Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lake Sonoma 50M (4/12/14) Race Report

I had worked hard physically and mentally for at least the previous 3 months, so I felt ready and confident going in to Lake Sonoma 50. More confident than I've ever felt before a race. I had done speedwork at the track, on the trail, tempo runs, pushed myself up hilly roads and trails to the point of grimacing and grunting. I ran when I was tired, when my legs hurt, when I didn't want to. I also rested hard when I was supposed to, so my body would grow stronger and not continue to deteriorate. I had started daily positive affirmations. I did not feel any sense of desperation or panic like I often have. I was completely calm and relaxed. The afternoon before the race, I drove out to the finish and walked back up the trail about ¾ mile to see what it was like, and to envision my race finish.

The alarm went off before 4am on race morning. I had gotten perhaps 4 hours of sleep, but I felt good. I had made a comprehensive list of everything I needed to do that morning, from what I would eat to applying sunscreen, filling my hydration pack reservoir, and the specific places to apply Body Glide so I wouldn't forget a spot. As I checked items off my list, I drank a bottle of kombucha, ate 2 slices of apple-cinnamon bread, 2 boiled eggs, and a banana. I left my hotel room right on schedule at 5:10am and arrived at the race start area just before 5:30. There was some fog (they called it a “marine layer”) and some light moisture was falling out of it, which could be seen in the dark with the headlamp.

Oddly appropriate sign just after the start. Photo: Chihping Fu
Just after it got light out, the race began at 6:30am. I had lined up no farther than ½ way back and didn't see anyone I knew. Suddenly, people were off running, and so was I. The first 2.4 miles are on pavement so folks can get spread out before hopping onto the trail. Those 2 miles are much like the rolling hills through Tetherow, only bigger. Someone I thought I recognized passed me. Jim? Yes, it is Jim, who I see a couple times a year at races. We chatted for several minutes, but finally I had to let him go as his pace was too quick for me.

We hopped on the trail and I came alive. I felt very good, I was rested; positive thoughts were going through my mind. I was running in a gorgeous new area. Temps were cool. I was on my game. I jogged the smaller hills, hiked the larger hills, and picked up the pace on the downhills. I passed several people on the downhill in the first miles. Seemed to me that they were putting on the breaks. I let it go and ran the tangents, passing them on the inside curve on switchbacks.

I began taking gels every 30 minutes starting at 1 hour in. My Garmin is set to buzz at me every 30 minutes so I remember. I skipped my gel at 2 hours because I was still full from breakfast, but other than that, I kept on pretty close gel schedule.
Lots of Oak trees. Photo: Chihping Fu

Though it was cool out, for some reason, I was sweating profusely and my clothing was dripping wet. Or was I collecting moisture out of the atmosphere? I didn't know, so I started taking salt (an S!Cap) every hour starting at 90 minutes in. Seeing drips of water/sweat falling from the brim of my cap reminded me to up my water intake. I felt like I was drinking a lot. More than my training runs anyway. (A hill— drink! Another hill— drink!) But my longest training run so far this year had been less than 4hrs 30 minutes. I can make hydration and nutrition mistakes in a run that short and get away with it, but I expected to be out close to 3 times that long today, so had to be on top of my fluids and nutrition, or else those mistakes would be compounded.

The first creek crossing came at 6.4 miles. A smile lit my face. I LOVE creek crossings, and this one was beautiful. Wet feet for the next 43 miles! I am thankful I have no issues running with wet feet and don't get blisters. Part of it might be that I'm lucky, and part might be that I practice running with wet feet during summer trail runs: hop in a creek and purposely get my feet wet. Keep running. Repeat. I'm not afraid of water. It buoys my spirits.

Around 9 miles in, I had the same thought I do during almost every race I've done that's marathon distance or longer: “Why do I do this? I could just quit at that aid station up ahead and get a ride back to the finish and enjoy the festivities the rest of the day.” But I am not a quitter. I know I would be disappointed and that feeling would linger. The pain it takes to finish only lasts a few hours or a few days. Being a finisher is forever. I'll be done in ½ a day, then I'll forever be a Lake Sonoma50 finisher. That questioning feeling soon went away, and by mile 15 I felt like I was settling in for the day, and happy. I actually was happy to think “I'm ONLY 10 miles away from the turnaround!” Hey, whatever makes you happy!
Water fun about 11-13 miles. Photo: Nate Dunn for

At mile 19, near the start of the 3 biggest climbs, I put on my iPod to start the party in my head. I sang, played air drums. I was happy and grateful for this experience, the beauty, the other runners, the awesome volunteers. By 11:30am, the skies had cleared, and it was now sunny. This middle third (or more) of the course was more sun-exposed than the first and final sections. I was thankful that I got to run under cool, clouded skies for nearly 5 hours. I felt really strong coming in to the turnaround at mile 25. There is a 1-mile loop at the end to the aid station and I ran that downhill really strong. As I did, I made a list in my head of what I needed to do here: take off hydration pack, get it filled with ice & water, remove my shirt, wipe down with icy-wet towel in my dropbag (ahhh!), reapply sunscreen, change shirt, reapply body glide, get rid of trash, restock gels, eat applesauce. As I sat down on a tarp with my drop bag, someone appeared to help me. I looked up, and it was none other than 14-time WS winner Ann Trason. What an honor. She helped me with everything I needed, and then I was off, nearly ½ an hour ahead of the cutoff here.

Leaving the turnaround, I felt cool and refreshed. Some of the downhill was quite steep here and I wasn't moving as fast and taking short, quick steps, but now I was putting on the brakes. I passed a couple people in this section though. One fellow said, “you're still able to run downhill, that's good.” He was walking. My heart went out to him. There were several people still approaching the turnaround. I loved-on and high-fived every one of them with encouraging words.

At mile 31 aid, I was still feeling quite good physically and mentally, but recognized I was slowing down more. The Queen said to me, “this is when you just keep moving.” This, along with advice from a friend who ran this race last year but didn't make the mile 38 cut-off: “Hike the hills with passion and you will be OK” kept me focused on staying ahead of the cutoffs at miles 38 and 45.5.

Photo: Chihping Fu
I had decided to count the number of people I passed during the return trip. That number was 3. But as I slowed over the continued hilly miles in the sunshine and fatigue set in, more people passed me. It was only 2 miles to the next aid, a water-only stop at mile 32.8. As I walked up the hill into the station, I sang along with Kanye: “I'm amazing, yeah I'm all dat...” The two gentlemen there bowed to me. I felt great and happy to be here. One asked if I'd like water poured over my head. Yes, please! He poured an entire pitcher of ice-cold water over my head and neck. Orgasmic sounds ensued. “You needed that,” he said. “Your whole body needed that.” Agreed. I had been able to hold off a gal behind me, but soon, 72 year-old Eldrith Gosney passed me. Damn. Maybe I can be like her in 27 years. And she went on to run Miwok 100k just 3 weeks later. (I’ll be running Waldo 100k three weeks after Siskiyou Outback 50M, so I won't have to wait to be like her!)

Somewhere in the 5 miles to next aid and my last drop bag, things began to slowly change. My shins began to ache a bit. I was slowing down appreciably overall. I couldn't think about how far I had left to go. I could only think about running to the next aid station the best I could to beat that cut-off time. I did not look at my watch all this distance; just run the best you can. Several times as I was hiking uphill, my friend's advice went through my head and I asked myself, “Are you hiking with passion? No? Well, pick it up!” This worked for me. Finally I arrived at mile 38. I was excited that I had beat the cutoff by 7 minutes, but was told that the cutoff was really 30 minutes later than I had thought. Excitement to be 37 minutes up! I grabbed a headlamp from my dropbag “just in case,” downed some applesauce, and got out of there. 7.5 miles to the next aid. This was a VERY long stretch. My shins and calves ached. Not bad, but noticeable. The rest of my hips and legs felt fine. My Garmin died at 41.2 miles.
A bit earlier I had noticed my breathing becoming labored. Now it was even more so. I could not do much more than a slow jog even on the downhill because I would be breathing so heavy. I wondered if this meant my heart rate was high as well. This has never happened to me before. So I took it a little easier on the climbs, jogged what I could of the downhill. And I took advantage of the creek crossings. I stopped and splashed water on my legs and hair, doused my kerchief and tied it around my neck. The rivers were so pretty. There was one especially that appeared to have cascading pools down to where I was. I wanted to stop and sit and have a picnic and check them out. But I must keep moving. At the last creek crossing, which I knew was around 6.5 miles from the finish, I sat in the middle of the river up to my waist. I felt I had to. Maybe I should have done this earlier. I got teary-eyed. This is damn hard! I sat in the river until I began shivering, then got up and moved on. The cold water made my legs feel better and cooled off my thigh chafing. Now I was actually able to jog up some of the smaller hills.

