Monday, March 20, 2017

Aurora Health Care Two Rivers 10-Mile Run - Race Report

It was o'dark thirty when five of my bestest running friends converged on my house for the long drive to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, so that we could take part in the Two Rivers 10-Mile Run. I was excited to finally have a chance to do this race as it had been on my radar for some years but the timing had never worked out. This year, though, it seemed to fall into place perfectly on my running calendar and I was quick to take advantage of that.

After an uneventful but slightly groggy drive we landed at Two Rivers High School, where the event was being staged. A lovely venue for the race, there was plenty of room to hang out inside the building, a fair number of bathrooms, and the cafeteria was large enough to handle packet pickup and some last-minute clothing adjustments and bib pinnings without feeling like you were bumping elbows with the person next to you. In fact, the high school was probably large enough to accommodate a decent length warm-up run inside the building if one were so inclined. (Needless to say, I was not so inclined.)

We had perfect weather on the slate for yesterday's run: 30 degrees at the start, mostly cloudy, and only a whisper of a breeze. Lining up at the start I was already regretting my choice of attire, which included a pair of tights and a thin merino-wool long-sleeved top under a light shell. With the humidity in the 90-percent range (and me not liking cold, damp conditions), I dressed for being cold. As it turned out, I was indeed a bit overdressed, but nothing that made me absolutely miserable.

As the gun went off, five of our little group started out together. Our lone speedster had lined up a bit further ahead of us, which was as it should be. Starting out with the others, though, was great fun. It's nice to have people to talk to, or just listen to, to feel a sense of belonging. I run so many of my runs solo that being a part of a group is a rare treat, and something I've really come to look forward to.

As with runners everywhere, we started out a tad too fast. I don't think anyone in the group had a solid time goal of what we wanted to accomplish in this event, but fast is fast and you know it when you feel it.

The group I was running with usually does a 2:30/:30 run/walk, but yesterday they decided to run the first few miles through before going to the run/walk strategy. While I have always been a huge fan of the run/walk, since starting my running streak I've stuck more to pure running. The more I have run, the more efficient I have become and it really isn't as hard for me as it once was. Couple that with better overall recovery from running, and I have all but abandoned the run/walk. That's not to say I would never do it, because I would in a heartbeat if I thought it would help me on any given day, but for yesterday I just thought I would run with them until they started their intervals. Then I would continue on and just see how things felt since I was not running with a watch.

So the first few miles would have remained non-noteworthy, filled no doubt with some laughs and good conversation and a solid attempt to not go out too fast, if it had not been for that one person who joined our little group. Now, I am not one to complain about others, and mostly I adhere to the policy of if you have nothing nice to say, don't say it.  However, yesterday's encounter with the It's-All-About-Me Runner almost sent me over the edge. I won't go into details, but I am taking it as a personal lesson. If I decide in the future to join a group of strangers on a run, I'd better be prepared to ask some questions and find out something about them, instead of just talking about everything I've accomplished up to that point in my life. Whew! Anyway, by Mile 3, I had passed her and life moved on. Back to the race...

So, apparently I was a little confused as to where this race actually ran. If I had looked at the course map ahead of time, then I would have realized that the route did not run along Lake Michigan the entire way - like I had pictured in my head for the past few years. (Not sure why I thought that, other than the town of Manitowoc is about five miles south of Two Rivers along Lake Michigan and I had just assumed this race took us to Manitowoc and back. Duh.)

While we did see the lake for a brief spell around Mile 4, the rest of the time was spent wending our way along the country roads near Point Beach State Forest and Point Beach Ridges State Natural Area. Although different from what I had anticipated, the race really did not disappoint. Except for the first mile and a half or so, the entire course was pretty and fairly well protected with large pine trees all around. The "protected" part is important, because while we had fantastic weather, I suspect that is not always the case. I dunno, something about mid-March and Northeast Wisconsin has me thinking that anything might be possible weather-wise at this event.

Around Mile 3 or so, the run/walkers in my group started their thing, and I decided to try my luck continuing to run. One friend decided to run with me and see what happened, which turned out to be great. It was nice having someone to talk to, and I suspect I was a bit better at keeping up the pace with her there with me.

On the whole, I felt very good for much of the run. On a scale between conversational and gasping, my breathing stayed somewhere in between the whole time. There were water stations with water and Gatorade every two miles, and I just focused on getting from one to the next and not much else. I tried to keep my water station stops to a minimum, lingering just long enough to grab a drink, walk through the water station, thank the volunteers, and then keep going once I'd reached the garbage can at the end.

Around Mile 5 I noticed my legs starting to feel a bit heavy, but I put that down to the faster pace than I was used to. Although, in retrospect, maybe it had something to do with only drinking water up to that point. I am not sure. I did take a Gu at the Mile 6 water station, for what it was worth. I don't know if it helped or not, but I tried to convince myself that it did. The good news is that the heaviness didn't really impact my pace too much. I seemed able to keep on trucking.

Around Mile 7, I started feeling ready to be done. I don't know how much of that was physical or mental, because it was around that time that we passed by the turn towards the finish. Before making that turn, we apparently had to do a little mile-and-a-half or so out-and-back section. It's always disappointing, I find, when I have to go away from a finish line late in a race.

Soon after passing our would-be turn, we passed through what would eventually be the Mile 8 aid station. I didn't want to stop, though, until after reaching the turnaround on our out-and-back, when it would really be Mile 8. It's good to have something to look forward to.

