Thursday, June 30, 2011

Round the Isle of Wight 70 mile Multistage Ultramarathon

I cannot say that spending a weeeknd running around an island with 80 plus British guys was on the agenda for my journey to England, but it has certainly been one of the highlights of my trip and probably life in general.  There were alot of "firsts" on this adventure, which helped to make it an even more epic experience.   I finished "FIRST Lady," with a comfortable  gap of more than 3 hours between myself and second place female.  It was the FIRST time I have ever managed to beat out so many guys to come in Second Place Overall in the feild, which is probably even more credible.  I set my FIRST (official) new Female Course record, stomping out the old record by 4 hours and 22 minutes.  More importantly, this was the FIRST time I have ever pushed myself through running this many miles in this period of time, making it not only my first multistage ultra, but the farthest distance race I have ever run in a single race.

Pretty accomplished final weekend in England.

 Pre Race

As seems to be the ongoing theme of my most recent races, I really had no idea what to expect going into this race.  I had really just signed up for this one on a whim, after I met Israel at the Northants 35 miler three weeks ago who told me about the race and made it sound so appealing.  The big difference here was the fact that I had never physically run that far in that short amount of time.  The closest I have probably come would still be about twenty miles less than the distance of this race, and that was in one day, and not having to wake up the next morning to run another ultradistance.  I knew signing up for this that I was going to have to push my body to limits it had never been to before.  But after my rather unexpectedly quick recovery and snap back from Northants, I was eager for the new challenge. 
 Ultra Race Eve night.  We weren't the only ones having a race the next day.  Hundreds of yachts lined up for Cowes festival races, also that weekend.  Never seen so many boats in one place in my life.
Day 1:
After a surprisingly decent nights sleep on the floor of the West Cowes high school gymnasium with all the other runners, I was ready to face the first 38 miles of the multistage adventure.  All the runners had breakfast together and picked up packets in the adjacent building.  Any other type of race, it might be strange that you and your opponents have been housing in such close quarters during the night and preparation before the race, but in the ultra scene it seemed almost normal.  It was actually kind of fun trying to scope out potential opponents.
The race has three starts: walkers at 8am, runners at 9am, elite runners at 10am.  I was categorized as an 'elite' runner based on the fact that I have finished trail 50Ks in under 5 hours (which is laughably elite).  I had my usual pre-race breakfast: bagel with jam and peanut butter (freshly shipped from the U.S.--thank you Mom!), banana, black coffee, and a handful of rice cereal.  It was a bit rainy and cold outside in the morning (of course) so I chose to wear my black DDT race shirt, Madison tri shorts, old Salomon trails and racing-white UA headband.  This part of the course would have four checkpoints, with no more than ten miles between each, so I made the rather risky decision to travel light and comfortably with only my Northface handheld, and digital camera in hand. The weather here felt cool enough for me that I'd be ok without massive quantities of liquids, and I don't usually drink much when I run anyways.  I stuffed the coursemaps, a couple gels, and a handful of Jelly Babies in the sides of my sports bra and I was ready to go. The other runners with their camelbacks and fuel belts looked at me like I was crazy as we approached the start.  
The 'elite' start group, Day 1.
  Boarding the starting ferry.
The start to this one was also pretty unique.  We all boarded a van to the ferry shuttle, then all boarded the ferry shuttle, crossed the waterway.  When the drawbridge to the ferry went down, this signified the start of the race.  Nothing like starting off a 70 mile run by climbing straight up a steep pavement hill.  When everyone is still together at the start of these long endurance events, I like theorizing how the race is going to play out, so I spent the first couple miles doing this.  I am usually pretty good in my predictions, but this one would be especially interesting because it is so long.  In reality, things played out pretty much nothing like I thought they would.
I felt charged at the beginning of this one.  I had been pretty good about cutting back my mileage over the past week or so, and I was now chomping at the bit.  I think it was probably good that we started up that hill first because it tamed my pace.  After a couple of miles the pack started to disperse.  Two or three guys picked up the pace and sailed far ahead.  I hung with the second pack of five or six other guys. 
And then came my panic attack.  Before the race I had wedged my preciously laminated cue sheet between the palm of my hand strapped to my water bottle.  I had probably studied the thing for hours and even made little notes in the margins.  When I looked down about 30 minutes into the race, it was gone.  Gone.  I frantically started smacking at every part of my body, hoping to feel it tucked into my top or shorts somewhere.  Nothing.  Damn it.  This race was going to be like  a Northants nightmare all over again! 
And there went my race pace strategy.  I was going to have to stick it out with someone who had one of those cue sheets or who knew the way.  So second pack of ultrarunner guys it was, the only group currently left in sight.  A few miles in they also began to quicken the pace.  It was nothing I couldn't handle at the moment, but pulling sub 8 minute miles before mile 5 of a 70 mile race is probably not the greatest idea unless you're Ian Sharman.  It wasn't that the pace was difficult, it was more that it wasn't comfortable enough.  But I stuck with them, pushing a little harder than I would have liked, but still feeling good. 
Still feeling fresh at 2 hours in.
We didnt waste anytime at checkpoint 1.  Then just as we were passing 15 miles we ascended a tall grassy hill with a stone monument on top.  I am normally pretty oblivious to most of my surroundings during races, but a glimmer of something shiny white blowing through the grass beside me caught my eye.  A cue sheet in a ziplock baggie.  YESSS!!!  It practically blew right to my fingertips and the snatched it up.  Yes, someone's Day 1 cue sheet--this really was it!  Ok, now time to have some sanity and run my own race.

