Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Snoreasterane Double: Halloweeny 50K and Marine Corps Marathon Weekend

The weather for Halloweeny was dangerously close to being cursed again this year, with the event held just the day before the heavy rain fall of the hurricane was supposed to hit. But thank goodness we managed to skirt the storm this year because, as proud as I was of my last year first-and-only woman finish, I don’t know that I could bring myself to run another ultramarathon through a blizzard again. I didn’t really have time to put much effort into a costume this year, and didn’t even get a chance to run to Goodwill, so I decided to make my bib skirt that I had been wanting to make ever since I saw the idea from a girl out west somewhere when she appeared on the cover of Ultrarunning magazine wearing it. So after I showed up to the starting line, completely empty-handed since my brother’s friends had eaten the package of Oreos that I was assigned to bring to the race after I had gone to sleep the night before and made the fatal mistake of leaving the cookies on the kitchen counter for them to come inside to at 3am. After a few words and a couple more corny spooky Halloween jokes to go with the theme, the race started pretty suddenly and before I could even clear my Garmin.

We started off at the JFK 9.6ish mile mark and started out straight up a hill, which apparently I have forgotten the length and steepness of since my last running of it. Ugh, it seemed to go on forever. I had gone out at a conservative pace, but was still one of the front runners, with two other girls running right behind me with Steve. There were 5 of us that stuck together for a little bit. The one girl, the faster of the two, was the female winner of the Trail Dawg Triple Crown this year. The other girl was her friend, a fellow adventure racer I think. At the start of the run my legs felt a bit off, and I was pushing harder up the hills to keep up with them than I would have liked. I was getting a little frustrated that this wasn’t feeling easy for me. I thought I had finally recovered from the freakin UROC race!! But I knew the right thing to do was to drop back and try to settle into my own pace rather than forcing myself to keep up with someone else’s pace in frustration. So I let the other 4 pull ahead of me on the trail and tried to settle in. This was just a training run, afterall.

Before long we were on the technical rock garden section, where I tried to implement some of the strategies I had observed from the Pacers the weekend prior to this while on the HST. On the descents, they had long fluid strides that seemed to be planned ahead with foot placement and accelerated with the momentum of each stride. So I went with this strategy through the rock gardens and tried not to slow down much. It was hard work, but physically and mentally to continuously plan out every stride within fractions of a second and my ankle gave out several times, but I must have been moving faster than my pack ahead of me because I soon caught up to them after this section. Steve, the two girls and I entered the canal toe path together and stayed together on that section. We were running at 8:30 pace which is normally that “all day long” pace for me, but my legs still didn’t feel loosened up and the pace didn’t come as easily as I would have liked. We arrived at the next aid station together and started the steep climb up the Maryland Heights trail not far apart. This was a very steep power hiking section and today was crowded with tourists who were crowding most of the trail and often hard to get around. The two girls and myself stopped at one point to take a bathroom stop and Steve surged on ahead. So then it was just the three of us girls ascending the rest of the mountain. I have to say that this is a situation I have never found myself in during an ulta before. I don’t think I have run more than a few miles with a girl in an ultra, and even then it was only a single one. Surprise surprise we got lost temporarily at the top but quickly corrected our strayed path and began the mountain descent. This was especially tricky with all the people. We ran out to the scenic overlook out and back section on the way down and were surprised that there were now about 8 people in front of us, who we later realized had cut off part of the course. I and my newly found girl friends stuck together for the mountain descent, and it would have been more fun to hammer down this section if I hadn’t been having some ITBand issues. I actually liked these girls, which is somewhat of a surprise because girls can sometimes annoy me during long races, and we came into the 3rd aid station stop together. I was happy to see my mom there with my old shoes to change into, since the new ones were rubbing my foot the wrong way a bit since they were not broken in yet, and surprised and happy to see Auntie Ann. I changed my shoes, filled my water, got some food and continued back on the toe path back towards Harpers Ferry for that loop.
My popular hand-made bib skirt, photo courtesy of Auntie Ann.