Around this time, my running friend said she thought she would go to her run/walk interval, so I pressed ahead a bit thinking she was going to start taking her walk breaks. Over the next mile, though, I continued to hear her footsteps behind me and I grew dubious that she was actually ever walking, but I decided not to look back. At the turnaround, I saw that she was indeed right behind me, but I didn't question it too much at that point. I was too distracted by how heartened I was to see the annoying lady from the first few miles a short ways behind me (#sorrynotsorry) and surprised and happy at the same time to see my other friends not that far behind her. (Not Schadenfreude happy this time, but truly happy. There is a difference.)

By the time I got to the Mile 8 aid station, I was ready for some Gatorade and pleased to see it was purple - my favorite flavor. It was also around here that I concluded that I wasn't going to lose my other running friend, because she had decided she wasn't actually going to walk after all. As we fell into step to run together again, I was actually relieved. Running alone had felt a lot harder than it did with her there. The next mile and a half passed by relatively quickly.

Right around Mile 9, we had a bit of a hill to climb, one we had come down in the first couple miles of the race and one that neither of us could remember as being that significant on the way out. After the hill, I was definitely ready to be done, so when my running partner started picking up the pace with a half mile to go my brain said, "Hell yeah!" Sadly, my body said, "Whaaaaa!?" Although I tried valiantly to put on the speed, my legs didn't cooperate. They were done. I still ran in to the finish, but I ended up being a good 30 seconds behind my friend crossing the line.

That's okay, though, because finishing in 1:33:35, I was surprised to learn I was third place in my age group, something that I have seldom accomplished.

After the race, food was set up in the high school cafeteria for runners to enjoy. There was chili and ham and turkey Subway sandwiches. For us vegetarians, there were cut-up bagels, peanut butter, cream cheese, bananas, oranges, and chocolate chip cookies, as well as chocolate milk, water, and Gatorade. Awards were given out at around 10:05 a.m. (after an 8 a.m. start) with first place age group winners receiving a trophy and second and third place finishers getting medals. Massage therapists were also on hand to rub away any aches and pains.

So, some final thoughts on this event - and this day.

- This was a nice race. I think the folks putting on the event do a very nice job with it. It seems like it must attract a lot of faster runners, given the times I was hearing for the winners. But with the mostly flat course, that makes sense. 

- Weather-wise, we got lucky. There's nothing else to say about that. It's bound to happen sometimes.

- My average pace ended up being 9:21/mile. This is funny because the only other race I have done this year was a 5K in January where my average pace was 9:18/mile. Curious.

- Despite my friends doing their run/walk strategy from Mile 3 on, they finished only about two-and-a-half minutes behind me. Just another testament to the fact that the run/walk doesn't really compromise one's race performance.

- I really feel excited about racing again. It's been a while since I really felt this way. Running a bunch of longer distances last year - 50K and higher - I never felt like I was racing. I mean, I cannot "race" a 50K, I can only try to survive it. At least at this point. For the first time in a long time I feel I can actually try to strategize my approach to an event, test it out, and then see how it goes. That's kind of fun. Anyway, next up - a half marathon.

So, that's my race report. Today I meant to go out and run a mile and walk two, but then things felt pretty good actually and I ended up running a slow three miles. The weather is gorgeous, though, with sunny skies and temperatures in the high 40s. It was nice just to get out there and enjoy the day.

Happy running!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

It's Pi Day!

Today's run consisted of what I like to call a half-baked idea to celebrate National Pi Day - March 14.  With a couple of co-conspirators by way of running friends, the Slice O' Pi Run was born.

At 9:30 this morning, I met up with my friends Ann and Paul at a local Perkins restaurant. As Ann was shooting for π-squared, she already had 6.28 miles in by the time I arrived. Setting out at a jaunty pace, we covered a 3.14-mile course that was roughly shaped like a slice of pie.  I wouldn't say it was the best run for me. It was cold yet again with wind chills hovering around 0 degrees and sketchy footing from those who did not feel compelled to shovel after yesterday's snowfall. But, we did it, and once done we indulged in a real slice of pie and coffee at Perkins.

I can't say I remember the last time I actually ate at a Perkins, so this was kind of a novel thing for me. I ordered the Chocolate French Silk Pie, and it was definitely decadent. Ann and I were trying to figure out if this had fewer or more calories than the typical dark chocolate mocha we both have a tendency to order after group runs. While we didn't come up with a definitive answer on that one, my guess is the pie was a bit more caloric. Maybe I should have run π-squared, too.

Having Pi Day fall during this week was actually fairly fortuitous for me, as I had previously decided to dedicate my entire week to the noble three-mile run. Actually, I need a down week after several weeks running calendar's built-in weekly mileage tracker (in graph format) made me realize that.

Since I have yet to have a day in my now 111-day running streak where I dip below three miles, a down week for me looks like this:
3 3 3 3 3 3 3

So, you can see how 3.14 isn't much of a stretch.

There is one thing standing in the way of me having a 21-mile week this week, though, and that is my 10-mile event taking place this next Sunday. Since I log my miles from Monday to Sunday, 10 miles on Sunday means that I'll still have 28 miles for the week, even if every other day is a three-miler. Huh. So, I am playing with the idea of trying out a mini-taper. To accomplish that, leading into the race I would plan to run only two miles on Friday (perhaps then walking one mile) and running one mile on Saturday (perhaps walking two miles). Then at least I could claim I only ran 25 miles this week. I like this idea in principle, but I'm not sure yet if I'll follow through. One thing is clear, though, it is time to do a bit of a rest, so one way or another I'll work that in.

So, that's my homage to Pi Day ... a 3.14-mile run followed by a slice of pie. Oh, but then there is that one other thing. I felt so bad that my family might be left out of these Pi Day shenanigans that I went ahead and baked an apple pie.

