Sunday, May 1, 2016


SCAR is the name for the "Smokies Challenge Adventure Run," a runners' challenge that involves running the entire 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that go across the Smoky Mountains, all in under 24 hours.  I had been itching to try this for several months and finally, this weekend, it was time to give it a go.

The route certainly lived up to expectations.  I started at Davenport Gap, the northern border of the Smokies, at 3:48 a.m.  I had decided to go southbound for two reasons--one, it would give me a more gradual descent off the mountain ridge at the end of the run, and two, it would get me past the Charlie's Bunion area before the tourist crowds became too intense.

I set off to warm, muggy weather and a peaceful, still forest lit up by a pretty sliver of moon.  After 8 or 9 miles I popped out on a nice section of ridgeline just in time for the sunrise.  From here until mile 31 would be one of my favorite runs ever.  There was the perfect morning light on the ridge (my photos do not do it justice), the views off both sides, the many sections of perfect trail for runing...  My legs were still feeling heavy and sluggish from Lake Sonoma, but it didn't really matter as I knew I didn't need to run quickly for this day; I just needed to keep moving steadily.

From my short runs in the Smokies, I mostly remembered the rockier sections of trail, but actually a lot of it is smooth, perfect singletrack.

Around mile 29 I got an exciting surprise:  my friend Julien!  I knew he was going to be at Newfound Gap to pace me, but I wasn't sure where on the trail I'd find him.  I got into Newfound Gap, which is mile 31.5, in 7:55, which was also a surprise as it was 35 minutes ahead of schedule.  I was especially pleased as I had taken most of those miles conservatively, pacing myself as if I were doing a 100 miler rather than a 72 miler.  After a slightly longer-than-ideal stop at Newfound Gap, Julien and I set off for Clingman's Dome, about 8 miles away.

Heat is my kryptonite, and it struck with a vengeance at mile 32.  After Newfound Gap you drop off the other side of the ridge and run along the hillside below the ridge.  This meant I lost my cool breeze and gained direct sunlight.  And the hills on this section are surprisingly difficult, even though they're not the biggest on the route--Julien aptly named them the little steep monsters.  Ouch!  Julien did an impressive job keeping me moving at a good pace after I started to slow.  We met Divesh just south of Clingman's Dome and did a quick swap of my food and gear for the final 32.5-mile stretch.

My original goal for SCAR was to run it in less than 22 hours.  But when I left Clingman's Dome with 10:15 elapsed, I realized that if I had a great second half of my run, I could possibly run under 20 hours or even under the women's course record of 18:50.  On one hand, I had some significant nausea already starting, and I knew I was behind in my water intake.  On the other hand, my legs were still feeling strong, and I actually managed to get ahead of  what I needed to run for an 18:50 between miles 40 and 50.

Looking back north towards Clingman's Dome

My stomach didn't do well during those miles, though.  I barely drank and I don't think I ate anything until I was able to barter with a hiker for his Snickers bar at mile 50 (I gave him a bag of peanut butter pretzel bites).  Then the weather turned.  The occasional showers turned into a steady downpour that would last the remaining 22 miles.  When you haven't been eating or drinking, you're stopping often to throw up, and it's raining heavily and windy, it's almost impossible to stay warm, even with good rain gear and warm tights on.  I shivered my way along, feeling cold and miserable.  The trail was flooded and after it got dark it was almost impossible to see, since my headlamp wasn't quite cutting through the dense rain and fog.  From miles 55 to 59 I slowly lost my cushion on an 18:50 finish, and at mile 59 the large hill up to the Mollie's Ridge shelter took away any remaining chance I had at the record.

The one thing I had to look forward to in the final miles was that Divesh was planning to run in 5 miles from the finish and meet me.  He actually made it 6 miles in, and I was thrilled to see him and have some company in the cold.  Those last 6 miles took so long that I was convinced I must be nearing the 24-hour mark (I hadn't looked at my watch in several hours since it was under several layers of rain jacket and gloves) but I had to laugh when we emerged from the trail for the last mile on the road and I discovered that the clock was at 19:41.  I had planned a sprint finish down the last mile, but an attempt at sprinting quickly led to an especially painful bout of throwing up stomach acid, so I decided that a fast walk/shuffle would have to do, and I finished in 19:54.

Other than the bad weather, my SCAR was basically a summary of everything I love about running:  great trails and views, a classic point-to-point route, pushing myself to a time that I wouldn't have thought was possible, and even getting to see friends and family in the process.  And, with about 18,000 feet of ascent over 72 miles, it was a great stepping stone between Lake Sonoma and my summer Bob Graham Round plans...

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Lake Sonoma 2016 race report

Warning:  May contain whining!

On the surface, all went well with my race.  I had a good result place-wise (9th, in a very competitive field) and a decent time (8:37) considering how hilly the course is.  Beneath the surface, however, was a disappointing day.  My training for Lake Sonoma carried on from the solid base I had built up for Bandera.  I recovered quickly from Bandera and started my Lake Sonoma training with some nice endurance weeks.  Then it was a couple of speed workouts and two short races.  One of these, a 12k on very hilly dirt roads, was possibly my best short race ever, which was definitely encouraging.  After that I still had time for a couple more weeks of endurance, and I finished off the training period with 29 miles on an especially hilly section of the Appalachian Trail, feeling strong and fast the whole way.  I was ready to race.

Gentle jog on the course with Divesh the day before the race

Race day morning appeared promising, with cool rainy weather, a good night of sleep, and a big breakfast. But just a couple of miles into the race, I began to notice something odd:  I seemed to be running unusually slowly.  As always, I was pacing myself by heart rate.  I wasn't wearing a GPS so I couldn't say for sure how fast I was moving, but it certainly didn't seem to be a particularly quick pace.  I was aiming for a heart rate of 155 to 157, compared to the 150 I use for training, but my race day pace felt slower than a training run.  When I arrived a full five minutes late to the first aid station at mile 11.6, there was no denying that something was wrong.

