

Friday: Off

Saturday-Sunday: 40 miles pacing

2015: Running Ahead

As I noted my 2014 review post, I didn’t have many fixed goals going in to last year and things turned out pretty well. I still think of myself as a very fly-by-the- seat-of-my-pants, winging-it and figuring-it-out-as-I-go-along kind of runner, so I’m understandably a little nervous about all of the thought and planning that’s having to go into 2015.

I have my big long term goals: improve at the marathon, run more 100 milers, get strong on the mountains, be fierce in 24-hour running, and I’m impatient so I want everything this year or next year. In October I turned 40 which is really just a number in the ultra world. I’ve only started competing over the last year and half without knowing too much about what I’m doing, so I should still have many good  years ahead of me if I’m smart about all the things it pays to be smart about: training, recovery, nutrition, and not running an average of 2.83 races per month all year. But I know there always be a certain amount of anxiety that weighs on me, the feeling that now is my peak, that I have only a few  good years to be great and that time is of the essence. This is what’s keeping a fire lit under my ass!

So what do I want out of the next year? Priority number one is always to fun and stay injury-free. I’ve had no trouble enjoying myself so far, as you all can see from all my ridiculously happy smiling race photos, but the hidden niggles are often with me in my day-to-day training. I’ve had a good recovery period and I’m feeling pretty fresh so the key is to keep doing those exercises and stretches and foam rolling to prevent future problems. But on my own, I’m really only consistent at taking hot soaks. It’s easier for me to go to a class and do as I’m told for an hour or so, so I’m adding more easy yoga and MELT, which was recently featured in the New York Times.

Nutrition is another area to work on. Left to my own devices, there will be days when I’ll eat chocolate for breakfast, energy bars for lunch, and microwave popcorn and cheese for dinner, washed down with coffee in the morning and Diet Coke the rest of the day. I honestly enjoy fruits and vegetable and all the good-for-you foods, but I’m lazy about preparation or even ordering food, and this is in New York City, delivery capital of the world. I’m currently experimenting with cutting my sugar intake, by completely eliminating it and limiting other carbs for a short period. I’ll have more to report on this later.

As for races, the big one for me, the one that everything else revolves around at this point, is of course the World 24-Hour Championship in Italy in mid-April. The selection takes place next week, and if I make the team that race will have my complete attention for the next few months, so much so that I may even sacrifice any serious racing until then. After April, I’ve only got the Rock the Ridge 50 Miler on May 2, TGNY 100 on June 20 and a couple of vertical K races. And I signed up for Boston months ago, which will have to be sacrificed for the 24-hour championships. Geez, did I just write that? What universe am I living in where I can’t run Boston because I am going to run in a freaking world championship race?! Maybe I will walk my way from Hopkinton to Boston. The official cutoff is at least eight hours.

On my “maybe” list are the Caumsett 50K on March 1 (the national road 50K championship race), a spring marathon or two, the full Vermont 100, and several fall marathons, most likely including the NYC marathon. For the “dream” list we have the Transrockies 3 Day (or something else fantastically scenic and out west), Spartathlon and JFK 50. I was getting excited about Spartathlon until I realized that my numerical dyslexia had convinced me it was “only” a 135-mile race (like Badwater) when it is in fact a whopping 153 miles. Those additional 18 miles are giving me pause.

Here is my tentative calendar the first half of the year:

January 31: Maybe either running the BUS 3-hour race on Long Island or pacing at the Rocky Raccoon 100

February 12: Maybe running the Lincoln’s Birthday marathon on Long Island or another marathon someplace warmer that weekend

March 1: Maybe Caumsett 50K

March 15: Pacing 1:50 at NYC Half

April 11: Hope to be running the World 24-Hour Championships in Torino, Italy

April 20: Maybe crawling my way through Boston

April 26: Pacing 2:00 at the New Jersey Half

May 2: Rock the Ridge 50-Miler

May 24: Maybe Mountains 2 Beach Marathon in California

May 30: Maybe Quest for the Crest Vertical K in North Carolina

June 20: TGNY 100

June 27: Whiteface Vertical K

PHUNT 25K

Last year I raced more weekends than not, and I resolved to cut back on that year. So what did I do but go run a race on the first weekend of the year? Maggie’s fault.

I’d been hearing about PHUNT for some time since Maggie had invited some friends over for a sleepover before the race, but by the time I looked into registration it was already sold out. Last weekend at a party for our trail running group, Maggie mentioned that she would ask the RD and sure enough, before I’d even gotten home from the party, she was letting me know that she’d secured a spot for me. Apparently some runners had cancelled after the RD posted an update on the forecast for rainy weather the following weekend. Now I had to go, right?

After a week or so of easy running and averaging only about five miles a day, my body and mind were finally feeling rested and relaxed. I’ve picked up the heart rate monitor to keep me in line and aim to stay within my aerobic heart rate zone according to the Maffetone formula of 180 minus my age, which works out to no more than 140 or a 9:40-9:45 pace at best, and ironically slowing down can be a struggle at first (even for someone like Liza Howard). Running in Central Park and getting passed by everyone, I wanted to tell them, “Hey guys, you’re all running too fast! You know that’s not good for you right?” But I decided against getting punched in the face.

I braved the cold as much as I could all week, since it’s not yet super-cold in NYC and I’m trying to build up my weather toughness, but I notice that my hips and lower back tighten up and it’s difficult to open up my stride once the temperatures dip into the 30s. After getting a super-tight hip flexor from just standing around in Central Park on New Year’s Eve to see the fireworks and cheer the NYRR Midnight Run, by Friday I decided to “treat” myself with a visit to the gym treadmill. And man did it feel luxurious: no layers, total comfort, and I managed to throw down a few speedy intervals to work on my neglected leg turnover. I think once the real cold starts up this week I’ll start spending a little more time indoors.

But the real highlight of my week was not running on the treadmill for half an hour but experiencing PHUNT, or the little Fatass that could. In this, the 12th year of PHUNT, the Trail Dawgs who organize the event were testing out whether they could transition from a DIY self-supported Fatass run to a legit paid-entry race. I’d say the money ($35) was well spent: the course was terrifically well marked, they had themed aid stations every few miles, hot food at the finish, and my favorite race souvenir- pint glasses! The course itself was like a lollipop with a 1-mile stem and a 13.5 mile trail loop, run once for the 25K and twice for the 50K, mostly singletrack with some roots and rocks and few stretches of road and gravel, nothing technical.

Now I wish I could say I was as well prepared for the race as the organizers. I went to Maggie’s packed for a 40-something degree run and was shocked to find we’d be starting in freezing weather. I had brought the CWX tights I’d worn on New Year’s Even in Central Park and knew my legs would be chilled in them, but I woke up on Saturday with the brilliant idea of doubling up with some of the extra clothes I’d brought to change into. I added a second pair of looser leggings over my compression tights and I layered a thicker tech shirt over a thinner long sleeve shirt. With a Buff, headband, cap, and gloves/mittens and handwarmers, I figured I could survive the 25K.

Our gang pre-race. Photo: Ken Tom

Our gang pre-race. Photo: Ken Tom

I hoped to enjoy an easy trail run and try to stick to my moderate heart rate plan: ignore the pace, set my main Garmin display to show only the heart rate and let it go maybe as high as the low 160s. But what ever goes according to plan on race day? A week of relative rest had me raring to go from the start, we took off and one woman shot ahead to the front of the pack and I hung back behind the next group of half a dozen guys. We had a road section to start with which I knew to take advantage of, because me and trails in this part of the world don’t get along so well. As soon as we hit the trail section I had to slow: it was covered in fallen leaves, twisting and turning like a maze through the bare woods. You could see people running around but couldn’t always tell if they were in front or behind or how far either way. A few people passed me in the first mile or two of trail, including one woman, but even my slow run was getting my heart rate up towards 170 early in the race.

Lined up and brrr. Photo: Tommy Pyon

Lined up and brrr.

Despite the early morning chill the weather seemed perfect by the time we started running. A few miles in I was feeling warm and I decided to take my handwarmers out of my mittens, but when I started to fiddle with a place to put them– BAM! First fall of the day. I could feel a sting of blood in the usual spot on my left knee but my pants were untorn and I was unhurt. Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall again, I remind myself repeatedly, and wonder why I keep signing up for trail races when it would be so much nicer to come here for a simple training run.

