Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloweeny 50K

The snowstorm brought us an unexpected Halloween treat with more than 6 inches of snow falling on us from the time we started at 8am until we finished the run.  I cannot ever remember  being so cold in my life, or in a place on top of the mountain so beautiful with the first snowfall of the year.  The day certainly brought a more than expected adventure through some tough conditions that would bring quite a challenge my "toughness," and probably more so mentally than physically.

BEFORE all the snow sets in.

Costumes were note mandatory but "highly encouraged" so I thought I'd make out well with my $2.80 five year old costume I found a goodwill and cut up to fit over my body.  It ended up being an orange tutu fringed with black pompoms and an orange, red and black sequence halter tube top, under which I wore black underarmor cold gear and lightweight Salomon running capris.  Also had the 12 cent Halloween themed bandana to match, which I would soon wish was fleece lined.  Mike was wearing a candycorn costume (gotta love Goodwill).  We started warming up a bit after starting up, and soon I found myself wanted to ditch the extra weight of the heavy fleece I was wearing overtop, which was drawing in water, and also the weight of my handheld, which was preventing me from pulling my cold fingers into my sleeve.  There was a steady shower of snow/freezing rain but the trail were not covered with snow.  Yet.  The leaves covering the trail, including the rocks and the tree roots, were wet and slippery though, so we had to be pretty cautious over the technical stuff, especially the switchbacks before reaching the canal.   By aid station 1, I ditched my wet fleece and Mike and I both ditched our water bottles, as neither of us had consumed any fluids for the first several miles, and I could not foresee myself drinking enough to be worth it today.

And the snow continues...


When we took a right turn onto the canal after emerging from the woods, we were immediately blasted by icy snow, rain and wind.  Being out beside the open water without and trees to shield us from the wind, we probably found ourselves the coldest.  I realized that I definitely could have been better prepared for this run, with at least a baseball cap, not to mention a Buff or Ali -baba mask to protect my stinging face from this bitter coldness.  My tutu, now fringed with icicles, was actually holding up pretty well, the warmest part of my body probably being my butt. But things weren't too bad, as we soon turned up the Maryland Heights trail to ascend the mountain loop.  Things got a little less cold as soon as we got off the canal and onto the trail to start our ascent.  The ascent was long and gradual, but most was runnable, the worst part probably being that my feet kept loosing traction under the wet leaves and rocks now thoroughly covered with a few inches of snow and causing little slips and a higher level of work and effort.  Not much longer after we entered this winter wonderland, we heard a loud CRACK followed a few seconds later by a CRASHH as a large tree branch smashed to the ground beside us.  Seconds later we heard the same loud crack followed by a crash from somewhere up ahead.  Steve, who we had met up with on the trail, claimed that these tree branches snapping under the weight of the newly fallen ice and snow were the so-called "widow-makers."  There are very few moments in my life when I have literally felt like I was running for my life, but this certainly turned out to be one of them. We trekked onwards and upwards, but each CRACK made us all jump, look around and attempt to point out the location or the source.  We had a couple of close calls, including one branch that fell  directly behind Mike and I, and which caused Steve who was right behind us to scurry back down the mountain to avoid it.  Another time came when we heard a particularly loud crack just ahead of us and an entire tree trunk snapped in half and fell into the path just barely escaped running through.

Last picture before Mike's camera battery froze and left at Aid station 1.  

Reaching the top of the mountain made the ascent all worth it though.  We climbed up and over two stone walls (and saw a snowman!) and started our journey back down the mountain. Descending from the peak of the mountain was treacherous, and we took things pretty cautiously.  We soon reached more runnable parts though, and the feeling of printing my tracks into the smooth freshly powdered snow on top of the mountain never felt so good.  We really were in the middle of a winter wonderland in October!