Do you like how I made that all casual sounding? Yeah, this is probably the second or third pie I have ever baked in my life, so its creation came with much strewn flour, gnashing of teeth, and referencing of about six different websites. But, it got done. The best part was picking up my daughter from school and having her tell me all about how it was Pi Day and how it would be funny to bake a pie that had the pi symbol on it. Uh-huh. When we got home and I had her look at the finished product, her response was simply, "Great minds think alike." Yes, I guess they do.

Happy Pi Day!

Friday, March 10, 2017

A small celebration of 12 miles in the cold

So, as far as the weather was concerned, today's 12-mile run was exactly like last week's 12-mile run. Lucky me. After a week of mild albeit windy days, the temperature landed at about 15 degrees with a wind chill at about 3 degrees. Huh. Well, at least it wasn't below zero!

Setting out today, I fancied myself rather clever in my planning. Instead of running with the wind to my back for the first half only to circle around to a headwind for the last six miles like I did last week, today I decided it might be smarter to actually run into the wind on the way out and then have a tailwind on the way back. I know, sometimes I'm smart like that. As it turns out, even though the wind did skip around a bit on me, this was the better way to go. And, the bonus of running into the wind was that I knew within a couple of miles that I had dressed inappropriately for the weather.

How is that possible, you ask? After all, you might remind me, today's weather was just like last week's weather. Well, let me explain. Last week I was dressed all but perfectly for the weather conditions, with the lone exception of my arms when I headed into the wind. That tiny bit of corporal real estate had been a bit chilled. Being the aforementioned clever person that I am, this week I decided to adjust for that. So, I added arm warmers. Brilliant, right? Yes. But, then, because that seemed too easy, I proceeded to add a hoodie, another pair of gloves under the other gloves I had worn, and a vest. Apparently, I was under the impression that if something's worth doing, it's worth overdoing. Yeah, I was a bit warm. On a positive note, my arms were fine.

Anyway, in the end it felt good to get this run done. I had been skeptical of adding another 12-miler a week after my last one, but it worked out. To adjust for wind direction, I parked at a local library, ran six miles into the wind to a friend's house, and then we ran back to my car together. That second six miles passed by much more quickly than my first six miles. Maybe it was having someone to talk to - or maybe it was the wind at our backs. You can be the judge, but my money's on the conversation. In any event, I was happy to get back to my car and then reward myself with some coffee and a muffin from a conveniently located coffee shop a block from the library.  

Happy Friday!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Change is in the air

Today is the first day in my now 104-day running streak that I am actually disappointed after a run. I am not referring to being a little disappointed. I mean, I experienced that queasy, greasy feeling of deep disappointment in my gut, and I couldn't shake it for much of the day. I am sure there was no real need to feel that way, but I couldn't seem to help myself.

Throughout this experiment, I have had overwhelmingly good runs. Mostly, I put that down to a willingness to go slow when necessary, as well as knowing that if I do have a less-than-stellar day I only have to wait about 24 hours before getting a chance to redeem myself.

Today was different somehow and I don't know exactly why. I realize that I'm a bit tired from a couple of build-up weeks. In fact, thinking about it, I had something similar happen about a month ago. A week of simple three-milers snapped me out of that rut, so maybe that's what I need to be doing this week. The problem is that I really wanted this to be one more week of higher mileage - not more, just maintaining last week's mileage - before starting my slow descent towards my first half marathon race day in a few weeks.

In any event, when I got to the treadmill this morning, despite feeling awake and ready to do something, I just kind of locked up. Physically, my body wasn't too enthused, and mentally I was already upstairs drinking my coffee. I had checked out. If I had a bit more flexibility in my day - or, more accurately, if I were willing to be more flexible - I would have just gotten off the treadmill and determined to try again later. After all, 5:45 a.m. is a tough hour to commit to anything anyway. And, I've noticed that giving myself even 30 hours of recovery (versus 24 hours) can sometimes make a big difference.

But, that's not what I did. Instead, I started out at my easy run pace hoping that I might perk up. I started upping my pace each quarter mile, hoping to capture some of the magic I had experienced with this same workout just the week before. Didn't happen. My body and mind were just not buying it.

So, after completing my one mile of running (technically what would be required to continue a running streak), I dropped my pace and raised the incline until I ended up at a doable 3.2 mph walk at 12-percent incline.  And that was hard. Both physically and mentally.

Having started walking, I decided to just fill in the rest of my normal easy pace run time with that walk, and by the time I was done I was dripping sweat and my breathing was definitely showing me I had a workout in. (And then, seeing as I was at 2.7 miles, of course I felt compelled to run out the remainder of my typical three miles. Maybe I am a bit OCD after all.)

So, really....that's not a bad workout. I KNOW that. But, while I did technically move for three miles, I am somehow disappointed with myself that half of that was spent walking. Even if it was at a hefty incline. And even if incline walking was something that was in my original training plan way back when anyhow.

So, what's the deal? Why the disappointment, when really if it were anyone else I would be applauding their adaptability and reminding them that with big hill-hiking type trail runs in the not-so-distant future incline walking on the treadmill should be part of the routine anyway.

What am I afraid of?

The answer is inconsistency. Because as crazy as this streak running sounds, there has been a kind of magic wrapped around the whole thing. I have not been plagued by injuries, and the few niggling issues I have had have dissipated within a day or two of cropping up. I have been in a happier place mentally for doing this daily exercise as well. And, doing the same things day in and day out, there has been no decision-making. No question of what I am doing, which also means no question of what I am not doing.