 See ya in a few miles:-)
Immediately afterwards we approached checkpoint 2.  The small pack I was with dispersed a bit, with a couple of the guys falling off the back and a few others continuing to bolt ahead.  I hung somewhere in the middle of them.  This next part of the run was along the shore front on a paved boardwalk type road infront of the shops.  The road was flat and paved so I was able to lock myself into a comfortable consistency with the pace.  There were plenty of people out, half of whom were pretty intoxicated and rather entertaining.  Most of them would give curious looks and every once in a while someone would ask me what race it was or what we were running for, to which I would usually just yell "We're running around the island!" leaving them even more baffled.  I have to admit, we probably did look like quite a spectacle, a line of people with numbers on their fronts and backs running through the town during all the weekend's yacht races and festivities.
 Long stretch of beach before massive cliff climb.

Coming off the seafront, we had a pretty massive 156 step ascent to climb straight up the side of a cliff.  It's a climb that definitely took some wind out of me, but I hopped up over the last step and headed out to the next segment of the race..the single track trails!  Ahhh..  Being back on the soft dirt paths with smooth rocks and tree roots under the forest canopy gave me new energy, and I was cruising again.  I slowed down only to catch a small glimpse through breaks in the trees of the stunning views of the cliffs and ocean to the left.  It was so beautiful out here.  

 Small breaks in the trees gave a stunning view of the beach from the top of the cliff where the single track ran. Quick stop for a picture.
At about three and a half hours into the race, as I coming over the top of a small roller on trail and was on my way down, I came across two of the guys in the second leading pack I was running with who had taken off earlier.   They were currently walking.  When they turned around and saw me, they looked like two toddlers who had just been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.  "Where did YOU come from??!!"  And just like that, they were running again chasing after me into the woods.  It was pretty humorous.  They did hang with me for a few miles, then dropped off. 
Around 26-7 miles in, we came up the main road and we turned back onto a single track and I passed the guy who was leading the entire race.  I didnt really realize who he was at first, becuase we had been passing lots of walkers and 9am starters, but when I passed, I knew he was not taking this thing casually.  He also asked me where I had come from (where did these guys think I came from??) as I passed.  He had obviously drastically dropped off his pace from earlier since I had caught him and was obviously in a bit of a rut at the moment.  I don't think that he was expecting to see me again that day, and was probably not very happy to be getting passed by me at this point.