Now, not even knowing that I had less than 10 miles left excited me. I couldn't believe that earlier I was excited to be 10 miles from the TURNAROUND! I just needed to make it to the next aid station. But I didn't know for sure how far away that was 'cause my Garmin had died. I'm sure this threw off my gel schedule too, since I now had nothing buzzing at me every 30 minutes to remind me. Being deficient in calories doesn't make things any better. Things got damned hard. I had to focus just to keep running. It was hard to start running again after walking. I was so very tired and just wanted to be done and hug somebody.

Such brilliant colors! Photo: Chihping Fu
I realized my inner dialogue had changed over the last 10 miles. No longer was I thinking positive things about myself as I was earlier when I felt good. It was a challenge just to make myself jog on the downhills. I was mostly just thinking about keeping moving. I did know however, that I would finish. My inner finger pointed at me: You've worked so hard lately, you should have done better than this! How can everyone be so much better at this than you? But the positive mental work I've been doing kicked in: HEY! If you hadn't worked so hard lately, been so prepared and felt so confident coming into this, you wouldn't have even finished. And you're finishing today. All these people work hard too, and many have been working for a lot longer. And the number of people in front of and behind me doesn't tell the entire story. Many people got sick or injured and couldn't even show up. Then there were those that started but didn't finish. (I later found out that 26 people who started the race did not finish.) Though I didn't want to finish at the back of the pack, I had stepped up my game with this race, my most difficult 50-miler yet:10,500 feet of gain in the form of relentless rolling hills as advertised. I was going to meet my single goal for the day: finish.

When I saw the sign “1/4 mile downhill to last aid” I was thrilled! I got down to the aid station, chest heaving, breathing still labored, and broke into tears. “Don't worry, you're going to finish,” a volunteer said. I replied that I knew I would, that I was just a little emotional right now. He also said that it was only 6:30pm. I said, “no way!” shocked that I was now an hour ahead of the cutoff. I sat here for a few minutes to get my breathing under control, ate some chips, drank some Coke, and found out that these volunteers had camped here at this boat-in campsite to be ready for the runners early in the morning and as they came through all day. What dedication!

Photo: Chihping Fu
So now with a little less than 5 miles remaining, I had to focus completely to just keep moving: barely jog the downhills, and hike the rest. Did I say how hard it was? I was looking forward to seeing that damn “1 mile left!” sign. Finally, I saw it. Shortly after, I recognized the spots I had visited the day before the race when I walked backward from the finish to check it out. I was glad I'd done that. Those flowers, that bush, those rocks, that view, bend in the trail. Look over there, there's the finish line! Cross the road, round the bend. Into finish line chute. It was nearly dark. 5 minutes more and I would have needed to pull out my headlamp. There were like 3 cars left in the parking lot, and one was mine. But I was finishing, running as fast as I could down the grassy chute edged by multicolored flagging. I immediately doubled over, hands on knees. A volunteer asked if I was all right. “Yes. Can I hug you?” I asked her. “I've been waiting to hug someone.” We shared a nice hug. Then someone stood up from the timer's table, and I got a hug from LB too. “That was so hard!” I said. “You're the only one to say that,” he joked. I didn't hang around for long, since I was beginning to shiver uncontrollably. I grabbed my race swag, a slice of pizza, and was driving away within about 15 minutes. One day I will finish these things early enough to hang out and enjoy the festivities while it's warm and light out and there are people still around.

Finish line chute in the daylight.
I finished just as the last light was leaving the sky.
Wore new Salomon S-Lab shoes that I've been trying out for a couple months. The longest I'd run in them before race day was less than 20 miles. I took a risk and it went fine (but had a pair of my tried-and-true road shoes in my turnaround dropbag just in case). Mistake?: I did not have any protein or Recoverite at the turnaround. Usually on these longer races I have. I wonder if this contributed to my fatigue. Hydration could have been better. I was shocked at how much water it really takes. I peed 3 times during the race. The second time urine color was not good, 3rd time it was much better. I had pouch of applesauce at each dropbag. I continue to not be interested in chewing any food other than potato chips.

Garmin had died, which I'm certain totally threw off my gel consumption. When I unpacked my Garmin at the hotel it was on. I think when I'd repacked from the previous night, it turned on and was on for several hours during my drive to the race hotel. In the future, I will always bring my charger. When fully charged, my Garmin lasts 17–18 hours, which would have been more than enough today. I reached the race turnaround in 5:58. In comparison, last year I finished the Eugene Marathon in 5:07. It kicked my butt. I was done at mile 8 and just jogged it in to get it finished. Today I had, in 25 miles, run one mile less but about 5,000 more gain in less than an hour more. So I am really happy with that progress.

I didn't think I would slow down the second half as much as I did (I have no idea how the final 5 miles took me more than 2 hours, when I felt like I was working hard). And the whole labored breathing thing was new. Not sure what caused that. Maybe it was just how my body dealt with the fatigue that day. I'd also had some mild pollen allergy symptoms both at home and down there, so perhaps that was a contributing factor? My neck, shoulders, and arms felt relaxed though. I did start telling myself “I am relaxed and breathing easy,” but it did not seem to help. It was just my chest that felt tight/tense.

I really enjoyed the course. It was gorgeous! I actually liked the rolling hills. At least the climbs did not go on endlessly for miles and miles and miles! I ran some, I walked parts of some, I hiked all of some. But the trade off is no miles and miles of downhill to bomb down. Everything was beautifully green. Someone said that in 2 more weeks, it would be “California brown.” I loved the creek crossings! I loved the color contrast: blue lake, rich brown dirt above the water, green grass, blue skies. Volunteers awesome, runners awesome. Everyone (well almost), seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Even when I was not having such a good time later on, I asked myself what 3 words would best sum up my Lake Sonoma experience, and quickly came up with: Love. Service. Gratitude.

Just awesome, I'm so thankful I got to experience this! Big smiles still...

A postlude, so that no one worries:
A couple weeks after the race, I had blood-work and an echo cardiogram stress test done, just to be safe. After all, I have some strikes against me (former obesity and smoker, family history). I ran on a treadmill and got my heart pumping really hard and they used sound waves to check my heart function. All tests came back normal. My electrolytes and iron are fine, my heart is working fine. So I have no excuses.

A couple weeks after this, I was reading a book where a runner told of a similar situation he had in a race soon after he had gotten a bad bug (spider?) bite. This made me remember that the week before my race, I also had a large bug bite on my left arm. To this day I can still see where it was. So maybe this insect or spider bite had a negative effect on my body when it was put under stress. Who knows. But I am fine now and carrying on as planned.

Friday, October 4, 2013

In My Element: Mountain Lakes 100

Banner on Mountain Lakes 100 website
It’s been over 14 months since my last blog post, and I’m just going to have to ignore all that time and start anew, only to say that many good things have happened in the last year. I started, but didn’t finish two 100-milers last fall (2012): Pine to Palm, and Javelina 100. I did get to 77 miles at Javelina before “timing out,” which actually encouraged me. Since then, with the guidance of my coach, many pieces have fallen into place. I’ve lost nearly 30 pounds, have been doing weekly strength-training classes for the last 11 months, do weekly strength-core-balance work at home, have been doing regular speedwork all year, and am getting stronger physically, mentally, spiritually.

Mountain Lakes 100 shares some of the course (about 28 miles?) with Mt. Hood 50, which I truly love and have so far run twice. I’ve also done a few training runs on that same section of trail. The course also includes the trail around Timothy Lake, which I have run a couple times before, so I was familiar with almost 40 miles of the ML100 course.

