Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thoughts of You

That’s right. I don’t even know you, but I think of you often. It happens almost every day now. At first, it was just when I was doing something physically or mentally tough. Like mile 18 of a marathon. It happened around mile 27 of my recent 48 mile circumnavigation of the Three Sisters mountains in Central Oregon. I wish you knew how truly strong you are. Most people have no idea, and it brings me to tears every time I think about it. Like now. How can I help you see how strong you are? The only limits to what you can accomplish are those you place on yourself.

I know what it’s like ’cause I’ve been there too: depressed, obese, addicted (I refer to them as my “DOA” years). I’m truly sorry if life has beat you down. If you have been abused or neglected. If you don’t love yourself. If the gremlins in your head get the best of you. If you are addicted to alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. If you are obese or sedentary. If you have medical issues. I wish I could make them all be gone for you. But these issues don’t have to define you or limit your dreams.

You can find Strength Through Adversity. All you have to do is get started. Each day do one small thing for yourself toward your goals. Don’t stress about your bigger goal, just take baby steps each day toward it. Remember the Bill Murray movie “What About Bob?” Baby steps! Each day, each step, your ability and your confidence grows and you will begin to get a glimpse of just how strong you are. The important thing here is: Don’t Quit! If you quit, of course it won’t achieve your goal and you’ll probably wind up right back where you were. Conversely, when you keep at it, even though it may seem like a long haul and the going not so good, things will get better and you will be so glad you stuck with it. You will amaze yourself and begin to see how scary-good life really is.

Example baby steps plan:
Couch potato wants to run a marathon on 50th birthday in two years. Week one goal: Get up from office chair every hour, stretch and move around. Tell other people about your plan. Gather supporters around you. Distance yourself from the naysayers. Week two: 10 minute walk on lunch time. Week three: Increase walk time. Week four: Consider getting a gym membership. Week five: Get gym membership. Get dressed for and drive to gym, even if you don’t go in. Week six: Walk on treadmill 30 minutes. Week seven: Pick up the pace a little. Week eight: Try jogging slowly on treadmill for 30 seconds. Not so bad. Subsequent weeks: Keep walking/jogging. Try jogging outside. Find a friend or group to run with. Sign up for run training program. Run your first 5k. Increase run time/distance to 10k, 1/2 marathon and marathon over time. Goal achieved! You feel powerful, unstoppable, like you could do anything, because you can.

While you’re accomplishing your dreams, surround yourself with positive, uplifting people who make you feel good about yourself. Don’t listen to, and distance yourself from, the naysayers, the energy suckers. You know who I’m talking about. That aunt or “well-meaning friend” who says you can’t accomplish that. Build a supportive team around you. My team includes not only my supportive friends, but my doctor, massage therapist, physical therapist, acupuncturist, mental health therapist, local running store owners, my running coach, yoga instructor and many more. Supportive people are all around you and will come out of the woodwork for you if you just look for them.

If you think you don’t have a support team, put me on it! I will be your cheerleader, even though I don’t know you. Sometimes it is hard to cheer for yourself. It was for me. For a long time I imagined someone else alongside me cheering me on, telling me “good job, you’ve got this!” One can never have too many cheerleaders. Over time you will develop your own inner cheerleader to add to your team.

So now it’s time for action. Set a goal. Make a plan. Stick to it. Baby steps each day. If you screw up one day, don’t give up on yourself, don’t quit. The next day is a do-over. Goals can change, plans can change, but just keep going, don’t quit. Allow me to be on your team. And let me know how I can help you on your journey of discovering how strong you really are.
Friend Kathy triumphantly scores a marathon PR on a hilly course.
Photo credit: Kathy Lein

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Searching For Balance

This morning I did something I haven’t done in over a year: I stepped on the scale. In June 2010 I weighed 130 pounds and wore a size 4. I liked weighing the same as I did in 10th grade. I admired myself in the mirror. People told me I looked good. But the thing is, I felt like crap, had no energy, napped a lot, wasn’t sleeping good. I was eating all the time, yet still slowly starving myself. I was forcing my body to be a size it didn’t want to be.

Over the last 17 months I have gained a lot of weight. I didn’t need to step on the scale to know it. I have gone from a size 4 to a size 12 (I even have a pair of 14 jeans). I avoided the scale because I knew I wouldn’t like the number I saw. Recently, I decided I want to lose 10 pounds. I needed to know where I’m starting, so today I stepped on the scale.

I cried more in anticipation of the scale than after I saw the number: 174. I have gained 40 pounds since June 2010 (running a lot doesn’t automatically keep you slender). That number doesn’t define who I am though, it’s just one small way to describe the physical me (I’m also 5’5”). So I guess today officially starts the quest to lose 10. After I lose 10, I’ll see how I feel and go from there.

In Winter 2009, I remember being upset with myself for weighing 150 pounds. My coach at the time thought maybe that’s where my body wanted to be. I thought that was total B.S. I wanted to be a skinny runner. So I forced my body to go somewhere it didn’t want to. I was a skinny runner for a few months. I felt fast and I was fast for me. I got PRs. But I barely had enough energy to get through my workouts, and I took a lot of time to recover from workouts and races.

Now that 150 pounds is sounding like a pretty good number, a happy medium. But I’ll take it 10 pounds at a time, see how I feel, and go from there. I think I’ve learned my lesson: don’t let your monkey-mind force your body to be somewhere it doesn’t want to be. At 170 pounds, I am sleeping better, can run for longer (even if it’s not as fast as I’d like), and am recovering from runs MUCH faster. And my Iron, Omega 3, and Vitamin D levels are up to where they should be—all were quite low a year ago.

I’ve gone a little too far in both directions. Now I’m just searching for balance. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Autumn Leaves 50 - No Regrets

I freely admit it— I didn’t even come close to meeting my pace/time goal for Autumn Leaves 50 mile. In fact, I finished 2nd to last, and last female. Despite this I had a wonderful, fulfilling day and learned a lot about myself. It was a day with absolutely no regrets. How could that be? Please allow me to explain.

My biggest goal this year was to qualify to apply for Western States 100 Endurance Run for 2012. Just to apply you have to run one of a list of qualifying 50 mile races in less than 11 hours. Once you apply, you have about a 10% chance of your name getting drawn in the “lottery.” Yeah, that’s how many people want to run the granddaddy of ultras. My first shot at qualifying for States was Mt. Hood 50 at the end of July. I was ready, felt strong and confident, and knew without a doubt that I would achieve this goal. Alas, I did not. Enter Autumn Leaves, my 2nd and last shot this year to qualify for States. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure I was convinced that I could do it this time, and in the end I think that hurt me. But in return, I gained so much more.

I took the early start at 6am for runners who need more time to complete the course (“regular start” was an hour later at 7am). The course, entirely within Champoeg State Park consists of eight 6.25 mile “loops”: two out-and-back sections (one much longer than the other) connected by a one-way loop. 80% of the course is on lovely asphalt bike paths, and the remaining 20% on single-track trail.

Race course in red. The point on the far left was the start/finish of each loop.
The point on the far right is the turnaround at the end of the longer out & back.
Since I started at 6am, it was dark for about the first 1.5 loops. There was a little fog in the air and moisture dripping from the trees. My headlamp lit up the little droplets of floating moisture in the darkness. Temperatures were perfect for running. I wore shorts and a tank top, didn’t need the arm warmers I’d planned on, and wore gloves only for the first loop. Since aid stations were never more than 3 miles apart, I carried a single water bottle and wore a lightweight race vest to hold my gels and other supplies. After loops 2, 4, and 6, I stopped at my drop box near the start/finish area to restock supplies: gels, supplements, and pick up an extra handheld bottle for Recoverite. After each subsequent loop, I quickly ditched the now-empty Recoverite bottle at the drop box.

I felt great the first three loops (about 19 miles). My pace for each loop was pretty consistent and right where I wanted it to be. Starting on the 4th loop, I really began to feel it. My legs weren’t tired and didn’t hurt, but I could feel it in my core being (somewhere between my head and my torso; it’s kinda hard to describe). My pace slowed considerably during lap 4, and I began to take walk breaks. I worriedly looked at the average pace displayed on my Garmin far too often, and it just kept going up and up.

Coming in to the aid station a little less than 2 miles into loop 5, I was feeling sleepy, light-headed, and a little hungry. I finally recognized this feeling as one I had experienced on a trail run this summer. “Shit! I need sugar and I need it quick,” I thought. At this point I began to drink a couple cups of Coke at nearly every aid station in addition to my gels, and also stuff a handful of grapes into my mouth when they were available.