Leaving that aid station I felt like a new woman. I don’t know if it was the change of shoes, the food, or even just seeing my mom and my aunt at the 18 mile mark, but as I set out down the tow path again I finally felt warmed up and ready to run! I picked up the pace here to about 8 min/mi pace and the other two girls fell back from me back at the aid station. When I got to the Harper’s Ferry bridge I did my best not to plow over the Asian tourists in the way on the narrow foot bridge and took off on the other side of it through historic Harpers Ferry, drawing more than a few stares from the tourists and even the costumed 1800s war actor people giving the history tours outside on the other side. I guess we must have been quite the spectacle running through here in full costume, myself in a skirt made from tattered race big numbers and orange and black feathers in my hair. I power hiked up the stone stairs to Jefferson rock like I was on a mission. And I was. I had a gremlin to catch (a girl that had passed us when we had gone astray on the MD heights section earlier). I ran up the rest of the stairs, up the hill through the cemetery, up a road and through another creepy looking gate before getting lost again. I couldn’t find where the trail picked up again. However, I did find the gremlin, who was also lost here. Soon enough we found where the trail picked back up after all the construction and hopped back on it here. Now I recognized this section from last year and knew where to go. The gremlin and I ran together for about a mile of two, until reaching the foot bridge again at the end of the loop, at which I snaked my way through tourists and hit the tow path hard on the other side and I lost her.

When I got back to the canal path I was feeling pretty good. I picked up the pace to 7:30s for a little while here, which was a bit of an effort that I still felt good with. Soon enough I saw Steve up ahead in the distance, who I could tell had slowed down quite a bit from before. He had probably put about a mile on us after the bathroom stop on MD Heights because we saw him headed to Harpers Ferry as we were still coming down the mountain before the aid station. He looked like he was feeling good then, but maybe not so good now. When I caught up to him I told him to stay on my heels, which he did for a couple hundred feet maybe, but then drifted back again.

So I was by myself again, just cruising down the C&O. I just took it all in..the rushing water to my right, the cool brisk air, the colorful crunchy leaves under my feet and the soft crunchy sound of them and the gravel with every stride…and now, finally, 20+ miles in, everything on the canal was just enjoyable. Anyone who has ever run the JFK knows that this is not always how things are on the C&O!

I will defeat ALL the boys someday...;-)

I came to the final aid station where my mom and my aunt were waiting for me to arrive. I stopped for a couple of minutes here to get a snack. I was pretty thrilled that my stomach was cooperating today and anytime I consider any feelings of hunger during an ultra to be a good sign for my stomach not shutting down as it tends to in races that end poorly. Then I set off again, back into the woods on the App trail and straight up the mountain I had descended earlier that morning. The rest of the run in I felt pretty good and was really enjoying myself. I worked on my footwork with the technical rocky stuff which was probably even better training on tired legs. I worked to perfect my power hike up the steepest sections and ran up anything I was able. I was probably having the time of my life on what I call the “mini-hurdle” stretch, and used all the hurdling skills I don’t have to hurdle logs down a hill. The last downhill rocky stretch into Gapland is pretty fun going that direction, and I reminded myself that this was a significant uphill stretch in JFK. I crossed the finish line (aka gapland pavilion) in 5:52 as first woman finisher and 2nd overall (just 1 place away from crossing an OA win off the bucket list-darn!)

Leaves are pretty. Not sure what I'm doing...

Marine Corps Marathon

I haven’t done a good ultra distance double-double weekend in over a month, since before UROC, so the stiff soreness of that greeted me on my stumble out of bed and to the bathroom the next morning made me question my abilities to cover a distance of 26.2 miles in the next couple of hours. Nonetheless, hurricane on the way, we hit the road for DC, with Alan being the “official” entrant and myself the bandit runner. Since I didn’t have the official MCM bib, I decided it was a good idea to wear my bib skirt again, in hopes people would assume the official bib was buried somewhere within the layers of the skirt.