Being inconsistent, even to such a small degree, feels a lot like gently touching my big toe to a very slippery slope, one that could lead to somewhere I don't want to be. After all, it wasn't too long ago that I would intend to take one day off from running only to have it morph into two days off ... or three ... or five. I felt like I was constantly starting over, whereas now I feel I am finally in a place where I am building off of something, and I don't want to lose that.

Hmm, I wonder if that means that I have completed a successful base building phase of training. I have never done that before, so I am not exactly sure what that would feel like. However, if I had to guess, I would think it would be exactly that - feeling like I had gotten to a place from which I could build and do more.

Well, then maybe it's time to reconsider what running looks like for me. Maybe today's nod towards inconsistency isn't meant to launch me down that slippery slope after all. In fact, maybe it just means I am ready for something more, ready to change things up a bit and start some more specified race training. Interesting. All of the sudden, things don't look so disappointing after all.

Monday, February 27, 2017

When the answer is always "run more," what's the question?

On Thanksgiving Day 2016, I started a 39-day challenge for myself. I wanted to see if I could run three miles a day every day until January 1, 2017. Why? Mostly because I was burned out from training for and running long distance events. I liked the idea of having an excuse to run short, and somehow running every day made those short distances more I wasn't really throwing the towel in on running, just making it challenging in a different way. Also, as someone who always seems to have major injury cycles with my run training, I just wanted to try something different, something I decided to run more.

On the surface, this whole idea seemed ludicrous, and I was fairly certain I would put myself out of commission soon enough with such shenanigans. However, on the other hand, there was enough affirmation from others who had tried this (and even my chiropractor and PT person) that I had this niggling suspicion in the back of my mind that this may not be as crazy of an idea as it sounded.

So, I tried it. And succeeded. Although the first couple of weeks were a bit rough (after all, just because my mind was made up didn't mean my body was convinced), I persevered and managed to hobble through the rocky patches - those first couple of weeks when my body really balked at the continued assault. After about two and a half weeks, though, I somehow found my swing. Suddenly, running wasn't foreign. My physical self stopped fighting back and seemed to accept that this is how we do things now. It got on board with the challenge. After that, although there were days that were harder than others - maybe I was tired, or just wasn't feeling it - my body performed up to expectations, and I got through the challenge.

Then it was over. As the weeks ticked by, I started counting down until January 2, the day I thought for sure would be my first rest day in six and a half weeks. I couldn't wait to get there so I could take some time off, make some training plans, and get back to reality. Funny thing is, as January 2 got closer and closer, I seemed a bit at a loss. I found that the idea of NOT running come January 2 just seemed wrong. It appears I had created a habit for myself, no less important to me than brushing my teeth in the morning. When I consulted with a friend, who was the inspiration for this challenge having done something similar years before (and who continues to run most days), the answer was RUN MORE. Huh. Okay. So, I continued. And continued. And continued.

To this day, I have run 96 days in a row, covering no less than three miles a day. (I say "covering" because there have been a few days where I took a few walk breaks here and there.) I have not missed a day. In fact, when the time came to start building a training plan for my first half marathon coming up, I opted to start building a training program around the daily runs. At this point, I have one day a week where I run five miles, my long run day is now officially up to ten miles, and one day a week I make sure to run a very hilly three-mile course. Those are my "workout" days. The rest of the week, my "rest" days consist of slow three-milers, usually on the treadmill.

I suppose some people would call my three-milers now junk miles, and maybe they are. Maybe I would be better served taking a true rest day, or cross training. But, the thing is - and I'm knocking on wood here - I feel better than I have in a long time. So, what's going on? For someone who could barely run three days in a row, I don't know as I understand how this all works either. My guess is that physically my body "gets" running now. Literally, through building of muscle memory, the actual "running" has become the least of my issues. My body knows what to do. Now, on any given day, I may be tired, or my breathing may be off, but as for my legs - they can run.

And, I think the consistency of running every day is right for me. Through all my cycles of tendon injury, one thing always seemed clear: my tendons tighten up with inactivity. I have to remain a moving target to stay healthy. Run more.

Mentally, I love the freedom of running every day. Yes, the FREEDOM. Running only three or four times a week and having that ability to juggle when I ran, THAT was stressful. There was a lot of thought that went into running. Do I run today or tomorrow. Run long today or not. When do I fit in my runs this week. Running every day, all that is gone. Do I run today? The answer is yes. Do I run tomorrow? The answer is yes. How about four days from now? Do I run then? The answer is yes. At some point, I stopped asking the question, because I already knew the answer. The less thought that went into it, the lower the stress levels.

And, I shouldn't forget the stress of NOT running. The most fundamental answer I can give to someone who might say I'm running a lot of junk miles is that running makes me happy. And I don't mean in some kind of "yay, I got it done way," I mean in a physical endorphins-released, actual measurable-rise-in-contentment way. And, if running makes me happy, shouldn't I run every day? Don't I want to be happy every day? Naturally, the answer is yes.

So, at this point, I am still running daily. I keep wondering if this day or that will be the day it ends, as it seems clear that it probably will have to end at some point. It's still hard for me to believe that this is going so well. That other shoe has to drop sometime, right? Well, maybe. But, in the meantime, I'm going to try to keep moving. Because, if the question is "what makes you happy?" and the answer is "running," then why wouldn't I want to do more of it?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Digging Deep and Hitting Bottom

The 100-mile finish remains elusive. I am 0 for 2 in my attempts, but I think I understand myself and my motivation a bit better for having tried...again.

