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!