After parking, Alan and I lost each other soon afterwards when I went searching for a nonexistent bathroom in the metro station. So I ended up meeting some perfect strangers and a nice security guard who gave me the “marathon special” free metro ride to the starting line. When I finally started the race, it was 17 minutes after the official start gun, and herd of people were still shuffling over the starting line. The first minute or so the legs were pretty stiff, but the energy levels and atmosphere of 35,000 people running a marathon through the city were enough to suppress most of the soreness with the first couple of miles.

The streets were crowded. Really crowded. It was hard to navigate through all the people to anyplace fast..until I discovered the median. In the beginning, the race started out down two lanes of a highway separated by a grass median, on which no one was choosing to run, so I jumped on the opportunity. Literally, I jumped up on the median and took off, dodging through highway signs and hurdling over abandoned garments of clothing. Every 10 seconds I would hear a “Nice skirt!” which I would continue to hear with increasing frequency for the entire duration of the next 3.5 hours.

I was actually feeling surprisingly good right now. I had not run a marathon road race in over a year, especially after running an ultra distance the day before so was not sure what to expect from my body, but I had ambitious hopes to run a 3:45. So I took off at first around 7:20 pace in hopes to catch up to the 3:45 pace group, until I actually did the calculations in my head and realized that wouldn’t happen until around mile 23 with running at this pace, which I knew I couldn’t and shouldn’t sustain for this long, so I reluctantly settled down to a comfortable 8:30 pace.

I could tell my legs were a bit tired from the previous day’s beathing, but aside from this, aerobically the pace felt effortless and even my stride felt comfortable and fluid so I stuck with it. The bigger issue was trying to navigate through the much slower moving people now surrounding me thanks to my late start. And the streets were absolutely packed. I had to really concentrate on not stepping on people’s heels infront of me. There were so many people that I was usually just skirting up the side of the crowd on a small trail or sidewalk so that I could continue my 8:30 pace consistently.

And I was able to settle into a consistent pace. According to my Garmin, every mile split for the next 15 miles were within 2 seconds of each other. I was just comfortable cruising, continuing to fly by people, the whole time hearing “Nice skirt!” as I passed by. The excitement of the crowd was a pretty cool experience and sure passing by every person around you gives you a little boost, but the downside to this is that I wasn’t really able to meet any friends to run with. After a while, running by myself while surrounded by screaming spectators in the midst of a sea of 35,000 runners, it became a paradoxically lonely race.
So with about 8-9 miles to go, either out of boredom or loneliness, I decided to pick up the pace a little and settled into around 8:10s. Meanwhile, everyone around me seemed to be becoming a little delusional. Not that people were running in a straight line before this time, but more and more people started running into me, stepping on each others feet, tripping over uneven curbs and sidewalks. And everything within the sea of runners got a lot quitter. All compliments of my bib skirt now seemed to becoming from spectators only and the runners I passed were breathing heavily. Within the crowd of runners itself, things were almost eerily silent and all I could hear was panting and observe  biomechanics breaking down in everyone in front of me. People working so hard to attain the goals they had been working hard at for weeks. It was pretty cool to be a part of it.

With less than 3 miles to go, I felt someone latch onto my heels and began following closely behind me. The pre-hurricane wind was pretty brutal at this point and we were running straight into it. I glanced behind me and saw it was a short girl, maybe about my age. The look on her face and rapid breathing indicated she was working very hard in the last stages of the race. “Stay on me. Ill take the wind and run us in the rest of the way.” She gave no audible response but crept up closer to my hip to get out of the wind, now giving me a pretty good blast. So I held our pace just where it was at until I felt her start to lose me an drop off about a mile later. I tried slowing down a little to see if she could catch me again, but I think she lost it by that point.
I sped up again, finished out the race, actually seeing someone from DRC on my way in. I intended to jump out of the race prior to the gated hill just before the finish line where the marines scream at you while you run up. But at that time I was bottlenecked into the crowd and couldn’t make it to the edge and into the spectators without tripping eight people, so I ran up the hill and across the finishing mat where I continued to be funneled along and a marine hung a finisher medal around my neck. They didn’t even look for the marine corps bib and when I tried to tell him that I wasn’t an official runner he made some comment about he’d let me keep it in exchange for my phone number, so I just smiled and ran off.