First, I will start out by saying that I am okay with this un-finish.   Unlike last year, where I was devastated by my inability to cover 100 miles, this year's race was a long shot to begin with.  Tendon injuries going into training gave me a good excuse in the event that things went wrong, because training was never going to be what it shoulda, woulda, coulda been.

I guess I should gladly grasp at that excuse as my reason for a race not well run and leave it at that, but the truth is that I don't think I really wanted this finish. What I wanted was the start. Let me explain.

After last year's failed finish, I wasn't even going to do another 100 ever again. But, it wasn't too long before I started feeling a bit differently and shortly after that when I signed up for my second 100-mile attempt at Burning River. For a long time I thought that I really felt compelled to run a 100-mile race, or to at least say I had finished one. But the more I thought about it during my ill-fated march across Ohio, the more I realized that it wasn't the finish that was important to me, it was the start. I had only wanted to prove to myself that I wasn't afraid to try again - to brush the dust off of my first failure, dig in my heels, and give it another go. Actually finishing the race was at best a secondary goal. I always have been more of a journey person than a goal person. (Training for a 100 was fun; running it, not so much. Running on shredded feet and a pulled tendon for 67 miles was fun; suffering through all that for another 33 just to say I had finished, not so much.)

And, the journey was educational. No, I didn't finish the race. Yes, clearly, I have limits I must face. No, I guess I didn't want it badly enough to gut it out, overcome all the insufficient training and lingering injuries, and persevere despite all. However, what I did do was have the courage to start, knowing that my training was sketchy at best, and knowing I didn't have a track record that would lead me to believe success was in the offing. Dammit, I knew the cards were stacked not in my favor, but ... I. Did. It. Anyway.  And, that is worth something, at least to me. 

So, now that I have failed twice, surely I'll go back out and try again, right? After all, I need to prove to myself ... again ... that I don't give up just because of repeated failures, right? Well, not so fast.  Because, another epiphany that I had while doing this event, marching into the night on aching feet and pulled tendons, was that I am not ready to complete a 100-miler.  

As someone who suffers from serial injuries, necessary long breaks from running, and the resulting woeful lack of consistent training, it is clear that I need to get stronger both physically and mentally before I can try this again.

And this shouldn't come as a surprise! After all, when Andy did his first 50-mile event (which was a crazy concept for me at the time!), I told him that I could never run that sort of distance until I could spend that kind of time in my head with myself.  You see, for some people (in fact, most of the people I know), running ultras is a social endeavor - an extroverted romp through the landscape hanging with friends or meeting and making new's a giant party on the move. But that's not me. Not always, anyway.

For me, long distance running has been more akin to a Zen exercise (or at least an attempt at one) - a moving meditation, a time to go deep inside and see what is there, a time to connect with God or whatever moves this world. In training, I often like to run with friends, but during race events I like to disappear inside myself, to go places in my head and heart that others cannot follow.

Failing at this second 100-miler attempt, I realized that I am not ready for that kind of distance yet. My spiritual, meditative abilities remain stunted at the 70-ish mile mark and I have not been able to stretch them beyond that point yet. Of course, that is aided and abetted by a body that doesn't really want to go much beyond 35 miles.  So, rather than be upset by the DNF, I take it as a lesson in my personal growth. It has shown me where I am at and what I need to work on. I may or may not yet get to the 100-mile distance, but in the meantime I am no less valid as a distance runner - a thought that plagued me after last year's DNF.

At this point, I have no plans for signing up for yet another 100. Instead, I plan to enjoy shorter longer distances (i.e., marathons, 50Ks, and 50-milers) and really just enjoy the process of digging deeper, getting stronger (and perhaps a tad faster), and working on what is important to me - which is to be healthy and strong for myself and my family, and to be distance running well into my dotage.

If my journey takes me further than 70 miles one day, so be it. In the meantime, I am happy of the reminder that some things come naturally, and some things you really have to work for.  After all, there was a day when 50 miles seemed beyond my abilities, but I have grown into that distance. A 100-miler is most likely not impossible, it's just not now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Mt. Taylor 50K Race Report....Um, Finally

So, my husband and I disagree on whose idea it first was to run the Mt. Taylor 50K, but whoever the brilliant one was, it's an idea that took hold in both of our minds. So it was that after following the event on Facebook for a couple of years, in 2015 the vacation stars aligned just enough so that we could sign up.

Part of the reason for Mt. Taylor's allure was certainly timing. After all, it takes place right around our anniversary, and what better way for an ultra-loving couple to celebrate their wedded bliss but by an ultra? (I could probably draw a metaphor between ultra running and marriage, but I'll spare you...for now.) Aside from the anniversary angle and the fact that I just liked the idea of traveling to New Mexico as I had never been before, there was a cultural backstory to this event that I felt drawn to.

Mt. Taylor is considered one of the four sacred peaks to the Navajo people, the other three being Mt. Hesperus, Mt. Blanca, and San Fransisco Peak. When I read in the race literature that the race would begin at daybreak, so as to run in the Navajo tradition of running east to greet the rising sun, I just had a feeling this was something that would be completely unique to my experience, and something I wanted to take part in. Despite having a small slice of Native American heritage in my background, I cannot claim to know much, if anything, about the Native American history, cultures, or peoples of our country, and I saw this as an opportunity to learn. Proceeds from the race go to the Nideiltihi Native Elite Runners (NNER).