Until about a week before race day, the weather was looking ideal. But then the remains of a typhoon  got caught up in the jet-stream and the forecast changed quickly: 100% chance of rain. But I thought: just because there is 100% chance of rain doesn’t mean it’s going to rain 100% of the time, right? Oh, but I was no longer on the dry-, but wet-side of the state. Luckily I had seen the forecast a couple days before and packed all kinds of clothes. I’m a planner and preparer, and I thought I had probably over-packed again (which is preferable to under-packing though). After setting up my tent in light rain on the shore of Olallie Lake on Friday afternoon, the rain and wind only intensified. I lay awake for what seemed like half the night, wind buffeting the tent and tent seams leaking, wondering just how the hell this whole thing would go down. I revised what I would wear to the start at least half a dozen times.

Already drenched around mile 8–9
(photo: Paul Nelson Photography)
My alarm went off at 4:23am Saturday, race day. (I almost always set my alarm for a time that ends in 3 or 7.) Thankfully, I had set out my clothes the night before, stocked and filled my hydration pack, and knew my breakfast would be apple-cinnamon bread with peanut butter, a banana, and supermarket-deli deviled eggs (I wasn’t gonna take time to scramble eggs and I get frustrating trying to peel boiled eggs). I generally “run hot” and would rather be slightly chilly than overheated, so I donned capris and compressions socks (I knew for sure water would be splashing up on my calves, but had no idea how much so), a simple long-sleeve tech shirt, a wind-breaker vest, light beanie hat, and a dollar store emergency  poncho. I had brought a rain coat, but they are stiff, hot, sticky, I hate them, and so I’ll only wear one if it’s really bad out. I was happy that crew member and pacer Cheryl, who would run with me around Timothy Lake (approx. mile 55–71), was there to assist me before the start. I had decided minutes before the start to add the rain poncho. 

The race started at 6am in the dark, wind, and rain. I promised my coach I would not start in the back like I did at Mt. Hood 50, so I made sure to be no farther than about 1/3 of the way back. The countdown commenced, and then we all started running up the wrong forest road! It was so funny and we all laughed! Back we went, then up the correct road. The first 3 miles were on dirt forest road. Then it got serious. As soon as we were directed onto the first section of trail, there were large puddles in the middle. I watched people ahead of me hop from side to side to avoid them. I just went right through the middle. Soon we ran through a burned area and came out high on an exposed ridge, where we were subject to relentless rain and high winds. I figured the wind had to be around 50 mph through here. I was praying, “please God, don’t let one of the burned trees fall on me.” I ran through the first aid station at just past 5 miles, knowing I would see my coach Scott after another 6 miles, most of it downhill. 

My plan from the beginning was pretty basic: Use downhill to my advantage. Not to go balls-to-the-wall and exhaust myself, but to pick up the pace a bit on every downhill. I did that here, between aid 1 and 2, but the downslope was nothing like the elevation chart below shows, of course!  Somehow, a couple thousand feet of loss in 6 miles is not as kick-ass as it sounds. But I think the wideness of the road also tends to lull me into a complacent/bored place unless it is very rocky/technical, which tends to make me feel more focused and engaged.

Cheering, Scott met me at aid 2, said I needed to drink more water and take in more gels (calories). I tried to eat some pretzels from the aid station, but I have issues swallowing dry things during a race, so I spit them out and instead sucked down a Trader Joe’s Apple-Grape juice box, and a TJ’s strawberry applesauce pouch (the kind with a large twist-off top that’s intended for kids). That was an easy-down 160 calories in about 30 seconds, and was the first of several times today I had this same “real” food (as opposed to pure-sugar energy gels). I left without filling the water in my hydration pack thinking I had enough to last me to the next aid station. But I had forgotten that the next aid was 9 miles away…

Soon we were back on trail— a steep, rocky trail through the forest. The forest was beautiful and wet and green. Some of the low bushes and vine maple were changing into brilliant fiery fall colors. I couldn’t remember how long this hill was, but I knew it was a few miles. People began passing me almost like I was standing still. Steep uphill hiking is not one of my strong suits. Gradual uphill hiking, sure, I can hike very strongly. Steep is another matter. Maybe I should start doing some affirmations in this area instead of thinking I suck at steep uphills: “I am a STRONG uphill hiker.”

 I continued to suck down water per Scott’s instructions. And then, to my surprise, I ran out. I looked at my watch: 16.1 miles. Ah shit, I would be without water for the next 5 miles, most of it uphill. I periodically sucked hard on my hydration tube and got about 1/2 a drop of water, enough to keep my mouth slightly moist. When the trail wasn’t steep, it was very rocky (and sometimes it was both), like a dry river bed, except today it wasn’t so dry. Sections were impossible to run. Sometimes I could run 10 or 20 feet and then have to hike through a long section of big rocks. There was no getting into a rhythm. And then there were the puddles. They were everywhere and pretty much unavoidable. The rain and wind continued to get worse. The trail went past and between several small mountain lakes. Today they just looked like grey pools. I’m sure they are pretty and inviting on a warm sunny day. There was no need to get into a lake to cool off today. 
One of many lakes on the route (photo: Mike Davis)

The trail, low between lakes, was a lake in itself. I counted a 1/2 dozen times that I went through nearly knee-deep puddles. I actually relished this. I held my arms out wide, looked up at the grey sky, and grinned from ear to ear. I was having a great time. I felt engaged, alive. It was a total sensory experience. Even though I live in Central Oregon (on the “dry side” of the state) and have hardly run in rain since April, water and I are friends. I regularly wade through creeks mid-run, and this summer, even started lying down in them. At the end of a run, sometimes I will do what I call a “river-walking session” and walk up and down and back and forth across a river (most often Tumalo Creek at Shevlin park). I walk slow and super-focused and stay out of dangerous spots, but push my comfort zone just a bit. Also thankfully, I have no issues running long distances with wet feet. This was really key today. 

The burn area (photo: Paul Nelson Photography)
Approaching the burned area, and exposed ridge for the 2nd of 3 times, the weather was getting worse and worse. The wind-driven rain stung my face (or maybe it was the hail that some people had experienced). My thoughts went back to when I ran the Horse Butte 10 mile loop just SE of Bend last spring. The weather was very similar: windy, driving rain, no where to hide. No one else was out there but me. I thought about how most people would be absolutely miserable, but there I was loving it with a wide smile-grimace on my face. Another time I was out at Horse Butte, the loop was covered in ankle deep slush as spring snow melted. I couldn’t feel my feet for the last few miles. This was certainly not that bad. It’s all training for something, and it was all coming together today. Other people I saw around me did look miserable and cold. I was so thankful that I tend to run hot, and was only a little cold. 

At the next aid station I finally filled up my water. I was damned thirsty. There had been water literally all around, but not a drop to drink. The water in the trail and the lakes was dirty and filled with debris. Had there been a stream, I would have stopped and drank and filled my water container. Since there wasn’t, I hadn’t taken any food/gels or salt for over 5 miles. Five very SLOW miles. So I downed 3 cups of GuBrew (electrolyte drink), had 2 gels and 2 salt caps, then went on my way. Crossing the exposed ridge again, I told myself, “this is the last time, I don’t have to do this again.” One small victory. I was looking forward to passing back through the start area at marathon distance, where I would see my crew and change into some warm clothes and eat more real food. I did’t run the road section back to the start as strongly as I had liked. I got a bit down on myself for a few minutes, felt a lack of energy, and took a few walk breaks, though my legs felt fine. I attributed this to being out of water and not taking in any calories and thus getting low on energy. I recognized my negatively pretty quick this time and replaced those thoughts with others: “Good job. So strong. I run strong, confident, relaxed. I’ve got this. I am a 100-mile finisher.” I envisioned the finish line and smiled, tears welling up in my eyes. 
Approaching The Ridge (photo: Mike Davis)

I had only a couple minor physical issues in the first section. Sometimes I stepped on a rock wrong, my left foot would evert, and pain would shoot up through my lateral left ankle. The right ankle was fine though. Also, my calves were on the verge of cramping. Crew member Siiri reminded me about getting more leg extension behind me, and that would stretch out my calves more with every stride, whether I was running or hiking. That did the trick all day. There were a couple times my head and neck felt heavy and the muscles at the sides of my back began aching. I recognized that I was hunching over and reminded myself to keep my head up and run upright. This was more of an issue in those rockier places where I was looking down near my feet often. 