I had felt good during the race but my legs began to stiffen up within minutes after crossing the finish line and before long I had adopted the stiff legged gait pattern of the other finishers. I hoped that this wasn’t going to put me out for too long so I could do a couple harder runs this week.

And it didn’t. I took the next day off running for some light cross training, which was perfect timing in the midst of the hurricane. Tuesday the legs felt great again and I went out hungry again for a hard tempo and felt amazing. I hit the trail with Alan right after the tempo planning to get in a few recovery miles to check out the damage from the previous day’s hurricane. I finished with about 15 miles for the day and feeling like a million bucks. It was a huge confidence booster for JFK in 3 weeks and Hellgate just 3 weeks after that.

This weekend has traditionally been my peak mileage weekend before the taper period prior to JFK, but this year I do not anticipate racing JFK hard and  will probably sneak in a few more long runs in preparation for Hellgate so I don’t die in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So I will “train through” JFK, or at least take only a “mini taper” in hopes to get the maximum training benefit out of JFK and prepare for Hellgate! Hopefully this plan doesn’t backfire on me… well I do enjoy living life on the edge J

Monday, October 22, 2012

The road to recovery and through the Gates of Hellgate

Recovering from UROC was no jog through the park. Ok, well a rather slow and painful jog through the park. Things took much longer than anticipated. Rather neglecting the fact that this is the longest distance race I have run (in one running) to date, I majorly underestimated exactly how much it could and would take out of my legs. I had taken a couple of weeks off after Bandera completely from running, and then only remembered my injury rather than how I was feeling as I picked back up on training. So I guess I will have to admit that with JFK on the back of my mind and knowing that my fitness was not where I hoped it at this point, I probably rushed myself back into running too soon. I had also agreed to pace Josh Finger in for the Grindstone 100 mile that next Saturday and needed to confirm that I was good for running in 20-35 miles with a probable front runner for a slamming finish! So I went for my first run 4 days later on Wednesday evening at the Delaware Running Co weekly run. Unfortunately for me, only fast guys showed up on this particular weekly loop up to the Reservoir for a few loops and back. At this point the soreness in my legs with walking and stairs had faded, but my legs screamed in rebellion for the first couple miles of that run. Just burning aching stiffness everywhere. It was not pleasant. But a couple miles in the unpleasantness faded a bit and by the end of the 5 miles I was very happy to stop running, although my legs did feel much better and looser than when I started. Thursday I rode my bike and felt great that morning, then decided to try the legs for a run again in the evening, and felt slightly better but still pretty dead. Plus my ITB was bothering me quite a bit, but would loosen up further into the run, so with that, I decided that I would be good enough to pace Josh in for Grindstone, or for at least 20 miles of it.

Friday evening Alan and I made the drive down to the Blue Ridge Mountains once again in hopes to see the start of the race. I had talked him into accompanying me for the journey by reasoning that this would be a great opportunity to get trail volunteer hours for a Western States app! We had just made the drive back 5 days ago but it felt like much longer ago than that. I had been in touch with the MD from the medical team at who we would volunteer with the night of the race start. So we met up with Josh and his friend Matt, who was his training partner for the race and also running. I could tell that they were both really ready for this. They had both been down from PA a few times just to run parts of the course and had even  been attempting to acclimate themselves to running at night, starting many of their long runs at 6pm, just as the race would start. So at 6pm they were off, with Karl Meltzer and a few other guys taking the lead. They looped back after 1.5 miles and we got to see the leaders again, with Josh not too far behind. Then they went off into the night, Josh’s wife and matt’s wife went to eat someplace quick before going to meet them again at the next aid station. Alan and I went to get some pasta at the first pizza place in town we could find (and it’s in the middle of nowhere so it wasn’t easy!) then we went out to the aid station where we would be volunteering at around the 16 mile mark. It was around 8:30 when we got there and Josh had literally just passed through, so we missed him there. It was a few minutes before the herds of little bobbing head lamps started filing in from the darkness. It’s always a fun experience to help out at the aid stations for a 100 miler. The most medical attention anyone needed was a few hot spots and blisters to take care of, so I mostly just worked to figure out the contraptions on people’s camelbacks to fill them up and get them going again. I have to say that I really hope I do not smell as bad as most of the people that came through that aid station at that point, and if I do I am even more grateful for my crew to help me!! All in all it was a great experience, especially getting to shoot some with David Horton, a legend ultrarunner working with us at the aid station with a clipboard checking everyone in, who seemed to know everyone by face and by name without glancing at his sheet or their bibs.