I knew I had started taking gels a little late. It wasn’t until 40-something minutes into my run and probably another 40-45 minutes after that that I had a gel (I’m used to taking them every 30 minutes or sooner if needed), but I thought I was back on schedule. Perhaps just being off the first couple of hours did me in. My coach had warned me about the longer out & back section being not only distractingly beautiful, but distracting with people both coming and going. I was obviously not above the distractions. The trail gently undulated through a forest of huge trees, large orange fallen leaves covered the path, and leaves occasionally fell as I ran past. Moisture dripped from the trees from the previous day’s rain and the early morning fog. It was a beautiful wonderland, and I so wanted to just walk and gawk at it all. This area made me really happy. I smiled a lot, and even sang along with my iPod quite a bit.

I enjoyed watching people come toward me, seeing their smiling faces or looks of determination. Even the front-runners said “good job” as they passed, though they’d already lapped me, even starting an hour later than I did. One speedy gentleman in a red shirt, glasses, and stocking cap even said to me, “Good job, Laura” twice in passing, though I had no idea who he was, and my name was nowhere on my person. Perplexing. I smiled and exchanged salutations, high fives and hugs with friends Jeannie, Lori, Scott, Jeffrey, Gregg, Sarah, Moises, and many others. They all looked so happy and strong!

By four miles into loop 5, it was apparent that I wasn’t going to make my less-than-11-hour time goal. I didn’t allow myself time to grieve. I told myself, “Oh well, I can decide to run another 100 miler next year. Western States will still be there in 2013. I can still work this winter to get stronger physically and mentally to be the best damn pacer at Western States that I can be in 2012. And I can still do the training runs too.” Then I was over it. I decided not to look at my pace any more. Worrying about it was not doing me any good. The only thing I looked at was the Time of Day. I had to start my 8th and final lap by 4pm. My focus had completely changed within minutes. I would not let failing to meet one goal keep me from succeeding at another. One little victory.

I did however, consider quitting after the 5th loop to finish at the 50k distance instead of 50 miles. Truth be told, I was quite concerned at this point about making the 4pm cutoff to start the 8th and final lap. Bret, the Race Director, had said there was a strict 4pm cutoff, and those not making the cutoff would be disqualified. I considered quitting at the 50k distance because another goal I had for this year was to raise myself to 3-star “Gold Level” Marathon Maniac status (12 or more marathon distance or longer races in a single year). If I was disqualified from this race, it wouldn’t count, and I really needed it to count. I finished lap 5 and kept going. I didn’t hurt, and I’m no quitter when things get mentally tough. Just keep right on moving. Another little victory.

I had about 90 minutes each to complete laps 6 and 7. That sounds like plenty of time to run 6.25 miles, but there are a lot of variables that play in to that equation (aid stations, potty stops, potential walk breaks, battling mental demons, and just the fact that you’re already 31 miles in with nearly 20 miles left to go). About a mile into loop 6, I wondered if Bret really would disqualify me if I were to start loop 7 at 4:02pm. It was a chance I could not take. I began to run more and felt better as I went, though my right ankle and lower back began to ache. I ignored them. Except for the minor aches, I finished lap 6 feeling much better, but that lap had still taken a little too long.

I pulled into the aid station at the end of lap 6. Race Director Bret was there and offered to help with whatever I needed. He’s an ultrarunner too, and understands. I handed him my Recoverite powder and handheld bottle. As he mixed up my bottle of Recoverite, I downed a couple more cups of Coke and took another gel. For my 7th lap (miles 37.5 to 43.75), I knew I would not only need to run every single step, but I’d have to pick up the pace as well. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it, but I was going to give it my best effort.

Loop 7 followed my 4-page written Race Plan exactly: “Focus more on me. Enjoy the moment. Send loving thoughts to my body. Encourage others who are down or hurting.” I now had to focus on the goal at hand. I still admired the scenery though. How could I be sad running through such a glorious landscape? I found a pace that felt like I was haulin’ ass, but that I could keep up for the entire 6.25 miles. I told myself to relax, that I had this. I enjoyed the smiles of those heading toward me on the out & back, most of them on their final lap. I sang along with the songs playing in my ear. If the song was appropriate, I sang to people as they passed me. I sing not only for my own joy, but to bring joy and inspiration to others, to share breath, inspiration, energy.

I had stashed my water bottle in a vest pocket but began to find holding the other bottle (my now-empty Recoverite bottle) quite annoying. It seemed to be taking away a bit of my focus. So as I approached the next aid station, I tossed the extra bottle 10 feet to a volunteer as I ran by, shouting “I’ll pick this up later if I remember.” I realize it might have seemed rude, but I really didn’t feel I could take the time to stop.

I looked at the Time of Day on my watch only a couple of times on loop 7. Though I thought I had the cutoff time beat, I continued to push myself to the end of the loop. I finished loop 7 with just 5 minutes to spare. I was ecstatic. I could now take as long as I wanted to for my 8th and final lap. All I had to do to earn my finisher’s medal AND my first belt buckle award was finish the last lap. I was so very happy and thankful that I hadn’t quit. I holed myself up in a porta-potty for a minute and just cried happy tears of relief. Then I jogged down to my drop box of supplies and did some nice things for myself that I felt I couldn’t take the time to do earlier: I changed my shirt and used a cold wet towel to wipe the sweat and salt off my face, neck, and hands. It felt so good! Friends that finished the race an hour or earlier were still there and cheering me on, even though I was at the back of the pack.

Loop 8 also fit my Race Plan to a T: “Victory lap!!! Do whatever comes— I know the course now!” Since I met the cutoff, I could take my time now, and I did so by walk/jogging (wogging?) most of the first 3 miles of the loop. About a mile in, I caught up to a fellow wearing orange, who was running his first ultramarathon. He’d jumped from marathon to 50 mile distance, completely skipping 50k. I’d met a couple more people like him today. Man, do those people get my respect! He asked me for my recovery advice and I gave it to him, then I started jogging again. At the last turnaround, I was surprised that he was just seconds behind me. Unless this fellow had a finishing kick better than mine, he would not beat me today! I am competitive with the people I can be competitive with, and he was my competition at this moment. It was a race for “not last.”

As I approached the final aid station, I caught a glimpse of “Mr. Orange” still right behind me. Damn! This was the aid station where I had tossed my empty bottle earlier, but once again, felt I could not take the time to stop, since I had someone hot on my tail. I yelled to the volunteer, “Do you still have my water bottle? I’m sorry, but I can’t stop.” She jogged to her car nearby, produced the bottle, then jogged ahead and met me farther up the trail. I never had to stop. What a sweetheart!

I knew it was time for me to pick up the pace to the finish. Just before mile 5 it was back to trail for most of the last 1.25 miles. I wanted to look back to see if Orange was still right behind me. I didn’t though, but just kept going. The thought of him potentially right behind me made me push harder. The song “More” by Usher started playing as I made the approach to the finish line. It’s uncanny how many times this song happens to play as I approach a finish line. The lyrics are perfect:
“I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror,  
The headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner.  
Best when under pressure, with seconds left I show up.
If you really want more, scream it out louder,  
Get it on the floor, bring out the fire,  
And light it up, take it up higher, Gonna push it to the limit, give it more.”

My first belt buckle award! Usually you have to run a 100 mile race to get one,
but a few 50 mile races also give them out. This is one.
The finish line was just on the other side of the parking lot. As I crossed the lot, I could finally let go and stride quick and strong to the finish line. This turned out to be my fastest pace of the day. A group of people stood chatting just beyond the timing mats. “Get of my way, I’m coming!” I thought. I crossed the finish line. Smiles, laughter and hugs ensued. Bret handed me my belt buckle and I broke into tears. I was so happy that I hadn’t quit when the going got a little tough. I was thrilled to have finished, even though it was nearly 2 hours more than my goal time. Had this happened very long ago, I would have been crushed and disappointed in myself. I think I’m finally starting to understand the bigger picture.

Autumn Leaves is a fabulous course. One might think you’d get bored doing eight 6.25 mile loops. But any boredom is all in your own head. The course is absolutely freaking gorgeous. Race Directors Bret Henry and his wife Gail are both so giving and loving. The volunteers were helpful and gracious, and the aid stations superbly well stocked. There were lots of cheering spectators in the middle of the day. One man in particular who looked more than a bit like Santa Claus was awesome. I looked forward to seeing him and hearing his cheers each time I passed by.