Ridge view #2. This was some of the nastiest weather of the day (photo: Mike Davis)
This first marathon distance section (which returned us back to the Start/Aid 4) took much longer than I had anticipated (about an hour more). Other than about 9 miles of dirt forest road, I had no idea what the terrain would be like. I found out it was pretty challenging and time-consuming. My crew hurried me into a waiting warm van. 

All my clothes were laid out for me to choose from. I changed into dry gloves, hat, shirt, put on a light windbreaker, got the forest debris out of my shoes. And I ate. I stuffed my cheeks with warm macaroni and cheese. Siiri said I looked like a chipmunk. I asked for my silicone-based personal lubricant as I was beginning to experience some chafing. I was in good spirits and joked to my husband, “honey, wanna help me out here?” (Ever try to apply Body Glide in the rain when your skin is already wet? It doesn’t work so well. This is something I had thought about before race day, and prepared for.)  

Meanwhile, Scott was keeping me moving: You’ve gotta be out of here in 5 minutes. 2 minutes. 30 seconds. “Hold on, I’m putting on some underwear!” I yelled. I’d never worn capris running for this many miles, much less in the pouring rain. They say to never to do anything different on race day, but I was thankful I had included a pair of undies in my gear last-minute, and this risk paid off for me today. I exited the warm van, downed another juice box and applesauce pack, cheeks still full of mac and cheese. Then my entire crew walked with me a short way to where I got on the Pacific Crest Trail headed north. They told me a lot of people were hypothermic and had dropped from the race. I was still standing, still moving. Elton John's “I’m Still Standing” played in my head. I would see my crew again just 3 miles later. 

The majority of trail was puddle-covered
(photo: Paul Nelson Photography)
The next several miles on the PCT was sublime running. The rain had let up and there were few puddles. After changing into dry clothes, I was feeling a little on the warm side. I hiked the small uphills and jogged the rest for the next 3 miles so I could digest my food easier. Approaching aid 5 at around 29 miles, my crew was cheering for me as soon as they saw me. I smiled and my eyes filled with tears. They had walked a 1/2 mile to meet me here. They fed me a few more bites of mac & cheese, told me how great I was doing, and I was off again, with the directions to “catch those two girls” ahead of me in the next section. “OK, I can do that,” I said. My crew was doing their job, and I was doing mine. 9 miles to the next aid station, and 25 until I’d see my crew again.

This section of the PCT was really lovely. A few peeks of views which would be even better in clear weather. Some nearby rocks, golden foliage. And of course my beloved forest. The ups and downs were pretty gentle, nothing very long or steep. I could still see those two girls ahead of me. I’d get a bit closer to them, then they’d pull away. I was hiking the ups a bit faster than they were, but they were running the downhills as fast or a little faster. I began to feel a little tired. Not my legs though, but my core. I was engaging my core! “Thank you, Ally,” I thought (Ally teaches the Thursday night Strength Training for Runners class I go to) “thank you for making me strong.” My abs are strong now and can handle this. Then I forgot about them and soldiered on, hiking some ups, and running the rest. 

I started feeling sleepy. “I gotta do something about this right now,” I thought. And I knew just what to do. I was happy to find my crew had stocked a couple caffeinated energy gels in my pack. I took them both, then put on my iPod and rocked out. I sang as I ran. I sang so those girls just ahead of me would know I was coming. This was a couple miles before the “Pinheads” aid station at mile 38. (Pinhead Buttes are nearby). An aside: I am a big fan of the Hellraiser movies and of the main character, Pinhead, so I delighted in the aid station’s name.

From here on out, I was “on” and feeling quite strong. I passed those girls and a couple other people. I pulled into Pinheads, filled up my water, and got keyed up for some good downhill to Warm Springs aid at mile 44. From Warm Springs on, I knew the rest of the course and just had to run around Timothy Lake and then go back to the start and I’d be done (I wasn’t thinking about how far was left to go). I was feeling good, I was passing people, I was excited. I’ve got this. I am meant to run 100 miles. 

I was coasting downhill for the next few miles to my beloved, familiar, Warm Springs. It was right around this time it started raining harder again. The steeper downhill was starting to get muddy and a bit slick, and darkness was falling upon the forest. I arrived at Warm Springs delighted to see a coconut bra-clad Jason Leman and Amy Sproston (no coconut bra). Jason gave me a great hug. Amy went to fill up my water but said I had plenty and that I needed drink more. Since it would soon be dark, I donned my headlamp and waist-lamp and I was off, happy to be in familiar territory again. 

I knew there was maybe another 1.5 miles of good downhill before a steep ~3 mile uphill mostly-hike to aid station 8 at Red Wolf. This is where another goal of mine today came into play: I wanted to run and hike the 10 miles from Warm Springs to the Clackamas Ranger Station better/stronger than I did at Mt. Hood 50 a little over two months ago. I’d be within a few miles of the same distance run, except I’d had much more challenging terrain early on today, in much more challenging, energy-sucking weather. Plus it was now also dark. Bring it on.

Some puddles were knee-deep on me (this guy is tall)
(photo: Paul Nelson Photography)
(I had ran a strong first half of MH50, was on goal, but the 2nd half just kinda fell apart and I pretty much gave up and jogged it in the last nearly 10 miles. And that was how I ended my goal race for the year. I was disappointed but excited the next day because I was not sore at all, just a little stiff. I could have pushed harder, it was all in my mind, and I was very excited by this breakthrough. But I still have to get past my mind, which will take some time and practice.)

About a mile out of Warm Springs, I turned on my lights. I crossed the Warm Springs River, where I had stopped to splash and cool off in mid-July. And then the hike up began. I knew this terrain, I knew where I was the entire time —I practically have it  memorized. Time went by quickly. I was still happy and feeling good, rocking out, singing when I could, but was also drenched and beginning to get cold. Puddles  were again forming and quickly getting bigger and deeper.

The trail leveled out and I began jogging. Ahead was the Red Wolf aid station, a walk-through tent set up right over the trail. I was still happy and feeling good, but getting colder and colder, now bordering on miserable. I made pretty quick work of this aid station. I knew I had enough water to last me until the Ranger Station, so just had a couple chunks of boiled potato dipped in a bowl of salt (an ultrarunner favorite), and had a few words with a couple people and I was ready to be off. The race leaders were also pulling into this aid station, but from the other direction. They were at mile 76 to my 50. Race Director Todd Janssen suddenly appeared. He said to me, “Laura, someone told me you’d dropped. And I said to them, no, it couldn’t have been Laura.” Nope, wasn’t me, I’m still standing. And then I was off. 

There were a number of trees down over the trail in this section, including a tangle of several trees that had been there at the running of MH50. I couldn’t believe they still hadn’t been removed. I was surprised to have navigated them much better today than I did then, although after throwing my legs across them, I did stumble around a bit. I wondered whether some of the other trees had come down earlier today or had been there for a while. 

I’d been drinking more water like Amy had suggested, and now I had to pee like a racehorse. I was also drenched and very cold now. Gritting my teeth, grimacing, wincing, I just had to keep running to my waiting crew, another 5 miles away. I sang, accentuated arm swing, ran as fast as I could without being reckless, just to keep warm. I did not want to stop to pee and expose more of myself to the elements than necessary. (I knew there would be a porta-potty at the Ranger Station.) It was especially difficult to “hold it” since the puddles were again deep and nearly constant, so there was always the sound of splashing water. Yet I was so focused. I don’t know what was keeping me from falling flat on my face in the water. It was hard to see with the heavy rain reflecting light from my headlamp back at me. It was like I wasn’t even thinking. I was just flowing like the water. I was flying. 

Keeping at it, still rocking out, singing when I could, I passed more and more people, most of whom were walking. Finally I made it to the Miller Trail, which cuts over from the PCT to Clackamas Ranger Station. I was now only a mile away from my crew. I was really looking forward to their cheers, getting into a warm van, changing into dry, warm clothes (including fuzzy-lined winter running tights), getting something warm to drink, eating more mac & cheese, and picking up Cheryl, my first pacer. I was making a list in my head of what I needed to do while I was there so I could be efficient and get out of there fairly quick. I hadn’t looked at my watch for hours. I was just trying to keep on my goal of using downhill to my advantage to give myself the largest cushion for the solitary cut-off as possible (mile 71 by 4am). I knew the miles after that were more up- than down-hill, and I would be hiking more.