After a few hours of volunteering we went back to the hotel for a few hours sleep before I would be up to pace Josh again. I woke up at 3AM to a text from Josh telling me he had dropped out. He was ok, nothing hurt, just was not feeling it tonight so had decided to call it at mile 33(ish). I was glad that he was ok and was just a little disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to run the course, until he told me that I should pace Matt, who did not have a pacer and who could use one. So we went on as planned, arriving to the mile 65 aid station around 6:30am and I started pacing Matt who came through just after sunrise. I was expecting a lot of hiking at this point in the race, so I was surprised at the pace we were moving at most of the time. If we weren’t power hiking up a rocky mountain, we were moving at a decent pace on the “flats” or hammering down some rocky descents. On the climbs, we were moving swiftly and my heart rate was up the entire time, and on the descents Matt would occasionally drop me, especially if it was really technical and I would have to catch him when it leveled out again. I thought back to how my legs felt on the rocky descents at UROC and I was astonished how well his legs could handle this stuff at this point. We talked a lot about running and racing and people crazier than us. Despite the technicality that was a bit out of my league on some sections, I was really enjoying this trail, the beautiful leaves, the climbs, the rocks, the roots the everything of this place. He told me the women’s CR was something like 23 hours held by Sandi Nypaver..hmmmmm, you know….Interesting, but no 100 milers for me yet!  “Have you ever heard of Hallgate?” Matt asked.
“Maybe..what is it?”  Then he went on the tell me about the crazy 100K starting at midnight held in the middle of December out on these trails by David Horton, the legend ultrarunner and endurance athlete who I had met at the aid station. It was part of the Virginia Beast Series races and considered to be one of the hardest ultras within the eastern region. Conditions on the trails at that time of year were usually pretty rough. Afterall, he told me, a couple of years ago people’s vision was severely impaired because their eyeballs had frozen a couple of years ago and they had to stop at the aid stations and wait by the fire to try and thaw them out. My initial thoughts were holy crap that race does sound crazy. Especially the staring at midnight part. But Alan would love it since he loves late night trail runs and usually is the one talking me into them ever since we went to the Midnight Love Run on the horseshoe trail starting at Jens house a couple of years ago. I was told Horton essentially handpicks the runners from the application based on previous races, but maybe I’d tell Alan to apply anyways..although the race would definitely kick his ass. Then, the more I fell in love with the trails out there, the more I considered applying myself…

After about 13 miles of pacing we met up with Josh and the wives at an aid station and Josh asked if I would be up for him pacing Matt starting at the next aid station for the last 13 miles. At this point my legs were definitely feeling it, even with our easy pace. Something had never really come back into them since UROC, so I was ok with calling it a day 7-8 miles later. And by those 7-8 miles my legs were pretty done. They just felt really drained and I was glad to hand over the pacing duties to Josh. We went back to the hotel to grab a quick shower and headed to the finish line to see Matt finish. He crossed the line in 20:55, with a 5th place overall finish, and which may be a new masters record for the course! So although it wasn’t my original pacing plan, I was happy with the short trip’s turn out, and Josh seemed to be satisfied with his decision to drop out since it just wasn’t his day, and went on the race Tussy Mountainback 50miler a few weeks later with a rocking 6:11 finishing time and 5th place overall.

