Monday, April 23, 2012

Perspective - Yakima Skyline Rim 50k

Rainshadow Running races are tough adventures, and being quite popular with the ultrarunning crowd, sell out quickly. After seeing photos from last year’s inaugural Yakima Skyline Rim 50k, I knew I must run it, so signed up as soon as registration opened early this year.

This race was a huge turning point for me. My perspective on many things was changed: long solo car trips, steep terrain, rocks, the unknown, warm temperatures, open spaces.

Just four days before the race, as I was ending a run in Shevlin Park in Bend in an open, sunny area, I found myself wishing the sun would go away. I was already warm. I am not a fan of warm temperatures or sun when running. I am partial to trees and shade and cool weather.  It was then that it hit me: Yakima Skyline would have no shade. I’d have to find ways to stay cool from the get-go. As soon as I got home, I e-mailed the race director: would ice be available at the aid stations? Though he hadn’t thought of that, he said it would be a good idea since temps were going to be in the 70s and sunny on race day. I started making my hot-sunny-weather running plans. Since the overnight low would be in the upper 40s, I would start the race in my lightest tank top, shorts, visor, sunglasses. Race morning, I applied 70spf sunscreen liberally and methodically. I filled my hydration pack with both ice and water. I put a wet hand towel in a ziploc bag of ice in my drop bag (a small soft-sided cooler), along with spray-on sunscreen for quick reapplication, and the usual nutrition supplies.

Suspension bridge across the Yakima River
Let’s rewind for just a moment: After making great time on the drive to Yakima on Friday, I decided to change my routine. Instead of taking a pre-dinner nap at the hotel, I drove out to the race start. I was instantly excited by the winding drive through the Yakima River Canyon. The surrounding hills were huge, and beautiful. I wondered which ones I would get to go to the top of. I got out of the car at the race start, and walked across the suspension Bridge across the Yakima River. It swayed wildly. I sure as hell won’t be running across that, I thought. I kept walking, perhaps 1/3 mile up the first climb, wanting to see what was around the next corner. What I saw intimidated me. Oh no, do I really want to do this? Why did I not just take a nap? Should I just go home? I was scared. But instead of continuing to scare myself with made-up thoughts of what probably wouldn’t happen anyway, I decided to pump myself full of positive messages: Because I can do this, I can do anything. After all, these hills are gorgeous and inspiring. I was in love with them already. I felt if I could make it to the top of the first climb, and stay out of my own head, everything would be fine. I jogged across the suspension bridge on the way back.

When I got back to my hotel, I was inspired to write the following:
Umtanum Hills
giant undulating folds of brown, gold, green
bolts of rich crushed velvet draped over the topography

The beginning of the first climb, and the only shade on the course
OK, now back to race day. After the now-familiar beginning of the first climb, we kept going up, up, up, gaining 2100 feet in just over 2 miles. There were a handful of short flattish sections where I was able to run for 20 feet or so. The rest of the first climb was hiking, much of it very slow to keep my heart from busting out of my chest. I was focused on taking care of myself early on so I would still feel good later. I took an S!Cap every 30 minutes from the very beginning, and a gel every 20 minutes whether I wanted it or not.

I was hiking as strong as I could, putting distance on a fellow behind me, and gaining on a gal in front of me. The higher up we went, the more awesome the views. I stopped to take in the views and snap some photos. The climb got steeper and steeper, headed straight up the grassy hillside. I thought about the words “easy, effortless. Glide up the hill.” Hey, that’s better than continually telling yourself how hard this is. When the climb was less severe, it actually seemed easy. Perspective change: compared to this climb, Pilot Butte is nothing. Gray Butte is nothing. Black Butte is nothing. I have a new perspective on steep; a new yardstick by which to measure a climb; a new reference point to remind myself that when I something is difficult, it’s not as difficult as this thing that I’ve already conquered.