The course was ziggy and zaggy, the hills not as steep as I expected (until much later) and I felt nice and comfortable- as much as possible when I’m trying too hard not to fall. I was trying out some new gear for the first time- a fresh pair of trail Hokas and a funky looking Simple Hydration bottle that goes in the waistband in the back. The bottle jiggles a bit when it’s filled to its 13 oz capacity, but feels very comfortable half full, which was all I needed between aid stations. I’m not sure if I would want a cool water bottle against my skin on a cold day, but since I was wearing two pairs of leggings I was able to stash the bottle in between the layers. It worked.

Photo: Jimmy Wilson

Hands-free with a nifty bum bottle. Photo: Jimmy Wilson

The 50K runners had started about 10 minutes before the 25K, which meant  a lot of passing after the first couple of miles. I get very nervous about passing or being passed on trails. I’m happy to pull over to let a faster runner go by and I always appreciate when someone does the same for me, as it spares the awkwardness of having to speed up to get by and chance falling right in front of the person I’ve just passed (yeah it’s happened). I saw Ken as we approached the halfway point and gave him the usual ass-slap as I passed him, and soon after came to a water crossing with some rocks. Don’t fall, don’t slip… okay good. As soon as I start congratulating myself for making it across- SLAM! I fall again and bang my right knee. This one hurt a little and required a minute  of walking up a hill to catch my breath and settle down. I fell again about a mile later for no reason, nearly landing on my face. I can’t even tell you what I trip on, I just fall. But three times in the first half of a 25K is not good. At least I shouldn’t fall more than another three times at this rate, I tell myself, as I self-debated whether I should just accept that I may fall a few more times or put it out of my mind because even thinking about falling might become a self-fulfilling prophecy… How about I just focus on looking at the ground instead? Focus, focus, focus. Sometimes the cold makes my eyes water and it’s hard to see, plus there are all those leaves and so much danger when stepping into them off the side of the trail while passing some runners. The time went by slowly and I tried to let go of the awareness of time and just enjoy playing in the woods on a pretty nice day for early January. Since my heart rate was high and my falls might be an indicator of too little fuel or electrolytes, I made sure to munch on some GU Chomps after the first hour or so. They are a bit hard to eat when they get very cold so I let them sit in my mouth for a while to soften before chewing.

It started raining more in the second half, but the trees provided some shelter and I was protected by my double layers of everything for a while. As I approached the final aid station I was starting to feel cold and regretted leaving my handwarmers at the first aid station. I checked the time, saw that I’d been out close to two hours and confirmed with a volunteer that this was the final aid before the start/finish and the distance: 3.8 miles, she said. Ok, probably not more than 40 minutes then, since the last portion had some road on the way back to the activity center. I toddled along, slowing or even walking a little on the uphills, which seemed to be getting bigger now, until I spied a lady up ahead who looked like the one who’d passed me at the start of the trail. With a few miles to go, this gave me something to look forward to: I could close the gap slowly on the trail and make a move to pass once we got back on the road. My heart rate was up in the mid 180s now and would pretty much stay there until the finish. I was extra careful trying not to fall on the remaining trail portion and took a short break to walk as we came to an uphill field section since my heart rate felt unsustainable. I let it drop a few beats and then turned on to the gravel road I’d been waiting for. I picked up the pace, closed up the gap and booked it to end with a little kick on that final half-mile stretch. After a few hours out there by myself, falling and trying to hone my focus on nothing but the few feet of trail in front of me, it felt real sweet to lift my head up and finish on a high note with a little of that game called racing.

I hurried in to the warm activity center to get changed ASAP and there were loads of people hanging out already- with the deteriorating weather and more rain forecast all afternoon, a bunch of 50K runners had decided to stop and take a 25K finish. I still have no idea about the results- I was the second lady who started with the 25K to finish that race, but there were several 50K ladies who started 10 minutes earlier who got in before me and dropped down. But as one of them said, “It’s PHUNT. Who cares?” Anyways, My watch time was 2:32:28, or a 7.5-minute PR over my last trail 25K in May. Nowhere near the 2:15 fantasy time I thought I would run, which was based on nothing, since I’d never seen this trail before and I suck on trails generally. I don’t see where I would have shaved much time off apart from a minute or two if I hadn’t fallen, and my heart rate was always higher than expected at 175 average. Still it was a decent training effort to start the year on.

Maggie FTW, and Dylan for the 3rd. Photo: Ken Tom

Maggie FTW, and Dylan for the 3rd. Photo: Ken Tom

Since I was the only half –ass among my friends who all signed up for the 50K, I had lots of time to hang out at the center, eating the delicious PHUNT lentil barley soup and sipping a bit of beer here and there (PHUNT is big on beer!) and meeting more of the locals. The ultra world is so small that there are always people who’ve been at the same races or have friends who did all those races.

Afterwards it was back to Maggie’s for a post-PHUNT meal and following live updates from another competitive 24-hour race in Florida late into the night. I went to bed and woke up under Maggie’s lucky charm Team USA jersey from Pam Smith and I guess it brought me some good fortune too because I woke up still at number 5 on the list of qualifiers. It doesn’t look like there are any more qualifying events before the team selection begins next week so I should be good to go to the World 24 Hour Championships in April. Stay tuned for the official announcement to come in mid-January!

Here’s a video of the entire PHUNT made by Jimmy Wilson, who ran the race wearing a pair of Pivothead glasses that automatically shoot a photo every 30 seconds. The rear images of me in this post were taken from screenshots of this video.

 

Week in Review 12/29

Monday: 7 miles easy at 135 HR

Tuesday: 5 miles at low 130s HR, body weight strength exercise

Wednesday: 5.5 miles easy

Thursday: 4 miles easy, heart rate monitor not working

Friday: 3.2 miles easy with 3 x 2 minutes fast + 1 minute recovery jogs

Saturday: 25K trail race

Sunday: Total rest

2014 in Review

This is a review of my year in running only. I didn’t start the year with too many concrete goals, so it’s interesting to see how things developed.

Towards the end of 2013 I put some broad ego-boosting goals in the “someday” file that include winning a race overall (it would have to be a very small one), running a sub-3-hour or seeing how close I can get, being the women’s winner at a marathon (again think small), and winning some prize money (think really small– even $25 or $50 would count!). I didn’t meet any of those this year but that’s fine because I can’t say I tried for any of them either. The closest I came was with the prize money. I won some expensive gear in the Hong Kong mountain races I ran, I helped my road running team win $400 as the second place women’s team at the NYRR Dash to the Finish Line 5K, and I got my entry fee for NJ One Day refunded for hitting the 120-mile USA team qualifying standard, plus 75% off my next NJ trail series race for coming in second– but still, no “prize check” in my name!

Winter training in the Palisades. Photo: Tommy Pyon

Winter training was a frigid blur. Photo: Tommy Pyon

Coming into 2014, I only had a few races on the calendar (or should I say, that I’d already paid for): Boston, Berlin and NYC marathons, the Rock n Roll New Orleans, NYC and Lehigh halfs, Caumsett 50K and the North Face San Francisco 50-miler, plus I had committed to pacing 4:00 at the New Jersey marathon (Okay, maybe more than a few but still very little compared to the 34 races I ended up with!) Come January I started adding some big races that filled up quickly (TGNY 100, Vermont 100K) as well as last-minute sign-ups to run some low-key shorter races like the Boston Buildup races (a terrific series, btw). I started the year with some hip pain that still hasn’t totally gone away and spent a bit on chiro with Wayne Winnick and other treatment to keep me going at least to Boston. My original plan was to train well for my first Boston, run some half-marathon PRs along the way, and race the Caumsett 50K for a sub-4 hour time.

Cold-weather pacing at the Fred Lebow Manhattan Half. Photo: Atsede Aemro- Selassie

Dressed for cold-weather success pacing the Fred Lebow Manhattan Half. Photo: Atsede Aemro- Selassie

My real focus for the first several months was the Boston training. After a rough PR day at the New Orleans Half in early February, I dove in to week 9 of the Hanson’s Marathon Method and stuck to it pretty consistently for the rest of the cycle, with the addition of a few longer runs (20-22 miles) instead of the prescribed 16-mile maximum. This was my first winter of running and it was a baptism by fire. I got colds and the flu fairly regularly, especially after fast races, and my hip was a concern, so I scrapped the Caumsett 50K and ran the 25K instead. I did most of my speedwork on the treadmill, and even some of my easy runs when there was too much snow on the roads. Thanks to the New York Sports Club’s $30 for 30 days trial (which can be re-tried annually), I was able to use a treadmill two blocks from my apartment during the rough month from late January through most of February.

Framingham, Boston Marathon 10K mark. Photo: Joan Kim

Framingham, Boston Marathon 10K mark. First warm day of the year and I got a fantastic race outfit sunburn on the right side. Photo: Joan Kim

The training worked and I PR’d at the NYC Half and then ran an emotional 3:14:15 PR at my first Boston. It had taken me so long to get to there (8 years!), and after all that the city and running community had been through, I broke down in the Wellesley scream tunnel. Even now, the memory of their haunting cries brings tears to my eyes. The infamous hills did do me in but that will give me additional motivation for next time.

Four hours or bust! Photo: Otto Lam

Leading the charge to 4 hours at New Jersey. Photo: Otto Lam

Pacing the New Jersey Marathon six days after Boston was really tough in the state my quads were in, but Otto Lam did such a superb job of organizing the pace teams for the full and half that I really wanted to be a part of it, and we had a great time in the marathon party house that Kino arranged. I took it pretty easy for most of May, racing my first ever 5K (which I won, haha!) and starting a new training plan under my new coach Michele Yates. I told her my near-term goals were to get a sub-4:30 trail 50K, a win and under 20 hours at TGNY, and under 14 hours and podium at the Vermont 100K.

5K bling is much bigger than ultra bling. Photo: Tommy Pyon

Buckles shmuckles– 5K’s where all the bling is at. Photo: Tommy Pyon

My first ultra of the year was the PinelandsTrail Festival 50-Miler over Memorial Day weekend. I was signed up for the 50K and really wanted to run 4:30 or under to qualify for the elite corral at The North Face San Francisco 50-Miler. However, I wasn’t sure if I could run that time on trails and I didn’t know the Pinelands course at all, so I thought it might actually be “easier” to run the 50-mile race in under 8:30, the TNF elite qualifying time for that distance. I slept on it, woke up feeling pretty good, and changed my registration just minutes before the start. I started out a little too aggressively and had to slow in the last part of the race, but finished my first 50-miler with what felt like my best trail result to date, 8:11:30 and 2nd female! Oh, and I didn’t trip and fall!

This must be, oh, about 10 hours into the 12-hour. Photo: Larry Sillen

This must be, oh, about 10 hours into the 12-hour. Photo: Larry Sillen

After 50 miles, it was time to gear up my training for the TGNY 100 4 weeks later. I made a very late decision to run my first 12-Hour race at the BUS Joe Kleinerman run in early June, and won with just over 75 miles. The .97-mile loop was the shortest I’d ever run, it was hot that day and the course had a pretty significant hill, but I had a pretty good experience, while swearing to myself that this was enough and that I was NOT going to run a 24-hour race later this year.

Photo: Atsede Aemro-Selassie

Times Squaaaaaare here I come. Photo: Atsede Aemro-Selassie

TGNY was my first big goal race of the summer- the one that I really wanted to win and improve on my time from last year, which was a little under 23 hours. It was my first 100 miler last year and would now be my second. I didn’t spend as much time training on the course this year since I remembered most of it, just one group preview run organized by the RD Phil and another review of a tricky stretch in the Bronx. The 12-hour race was my real heavy training run and I felt good going in to TGNY. I only hit a few low points late in the run, and had great support from my pacers Emi, Simon and Francesca, as well as all the volunteers on the course. My goal was sub-20 and I ran 19:06. I also learned a few things about what I’ll have to do to run an even better race in 2015, which is what I plan to do.

In Vermont. Photo: Lucimar

A month later in Vermont. Yeah so I basically wear the same three things for all my races, especially when it’s warm. Photo: Lucimar Araujo

In July I ran the Vermont 100K. The big 100-mile race is very popular with NYC ultrarunners, but despite all their assurances that the trail was “easy,” I needed to see for myself before I’d commit to 100 miles on a course that might chew me up through the night and spit me out the next morning. Of course they were right, it was easy (defined as: I never fell down, and if I don’t fall on a trail it must be easy). I ran with the ladies’ winner from the previous year for the first part, until we ran off course and added three miles, and then she got in a hurry to make up her position, so I spent the rest of the day solo relaxing on the peaceful country roads and trails, power-hiking the hills and running the rest. I beat my 14-hour goal by a lot, finishing in 11:54 for 2nd.

Mountain time

Mountain time on the infamous Incline.

August was a very difficult month for me for non-running reasons, and you could say I made it more difficult by challenging myself on the unfamiliar terrain of big mountains. I had won the UTMB lottery in my second year of trying, but was very indecisive about whether or not to go for what felt like a long time. A great group of runners I know were going and had booked a house in Chamonix for a week before the race, so that was a huge plus, and I couldn’t shake the dream of running through the Alps in 3 countries in one go. However, I couldn’t realistically run this race and go back to Europe for the Berlin marathon a month later. Reasoning that I might not have such a cool opportunity to do UTMB again in the near future (since you need both qualifying races and lottery luck to get in) I chose UTMB.

Two weeks out I ran the Pikes Peak marathon to prepare for UTMB, since the uphill portion of Pikes Peak would be much bigger than the biggest hills at UTMB, and the altitude greater. I absolutely fell in love with Colorado and got in some amazing mountain training on the days before the marathon. After all, I was training for UTMB, so no taper needed for Pikes Peak. I really enjoyed the Pikes Peak challenge but took a bad fall and banged my right knee on some rocks about a mile and a half before the finish.

Taking a break in the Swiss Alps. Photo: Harald Zundel

Taking a break in the Swiss Alps. Photo: Harald Zundel

It was really too bad as the sore knee followed me to Europe, where I did some easy hiking in the Swiss and French Alps during the ten days leading up UTMB. As much as I tried to avoid downhills that would aggravate my knee it simply wasn’t possible. And again, there was not much time for proper training or tapering, but I’ll take what I can get, especially when it involves unbelievable terrain.

Such a relief. Photo: Aleks Zuber

That’s 45 hours worth of relief on my face. Photo: Aleks Zuber

UTMB was an epically long race with some struggle. I had a great start despite the rain the first night and felt strong until around halfway, when my knee became an issue and I had to make the call on whether to quit or keep going with an occasionally hobbling pace on the downhills. Around 90K I was about ready to call it a day when I met an American guy named Nick who said, “oh please don’t quit” and reminded me that we had plenty of time to finish the race within the 46 hour cutoff. Thanks to him, who I occasionally met up with on some of the remaining parts of the course, I determined to stick it out.  Anyways, I always want to see the rest of the course and have a knack for persuading myself that, no matter how gnarly or soul-destroying the previous section was, the next one won’t be so bad (of course it can be worse!). I got my money’s worth at the aid stations, ate lots of cheese and salami and noodle soup and crackers, took a few catnaps, got massaged, sometimes hallucinated (but knew I was hallucinating), got sleepy and bored during the second night, sometimes lonely (no pacers allowed) and only cried in despair once at a never ending downhill and what felt like a long- delayed second surnrise. At the last major aid station, 20km from the finish, I got pale and dizzy, vomited, and made a big poop, and was held at the medical tent for an hour and half while my vitals were monitored. Once I was given the all-clear, I continued through one final brutal mountain, back to the village where I had started nearly 45 hours earlier, with my housemates there to run me in and cheer me to the finish. That made me feel like I can do anything.

To the finish of the Tahoe 200. Photo: Rebecca Lippman

To the finish of the Tahoe 200. Photo: Rebecca Lippman

2014 was also the year that I learned how to be an ultra pacer and crew person. I crewed and paced Teaspoon for 30-ish miles at Umstead in April, and within days of finishing UTMB I was on a plane to Reno to help Mama Michelle at the Tahoe 200, a 200+ MILE race around Lake Tahoe. I was so glad to be able to crew and pace Michelle since she was one of my pacers the first time I ran TGNY. 200+ miles has to be one of the hardest things I have ever seen anyone do- not just Michelle but for everyone out there. I was really glad that she persevered and despite all the struggle and pain she finished strong, running all the way down the last mountain. Remember, if she can run at the end of 200+  mountain miles and four and half days of sleep deprivation, you can always keep running too!

