Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A-game Race Recovery and Horse-Shoe Trail 50K Trail Race

Taking the proper time to recover from the JFK 50 mile while still trying to maintain my fitness for Bandera 100K at the same time has been a new type of challenge that I have never exactly been confronted with before.  The fifty took a lot out of me.  More so than I even thought that it would.  I think that I almost expected to bounce back from the race within a week after my recoveries from my ultra races in England.  Although never running 50 miles in “one sitting” in the past year, surely running 38 and 32 miles (or rather 40 and 34 miles!) on back-to-back days was surely a note-worthy indicator of my recovery abilities.  I also surprised myself when I was able to pace Mike for 40 miles at Burning River, just one week after running 41.5 miles in 6 hours at Endless Summer in the blistering heat.  What I didn’t consider was how different all of these races are from each other.  While a large fraction of success in the Isle of Wight seemed to stem from navigational abilities and moving forward on whatever terrain is thrown at you, JFK requires the physical abilities and mind-set hold a faster consistent pace without stopping or dropping for hours and hours after discomfort sets in, which beats the crap out of the legs.  I felt like JFK was certainly more physically demanding than any ultra I have done in the past year and has taken the longest to recover from.  But, as I read time and time again, the true key to success in ultrarunning seems to be experience, and so I guess the best thing I can do is to take what I learn from each experience and keep on trucking. 

I attempted my first 24 miles long run just one week out from JFK back on the Appalachian trail portion of the JFK course.  I can only describe the way I felt during the run as being beaten down and lifeless for the majority of it, having more than a few close calls while catching my feet on rocks as my still heavy legs struggled to pick them up.  In retrospect, this type of distance so close to the race was probably a rush to recovery too fast, as the run left my legs feeling more beat up and me more disheartened than I had been going into the run.  After the run, I promised myself that I wouldn’t push through a long run again until I was sure my body was ready. 

The next three weeks of final exams brought late nights of studying and bucket-loads of mental stress.  Most of my already scarce “spare time” for running was completely sapped.  I almost couldn’t/didn’t care about training for those few weeks and felt like I was just clawing my way along to keep up with school, which has always been at my top priority.  At the same time, I found it almost impossible to concentrate on my studies having beung cooped up for hours on end, and both my mind and vision would start to blur together the material.  My roommate and I both seemed to realize when one or the both of us would come to a point where we would start talking jibberish or not be hearing anything the other way saying, and this was the time when we knew we needed the run.  We had a few late-night runs, a few track workouts, a few early morning runs.  All short and sweet.  We banged out the miles and workouts as fast as we could so we could get back to the thousands of ppt slides (literally) waiting for us when we got back.  I have never much enjoyed interval training, or running just a few miles at an uncomfortable blistering pace, but there was something almost fun about chasing that girl (an “800m specialist”) around the track, quads on fire and gasping for breath that I just couldn’t get enough of.  She always has me by a few seconds in anything a mile or less, but I am always the one begging for just a couple more repsJ 

And when Karys was injured or tired, I’d drag myself out, kill it for a half hour or so, then force myself back to my work.  Even on days in my sleep-deprived cortisol-overloaded state when I thought the last thing I’d want to do is go out for a run, these sometimes would turn into days when I ran my best times.  There are a couple of note-able runs that stand out in my recovery period after JFK.  One of them was the 19:50 Turkey Trot 5K that I somehow managed to scrape up just 5 days after JFK.  I actually ended up losing my age group turkey in the race by just ONE second’s chip time…ugh…but the finishing time was more than I could hope for, with my quads still screaming at me for most of the way. 

Another one of them came later one Friday evening in Newark at the annual Reindeer Run 5K starting on Main Street in Newark.   I was on my bike ride home from a the Delaware Neuroscience research symposium poster session on the J-Hall path when it was dark around 6pm when I saw groups of people lighting the borders of the path with candles.  When I finally asked what all this was for and they told me the run started in an hour and there was still sign up on site. I was in.  I had actually completely forgotten about the race and had already run a 5 mile tempo run at 6:49 min/mi pace earlier that afternoon.  Mike was on his way over and somehow I talked him into joining too.  I felt decent starting off in the race, and my two mile split was at 12:20.  Though uncomfortable, at that point I felt like I could keep up my pace and surely finish in sub 19..until a quarter mile later when nature called.  The next mile was a struggle, and not with my legs, but I finished in 19:50, exactly to the second. Again.  UGh.  Mike had finished a couple minutes before me and asked how I felt after I crossed the finish line.  “I forgot how painful 5Ks are.”  My fellow ultra-runner looked at me with the same bewildered and understanding look on his face.  “I know…”

Finally enjoying some post finals Christmas time with the fam...hopefully Christmas cookies help set a new 100K PR J

I had a few good tempo runs when joining the Delaware Running Company group on their weekly night runs on a loop around Newark.  On one particular run I decided to join for an easier-paced study break run, which turned into a solid race-against-the-boys run ending at close to 6 minute pace, according to the Garmins.  We started our first mile, clocking an 8:20 and finished the 5.2 mile loop in just over 35 minutes.  I surprised myself with how good I felt, especially considering I had had a tempo run earlier that afternoon, but I felt a surge of my playful competition as I caught and passed all the guys in the last couple of miles that I just couldn’t resist. 

And, in hopes of battering up my quads as much as possible in preparation for the Bandera hills, I found the steepest hill of trail within reach that I could in the state of Delaware and went to work on some repeats.  I'd drive hard up and hammer back down even harder, which turned into more of a controlled falling.  I hate hill repeats but have grown to love them at the same time.  One one particularly chilly Saturday I took a break from the hours of manual muscle and range of motion testing to run out to White Clay and visit my hill.  With each time downhill I'd get faster and faster yet, until the last one I was flying so fast, legs pounding, feet aching, eyes watering in the cold air and tears streaming down the side of my face.  I embraced the feeling at that moment, as it let me know I was alive!  When I hit the bottom of the hill I didn't stop; I flew out from the single track and back onto the main trail, not stopping until I reached the lab again.  I went back to my studies that day more content than if I had just completed a 25 mile long run.

But even with the number of good tempo runs I was having over those few weeks, my body seemed to be undergoing a distance run block.  I attempted long runs a few times over those few weeks, and each time providing myself a bail-out option, which I ended up taking every time.  I can’t really put my finger on the problem, other than I just didn’t feel good for one reason or another.  I was having some small aches and pains since JFK, including hip bursitis pain, which seemed to migrate to shin splits and constant nagging ITBand tightness/achiness and these all seemed to worsen when I slowed my pace down and the miles added up.  In the month after JFK, with the exception of that fist weekend, I didn’t go further than 14 miles during any single run. And I was signed up to run 62 in Bandera, now just a few weeks away.  Ekk.  I was having my doubts.

           Mikeon the left in his plaid, with me bending to stretch somewhere behind him.  Photo by John Dunham.

Until the Horse-shoe trail 50K.  The low-key fat ass ultra “race” came just at the time when I needed it the most.  In my head, I had decided that if I couldn’t finish this rocky rooty 50K, there was no way I would be able to survive twice the distance three weeks away in early January.  When Mike and I arrived to the start of the run at 8:30 am on Sunday morning, there was an inch of snow coating the grass and trail, and probably 20 degrees out.  My buns were freezing even sporting my Under Armor running tights for one of the first times this season, along with three layers up top.  There were a total of 19 people setting out to start the run, including one chick who got out of her car in shorts with short socks.  If there wasn’t any doubt before, now I was surely about to get my butt kicked.

Mike and I stayed together for the first 17 miles of the race.  I took things pretty slow to start out, and was kind of surprised with how much my calves were burning when climbing the more technical rocky hills.  The climbs seemed pretty hard and I got left behind the initial starting pack and even by Mike within the first few miles.  But Mike waited to find me again and things got easier as the miles went on.  After the faster guys who knew the course pulled ahead of us, Mike and I got lost on two occasions, probably adding a couple of miles, with the shorts woman following us.  We got back on track to find Steve in the middle of the group, who joined us for the next few miles till he turned back early at the 10 mile aid station on the out-and-back course.


Me and my partner in crime in our UBER ROC champion jacketsJ

I was on my own with the shorts lady just before the turn-around when Mike fell behind from us a little.  From the looks of this woman’s bare legs, I had been expecting her to pull ahead of me a while ago.  And when she didn’t, I was expecting her to start falling behind any minute now.  Not that I am that fast, but I don’t get passed in later stages of ultras, and especially not by chicks.  Thinking about it, I don’t think I have ever been passed by a woman in an ultra distance race in my life, or at least not after the first couple miles.  I have been beat by plenty of women in my ultrarunning days, but by women who have started ahead of me and stayed ahead of me through the entirety of the race.  I enjoy being the chaser.  I dislike being chased, and even more dislike being passed.  I think this was the reason that after I found myself alone with this woman now down to the two-filly race, I decided to pick things up a couple notches.  But not before she informed me that she was a U.S. 24 hour champ.  Crapppp.  This chick was obviously never going to tire or drop pace, so I was going to lose her with speed.  I dropped her for the first time soon after the turn around, only for her join right beside me on the trail again after I had to make a pit stop for a few minutes.  I picked things up again.  She hung with me for a little while, but soon enough I lost her again. I was pushing things a bit, but I was surprised that I was still pretty comfortable, considering I was now into my twenty umth mile. 
Going into the run that day, I had told myself that today was about going the distance and not the pace, and now I think my conservativeness at the beginning of the run was paying off, as I felt like I was flying along through the bumpy rocky single track.  Something just felt almost magical about being out there in the middle of the woods on the crisp cold winter day, not knowing where I was or where I had to be next, just following the track and letting my body to the work, with my mind just wandering into the beauty of the majestic mountains around me.  I had been on these trails before, but only in the middle of the night during Jen’s Midnight Love runs.  This was the first time when I could truly enjoy the beauty of the middle-of-nowhere PA.   I fell in love with ultrarunning all over again right there and then.  I ran into the finish, still flying high and feeling great, or at least like I could go on for at least several more miles, which is what I would need to do in a three weeks time.   My finish time was (a pretty slow) 5:50, complete with a few wrong turns, navigational, delays and pit-stops.  The run and the pace were just what I felt like I needed. Check out winner and race director Josh Finger’s GPS tracking of the route:   I finished probably about 20 minutes before the shorts woman did, and despite it being a fatass event, even got a commemorative painted horse shoe and $20 gift card for being the first woman finisher! 
And two days later I was back out on the track doing mile repeats, where coach Fischer told me I was “one sick puppy” J

Up and Coming Bandera 100K

I have to say I have some mixed feelings about how Bandera will go for me.  It will certainly be the longest and farthest distance I have every attempted and the terrain is certainly going to be no jog through the park.  I think the best thing I can probably do now is to take things a bit easier and make sure that I am fully rested by the time race day rolls around.  Based on the recovery of my long runs after JFK, all I can do is to primarily focus on finishing the race, kind of just going along for the adventure and what the day brings, while meeting some great elites and spending a few days in an awesome drug-dealer mansion with some good friends just having fun along the way. 

For a while I was worried about the good chance that I could “DNF” the race, which is still largely possible.  I have never DNFed a race before, but have also never attempted the much longer distances.  After taking things in to perspective though, even DNFing at Bandera really wouldn’t be so bad.   It is rare to come across an elite ultra running athlete that has not DNFed at some point in one race or another.  (Even Devon Crosby-Helms DNFed at the 100K World Championship race in the Netherlands this year with a body trained like a thoroughobred!) And although I am by no means trying to compare myself to an elite in the field, the more races you do, the longer the distances, the less recovery time between, the more likely you are on race day to be faced with the decision of pulling yourself out when things just don’t feel right.  For every DNF on a race result page, there is usually a good underlying reason behind the letters that is not plainly visible, and I don’t think of any less of someone as an athlete for these three letters on their record, just as I won’t think anything less of myself if it happens to me in Texas. 

That being said, obviously I hope to walk (or rather hobble) away from the race having numbers, not letters next to my name on the results page.  I am as ready for the date as I am going to be and am ready to take whatever is thrown at me on that day, along with a much wanted and needed true running recovery period to follow!