Every time I felt my fear of heights and open spaces begin to kick in, I stopped and slowly looked around. It was OK. I was OK. It was beautiful, and I was a part of it. It wasn’t so scary after all. I started noticing as much as I could. I heard what sounded like thunder but knew couldn’t be. I turned around to see distant large plumes of “dust” arising from the desert. Ah yes, the military firing range. Appears they were blowing things up today. I’d never seen that before. It was really cool. I noticed a lot of poop on the trail, likely coyote poop. I saw cool bugs and large iridescent orange-winged beetles. I heard a loud “whoosh” and saw two huge birds nearby flying into the wind. I’d never heard the sounds of bird wings plying the air like that. I smelled the Lupine blooming on the ridge top, heard happily chirping birds. And this was all in the first few miles.

I passed the lady in a green long sleeve shirt and long tights(!) before we crested the first climb. She said her legs were done. I thought, Lady we’re just 2.5 miles in, this is the warm-up! Soon after, we reached the rocky, rolling road at the top of the ridge, she passed me, and was gone. I’d see her later though. The fellow behind me passed me too. I’d seem him later too, but not faring so well.
The first climb, an uber-steep section
3 miles of running this rocky, rolling-hill road along the ridge top
The faint trail between the first aid station and the steep descent back to the river. It was along here I smelled the Lupine
The first aid station was at about 5.5 miles. As I was stopped filling my hydration pack with ice and water, the lead runner of the 25k flew by without stopping. He only carried one water bottle. This guy was hauling ass, as the 25k race had started an hour after the 50k. Soon after this aid station, the descent back down to the river began. The trail narrowed, and was barely there in places. Blooming Lupine flanked the trail, so much of it I could smell it! I passed the turn-around for the 25k, and recalled that the next portion was an uber-steep descent which I’d heard some people slid down on their butts last year (whether that was on purpose or not, I don’t know). I knew immediately when I reached the top of this descent. It was gnarly. My mind immediately flashed back to a similarly steep, but less long, section of trail in Smith Rock Park. Engage the abs. Sideways feet. Fast, quick little steps. I made it without slipping! I stopped and looked back up the trail. Damn, that was steep. I almost took a picture of it, but thought I’d do that on the way back. I won’t make that decision again. If you want a picture, take it then. The way back is not guaranteed.

Part way up the 2nd big climb
The next mile or so was in the lowlands by the river. There wasn’t much of a trail here. The route had a cross-country feel. The pink ribbon markings, which had been about every 1/2 mile, were now frequent. I started feeling the heat of the day. I looked at my watch: 10:25am. Then the second monster climb started: 1900 feet in just over 2 miles. John, the sweep, caught up with me but said I had “lots of time.” Super-nice guy who really appreciates nature and likes to play sweep in races ’cause he likes to take his time, using the race like a catered run/hike. Then I noticed ahead of me the fellow who had come from behind and passed me on the ridge-top road. He was frequently stopping, bending over and putting his hands on his knees. I sure hate to see people doing that. It’s never good. John started walking with him as I quickly pulled away. Before long, when I looked back, I couldn’t even see them behind me.

Just as the trail seemed to level off and skirt the side of the ridge, I came upon a woman at an intersection who pointed me onward up the hill to the second (also the fourth) aid station at about 10.5 miles. The barely-there trail followed what appeared to be an old fence line up to the top of the hill. It was on this last climb to the aid station that I noticed the balls of both my feet were beginning to feel hot and irritated. I had never had this issue before, but then I had never experienced climbing and descending like this before (not to mention along with very rocky terrain) and my foot was probably moving  around differently in my shoe than it has before. I decided this was one of those “mind over matter” things I’d just have to deal with. Before long though, the terrain changed a little, and the discomfort went away.

Along this short out-and-back to the aid station, there were several people headed down as I was headed up. I was excited that there were so many not very far ahead of me. This extra little climb on the way back would not be fun, I thought. On my way down, the lead men were on their way up the second time. They were in twice the distance that I was. Wow. That just blows my mind. 