Hong Kongs Victoria to Peak Challenge. Photo: Club Balance

And chicking my way to the top of Hong Kong island. Photo: Club Balance

From Tahoe I traveled to Hong Kong for personal business, and made the best of the heat and humidity. I ran a couple of short steep uphill races and greatly enjoyed them, plus I won some fancy prizes like Salomon shoes and wireless headphones. It suits my lazy nature to walk hard up a lot of the big hills, plus pushing up a mountain in a race is something that makes me feel very alive.

Photo: Donna Sajulga-Tabios

Bloody but unbowed. Photo: Donna Sajulga-Tabios

Returning to New York in early October, I was in no way ready to race for good marathon times, but I still ran the Steamtown marathon the day before my birthday and decided to pace NYC instead of racing.  By this point I was pretty sure that if I wasn’t going to run good fall marathons (meaning PRs), I would go for my first 24-hour race at New Jersey One Day. I was familiar with the race venue and it wouldn’t require much travel or stress, and if the weather was bad I would stay home. I ran a 6-hour race two weeks out as my long run (got the win and a course record as a bonus), paced 3:45 at NYC on November 2nd, and toed the line at One Day the following week, running my marathon split in exactly 3:45 again. The 24-hour experience was a real handful and I’m still recovering. I was very happy with my 136 miles on my first crack at the 24-hour puzzle.

Two thumbs up for 24 hours. Photo: Otto Lam

Two thumbs up for 24 hours. Photo: Otto Lam

After a couple of weeks of recovery, I headed to California for my two final big races of the year, the Quad Dipsea and The North Face San Francisco 50 Mile. Very tired by this point, I still couldn’t pass up the chance to finally run in one of my favorite places in the world. Then I went and did a few more social races before I was really really really done for the year. Five days off and then back to some easy running, trying to stay around 30-60 relaxing minutes each day before the next training cycle begins in January.

Fun to the end of the year. Photo: Donna Sajulga-Tabios

Fun to the end of the year. Photo: Donna Sajulga-Tabios

A few other highlights from 2014 on the non-racing front:

Taking a quick break from pacing to give Mama a big hug. Photo: Young Cho

Gotta give our Mama a big hug during the marathon. Photo: Young Cho

After putting together a pace team for the 2013 NYC Marathon, New York Road Runners decided to start a pace team for its half marathons as well. I made the team and paced most of the NYRR halfs this year, as well at the marathon again. I love wearing the pacer singlet, carrying the sign (it’s not at all heavy!), and helping others achieve their goals with a steady pace.

I found a coach who’s my kind of crazy and a community of like-minded, hardworking runners at Rugged Running. Michele Yates is an incredible athlete and so inspiring, she really makes me want to train harder and smarter. As a bonus her services are pretty affordable and it feels like she is always there for us, even with a newborn baby and her own ambitious goals!

Whats inside is top-secret :-)

Whats inside is top-secret :-)

Purely through the luck of wearing a sample shoe size, I became a wear tester for Hoka One One and have logged a lot of miles and provided feedback on some of their shoes that will hit the market next year or later. This was really a dream come true!

Chilling at the TCS NYC Marathon Opening Ceremony and Parade of Nations

With my pro hospitality teammates at the TCS NYC Marathon Opening Ceremony and Parade of Nations

Through a chance volunteer assignment at the Milrose Games in February, I met the team that handles professional athlete hospitality for the big events with New York Road Runners and I had the opportunity to work with them on the preparations for the NYC Half, Mini 10K and the really big one, the TCS NYC Marathon. It’s a cliche but true that the world’s best runners are the nicest people too.

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I won some accolades too: My team gave me the Ultrarunner of the Year award for the second year in a row, I was awarded the New York Ultrarunning Grand Prix Championship title in March for racking up the most points in their races last year, and New York Road Runners recognized me as (ultra)runner-up for Ultrarunner of the Year. I can’t say I run for any of this kind of recognition but it is sweet and I am grateful for it.

And finally– 2014 in statistics!

Races run: 34

Marathons: 5

Ultras: 9

Race miles: 1013

Road race miles: 643

Trail race miles: 370

Total mileage: 2706

It sounds hokey but I’m very grateful that I was able to run this much, in so many beautiful places and surrounded by wonderful people all along the way. I get a little emotional when I think about it, how far I’ve come and how long the road ahead still is. Happy new year!

Ultra Recovery Running: Bryan Court 100 (60K) and BUS Fat Ass Trail Mix-Up 30K

This weekend I ran about 40 miles over the two days. That may not the smartest thing to do during recovery time but YOLO. How did that happen?

You know you might be planning to run too much when even Teaspoon is telling me that I might be overdoing it. But it feels like all my friends are going (maybe because all my friends are also crazy running friends now…). I know, I could hang out to volunteer and cheer, but I miss running a lot- it’s been weeks but feels like months. I’ll take it easy, I bargain. Back-to-back long runs are a normal part of my training, right, so this is no big deal. It’s purely for training, not racing, I promise. Last long run of the year, okay? And so on…

And hey, it’s not like I was scouring Ultrasignup to find two events to run this weekend, but it just turned out that there were two things I really wanted to do on consecutive days. This year the Broadway Ultra Society organized one of their occasional casual year-end races, the BUS Fat Ass Trail Mix-Up, with 30K and 50K options for Sunday, December 21. Meanwhile, my friends Otto Lam and his twin brother-from-another-mother Juergen, who is visiting from Germany, had decided to give their previously cancelled Bryan Court 100 (60K) another go, and set the date for Saturday, December 20. What to do? Bryan Court promised to be a great running party, while BUS events are always a good time, and they were going to give out the signature BUS ski hats as swag. The truth is that I’ve been eyeing those hats on people’s heads at various ultra events over the past year or so and knew they were hard to come by, so here was my chance!

I signed up for both. I wasn’t sure if it would be a good idea to run the 100 laps of Bryan Court required for the full 60K, but Otto assured me that there would be no DNFs at their race, only DDs (drop downs). And realistically, I planned to run the BUS 30K and not the 50K. So again, rationalizing that this would be not at all different from all those weekends when I’ve doubled up with a 15-20 miler plus a 25-35 miler, I would go for it.

This casual long-running weekend would also help develop my cold-weather tolerance and allow me to play with my winter gear. It was chilly all weekend but not like drastically below freezing, and despite the complete lack of sunshine both days we had no rain and only a few snowflakes spotted by the eagle-eyed Maggie on Saturday. As a bonus, I also got some unfortunate lessons on how bad my stomach can get if I don’t start taking better care of things like my nutrition.

Bryan Court 100 (60K)

Photo: Juergen Englerth

Photo: Juergen Englerth

Saturday morning on the way to Bryan Court I was already tired. In fact, I’d been very tired since the early evening on Friday. Nothing a little more coffee couldn’t fix though, right?

Otto lives in the middle of Bryan Court, a sort of barbell-shaped cul-de-sac in northern New Jersey. The idea for the Bryan Court 100 (60K) came to Otto as he wondered what it would be like to run an ultra on his block. He and Juergen measured the loop and found it was exactly 600 meters, ideal for a 100-lap 60K run. They had originally planned to host the event in May, and though that was canceled, clearly the idea lived on in the minds of these two men. They invited a few people who just might be mad enough to run a tiny loop for hours on end, and were somewhat shocked and overwhelmed when a bunch of them actually showed up. All day, Otto kept saying, “I can’t believe you people are here. I thought no one will come.”

Apart from the somewhat challenging course, the set-up was top-notch, and the amount of care put into all the small details was really touching. A classic ultra aid station table was set up on the lawn outside the Lam home, with a wide variety of food and drink, some provided by the runners, who were asked to bring something to share. We also had access to the kitchen, living room and two ultra comfortable bathrooms, which I came to appreciate greatly later in the day. Lots of spouses and partners and kids were on hand to volunteer, cheer, take photos and keep a steady supply of hot and tasty food and drink coming to the runners. It was amazingly luxurious and would have ruined anyone who ran their first ultra here- the next one will surely not be as accommodating!

#ottolamming. Photo: Donna Saljuga-Tabios

#ottolamming. Photo: Donna Sajulga-Tabios

After setting up my drop bag in the living room and my soft cooler bag on the lawn, we hung out outside and took a lot of pictures, including the obligatory group #ottolamming pose. I dressed up for the occasion in some holiday-colored running clothes, along with a random dog-ear headband that I wound up with on my head after the Whippets holiday party the previous weekend, so I looked like an elf with giant floppy ears. There was a bit of a spontaneous theme with runners wearing funny and mostly animal-related headgear.