Ultrarunners are such an awesome, loving group of people. Never has one told me that I should be ashamed of myself, that I should have done better, run faster. Instead they give cheers of “good job,” “looking great,” or “keep up the good work” even when I’m obviously not feeling great or doing so well. Ultrarunners are proud of you no matter how long you take to finish (even if it’s 2nd to last) or what you look like doing it. I am so thankful to belong to such a wonderful group of people. Thank you to everyone who was a part of my wonderful day of absolutely no regrets.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Nice Change of Pace

This spring I spent far too much time watching the pace numbers on my Garmin310XT and berating myself for not running as fast as I thought I should be. I then removed all screens showing pace information from my watch. Then all summer I focused on long slow trail distance for Mt. Hood 50 and a Wonderland Trail running tour around Mt. Rainer, which got canceled two weeks before it was to happen. That really bummed me out because I’d had the Wonderland Trail on my calendar since February and trained for it hard all summer (back-to-back long trail runs with significant elevation gain). So now I was left with a hole in my schedule and felt lost. I felt I had to quickly fill that hole. Within a few days I had signed up for four marathons throughout the fall, and the first, the inaugural Sunriver Marathon for a Cause, was just a few days away. The course was on asphalt bike paths, and I had barely run on asphalt on summer. Still, I was hopeful that since it was basically a “road” marathon I would do well. Boy was I wrong! This damned-near-flat marathon turned out to be my slowest, most difficult marathon yet. I felt so out of shape and my head was not in a good space. I was so tempted to just cross the finish line with the 1/2-marathoners and call it quits. But I didn’t do that. I didn’t want to start giving myself the message that it’s OK to quit when things get tough. Long story short, I finished and got the most beautiful hard-earned medal. I was glad I had persevered.

Turning the corner to the finish line at Bend Marathon 10/1/11. Photo credit: Kathy Lein
One month later, on October 1st I ran the Bend Marathon. By then my whole mental outlook had changed along with my change of pace. The focus of my training had switched from trail to running a slow consistent pace on road which I could keep up literally all day. This is because my biggest goal race for the year, the Autumn Leaves 50-mile is coming up on October 29th. On that day I will run eight 10k mostly-asphalt laps for a total of 50 miles. I will run it in a maximum of 11 hours, but hopefully closer to 10 hours. I will need to keep a steady patient pace. This is what I practiced at the Bend Marathon. It was a hilly marathon, but I just kept a steady pace around a 12-minute mile. That was really hard to do at times. I felt good though, and passed a number of people on the hilliest part of the course after the 20 mile mark. And the last mile was my fastest. It was still one of my two slowest marathons, but I was ecstatic because I had accomplished my pace goal for that day. I shouted and spiked my water bottle as I crossed the finish line. After hanging out for perhaps 30 minutes, I still felt great and jogged back to my car several blocks away. I ran the next day too.

Crossing the finish at Bizz Johnson 10/9/11
The following weekend I ran the Bizz Johnson marathon in Susanville, California. I had always been afraid to run marathons on back-to-back weekends. In the fall of 2009, I ran three marathons in 79 days and at the time felt barely recovered enough to run the next one. But I’ve put in a lot of work and miles in the last two years and as a result am much stronger mentally and physically. Though I had done many long runs on back-to-back weekends, or even on back-to-back days, somehow marathons on back-to-back weekends is a whole ’nother thing. Well, I did it, once again practicing my patient 50 mile pace, and had enough gas in the tank to pass another runner just before the finish line. Another thing accomplished that I never thought I’d be able to do.

The last several weeks, under my coach Scott’s guidance, I’ve continued to practice my 50 mile pace. I am no longer concerned about how fast I’m not going like I was in the spring. My mind has completely flip-flopped. Now I listen to my body and ask myself if I am going slow enough: “Can I do this pace all day?” I’ve really gotten into it, and it’s really taken the pressure off. As a side-benefit, my body no longer screams “What the FUCK are you doing to me?” for several miles into a run until I’m feeling warmed up. Nice and easy does it. I’m also no longer constantly looking at my watch to see if it’s close to my every-30-minutes “gel walk break” time. I don’t feel the need to walk while taking energy gels any more. I’m tending to appreciate my surroundings more and have a more positive outlook because I’m not feeling so damned worked.

One reason I’m running Autumn Leaves 50: My first belt buckle award!
I’ve also been practicing running laps at Pine Nursery Park near my house: 1.3 mile asphalt loops over and over and over and over again at my 50-mile pace. Something about running these laps is very comforting. There’s no need to hurry,  I’m just going “right over there” again. And again. This is great practice for Autumn Leaves next weekend.

It’s a whole different mid-set to be patient, focused, and wait for the reward. To not speed up to try and stay with someone as they pass you early on. “Let them go,” I tell myself. “They’ll see me later.” To not worry about if you’re in last place after 3 miles. Who cares, you’ve got 47 more to go! With patient pacing, you’ll be much fresher and steadier the final miles than many others who will fade.

For the last year, I’ve felt like something big is coming. I don’t know what it is yet or when it will be here, but when it gets here I’m going to be ready. For this big thing, I won’t necessarily need to be fast, but I will need patience and focus. I won’t be the person who excitedly starts out too fast and blows his wad early. I’m going to keep the patient pace and succeed. Nothing will be able to take my focus off the goal.  

I don’t need to beat myself up for my pace being about two minutes slower per mile than it was a year ago. I want to blame some of it on having gained a bunch of weight in the last year (a whole ’nother story), but I haven’t done a focused speed or track workout for over a year either. By focusing on slow distance this year, I have developed patience and endurance. I may not be “fast” at the moment, but I can go and go and go and am so much stronger than I was at this time last year. If and when I want to focus on speed again, it will come back, and so will the PRs.

While we can be in a hurry to get somewhere else and always be better, faster, stronger, also take the time to appreciate the place/space in life you’re at right now and savor the moment.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Let’s See How Far We’ve Come

The other day I hiked up and jogged down Black Butte. This hike is one of a few that I wanted to do before the snow flies (which could literally be any day now). The last time I hiked it was November 9th, 2010. In snow and wind all by myself. Actually I did hike repeats that day. The hike is two miles from trail head to the top with 1,600 feet elevation gain. The trail is relentless “up,” steep at times. My heart was beating out of my chest and lungs gasping for air within a minute. But that’s the way I roll. For some reason, I always like to push myself up to the top of things. I know there are people who are able to run this trail, but I really can’t imagine that. It’s just too far beyond my ability to comprehend. Those people are truly blessed. But then so am I, because I have the ability to hike with gusto and feel my heart beating, lungs and legs aching.

About half way up, the trail exits the trees along the butte’s southern slope. Views abound. I thought back to the first time I hiked this trail in 2006. I was still losing weight, not yet in good shape, and was terribly afraid of heights and open spaces after breaking my ankle slipping off a hiking trail in August 2005. That first hike up Black Butte was quite traumatic: when the trail exited the trees and the butte fell away to my right, I freaked out. I froze in fear, collapsed along the uphill side of the trail and broke in to tears. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to continue. Eventually I calmed down and was able to slowly move on, made it to the top, and back down. Today I power-hiked up, occasionally glancing over my shoulder to the stunning mountain views, and smiled. My, how far I’ve come.
Cupola at the top of Black Butte on 10/14/11

I passed two groups of hikers on the way up. My goal was to make it to the top, not just the top, but the cupola on the far side of the top, in less than 50 minutes. I made it in just under 48. Not bad for sucking wind today while recovering from marathons both of the last two weekends. Not to mention the 800 feet of elevation gain per mile on the way up. And stops for photos. My, how far I’ve come. I tarried at the top for several minutes, took more pictures, soaked in the view, and talked to a scurrying chipmunk who I’m sure hoped I had a treat for him. Then I turned around for the jog down.

The cupola on 11/9/10 - get out while the hiking’s good!
On the way down, I re-passed both groups of hikers, still on their way up. I was happy jogging down the trail with the beautiful views and the sun shining. My heart sang. And then 24 minutes later, it was suddenly over. Driving back to the highway from the trailhead, sadness suddenly hit me: “Oh no, what had I done?” Only 72 minutes of my life, and this wonderful experience was over. Maybe those hikers were on to something. I felt like I had not savored the moment enough. Sure, I was pretty pleased with my hiking performance, but fast time isn’t everything.

Almost everyone I know wants to get faster. Set a new PR (personal record). Pass a few people. Place in their age group. All kinds of runners apologize for or categorize themselves as being “slow.” Why? Isn’t enjoyment what it’s all about? While I too enjoy the occasional PR and passing people near the end of a race, I really don’t enjoy running fast for very far or very long. So why do I beat myself up because I’m not as fast as I’d like to be or once was? If I can’t take the time to slow down to enjoy my surroundings, take pictures so I can look back long after the experience is over and smile, walk and talk for a minute with someone during a race who is hurting or feeling discouraged, then I’m not running for the right reasons. This applies only to me. I won’t judge you if your priorities are different.

Don’t lose sight of how far you’ve come!
On the way home I stopped on the outskirts of the town of Sisters for a short trail run on the first part of the Peterson Ridge Rumble course. My body was pretty worked from my previous effort, and it didn’t really want to go. I slowly jogged down the trail at a 12–13 minute pace and laughed at myself out loud. Another good lesson today. The lessons have been coming fast and furious all summer. I guess they probably always have, but I’m finally opening to receive them. And then I drove into town and had a tasty bowl of meat chili. My, how far I’ve come.