The Mt. Taylor 50K was scheduled for September 26, 2015. After flying into Phoenix the night before, we arrived in Grants, New Mexico, on Friday afternoon. Grants, a small town of about 10,000 people, is about 70 miles west of Albuquerque. My first impression of Grants was of a small town suffering somewhere on the mild-to-severe scale of economic depression - not unlike a lot of small towns in the U.S. Of course, that was just a quick first impression. In all honesty, Grants could have been the most charming town in the world, but I would not have noticed. My impression was carved out of a quick drive in to our hotel (the Red Lion Hotel - official race hotel), a pizza dinner at Surf Shack Pizza after the race (very tasty, by the way), and the drive back out Sunday. However, even if it would offer nothing else, Grants has what they call location, location, location. Situated in New Mexico's high desert and surrounded by the Cibola National Forest, in Grants you find yourself within driving range of a number of national monuments, forests, and historical parks in New Mexico, not to mention some of Arizona's finest treasures - such as the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest.

Packet Pickup

The first order of business after checking into the Red Lion Hotel was to go to packet pickup. Set up conveniently in the hotel, it was a short walk. Among other things, our packet included a shirt, socks, and some other goodies.
Back of shirt
Tables were set up with race information and town and regional information. There were plenty of volunteers there to answer questions. At packet pickup we were also encouraged to pick up a colored dot sticker to wear on our clothing if we were in need of a ride to the startline the next morning. Another colored dot differentiated those who needed a ride from those who had room in their car to give rides. Although it goes against my nature to seek rides from strangers, the idea of taking our economy-sized rental car up the twisting and winding mountain road, some of which was advertised as economy-car-eating rutted gravel, did not appeal. So, I proudly wore my dot in the hopes of catching a ride.

Pasta Dinner

Seeing as Grants was such a small town and we didn't know what would be available, the husband and I had selected to pay for the pasta dinner. So, when doors opened we were among the first to filter in, grab some food from the buffet of pasta, marinara (or meat sauce), baked potato, bread, salad, and a dessert. Drinks available were lemonade and water.

At the dinner, there were the usual talks given by area officials welcoming runners and some tips and directives from the race director and staff, but it is the featured speaker which makes the dinner stand out in my mind, even months later.

Shaun Martin was the winner of the inaugural Mt. Taylor 50K in 2012 and race director of the Canyon de Chelly Ultra. Being Navajo, Martin's talk centered around his roots. He gave a moving talk about what running means to the Navajo people, his family's history with running, and a brief talk about the four sacred mountains. At this late juncture, I cannot do justice to Martin's talk, if ever I could. What I do know is that I left the pasta dinner that evening feeling just a little bit wiser, a little bit humbled to be a part of such a meaningful event, and a whole lot pumped up and ready to tackle whatever would come the next day.

Before leaving the pasta dinner, the husband and I managed to secure a ride - not from the dot system so carefully implemented by the race staff - but rather a very nice Grants couple who just happened to be sitting at the same table with us and who were willing and able to give us a ride to the start. So, although they would have to get up a bit earlier to drive back to the hotel to collect us in the morning, they did offer to pick us up at o'dark thirty. 

The Race

The alarm woke us up early the next morning so that we could get up, eat breakfast (free to Red Lion Hotel guests!), and be ready to catch our ride to the 6:30 a.m. start. Because the cynic in me worried that we would be forgotten on the doorstep of the hotel, I was already making contingency plans when our ride - the nice couple from the evening before - showed up to start us on our journey.

The ride to the start is, as advertised, a good 40-minute drive up a twisting, winding mountain road, the last five miles of which is gravel, the last several hundred yards of which is hardly a road - pitted as it is by huge potholes, deep ruts, and littered with football-sized rocks. In other words, if you don't have a high-rise vehicle and four-wheel drive, you would be better off parking further down the road and resigning yourself to a hike in to the start. As it was, our driver's pickup truck seemed more than adequate to the chassis-challenging task of navigating the last couple hundreds of yards to prime parking.

At that early hour, it was extremely dark on the mountain despite the strands of lights the race crew had managed to string around the start area. We found our headlamps helpful for getting around - from car to start to porta-potties, etc. After getting organized, dropping our 16-mile drop bags, and using the porta-potties one last time, it was time to go.

Since the race was following the Navajo tradition of running east into the rising sun, the start was timed to coincide with daybreak.  As we began, it was still dark enough that a headlamp seemed prudent but probably would not have been absolutely necessary as it wasn't too long before there was enough light to see by.

Starting out, I knew the race would be hard. I was under no illusion that it would not be, if for no other reason than the elevation. The entire event - all 31 miles - were to be run between 9,000 and 11,305 feet with 7,000 feet of vertical change! So, distance aside, coming from Northeast Wisconsin, where the elevation is 700 feet, I knew elevation would be a challenge. I told myself I was going to take it easy. I had plenty of time to get in under the eleven and a half hour cutoff. But, I wanted to run, too. I didn't realize how much that lack of oxygen was going to suck the run right out of me.

Being the introvert that I am, I don't know how I did it, but I somehow managed to talk my way into running with the couple who had given us our ride as well as a friend of theirs. They were planning to start out slowly (the gentleman had run the race before and said a conservative start was the way to go). They were very welcoming about me hanging out with them (or tolerant). The husband of course started more towards the front and was prepared to give it his all, as is his wont.

As the race started, we did indeed start out quite slowly. In fact, we walked pretty much all of the first three miles since they went up, up, up. A lot of that was through the trees, but by the time we emerged from the forest, the view expanded and we could see the sun had risen up beyond the mountains. As promised, it was a fantastic sight!

After taking in the expansive views, it was time to make the last slow-marching push up the first looong and steady climb.With the summit in sight, I was ready to change things up and actually run for a bit.

