Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Kanawha (38 mile) 50K

Somehow I was talked into it. Last weekend on the group run, Ed had talked up this 50K in West Virginia that he was racing the following weekend and wanted some company for the journey. Ok, so he really only had to mention it a few times before I eventually talked myself into it. I checked out the race when I got home and I felt my heart rate increase just looking at the elevation profile. Holy crap—this was worse than the HAT run and there was no way I was in any kind of shape to run this race the way I wanted to. But still, I really wanted to do it. I hadn’t had a real race since March at the HAT run, and while I had had a decent race considering, it had left a bitter taste in my mouth. I knew the 50K would be a good supported training run for UROC with all the elevation, but more than anything, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do the distance. I hadn’t gone over 20 miles in any of my training runs the past few weeks as I built up my mileage, and at that distance I had felt like I was dead tired. And while I was certainly improving my fitttness and distance since coming back, it discouraged me a bit to think of how tired I was on a run that covered only 30% of the distance UROC would be. I needed to pull myself out of this rut and prove to myself that I could run an ultra distance again. I needed to run Kanawha.

Elevation profile breaks the race down into 5 “big” mountain climbs with several mini hills mixed in between.
So there I was, on a school bus at 6:30am on Saturday morning, headed out to the starting line of the point-to-point WV mountain trail race.  I really had no idea what to expect from myself, but my plan was to run conservatively at the beginning and see what I had left in me for the last 10 miles. I should have known that today would be an adventure though when the RD admitted that he and the pre race crew had found some of the course markings had been sabotaged the night before. They corrected what they could, but who knew how much had been done. I was about to find out. 

So when the starting gun went off (or malfunctioned) around 7:30, I stuck with that plan. I was running with Ed for the first mile or so, which started out on a road before meeting up with the single track. Sub-8s Ed informed us after the first mile and a half. The pace wasn’t hard, but not completely comfortable I admitted, and so I decided to drop it a bit while Ed kept it up. I saw him disappear at the trail head and thought I might not see him again this race. He was in better running condition than I was and he was a veteran ultra runner and good at pacing himself from what I gauged.
Two girls running together had started ahead of us on the road, one with a black visor and pink camelback, the other with a green shirt. They were pulling ahead quickly on the road, just behind fast pack of front running guys, and probably running just over 7 minute miles right now on the road.  If I had to judge by running form, I had told Ed, if anything went right today I would be seeing the green shirt again, although the pink camel back I was not sure of. Soon, a blond girl with two short pigtails passed rather quickly. The road wide open road at the beginning allowed me to see everyone ahead, so I knew I was the 4th place woman right now. I took note of this, but didn’t chase. I was running my own race today.
The road had started off relatively flat, but once we hit the single track, everything started going up. I was soon power walking up some switch backs just 30 minutes into the race. I was never any good at running up steep technical terrain and so decided now was not a good time to start learning. But apparently my power hike is pretty efficient, because in the next 5 minutes I had power hiked my way past a few other runners, including green shirt 3rd place girl as she was running up the same hill heaving for breath. I had a feeling I would not be seeing her again.
Even power hiking, the climbs were pretty exhausting. At the top of the climb, the trail took a plunge, and I thought I wasn’t able to go much faster down the mountain, as my running felt more like a controlled falling. My feet slammed into rocks, slid down the mud from the rain the night before, my ankles almost twisting and my quads getting pounded. I reminded myself to start incorporating technical downhill running into my training asap after this race. There was no doubt that these hills were going to take a toll over the next 30 miles.