 After I passed first place guy around mile 27, and currently leading the entire race!
After experiencing some confusing navigation that held me up a bit, I was finally on track to a clear-cut path to the last checkpoint of the day.  When I rolled into checkpoint 4, I came to the realization that I was actually leading the entire race at this point.  The ladies at that checkpoint were ecstatic, urging me on.  I wasted no time there, and was on my way to roll into the last 8 miles to the day 1 finish.  The last part of the course was running along the edge of a rock cliff overlooking the sea on the left.  The directions were clear and no more navigation was needed. 
However, turning the corner to the edge of the cliff, I was greeted by a blast of wind, head on.  Great.  I was still feeling pretty good, but battling into that wind was hard work.  Wind sucks.  Worse than hills.  You work so hard to flight your way through it, yet you still seem to be crawling.  And former first place was right on my tail.  It was kind of strange for a while, being together right there, battling into the wind, especially since he was obviously giving it everything he had not to lose to me.  Then he made the pass.  The slow pass.  Yessss!!  Finally some relief from this hard work!  I got right on his hip and took the wind break. He was bigger than me too, which was just perfect.  After a few minutes of this, I think he realized he was being used and started slowing down a bit.  That was ok, I'd slow down too to catch this break.  But then he started pretending like he was checking his unneeded cue sheet for something  and really dropped, at which point I said forget this, and bolted ahead several meters to gain a small distance so he couldnt pull and started chugging away again.
 Last segment of race, Day 1.  Run along edge of cliff and try not to get blown off.
I saw a campsight in the distance, and judging from the time, I knew that it must be our finish, especially since there were guys outside standing there waiting for us.  I pushed a bit harder into the wind, but as I approached, I realized that it was not it.  No flags or finish line, so we ran on.  Soon, we approached what was essentially a very large 50 ft tangential crack in the side of the cliff we were running along the interrupted the path and continued longways as far as I could see.  There was an extremely steep descent, at the bottom which there was a creek, and then a very steep ascent.  I didnt remember seeing this part on the map, probably because it was entirely verticle.  Were we actually supposed to cross this thing?  Former first place was soon by my side and starting the cliff descent.  He had done this race last year, so must be right. 
Those cliff descents and climbs (yes, multiple afterwards) were pretty hard on my already-beaten quads.  Here, he took a small lead on me, but I kept him in sight to the finish.  My instict was to give this last part of the race absolutely everything I had left in me, gunning it to try and pass him to the finish.  But my sensible side told me to avoid completely killing my already drained body till the real finish tomorrow.  We were only a little over halfway through this race.  After the cliffs, we continued on for a little over a mile until we finally reached our real campsite.  I finished in 5:52, and just two minutes behind him to take the second overall finish of the day. 

Finish line, Day 1.

Day 2
I could tell before I even crossed the finish line the day before that I was going to be feeling this in the morning.  Even though it was only a couple of miles over the Northants ultra distance, the terrian of this one killed my legs.  It was very hilly, including several cliff climbs and decents, which seemed to have ripped my quads from the inside out.  I made sure to stretch thoroughly and get in a good meal that night, but when I woke up on Sunday morning...ouch.  My legs were so stiff and sore that I hobbled to the bathroom, tripping over my tent on the way out.  I felt like I could barely walk, let alone run another ultramarathon starting in a couple of hours.  How could I be feeling this much worse now than after Northants?  Why the hell did I sign up to do this??? 

Barely standing the night before Day 2.