From the mountain, we got back on the canal, hit Aid station 3, and set out for Harpers Ferry.  This was probably the worst stretch.  The canal was bitter cold, and I found myself shivering even while running, which is something I cannot ever remember doing, especially so late into the run, and I usually find myself getting warmer while running than most others.  I had had to practically drag myself out from the shelter at the third aid station to go on, and a few miles later when we crossed the bridge and hit the town of Harpers Ferry, I found myself huddled shivering under the hot air hand dryer in the public restroom after losing a glove on the bridge. I was the first warm thing I had felt in hours.  I have never been so grateful for a hand dryer in my life and I probably stayed under there for 15 minutes (and drawing more than a few stares from some other women who came into the bathroom). 
By the time I came out, I had made up my mind to call it a day.  We were about 18 miles in, it was a good day of running, but now I was absolutely freezing cold and I could not imagine my cold wet self going back out to face the wind and snow again to run another half marathon distance.  I told Mike my decision outside, and even though he said that he was fine with it, the disappointed look on his face let me know he wanted to go on. 

Annnndddddd so I told myself I would suck it up and just run to the top of Jefferson rock, so I could at least see the view from the top before heading back to the aid station on the canal for a ride back.  Aaaannnnndddddd after our short steep climb up to Jefferson rock, I agreed that we were practically halfway around this Harpers Ferry loop in the course so we might as well just finish it.  Annnnnndddddd when we finally finished up the loop of Harpers Ferry and found ourselves back at the intersection of the canal, I was not nearly as cold as I was when I had started out of the bathroom, and I decided to just suck it up and just crank out 10 more miles to finish this damn thing. 

So there I was, back on the App trail again with Mike, ascending back up the switchbacks now covered in snow, on our way back to Gapland gap.  I must say, if there is one "good thing" about being that cold and uncomfortable for so many hours is that I really did not even feel the miles.  Over 20 miles in, the only discomfort I felt was the coldness and wetness, cold bitter singing snow on my face and cold completely soaked feet, but nothing really in my legs, although I am sure they were somewhat fatigued.  I actually enjoyed the App trail run back.  The technicality of the course now covered in a nice layer of snow to hide the rocks and other trail obstructions prevented us from picking up too much speed, but most everything was still runnable.  I even felt good enough to agree to add on the little Weaverton Cliff out-and-back that Mike and I had missed in the course on the way out to get in the full 50K distance.  Still, when we guessed we had to be close to the finish at Gapland, the miles seemed to go on forever.  I had yet to look at my watch today.  I didn't even want to at this point. 

A couple of miles out from the finish, we heard someone up ahead yell "Hurry!"  My parents had apparently decided to take a hike through the woods while waiting for us at Gapland.  It was good to see them and even better to know that the end was near!  We finally came down the final descent into Gapland, cheering with glee (or at least I was!)  The blazing fire that was mentioned at the start had been on my mind since mile 1 and I was very much looking forward to getting to it. 

Dad looking for us before finally going out to find us.

I had started the time on my stopwatch when we initially started the run, but otherwise had not taken a single look at my watch all day long.  My hands were buried in my sleeves the entire time.  Not that I am ever that obsessed over my times and splits, but this is something I have never really done before.  But I kind of liked not having any sense of time on this run.  Plus I knew our time had to be pretty slow, considering the extreme weather conditions coupled with the technical terrain and stopping for several minutes at a time each aid station to find some respite.  I had been taking my longest aid station stops ever on this run because it just felt so good every time we reached shelter!
It still took me hours to warm up after finishing, even after changing into dry clothes.  By this time the roads were so bad that my dad drove us all home in the 4-wheel-drive pick-up, almost hitting a stop sign on the way out of the parkinglot!  And, after dreaming to a steamy hot shower for over 7 hours, the power was out when we got home :-(  Thank goodness for my dad and generators! 

I would receive an email a few days later from the RD informing me that I was the ONLY woman to complete the run.  Of the 150+ runners signed up for the event, there were 49 starters, and only 15 finishers..myself among the men:-)  The write up has my "official" run time as a 6:36, out doing even UBER rock(4:59), making this by far the slowest 50K time I have ever run.  But I am ok with that.  Because the Halloweeny run, for me, turned out to be one of those training runs where pace and overall time really didn't matter anymore.  The run was about testing my toughness and challenging my true mental fortitude to continue on when things got tough and uncomfortable.  Of course I would be able to run a 31 mile distance.  I was trained and so the distance in itself would be something I could easily complete with full confidence.  But when the less-than-ideal weather conditions threw a wrench in my plans, I was challenged.  There was a time when I thought I truly wanted to quit more than anything. But I stuck it out and was able to push through the conditions for a few more hours, and actually had a lot of fun doing it.  Being able to deal with unexpected disasters and overcome a mental desire to quit in states of physical discomfort is essentially what ultrarunning is all about.  My confidence for JFK race day 2011 has been lifted yet higher...and in alllll weather conditions, not to mention an awesome tutu:-)  Bring on the snow and the rain!!!