After passing a few runners on the hills, I found myself running alone for a while. The trail dumped out at shallow creek and I followed the white flags over the large slick mud and moss covered rocks. Maybe it was because the sound of the running water suddenly reminded me that I had to pee and stopped concentrating or just because everything was so slick from the previous nights rain, on a landing to one of the slick rocks my foot slipped out from underneath me and I landed on my side in the stream, my hip and lateral knee taking the blow of the fall. ARGhhhhhh. The pain shot through the whole right side of my leg and hurt pretty freaking badly. Badly enough to make me lay there in the water for a few seconds before getting up again. When I got up, I knew it would be nothing more than a good couple of bruises but  it did force me to limp for a couple of minutes before pulling everything together to run again. Just as I was starting to run again two guys I passed on the hills passed me again. The next few miles we spent running together, passing each other back and forth on hills and certain segments. I would usually pass them on the hills and single track while they passed me again every time the trail opened up for a while or came out on a gravel road. A few miles in, the trail opened up and we were running on gravel road for 2-3 miles. The guy running beside me complained about too much road in the race so far, but I was secretly grateful for a break from the technicality of the course and welcomed the smooth rolling gravel road as a chance to pick up my pace a bit and not have tothink about the wet rocks, roots and mud beneath my feet.
I was carrying only my amphipod handheld, but found that the aid stations were perfectly spaced for me. Each time I came to one, I was just finishing the last of what was in my water bottle and ready for a refill. I didn’t have a crew, so naturally had to spend more time at the aid stations to fill up than usual, but I was still getting in and out of them pretty quickly. I was drinking a bit of Gatorade for calories, but only ate a honey waffle snack and some energy beans as I wasn’t too hungry. 

Tunnel near the beginning of the race.
I really liked the mountainous single track. It reminded me a little of the Appalachain trail, except probably less rocky and with that, more muddy, and the random openings into farms and fields reminded me of running in England last summer, with some barbed wire and live stock thrown in there. A lot of the trail went through private property, so there were barbed wire and electric fences more than occasionally throughout the trail that you had to stop and carefully climb over a ladder to cross.
It was about 2.5 hours in and I was running solo again when I came to one particular barbed wire fence ladder that had a big red hand-made sign staked up next to it reading: Warning: Bull loose in field. Bull??? Whatttt????!! And then I saw where the single track let out into a field, going directly up a steep hill into tall grasses. I hesitated a bit, looking around the open field, preparing myself for the charging beast to come barreling down the hill any second. I saw another racer walking up the hill in the distance, and I hurried to catch him. “You’re going to take the hit from this loose bull when he comes, right?” I said in my sweetest tomne.
“Hahahah,” he panted. “Well I think he’ll go for the slowest moving creature, so seeing as you’re faster than I am right now, I guess so.” I laughed to as I passed him, but really I hoped he was right. I passed him quickly and followed the spray painted yellow and while blazes of the trail alongside the fence. A minute later, I came to the end of the corner of the barbed wire fence and saw where the blazed continued ahead and turned on the road. On the other side of the barbed wire fence. I fence was tall, with 6-7 strings of barbed wire and no ladder to climb over. I was trapped in on the wrong side of the fence with the bull. I looked behind me but my fellow human racer was no where to be seen. AGHHHHHH!!! I literally screamed as I thought I saw what had to be the bull in the distance trotting my way. So, my choices were bull horn through the gut, or barbed wire slicing through my skin. I chose the later. I pushed down one part of the wire between the barb s with my hand the most I could, then carefully and swiftly as I could manage, ducked and pulled my legs through the small hole. I felt the sting of the wire on the inside of my thigh and back of my shoulder as I stumbled down into the trench on the other side of the hill. No doubt this race was going to be interesting. I was quickly back on track and running down the roads following with white flags again, more than relieved I had once again escaped a dangerous encounter with wildlife in an ultra. And in that moment I again realized how much I missed the thrill of ultra running J

I really had no idea what mile I was at in the race. Online, I had seen people had reported that the entire race was really clocked at 33 miles on accurate Garmins. Sometimes I would see a mile marker on the trail and since we were running the trail from end to the start at the Boy scout camp, each mile marker really told you how many more miles you had left to go. I was keeping track of race time on my watch, but rarely looked at it, as there really was no point. The trails kept climbing and then plunging again and started taking their toll on my unaccustomed legs. When I started feeling onset of that old familiar sore achiness in my legs I glanced down at my watch. Just over 3 hours. I still had at least 2 more hours to go and probably more considering the mountains at the end I had left to climb. Uh oh. I tried not to let it discourage me, and just held only a reasonably comfortable pace, popping a caffeine gel, which I took more in hopes of the caffeine suppression of pain than I did for the calories. It seemed to help a bit.
The trail opened up to another gravel road, which took a very steep drop for probably more than a mile. I like running downhill, but this drop was so steep it hurt. I passed several racers on this segment and I could tell they were hurting by the way they carefully edged their way down, likely in attempt to nurse achy legs from all the previous hills. But experience had taught me that handling steep hills in this way really didn’t help much in reality, so I just bit my lip and hammered down in the best controlled fall that I could. At times I could feel my legs wobbling a little beneath me, as they were beginning to grow unsteady from fatigue. And although I controlled it the best I could, my feet slammed into the ground and my toes jammed up against the front of my shoes with every step. The thought of what my toe nails were going to look like after this race made me smile. I couldn’t wait to lose my first toe nail of the season!
And then I saw the 2nd place blonde girl with pigtails ahead who must have drastically dropped pace. It took me less than a minute to catch her after I saw her a distance ahead. As I blew by her, I realized my patience had paid off. I didn’t have to try to catch anyone. I was running my own race, my own pace, and they were coming to me. Plus I much liked being the chaser rather than the chasee.
At the bottom of the steep hill, the road split. There were a couple of while flags going straight so I kept running this way. But soon, I stopped seeing blazes or white flags on the road and there was no visible trail head or other turn indicated. There was a guy following me a ways in the distance and I stopped and turned to him, as I was unsettled when I hadn’t seen flags for more than a quarter mile. He had no idea if we were going the right way. Then another runner appeared behind him after a minute of debating. He didn’t know either but there was no where else to go. Then I saw some of the faster guys that had been leading the race at the very beginning running  back or way. Crap. Wrong way. Apparently this was the sabotage from last night that the RD had been talking about this morning. A car was driving back with them to reset the flag markers, which were supposed to indicate a sharp right at the bottom of the gravel hill. When I got back to the turn, the pigtail girl was just reaching the bottom. I told her which way to turn and then quickly put her behind me again. I made sure to act on my second pass quickly, something I’ve learned from reading the race reports and strategies of the elites, as not to give her the confidence that she might be able to chase me. Plus when you are dead tired and feel like crap at that point in the race, nothing makes you feel worse than one of your fellow competitors blowing by you looking great.  She made no attempt.
When the front pack guys who made the wrong turn caught up with me, Ed was in the pack. It was about that point in the race when people were getting tired, and you could tell that they were a little ticked about going off course for over a mile. I guess I was lucky in that I didn’t get quite as far as they did. I was pretty glad to see Ed though, and thought we might even stick together to finish the race. But apparently that feeling wasn’t mutual as later he told me that all he wanted to do was beat me. With Ed was a young guy with dreadlocks from WVU who we had met on the bus ride to the starting line that morning and another guy. They were moving at a pretty decent pace but I thought I might be able to keep up with them. Ed took off soon after at a pace that I wasn’t trying to keep up with. I could tell he was feeling good and I was happy he was having a good race he deserved. I was feeling good, but not that good, so I ended up landing myself behind dreadlocks guy for a while.
Dreadlocks guy was one of those guys who treats the ultra like a 5K and guns it from the start. I remember seeing him in the far distance on the first mile of open road, probably running 6 minute miles. Now, I could tell he was draining, spiraling downwards, and fast. He was putting in a lot of effort to keep our pace, even though we probably still had 10 miles to go. He would dramatically drop pace on any type of incline, but when I tried to pass him on the side of the trail, he would move over and cut me off. I thought this was just clumsiness at first, until I told him I was coming to his left the third time it happened and he deliberately rammed me into a tree to block me from going by. “Just hold on a second” he panted. Who the hell was this guy?? And ouch that tree kind of hurt. Then I quickly put it together and realized that this guy not only despised being passed, but had a phobia of being chicked. Which also made him the most fun type of guy to chickJ
Although obnoxious dreadlock guy refused to let me pass on the trail, soon the trail opened up into a grassy field where I finally made my move. Only he sped up and sprinted ahead. Ughhh are you kidding me… Oh well, now this is just going to be a fun game for the rest of the race. He might be running faster right now, but I could tell I was feeling 100 times better than he was keeping that pace, so I just smirked inside my head, set myself on cruise control and waited for his blow-up. He blew ahead of me a little ways after that, but I didn’t chase. However, I now couldn’t care less about where the first place female was or how far ahead she was. All I knew was that dreadlock guy was not beating me. And I decided if it came down to it, I would push myself till I puked to make sure it didn’t happen.
When I came to the next aid station I filled my water and blew through pretty fast. I decided to take one of my double caffeine gels for a little kick. Dreadlock guy was doubled over heaving on one of the water tables having someone pour water all over his shirtless body. He also wasn’t carrying any type of hydration, which should have been the neon warning sign of his stupidity. When he saw me leave that aid station as quickly as I had entered, he jumped up and chased me down the road. Are you serious?? Next we came to farm, with the white flags of the course indicating to go through the people’s front yard. The family was sitting outside and the mother waved and smiled. The flags led right up to a horse fence with a locked latched gate and two ponies, necks arched over the gate like they wanted to be petted, staring right at us. Two little 8yo girls pointed to the fence. “Through there!” Again, are you serious?? So I unlatched the gate, put my hands on the horses necks and giving them a good pet, while making sure they didn’t escape behind me, then carefully inched my way around them. I had just gotten around them when dreadlock guy called from behind me to wait. I thought he might actually be in serious danger and my conscious might be annoyingly heavy if I let this go, so I stopped and waited for him, only to have him come blowing by me again. He didn’t need help. He just didn’t want me to be ahead of him. Ugghhhhh this could be a longggg 9 miles if this kept up.

But it didn’t. Somehow we caught up with Ed and another runner again in the next mile or so on one of the last big mountain climbs. The guys were holding a pretty good pace, but when we got to the mountain, dreadlock guy (now leading the way, of course) started treating the climb like a jog through the park. I took the opportunity to efficiently power hike right up past him running up the mountainous single track when he was too gassed to do anything about it. It felt great. It was a pretty long climb so I kept pushing the power hike. Although not running, this was hard work. I put in some extra effort in my attempt to drop dreadlock once and for all. I thought (and hoped) Ed had taken my lead and was right behind me. But at the top of the mountain I realized no one was in sight or earshot at all, so I started hammering down the next decent, once again solo.
Then I saw the first place female. I hadn’t thought that I would see her, and I was still basking in some glory of finally dropping dreadlocks, but there she was, carefully and painfully toeing her way down the mountain. Yesssss! I caught her almost as soon as I saw her and blew by her quickly and almost effortlessly. She was nice and yelled some words of encouragement to me as I passed, and I replied something in return although I cant remember the exact dialogue. She was nice.
And then I was in first. First place woman. Winning the race!!! I hadn’t really imagined myself in this position again any time soon and I hadn’t been in this position in a very long time, but man it felt good right now. I could still run this distance. I could still do well in a race.  I was flying high. Of course, I was the one being chased now and I kept up my pace to put as much distance between us as I could, but I knew that by the way I was feeling and they way they looked, there was no chance of them catching up unless something went horribly wrong.
But I was feeling good and in no real danger of blowing up. Although these mountains were killing me right now. Just as soon as I passed the girl on the decent, I found myself climbing into a wall again. A steep muddy rocky wall. I didn’t want to right now, but I was forced to power hike up some pitches of the climb. I probably would have walked up these on fresh legs to be honest. But I wanted that win. I threw in everything I had on those climbs, pushing my legs, clawing at mud and rocks, anything to get myself up and to the next white flag leading the way. The climbs were so steep at part and my face so close to the vertical mountain infront of me that I could smell the dirt under my nose. When I looked down at my legs they were streaked with mud and dirt and blood. My singlet and shorts were completely soaked and sticking to my body I could taste the strong staltiness around my lips on my tongue. It looked, smelled and tasted like a victory to meJ
Then I came to the last aid station. About 3.5 miles to go, one of the ladies at the station informed me. Perfect—Ill be finished in 30 minutes or less!  I took off from the aid station, barely stopping for water. I was tired, but convinced myself to keep the pace. I pushed hard for another 30 minutes, following the blazes on the trees and white flags, weaving in and out of single track, climbing and descending…until I tore around a corner and came out into an opening…and then, dejavue. I had been there before. I was almost certain. I almost stopped dead in my tracks, but what was I going to do? I cheched in front and behind me and white flags the whole way. I convinced myself it just looked very similar and ran on. About 3 minutes later the trail led on an opening. And there was that last aid station. Again.
I felt my heart sink. Everything inside me sank. NOOOOOOOO!!!!! How could I be there right now? Again? I had just been there! I must have taken a wrong turn somehow and doubled back on the course, that was supposed to be point-to-point. But how?? I had been following flags the entire time. Had this been part of the pre-race sabotage? I checked my watch. Almost 30 minutes lost with my extra loop since I came into the aid station the last time. I asked the volunteers if they were sure that was the correct way to go. They were. I asked if any other women had run through here. They had.
Ughhhhh. And there went my race. Another runner soon came into the aid station. He was one of the guys I was running with earlier. I decided to stick with him so I wouldn’t get lost again and just jog it into the finish. The wrong turn had disheartened me a bit, but I tried to keep a positive attitude. Afterall, this was a training run and the extra mileage would be good for 100K training. Not to mention give me the assurance that I can run the distance, which was the entire point of signing up for this race!
We found were I made the wrong turn, as I carefully scrutinized every white flag and possible other way to go on the way in. There was a split in the trail, with an initial blaze indicating to turn left, which I went with,  but if you looked carefully, there was a while flag hanging in a tree in the distance to the right. Same trail, same white flags..ughh. Soon after another runner caught up to us from behind. Ed! I hadn’t really been wanting to run as slow as we were, but I didn’t feel like running by myself anymore in my disheartened and now somewhat tired state. Ed and I set the perfect jog-in pace and just took it easy into the finish, but laughing and talking and taking our minds off the pain our bodies were in. Although I had somehow managed to suppress the seemingly faint feelings of discomfort when I knew I was winning the race, after the second time at the last aid station every small pain and discomfort seemed to intensify. My feet ached pretty badly (definitely loosing toe nails though which was kind of exciting, I thought), the external rotator muscles deep in my buttock felt like they were spasming with tightness, my SI joints ached, and my quads were screaming with every foot strike. Going on mile 38 and this is not what they signed up for. But the company did help somewhat, so I was grateful for that.
When we approached the finish line coming out of the woods and rounding the lake, I realized I had never before finished a race with anyone. At least not one I wasn’t pacing for. It was fun. And I was happy. Not just for the finish line, but just happy to be back out in the woods again, healthy and able to run all day. And that makes me happy J And when I crossed the finish line they announced I was the third woman, and the pink camelback girl and blonde pigtail girl hurried over to me and exclaimed “You were hauling ass! Where did you get lost?!” The frustration of getting lost had completely diminished now and I felt a little pride at their astonishment. I am back. And I am going to be ready for UROC in just a couple of months.
West Virginia road trip!

 Remnants of a post-race meal. Sushi..yummm.

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