A few of the funny hats. Photo: Hideki Kinoshita

A few of the funny hats. Photo: Hideki Kinoshita

The kids sang the national anthem and they were a little shy, so all the runners joined in as well. Then we were off! I’d say about 20 of us were running that day and we all started out together like a loony parade, with at least half the runners wearing funny headgear and others taking turns holding a 3-hour pace sign that had survived from the New Jersey Marathon. What did the neighbors make of this? We were laughing a lot as we ran the early loops, and as we spread out a bit we could always see the others and wave and cheer each other on.

Maggie and I ran together and chatted, but there was no denying that this loop felt really long and that there was something subtly difficult about it. Was it the up-and-down the block, the tight turn at one end, the concrete, the gray skies and cold, or a combination of all of the above? I’ve run a bunch of short loop races but nothing shorter than about a mile with no issues, but when I think about running a track ultra some day the thought of it makes me feel a bit eeewww. Is this what it’s going to be like?

The view

The view

After about 8 mile and change Maggie and I were hungry and we attacked the aid station table. Coke, PB&J, potato chips and pretzels, a cookie, plus a hot chocolate and coffee mix to go as we walked a lap. When we started running again, we picked up the pace a bit and I just zoned out a bit and followed Maggie. A few miles later we took another break and went inside for what was probably a long time, came out again and were still not quite at 20K. By this time we had lost our “lead” to Jun, who was about a mile ahead. We resolved not to stop again until the halfway point and picked it up again.

Fooood!!! Photo: Donna Saljuga-Tabios

Fooood!!! Overindulging at the fantastic aid station with the best volunteers. Photo: Donna Sajulga-Tabios

At some point the volunteers started calling out our lap numbers to us, which was not what we wanted to hear! It made getting to halfway feel like it was taking much longer than it should. Each lap felt like a mile to me even though it was only about a third of that. Maggie kept shouting at them to stop telling us, but I don’t think they ever did.

My friends the bathroom passes. Photo: Elaine Acosta

My dear friends the bathroom passes. Photo: Elaine Acosta

It was also around this point that my stomach started getting funny and my “race” took a nosedive. First there was gas and then cramping pains as I tried to make it to lap 50 before stopping. Not gonna happen. I stopped around lap 45 for a short pit stop and then again at 47 for a much longer pit stop and told Maggie to go ahead. When I came out she was enjoying her halfway-done break. I continued to run and could hear the contents of my stomach sloshing, even though I’d just emptied my guts and hadn’t been drinking too much. The sounds were freaking me out. I made it to the 30K mark before I had to stop again for another extended bathroom break. By now I felt pretty depleted so I had some soup and crackers and mainly walked a few laps, but then again, another gut-wrenching toilet stop, and another, and another…. I have to say if there was ever a race to have the worst case of runner’s trots in, this was it— Clean toilets and a very short loop! But I knew I was pretty much done. This was not the day to dig deep and gut it out and suffer until I collapsed. I’d rather cheer my friends and enjoy the party later.

I went and sat in Teaspoon’s warm car and passed out almost immediately, waking just in time to catch Maggie a few laps before she finished. I walked around a few times as she wrapped up her ladies win and then we headed inside and ate some pizza and everything else. Then I went outside one more time as the sun went down to see the Christmas lights on the houses of Bryan Court and to complete an even 60 laps. Yes, I’m the kind of runner who will go up and down my block a few times at the end of a run to hit exactly 6 miles or 1-hour or whatever. We celebrated into the evening with cakes to for Chris’s birthday and Lisa’s lifetime 50th marathon/ultra—and she’s only 27!

Buckles and prizes. Photo: Juergen Englerth

Buckles and prizes. Photo: Juergen Englerth

Finishers got finishers buckles and the rest of us got “participant” (or commemorative) buckles designed by the ultra-talented Grammi, which featured the Chinese zodiac animals of our RDs: Ox for Otto and Tiger for Juergen. Sweet!

BUS Fat Ass Trail Mix-Up 30K

Back on the trails. Photo: Donna Sajulga-Tabios

Back on the trails. Photo: Donna Sajulga-Tabios

This was one mixed-up event indeed. Originally scheduled to take place in Forest Park, apparently a park bureaucrat didn’t like the idea of a laid-back little ultra race and nixed the original plan, which was to run 30K of loops on Forest Park trails followed by 20K of loops on Forest Park roads. Luckily, BUS RD Richie was able to secure another venue on short notice; however, instead of running on an all-trail loop for the first 30K, we would be running half-trail, half-road. We had several emails about the course and directions, but it was still pretty confusing since I wasn’t familiar with Alley Pond Park (or really any park besides Central Park). I hoped that I would be able to follow people at least the first time around.

The mixed-up Mix Up map

The mixed-up Mix Up map

And even though the event was called a Fat Ass, it was even less of one than Bryan Court! There was a modest entry fee of $25, and we were spoiled with two aid stations, scorers, swag, post-race food and drink, and awards. I think the RD just liked using the “Fat Ass” name to differentiate it from most of the other BUS events that are part of the New York Ultrarunning Grand Prix series, and also so he could call this one a “Half Ass.”

My stomach problems felt like they had cleared up and my legs didn’t feel too bad when I woke up on Sunday. I had a typical cobbled-together pre-race meal of milky coffee, half a Clif bar, a piece of chocolate, a handful of dry cereal and a couple of homemade cookies nabbed from the Bryan Court aid station, while Maggie had a serious runner’s breakfast of black coffee and plain oatmeal with peanut butter and A GEL mixed in. I really need to rethink my nutritional strategies.

We caught a ride with another friend who was running, picked up the swag and set up our drop bags and stuff in a big tent, and said hi to so many people I knew. I ran my first BUS event in July last year and by now I really feel like a regular in this crew of ultrarunners of all ages. My jaw dropped a little when I saw I’d been granted the damn bib number “1” for this race, probably because I won the last BUS-affiliated event in October. I knew I wasn’t going to live up to my bib number today but figured at least I’d make a nice target since we had to wear back and front bibs for this one.

I was a bit all over the place in terms of sorting out my gear and missed most of the pre-race briefing because I was fiddling with last-minute things in the warm bathroom, including munching on a couple of precautionary Pepto Bismol tablets. Just stay with runners for the first loop and you’ll be fine. I wasn’t sure where the trail started or how narrow it would be so I lined up towards the front, but behind the really fast guys, just in case it got tight early on. I knew Maggie’s friend Taryn was well-trained and going for the 50K win today so I wasn’t going to follow her, but there were some other guys and a girl I recognized as good to stick with. I looked around for Maggie but she was hanging back with Otto and others and I knew she could catch up soon enough.

We took off and I followed the lead pack, which soon became the second pack as Taryn and another guy pulled way ahead. The first 1.8 miles were all on road and I started to recognize it from the BUS 3-Hour Race in March. Despite my totally groundless reassurances to myself to the contrary, it was not flat. There were some short and ugly steep hills that I remembered running on the last time. But also a nice long flattish section, maybe ½ to ¾ of a mile where I could get my speed on. I did but it felt way too fast and I wondered why I was so out of shape. At the March race, I had started out with a friend and we had agreed to stick to an 8-ish pace, or not faster than 7:50s, and wound up comfortably running around a 7:30 average. Right now on the flats, 7:30 was not too comfortable, but I kept dropping the pace because I knew the trail might force me to slow down a lot. Partly out of laziness I had decided to wear my “cold-weather” road shoes, the Adidas Energy Boost, since the Boost foam doesn’t harden as much as other materials in frigid temperatures, but if the trail was very rocky or rooty, I was going to have to take it real easy. My first priority in any trail race is to avoid getting hurt.

We got to the trail part which started as springy wood chips. I slowed a little to watch my footing while the small pack of guys ahead of me kept their pace, but I still had two others right behind me. I started “racing” a little to stay ahead and promptly fell down the side of the wood chip trail. Doh! Okay, time to back off. The two others passed by as I was hauling myself up and I held back as we hit a rockier portion of the trail for about half a mile. Remember goal number 1: Don’t fall down again.

The trail wasn’t too bad and I felt I’d made the right decision on the shoes, but the rest of my gear was bothering me. I felt way too hot and stuffy and was trying to figure out what to take off at the end of this first loop. Cap or fleece headband or buff? Down vest? Fleece mittens? I’d decided to carry a 10 oz. handheld because I didn’t want to stop at the aid stations too often, but holding it with two pairs of gloves on was awkward. I have the dual problem of getting cold really easily and sweating a lot, so depending on my pace, if I wear too much and run fast I’ll be drenched but if I don’t wear enough and slow down I will freeze my butt off. So far I was getting soaked.

At the end of the loop the course returned to the asphalt and we circled around a playing field to the scoring tent, then made an out and back to the aid station and drop bag tents. Or I thought it was an out and back. As I approached the tent. Richie the RD yelled at me to go back and make a right. What?! I had missed a turn: Instead of taking the U-shaped path back to the tents we were supposed to take a hilly path on the other side to get back to the aid station. The distance seemed the same but it didn’t matter because I had gone off course and had to correct it. I went back and saw an arrow on the ground that was only visible to me once I was going the right way. Oh well, so that’s what I missed at the pre-race briefing! I was in a bit of a daze as I tried to decide what to leave of my gear and wound up only dropping the handheld, but then I couldn’t even figure out which way to go to start the second loop and had to ask around for directions.

To round out the fun, as I took off running again, a couple of friendly unleashed dogs wandered towards me. One of them came right up to me with a silly expectant look on its face before I had a chance to slow down, so I wound up slightly knocking into the pup as I tried to swerve around. Nobody hurt? Okay, keep moving but take it easy. That was enough disaster for one loop.

Feeling unlucky, but now knowing what was in store, I decided to adopt a new strategy for the rest of the day. Instead of trying to race the whole time, which I knew I really really was not supposed to do anyways, I would use this as an opportunity for a moderate interval workout. Run faster on the road portion, especially the flattish section, to below marathon pace, and recover on the trail. Road: music on, zone out. Trail: music off, pay attention to the footing and directional signs. Drink and refuel at each aid station as needed. Repeat.

I felt good. This was fun, even if I got passed by another lady when I stopped after the second loop for a gel and another couple of Peptos, though I’ll admit it was hard to take my time and not try to regain my spot. As I approached the end of the third loop, my Garmin had me at over 11 miles, and I was under the impression that we had to run six loops– you just never know with ultras: GPS can be unreliable (especially on trails) and RDs have a lot of leeway to creatively interpret their distances, plus with all the course changes I wasn’t even sure how long the loop was supposed to be. I asked at the scoring tent the next time I passed by and was told the 30K portion was only five loops, not six. Score! Around and around two more times to finish just under 2:40, well under my 3-hour goal, and 3rd female to cross the 30K mark (the other two went on to finish the 50K). The award was a trophy of half of an ass (the rear half, of course!)

With my hat and half-ass

With my hat and half-ass.

After the race, I felt not so good. I got into some dry clothes, drank a bit of hot chocolate, took a bite of a bagel with cream cheese and then… Yup, it was like a flashback to where I’d been 24 hours earlier, sitting on the toilet in a lot of pain, and so on for hours after I got back home, with some red tint that could be nothing other than blood, since I haven’t wasn’t eating beets yesterday. I did some Google research and learned that, although it sounds like the end of the world, bloody diarrhea after a long or hard run does not warrant a full-on freak-out if it resolves within a day or so. I hydrated with a lot of watered-down Pedialyte, rested and eventually– once the cramping pains died down and I stopped pooping my guts out– was able to have a light meal for dinner. Now it’s time for some “real” rest– and I don’t mean any more of this, “I’m recovering but going to run most of an ultra anyways”—until early January. No speed, no long runs, just two easy weeks of whatever. Happy holidays!

The North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco 50 Mile

Every race experience is unique in its highs and lows, its pre-race anxiety and the post-race review, recollection, emotions and stock-taking. No matter how rough my race goes, there is always a point towards the final miles when the awareness of that day’s uniqueness takes hold. It’s like a sense of pre-nostalgia over what can never be repeated. Even if I were to go back and participate in that event again, it would always be a different race in innumerable ways- the people, the conditions, the thoughts and feelings of the mind and body. Those last miles typically fill me with joy and allow me to finish strong and happy most of the time, maybe all of the time.

So it was that TNF SF went from becoming a near-first DNF to another treasured memory of a full day out on the trails. It’s not easy to reconcile my non-competitive and competitive sides and this race was a test. Yes, I love winning and doing well, on the other hand, I run for fun and don’t want to suffer for it. Honestly, I want the easy wins! And even if I had prepared for it, TNF SF would never be an easy race to come out on top of- it’s full of hungry runners who eat mountains for breakfast and have a lot on the line in terms of sponsorships and more.

Still, I wanted to close out the year in style, and this was one the rare races that had been on my 2014 calendar before it was even 2014! I had registered for the 2013 race but decided to defer my entry to this year so I could the sub-freezing CIM that weekend instead. Back then, I wasn’t even thinking of being competitive, I just wanted to run this spectacular course, and I guess I didn’t know too much about all the other races in the area- I’d heard of North Face and Miwok and the various Dipsea races but that was about it.

So I made my plans to spend a week out west and, when I found out that the Quad Dipsea was a week before TNF SF, so I signed up for that too because YOLO. Of course, the Quad wrecked my quads and compromised my immune system, but nothing a little massage and lot of sleep couldn’t fix, right? I was back from the dead by Thursday and looking forward to Saturday as long as it didn’t rain. Because I’m a weather wimp.

On Friday evening I headed up to Mill Valley to stay with friends who work on the event production team. With an event of this scale (races from 5K to 50 miles over two days) and huge amount of rain (including another little downpour on Friday night into Saturday morning), there will always last minute emergencies, so dinner and bedtime got pushed back a little later than originally planned. Still, I was glad to get a peek “behind the scenes” and appreciate the huge efforts the organizer went through to keep a full 50-mile race and ensure that the course was safe, clear of hazards, and well marked.

I took my usual pre-race Benadryl on Friday night and for once, it didn’t work! My mind stayed awake for some time as 11pm approached, and then I drifted in and out of consciousness until I heard the others getting ready to leave around 2am. I dozed on and off for another 20 minutes or so before getting up and putting together an ad hoc breakfast: Starbucks instant vanilla latte (the only critical breakfast item I remembered to bring) mixed with some of the coffee from the hotel room, 2 fun-size Snickers bars (the hotel’s version of pillow chocolates), and a couple of slices of focaccia from last night’s bread basket. Then I got dressed, opting to wear a shirt because Suzie had looked at me funny when I mentioned maybe not wearing one, plus arm sleeves. I went down to catch the last shuttle to the start, which I thought would leave at 3:45 but was not actually going until 4:10. There were three of us with a big old school bus to ourselves- one chill guy who’d done the race a few times (including the year of the rain, 2012) and a woman who looked poised to run fast (she did).

On the ride out

Quiet bus on the ride out

At the start area, the ground was very wet but the rain had stopped and it wasn’t cold at all. I dropped of my finish gear and drop bag on some tables inside a big tent—a nice touch so that our things wouldn’t get wet. I didn’t see anyone I knew so I after a couple of trips to the portapotties I went and stood near the start with the real elites. I was standing next to Kami Semick and Anna Frost, who was not running, was there hanging out and looking adorable. Shortly after 5, wave 1 got the call to go into the corrals and I tried to find a spot in the middle to back, but surrounded by enough people to keep me warm while we waited. Here is a start line video from iRunFar.com. I don’t see myself.

The start was fast, downhill and on an asphalt road, which never feels too comfortable with my shoes designed for mud. I wanted to run by feel so I had turned off the sound and vibration alerts on my watch and set the display to show the time of day, and planned to occasionally check my pace but not focus on it too much. I checked in that first mile or so and saw low 7:00s. Too fast! Next we headed uphill on a wide dirt road and I hung with some ladies for a while until I had to let them go. It was going to be a long day.

Annotated revised TNF SF course map from iRunFar.com

Annotated revised TNF SF course map from iRunFar.com

Due to a bridge being washed out by the rain, a later chunk of the course was cut and replaced by a second loop around the first section. This was a roughly 5-mile loop with about 800 feet of uphill over 2.5 miles, followed by about the same downhill. I started taking walking breaks early on the uphills, as folks from waves 2 and 3 and so on started passing. There was plenty of space on the gravel roads and wide trails in the early miles of the course, so all of the passing didn’t stress me out too much as I wasn’t in anyone’s way. Early in the second loop, I was happy to see a running friend from NYC looking really strong in her first 50-mile race. She went ahead and I hoped not to see her again.