I soon realized that the thought of running an ultramarathon distance today was just too daunting.  Mentally, I couldn't do it.  So I starting thinking about the race in any other way possible.  It was no longer an 'ultra distance' that I would have to run; it was a distance that was shorter than yesterday.  Flatter than yesterday.  More "easily navigated" than yesterday (HAH!).  I made little sub destinations in my head, like just less than 10 miles to Needles Point, with a stunning view of the unique rock cliffs.  And just half a mile till I get to eat my next lemon Jelly Baby!  This mentality is undoubtably what was able to start my day and get me through some of the toughest miles. 
I spent the rest of the morning before the start stretching and then went to the bungalow (British word for one story house) to get some breakfast and coffee with the others.  After breakfast and as I was getting dressed and taping myself up, I began to feel better and some of the painful soreness in my legs had eased up.  I decided to test out my legs with a short sprint across the grassy field.  Check.  Legs still work.  I  could do this.  And then there I was wearing my UD tri jersey proud at the starting line, and the same scenario as yesterday.  Except this time people weren't just looking at me as the senseless American girl carrying one water bottle who has no clue what she's doing; now they had expectations, and curiosity as to how I'd pull through today. 
This start started even slower than yesterday. For the first couple of miles the first place guy and I led pretty much side by side, closely followed  a few guys from the second pack who had made it through.  I didnt purposely start out this way.  I started running and everyone seemed to file up behind. The first couple of minutes were not very pleasant, but after that my legs seemed to loosen up and I was able to ease into a rhythm with minimal discomfort.  This might not be as bad as I thought it was.  After the first few miles, first place guy started to quicken the pace and pulled ahead, to which I made no attempt to catch.  There was a lot of race ahead of us and I had made the decision before the start that I was going to do what felt right today, and if I saw him later, then that would be that.  I was going to be pushing my body to limits it had never experienced before, so I had no idea what to expect later on in the day. 
We ascended a long gradual hill and entered extreme fog on the ascent.  I could barely see 25 meters infront of me, let alone the landmarks on the cue sheet we were supposed to be looking for.  Timothy, one of my newly found American friends pulled up beside me and we ran together for a while with another new friend, Barefoot boy.  We managed to find the edge of what appeared to be a cliff on our left side and just kept following that, hoping that if we followed along the edge of the sea for long enough, we had to be getting closer to the finish line.   I had decided earlier to not carry my camera with me today.  Yesterday it had gotten in the way a bit, slowed me down (because I HAD to slow down to fumble with the camera and to take pics of everything I wanted to remember, which was just about everything) and I wasnt even that happy with how most of the pictures turned out blurry and off focused anyways.  And now I was glad I didnt because you couldnt see anything. 
Somehow, we blindly made our way to checkpoint 1, following a girl's voice in from her spot perched on a fence.  I was checked back into the reality of yesterday's miles on the long downhill right before that checkpoint where my quads started screaming at me again.  But other than that, everything else was feeling pretty decent, so I considered myself lucky. 
We weren't doing to badly pace-wise.  A bit slower than yesterday, but that was expected, and we were pulling little over 9 minute miles when we weren't getting lost or fumbling over directions, which got a bit confusing on some of the trails.  The sun was shining full through the sky and beating down on us today.  All the Brits were complaining about the horrible heat.  These people do not know heat.  It was in the low 80s and warmer than my ideal conditions, but not dreadfully hot.  Still, the sun beating down on  you all day can become fatiguing.  Coming into a small town, we turned onto road, and just as we were approaching a bridge, the lights went on and the gates went down, obstructing the only way to get through the town.  The entire middle part of the bridge then broke itself out and twisted sideways to that a huge boat could pass through.  Perfect timing.  The temporary bridge closing probably cost us a good 5 minutes.  At the first checkpoint, the first place guy was leading us by 3 minutes.  Now, he had probably just more and doubled his lead.

Checkpoint 2 to checkpoint 3 was probably the longest and hardest.  Actually, Timothy and I almost missed Checkpoint 2 because after the town, we saw one of the white race flags in the distance, and took off at a quick speed to reach it, breaking off the road and onto the path along the shore.  After nearly half a mile though, we realized that it was not one of our race flags, just another long white stake flag that happened to have RUNNING in bright read letters written down the side.  Really???!! We had to backtrack a bit to find the read checkpoint 2.  We were now about 15 miles in and at this point I was slightly flustered from our maltracking and delays.  I was in, refilled my bottle, and then out of that checkpoint almost before they could even write my number down.  I think I broke off half of a 9 bar to carry in my hand on the way out, which probably saved my life.
 I was half a mile down the road already when I realized that I didn't get any other kind of food or candy.  I had no sugar and I had more than ten miles till the next aid station.  I searched around every pocket and crevice in my handheld and clothing for something, anything.  I found a single caffeine gel, green apple cinnamon flavor.  Gag.  I can make it for quite a while on most of my normal runs with little to no sugar, but at this point in the race I knew that I needed more. 

At the last checkpoint Timothy had dropped back and soon I found myself alone again and back on the single track.  I was feeling pretty rough out on the paved roads before entering the woods, but now in the shelter of the trees and  with the cool soft dirt beneath my feet gain, I felt alive.  Energy picked up inside me as I imagined running through my favorite trails at home and I picked up the pace as much as my legs would reasonably allow.  I think I felt as good as I could have at that point going through those trails, and it was my favorite part of the course for the day.  They would wind around through the trees and then just randomly fork and split, with no indication on the cue sheet as to which to take, so I just started choosing whichever the hell I felt like, and they all seemed to get me to the place I needed to be.
Sometime after coming out of the single track, I found myself on an even gravelish-dirt path going through grassy back farm land.  Here, it was almost like my body just snapped into a low point and I really had to mentally push myself to keep going.  My legs hurt (really...).  And the bottoms of my feet were pained by the blisters I could feel developing for the past 15 miles.  My stomach had shut down and I felt nauseous.  Not only did I not have any sugar, but the thought of anything sweet made me feel even more nauseous.  Still, I tried to stay sensible and knew I needed calories, so I forced down the nasty apple gel.  Then I threw half of it back up.  Even worse the second time around.  I wanted so badly to give up on running and just walk it in, but I pushed myself to keep the pace.  And pushing through that slump was some of the hardest running I have ever done.  I tried to focus on anything but the discomfort I was in.  I spent some time reminiscing on some of the testimonies of my ultrarunning heros.   When you think your body can't be pushed any further, you're only at 20% of what you're truly capable of.  I started feeling this way a few miles back, so really, according to David Goggins I was only like 40% there, right?  It doesn't seem realistic, but really this statement probably has some underlying truth.  At that point all my mind was telling me was that I could not take another step. I could not go any further.  I just couldn't.  And yet I was.  One foot after the other, I was.  Because I could.  I did my best to shut out everything inside me telling me to stop and just kept pushing through.
This low probably lasted for a couple of miles, but then we hit a road segment that was flattish downhill and shaded by trees.  I started seeing more people as I passed by more 8am starters, cheering me on and telling me I looked strong.  Really?  I felt anything but strong at this moment.  Whatever it was, it brought me out of my slump.  I stopped plodding and picked up the pace, cruising at about 8 minute mile pace down the cool smooth slope of road.  A couple of miles later we were at checkpoint 3.  I immediately gulped down a few cups of their Gatorade alternative, "squash" because I was not confident I could hold down much else.  It tasted so refreshing, and I realized how thirsty I was.  I didnt waste much time at this checkpoint either.  Knowing there was less than 6 miles left to go, I grabbed a handful of candy and was on my way again. 
Talk about the longest 6 miles of your life.  Now I felt the heat of the mid afternoon as we entered full on sun exposure along the hot rocky sandy shores of the beaches.  The nausea was setting in again.   I longfully stared at families picknicking along the shores with their children, skipping along the waters edge.  How did I go from being a young innocent child like that, to a young adult who thinks it's a great idea to run 70 miles around an island for fun?  I wanted to be them again.  And I told the 8am start guy running beside me that too.  We were finally off of the beach now, with another fence to hop over (ouch) and another massive hill to start climbing up an overgrown trail and in the full sun. 
The hill was not fun, but when I got to the top, I could finally see the town where I knew the finish at the high school was.  I also knew that I had to be less than two mile from the finish.  I took off.  Ouch ouch ouch painful quads down the hill ouch ouch but dont really care because I am about to finish this freakin race!  Navigating through town with some minor difficulties ("Where's the high school??!!  THANKS!!") I finally saw the neon arrows around the last couple of corners to the finish.  I dug up a sprint from somewhere inside of me and nailed it in through the finish line. 5:29 for day 2 (plus about 3 extra miles).

The American Trio at the finish.

Accepting my award.  Nice trophy, new pair of trail shoes, and a BUFF!

Finally damnit!

Weekend remnants. 

1 comment:

  1. amazing story you are motivating me to do this this year - brilliant write up. any further tips most welcome