Now I ask you: Think back 6 months, a year, 5 years, and appreciate just how far have you have come.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Size Isn’t Everything

Holding up my size 26 pants from 2005
Today I experienced a good lesson in setting the ego aside. This time last year I wore a size 6 jean. Today I bought size 14. At first I wanted to belittle myself. But then I stopped and thought about it. This year I am healthy, strong, happy, and sleeping well. A year ago? Uh, not so much. (The story of last year nutrition- and weight-wise is a whole ’nother blog post that I’ll share at some point.)

Bodies are not static, but ever-changing. One cannot expect to always be the same size, weight, or muscle-to-fat ratio. A smaller number on the scale or the clothing tag is not everything, though your monkey-mind might tell you differently. Look at the big picture. How do you feel?

If you are happy, healthy, and active, don’t beat yourself over numbers. Putting yourself down doesn’t do you any good. All it does is make you feel bad. Cut yourself some slack. While striving toward increased health and activity, remember to also love yourself just as you are now

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mt. Hood 50 Is My Kind of Race!

I knew without a doubt I would meet my time goal. I was well trained, well rested, well hydrated. I had done the physical and mental work. I was ready and eagerly anticipating running the Mt. Hood 50. During the 10-second countdown, I kissed my necklace charm, did the sign of the cross, and was off with the pack at 6:30am.

In the two months prior to the race, I had been on two training runs on the course, so was already familiar with 36 miles of it (14 miles of the first half, and all of the last 22 miles). While this was enough to give me confidence for race day, it also left just enough curiosity as to what might be around the next bend.

This course was tailor-made for me: soft, mostly shady trail, lots of trees, getting to see other racers on the two out-and-back sections (loop and point-to-point courses can get lonely), some good climbs, some good downhill, and a particularly stunning Mt. Hood view that stopped me in my tracks, dropped my jaw, and made me exclaim “wow!” out loud, even though no one but the trees was around to listen.

There were a couple “tricky” turns in the first couple miles. One fellow said he was glad he was following me, or he wouldn’t have noticed the turn and would have kept going straight. A couple miles later, I started getting passed by people. Come to find out about a dozen of them had gone off course. How, I wondered, when it was so well marked? You can’t blindly follow the people in front of you— use your own eyes! Rant over.

From the race start at the historic Clackamas Lake Ranger Compound and around the north side of Timothy Lake, the first several miles of the course are mostly flat with some small rolling hills. After the first aid station near Little Crater Lake, there were a couple of nice climbs up to the aid station on Hwy 26, which was right across the highway from the Frog Lake trailhead/SnoPark. Also in this stretch was that stunning full-on view of Mt. Hood from the side of a high ridge. It would have been a wonderful spot to sit and soak it all in for a few minutes, but I had a time goal that kept me moving. I had seen the Hwy 26 aid station while driving to the race start. It was very cool to be here now. I got myself clear up to Hwy 26 from Timothy Lake! While that was a pretty damned cool accomplishment in itself, I still had another 36 glorious miles to go!

I thought the return to the Start/Finish area would be faster, but I was wrong. (The course is two out-and-back sections with the start/finish in the middle.) I did, however, get to the mid-point right on schedule to meet my time goal according to my race plan. I had mentally rehearsed what I would do at this aid station several times before falling asleep the night before. I had it down pat. I accessed my drop bag and dumped the contents, got rid of garbage, restocked my gels, got out my iPod, changed my shirt, reapplied sunscreen, and used an icy-wet towel to wash my face and hands while a volunteer filled my hydration pack with water. A few minutes later, I was off onto the familiar second part of the course, and still feeling great. 28 miles in, and I felt like I had only run a half marathon.

Just a few minutes down the trail I was singing along with my iPod when I heard cheers. Friends Chris & Darla Askew, Gina Guss, and Sean Meissner were sitting on a log waiting for me to go by. Instant excitement! I stopped and gave a hug to each of them, then was off again.

Most of the 5 miles to the next aid station was a long, gentle climb. Very runnable when the legs are fresh, but after 28 miles and with the day heating up, it wasn’t so runnable now. I ran this section for a few minutes, then walked several minutes. I tried to time my walks when the trail was in the sun and run in the shade. There were times I would have preferred to hike, but my time goal told me to keep running easy. After the Red Wolf aid station comes a screaming down hill for maybe three miles. I really worked it, and felt great. I loved passing a few people here, and thought for sure I had made up some of the time I had lost on the previous climb. The next climb up the other side of the canyon from the Warm Springs River took its toll on me. I looked at my watch thinking I must be almost there. I asked someone how much farther to the aid station. He said maybe a mile and a half. Crap! I should be there by now. I was going to be way over time for this leg of the journey. I still had hope that I would be refreshed at the aid station and be able to rip the downhills back to the finish and still meet my goal.

I pulled into the Warm Springs aid station at 2 hours 50 minutes, 20 minutes later than planned. They were out of ice, and I was really hot. I had to do something to cool down. Thankfully I thought to take the icy wet towel from my drop bag, drape it around my neck, and take it with me. Back at the river crossing, I stopped and dipped my fingers in the water. Yes, it was ice cold! I rewetted my neck drape for the next climb. Now I did the math in my head. I was not going to make 8-minute miles to reach my time goal. Not even if the remaining miles were all downhill. And there was still another mostly not-runnable-for-me 3-mile climb to go.

I let myself grieve for a few minutes. I shed tears for something I was so sure I would attain. (Perhaps if the day had been ten degrees cooler I would have been able to do it?) Then I decided I could either let this ruin my race, or I could enjoy the last eight miles. I chose the latter. I sang to myself and to the people I passed hiking up the hill. I extended my hand and words of support to the exhausted gentleman sitting alongside the trail in the middle of the 3-mile climb (someone else was with him, and he later came back to finish strong). I thought about my run around Mt. Rainer, now just over a month away, and what a great training run this turned out to be for it.

At the last aid station, I took a few minutes to recharge for the final 5 miles of mostly downhill to the finish. Even though my original time goal was not attainable, I wanted to challenge myself, rip it up, and finish strong. I wasn’t thrilled with the gel flavors I had remaining, so grabbed a couple Cherry-Lime Roctanes to take me to the finish. Just as I was about to leave the aid station, I saw a group of three runners approaching. “Shit!” I exclaimed. “Better get moving,” one of the volunteers said. Indeed. I wanted to stay ahead of these people. I knew I had to run every step of these last five miles. If I walked, they might catch up with me. I kept wanting to look back to see if they were on my tail, but didn’t. I just kept going. I was tired and hot, but kept running. I’d run this part of the course two times before and knew what was ahead, and that I could keep pushing myself. It was just a matter of listening to my body, of balancing the down hill with effort (yes, you can exhaust yourself running downhill) and time/miles remaining.

I saw the finish line. I heard cheers. I let go and felt like I sprinted across the finish line. Tears filled my eyes. Friends gave me hugs. It had been hard, but not that hard, if you know what I mean. If I had to, I could have run another 10 miles, but I was glad I didn’t have to. I’ll save that for another day.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I Learned Something Yesterday

I felt good starting off yesterday. Started running at Tumalo Falls just before 9am on a big 18+ mile loop. Went up Bridge Creek trail and cut over to South Fork. Alternately hiked/ran South Fork. Two years ago I think I hiked all of South Fork and thought it was really hard. Not now. Not after all I’ve experienced in the last two years. I’m fairly certain I ran more of it than I hiked this time. I had my first gel at 45 minutes while hiking South Fork. I remember thinking it felt past time for a gel, even though I don’t usually take one until an hour into a run.

I’d made it my goal to run all the rolling hills between Swampy and Swede shelters. I did that, but at a cost. I didn’t want to take the time to stop for a second gel (I stopped taking gels “on the run” after choking on one) and compromise my goal of running the rollers. I should have just stopped for a minute. I thought, “only 1.3 more miles to Swede, I’ll take one there.” That was the longest 1.3 miles of my life! I thought I’d learned this lesson before. Well, today just confirmed it.

Not far out of Swede I started feeling sleepy. This has happened to me a lot lately, usually around 8-10 miles in a long run. (Maybe this is why I tend to get “low” points in races in the 10-13 mile range too.) I felt kind of spacey and lightheaded. I tripped and fell at 7.25 miles, skinning both knees a bit. I hate that sprawling, falling, suspended-in-time feeling; that “oh shit!” thought that runs through your head just before you wonder how you’re going to land this time.