Ridge running with supreme views!
Dam on the Yakima River
After that came some absolutely amazing, rocky, faint-trail ridge running with supreme views. Sweep John was back behind me again. In the last few miles since I’d seen him, he’d had to pull two men from the race that I had passed earlier. Then came the long rocky descent down to the turnaround aid station. I became aware that I was not going to make the 4.5 hour cutoff at the 15.5 mile turnaround. In a way it didn’t seem fair: I felt so damn good. I told John that I felt really good, that I had no doubt that I could finish, but that I also knew he had a job to do and that if he had to pull me, I’d understand. When he passed me about 2 miles out from the aid station, I knew I had essentially been cut. Tears welled up in my eyes. I’m crying now as I write this. But it was hard to feel bad when I felt so good. I’d been able to see the entire course, albeit one way. I’d had a great day, seen beautiful things, overcome fears, gained new perspectives. And I wasn’t done yet. Instead of feeling bad about myself, I felt blessed. That’s a really big change for me from a year ago.

Headed down the last long, brutal, rocky descent to the turnaround aid station, lots of people were headed back up for the return trip. Many of them did not look good. It was now early afternoon, and the day was heating up. I was thankful for the constant light breeze. I kept on trucking, even though I knew I was gonna be pulled from the race. I was excited to catch up with and pass a few more people. Whether or not they’d given up mentally not did not matter to me. I kept running and fueling as if I would be allowed to continue, until I knew for sure that I was not allowed to.

About 10 of us who has missed the cut-off time were hanging out at the aid station. (The race had 110 starters and 88 finishers). A couple of people were talking all negative about the brutal climbs, and about just when you were excited to be able to run some downhill, you couldn’t because it was also so steep and rocky. I didn’t want to hear their negativity, so walked away. I milled around and stretched until the aid station was packed up and we were loaded into several vehicles to be shuttled back to the start/finish. Frank, one of the aid station volunteers asked if I could make it up the hill to his car. I just laughed inside my head thinking, “Dude, I feel great. I could run up this hill. Just because I’m at the back and didn’t make the cutoff doesn’t mean I feel like crap.”

Post-race cooling off in the Yakima River with friends Darla and Chris Askew
I am thankful for so many things that day. Perhaps being pulled from the race after just 25k was a blessing in disguise. Chances are I wouldn’t have felt that great the entire time. I may have developed painful blisters on the pads of my already-hot feet. The heat and sunshine may have overcome me. My shoulders and neck line would have gotten a lot more burned than they were (and yes, they were already pretty red after almost 5 hours). I would have been much more sore and depleted, taking longer to recover. My legs felt great the day after the race. Which is good, because last week I made plans for two grand adventures in May that I will likely tell you about soon.

Because I did this race— in the process overcoming doubt and fear, and gaining new perspective— I know now that I can do anything. Yes, this day was a blessing. It all depends on what you chose to focus on. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Killing It

Hugging a giant snag last week
I’ve been struggling with my running pace now for more than half a year. I’m not nearly as “fast” as I was the summer of 2010 when I was getting PRs and even won 1st place in my age group in a local trail marathon. The blue ribbon is still proudly pinned to the bulletin board next to my computer. Though I feel like I “should” be faster, I’m not right now. So instead of dwelling on it and beating myself up over it, I’m learning to focus on where this particular journey is taking me.

For my 43rd birthday in March of this year, a good friend gave me a necklace that says “Find your Pace.” Tears filled my eyes at first sight of it. The message couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. So now, on every run, I wear that necklace along with a Western States 100 necklace that I bought myself as a souvenir after pacing a runner for 38 miles at the race last year. The necklace is a good reminder for me to settle into the pace that my body gives me that day and to not judge myself because of how my ego feels about my pace

Not judging yourself, quieting the ego: that’s the tough part. We all want to run just as fast as last time, feel just as good, as fluid. But truth is, life is just not like that. So be nice to yourself psychologically, and just go with the flow most days. Some days the run just flows from you and you feel on top of the world. Other days you struggle just to keep going. If you’re struggling mentally, physically, here are two things I like to do.
The trail to Gray Butte
1) Notice everything around you. Look up, look around. Become absorbed in nature. Make the run about experiencing nature. Notice every tree, rock, flower, blade of grass; the birds, butterflies, scurrying squirrels and lizards; ants and spiders on the trail. Hear the wind in the trees, feel it in your hair and flowing between your fingers. Savor the sound of singing birds, croaking frogs, chirping crickets; running water. Stop to admire a view, take a picture, smell a flower, hug a tree. Don’t bother to pause your Garmin. Better yet, forget about time and occasionally leave the Garmin at home.