Literally couldn't move my lips to smile better for this picture.  They were frozen.  Costumes held up for 30+ miles though!

Happy Halloweeny!  

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Shepherdstown 26.2

So, apparently I can win marathons...rather unexpectedly finished First Place Female with a time of 3:18:42, and even set a new female course record (according to the website).  May not be close to my PR (3:09 at Delaware marathon in 2010) but I am happy with the results, as I had decided to treat this as a training run and certainly went into it on "unfresh" legs. What was probably even more exciting this day was that my mom ran her first 10K (yep, I signed her up for Mother's Day this year) in 54 minutes (that's 8:50mmi pace) and placed 3rd in her age group in doing so!  I knew I got my genes from somewhere :-)
                                                                                Mom and me both get awards:-)

I was a bit nervous about how my body was going to perform on race morning for this one considering I had a pretty hard 50K course race just last weekend at UROC and I have pushed myself hard in training the past 2-3 weeks logging around 85 miles per week.  Additionally, Shepherdstown is a supposed to be a pretty tough course, with lots of challenging hills and all of them coming after the 15 mile mark.

Race morning was cold (48 degrees) wet and drizzly.  Yesssssss!  I have been waiting for this heat to drop and the chill to set in for months and it seems that now that time of year is finally here!  I love the cold.  Not snow, just cold.  Plus I don't mind running in the rain (as long as I have a good supply of Bodyglide and Vasaline).  Probably saves my body some precious electrolytes and sweat.  Yeaaa admittedly, when I'm running I tend to be a pretty heavy sweater.

Going into the race, I knew this wasn't a fast marathon, as there is no prize $ and the previous female course record time was 3:28, and so I was rather surprised to see so many people gunning it right off the start.  Less than a mile into the race on a little out-and-back and I saw the leading female had to be almost half a mile ahead of me.  Then I counted three or four other women close behind her.  I mean, I was taking the pace pretty conservatively, but whew, maybe the female CR was going to get blown out this year.  A little demon suddenly appeared on my shoulder looking to push the pace, and it was at that moment I told myself NO CHASING.  There was just no way.  And it turned out to be the decision that saved my race.

My legs felt pretty decent starting out, or at least better than they had all week when I was walking around "like a cowgirl" on Monday and taking the stairs sideways till about Wednesday-ish.  I kept the pace seemingly tame, making sure I wasn't reaching out of my comfort zone, but the bright yellow mile markers that marked every mile let me know that I was running pretty even 7:30mmis.  But it felt comfortable so I went with it.  I found the mile markers ever mile kind of annoying because it always seemed to cue me to look down at my watch every seven and a half minutes and do mental math, so soon I just pulled my sleeve over my hand and kept my thumb through the slit to prevent this.

Made it down the little metal grated spiral staircase of Harpers Ferry with no difficulty, although I heard some horror stories about some people behind me.  I kept things consistent on the canal, still knowing that I was in 5th place and not seeing any of the other women, even in the distance.  I did need to take a pit stop in the woods around mile 6 that cost me about a minute and a half, but no further difficulties after that.  At the half marathon point I did note the time on my watch to be 1:41.

At mile 15 we turned off the canal and the hills started.  We joined up the half marathoners at this point and there were a lot of them, so I was constantly passing people.  But it wasn't too hard to tell who was half and who was full because we were hitting the end of their pack and their pace was significantly slower.  I had met a friend on the canal and we ran together for a couple of miles, and then he passed me going up the first couple of hills.  I caught up with him a few minutes later though, right after I passed the woman who I noted had been leading during the first couple of miles of the race at the smoking fast pace.  So I must now be in 4th.

I figured I probably slowed down some on the hills, but for the most part I was feeling pretty strong.  It felt like a mini accomplishment everytime I peaked over the top on one.  I could tell my legs were a little sapped though, so I just tried to keep the pace consistent and not push anything here.  Soon I had lost my friend and saw the 3rd female in the distance.  She seemed to be keeping a pretty good pace but I was gaining on her and soon I passed her on an ascent.