Man it hurt! Not a lot of blood, but a lot of dirt. I got up, assessed the damage, shook it off, walked a bit, then tripped and almost went down again. This really flustered me. My confidence was gone. So I decided I should just hike for a while. I hiked maybe 1.5 miles, almost to the Shooting Star shelter, crying and feeling sorry for myself.

During this time I got smart though: I took a gel. And another. And a couple more with 2x caffeine. I started carefully trotting again, and was able to pay better attention to the trail. I had taken five gels in just more than an hour. (No, my stomach was not bothered. Thankfully I have never had any stomach issues while running.) By 10 miles in I was feeling much better. By 13 miles in, I was feeling confident and strong again. It helped that the couple of miles between Shooting Star and the Skyliner trail were nice downhill. Then I ran all the rollers on Skyliners Trail, then all the rollers on the Tumalo Creek trail back to Tumalo Falls. My confidence was back, and I felt strong! I don’t think I’ve ever run all those rollers before (and the ones Swampy to Swede too!), but I did today. I was amazed how I was able to turn a really bad run around and finish happy and strong.

Starting tomorrow I’m going to modify my gel frequency schedule, and start taking them sooner. What worked for me a year ago isn’t working now. My body just seems to be going through the gels like crazy. I am not the same person I was before. I am different mentally and physically, and all new cells. Bodies are not static, but always changing.

I learned some valuable lessons yesterday. 1) Don’t wait for a landmark (aid station, trail junction) or a certain time period to go by to take a gel if I’m already starting to feel like I need one. 2) My mind might say “you just had a gel, it’s not time for another yet,” but my body might be telling me something different. I learned which one to listen to. 3) If I feel sleepy, light headed, spacey, start tripping or stubbing my toe, or if I get emotional (feel like crying) or negative, I probably need to eat. 4) If I hit a really bad patch, don’t assume the rest of the run is going to suck. I might just come back stronger than ever, and have one of the best, most fulfilling runs I’ve had in a while. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Western States 100 Pacing

Last year I sat at my computer late into the night watching live video feed from the Western States 100 finish line and crying my eyes out. I just knew I had to be there in 2011. With the passing of the next eleven months, I forgot how much it meant to me and it just seemed like too much work to make it happen— almost an impossibility. Then on May 23rd, at the end of our meeting, my coach asked “how about being a pacer at Western States this year?” I gazed off into the distance and quickly got excited. “Yeah,” I nodded. (Pacers are allowed at Western States for the final 38 miles of the race, from the Foresthill aid station at mile 62 to the finish.)

So many things had to come together for this to happen, and the event was just one month away. I had to find someone to pace. I didn’t want to drive to Auburn alone (I hate driving long distances alone, and driving tired scares the heck out of me). Nor did I want to spend the money to fly down. I immediately began sending out e-mails to people looking for a pacer. Unfortunately, most people never got back to me. Of the few who did, one fellow’s wife was not comfortable with him having a female pacer. Another said he’d call me after the training runs over Memorial Day weekend. He never did. Finally on June 10th, I found someone. I was so excited I could hardly sleep that night. Turns out though, he was having a problem with tendonitis. His doctor wouldn’t give him a cortisone injection, and his chances of actually making it to the starting line were slim. I received this news on June 14th. Western States was just 11 days away, and I still didn’t have anyone to pace. I kept checking the “need a pacer list” daily. Miraculously, one more person popped up on the list the following day: Melanie from Scotland whose pacer had to drop out due to a stress fracture. I sent the e-mail and got down on my knees asking God, “please let her be the one.” I knew my chances were getting slimmer by the day. A day went by with no reply. Then on the 16th, I got an e-mail back that she was relieved I would be able to pace her. She and her husband were flying to San Francisco a couple days later and she’d call me.

In the midst of searching for someone to pace, I had a really big running week (98 miles of trail) June 6th through 11th. Though my body felt good and I wasn’t sore, my inner being felt totally wiped. For the next several days I was almost painfully hungry, but not interested in food. Then I got sick. I had gotten caught in a thunderstorm on a run on the 10th, and maybe that’s why? Perhaps I ran my body down too much that week. Or maybe I would have gotten sick anyway. No matter the reason, Western States was less than two weeks away and I had a terrible cough, my nose was really stuffed up, and I had a fever for a few days. What did I do? Rest, rest, rest! I slept as much as possible. I ate as much as I could, even when food did not sound good. I ate burgers and milkshakes and macaroni and cheese just to get calories in. My body could care less about vegetables. I listened and went with it. I had been in similar situations a couple times before: a weird problem or sickness just before a race. I’ve learned I just gotta do what I can and trust that everything will turn out just fine. This time was no different. Still sick, I carried on making piles of clothing, snacks, and supplies for the trip and the run.

A couple days before leaving, I felt better, but still had an annoying cough. I had my concerns, but was committed to doing this, and nothing was going to stop me. I only managed a handful of short runs in the two weeks leading up to Western States. I was too afraid of overexerting myself and not getting enough rest. Everything I did (or didn’t do, as the case may be) during those two weeks was for Melanie. What about the trip down, you ask? I hopped a ride with Marilyn, an ultrarunner from Ashland who was driving down to crew for another runner. She was looking for someone to drive to Auburn with her and share expenses. I only had to get myself to Ashland. The arrangement worked out magnificently.

After arriving in Auburn the evening before the race, Marilyn and I drove out Highway 49 toward the town of Cool to check out a couple of aid stations along the course. The moment I saw No Hands Bridge, I knew instantly what it was. Tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was actually here. We drove by the Highway 49 aid station too. It was incredible just to be in this place that I had read so much about. Things were about to get even more amazing.

The next day I slept in as late as I possibly could. I knew I would get no sleep that night and probably not the next day. We made friends with a nice young man at the motel front desk who had an interest in the race. He and a friend had backpacked the Western States trail from Squaw to Foresthill before. He was kind enough to check runner updates for us. We could wait around either at the hotel or at Foresthill, so Marilyn and I headed to Foresthill, arriving just in time to see the front-runners go by. It was amazing just to be in this place at this time— so much energy, so many people. But not only did I get to hang out here, I was fortunate enough to be a pacer! After checking in to “pacer central,” and pinning on my pacer number (just like the runner numbers, only yellow) I hung out for hours and hours (and hours and hours) relaxing, eating, people watching, and trying to stay off my feet. I moved my lawn chair to stay in the shade. Although I’d heard the temperatures were not as hot as usual this year, I was quite hot just sitting around doing nothing and was thankful that I didn’t have to run in the afternoon sun.

Hanging out with Rod Bien waiting for our runners
I saw many people from Bend and the Portland area, who I know: Amy Sproston with her pacer Todd Janssen. Sean Meissner was there to pace. So was Rod Bien, pacing his friend David at his first 100. David had paced Rod at 100s before, and now Rod was returning the favor. Scott Wolfe was there pacing his buddy Andy Jones-Wilkins to yet another top-10 finish. I got to see great runners in person that I’ve only read about. I was five feet away when Nikki Kimball (third place female) pulled in to meet her crew. Man was she organized and knew what she needed! I observed and soaked it all in. I was particularly impressed by how she mowed down a cheese stick as if she were a human weed-whacker.

The hours ticked by. The sun went down, and I prepared to meet Melanie. I got cold just sitting around, so donned gloves and arm warmers for the wait. I sat ready to go at Foresthill, watching runners’ headlamps as they approached, and listening for Melanie’s name. The 30-hour cutoff pace (11pm) came and went. If she didn’t arrive in Foresthill before 11:45pm, she would be pulled from the race. There is a 30-hour cutoff for the finish, so we’d have to make up time, and I wasn’t thrilled about that. If she was tired and hurting (who wouldn’t be after 62 miles?), I was gonna have to push her to make sure she finished in under 30 hours. Anything over 30 hours, and you’re not an official finisher, nor do you get the coveted belt buckle. As I watched, more headlamps approached, and I prayed: Please, let this be her. My prayers were answered at 11:17pm. When her name was announced as she arrived in to Foresthill, I felt like I had won the lottery! I ran up to meet her. My day was truly about to get more interesting.

The town of Foresthill sits on top of a narrow ridge. Within minutes of leaving the aid station at the school, we were onto single-track and headed down, down, down long switchbacks. We passed people right and left. I was surprised by how many people were walking, even on the downhill, and talking up a storm. They were past the 30-hour cutoff too! Melanie and I chatted occasionally, but knew we had work to do.

