Saturday, July 23, 2011

Endless Summer 6 Hour Race

6 hours.  100 degrees.  41.53 miles.  This was probably one of the hardest races I have ever run, and certainly in the most extreme conditions.  I was able to take home the First Place Female Champion trophy, finishing third place overall in the field.   I surpassed my expectations for this one and am really happy with the results!

Female Champion:-)

Pre Race:

With temperatures of 115° on the heat index predicted for race Saturday, I was getting pretty nervous in the few days beforehand. The east coast was actually under a heat advisory starting Friday that would last through until Saturday night. You know..the kind where everyone is supposed to avoid any and all physical activity outdoors and small children and elderly should stay inside. After obsessing over the forecast for a few days, the day before I had pretty much let go of even trying to keep up with it.  It was going to be freakin hot. And humid.  Did it really matter anymore? 

At the start of the race.  Representing JMU with my Tri shorts (preparing to swim in my sweat), old Mizunos and Extreme Energy buff.

I had tried to let go of all my goals and expectations for this race.  I hate the heat.  I can run twenty miles comfortably pretty much any given day of the week, but put me outside at lunchtime during a noon sizzler and I might wither crash and burn less than three miles in.  Last summer I practically became nocturnal, waiting until the sun finally went down for the day so I could get in my long runs.  On top of this, I had been living in the overcast 50° ideal coolness of England for the majority of this summer already and was in no way heat acclimated for this one.  Why oh why did I sign up for this thing??
The race directors were playing things as smart as they could, taking extra precautions of having extra medical personnel on call during the race and requiring that runners weigh in every 2 hours to make sure they weren't becoming dangerously dehydrated.  There was talk of cutting the race short if conditions became too dangerous and enough people dropped. 
I tried to focus on the positive aspects of this race to keep my mind off the extreme conditions:
 #1: I was fit.  And crazy endurant.  And I felt well-rested for the event and ready to go.
#2: For the first race in a while, I wouldn't be alone; I finally had my family back to support me and crew me and Mike to help pace.
#3.  I had essentially just done this only a few weeks before when I ran 38 miles on Day1 of the Isle of Wight multistage ultra in less than 6 hours.  Yes, it was alot cooler, but I was also climbing cliffs, crossing streams, and getting lost!
 #4: However hot it was going to be, it couldn't possibly be hotter than the 123° on the heat index for Friday, the day before.  Really, things were only looking cooler from here!

The course consisted of a 4.15 mile loop that had an aid station at the start and at just over two miles. 
Race Day
At the 7:30am start, the early morning temperatures did not feel too bad, but the humidity kept things pretty sticky.  And the mosquitoes were eating my fellow racers alive (for some strange and lucky reason, the things don't really like me so I rarely get bitten).  I stood at the start with about 60 other runners and relay teams.  Secretly, I was still hoping that I would still be able to pull off my previously set goal of maintaining 9min/mi averages and pulling in 40 miles for the day, but at the same time trying to be realistic and not be too let down if things didn't turn out the way I'd like with the heat. 
The first two loops of the course I felt good.  Almost too good.  During the first I was averaging 8:16s, which was almost 45 seconds faster than my previously set ambitious goal pace.  I felt the humidity right away.  It was almost like my skin could only half breathe the way it wanted to.  It was not the most comfortable feeling, but I felt confident that this could not ruin my race.  At least not right now.  Less than half a mile in and I was looking forward to ripping my shirt off at the start of the next lap.  Second lap felt better than the first and as I passed mile marker 4, I quickly calculated that I was averaging 8:14s.  The course was a bit more hilly than I had anticipated.  From mile 1 to mile 2 there was one gradual hill and right before mile 2 there was a short but very steep hill that had full sun exposure and soon-to-be scortching hot pavement beneath my feet.  This was probably the hardest mile of the course because of the hills and the direct sunlight.  Mile 3 to mile 4 soon became my favorite mile, possibly because it was flatter, more windey so I couldn't see all the distance ahead of me, and shaded, and probably more so because I ran with the anticipation of seeing my crew, consisting of my mom, dad and Auntie Ann, soon to greet me with a fresh bucket of ice water to dump on my head, cold lemonade Gatorade, and more cold water.  

The heat was not as bad as I had expected.  Not comfortable, but not debilitating.  I was barely aware of my body hard at work to keep me cool, but I knew that it was.  By the start of the third lap I could feel things heating up.  Thanks to my amazing crew, I was able to manage the heat quite well.  I had a container (or two) of ice water dumped over my head at the start of every lap.  I would quickly swap out my empty handheld water bottle for a new one filled with ice cold Gatorade and drape a frozen towel over my shoulders so that it cooled the back of my neck, snaking it around the back of my neck and tucking each end into the straps of my sports bra and running with it.  I wasn't wasting time at these aid stations, and all this was usually done on the go while I was still moving. 
This was usually enough to keep me cool up through lap 5 or 6.  I was also pulling consistent laps, averaging between 8:15s and 8:20s every time.  The only times I ever stopped the entire race was once at lap 5 when to use the bathroom and twice to weigh in.  I had been drinking early and lots because I wanted to be safe and didn't want to get pulled from the race.  My first weigh in after 3 laps was the same as my starting weight, 115lbs.  My second weight after 6 laps was 114lbs.  So I was staying pretty well hydrated for the majority of the race.  It was so hot that I had absolutely no appetite.  Still I knew I had to keep the calories coming somehow, and copious amounts of lemonade Gatorade probably saved my race.  Hydration AND energy.  Perfect. I missed Gatorade in England.  I also forced down 4 gels at intermittent times.