I started up the hill out of the aid station and tried to convince myself that I just needed an extended warmup and that things had to improve.  But they didn't.  I trucked along at my 155 bpm and arrived at the mile 20 aid station eight minutes behind schedule.  My legs still felt completely fine, it just appeared that my lungs had decided to take the day off.  At this point my limited supply of patience ran out.  I decided that if it was going to take running at 160 to 162 bpm to go the speed I wanted to go, then that was what I was going to do.  I turned the pace up a notch and tried not to think about how I was ever going to maintain this effort level for 30 more miles.

The new pace allowed me to claw back about five minutes on my goal splits, and I arrived at the turnaround in 4:02, only two minutes behind schedule.  Things seemed to be looking up; my legs, and more importantly my stomach, were feeling good, and I was starting to pass a few women.  My morale got a boost when Meghan Hicks informed me at mile 30 that I was now in 10th place.  Maybe this day could still work out okay...

There is that saying in ultrarunning that it never always gets worse.  I would add the caveat that this is true except when it does.  By about mile 35, my legs were thoroughly unhappy with the effort level I'd been attempting to put in for the previous few hours.  I started walking up a few of the hills, then moved on to walking up most of the hills.  I arrived at mile 38 about 12 minutes late and with far too little energy in reserve for that tough last half marathon.  As beautiful as the Lake Sonoma trails are, I have to admit that I was sick of them by a few miles into this last section.  Everything had become an identical blur of rolling hills and curves, with no real way to know how far we had left.  Somewhere in the last two or three miles I asked Loren, a guy who had been alternately in front of and behind me for several miles, whether he thought we would ever get to the finish.  He didn't think so either.

The only thing propelling me along at a pace resembling a run was that I'd seen Anita just a few minutes behind me at mile 45 and I knew it would take a big effort to stay in front of her.  Each time I was tempted to walk an uphill, I'd remind myself that Anita was most certainly not going to be walking that hill, and I'd press on.  Finally I rounded a bend and could see I was about a quarter of a mile from the finish.  I attempted a sprint, which felt suspiciously like the same pace I'd just been running at, but I had nothing left and for a second I actually started walking.  Loren, who was just behind me, yelled at me to get going and not let him pass me.  It was a very welcome push that got me across the finish in a reasonably respectable manner.  Even if, as I suspect, he did let me "win"!

So what went wrong?  It certainly wasn't my stomach, and since my pace was slow right from the start, it can't have been a lack of calories.  It also doesn't seem to have been anything about my training, since I felt so good in nearly all my runs the past month and then had a nice taper.  I did start to feel a bit of heavy legs the week before the race, but that was gone by race day.  My best guess at the culprit for the bad race is either the humidity--I have mild asthma and one of the things that exacerbates it is humidity--or that I was anemic.

To counterbalance the whining, I will say that it was an incredibly fun experience to run an entire ultra with no nausea.  Let's repeat that next time, please!  It was also satisfying to stay somewhat mentally in the race even after I was physically done for.  And last but very much not least, John, Lisa, and all the volunteers put on an excellent event, complete with top-notch postrace food that I was thrilled to be able to sample for once!  I may need to make at least one more trip around that lake in the future.

We got to meet Deirdre and Seth for a postrace dinner--I had to try not to be too jealous of their impending Kalymnos trip!

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Bandera 100k race report, by the numbers

1,423:  Miles that my parents drove to come be my support crew at the race

1:  Number of people who purely coincidentally rented the other half of our holiday cottage in Bandera and who I know from Scotland!

46:  Temperature in Fahrenheit at the start.  Perfect.  It got hot later, but only because of the intense sun.

10/10:  Beauty of the course at sunrise and sunset

3:  Feet in the air that I jumped after something large and brown slithered away from where I had just stepped, around mile 35

2:  Times during the race that I swore I would never run another ultra

0:  Times during the race that I wasn't enjoying the course.  It was perfect running the entire way; just the right amount of technical and non-technical sections.

4:  Vomiting sessions during the race.  Less coffee for me next race...

8:  Miles of the race that I was struggling

54:  Miles of the race that went well

3:  Square inches of my legs not sliced to pieces by the sotol plants lining the Three Sisters hills

1:  Sotol needles I got stuck in my finger and then proceeded to stab myself with when I put my hands on my legs to walk uphill

1/2:  Radius, in miles, that the World's Most Annoying Dog, who someone had brought to the start/finish area for the entire day, could be heard barking nonstop.  This actually helped me out twice during the race.  First, it provided great motivation not to linger at the start/finish area when we passed through there at mile 31.  And second, near the end of the race, just as I was starting to get frustrated by the fact that there was STILL no finish line in sight, I suddenly heard...yap!  yap!  yap!  and knew it was time to sprint.

+50:  Difference between number of calories I was wearing at the finish, courtesy of a leaky bottle of sports drink earlier in the day, and number of calories I actually consumed during the last 9 miles

+55:  Minutes of positive split on my second of the two 50k laps--ouch!  Goal was no more than 30 minutes...

0:  People who passed me on the second lap

2:  Minutes by which I missed my goal time

11:01:  My finishing time

5:  My finishing place

7/10:  Happiness factor for my race.  I made a mistake by overdoing the coffee and by not wearing a hat to protect myself from the intense sun, which might have kept me from overheating so badly, but I did have a good first lap without going out too fast and a reasonably strong last ten miles.

11 hours of crewing is a long time!