The first aid station came up at around mile 4.5. By then, I needed to use the porta-potty, but sadly they did not have any. Nature, they pointed to, was all around. And, indeed, most people in need were trotting off over a slight ridge behind the aid station to do their business. And, aside from that there was a toilet behind every tree. Um, no thanks. Not being a huge fan of nature squats, I took comfort in the trees being there and thought I would just press on, and if needed stop and squat when desperate.

After that first big climb which ended shortly before the first aid station, we were finally able to run steadily. And, until about mile 10 we trotted along at a modest pace.

To be honest, at this point, I was pretty pleased that I could run at all. I had run at elevation before (only 7,500 feet, to be exact) and I remember how that had sapped the energy out of me, feeling as I had that I was wearing an old-fashioned corset around my rib cage. To be able to run at all for any length of time during this event, I'm not afraid to say it...I felt pretty badass.

Seeing as they were local, the group I was running with did not have the same oxygen issues that I was having. They seemed quite comfortable maintaining a slow steady jog (averaging about 11-minute miles), walking only on the steepest inclines. I, on the other hand, found it necessary to stop quite frequently and walk a bit to catch my breath. This seemed to work out, though, since my natural running pace seemed faster than theirs. I would drop back to take a quick walk break (and gasp for air!) and then run and invariably catch up. I'd hang on for as long as I could before I had to walk again to catch my breath.

This part of the run was quite pretty, albeit without the stellar views. We alternately ran through wooded forests and open spaces. Pine and aspen were all around. It was lovely. At this point, we were on a lot of rutted jeep roads, which had been washed out in previous rains, so there were a LOT of large rocks and ruts to navigate, which slowed our progress considerably. But, all in all, it went well and I felt fairly good. Relatively speaking, of course. At about mile 10, we came into a valley at the end of which was another fully stocked aid station. They even had a porta-potty. Hurray! After doing my business and availing myself of the amenities, it was time to check out. I was still hanging on with the little group at this point, but that would soon end.

Aid station at Mile 10.
A look down the valley from Aid Station at Mile 10. Still happy!
At about mile 11.5, the race course took us off of the gravel jeep road we had been on for much of the race so far and turned us on to the Continental Divide Trail, which we would follow for the next eight miles or so. Sweet single track! It was fantastic!

Continental Divide Trail
Through the aspen groves
It was turning onto the Continental Divide Trail that I finally had to let my little group, which had pulled me along for a full third of the race, go. Their ability to steadily chug up the smaller inclines (not to mention the fact that they were more acclimatized to the elevation than I could ever hope to be!) gave them a definite edge. I realized that it was becoming way too much of a struggle to stick with them, so I started falling back.  I was sad to do this, because they had been such nice company. I got a bit of a lesson, listening to them talk about local goings-ons, events, gossip, and such, as well as learned more about the Native American culture and life in New Mexico.

After losing my posse, I struggled to keep myself moving forward with purpose. Any sort of incline knocked the air right out of my lungs, so soon I found it hard to run for any length of time whatsoever. I ended up doing short little 20-50 foot spurts of a run, followed by an indefinite length of slow-march trudging to catch my breath. It was pretty, though!

At mile 16, I made it back into the halfway point aid station....this was back at the start/finish area. Although they had quite a spread there, I really did not want to linger too long, so I probably did not eat as much as I should have. The first place finisher came in right around this time, which only added to my sense of urgency to get the heck out of there and keep going. And I just didn't want to make this an all day affair. It already had taken me just over four hours to go 16 miles, and I knew there was still a long way to go with a couple of brutal climbs still ahead.

Heading out of the aid station, there were a couple of people around me, and they looked about as pooped as I felt. At that point, no one seemed to be too chatty; perhaps we had all fallen into that zone of misery and resignation when you realize that you signed up for something that is flipping hard but there really isn't a choice but to keep going.

Right as I was about to get back on the Continental Divide trail from the aid station, a couple of volunteers directing runners and cheering us on asked me if I had seen any wildlife yet. (They actually said that like that would have been a good thing!) I said, um no. Thank God. You see, the night before at the pasta dinner, we had been given a nice little lecture about the local fauna, the upshot of which was: don't wear headphones so you can hear a bear or mountain lion before they surprise you. That was it. That was the extent of their advice. After that, I was only able to go through with the event because I had decided to do a mental finger-in-ear-la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you thing. The volunteer's question snapped me out of that self-deception, so I stopped and asked her what should I do if I saw something bigger than myself and furry.  But she just laughed my question off. (I think she thought I was joking.) She said, oh, just ignore them and they would ignore me. Um, right. Those New Mexicans, I tell you. They're made of sterner stuff than I.

So, continuing the race, I ran when I could (which meant I walked much of the time), and walked when I couldn't (which meant I death-marched slowly much of the time). At about mile 19.5, the course left the Continental Divide Trail and put me on a jeep road again. This stretch would be about a mile and a half long before we would finally turn on the trail that would take us to the summit of Mt. Taylor. Don't look up, advised the sign. I looked up. And groaned.

So, you would think looking at this nice, flat stretch of road I would have been able to run a bit more consistently, but I couldn't. I wish I could have, but by this time I felt like the stuffing had been knocked out of me. It was too hard to breathe, and I had struggled too much already. I was almost 20 miles into this race, and I still had a good 11 more to go. If you are able to run at this point consistently, it is a good place to do it. As it was, I just moseyed along, running here and there but mostly in la-la land just moving forward slowly. I did pass a big pickup truck with a bunch of dogs on it and a couple of men. I was mildly curious about that but did not bother to ask about it. And, it is a good thing I didn't as I found out a couple of days later from the husband that he had asked and found out there had been a bear sighting, so the dogs and men were there to try to chase it off or round it up. Oh boy.