I dont enjoy night running as much as I look like I do

I don’t enjoy night running anywhere nearly as much as it looks like I do

The full moon was out and the sky was clear, so we had some good nighttime views. However, I don’t like running in the dark, and my headlamp is not very powerful, but because I don’t like running at night I don’t want to invest in a better headlamp, so it’s a vicious cycle. My eyes were tired and so was the rest of me as I looked at my watch waiting for sunrise. 6:26? Nothing. 6:38? C’mon light! Close to 7, by the end of the second loop, the sky had brightened, and I was hoping we would be able to leave our headlamps at the new aid station at the end of the loop, instead of the original headlamp drop spot that was now later in the course. No such luck, I had to keep what was now just a heavy sweatband on my head for another three miles to the Tennessee Valley aid station.

The hours before sunrise had been very humid with some fog on the second loop, and I was uncomfortably soaked in my chilly sweat. And still tired in the foggy daylight as we headed up another long hill on the Miwok Trail and then down into Tennessee Valley. I’ve been telling myself too often that I must be mentally tired by now from all the races this year, so that’s how I am. Physically, I’m under-recovered, under-trained for this course, and full of aches and niggles and occasional shooting pains in the hips and back and knees. And again this week, my stomach was off, forcing up little pukes here and there along the way. Mine is not ever the race-ending kind of vomit, the type of Gl upheaval that makes it impossible to keep anything down and weakens a runner to the core. Rather, it’s an annoyingly gross and bleh kind of feeling that allows me to keep some gels and liquids coming in (though probably not enough) with an occasional mouthful coming back up. I keep Pepto and Tums or Rolaids on hand but I’m not sure that they help much. Well, at least I didn’t have to poop.

This is around when I was really struggling. Photo: Nate Dunn

This is around when I was really struggling. Photo: Nate Dunn

So for some time in this early-middle stretch, around miles 14-20, I went back and forth questioning whether I really wanted to finish if it meant 10 or 12 or 14 hours and boring kind of slog. My heart wasn’t in it at this point. I could stop and go back and enjoy something hot. Twenty miles was still a good training run that deserved a proper square meal at the end, right? I see myself later, justifying my reasons for quitting, knowing there doesn’t have to be a reason, knowing it doesn’t really matter to anyone but me.

But it’s not my style, I remind myself. I’ll DNF someday when some or all of my body quits on me and there’s no choice involved. Or maybe I’ll DNF because I just don’t feel like it, say today. Back and forth, this self-talk: Stop signing up for all the things, 50 miles is not a hundred or 24 but it’s still a commitment that you have to respect, you take these things too lightly…

Still, I can’t quell my curiosity about the course. I want to see it. All of it. And this is it, my last race of the year. I don’t really want to go out whimpy, do I? And it could be a nice day out, my last in the Bay Area for a while, so I want to experience it to the max. And I remember how fortunate and grateful I am to have the ability to be here in a beautiful place doing what I usually love when I’m not so damn tired. Where else would I really rather be and what would I rather be doing? Every race has its emotional lows. They pass. I know this.

Looking way too happy on the outside

Why do I look so freaking happy? Swear I’m dying inside

So I take it aid station to aid station, as my friend the great master Otto Lam has taught. After Muir Beach (mile 18) came what I had noted on my pace band as a “giant climb” of about 1500 feet in 5 miles to Cardiac aid station. I took it easy since I had no idea what this would look like. What it looked like, to start, was a long series of narrow switchbacks, which had turned into little streams with all the rain. I walked and walked with one foot on either side of the streams, still able to keep my feet dry. After the switchbacks the trail opened up on top of the hill as we took the more gradual and occasionally runnable Coast View Trail, and we saw a few leaders of the 50K race heading back already.

From Cardiac at mile 23 it was already practically the the halfway point, I told myself, and I decided to continue to the next aid station at McKennan Gulch, where my friend Harald might be working. I figured it would be nice to see a familiar face and I could delay my decision to quit until some further discussion.

Winner Sage Canaday right before I saw him on the way back to Cardiac aid station. Photo: iRunFar.com/Byron Powell

Winner Sage Canaday right before I saw him on the way back to Cardiac. Photo: iRunFar.com/Byron Powell

From Cardiac we went into the woods, and here came the front runners on their way to their second pass through Cardiac! Sage Canaday in first, about 13 miles ahead of me at this point, followed by Dakota Jones less than a minute behind. It’s always invigorating to see the people out front looking strong, so this section passed quickly. Then we had a long and gradual uphill out-and-back on the Coastal Trail on the way to McKennan Gulch that was all out in the open and looked like it would be even better downhill on the way back. The rule in trail running is that out-going runners are required to yield to the runners coming back, and here the trail was very narrow, so there was a lot of stop and go on the way up. Now I was actually looking forward to coming back, running downhill, and having everyone get out of my way!

Off the trail and onto a stretch of road to McKennan, I knew I had turned it around. The sun was now shining, we were running on top of the ocean and well past the halfway mark with a big downhill coming up. At the aid station (mile 28) I saw Harald up on a hilltop using his radio, we waved to each other from a distance, and I felt good to go on my way. I’d marked the next 5-mile stretch down to Stinson Beach as the “giant downhill” and indeed it was. The first portion of the out and back was as much fun as I expected, as most every runner coming up yielded, and I made sure to thank each one, the gratitude just oozing out of me. Here I saw the guy from the bus in the morning and my NYC running buddy on her first 50-miler, who I must have passed during an aid station break. Then we headed into the woods, still going down, with some of the steps that I love, though the rain had clearly taken a toll over the last week. Okay, as much as I love downhill, after 3 miles straight a break would be nice. But there was none, and that was still cool.

At the Stinson Beach aid station, I braced myself for what was up ahead. 2.7 miles on the Dipsea trail back to the Cardiac aid station, the same section that had been my hell twice over a week ago. First, some steps and gradual hills with the spectacular lookback views of the beach that magically erase the pain, and then a short section of runnable trail, followed by the killer stairs of the Steep Ravine. But wait! On the trail, the first bridge on the right that led to those stairs was roped off with a “wrong way” sign. What?! We stayed on the left side of the creek for a bit and took a different bridge further on, with different stairs that were a bit gentler and broken up with some flats and more moderate inclines (plus a ladder to climb!). Unfortunately, this meant we also skipped the redwoods section of the Dipsea and the ocean-facing ridgeline en route to Cardiac, and instead we stayed on a still-pretty wooded trail, heading back to Cardiac the way we’d seen Canaday and Jones hours ago. Well.. okay, phew, that wasn’t so bad. Only two more climbs to go, according to my notes, and neither would be as big.

But first, the “giant climb” in reverse, back to Muir Beach, part of the re-routing of the course. Now, with only 15 miles and a few hours to go, let’s do this! But first I needed to re-up my supplies at Cardiac, where I’d sent my drop bag. I must have had a brain fart when I only brought a sandwich-sized Ziploc for my drop-bag, but luckily Suzie had a spare shopper she loaned me. However, it was small and black and undistinctive, so it took some time for the volunteers to locate it. I did my best to suppress my impatience while they searched the field of mostly small black drop bags to find it, knowing they were doing their best and it was my fault anyways. I’m usually much better at this. Once found, I was offered a folding chair. “Here, have a seat,” the volunteer said sweetly. I looked at it with secret disdain. “I don’t need a seat for a 50 miler!” I thought to myself. So I put the bag on it instead. Seriously, unless I’m using a toilet or changing shoes, I have to be on my feet at least 12 hours before thinking about a sit break.

The way back to Muir Beach was now pretty muddy from all the 50K and 50-mile runners that had gone through, yet my mud shoes continued to work their magic, allowing me to run through everything with confidence. By now, with only a few hours to go, I could handle wet feet, so I ran straight through the streams and mud in the middle of the switchback section.

The first of the final two climbs was hard hard hard, with 1000 feet up over two miles, I was so hungry now, but still estimated about two hours til the finish with nearly 10 miles to go. I ate some crystallized ginger and played music for distraction. The next downhill was wonderful, with some nice shallow steps along the way. I came into the aid station strong and starving, gobbling on saltines and taking some to go.

I can say Im somewhat genuinely happy now

With less than 10 miles to go, I can say I’m somewhat genuinely enjoying myself here

The aid stations were closer together towards the end. Just three miles and one more climb to the last aid at Alta, and then it was less than three miles downhill to the finish. Well, except for that last stretch of road we started out on. Now it was time for the pre-nostalgia as we revisited those final miles of the first loop that we’d covered twice in the morning.  I let myself race a little, and being kind of obnoxious, every time I passed someone I glanced sideways at their bib to check the color– Only the orange-red 50-milers count!

 

The home stretch. Dude in blue is gonna pass me back soon

The home stretch. Dude in blue is gonna pass me back soon

I was planning to walk some of that last uphill stretch, but then a 50-mile guy who I’d just passed zipped by me, one volunteer said “half a mile to go” and another said, “just 5 minutes” and I was like, okay, let’s try to do this in 5. Still, that uphill hurt. I paused to walk for a second and looked back over my shoulder to see another 50-mile woman and her pacer catching up. Oh nooooo! Yup, so I killed myself sprinting uphill to the finish of a 50-mile like it was a 5K, knowing full well that this woman had already “won” based on chip time since she had started in a later wave–  she wouldn’t  have had a pacer if she had been in wave 1. And she still passed me like 5 feet before the finish line! Still, I’m glad it went down like that- it was the most fun and crazy way to end this very long run.

Finally

Grrrr, an eye of the tiger finish

Ah, to be done! My watch had died on the final climb, and I saw the finish clock said it was 3:13pm. Later I went to the results tent and saw that my time was actually 10:09, since we had started a little after 5am. I was 4th in my AG but only the 34th woman, with winner Magdalena Boulet about three hours ahead. I was happy to make the top 5 of my AG as that was one of my little goals. Later still, I saw that my time was very much in line with the realistic calculations I’d done in my notebook that put me at the finish between 10:00 and 10:15. As opposed to the fantasy projections of 8:00-8:30 that could only become a reality with some actual training for this.

I moaned and groaned a lot after the race, probably more because I was sleepy-tired. I moaned for the half hour or so it took me to wipe all the mud off and get discreetly changed in corner of the gear drop tent, and while I wandered around vaguely looking for the people I knew, and as I scarfed down the way-too-healthy post-race meal of chicken breast, spaghetti with veggies, and salad greens. I finally found my friends, and two of us headed back to the city on school bus full of November Project people who had run the marathon relay and hence still had tons of energy to jump and sing and be jolly. One of them shared his beer and another gave me a neat elevation tattoo designed for the original 50-mile course. For next time. Then it was bus and MUNI back to my place, shower, packing, and a properly indulgent Mexican meal before passing out.

Party bus on the ride back

Party bus on the ride back

Two days later, I don’t know how it’s possible that I don’t hurt anywhere nearly as much as after the Quad Dipsea. TNF had a similar amount of elevation gain and loss, but was about 80% longer in miles and took about 60% longer in time, with downhill stretches that went on for up to five miles. The cold came back, which is to be expected after spending 10 hours running in my chilled sweat. Weirdly, I’ve been most sore in the crooks of my elbows, both sides, even though my handheld was in my right hand 99% of the time. I felt tightness in there during the race and would try to stretch my arms out every now and then, but it’s not something I’ve ever experienced before. Maybe wearing cold and wet arm sleeves all day had something to do with it? Once again, I miraculously managed not to fall on the trails during the whole race! I did lose my balance in the mud once, when a puddle I stepped into was much deeper than I expected, but I still avoided a full face- or butt-plant. Despite all the mud and sogginess, I am also blister-free thanks to the same footcare combo that I used at Quad Dipsea: Salomon Fellraisers, Smartwool toe socks, and Trailtoes anti-friction lubricant.

As always, I’m happy to have finished, to have spent a beautiful week in one of my favorite places and to have a chance to catch up with lots of friends along the way. Though I still feel just a little teeny-tiny bit fraudulent about starting among the elite trail runners. Many, though not all, of the top runners would make the call to save their efforts and drop on a bad day, and some did, which probably put me at the DFL end of the wave 1 runners. But really, I have little to save myself for and I wanted to get my money’s worth and experience the full course.

I’m now looking forward to a period of winding down and reflection as the year comes to an end, and one key question I have to ask myself is whether to continue signing up for these trail and mountain races or whether to stick to racing on roads. As much as I loved the TNF course and would like to run the original, unmodified course and race well on it, I also know that going much faster than I did last weekend could result in some spills and tumble and risks of serious injuries. Living in NYC, I simply don’t train on trails and mountains enough to become very good at racing them, and I don’t like going into races feeling that underprepared.  (And I’m lazy about using the treadmill or stair machine to simulate hills). 2015 Is still wide open, with only one single race committed to my calendar. Like moving into an empty new home, it’s a fresh feeling that won’t last more than a few weeks max. Before I can fly again, it’s time to dream!

New Routes

So it’s been raining quite a bit in California this week. Where I’m staying in this land of microclimates that is the Bay Area, the rain has been heavy at times, but intermittent enough that I’ve been able to spend some time out and about most days without having to open my umbrella too often. But apparently there was more rain at the SF airport in a few days this week than in ALL of 2013, and there have been reports of mudslides, rockslides, sinkholes and huge puddles around the state.

So it’s not really possible for the TNF course to come away unscathed. We had an email early this morning regarding a minor course change and another this afternoon of a larger change—due to a bridge being washed out, the loop from Cardiac aid station through the Muir Woods to the Old Inn has been cut, and the mileage will be made up by running the first loop of the course twice. It seems like the organizers are working hard to keep it a 50-mile race this year, unlike in 2012, when severe rains forced a last-minute shortening to 46 miles. After studying and planning for the original course, my sense of direction can’t fully comprehend the changes. I know it’s simple, but it’s not. I’ll try to embrace the surprises and have fun with it even if I don’t always know where I’m going. Just like the old days, really not so long ago, when I didn’t have a clue about things like course maps, elevation charts and pace bands. (Yeah right, I’m revising my security bracelet anyways).

The revised TNF SF course

The revised TNF SF course

After coming down with a little cold, I administered some aggressive self-treatment and think I nipped it in the bud. On Wednesday I woke up feeling stuffy in the head, so I rested more, and canceled my plans for the day apart from getting a massage. I tried Zicam for the first time, taking it every three hours as directed, took two Nyquil at bedtime and slept at least ten hours that night. Thursday I woke up feeling much better and thought about swimming, but decided against being wet and felt like going for a run instead.

I had to go for packet pickup at The North Face store in Union Square anyways, so I figured why not run there. Google Maps told me it would be 4.5 miles- perfect. I packed up my UD vest with a change of shirt and other necessities and headed east and north through Golden Gate Park, past Kezar stadium and through the Panhandle, past my old nemesis DMV on Fell Street, and so on, til I crossed Fillmore Street and saw the Marina beckoning.

That hill, that view

This way!

 

I’d been wanting to stop by that area at some point this week to check out the course for the New Year’s One Day race —the one I am NOT going to run! I checked Google again for the distance to Chrissy Field- about 3 miles, no prob- and headed over for some foggy views.

The gravel side of the SF One Day course (the other side is asphalt)

The gravel side of the SF One Day course (smooth asphalt on the other side of the lagoon)

Afterwards I stopped at Sports Basement for some hot coffee and a snack and wound up buying too much stuff- mostly bars and assorted energy fuel. I only found out at the register that TNF runners get 20% all purchases this weekend, otherwise I would have justified buying more unnecessary items.

Like a kid in a ...

Like a kid in a …

Having run about 7 easy miles already, which was enough, I hopped on a bus to Union Square to grab my bib and swag- Smartwool running socks, a tech-fabric buff, and T-shirt which will be printed and waiting for me at the finish- all in the race series’ signature fluorescent yellow.

TNF swag

TNF swag

Time to pack up now before I head out to spend the night in Mill Valley with some friends at the host hotel. With the relative warmth and humidity, I’m planning on similar gear as what worked for the Vermont 100K:  bumhuggers and a sports bra, and maybe a light top. An 18 oz. handheld for hydration, and I’ll fit my gels and other necessities in the handheld pouch, a SPIbelt and the little pockets in my shorts. As much as I’d prefer a more cushioned shoe, I’ll stick with the Salomon Fellraisers for the wet ground traction.

I leave you with a couple of videos of the race that I enjoyed while on my sickbed earlier this week:

UltraSportsLive.TV Preview

From Salomon, starring Anna Frost (in 2010?)

Endurables’ coverage of the 2013 Men’s Race

A midpacker’s view of the 2012 race with the rain

The Ginger Runner’s 2013 race

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