Around lap 7, or about 4 hours in, I cannot say that there was ever a moment when I consciously noted the heat surge, but I know that I did start longing for that ice water to be dumped over my head and face a lot sooner than I had been during the previous laps.  I started grabbing cups at the second mini aid station at mile 2 to dump over me and drink along the way because what I was carrying was no longer enough.  Mike was great too.  He ran beside me during one of the earlier laps, and rode his bike beside me for about a lap and a half during the later half when things heated up.  He gave me more water to dump over myself and more to drink. 
The volunteers for the race were great.  There were a couple of girls who stayed out pretty much all day around mile 1 spraying down runners with a hose as they ran by.  I told them to hit me every time. 
The second place guy and I had been neck and neck since l caught him at lap 2.  We were both running pretty much the same pace, but I felt like he must have sped up at a few moments to pass me because I was pulling the same pace up through the first 8 laps.  He might pass me someplace on the course, but then I would usually pass him again at the aid station where he took a short break and I flew through, thanks to my amazing crew.  I was flying through the aid stations so fast that I barely even glanced at the array of goodies or even the big clock that was on the stand by the start/finish, counting down how much time we had left.  I almost didn't want to know.  I had my digital watch, knew my current lap, was able to calculate my pace and that was all that I needed.  I didn't want to think about things in terms of the hours I had left.  That made things too hard to gauge. 
The end of the 8th lap I was still feeling good.  And with only two more to go, my goal finally seemed realistic and within reach.  If I could just push aside any discomfort that would undoubtedly soon be setting in, and just hold the pace right there for a little bit longer, I would be there!  Things were definitely looking encouraging, especially when I passed Ted, who had been leading the entire race, going into my 9th lap.  My lead of the race didn't last long though, because he flew out of the aid station where he was hanging at and passed me at a pace I knew I could not sustain so I didn't try and chase him.  If he couldn't keep the pace, that's where I would catch him.  I was still ahead of Karsten, the second place guy at this point. 
Those first hills of the 9th lap coupled with the now 100 degree heat hit me hard.  The fun run was over and now I knew I was entering the tunnel of pain. The familiar shaky soreness of my quads was setting in.  I felt like I had to brake more on the steep downhill segments just to keep them from giving out underneath of me.   My feet hurt from the five continuous hours of pavement pounding.  A couple of times I looked down to make sure my shoes weren't melting beneath me because the soles of my feet felt like they were on fire.  I had never before run this long on pavement before and this race was reminding me why.  And I was really really feeling the heat now in the noon day sun.  

Closing in my final lap for over 41.5 miles.  So happy!

At this point, one more lap seemed like such a long way away, but I talked myself up and was determined to crank one more out in the 37 minutes I had left on the clock when I rolled in to finish up lap 9.  Mike was off his bike now and running beside me again to pace me in.  There was not much left in me to start gunning it, but I wanted to stay consistent as best I could.  Karsten passed us on one of the steep hill descents where I was braking and took a little lead on me that he was able to keep through the end of the race.  Meanwhile, Ted was no place in sight.  They both ran good races and helped me to push myself and I am thankful for it.  As I came up on mile marker 3 of this lap, I knew I had met and surpassed my original goal of 40 miles, which made me really happy.  Still I had time to close in the lap and kept pushing through.  Although there was no finish line, seeing my family at the end of the lap kind of served this purpose of a final destination in sight.  And the clock with 24 seconds of course I started drilling it with everything I had left, which was not much, past them until I head the air horn, signifying the end of the 6 hours.  I collapsed on the pavement and staked the small orange flag with my race number into the grass next to me.  41.53 miles later and 6.5 pounds lighter.

Ice water over your face after running ultra distances in 100 degrees.  The simple pleasures of life.
I have to say that I was confident of what I was capable of going into this race, but then with the heat index throwing a surprise wrench into things, I really did not know what to expect.  So I guess you could say I went in with an ideal "comfortable uncertainty."  I am more than happy with the results, and it was more than what I had even hoped for, especially under these conditions. First place female champion and third in the overall field.  I finished less than half a mile from Ted, who won overall, and about .2 miles behind Karsten, taking in second.  More importantly, I am extremely thankful to my family for coming out to support and crew me and withstand over 6 hours in the blistering heat themselves, and Mike for pacing me part of the way, especially in that last painful lap.  Running in a timed race was different, but definitely fun.  It is also cool because everyone finishes at the exact same time, so you see everyone that you started with and get to see how they did too.  Notably, I was motivated to sign up for a timed race after reading Scott Jurek's blog on his 24 hour U.S.A. championship race:
"... there is no finish line, just a moment in time when the mind will let the body stop. Just like all ultras [the race] is analogous to life. In life there is no finish line. We all need to keep living, exploring, moving forward, despite what life delivers, to the moment in time when our body and mind let go."

THE amazing crew.

My pacer <3

What six hours of pavement pounding will do to your feet.  Only 4 toe nails left!