The trail west, toward the mountains
2) “Kill” whatever pace it is I’m running (or hiking). The other day I totally killed an average 11:50 pace on the 4.5 mile loop at Shevlin Park. Surprised? You don’t have to be fast to “own” your pace. Totally own it— kill it— whatever pace you’re at that moment. I’ve totally killed 14-, 15-, even 16-minute running paces up long gradual hills and 18- to 22-minute paces snowshoe running. At the end of a 50k or 50-mile race I’m totally owning my 12- or 13-minute “sprint” across the finish line. Don’t be ashamed of your pace. Take ownership of it and be the best at that pace that you can possibly be on that day.

Treasure the great days, and when they don’t feel great, know that they will be again. Embrace where you are right now. You have worked hard to get to where you are, even though it may not be where you originally envisioned.

Chances are you’ve been killing it now for quite a while and just didn’t realize it. 

Shadows play on the hills

Sunday, April 8, 2012

It All Makes Perfect Sense.

Snowshoe Run With Laura at a local snowshoe race
It’s been 5 months, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge, so to speak. So many things have happened in my life: good, bad, and indifferent. So many times I have thought about writing. Considered writing about my crappy December/January where I was so “mental,” achy, and exhausted, sleeping poorly, struggling just to exercise two days in a row (and I’m not even talking running). 

I thought about writing about the snowshoe running group, Snowshoe Run With Laura, that I started in December and what a joy it was to introduce others to such a fun, yet tough sport that I dearly love. About seeing the look of joy and wonder on their faces. I considered writing about how, in February, I ran Hagg Lake 50k for the third year in a row, nearly “off the couch” this time, as one friend put it. I was not sure until two weeks prior that I’d even be able to do it. How I decided to forget about all the other racers that day and just run my own pace, as if no one else was around and I was on an adventure all my own. How I happy to meet my goal of just finishing before the cut-off and being proud of that, even though I was the last person to finish.

Elowah Falls on the Gorge Waterfalls course
A month later I considered writing after running the Gorge Waterfalls 50k. It was an amazing course and amazing day, surrounded by equally amazing people. After only a month of smart training after Hagg, I felt like I was on my way back. About how, the morning before Gorge 50k, having participated remotely in the 1st Annual Gerry Lindren 3-Miler, I ran a fast-for-me three miles. About how I was spurred on by thoughts of Gerry and his mission the entire time. How surprised and thrilled I was that I could still do that. How I never run for 2 days before a race because I want everything to remain a mystery until race morning. About how concerned I was that running hard the day before Gorge would negatively affect my race. It didn’t. In fact, it gave me more confidence.

About how, less than a week after the Gorge 50k, I had a 7+ minute PR on a 13-mile, rocky trail run with plenty of climbing and descending. The run had not started out great, but soon enough I felt great and the run just flowed from me. The really great thing is I wasn’t trying to make a PR happen, it just did.

I could have written about any or all of these things in the last 5 months, but truth be told, I really don’t enjoy writing. It takes something really special for me to write about it. Tonight all it took was a simple dream, which in reality, probably didn’t last much more than the blink of an eye.

With the glorious Deschutes River the day of my dream
I often work things out in my dreams. Earlier this week it was anxiety over my new trail shoes. A couple days later, it was my sore arms after a tough workout. Tonight it was the the trail itself, which finally made sense. It made sense why today’s run, at only 15 miles and <1,000 feet of gain, felt nearly as tough as my last 50k with 6x as much gain. Even the appearance in my dream of a bicycle, lying on its side, seemingly floating in, but also engulfed by, the rushing river made sense. I awoke at 2:20am, finally knowing that it all makes sense, but not necessarily knowing why.

I lay in bed awake, running through my dream in my mind, trying to ingrain it into my memory so I would not forget it when I woke for the day. Alas, I knew that if I went back to sleep, I would forget, so here I am at 2:30am typing at my computer so I will remember, that yes, even though I don’t necessarily know why, somehow it all makes perfect sense.