There was a point soon after this where the marathoners turned right to do an approximate 1 mile lollipop loop up a pretty big hill and back down again before turning right again to join back up the with half marathoners and go up another hill.  When I turned to start this loop, I saw the first place female and her pacer just leaving the loop, followed by the 2nd place about 2 minutes behind.   So they had to be about a mile in front of me around mile 18 and they both looked pretty good.  I was feeling pretty good, but not that good, so I kind of doubted I would catch them if they were both strong finishers.  But if they faltered...:-)  When I hit the top of the hill and did the turn around, I saw 4th female place was less than a minute behind me, 5th place seconds behind her, closely followed by 6th and 7th place.  Yikes!  Well, I guess now that I had made my move to pass I was going to be chased for the rest of the race rather than playing chaser. Can't say that I really liked the position, but it is what it is and I just went with it.

We hit an especially hard hill on Antietam battlefield a mile or so later.  I saw it and my heart fell a little.  I thought I might have to walk up a part of it.  But I put my head down, started plowing up, and before I knew it I had reached the top.  My aunt was waiting for me towards the top and I heard her cheering, but I think I had my head down.  I tried to smile and grabbed a bottle of water from her but I probably didn't look good.  Surprisingly, I was feeling better than I probably looked, but it was a hard hill and I needed a gel.  She had come at just the right time and I was able to choke one down pretty easily with the water bottle, since I was not a big fan of the Styrofoam cups at the aid stations and the mini handheld I was carrying was dry.  Thank God I have dedicated supported like my aunt, waiting around for me in the freezing rain for hours just catch me running by for seconds.

We finally crested a hill soon after mile 21 and I knew the rest of the race should be pretty smooth sailing from there.  I kicked the speed up a notch.  I can't say it was really because I thought I was being chased or because I thought I had a chance of catching the first two women.  I think I was just used to finishing my training runs strong and if this was to be treated as a training run, this is what I wanted to do.  It was raining a little harder now, which made things colder and I was enjoying it.

2.2 miles left to go came around sooner than I expected and I started pushing more.  The congestion from the half marathon provided some obstacle, but they would usually move aside and most would cheer me on, some saying "First woman!" which I knew couldn't be true.

Then I saw her.  First place woman.  I recognized her from behind and her pacer had already turned around and spotted me.  I also saw the 26 mile marker ahead.  I gunned it.  As I passed, I heard her pacer say "Wanna chase her?"  I was pretty gassed at this point.  I didn't feel like I was going to be very competitive if things were going to come down to a quarter mile sprint.  But as Devon Crosby Helms puts it, I went to the well.  The well was dry.  So I found a shovel and dug deeper.  I dug.  I had no idea if she had accepted the challenge or not, but I wasn't looking behind me.  I can't push any harder!  I dug deeper.  I flew across that bridge and around a tricky sharp turn, try as I may without knocking (too many) of the half marathoners over, and burned it across the football field to the finish line insight.

The final sprint might have taken a bit out of me because one of the volunteers followed me from the finish asking if I needed medical attention.  No hahahah just finished a bit hard.  She crossed the finish less than a minute later, so I guess she hadn't actually tried to catch me, but still the finish sprint felt good.  My digital watch time, which is the official time they went with since the timing mats didn't pick me up, was 3:18:42.  I was the first female finisher, so I must have passed the other second place chick at some point and not realized it.

 Finally managed to get my prize at the "awards ceremony" but not before they missed me finish, missed my chip time that never came through, and almost gave away my trophy to the girl I out-sprinted!  At least I did sneak away with a $50 gift card. 

This is actually the first marathon distance I have ever placed first (although I've had a few close calls with seconds) and probably the most thrilling finish I have ever had.  I am also pretty psyched about negative splitting in a race with all the big monstrous hills in the last half of the race!  But what's worth more to me perhaps, is that, coupled with last weekend, has shown what I am capable of doing on tired legs, which is going to be critical in this year's JFK.  My confidence is boosted and I am counting down the days!

Check out Martinburg's newspaper The Journal's article write-up on the race!

 Just talking to the press. nbd :-)

My winners plaque.  Note the white foam tape coming out from underneath...don't do this race for the trophies and medal which is about comparable hahah.