Approaching the Ranger Station, there were idling cars parked on both sides of the road, the people inside staying warm and dry out of the elements while watching for their runner. The aid station was set up in a different spot and configuration than at MH50, and I wasn’t sure where to go. It all seemed very strange. Siiri appeared and told me the remainder of the race had been cancelled. It was just before 10pm. “Are you serious?” I asked. “I could have done this.” Long comforting hug. People were hypothermic. Trees were falling, and aid station communications had been lost, putting runners and volunteers at safety risk. Though I was very cold, I would have been OK after changing into warm clothes, which, since my race was over, I did anyway, in the comfort of Cheryl’s warm RV. My husband was there with our SUV. He had packed up our campsite at Olallie Lake that morning because our tent was about to blow away and the tent stakes would not stay in the saturated ground. That was fortunate, because there was no way in hell I was going to sleep another night in a tent in the rain. As he drove me home, I hungrily devoured the rest of my mac & cheese with my fingers and slept that night in my own warm house and bed.

My heartfelt thanks go out to the Race Directors, Todd Janssen and Trevor Hostetler, Renee Seeker, and the entire Nspire team. I can’t begin to fathom the amount of work that goes into putting on a 100 mile race, much less one in these conditions. The weather must have made for so much more work and worry. The volunteers went above and beyond the call of duty, standing in the cold, wind, and rain for hours upon hours, serving runners with the utmost care and kindness. I am truly humbled by their love and dedication. And to my crew: Scott, Siiri, Cheryl and Doug, who waited on me, kept me warm and fed, cheered for me, motivated me, lifted my spirits: you were the face and hands of God. Thank you for your love and care. I love you all and look forward to serving you one day.

Since Saturday I have been through some emotional ups and downs. I think about the experience I had, and I still smile and get tears in my eyes. When I think about still not being a 100-mile finisher, I get sad. I knew I could have done it. I controlled as many variables as possible, but Mother Nature was out of my control. So I am choosing to focus on that part of the experience that makes me happy. It was a true growing, learning, sensory experience and has made my life is richer because of it. I understand so much more about myself and the distance now. And it has proven to me that since I can run 55 miles in those deplorable conditions (while having fun even!), I can do anything. I was born to run 100 miles. I will keep training, be patient, and wait a little longer. It will come, and it will be sweet. 

photo: Paul Nelson Photography

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What’s Next? P2P, That’s What.

“What’s next for you, Laura?” Whenever someone asks me this, I am happy to tell them. But I don’t typically broadcast to the world what my plans are. If people are interested, they will ask. But lately I’ve been thinking that so few people know what my next big thing is that perhaps I should just say it. Some friends may wonder why I didn’t say something sooner.

The truth is, I’m kinda afraid to let people know. Some more so than others. Some will think, “Yeah right, Laura’s gonna do that? She can’t do that.” Others will support me, pray for me. Those are the people I need to surround myself with, to have on my “team.”

The other day I followed a link to this blog post. Several statements in this resonated with me, including:
“I believe fear is a great motivator. If you’re not afraid, it’s probably not your thing, so let it go.” and
“I believe in declaration. Say what you want, say what you’ll do, and say it loud so others hear and hold you to it. This should scare the pants off you.”

Consider me pants-less. I am running Pine to Palm 100 in less than 2 months! It seemed so far off when I signed up in February.

The course is point-to-point across the Southern Oregon Siskiyous west to east, from Williams Oregon, to Lithia Park in Ashland. It has 20,000 feet of climb and 20,00 feet loss. I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around this. The longest I’ve run at once is just over 50 miles. My training run last Sunday was 26 miles and 4,000 feet of climb. Now quadruple the mileage and multiply the climb by 5. I can’t even imagine how much I will hurt or how tired I’ll be. As soon as I see that finish line, nothing else will matter though.

The strange thing is, I know I can run 100 miles. I know I will. I know I will run multiple 100s. My body is strong. I know I can keep moving. It’ll all be over in less than 34 hours. 34 hours is not that long. That’s less than a day and a half of my life.

It’s my mind I’m going to have to deal with. It will yell and scream, demand attention. I’ve been told that the more good shit I’ve got going on, the closer I am to success, the more it will scream. I decided yesterday that the next time it tells me to stop, that I can’t do something, I’m going to shove it into a small room inside my head, slam the door shut, and kick my focus in. I’m pretty sure after I get that sweet 100 mile buckle, my mind will change its tune.

I still remember that morbidly obese girl who drank a 5th of vodka or 1.5 liters of wine every night. Who could only manage 5 minutes on the elliptical the first day at the gym. Who hated herself. Who went to bed more nights than not hoping to not wake up in the morning. All this is still fresh in my memory. It was less than 7 years ago.

I am not that girl any more, but I would not be who I am today without her. I’m about to accomplish something she never would have dreamed of. And in the process, I hope a few of you are inspired to do something that scares the pants off you.

I’m anticipating the best run of my life on September 15–16.

That was then.

This is now.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I’m an SOB

Siskiyou Outback-er, that is. This is the 3rd year in a row I’ve run the race affectionately known as “SOB.” In 2010 and 2011 I ran the 50k, but this year was eager to step it up to the newly-added 50 mile distance. (It would be my 4th 50 mile race.) The races start at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area at about 6,800 feet elevation and more or less follow the Pacific Crest Trail with a couple diversions on to forest roads for a few miles. Course elevation tops out near 7,100 feet. There is some nice shady, forested running, as well as high, open, sunny ridges with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and hills. There is little flat out here. You’re pretty much always headed up or down. I regret that I have no pictures from this race to show you the beauty. I made the decision to leave the camera at home and focus on the run this time.

In the week leading up to SOB, I had done the math. I got really worried about making the time cutoffs, which came out to 15-minute/mile pace starting at miles 35.5 at Jackson Gap aid station. My longer runs with moderate elevation gain the last couple months had been very close to that. My concern got the best of me on my 10 mile run on Tuesday before the race. I was so consumed with worry that there were a couple miles I didn’t even feel like running, so I didn’t. I just hiked. Then I got to my favorite spot on the trail— one of my favorite views in all of Central Oregon. I stopped, bent over with my hands on my knees, and just cried. How the hell could I be so worried about something in the future as to not be able to enjoy the fact that I was moving, on my own two legs, through this beautiful place that I love? There are people that would love to be able to run, much less walk. And here I was getting in 10 miles today. I was walking— so what! Get over yourself, Laura, get out of your mind, and enjoy being able to move through the world! So what if you don’t feel as good or aren’t as fast as you think you should be. Why has it taken me so long to learn this? Why is it taking running to teach me so many important lessons? Be thankful, Laura.

Something had to change fast, and that something was my mind. I came up with a mantra that I repeated to myself dozens of times a day for the next few days: “Calm, Confident, In the Moment.” I believe you can’t worry if you are truly In the Moment. For me, worry generally comes from thinking about the future. The future hasn’t happened yet. So why are you worried about it? Just do your best. By Friday I was totally at peace and prepared for whatever might happen on race day.

The race began at 6am (which meant a 3am wakeup for me!). The first 8 miles are some of my favorite. The PCT in this section is absolutely pristine, cushy, and a dream to run on. I felt great. My plan was to put some time between me and the 15-minute pace cutoffs early in the day while it was cool, but to temper that with patience. So far so good. After the Siskiyou Gap aid station at mile 9.1, we were routed onto forest road 20 for what seemed like forever. The rocky road climbs steadily up. I thought I remembered running all of this in 2010, but today running more than short sections was a struggle. So I hiked. Then, at mile 9.2, Max King was the first of the 50k runners to pass me. They had started their race an hour later and had already caught up to me. My mind started going south as more and more 50k-ers passed me. Most said “good job” as they passed. Didn’t they know I was the back of the 50 milers? Why do I work so hard to get where I am, yet I’m still last, or nearly last? Why even run road 4601 in training? So much good it’s done for me today. I’m the cream of the crap, the worst of “the best.” Oh well, at least I’m out here.

A woman caught up with me saying that she was the sweep. Indeed, I was last. My mind silently screamed, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, get away from me!” Instead I politely said that I was surprised to see her because I knew that I was way ahead of 15-minute pace. She said she just ebbs and flows. I thought, but didn’t say out loud, “Well then, ebb the hell away from me.” Soon she did. That was a relief, and I started working on my mind. I had realized the first moment that my mind began heading south, and I had let it continue. Now I had to work to change it. The course got back on to trail, and now I had to hop out of the way for many more 50kers to pass me. That was really beginning to be a pain, but I tried to take it all in stride, just BE, and enjoy the scenery. By Wagner Gap at mile 12.5, I felt back on my game. At some point, I can’t remember when, I looked at my Garmin and was 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I knew that time cushion wouldn’t last because there was a hiking climb coming up. I decided then not to look at my watch any more.