After Grindstone I took a pretty low-key week as far as running because I knew it was what my body needed. The thought of losing fitness during a crucial time in preparation for JFK half killed my mental sanity at times, but I knew I would be pointlessly driving myself into the ground if I didn’t.  And I don’t know exactly what possessed me to do this, but when my crazy friend Dave Ploskonka sent me the early application for Hellgate this year, I applied immediately, and found out a few days later that I was actually accepted to run it! Well this was going to put a whole new spin on training this season… I was only running a few miles every other day and picked up on biking and swimming mileage for the week. I felt good when crosstraining, but something in my legs just felt like lead every time I ran so I always cut myself short. I went to New Orleans for a conference the following weekend and decide to give myself the time off from running completely for a few days, but even the following week my legs did not feel normal. Every time I thought I had had a half decent run, the next day I would feel like death running at 9 minute pace. Not good. It was now 3 weeks after UROC and I still had dead legs and I was actually getting genuinely concerned. It had never taken me this long to recover before! I was frustrated. I went out to French Creek trails with Steve to run with some of the Pacers, who I had not seen in a while the next weekend. They said there were plenty of options to cut the planning 3 hour run short, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to bail if needed. But I joined them for the whole 3 hours (including a couple stops, etc) , which amounted to about 16 miles of good hilly rocky trail. I like running with the Pacers because although I might be faster than most of them if it came down to a speedy road race, they continually kick my ass on the technical rocks, which forces me to bit the bullet and suck up my fear of falling flat on my face when handling rocky descents and traversing “rock gardens” to keep up with them. I am beginning to recognize technical rockiness as a significant weakness keeping me from being a true well-rounded ultrarunner, so have tried to convince myself to take the bruises and twisted ankles that will undoubtedly come with forcing me to pick up some speed on these sections of the trail. The only way I can improve is to bring my body through the motions and try to establish some type of gracefulness on these sections. Ok, we I at least hope that I can move faster than 25 minute pace on those sections!

The CafĂ© Gelato 10 miler was the next day, and I had really been up in the air about doing it. My legs still felt like death and I knew my time would be slow, so I almost didn’t want to show up to run it in front of the entire running community, most of whom know me as crazy ultrarunner girl who can run somewhat fast when she wants to. But the race was only $10 for students, and the sweet long sleeve DRC shirt you got was worth 4Xs that, so like a sucker I was in. At the start of the race I went out with some people I run with from Coach Fischer’s Tuesday night group, and I was comfortable, just chatting about this and that. I told them about my last race, my seemingly horrible recovery, and Hellgate, frozen eyeballs and all that was now quickly approaching. Yes, they continue to think I am completely insane J We were running at 7:50 pace and I was excited that this felt pretty comfortable for me right now, considering the 9 minute/mile death march I had been going at just a few days ago. And what was better for me was that I felt the pace was no longer forced, like it had been before, but my legs were moving naturally and smoothly again. My body was responding well today, but I knew today was not the day to push anything, so I just enjoyed myself out there on the smooth trail with good company and had fun. Eventually our little group split up, with Tara picking up the pace, myself picking up maybe a little bit, and everyone else falling behind a little. And despite me holding a consistent and comfortable pace without kicking in the end for a hard fast finish, it brought a small amount of happiness to my race to see that I could still some chick guys at the end who likely went out too hard J I finished in 1:17, and surprisingly won the $50 gift card to the restaurant that came with winning first in my age group, which is especially interesting and rather humorous as I finished in 1:12 last year in this race and got 3rd my age group hahah. Wherever, Ill take it!

I can be convinced to run 10+ miles for almost anything, including my new DRC shirt :-)

The week following the race about a month after UROC, the life finally seemed to come back into my legs and I was feeling pretty good on my attempted interval workout early in the week, pretty good on a progressive 20 mile run mid week, and still good for a shorter tempo run at 7 minute pace. I was able to get in lots of good quality running this past week with some higher mileage, and just in time for peak mileage week for JFK and the Halloweeny 50K and Marine Corps marathon back-to-back training run weekend! UROC may have put me out for a while, but I have since bounced back and am training happily again. And although I have come to accept that I am not going to run my PR at this year’s JFK, I am going to be happy and enjoy the experience of running on the woods of my own backyard with 1500 fellow crazy ultrarunning friends. There is next to nothing in this world that can be more awesome than that. As for Hellgate, well I really may be banking on my mental toughness to get me through that one ;-)