Melanie liked my “head torch” as she called it, because it was so much brighter than hers. I was wearing a second one around my waist that I wasn’t using, so we swapped head torches. After a while I decided to stay running in front of her because it seemed like she ran for longer when I led. We ran as many of the flats and downhills as she possibly could. All I asked on the uphills was that she keep moving. Though I really wanted to stop and hold her in my arms, there were times I had to give some tough love. I wasn’t about to fail her. I wanted her to finish and get that belt buckle! I knew she didn’t come to run this race and go home without that belt buckle. I kept reminding her how strong and amazing she was. I told her I knew she was tired and hurting, but that she had to keep going. In “x” hours it would all be over and then she could rest as much as she wanted. Pain is temporary, that belt buckle is forever! I knew she was running to raise money to build schools in Uganda. I reminded her that her suffering was only temporary, and to think of the children who would continue to suffer.

During the night we came along the only muddy section of trail, maybe 10 feet long. A runner was hesitating at the near side. Her pacer was at the far side, pointing out where the runner should put her feet to avoid getting muddy. I was stunned by this scene— the mud wasn’t even ankle deep for goodness sake! We weren’t going to get tricked into stopping for this. I told Melanie “follow me” and we plowed right through the mud and left that runner behind. As soon as we were out of sight, I turned around and gave her a high-five saying, “I live in Oregon and we’re not afraid of a little mud.” There were also many creek crossings. Most were shallow or had rockss that you could cross on without getting your feet wet. Some of the creeks were really noisy and sounded big, but when we got to the crossings, they weren’t much. I wished it had been daylight so I could have enjoyed the sights.

Pretty much everything was a blur up until the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River at mile 78. We could see the river crossing from quite a ways away, lit up by large lights powered by generators. It was a beautiful sight! The lit-up portion of river looked like a deep serene pool of blue. Since the water was too high to wade this year, rafts ferried runners to the other side. It looked like a scene out of a fairy tale, or perhaps a theme park ride. The approach to the river was very rocky and steep. Volunteers lined the path every five feet, hands outstretched to assist with the decent. Just before reaching the boat, someone slipped a life vest on me. A young man extended his arm to assist me on to the boat, but I gave him a big hug instead. I was having a great time, feeling good, and high on life. I looked at the young man who was rowing our boat and exclaimed, “Wow, you’re cute!” Then I looked the other way and saw his cohort, and said “you’re cute too!” quickly followed by, “I’m married, not dead!” which got a chuckle out of everyone.

They say the darkest time is right before the dawn. The climb from Rucky Chucky up to Green Gate was not terribly steep or long, but it was hard and mentally demanding. Like all the other aid stations, this one was lit up with Christmas lights, always a welcome sight. And there really is a green gate there.

A couple of times during the night Melanie had mentioned that a blister was beginning to bother her. Both times, though we were still up against the 30-hour cutoff, I said that perhaps we should stop and get that taken care of at the next aid station. Melanie breezed through all the aid stations quickly. She never dallied or sat down. She weighed in at the required stops, grabbed some grub, and off she went again. She was a woman on a mission. Evidently she had forgotten about her blister or her mental toughness had taken over. Either way, I wasn’t about to bring it up again!

There were other times when I looked back to see her grabbing at her stomach. She said her stomach was feeling “iffy.” We just kept on moving and I said, “I’m sending relaxing healing thoughts to your stomach right now. Do you feel them?” When Melanie ran right behind me, I made sure to listen to her breathing. At times it would get fast and shallow. I asked her to take deep breaths and “blow it all out. Blow out that CO2 so you can get more oxygen to those hard working muscles.” It seemed to work. As we approached Auburn Lake Trails aid station, the sky began to get lighter. We had made it through the night, but I was about to learn a valuable lesson.

While Melanie weighed in at Auburn Lake Trails, I filled up her hydration pack. Unfortunately I forgot that I need water too. Not far out of the aid station I sucked on the hose and all I got was air. Shit, shit, shit! I estimated it was still 4 miles to the next aid station at Brown’s Bar. I immediately thought back to a few months ago when my coach had me do some runs without water on purpose. This was to teach me that come the day that I run out of water on the trail, I would know I’ll be OK until the next aid station. This was that time. Though it might be a good hour or more until the next aid station, I didn’t freak out, but did get really thirsty. I said nothing to Melanie. She didn’t need to be worrying about me. For the next hour or so I didn’t take any salt or any nutrition. I had read that you should always take a gel with a few ounces of water for proper digestion. I didn’t know what might happen if I didn’t. I’ve never taken a gel without water, much less 24 miles into a 38 mile run. Maybe I should try it sometime and see what happens.

I enjoyed the many small rolling hills along this stretch, and the views across to the next hillside as the sun rose higher in the sky. Pulling into Brown’s Bar aid station, I yelled, “Water, I need water!” A volunteer quickly removed my hydration pack and began filling it. Someone had a video camera and a great song was playing loud. I sang along and danced and shook my butt for the camera. I hope that doesn’t come back to bite me. I was just so happy to be getting water! By the time my hydration pack was filled and on my back, Melanie had already left the aid station. From here on out, she grew stronger with every passing aid station and the rising of the sun. I told her, “Only a 10k left! Do you smell the finish line? There’s a belt buckle with your name on it. All you have to do is go get it.” Earlier I had also said, “Only 18 miles left Melanie. 18 miles is NOT a long way.” She had reluctantly agreed. But now she obviously was feeling better and in agreement. I think she just wanted to get the whole thing over with. She ran strong on all the flats and downhills. Even her uphill hiking was now much stronger and more efficient. I was really proud of her. She dug deep and was making a come back, and most importantly, quickly making up time. Runners who had passed us earlier were now looking weak as we passed them. Regardless, we were all out there sharing breath, sharing energy, helping each other out. It was a beautiful thing.

The course was really well marked
We came into the Highway 49 aid station several minutes before the 30-hour cutoff horn. I promised her that the next uphill would be fairly short, followed by 2.5 miles of mostly downhill to No Hands Bridge. She really poured it on. The sun was getting higher in the sky and I was glad that most of the course was still in shade. Even though it was mid-morning, the sun was intense, and I hadn’t had time to put on sunscreen. I knew I would get sunburned; I just hoped it wouldn’t be bad.

Not No Hands Brigde, but amazing none-the-less
At No Hands Bridge a volunteer removed Melanie’s hydration pack, handed her a water bottle, and shooed us out of the aid station. I thought this was a marvelous gesture. It must have been so freeing to be rid of that hydration pack after 96.8 miles. Crossing the bridge, the sun shone down brightly on us. I felt as if it was sucking every last ounce of strength out of me. It was a two mile climb, gentle at first, to Robie Point, but much of it was in the sunlight. Melanie continued hiking strong as I began to drop back. I yelled up to her, “Go Melanie, go!” At first I was a little sad because I really wanted to be with her when she crossed the finish line. Had I given up?

Then I got happy. I realized Melanie was going to make the 30-hour cutoff with time to spare. She’d be an official Western States 100 finisher and get her bronze belt buckle. I was overcome with emotion and the tears began to flow. I had done my job, served my purpose. I did good. When I reached Robie Point, I asked the volunteers about her status. She had beat me to Robie by three minutes! Good girl, Melanie! Now it was only 1.3 miles to the finish line and I was a pacer without my runner. I couldn’t be more proud. People along the route cheered for me anyway: “Yay, pacer!” I quickly told them how my runner was finishing strong and left me in the dust and how proud I was. They didn’t seem to think any less of me. I thought about all the runners we had passed during the night, many of whom I’m sure had no prayer of making the 30-hour cutoff.

The finish line
That last mile was really strange being without Melanie. It was her race and I had done my job, but I wasn’t about to just quit and meander to the finish line. I wanted to finish out my experience here too. I didn’t pour it on as I usually do at the end of a race. That would have just been silly. So I walked/jogged casually around the track to the finish line. I was so stunned and filled with emotion that I didn’t know exactly what to do next. I wandered around for a while looking for Melanie but didn’t see her, so sat down on the grass and took some deep breaths, trying to absorb everything that had just happened. Then I looked to my left and there she was. We hugged and cried and thanked each other several times, then parted ways. Just like that. My job was done. It was the most wonderful, challenging, fulfilling 11hours and 24 minutes of my life, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Even now, more a week later, I am overcome with emotion writing about it.

Chilling afterward in a dirty pool of what had been an ice bath for sore feet
On the ride home I relived key moments over and over. I was so proud of Melanie, and I was proud of myself. I thought back to my first pacing experience last September and how much I have grown as a runner and as a person in general since then. I had reached deep into my bag of knowledge and pulled out things that I had read, that my coaches had told me, and that I had learned on my own. I laughed out loud when I realized that one day my pacer will probably pull the same things on me at my first 100-miler that I did for Melanie. What goes around comes around, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Risks and Roller-coasters

The only picture that exists of me with a broken ankle.
My husband and I recently took a vacation to Florida. One of our stops on a tour of the southern part of the state was Busch Gardens in Tampa, where we rode roller-coasters to our heart’s content for two days. If you know me, you might find this rather odd. I am very afraid of heights, drop-offs, and cliff-edges— any place where a misstep or fall could mean severe injury or death. I’ve always had a “healthy” fear of heights, but in August 2005, just as I began my initial weight-loss journey, I slipped off a steep hiking trail in the Columbia River Gorge and broke my left ankle. I rolled down the steep slope, then held on to a skinny little tree (see photo below), my legs dangling below me. I was terrified. I didn’t have the strength to pull myself back up to the trail. Doug (my husband) had to crawl down the slope, get below me, and push me back up to the trail. At the time I thought I’d just sprained my ankle, and walked back to the car 1.5 miles away.

Having a broken ankle in a cast for 3 weeks just as I was beginning to get active and lose weight was devastating to me. I couldn’t hike or do much exercise, which at the time was all I felt I could be proud of myself for. I pretty much gave up on using crutches the very day that I got them, and rented a wheelchair so I could more easily get around home and work. It was one of the worst times in my life.

Revisiting the fateful spot one year later
That’s how my extreme fear of heights started. I figured if I fell where I did, I could fall anywhere, and potentially to my death. Since then, I have hiked or ran on several trails that really freaked me out— I’m talking tears and hyperventilating! Sometimes I have even given in to my fear and turned back. These have included the trails to the top of Black Butte and Paulina Peak. I am happy to report, however, that my fear is very slowing getting better. As long as I can catch myself before freaking out, take a few deep breaths and realize that I’m not going to fling myself over the edge, things turn out fine. One year after breaking my ankle, I revisited the exact spot on the trail and opened the door for healing to begin.

Back to roller coasters. I rode my scariest roller coaster yet at Busch Gardens. It is called ShieKra. It is the first floor-less “plunge” coaster in America. It takes you up a very steep 200 feet climb, then stops just after you go over the top and lets you hang there looking straight down for 4 seconds while you contemplate the forthcoming 90-degree drop straight down. Doug and I watched it several times before deciding to ride. Frankly, I was surprised my husband wanted to ride it. It if was just me, I probably would not have. The initial climb was one of the steepest I have experienced. I was terrified not only of this climb, but what I knew was coming next. I fixed my eyes straight ahead, avoiding looking over the edge of my seat to the left and down. I said out loud to myself over and over, “Breathe, breathe.” During the hang-time before the plunge straight down I was practically hyperventilating. And then on the plunge, holding my breath. No wonder they want riders to be in decent physical shape, to not have high blood pressure, etc. Even though I am often quite scared on coasters, somehow they feel so safe. I don’t have to trust myself. I’m not afraid of slipping or taking a running leap off the edge. I’m seated with a harness over me. I’m not going anywhere the coaster isn’t. Here are a bunch of great images of SheiKra since I didn’t get any good photos of it.

I am fine taking risks riding roller coasters. They feel so risky, but really aren’t. I’ve never been a risk-taker. I’ve long felt that by not taking big risks in general, I am protecting myself— that I need to protect myself. But by “protecting” myself, how many really great things am I missing out on? Without taking risk, I’ll never know.

Lately I’ve taken a few risks that are really paying off. It all started in late November when my coach asked me to write down my goals and a time-line for them. One of the first goals I accomplished in February was starting this blog. I was scared to death to tell people who I really am. I was afraid what people would think of me, that they might think I was a terrible person. That did not happen. I am so glad I took the risk. Many people have thanked me for sharing my story and have told me they passed my blog along to others they knew would benefit from it. These stories mean so much to me. Thank you all for sharing them with me. Yes, my blog risk was worth it!

For the most part, the goals/risks on my list are getting quickly accomplished. I review my goal list regularly, and was surprised the other day when I realized I could cross off another, when I didn’t even  know that’s what I was doing. Another risk I took recently was starting a facebook group called Central Oregon Trail Runners Network. I had been envisioning a site where trail runners in Central Oregon could go to share information about trail running in our area— from sharing photos and trail reports to planning meet-ups with other area trail runners. I thought if I didn’t do this, someone else eventually would. Like usual, I questioned myself. “Who do I think I am to do this? It’s not like I’m some confident, amazing athlete or leader.” Then I stopped myself right there. I have to stop putting myself down. I also need to start stepping outside of my comfort zone. So I did. When facebook asked me to add friends to the group, I wondered what I should do. I started by adding all my current facebook friends in the area who I know are trail runners. I was really concerned about pissing off somebody by automatically including them. But then I figured if they didn’t want to be part of the group, they were free to hit the “Leave Group” button at any time.

I usually check facebook and e-mail before breakfast, but the next morning I put it off. And put it off some more. I was afraid of what people might think or say. When I finally got up the nerve to get on the computer, I was relieved that no one was mad. Everyone was still part of the group. And I even had a couple requests to join the group from people who weren’t facebook friends of mine. Wow, that wasn’t so bad after all! I’ve had a few people tell me in person what a great idea Central Oregon Trail Runners Network is. Whew! Another risk is paying off— one that I hope will grow to be a valuable resource for trail runners in the area.

I am getting set to take all kinds of risks this summer. One that I am very excited about is taking more friends and small groups of soon-to-be friends, on casual, social trail runs. And I’m not talking in town. There’s something magical about taking someone on a trail they’ve never been on before, getting them out of their comfort zone to challenge themselves a little. There’s no greater reward then seeing the look of wonder on a person’s face after they’ve run to the base of a mountain, or smile of confidence after running over log bridges, through streams meeting the challenges that the trail put before them.

When I moved to Bend in fall 2007, I had just started trail running. I was not confident, and didn’t know where to go trail running, much less want to go alone. I didn’t know anyone in town yet, so I did a few runs with a local women’s running group. I learned short running loops in Shevlin Park and at Phil’s trail system. From there I did research in hiking books, asked around, bought trail maps, and slowly began exploring. I discovered that I love maps, and that I thoroughly enjoy planning a trail run: plotting my route, stocking my hydration pack to be prepared for as many contingencies as possible, the sweet anticipation of the unknown while driving to the trailhead, and of course the big payoff, the run within nature itself.

North Sister above South Matthieu Lake
I have had the opportunity to take  several friends trail running, and in fact take a few to places they’ve never been before. One day I’ll never forget is when Susan, looking up at North Sister from South Matthieu Lake near McKenzie Pass, exclaimed, “Laura, you take me to the best places!” Ever since then I’ve wanted to share experiences like this with more people. I know there are people out there who want to get out of town on the trails but don’t know where to go, don’t want to go alone, or are afraid of getting lost. After a recent trail run, another friend told me she’d be comfortable going back out there on her own now. Yes!— that’s my goal. I want people to feel confident and empowered, not like I felt for so long, and still struggle with at times. I want other people to be able to experience nature through running and become confident, prepared trail runners. Just the other day I ran to a beautiful viewpoint on a trail high above Tumalo Falls with spectacular mountain views. I stopped, smiled, laughed, cried, whooped and hollered— all alone. I wished I’d had someone to share that particular experience with. Soon.

I don’t know for sure what form these “trail runs with Laura” will take or when, but I have begun work on the concept. What I do know is I have routes in mind for everyone from 5k-er to 1/2 marathoner and up. Anyone who can comfortably run a 5k will be able to run/hike a beautiful 4.25 mile loop I have in mind. Routes may be a challenge for some and easy for others. These runs will be a social setting and we’ll take hike/snack/photo breaks. I want each person to feel comfortable with his or her pace and accepted for who they are, challenge themselves a little, be surprised by what they are able to do, and most of all, have fun!
A small section of the multiple-mtn view from the ridge above North Matthieu Lake

But I can’t put this off, or else it won’t happen again this year. Nobody but me can make my dreams happen. I’ll start by letting my friends know, and hopefully they will share with their friends, and so on and so on. Who knows where it might go from there? This is the first public announcement I’ve made of this. If you or someone you know lives in Central Oregon or will be visiting the area and is interested in a trail run adventure, please comment here, or send me a message on facebook.

Other risks I’m taking this year include: running the Wonderland Trail 100+ miles around Mt. Rainer on a 5-day running tour; running two 50-mile races, and one 100k. The 100k I intend to do is held on the Pacific Crest Trail in the North Cascades of Washington state, an area that I’ve never been to. Registration hasn’t even opened yet, and I have to admit I’ve already scared (and excited!) myself looking at pictures and video from the course. This race is only open to “veteran” ultra runners who have completed ten or more ultra-length races. Pretty scary (OK, not scary, but thrilling) that in less than 18 months, I’ll have 12 ultras under my belt and considered a “veteran.” The course is 62 miles long and never crosses a road. I worry that my fear of heights will kick in on exposed ridge top. What if I freak out and can’t continue? What if I fail? But what if, as my coach suggests, everything goes just fine and I have a great time and come out of it feeling strong and empowered? I can’t know success until I take a risk. Neither will you. Don’t think “Impossible.” Instead think “I’m possible.” The only limits that exist are those which we create in our own minds. To put it another way, the only person who can tell you you can’t is you, and you don’t have to listen. Why not tell yourself you CAN? Now that’s worth listening to!

Let’s go out there and start achieving the things we’ve always wanted to do but were too afraid to. Yes, I know it’s scary, but I’m with you. If Laura can do it, you can too. I’m so excited for all the amazing things you’re about to experience! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

McDonald Forest 50k

Lovely Rita. Shave and a Haircut. Who Do You Love. On the Sly. These are just a few of the challenging trails that comprise the McDonald Forest 50k held annually in the Peavy Arboretum and McDonald Forest (used by Oregon State University College of Forestry for instruction and research) six miles north of Corvallis, Oregon.

The race affectionately referred to by many as “MacForest” or just “The Mac” was my second-ever ultra-distance race last year, and my favorite of five. So I decided to go back this year not only because I had enjoyed it, but I wanted to gauge how my fitness level had improved. I love MacForest because it has a little bit of something for everyone: steep lung-busting climbs, quad-bashing descents, sweet single-track, long up- and down-hill forest road sections where you can really pick up the pace; narrow muddy horse trails, creek crossings, and the lush green foliage (including poison oak) of the Willamette Valley. The course, though quite convoluted, is one of the most well-marked I’ve ever run. With 6,700 feet of elevation gain, it is at times a hike-fest. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone, learn to be patient, and get in some good climbing every now and then. Anyone who runs this race is a total bad-ass.

I was surprised by the number of people I spoke with who said this was their first ultra-distance race. More power to them. After this, they should feel like they can accomplish anything! In fact, one young fellow said he had never run more than 18 miles before this. Part of me wishes I had had that much confidence in myself and my abilities when just starting out. I am in awe of those who ran The Mac as their first ultra.

Race morning (May 7th) temperatures were perfect. Overnight lows were in the upper 40s and highs were expected to be around 60. That meant shorts weather! I was so excited to be out of running tights/capris and feeling free as a bird in shorts and a lightweight, short-sleeve top. I wore some light gloves the first half of the race because my fingers tend to get cold sticking out there doing nothing. At straight-up 8am, the race was on. After an initial 1.5 mile loop on a wide service road, the field of 200 had spread out a bit, and we were funneled on to single track for a warm-up climb: 600 feet of gain in the next 1.5 miles.

I had forgotten how many steep, and at times quite muddy, climbs there are in this race. Starting at 9.4 miles in, Lovely Rita is one of the best: over 400 feet gain in about half a mile. I was slowly plodding along, mouth agape, gasping for air, sweat pouring off me in buckets. Though she might be lovely, Rita sure got a good trampling. Not to be outdone, Shave and a Haircut at mile 14 is a steep, muddy slope that loses more than 500 feet in about 3/4 of a mile. After a couple more comparatively short ups and downs, racers were dumped out onto a forest road at mile 16.4 for the 1.5 mile climb up to the Dimple Hill aid station.

I had made it my goal this year to run as much of the forest road uphill sections as possible, and especially the stretch to Dimple Hill. Last year I had walked the entire thing, and it seemed so long. But I had done a lot of hill training in the past year, most notably on what I call the “7 mile hill” on the Haulin’ Aspen course. I learned to switch gears, slow down, be patient, and “rest” while running (albeit slowly), up hill. I was stoked to meet this goal head on. Half a mile up the 1.5 mile climb, I was telling myself “I can do this. I’ve so got this.” A mile in, I was laughing and getting teary-eyed because I knew I could do this for another 1/2 mile. I had this in the bag! Cresting the top at Dimple Hill aid station, I wanted to spike my gel flask in celebration, jump into someone’s arms, and tell everyone what I just did! Instead I smiled and laughed celebrating alone in my head. It didn’t matter what the rest of my race looked like. I was happy because I showed myself how much stronger I was than the previous year.

Ultrarunners April and Craig got married during the race at the Dimple Hill aid station at mile 18.6 (yes, they ran the entire race). I got to Dimple Hill too late for the ceremony, but as I approached, friends and family of the couple were walking down the hill to their cars and cheering on runners. That was pretty cool. I was fortunate to “run into” the bride later when she was heading down the hill from Chip Ross Park, and I was heading up. It was nice to be able to give her a big congratulatory hug, since she was already gone by the time I crossed the finish line.

Around mile 20, after the descent off Dimple Hill, the outside of my left lower leg started feeling a little tight. I’ve had some issues with muscles and tendons in my lower legs off and on for the last year (in fact it was this race last year where it started). I have learned to not freak out at the onset of this tightness, and most of the time it doesn’t bother me much. I have developed some techniques that I use, literally on the run, to deal with it. Today was no different. On the long gentle downhill stretches that generally bother it, I thought about running tall, engaging my core, planting my footfalls underneath my hips, and my opening up my stride behind me. When thinking about this, the tightness in my lower leg subsided. Now if I could just think about that all the time! Starting up the next long set of switchbacks after Chip Ross, I met Elizabeth. It was her first ultra race. We put arms around each others shoulders and together yelled, “Yahoo— another hill! Hill, you’ve got nothing on us!” As I hiked ahead of her, I sang her the chorus to the song Move Along: “When all you’ve got to keep is strong, move along, move along like I know you do. And even when your hope is gone, move along, move along just to make it through. Move along.” And then I was gone.

I had met a gal named Jennifer early in the race. She struck me not only because she was wearing long tights (I would have been burning up!) but because she ran at a nearly constant slow pace. And yes, this was her first ultra as well. I was astounded how she slowly ran up inclines that I felt necessary to hike up (she was far ahead of me on the steepest parts of trail and I wondered if she could possibly be running them too). Her slow running pace was just a bit faster than my hiking pace. I told Jennifer a couple times that she was my hero. I couldn’t believe how she could keep slowly running while I was sucking wind and dripping buckets of sweat while hiking. Jennifer’s downhill running pace however, was not much faster than her uphill pace, so while she passed me on steeper climbs, I passed her on long downhills. We leap-frogged positions several times throughout the race.

By the third time Jennifer passed me (on Lovely Rita), I had begun to beat myself up mentally because I felt I wasn’t measuring up. But then I stopped and thought, “I don’t know her story, and she doesn’t know mine.” IMPORTANT ASIDE: Please listen to me when I tell you: don’t compare yourself to other people. Every person has a different story/past/experiences. You don’t know other people’s stories, and they don’t know yours. So don’t judge others, and most importantly, don’t judge yourself. Doing so only leads to emotional pain, which I know quite well from personal experience and still struggle with. Don’t compare yourself to friends 10 years younger than you, or friends 20 years older than you who kick your butt every time (I love all of you!). You’re all different people with different life experiences, so just be filled with gratitude that your own heart, lungs, eyes, and legs all work and are able to take you to such wonderful places. Just be in the world and be grateful.

Coming into the last aid station at mile 26.8, I saw Jennifer plugging along just ahead. Part of me really wanted to beat her across the finish line, and part of me felt that since she had been so consistent, she deserved to beat me. I stopped to use the porta-potty and thought about it. My second big goal for the day was to run up this final long gradual hill, just under 2 miles long and over 400 feet elevation gain (it sure seemed like more than that at the time!). I settled into my slow, patient uphill pace again. Soon I noticed someone familiar ahead! It was Sean Meissner, running with his sister April at her first 50k! Of course I had to stop and tell April what a badass she is! We chatted for a couple minutes before I went on my way. Sean told me to catch a guy ahead and I said I could do that with no problem. The problem was, once the downhill kicked in again, that fellow flew past me! After the race, he said his body just did not want to run any more hills, but was ready to go on the downhills.

With 2.5 miles to go, I passed Jennifer for what I hoped would be the last time. I said, “Only 2.5 miles to go, we’ve so got this!” At 1.64 miles remaining, there was more uphill singletrack. I looked behind me to see where Jennifer was. I told myself that if I walked up all of this hill, she would pass me again. So I ran as much of it as I possibly could. Knowing she was behind me (but not knowing how far) pushed me to finish stronger. The last mile, the song “More” by Usher played on my iPod. The timing couldn’t have been better: “I’m a beast, I’m an animal, I’m that monster in the mirror, The headliner, finisher, I’m the closer, winner. Best when under pressure with seconds left I show up.... Gonna push it to the limit, give it more.” I ran happy and proud, like I was flying!

I crossed the finish line feeling great. Though my time was four minutes slower than last year, the course was considerably muddier, and a new section of trail had been added. I wondered how much less my time would have been with the same course conditions as last year. But it didn’t really matter, because I met my other goals of running up hills that I walked entirely last year. Watch out Rita, I’m coming back for you next year!