Jackson Gap, at mile 14.5, was the turnaround point for the 50k and the 50 mile drop bag location. I saw a 50k friend of mine sitting in a chair, wrapped up, but shivering. I touched her head. How you doin’ honey? “I don’t feel good,” she replied. I said she should sit for a while and would feel better. She replied that she thought she was done. My heart went out to her. I am slow but I was feeling good physically. Be thankful, Laura. Be thankful. I grabbed the ziploc marked #1 from my drop bag and refilled my pocket with gels from it. From another ziploc I retrieved an already wet bandana packed in ice and tied it around my neck to help me stay cool. I refilled my water and dumped my garbage.

I was following my race plan to a T and was off again. A short climb out of Jackson Gap, followed by a few miles of gentle downhill. But first there was one big ol’ daunting snow bank across the trail to make it over. I didn’t like the looks of it, and did some hyperventilating (if my foot slipped more than a few inches, I would have slid clear down the snowbank and down the hill). Shortly after that, I was stopped in my tracks by one of the most beautiful countryside views ever. I laughed and smiled. There was a gentleman not far behind me. I waited for him, saying “Come over here, I want to share this view with you.” We put an arm around each other and just stood there for a moment, soaking in the view. We didn’t know each other, but in this moment it did not matter, and it was wonderful. These are the moments that running is about. Oh, and I did find out his name is Sean. We’d see quite a bit of one another the rest of the day.

Some nice downhill running for most of the next 7 miles. About mile 16, I started seeing the front-runners coming back the other direction. I did some quick math. Wow, they were running like twice my pace! How anyone can do that just amazes me. I can’t even comprehend it. This is why I like out-and-back courses. I get to see people. I don’t mind people passing me from the opposite direction. It is much easier to get out of their way than when being passed from behind. Plus I can see their faces, and it’s easier to give encouragement and connect. After a few miles of downhill, I started thinking, “Wow, this is gonna be a lot of uphill on the way back.” Then about mile 19 there was a wooden sign indicating the Oregon/California border. That was pretty damned neat-o! I had run to California!

At Wards Fork aid station at mile 22, I prepared for the 3 mile climb to the turnaround. I handed off my hydration pack to be filled with ice and water while I did a few other things: downed a cup of coke and some grapes, rewet my neckerchief. Co-Race Director Timothy Olson (winner of this year’s Western States 100) poured ice into my sports bra. Of course I had to work the moment. I feigned a moment of ecstasy, moaning, “Oh, thank you Tim baby, that was so good!” I donned my iPod to rock out the climb and someone handed my filled hydration pack back to me. At least I assumed it had been filled. I will never again assume.

Out of Wards Fork, I knew it was a 3 mile climb to the turnaround, and I was ready with my tunes. I left the aid station singing, with Sean not far behind me. Before long I started seeing several of my friends heading back down from the turnaround. I saw Todd and asked how much farther to the turnaround, a mile? (It’s amazing how long 3 miles can seem.) He said it was still a ways and it gets steep, and to keep pushing. Then I saw my friend Lori. She said I was just about there, that it was like climbing a rock wall. Uh-oh. My mind began running amok. Before long, we were off the trail and following flagging cross-country. Not for very far though. It was fun, but taxing. We climbed up to a rocky outcropping where there was 360 degree views. I felt happy and on top of the world. I had made it 1/2 way! I raised my arms in triumph and screamed, “Fuck yeah!!!!” I didn’t care who heard.

My friend Anne was manning the turnaround and was going to be sweeping the way back. She said I had a little over 2 hours to make it back to Jackson Gap, but that they might not be super-strict on that cutoff, but would be on later ones. I did some quick math in my head. Running the next 10 miles—7 of which were basically one long climb—in just over 2 hours was not going to happen. So I decided to just keep doing my best and have fun.

I turned around for the 3 mile descent back to Wards Fork. Sean and a woman who I will refer to as “blue shorts” (I never got her name) were on the last pitch up. The woman looked like she was nearly in tears. I was getting thirsty. I sucked on my hydration tube. Nothing. Oh my. My water had not been filled at the last aid station after all! I told myself not to get angry or upset. It wouldn’t do any good. All it would do is suck my energy. So I didn’t get upset. That decision to stay calm and focused was actually was quite refreshing, and a good change. I’d run without water before, I’d be fine. Just run consistently to the next aid station where water awaits. I did not attempt to take any gels or salt during this time. Pulling in to Ward Fork again, I already had my hydration pack removed as was yelling (as politely as possible), “I need ice and water!” What did I need to do here, now, under the circumstances? Calories: Coke. Grapes. Gel. Salt. More ice in the bra, re-wet the bandana. I felt pretty efficient leaving that aid station.

There was an orange sign saying how many miles to Jackson Gap, and that it was like 1750 gain and 170 loss. Oh boy. Here’s that long hill. Most of it was at a grade just enough that I really couldn’t run much. So I hiked. There were a few short spots of flat terrain or descent, and I ran those, even though it was perhaps only 50 feet, or even 10 strides. I don’t recall ever doing this before. This also was a good change. I was getting a little tired though. Thankfully nothing hurt, but I was a bit low on energy. Perhaps I was in a deficit because of the water situation, or maybe this would have been a natural low point anyway.

I sang. I clapped. I did what I could to keep myself peppy and positive. Soon the blue shorts lady passed me. She passed me strong. She was hiking, and hiking quickly. She’d gotten a second wind. Good for her! I wasn’t moving as quickly, but I was moving. Sean, with Anne the sweep, were behind me. Occasionally I’d look back and could see them. There were the same amazing views on the way back, and since it was apparent I wasn’t going to make the cutoff time, I decided to stop for a moment to soak it in and smile contentedly. Then I continued on.

1/2 a mile before coming back in to Jackson Gap was that goddamned daunting snow bank again! If I thought it was daunting before, it really was now! I started across but turned back, nearly in tears. I looked up for a way around. If there was one, it wouldn’t be any easier than just crossing this thing. I knew Sean and Anne were just a couple minutes behind me, so I stopped and admired the view while waiting for them for some physical and moral support to get back over this thing. Sean went ahead and Anne was a great help to me. After that I was home free. I felt good, and alive, and began to run again. I looked at my watch for the first time in a long while, and my heart sank. I was way past the cutoff.

I pulled into Jackson Gap, stopped running, pounded my quads hard and repeatedly with my fists, and burst into tears. My friend Marilyn (aka “Mel,” who I ran the Rogue River trail with in May) had been volunteering at this aid station all day, and was suddenly there giving me a long, heart-felt hug, saying over and over, “You’re ok, you’re ok.” I was so glad she was there, and I’m sure she knows exactly how I felt. I was invited to have a seat. I didn’t want to sit. I was restless. I milled around, walking in circles, stopping to look at the grand view, quietly mouthing lyrics to songs still playing in my ear.

My drop bag was here. I might as well be good to myself. Boy, that’s a switch from decades past: take care of myself instead of beat myself up psychologically. So I made use of the supplies in my drop bag, even though I wasn’t continuing. I changed my shirt. I put on a clean, icy cold, wet neckerchief. I ate the baggie of Trader Joe’s mini cheese & cracker sandwiches. I was so disappointed, but I had done my best today. And with 6200 gain and 5800 loss, it was a good long training run. My best was good enough, dammit (just not for the time constraints).

Jackson Gap aid station was packed up and a few of us who didn’t make the cutoff here piled into two vehicles. It was a beautiful drive of over an hour on forest roads back to the start/finish. The roads are cut right into the hillsides. One side of the road is steep uphill, the other side steep downhill. Once again, no flat to be found. The views go on forever and make my heart soar. A few miles out from the finish, we could see runners still making their way toward the finish. We stopped and yelled out the window in support. I was a little sad and jealous ‘cause I love the last few miles of this race, and longed to be out there.

At the finish I talked to the woman in blue shorts, who had barely made it through the cutoff at mile 35.5, but didn’t make the cutoff at mile 41. She said her second wind hadn’t lasted. She did, however, say that when she came up behind me before passing me on that long climb, I was singing “Call Me Maybe” and she found it hilarious. Sean chimed in that he’d heard me singing “Safety Dance.” Yep, I listen to everything from 80s to current bubblegum-pop. My friend Seth joined in saying I looked to be one of the happiest people out there. When he passed me coming down from the turnaround, I was singing Rush’s “One Little Victory” right to his face and pointing directly at him. I sing not only for myself, but for you, my friends. Whether you find it hilarious or uplifting, that’s why I do it. Consider it my little gift to you. I also talked to many people who finished the race, but who said it took a lot longer than they thought it would. A tough course indeed.

I had mixed feelings immediately after the race. This is my 3rd year ultrarunning, and I’ve had 2 DNFs, both this year. In fact, my last 2 races were the DNFs: Yakima Skyline Rim 50k in April, and this one.   But these were also the two toughest courses I’ve run yet. At least I made the attempt. I can either let this rip me apart, or make me stronger. I’m choosing the latter. My best is good enough.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Western States 100 Training Runs

“I like having stories to tell.”
That’s what Mary, my massage therapist, said should be the first line of my book. Now, book, I don’t know. But I will do her the honor of starting this blog post with it, since it’s quite appropriate.

While I do like experiencing adventures, some of them are so profound, so soul-filling, that I don’t know where to begin to tell the story— so I just don’t. This was the case with the 3-day Western States 100 Training Runs, which I attended over Memorial Day weekend this year. It was so amazing to experience 70+ miles of the course, to be around so many dedicated runners, many of whom were training for the race this year. To soak in the history. To meet the volunteers, the current and future Race Directors, statesmen of the sport of ultrarunning. To see so many people selflessly giving of themselves so that I, and many others, might have such a wonderful, life-enhancing experience. On every single run since then, I have thought about writing a blog post about it, and in fact have written these first paragraphs over and over in my head. It’s never too late to start, right? So here I begin, more than a month later, to tell the story…

You may or may not know that at last year’s Western States, I paced Melanie, from Scotland, in her first 100-miler. I was with her for 38 miles, from Foresthill to the finish. Pacing was a very challenging and gratifying job. Everything you do is for that other person. I would do it again in a heartbeat, and will many times in the future, I am sure. This year, though I really wanted to be at the race, I felt that because of the physically and mentally challenging winter and early spring that I had, I would not make a good pacer. My training was ramping up and now going pretty well, so I decided I wanted to do the training runs instead. This time would be for myself, to see all the miles in the daylight that Melanie and I ran through in the dark last year. But the trip itself was very daunting. This would be my longest solo road trip ever. I am not a fan of driving long distances. I would stay 5 nights alone in a hotel, eat breakfast and dinner alone every day. Recover alone. But for 3 days I was in heaven, running the Western States 100 course. Another bit of a very big dream come true. I wanted to be there bad. I was going to make it happen and make the most out of it.

A change in routine.
I generally eat a pretty simple pre-race/run breakfast of bagel and turkey or a couple eggs and toast. But this was going to be 3 back-to-back long days of running. I knew I’d need more fuel than that. It might not have been wise, but I’ve never had and gastrointestinal issues or nausea during a run. My stomach is pretty iron-clad. So I took a calculated risk, and ate a hearty breakfast daily consisting of 2 eggs, greasy hashbrowns, 2 strips of bacon, and 2 slices of toast. Every morning, as early as 4:30 am, I sat alone at Denny’s, meditatively listening to M83’s “Outro” (which is featured in the movie Unbreakble: The Western States 100), eyes closed, head bowed, hands folded as if in prayer, soaking in even this experience. The 4-minute song contains just 4 power-packed sentences:
“I’m the king of my own land.
Facing tempests of dust, I’ll fight until the end.
Creatures of my dreams raise up and dance with me.
Now and forever, I’m your king!”

Day 1: 32 miles. Robinson Flat to Foresthill.
We were bussed from Foresthill to Robinson Flat (mile 30 of the race), a drive taking about an hour. As the bus climbed the winding, narrow road, many people, including myself, were shocked to see new snow in the trees. I was wearing only my lightest shorts, a tank top, lightweight arm warmers, and light gloves. I usually run hot, but this got me scared that maybe all the people wearing multiple long-sleeve layers had it right. Turns out, once moving, I was fine. Until later.

Getting started at Robinson Flat. Do I look cold?
The first climb out of Robinson Flat was a light dusting of new snow over remaining old snow. At the top of the climb, we were enveloped in fog. The trail switchbacked down through a burn area. Fun, rocky running. Soon we were to the section with lots of mining claims and old mining equipment. I was in heaven, ’cause I love that kind of stuff anyway.

Runners in the fog coming off the climb out of Robinson Flat. I wished I could have seen the view.

“Driving” some old mining equipment alongside the trail

I was running easy and having so much fun. This truly was an adventure! Next came the canyons: Deadwood, El Dorado, and Volcano. I kept waiting for it to get hard. On the climb up to Devil's Thumb from the bottom of Deadwood Canyon, the answer came to me: It doesn’t have to be hard. Not today. On race day, runners would be at mile 47 compared to my mile 17. And today it was cool and drizzly. I’m sure those people wanting to get some good heat training in were disappointed (it can be over 100 degrees in the canyons on race day), but I for one was loving the temperature. Until the climb out of El Dorado Canyon to Michigan Bluff. That’s when it began hailing, then pouring rain. The hail did not feel good on my bare shoulders. It almost hurt. I hoped it wouldn’t get any bigger. I passed a number of miserable people on the climb up to Michigan Bluff. We were all drenched, but I wasn’t miserable.

The aid station volunteer who dressed me in my rain poncho.
Note hail stones on blue jeep and rain coming off the canopy.

I had a plan for Michigan Bluff: get my Emergency Rain Poncho on, fill my water, and get the hell out of there as quick as I could. A few people who arrived at the aid station right behind me dropped from the run at that point. One young couple was getting into someone’s car to warm up. I wondered if they would even continue. I was wet and cold, and about to get a little scared. I left Michigan Bluff with no one visible in front of me or behind me. I followed the street through Michigan Bluff until it turned to jeep road, then trail. All the while I was looking for the yellow Montrail ribbons that marked our course. But had I been paying close enough attention? I saw some plain yellow markers. I got a little scared. My thoughts flashed back to earlier in the day when I had heard some girls say that the previous year they had gotten off-course by inadvertently following some plain yellow ribbons instead of ones marked with “Montrail.” Had I gotten off course? Don’t panic. Keep going, Laura. Pay attention. After a while, Thank God! I saw a Montrail ribbon. What relief! I was also warming up a bit. Though it was still raining, it’s amazing how a thin, dollar-store poncho can help keep you warm. I keep one in my pack for all my long “mountain” runs, yet this is the first time I’ve ever had to use it.

The last canyon, Volcano Canyon, was not as deep. As soon as I hit the paved road coming back into Foresthill, I was very excited and started running again, even though it was some decent uphill. A car drove slowly by, and someone yelled out the window to me. I had no idea who it was or what they said (I was wearing my iPod, having fun, and totally rockin’ out), but I smiled, waved, and kept running. Later I found out it was Assistant RD Craig Thornley and Andy Jones-Wilkins driving out to see if anyone wanted a ride back. They said I looked happy. I genuinely was. And I didn’t need no damn ride.

Day 1 elevation profile. Looks benign, but this is 7,000 feet gain and 10,400 feet loss!

Day 2: 19 miles. Foresthill to Rucky-Chucky (+ up to White Oak Flat to shuttle)
I arrived at Foresthill Elementary School a bit early. Some people were starting ahead of the official start. Someone said that yeah, if you knew where you were going, you could start early. So I did, giving myself a 20 minute head start. I knew I’d be hopping out of the way for a lot of faster people soon, but I didn’t mind. Because of my strategy, the day was filled with hugs and high-fives. I was ecstatic to be here, to be experiencing so much of course in the daylight that I had only seen at night. It was magical.

Before long the front-runners came through. Scott Wolfe gave me a hug as he ran by. Soon I heard someone say my name and I got hugs from Amy Sproston, Meghan Arbogast and Denise Bourasssa as they passed by. One thing about ultrarunning that really touches me is that front-of-the-pack runners take the time to love on us back-of-the packers. I asked if any men would like to give me a hug, which resulted in a couple more hugs.

Unlike Day 1, today was sunny and warm, but thankfully not super-hot. Whether it was the warmer weather, because I had just run 32 miles the day before, or knowing that I had plenty of time since I started early, I was considerably slower today. Arriving at the aid station at Cal2 (Peachstone), Assistant RD Craig Thornley was there and filled up my water. Andy Jones-Wilkins was there too, barking aid station offerings (I couldn’t help but smile) and giving encouragement to runners: “Miles of buffed-out sweet downhill single-track await!” I had hoped to pick up the pace on this section, but it was just rocky and “downhill” enough that I wasn’t comfortable picking up the pace much (we are so spoiled by our smooth, runnable trails in Central Oregon). One passing fellow said that he liked my stride, that it looked efficient, something between a walk and a jog. Yeah, that’s my “wog.” While I can’t say I appreciate or even like it, perhaps I should. Perhaps it is what keeps me injury-free and moving over long distances, albeit slowly. I don’t need to be fast to do what I’m going to do. I need patience.

The trail above the American River

Day 2 was filled with nice shady forest running, long gentle downhill, steep rocky downhill, and open areas across ridges with views of the river. The trail flirted back and forth above the river. The water was so tempting along this stretch of hot, dusty, sunny trail, yet was not accessible until Rucky Chucky. It was a few miles before Rucky Chucky that I met “Mama Lisa” as she introduced herself to me. Mama Lisa was sitting on a rock along the trail due to cramping. An accomplished ultra runner and Team In Training coach with several Western States and other 100-mile finishes, she said the radiation treatment she was going through was really messing with her. We walked together for a while, then began jogging. Mama Lisa was moving good. She said it was because I was pulling her along. It was an honor to pull you along, Mama Lisa, an honor indeed. She dropped from the run at Rucky-Chucky. As I left Rucky-Chucky, I looked at my watch. Had I started 20 minutes later with the official start, I would have barely made the cut-off time at this aid station. This was when I began to get worried about Day 3.

Me and Mama Lisa at Rucky-Chucky

I donned my iPod and began rocking out for the 3-mile climb up a sunny, hot, dirt road to White Oak Flat. Snakes stretched across the road, drunk on sunshine. I was happily hiking, rocking out, singing, clapping. Hiking uphill with music gets me in a focused groove. I call it a “party in my head,” which is better than the alternative. There were lots of hurting people on this climb though, who were barely moving. I continued happily hiking strong, singing to them as I passed. I hoped they could pull some energy from me. Then, with a mile left, we were funneled back on to a trail. I had figured we’d be hiking up the road until we got to the place where we’d catch the shuttle back to Foresthill. I was wrong. This is where my mind quit on me and was the only mile the entire weekend that I was just ready to be done.

The trail was almost flat, for maybe 50 yards, then pitched up again. Though I really wanted to run, I was too tired to run the ups and just wanted to get to the end. I did, and hotdogs awaited! Boy did they taste good. I didn’t even need a bun, just a dog in the hand. My body only wanted the fat and protein. It was here I got to meet WS100 Race Director, Greg Soderlund. What a kind, gentle soul. We talked about poison oak, he warning me that if I thought there was a lot of it today, just wait until tomorrow. He introduced me to one of his medical people who has an anti-poison oak method he swears by. On the way back to my hotel, I stopped by Worton’s store in Foresthill to pick up white vinegar and Tecnu and used both back at the hotel room.

Day 2 elevation profile: 3,600 feet gain and 4,650 loss. 
The evening of Day 2 was a special panel discussion/dinner with four multiple-time Western States finishers (an understatement!) and hosted by Andy Jones-Wilkins. I was fortunate enough to sit in front and take notes. Afterward, I got to officially meet and talk with some greats of ultrarunning, givers all of them. It makes me want to give more of myself. There was a lot of experience and wisdom in the room that night, and I was soaking up as much as I could. You can get the same information by watching this 70-minute video of the evening’s presentation. Although I enjoyed myself, I was becoming increasingly concerned about running even slower on day 3 and possibly not making the cut-offs at the 2 aid stations.

Day 3: 22 miles. 1.5 miles above Green Gate to Placer High School, Auburn.
My brain tends to work things out during sleep. In response to my concern about being too slow and not making cut-offs, I awoke thinking, “Oh no, I will not sabotage myself today. Just because I’ve never done this before doesn’t mean I can’t now.” A song was also stuck in my head: Florence + The Machine’s “Shake It Out”:
“It’s always darkest before the dawn…
And it’s hard to dance with a devil on your back,
So shake him off…”

This song was my mantra all day. I sang it over and over in my mind. It gave me a rhythm to run to, and a positive message. The devil would not cause me to fail today. Only 22 miles stood between me and my goal, and I was gonna do my damnedest to succeed.

The pre-race meeting was at the finish in Auburn. Mr. Soderlund warned us, in a nutshell: The bus ride out to the start is long, and when you get off, you’re gonna wanna pee. Don’t. The people who live out there have guns and they don’t want to be bothered. So wait until you cross the marker we’ve laid across the trail to pee. He wasn’t kidding.

It’s interesting how you can be all stiff and hobbled in the morning, yet once you start running, you loosen up and your body responds. This was especially true for me on Day 3. I felt the best that I had all weekend, and I had a plan for success today: I was gonna work the downhill and flats early on. I was gonna keep a steady pace but not push myself too hard. I was going to put as much time between me and the cut-offs as possible the first miles. My plan worked. I felt great and clicked off mile after mile. Each mile, I actually exclaimed out loud, “yes!” as I put 4, 5, even 6 minutes between me and the cut-off every single mile for the first 14 miles. I love this section of the course. It’s shaded forest trail, followed by rolling hills through grasses along a ridge and weaves in and out of small creek drainages. It was a warm day, and I made use of many of the creeks to wet my neckerchief, wash my face, and wet my hair and visor to help me stay cool.

The first of two aid stations was at 14 miles. That’s a long way when you’re rocking an average 13-15 minute/mile pace! We were, however, told about a trail-side water spigot at 7 miles that was safe to drink from. When I got to the spigot, I reached back and poked my hydration pack. It felt like I had plenty of water left. But I thought, “Don’t be stupid and pass up water, Laura. You never know what could happen. It’ll only take a minute to refill.” So I did. And boy was I glad I did. The next 7 miles to the aid station were sunny and much warmer and I was staying on top of my hydration and ran as many of the hills as I could. I had filled my 70-oz bladder full at the spigot, and by the time the next 7 miles were gone, so was my water. I had drank 70 ounces in 7 miles! I also checked my watch. I was WAY ahead of the cut-off time! My plan had worked! I had enough time that I could walk the final 8 miles if I needed to, so I took it easier for the next few miles until No Hands Bridge at mile 19.

I love this area between Hwy 49 and No Hands!

On No Hands Bridge. The aid station for the training run was on the west side. Boy was I happy here!
After No Hands, I picked it up again. By this time I was really excited. I knew I had this. And I knew this climb. I was here last year pacing, and I was here the day before the training runs to do a little shake-out after the long drive to Auburn. Today I hiked strong up the climb, singing, passing people. Once I hit the pavement though, I started slowly running again. I was almost there. Just a little more up, then the little white bridge and downhill to the finish. I put on the Eminem feat. Bruno Mars song “Lighters” for the last mile. I sang along at the top of my lungs:
“This one’s for you and for me, living out our dreams
We’re all right where we should be…”

I was right where I should be. I crossed the little white bridge, turned left, ran flowing and free down the road to the finish. There were three ladies cheering. That was the end. No spectators milling about. No finish line festivities. No one to excitedly share my accomplishment with. I momentarily was a little let down. I know this is “just” a training run. Training run my ass. For me this was so much more: something special, a life-changing event, the next step in a very big dream come true. And I did it! One day I will earn a silver “100 Miles, One Day” belt buckle at Western States. One of the sweet ladies at the end cut off my wristband, the method of keeping track of the runners each day. I told the ladies that if I died right then and there I would die happy and fulfilled. It was the honest truth. But I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve got more work to do and dreams to fulfill.

Day 3 elevation profile: 3,600 feet gain, 4,400 loss