At mile 21, you get to the Gooseberry aid station. This is the last aid station until the Caldera Rim aid station at mile 25. The path between the two is an amazingly beautiful trail that goes up, up, up, and up to the summit of Mt. Taylor. Now, having done Pikes Peak in the past, as well as other mountain marches, I really did not anticipate the suffer fest that was to come.

The march up to Mt. Taylor I can only describe as sheer and utter, agonizing misery. I'm sorry. I guess I should dress it up a bit, but honestly I cannot think of a time when I have felt more out of it during a race. Even the last 20 miles of my failed 100 (so, between miles 50 and 70) were not as all-encompassing miserable as this slow and painful death march. During the 100, my pain was localized to body parts - blisters on the feet, IT band that was finally getting grumpy, sore quads, etc. During the Mt. Taylor 50K, I just felt generally like some ominous invisible force was pressing me down trying to keep me in one spot. Mainly, I just couldn't breathe, and the lack of oxygen was no doubt playing havoc on what my muscles felt like they could do. I slow-walked up that mountain like molasses trying to drip uphill. I would literally trudge a few steps and then stop to catch my breath, leaning heavily on my trekking poles before starting to trudge a few steps again.

I can't even begin to describe all the thoughts going through my head during that climb. Even through the filter of several months' time, I still feel the intense level of despair that flooded me during those few miles. Looking up and seeing what I thought was the summit and how far I had to go, and wanting to cry over the work still ahead of me. The fact that I couldn't breathe well. The fact that I had no energy reserves to call upon. The idea that I had it in my head that we had to go up this mountain twice and this was just the first climb! (That was wrong, by the way.)  The fact that I couldn't move faster if I wanted to. The thought that this climb was never, ever, never, EVER going to end.

And then it did!

Quicker than I expected, the summit was there....and an official photographer. Say cheese!

The only thing that got me through this climb was the beauty. Nothing will take away from that. It was simply a stunning locale, and I so appreciate the ability to be able to do things like this and take it all in.

Heading off the summit, I immediately perked up. I don't know if it was the added oxygen I gained with every step I took on the way down, or maybe it was the high I felt having accomplished something that was so darn hard. Either way, I was virtually flying heading down the trail. (Okay, "flying" is relative, but I did feel pretty darn good.) I was even in a chatty mood. I exchanged pleasantries with more than one runner during my brief descent, and it wasn't too long before I got to the Mile 25 aid station.

At Caldera Rim the volunteers were in a jovial mood, and it was there that I learned my skewed perception of reality (namely, that I would never finish the race in time) was wrong. I was doing fine on time: not fast but with plenty of time to make the finish-line cutoff. It was also there that I learned that the next climb wasn't actually a repeat up Mount Taylor as I had somehow thought. (I cannot even explain how elated I was by that news. Even the fact that I would have to do another steeper - but much shorter climb - in a few miles could not put a damper on my mood.) So, out of that aid station I headed to tackle a four-mile loop that would ultimately lead me back to the Caldera Rim aid station.

The first three miles of the loop were not too bad. Mostly, it was either downhill or flat. I ran as much of it as I could, but again that is relative so it probably wasn't as much as I would have liked. At about the three-mile mark of this loop, the trail took a turn up a steep, one-mile climb back to the aid station. While I can't say this climb was any more palatable than the last one had been, it was shorter and it also had the added appeal of being the last major climb of the race. Also, it is at this point that I fell in behind another runner. We got to talking, and that helped pass the time.

Before I knew it, we were back at the Caldera Rim aid station. From here it was a short two-mile "victory lap" to the finish. But, wait! There was more after all. Not too long after passing the aid station and turning towards the finish, there was a downhill so steep that even digging in my trekking poles I could barely arrest my forward momentum. I managed to skid down a good portion of it and thought it a cruel joke on quads that were already pretty much shot. After such a long day, it was certainly a tough grind down the hill to "greener," more easily navigable pastures but I considered it as paying my final dues before the finish.

My new-found friend and I stuck out the rest of the race together. She couldn't manage more than a painfully slow jog, due to some leg issues. In fact, her jog was so slow I was able to fast walk next to her, which amazed her no end. (I don't think she realized exactly how slowly she was running. But, hey. Whatever gets you through.) New Friend did encourage me to run ahead, since by this point I was actually feeling pretty good. Sadly, though, that feel good was only physical. Mentally, I had played all the cards I had and I was quite happy to hang out with her. The company and the talk were much more valuable to me at that point than a slightly earlier finish.

Finally, after so many hours on the trail, we made it back to where it had all begun so many hours before. I did have enough oomph to run into the finish where I found my husband, the small circle of new running buddies I had made at the start of the day (who were also our ride back to town!), and the winner of the overall race, whom I had seen finish about five hours before. They were all just hanging out waiting for me. Well, not the winner. He was there just to cheer folks on and chat with everyone.

As a female finisher of this event, I got not only my medal, but was also able to pick out a handmade Navajo bracelet made by the race director's wife and friend.

All in all, this was a really tough race, but one that had a fantastic story behind it. It was hard, but with the passing of time, there is a part of me that wouldn't be opposed to trying it again. I know that I have limitations placed on me just because of the elevation, but the sheer beauty of the region far overshadows any of the perceived pain. Additionally, I don't think I have ever run a race where the hometown feel, the overriding friendliness of the people who put it on and the fellow participants just outshone anything else.

Happy Running!

A few more pictures from the event: