Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life." ---Prince

It's been nearly a week since Prince left this Earth for his next journey.  This quote keeps popping up in articles reflecting on his life - and is appropriate for the last few weeks leading up to the Badwater Salton Sea race that my friend Lisa and I signed up for back in January.

Flashback to a few years ago when Lisa first heard about Badwater (135 miles on foot through Death Valley in August) - she knew she had to do that race.  I had the complete opposite reaction - never (and I do not want to find out what crow tastes like!).  In November, Lisa put the bug in my ear about the Salton Sea race in May - "only" 81 miles from Salton Sea, 234ft below sea level, to the top of Palomar Mountain at 5500ft above sea level.  This race had many aspects I typically avoid - mainly, a focus on marketing and branding, road running, and "being extreme."  Running 81 miles is extreme (and stupid!) enough - why does it need to be more extreme?  But what I loved about the race was the team format - teams of 2 or 3 run together (not a relay) for the whole race and both have to finish for each to get an "official" finish.  What sold me on the race was the opportunity to run with Lisa and help her achieve her goal of getting into Badwater.  So...what's a few road miles, mild dehydration, sand storms, and sunburn amongst friends?  The Dixie Chicks were in!

We signed up in January and put together training schedules - in 4 months, we only had 2 weekends we could run together.  Not a problem - Lisa started out by completing a tough 50 miler on the beach at Destin and the following week we both ran the Dirty Spokes Thrill in the Hills race at Fort Yargo (half-marathon for Lisa and full-marathon for me).  It was "only" a marathon and not super-fast, but it was one of the best executed races I've ever run - I had a runner's high most of the race.  whee!  It was also the longest race I'd run in well-over a year.  In 2015 I did not start a single ultra and only ran 2 trail races and a road marathon.  I struggled - was I still an ultrarunner if I didn't run ultras?  Many of us in this crazy sport have dealt with this - I just hoped I'd come out the other side happy and healthy.

I ran the following 2 weekends at Mt Mitchell in NC (shortened to a marathon from the 40 mile challenge due to weather) and the Old Pueblo 50 miler in AZ.  Moderation is hard! :-)  Surprisingly, my body and mind did OK - I think I missed playing with friends on trails and the challenge of racing.  The primary goal is always to run smart and therefore not die.  Mission accomplished!
John, Cash and I before 50-ish fun miles near Soniora, AZ.  John was an excellent host!  Despite our bundled up appearance, it got quick warm during the race - my best opportunity for heat training...
Lisa overcame quite a few challenges just to get to the start of Badwater Cape Fear later in March - it was a race that proves just how deep one can dig to finish.  Totally in awe of her strength and determination.  I also got to run with friends Blind Pig.  I love this race!!  For some it was their first 100 miler. I love seeing people cross the line after doing what once seemed completely impossible and improbable - run (or move continually forward for) 100 miles.
My friend Lisa (different Lisa!) before the start of Blind Pig 100.  So happy to share some miles with her and see her cross the finish line of her first 100 miler.  We've come along way from crit racing! :-)

Finally - we were looking forward to running together.  We had put together a nice route that would take us from the Hiker's Hostel to Turner's corner, up Neels, across the AT to Woody Gap and back down hill to the hostel.  Seemed like a great run to prepare us for Salton Sea.  We encountered a couple of challenges - first, it was cold and windy.  We expect wind in CA but temps to be 40 - 50 degrees warmer than they were that day!  Second, Lisa was dealing with her dad's recent cancer diagnosis.  It was not the news she was expecting during her parents' visit.  We chatted about life, our families and her friends who would be crewing us - and will still have plenty to talk about during Salton Sea.

Lisa (Salton Sea teammate) and I at my namesake trail.  Spectacular day to be outside - thankful to be running a race with someone whom I get along with so well...wondering what hallucinations we'll have at night... ;-)

I had the privilege of meeting Lisa's parents that following Wednesday - a last minute cancellation meant I was able to rearrange my schedule and a party of 25 at Ted's Montana Grill meant that Bob and Janice were still waiting on their food when I arrived.  Sometimes it's easy to say that things happen for a reason.  I will always remember that evening.  Lisa is vegetarian, but didn't hesitate to make sure her dad enjoyed a good steak dinner.  He asked Lisa and I about the upcoming race and why in the world I wanted to work in Uganda.  I explained I like challenges and diversity and I love my work - he listened intently and replied "follow your heart."

So that's what Lisa and I are doing - running this race with our hearts.  My heart is also with Lisa and her family and her heart will be with her dad as we click off the miles.  I'm not sure who wants Lisa to finish this race more, her or her dad.  He is her biggest fan!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Skyrunner Finale - Flagstaff

Flagstaff was amazing as always, running there was as incredible (and fun!) as I anticipated, climbing straight up and down a ski slope is really, really hard.  And really, really slow (for me). Hiking the Grand Canyon turned out to be the best good-bad-idea (poor decisions make great stories, right?) and recovery hike.

The memory of The Rut 50k was still fresh, but 3 weeks after that race, I was headed to Flagstaff, AZ for the last race in the Skyrunner series.  I wasn't sure if I had recovered physically (or mentally) from the most challenging race I'd ever done.  But I love Flagstaff and was really looking forward to finally getting to race in Flagstaff and run an Aravaipa race.  I've been incredibly fortunate to visit Flag a couple of times on the way to hike in the Grand Canyon - it's one of my favorite towns.
Obligatory Route 66 picture

Coffee and a seed bar from Macy's - I could get used to starting mornings like this!
My friend Hoa's Restaurant.  Delicious, homemade Vietnamese food!

It was so nice to hang out with other GUTS runners who traveled to the race.  I got to introduce them to my favorite pizza restaurant.  Is there a better pre-race (or anytime?) meal than wood-fired pizza and gelato?  I don't think so.

Sunrise was early - and gorgeous.  Such a beautiful way to start a long day on the trail.  One of my favorite views all day was looking down at Flagstaff on the first climb.  Spectacular!

Once again, we had absolutely perfect weather - not a cloud in the sky and reasonable temps.  I didn't miss the humidity!  The race was an inverse of the rut - the challenging climbs were at the beginning and end, but the middle was completely runnable.

I enjoyed the trails so much I was in denial that the last 7 or 8 miles would all be uphill, including the final 5k which consisted of a nearly 2000ft climb and subsequent descent.  I ran much of the race solo, often feeling like I was lost.  A couple of times, I sort of hoped I was off-course so it would be OK to stop early...

But I stayed on course, with a couple of minor explorations and began the long climb to the base of the ski lift.

Here's a great video of the last 7 miles.  The finish line was at the base of the ski slift, but that was also the start of the final 5k.  I just wanted to grind out the final climb (at least it wasn't to the top of the mountain!) and be done - I had no idea what was in store though.  It was great to see Alicia sprinting down the hill for third as I began to climb.  
We have powerline climbs in the SE - the West has chairlift climbs.
Ouch.  I could see tiny people up ahead and I was taking baby steps.  I didn't want to stop because I didn't think I could start again. 

Quick break - almost to the top.  Amazing view!
sooooooo steep!
Then I started hallucinating voices - who was so close to me and why were they able to carry on normal conversations?!  It took me awhile to figure out it was the people riding the chairlifts above me.  And then I was furious that they were laughing - couldn't they see us down below suffering?!  I had no oxygen or energy to yell - it seems quite funny now. :-)
Chairlift - good to know that's an option for next year. ;-)
 The 2000ft climb ended above 11,000ft - and it took an hour. 
The top!  Time to run / slide down to the finish.
On the descent, I had flashbacks to the Rut - it was nearly as steep and rocky and definitely had plenty of opportunities to sprain an ankle or break a leg.  I still need to work on my mountain goat legs as the descent took me 30 minutes - not exactly speedy.  I was thrilled to finish in 9:31 - faster than the Rut and a long time for a "typical" 55k, but Skyrunner ultras are anything but typical.

SE runners did well!  Alicia ran an excellent race for 3rd and earned 2nd overall in the Skyrunner series, beating many other well-known elites.  Congrats!
Local rock star Alicia on the podium.  Way to represent GUTS!!
And Amanda finished 10th, coming from the flatlands of Chicago.  GUTS runners made up 3 of the top 10 female finishers - nice work!!

Race amnesia didn't take as long to set in afterwards.  I would love to come back to this race and participate in the Skyrunner series again.  I'm still searching for a balance between racing and exploring on my own.  The Skyrunner races were wonderful opportunities to run on new trails, be humbled, feel alive, travel and meet awesome people. 

Because poor decisions make better stories...the next morning, Angela and I got up at o'dark thirty and drove to the Grand Canyon to hike to the river. We saw many elk or deer along the way who also thought it was a good idea.  The sun was up by the time we started hiking down Bright Angel.  This was my fourth time at the big ditch - it never gets old or ceases to inspire awe.  The weather was absolutely perfect.  Angela and I only met a few times at Across the Years in AZ through mutual friends - along with perfect weather, she was the perfect hiking companion.  I learned alot about long distance backpacking and hitch hiking - there are so many other non-running adventures to have!  The wheels are turning...

the best part of the day was walking back up.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Toeing the line with Killian, Sage, Ricky, Ellie, Emilie, Cassie and Anna...

...Or why Michael S hates me. ;-)

Run the Rut 50k, Big Sky, MT; September 13
Lone Peak
I signed up for this race back in February for two reasons - 1) it was in the US Sky Runner series and 2) it was close to ND so a good reason to visit family.  Fast forward the week before the race when I realized it was the series finale for the World Sky Runner series and many of the royalty of the ultrarunning community would be there, including two of my favorites, Killian and Ellie.  The coolness of this opportunity cannot be overstated.
Mike Foote, RD, giving the pre-race talk.  Loved the camo drop bag!

Friday was packet pickup - no Killian or Ellie sightings.  Pre-race meeting was relaxed - Mike Foote filled us in on the details for the next morning.  I set everything out, stayed fairly calm and enjoyed having my parents there for such a big event.

Before the race, I realized I was seriously under-trained for this caliber of an event.  I lacked the necessary fitness or specific training (i.e. mountain repeats) to be competitive with anyone but myself so would need to depend on intelligent race execution in order to survive to the finish.  Intelligent race execution for me would mean staying aerobic (keeping my HR low), taking in lots of calories, staying hydrated, and not falling off the side of a mountain. 

The elk horn went off at 6am and 150 headlamps started snaking up the first, gradual climb.  Within 30 seconds, my HR was too high so I started walking, but also tripping on rocks.  I blamed the altitude - Big Sky was at ~7500 feet.  Within 2 minutes, I was solidly the last person in the first wave.  I didn't mind too much - the solitude allowed me to concentrate on running (hiking) my own race.  Five minutes later, the second wave started and while still on the first 2 mile climb, I started getting passed by the fast second wave runners.  The climb, subsequent rocky descent and single track around the lake to the first AS at mile 7.5 were all very runnable.  I came into the first AS 5min under my predicted time so felt good about that.  The next section to AS2 at mile 12 went smoothly too - was still being passed continually by wave 2 and 3 runners.  I met Blaire, a runner from Missoula, one of the few people I would flip-flop with for the rest of the race.  I just never fell into a groove of running a similar pace with other runners - definitely missed my GUTS friends!  Over 75% of the runners were from MT - it almost sounded like they felt sorry for me when I said I was from GA. :-)  Hope we get some more East Coast representation next year!  Yetis?!?

I hadn't paid too much attention to the route details - sometimes ignorance is bliss.  I knew from the elevation profile, the big climbs would come between miles 10 and 20, we'd have some scree sections and rocky ridge sections, and there would be some ropes and plenty of medical personnel on hand at the more technical sections.  How hard could it be?  hahahahahahahahaha....

I am still struggling with how to describe the middle part of the race.  "Insane" comes to mind.  Killian Jornet, in his iRunFar interview, didn't think it was too technical, not like you could fall off to your death or serious injury.  I would beg to differ, but I did not grow up in the Alps or Pyrenees, gliding up and down rocky climbs, running on nothing buy 8 oz of water and a handful of berries.  :) The East Coast has plenty of routes with significant elevation gain and technical trails, but nothing compares to what we ran.  No amount of double-Coosa loops could have prepared me the Rut.

Oh the scree fields...  I've climbed up and down rocks but rocks that remain still.  These rocks moved and were on slopes at a really, really, really steep angle.  I used my hands often and focused on my footing, placing one foot at a time, not thinking about speed.  I only stopped to look around a couple of times - sadly, I missed many of the amazing views.  I'm not afraid of heights, but it didn't take more than a glance to get dizzy looking how far up we had climbed and how much was left to climb.  A few times I started to freeze, but told myself I could get scared after I was done with the race.  There was no place to go except to keep climbing up.  More than once, I heard someone yell "rock!" to warn of a dislodged rock on its way down.  Of course I looked up (hmmm...I'm not that bright!).  And once we were up, we went down a different ridge, but with the same loose rocks at a very, very, very steep angle.  How I didn't sprain both my ankles or break a leg, I have no idea.  Sally thankfully lent me hiking poles - having one helped provide balance and some security.  On the steepest dirt section we were warned it would be slippery - I slid down on my butt, almost taking another runner out.  It was difficult for me to figure out the fastest, safest way down!  One of the blessings of the day was the absolute perfect weather.  The skies were sunny, no rain or snow, and only an occasional light breeze.  There was a Plan B course, if necessary - I can't imagine doing the course we did in anything other than perfect weather.

After the first rocky descent, we had a few miles to collect my nerves and run some gravel roads up to the Tram Dock AS.  My parents had taken a chair lift so they could see me as I ran past to AS3.  Willy would have loved this section - it was an out and back ~1.5mi section on a really steep hill.  At this point, I was way off my predicted time - and figured that Killian had just finished and I was barely halfway done.  The volunteers here and at all AS were top-notch!  They knew what runners needed, said encouraging words and took excellent care of us before sending us on our way.  I ran back down, saw my parents again, before the next long climb up to Lone Peak.

Lone Peak had been looming in the distance since we arrived at Big Sky the day before.  I could see it and the sharp ridges, but could not comprehend that we were about to climb to the very top at 11,000 ft.  Maybe there was a more sheltered route I couldn't see and it wasn't that bad?  Nope.  It was another nerve-wracking climb up large, unsteady rocks.  Early in the climb, 2 guys were playing guitar and singing - that helped to lighten the mood!

A few spots had ropes, but often I had to climb with my hands.  Towards the top, I could take 2 or 3 steps, stop and breathe a few times, take a few more steps, breathe, and continue slowly and steadily up.  There was no passing, just a long conga line. 

See that peak at the very top?  Yeah, that's where we were going...
The few times I looked up, the top seemed so far away and the climbing wasn't going to get any easier.  The cowbells and cheers along the way were hugely motivational and much appreciated!  Finally, I was at the top and greeted with one of the best stocked AS I've ever seen - including bacon!

Yes, bacon at 11,000 ft - and it was delicious.  I took a few seconds to recollect and calm my nerves.

Little did I know, the descent would be just as nerve-wracking and not any faster than the climb.  The rocks were loose, sharp and the really, really, really steep slope went on for 2 miles.  There was almost no respite.  Even when there was a break in the rocks, the dirt was slippery - I went down sideways and that was sort of effective.  It was controlled, or not-so-controlled, falling.

Finally, the last 8 or 10 miles was runnable, although many people were running much more than I was. :-)  My legs were a bit shaky at first, but it felt so good to finally be on solid ground.  I think the mental fatigue was as much, if not more, than the muscle fatigue - I have never had to concentrate for so long during any event.  Even the ACT and GRE didn't last that long or require as much focus!  The sounds from the finish line could be heard a few miles from the finish - motivating, but also tough knowing the finish was further than it sounded.  Finally, the black arches were in sight and I could stop - my time was 10:16.  For reference, that is slower than every 40 and 50 miler that I've done and 2.5 hours slower than DRT50k (which has 10,000+ ft of climbing) and 5 hours slower than Killian's time.

My parents had been there for over 4 hours - they took their job cheering for each and every finisher very seriously!  They both had blisters from ringing cowbells. :-)  My mom came up to gave me a hug and I warned her that wouldn't be a good idea as I probably smelled pretty bad.  She didn't care and gave me a hug anyways - and then said "yes honey, you do."  Thanks for the honesty, mom. :-)

Obligatory antler photo.

I was pretty out of it for a few hours - more so than nearly every other race I've run.  But I did rally to return for the awards.  So cool to see Killian, Ellie and the other elites just hanging around.
Sage, Killian (!!!!!) and Manuel.

Cassie, Emilie and Anna.
My parents asked if I would run this race again - at the time I said once was enough.  I was initially disappointed with my time, but 200+ people (of about 450 starters) didn't finish, so I am fortunate I survived.  But the more I think about this...I realize it was a unique event and opportunity to run a true mountain ultra.  I was completely out of my comfort zone most of the race - it was a humbling and rewarding experience.  More than once along the course, it seemed like a lawyer would have said "no, this is too dangerous."  The Montana Mikes put on one of the best organized races I've ever run - kudos!  It was worth every cent.

It's taken longer than I thought, but 3 weeks out and race amnesia has set in.  This one may be on my calendar for next year...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Finishing is winning

Blind Pig 100, Croft State Park, Spartanburg, SC

Finishing is winning.  Thanks for that nugget of wisdom, thumbs-up-Kate. :-)

This is not a race report with split times, race strategy, details about calorie consumption or gear choice.  It's about people and the wonderful, if not dysfunctional, extended family in this sport.

The race was a 1 mile out-and-back followed by 11 9 mile loops on (mostly) single track - I planned to borrow Holly's approach of dedicating each lap to someone.  This strategy would take on a new meaning when I learned about the tragic events in New Orleans the day before the race - AP, a beloved member of the running community, and his brother-in-law were riding their bikes when they were hit by a car.  His brother-in-law, Frank, did not survive and AP remains hospitalized (and continues to improve!).  Hearing about bike accidents never gets easier - I pray each time it's the last one.

Lap 1 - AP and his family and friends. 
Lap 2 - thumbs-up-Kate and Alex, who finished their first 100 milers last week at Umstead and the future first-time 100 mile finishers at Blind Pig.
Lap 3 - AP and his family and friends.
Lap 4 - my friend Andrea who is off in Guinea, working on the Ebola outbreak.
Lap 5 - AP and his family and friends.
Lap 6 - Pete, Michael, Jim, Jen, Timmy and others who are recovering from injuries and will certainly be back stronger!  Kelley finished the race and is the perfect example of this.
Lap 7 - AP and his family and friends.
Lap 8 - Holly and Harley - they are about to embark on the ultimate ultra by becoming parents and raising an awesome daughter.  Phillip and Rhonda too!
Lap 9 - AP and his family and friends.
Lap 10 - Brandi, Andy and my other friends who juggle graduate school, jobs and running.
Lap 11 - AP and his family and friends.

Each lap I had time to send thoughts and prayers out towards my friends.  I hope they felt a little warmth and kindness and a hug from the universe.  I also got to spend many miles of each lap running with old friends and new ones - this was a different experience from previous races and prior to the race, I did not appreciate the mental or emotional boost I would get from this.

I had the pleasure of sharing laps 1 - 3 with Brad and our new best friend from Louisiana.  Jimmy works at sea for 30 days at a time - no one was happier to be on trails than he was after a looong month on a boat, confined to a treadmill.  He had great stories and is an honorary Yeti runner.  Deano and I ran lap 5 together - he is much faster than I am so this was a treat, as was chatting with his awesome wife Lisa between laps.  Thanks for the avocado soup!!  I shared a few miles with Sully, the genius behind the route.  Andy arrived later in the day and said he'd pace me at night.  Just because it was better than being at home alone.  And maybe he was procrastinating some school work too?!  I shared laps 9 - 11 with Andy and our new best friend Brian from Columbia (city not the country), who was running his first 100 miler.  Andy was in heaven - ebola AND helicopter stories.  His constant chatter kept us entertained and moving forward.  We talked alot about how we got into running and why we run - for many of us, we have small families or families that are spread out.  Dysfunctional though we may be at times, the ultra and trailrunning community is an extended family who I love dearly and appreciate more and more all the time.  Andy said it much more eloquently than that, even at 4am.

There are a million ways to procrastinate school work (and I've tried most of them) that don't involve staying up all night, running 100k, losing toenails, straining a hamstring, eating fig newtons and listening to stories about poo in exotic places - but this is just what Andy does.  And I and many others love him for that!  He paced Holly in December and ran with other runners at Blind Pig, helping as many people as he could - I truly felt honored and fortunate to share his company for hours.  It's a bond that he, Brian and I will always share.  I look forward to returning the favor someday soon!  THANK YOU ANDY!!!

Other thoughts on this race...
* I wish I had a picture of the pig!  A stuffed pig was placed on the course and runners would pick it up and run with it before putting it in a new place.  It's small details like this that make a race unique and special!  Seeing a random stuffed pig in the middle of the woods at 2am is sure to put a smile on anyone's face.

* The runners were so incredibly encouraging of each other - there was a short section where runners going in and out would pass each other.  The woman who won always had a high five and "good job!" to share.  Another runner had a huge crew of supporters (go team LaLa!) with great fluorescent green Blind Pig shirts - they rang the cowbell for every runner.  They also paced numerous runners and volunteered.  Ray was awesome for just being Ray - and for having run 100 miles at Umstead the weekend before.  Viktor was a local legend who earned his very first buckle - he cleans up the trail as he runs, by kicking up sticks (wouldn't believe it if I hadn't witnessed it numerous times!) and by collecting trash.  He crossed the finish with a bag full of beer cans - definitely more beer cans than gu wrappers on the trail.  Thanks Viktor!  There were numerous other achievements - first 100 mile, fastest 100 miler, distance PR.  Each person had the opportunity to push themselves and find out what they were capable of.

* A special thanks goes out to the RD, Angela.  No one slept less than Angela that weekend - she was up early, stayed up all night for each of the finishers, personally handed out each buckle, thanked everyone and took pictures.  She was sincere, thoughtful, took care of little details, made sure we had a smorgasbord of food - the list goes on.  For example, there were a few water crossings - she placed sand bags so we could easily cross and keep our feet dry.  She knew 100 miles was tough enough - she didn't want runners to deal with wet feet too.  She was 100% committed to helping everyone finish and achieve their goals. THANK YOU ANGELA!!! 

I haven't had post-race blues yet and I don't think I will - every time I think of this race, I smile and get a warm-fuzzy feeling thinking about all the wonderful people I'm blessed to have in my life.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Oak Mountain 50k, Alabama; March 22

I started writing this race report in my head a few weeks before the race - I really wanted to start it with "I finally won a race!" If I visualized winning, it could happen. I've placed second the last 2 years and first seemed within reach. I'm usually much less ambitious - my top priorities are always racing smart (staying well fueled and hydrated, not getting lost, not falling, not dying) which means I should finish and might be fast, but I can only control my race and there's a entire field of faster women doing the same. Still, it seemed possible...

Oak Mountain is my favorite 50k - very low key, great well-stocked aid stations, beautiful views, fun & challenging trails, incredible volunteers, runnable sections, technical sections and a waterfall.  To start, someone yells "hey everyone, we're going to start soon.  If you think you're going to drop, let me know now.  Ok, go!"  The finish is a white, chalked line at a pavilion with grilled food, frozen fruit salad, and brownies.  Most people hang out eating, drinking, chatting, and cheering all the finishers on.  It's a great community!!

After the RD yelled "go," a guy took off like it was a track meet, not a 50k - most of us took the paved loop easy just chatting.  Seemed to work for him though as he killed it and won.  The climbing on the yellow trail begins right away.  This year, in addition to my usual race priorities, I had 2 plans I thought would help:  1) wear a trucker hat (worked for the woman who won Mount Mitchell Challenge, granted she's also placed in the top 10 at Western States, but hey, couldn't hurt) and 2) stay with local legend and my running idol on the early climbs and hopefully as long as possible.  I figured even if I went harder than I thought I should, I didn't want to lose time early.  That plan worked perfectly at first - except that 4 other women seemed to have the same plan.  So 5 of us were within seconds of each other for 4 or 5 miles.  We took turns leap frogging each other and then finally I was in the lead.  For maybe 30 seconds.  Then I got passed on an uphill by a woman and I couldn't match her pace.  By the next turn, she was out of sight.  Huh.  Well, it's a long race, alot can happen in the next 27 miles or so.

The next section is the blue trail - very runnable along a ridge and leads to the waterfall.  I love this section of the course!  I got to run with my friend Kerry - he was taking a bit of a risk as I was the one who lead us off course at Pine Mountain a few months earlier.  We were running well.  And then I got passed by another woman and couldn't match her pace.  By the time we reached the rocky decent to the waterfall, I started to take a wrong turn.  And got passed again.  As much as I wanted to win, it was more important to enjoy the day and keep running smart.  I caught up to the woman who had just passed me - she is ridiculously fast, but was doing her first race after a long time off.  She's super-nice and talented, and it was great to see her back on the trails - I wished I could have kept up with her!  She could set a CR at Oak Mountain, but unfortunately, took a wrong turn later in the day and DNFd.  I hated that for her, but she still had a great time and was happy to be running again.

Love Peavine Falls and the AS there - a few more miles was halfway...and then my brand new shoes with fewer than 20 miles on them started to fall apart.  Argh!!  Stopped to fix them, which let me catch my breath - and the local legend caught up to me as well so we got to run more together.  Time seemed to slow, but I remembered that I would see Holly at the next AS!  I did my best to pick up the pace and was happy to see her around 20 miles.  The encouraging words and ice were awesome!  I actually love the next section - it's a long jeep road climb that's tough either on a bike or running / walking.  By this time, temps were near 70 and it was sunny.  The climb has multiple water crossings - I stopped to splash in each one to keep myself cool.  I think it helped!!

Made it to Peavine falls AS for the second time - it's almost all downhill from there.  One of the volunteers was keeping track of runners and pace - his kind words gave me a boost as I left.  Only single digits left from here!  The last section of the race is the infamous "blood rock" trail from mountain biking.  I can't decide whether this trail is more fun to ride or run!  Closer to the finish, is a series of switch backs - super-fun for riding, but I was ready to be done at this point (partly because it was 70 and partly because the course is actually closer to 33 miles).  And then I saw the girl who passed me back at mile 5 - I felt bad pushing to catch her with only 2 miles left.  Finally, last switch back, then the bridge and white chalk line.  Done!  Just in time as it was getting HOT.

Old school finish - manual timing and finishers and times are recorded on a wipe board.  I was a few minutes slower than last year, but finished second again.  I felt like I ran well, no low spots and pushed it some, but I still have alot to learn about racing.  How do get faster?  Can I get faster?  Definitely, the strongest and smartest woman won the race - congrats to her!!  I'll keep running and visualizing have a good race - I might finish first one of these days, but as long as I cross the finish line with a smile and enjoy playing in the woods, I'll be happy.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Three of my favorite races in 4 weekends - something old, something new

Duncan Ridge 50K, November 23rd

The first time I heard about the DRT50 from James and Mike, I thought it (and they) were crazy.  They finished and confirmed that it was, indeed, a ridiculous race that took 2-3 hours more than a typical 50k...So the 3 of us signed up last year.  I survived, in part because I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  Ignorance is bliss!  This year, Mike and I registered again to continue the tradition, and James would have if he wasn't off having adventures of his own with his wife Rachel in Taiwan.  I was excited!  When I told my friend Leigh about it, she looked at me rather confused and asked, "don't you remember what you said last year when you walked into the hostel?"  "No," I said.  She reminded me that I said "that was the stupidest thing I've ever done."  The race amnesia is strong with this race...

This year I knew what to expect - 10 to 12,000 feet of elevation gain (give or take a few hundred feet) over 33 miles (give or take a mile or 2).  In addition to the steep climbing and descending, the terrain was challenging in sections because of leaf-covered rocks that were slippery due to heavy overnight rains.  I knew it was going to be a long day of hiking over some of the most difficult (and beautiful!) terrain GA has to offer - why do this again?

Most simply, I love the challenge of this race.  I was excited to participate with so many others who love this area - and hear what first timers Marty and Sally thought.  As typical, I saw them at the start and then not again until I finished and they were already looking refreshed and enjoying well-earned adult refreshments.  I ran mostly alone, but spent a few great miles with Tom who told me his story of how he got into trail running, how much this trail meant to him and how he was looking forward to his first 100 miler in a few weeks.

The finish embodies one of the things I love about ultrarunning - RD Bobby greeted every runner as he or she finished.  The look of relief, amazement, exhaustion and accomplishment as people finished speaks to what a unique race this is.  The Coosa and Duncan Ridge trails are humbling and demand respect - they can completely break you down.  I saw some of the most physically and mentally strongest runners not finish that day.  I look forward to the challenge next year and will do my best to be capable of another finish. I hope I'm worthy of petting Ricky Bobbcat at the end again.

Pine Mountain 40 miler, December 2nd

PM40 was my second ever ultra three years ago.  I love the atmosphere at GUTS events and the views at FDR state park are beautiful.  Again the race amnesia is strong because I always end up cursing the rocks at the end, but keep signing up.  After 3 times running PM40, I wondered what would be new or different this time - while I'd love to win this race, I didn't think I could run much faster than the previous year and there's always someone faster!  I even told Kena at the start that I wasn't really feeling it and just wasn't excited.

We walked to the dam, the race started, and I realized what would be different - running with Holly and Harley!  We volunteered at packet pick up the afternoon before and got along swimmingly.  They're cat people and trail runners - what's not to love?  I've never run an entire race with anyone - it's usually a few miles here and there but mostly solo.  From the start, the 3 of us stuck together.  Any time I was thinking I might complain about the rocks, Holly would remark about how this was one of her favorite sections of the trail - it was a great reminder what a gorgeous place it is to run.  Around mile 14 we picked up another runner who was in a great deal of pain.  For the next 26 miles, he was never more than a few paces behind us.  After the race, he found us and said that our constant chatting and relaxed running helped distract him from the pain.  Awesome!  Glad it wasn't annoying chatter. :-)  We also picked up my friend Kerry who finished strongly with us.  Finishing together embodies another aspect that I love about ultrarunning - sometimes, it really is a team sport.  We ran together, supported each other and finished faster than any of us could have done solo.  I'd like to think we had more fun too! 

Although the speed part is debatable - I took a wrong turn at mile 38 (38??!??) - there are only 2 turns on the course and I missed one.  Harley officially finished before Kerry, Holly and I, however we decided that the 3 of us were the official winners of the unofficial PM42 mile race (no, it's not on  We'll be making our own running shoe birdhouses one weekend soon.

Lookout Mountain 50 miler, December 8th

I love running in Chattanooga, I love Rock/Creek events, many of my friends would be running, but I just couldn't get excited about this race either.  Maybe the forecast for rain at the start had something to do with it.  Texting with Brooke kept me positive while we waited in cars before the start - it would have been so easy to decide I had nothing to prove and go in search of a delicious Chattanooga brunch instead of running.  It was my third year running LM50 and I was trying to think of what would be new or different this time (besides the rain).  Holly gave me a great idea so I took the liberty of borrowing it (thank you!).  Holly and Harley were running Bartram 100 that weekend (after a stellar 40 or 42 mile taper!) which is 16 laps of a 10k course.  To keep herself motivated, Holly said she'd dedicate each lap to someone.  So I decided to dedicate each section between aid stations to someone.

The first 6 mile section was dedicated to Holly and Harley of course!  I thought of all their positive energy from the last race and how they were embarking on a great 100 mile adventure together.  I couldn't wait to hear about it and was so thrilled for them both when I read about their finishes!!

The next section I thought about Tom from DRT50, who was supposed to be running Bartram as well, but stepped down to the 100K as he was battling the flu.  He was prepared to push his body for as many miles as he could though.  I was healthy, had a great rain jacket and awesome volunteers at the aid stations - I was inspired by his commitment and stubbornness.  No complaining - just keep running.

Running back up to Covenant College, I thought of my friend Brooke, who was also running LM50.  She's busy like all of us - job, awesome kids, awesome husband and stays positive and encouraging and fits in running.  She even broke a treadmill - that's dedication!  It was great to see Travis at the aid stations - he was cheering and helping out.  They make a great team and set a great example for their kids!

First loop done, now onto Lula Lake land trust.  The rain stopped, but the damage had already been done.  Slippery, peanut butter mud awaited us.  I thought of my fit momma friends Katie and Kat - they have stayed active and inspired others during pregnancy.  

Next we arrived at the waterfall - I love this section of the race!  The roaring waterfall, the climb up the ropes using rocks, the long runnable section at the top, although the fog would deprive runners of the gorgeous views.  I've run some of the most beautiful places with Kena and Perry - Kena always takes time to notice the views, flowers, trees. 

The sixth section is a 4 - 5 mile loop that I wasn't looking forward to.  The trail is pretty, I'm just not a fan of running in loops.  So I dedicated this to my friend Ray, who is better than almost anyone I know at running in loops.  I hit a bit of a low, ate some, and then asked what would Ray do.  Ray would sing!  So I sang..."obla di, obla dah, life goes on..." Singing and thinking of Ray made me smile.  And before I knew it, the loop was done.

Time for my favorite section of the course again, this time in reverse.  I dedicated it to my family and thought of so many runners who get inspiration and support from their families.  After 14 years, my parents are used to me running - my mom no longer worries about me giving myself a heart attack from the long distances.  She's even walked a half marathon and one sister has run multiple half marathons.  I'm proud of them and appreciate their support from miles away.

The last 7 or 8 miles if any race always seems long to me.  Fellow runners are trail angels - so I dedicated the last section to friends I've (safety) paced and those who have (safety) paced me.  I've witnessed runners who were completely spent somehow dig deep into unknown reserves and finish grueling races.  I've cried and wanted to curl up in a ball on the side of the road and be left for dead - but pacers wouldn't leave me.  I've been blessed with crew who have given me avocados, potion no. 9 gels, ginger ale, and knew exactly what to say to make me laugh and get me back on the trail.

And then there was music, lights, smoke from the campfire, burgers, a medal, a pint glass, a warm fuzzy fleece and my favorite Rock/Creek volunteer Michael waiting for me at the end.  Well, Kris is my favorite too.  I love my trail family and feel so fortunate.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Bryce Canyon - A hell of a place to lose a cow...

Bryce 100, May 31 - June 1

It took me less than a day after finishing my first 100 mile run to decide that I wanted to do another one, but over 6 months to decide which one.  I was pretty set on returning to San Diego 100, but came across Bryce 100, a first year race just outside of Bryce Canyon National Park. The time of the year was good, the elevation gain wasn’t too ridiculous (although that would possibly change), the weather looked ideal (dry and 30s – 70s) and southern UT was someplace I really wanted to visit.  

Training started back in February as did planning for the race.  After a couple of months of solid running (thanks, Kyle!), the wheels started to come off – I ran too many miles too fast on a flat course, which I was unprepared to do and got severe tendonitis.  Thanks to an amazing PT (Pam rocks!) and an equally amazing massage therapist (thanks Patrick!), I only missed out on 3 weeks of running.  They were important weeks, but allowed me to volunteer at some races and enjoy a few rare weekends in Atlanta.  I eased back into running as gently as I could, hoping I’d have fresh legs on race day.  As much as I wanted to cram in the month before Bryce 100, I focused on improving my running form and staying injury free.

Soon, Memorial Day arrived and Andrea and I were off to SLC!  I convinced a long-time friend, Andrea, and fellow runner, scientist and foodie to make the journey with me and volunteer her time as a crew member.   

Normally renting a car is a very onerous and disappointing experience – not this time.  I reserved a small SUV expecting something standard.  We were treated with a Toyota FJ Cruiser – orange!  That car rocked and set the tone for the adventure.  

Our culinary tour of SLC started with a stop at the Red Iguana for the best mole on the planet and continued with chocolates from Hatch Family chocolates and breakfast Wednesday morning from the Blue Plate Diner. 

We also made a crucial stop at Target.  Last year, my pacer and I were mildly hypothermic due to being unprepared to walk in cold temps.  We were passed in the early morning hours by a woman wearing flannel PJ bottoms.  Silly?  Possibly, but I thought it was brilliant so looked for something similar and ended up with pepto bismal pink pants.  Best $10 I ever spent – I stayed warm AND my sisters were super-excited to see me wearing pink.  

We took a leisurely drive across UT, along Hwy 12 through the Grand Staircase Escalande National Monument (GSENM) en route to Bryce.  It was nothing short of spectacular.  If there is a more gorgeous stretch of road than Hwy 12, I am not aware of it.  Every bend revealed a new landscape.  The view was expansive and would change from pine forest to red rocks to moon rocks to rocks that looked like stacks of pancakes to aspen forest, usually abruptly. 

We stopped at many of the turnoffs, but I just soaked up the views – my photos couldn’t do it justice.  Our culinary tour continued with dinner at Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, UT, a village of 250 people with rocks, Buddhist monks, breath taking views and one of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. 

The pot of chili chocolate and apricot & cherry bread pudding left us speechless.  It has occurred to me that I could get by with running less if I didn’t enjoy food so much!  The rest of the drive got even more amazing and we arrived in Bryce just before sunset to meet up with Hoa (from last year’s R2R2R adventure in the Grand Canyon), his awesome dog Stormy, and check in at Ruby’s Lodge, our home-away-from-home for the next few days.  

We spent Thursday exploring Bryce Canyon National Park, starting with watching the sunrise as the aptly named, Sunrise Point.  The views were even more spectacular than the pictures I’d seen and well-worth getting up early for.  

The 3 of us did a short run / hike loop to loosen up – legs were fine, but lungs could feel the 7,000+ft elevation. 

We proceeded to the end of the scenic road and then stopped at every scenic vista, even meeting and chatting with a few other runners, including Eric (from Ultrarunner Podcast fame) so Andrea and Hoa had more friends to cheer for on Friday.  A few of the turn offs had maps naming the features we could see – including distances to the landmarks.  The plateaus that were 45 miles away looked far and put the next day’s daunting journey into perspective.

By Thursday afternoon, the race vortex began in earnest – instead of taking a nap, I was filling drop bags and figuring out what I would want from Andrea at which Aid Station (AS).  After Pete (fellow-Atlantan) arrived, we all piled into the FJ cruiser to first check out the race start and then to packet pickup at King’s Creek Campground.  Initially, this was supposed to be the staging area for the start and finish of the race.  Due to logistical challenges, the race start/finish was changed multiple times in the last 2 weeks.  It turned out to be a great place to congregate, eat pizza made in a nifty brick-oven-on-wheels, and would eventually be AS 13 at mile 89.  We met Matt, the RD (race director) – super-nice, super-conscientious, super-enthusiastic guy, who seemed a bit stressed with only a few hours before the start of the race.  I just wanted to give him a big hug!  Pete and I thanked him for all of his hard work and said we were looking forward to the views & challenging course he had put together.

A bit about the race course itself…The race would take place between 7,000 and 9,000 just outside of the park.  I have been at that altitude numerous times and felt fine, but running is different.  The total advertised elevation gain for the race was 18,500 feet.  In the 2 weeks leading up to the race, last minute course changes made estimating this difficult – the total gain would be somewhere between 18,500 and 26,000 feet (hopefully much closer to the initial estimate!!).  The race was an out and back course but with different starting and finishing points.  The first 20 miles were on gorgeous single track, the next 30 miles was a mix of trails and dirt roads before reaching the turnaround point, but the last 20 miles would be new.

The alarm went off at 3:45am.  Pete and I really wanted waffle house!  I ate instant oatmeal, a Hoa cookie and clever-brewed coffee.  Temps were in the low-40s and fires were set up in barrels with “Bryce 100” cut out so runners could stay warm.  I love the start of a race!  Everyone was excited and optimistic about the day (and night!) ahead.  We had one last surprise – shuttles to the start to ease congestion, but there must have been a delay, because instead of a school bus delivering the last group of runners, about 50 people spilled out of a U-Haul!  It was only a 2mile ride, but definitely a unique way for some runners to begin their journey.

With little fanfare, we were off at 5:45am, straight into the single-track.  I stayed towards the back, walking early and often (I couldn’t breath!).  I was going to be on my feet for a looong time and wanted to ease into the day.  I started with my now-favorite pink pants so I was cozy.  The views were instantly incredible – we ran past hoodoos and along steep ridges and through panoramic vistas.  

I saw Andrea, Hoa and Stormy at AS1 (10.5mi) and AS2 (20mi) quite a few minutes behind Pete, but ahead of my 27hr predicted pace.  Hmm…I did my best to take it easy, ate and drank well, walked the hills and stopped to take pics.  As the day warmed up, Andrea had cold bubbly drinks and avocados waiting for me!  Much of the trail wasn’t too technical (by East coast standards), although long stretches were quite sandy, which took a great deal of physical and mental energy.  The technical parts were broken up with long road stretches – not exciting, but still amazing views and a nice mental break from the sand. 

According to the race profile, there would be a steep climb up to mile 45 at Pink Cliffs – I took my time and was rewarded with the most spectacular view right before AS6.  I felt so incredibly fortunate to be outside and part of this amazing event.  Multiple times, Matt made sure a trail took us off the main road, close to the cliffs for better views.  From Pink Cliffs it was (mostly) downhill to AS7, the midway point at Crawford Pass where I would pick up Hoa to keep me company for the next 50 miles.  I started seeing runners (including Pete!) heading back – so much fun to cheer them on and hear their encouragement.  I arrived in good spirits, ahead of schedule so took advantage of the opportunity to sit for a few minutes, enjoy strong ginger ale, another avocado and any other food I could make myself eat.

Despite meeting the day before the race, Hoa and Andrea got along swimmingly and made a stellar team.  Once again, I felt utterly spoiled – and my spirits always picked up due to their cheers and support.  Andrea was a great crew member because a) she yelled “vermin!” every time we saw vermin (and we saw lots of them); b) she could identify most of the various kinds of scat we saw; c) she was a great driver; d) wherever we were, she would look around and point “see, that’s higher!” e) all of the above

And then we were off for the second half of the journey, facing a tough climb back to Pink Cliffs.  Because the course was (mostly) out and back, I (mostly) paid attention to the trail and knew what hills & terrain to expect on the return journey.  After Pink Cliffs, I knew it would be mostly non-technical trails back to Andrea at mile 60, lots more rolling non-technical trails to mile 74, and then a stretch to mile 80 that I was a bit nervous about.  Those technical 6 miles would be even more challenging in the dark (happy to have 2 headlamps) and at a (usual) low-point in the night for me.  Thankfully I would have Hoa for company!!  We continued to make good time, running much of the course, and walking the hills.  The course was extremely well-marked and in the night, the flagging also had lights so it looked like we were chasing fireflies.  Fortunately, that was the closest I would get to hallucinating!  

A bit about the AS workers – they were FANTASTIC!  It is not easy getting to remote aid stations, helping out smelly, cranky, tired runners, making grilled cheese and pancakes, often during the wee (and cold!!) hours of the morning.  Many volunteers camped out for a night or 2 and for most, this was their first experience helping with an event like this.  They were friendly, encouraging and super-helpful.  My fellow runners and I couldn’t do ultraraces without their support.  I don’t think anyone was more excited about raman at the aid stations than Hoa!!  

Somehow, there was a 900ft climb at mile 78 that I had forgotten about.  By this point, I was starting to get mentally fatigued, although thanks to Starbucks double-shot, a 5-hr energy, and coffee at an AS, I was awake.  It still took lots of concentration during this section as some of the trail was eroded and very close to cliffs and shear drop offs.  I took my time – it would kind of suck to fall off a cliff this close to the end!   Finally, the climb ended and we saw cars, people and a fire.  Many runners were shivering near the fire, attempting to warm up.  Not me – loved my pink pants!!!  Hoa grabbed more raman, I ate some grilled cheese sandwiches and we asked the AS volunteers about the last 20 miles.  They said it was gravel roads to the end, a long climb out of this AS, but then mostly flat and downhill to the end.  Sweet!  I saw Eric’s parents again and they said he was doing well, just a bit cold.

Hoa and I headed for a brisk walk up the long, gravel road climb.  It wasn’t horrible and when it flattened out, I could still manage running for 20 – 30 seconds at a time.  So I settled into brief bursts of running, between short walk breaks.  If I could keep this up, a sub-28hr finish was still very much in reach.  Yay!  The sun came up which also helped the spirits.  The miles seemed to be going a little slowly and then, almost to the Campground, the course veered off the road.  On a trail.  Up hill.  A STEEP LONG HILL.  Abby, a woman who finished in front of me, described it as a SOUL-CRUSHING HILL.  Yup, that about sums it up.  Switch back after switch back.  I yelled ahead to Hoa “is this a joke?” as we passed a wooden sign pointing to the campground and another arrow towards the Keyhole arch.  The course markings went towards the arch – in my not-too-clear-state-of-mind, I was convinced a trail gremlin had moved the course markings!  A combination of not expecting the hill and bonking made me a not-very-pleasant person during this section.  Hoa wisely stayed quite a few paces ahead of me.  Finally, we could see people (including Andrea and Stormy and Pete) and cars at AS 13, but I was too crabby and my spirit broken to be happy – which should have been an obvious sign to myself that I was bonking.  Pete had slowed down quite a bit at night – we weren’t expecting to see him before the finish, but were now looking forward to his company.  I tried to eat and should have forced food down, but I didn’t.  Instead of being excited at being only 11 or 12 miles from the finish, I felt disheartened at knowing I would be on my feet for 4 more hours.  I am normally a pretty positive person during events like this and feel fortunate to be able to do what I do – but I am sorry to say, that at that moment, I was not.

We knew we had a climb out of the last AS so Pete, Hoa and I headed up the gravel road.  And up.  And up.  And up.  It felt like an 8 mile climb.  It just wouldn’t end.  And I remained crabby (ultra bonk, but not an excuse!) and started to slow down.  Even when the road flattened out again, I couldn’t make myself run for 30 second bursts like before.  I was unfortunately, sadly resigned to a death march (but still forward progress!) in order to finish – exactly what I was hoping to avoid.  I was unpleasant to be around (that’s an understatement!), but Hoa kept encouraging Pete and I.  I don’t think the 3 of us have ever walked so slow.  I was reminded that 100 miles is not twice as hard as a 50 miler – the last miles are exponentially harder than the earlier miles.  Even when we saw the parking lot where the race ended, I wasn’t convinced I was going to finish.

Finally, the finish line was in sight.  Hoa encouraged us to run the last tenth of a mile, ok just 100 yards.  I said no.  He tried again and again – I managed about 10 steps of shuffling, before finally laying down in the fetal position on the side of the road like I’d wanted to do for the last 4 hours.  After 29 hours and 20 minutes, I could finally stop moving.  Ahhh… Andrea was there to cheer us on and tell us how proud she was!  Stormy too. J  Matt the RD was there to greet every finisher too.  Pete and I chatted with other runners and exchanged stories of shock and bewilderment at finishing.  I kept hacking – it sounded like I picked up a smoking habit, but I inhaled so much dust.  I wanted to scrub my lungs with a toothbrush!  The pizza guys were there again!  Perfect post-race food.  And I got my cherished belt buckle.  Another last-minute change was that Matt’s wife learned a craft technique to make the buckles – it was a picture of the canyon covered with epoxy.  Matt said some of them turned out better than others – I picked one that wasn’t perfect.  Because the race wasn’t perfect.  But I finished.  And sometimes not being perfect is perfect.

Nearly 2 weeks later…I’ve recovered from the bonk (and I keep eating more, just to be safe!).  My lungs feel clean again, although I hope I don’t develop Valley Fever in a few weeks.  I’m even more grateful for Andrea, Hoa and Pete’s friendship and support – and all the positive emails, texts, calls and FB posts.  I’m still disappointed I wasn’t smiling at the finish, but next time I’ll write “DON’T BONK” in black marker on my arm to help me remember to eat.  And yes, there will be a next time.  Bryce was an epic, destination 100 miler.  Maybe something less epic next time – San Diego again?  There’s still so much room for improvement and I have more to learn about myself and ultrarunning.  And I need to finish with a smile on my face!