Sunday, December 1, 2013

Disaster. Or, disaster?

I have a bad case of anemia right now.  Running at normal training speed feels like trying to run at 15,000 feet.  The heart rate that for me would normally result in 8 minute miles on flat ground now gives 12 minute miles.  Counting the preplanned easy week I had in Spain, it's been three and a half weeks that I haven't done any real running. 

In general, I'd say this is pretty much a disaster for Arrowhead.  If I have another 2 or 3 weeks to go before my iron and hemoglobin counts improve, that will leave me a grand total of 3 or 4 training weeks before the race.  That's also sort of a best case scenario; it could be longer (although with the amount of beef, kale, and vitamin C I've been stuffing myself with, I should hope not).

Hence, "disaster."  Or is it?  What I *can* do right now is walk.  And there is certainly plenty of walking to be done at Arrowhead, even if I do want to run more of it than last time.  So I've been going out for lots and lots of gentle walks, sometimes with my tire and sometimes not.  I've also been making the walks as boring as possible, so by the time January 27 rolls around, I'll either be extremely mentally ready or just insane.

Today I added more training value into the mix by driving to Hilton Head (South Carolina, on the Atlantic Ocean), to do some walking on the beach.  Hilton Head is 10 hours roundtrip from where we live, so it was a long day.  I had also forgotten when I left the house this morning that it was the end of Thanksgiving weekend, and when I got on the interstate heading south I was unexpectedly joined by 500,000 Floridians heading home.  It was not the easiest drive (Floridians don't have a good reputation for driving skills!) and I was relieved to finally make it to the beach around 1:30.

The experience of training for Arrowhead here was a little surreal.  At least when I used to train on the beach in Duluth, the water was frozen and there were little icebergs by the shore.  Here, there were palm trees, families having picnics, and reggae music playing from a hotel bar overlooking the area of the beach where I started.  I nearly burst out laughing at the bizarreness of it all.

I pulled a bag of sand and tried to stay on the softer parts of the beach to avoid "cheating" by walking on the nice hard-packed sand nearer the water.  I'm not sure how my $14 duffel bag from Target survived the razor sharp crab shells and other beach debris, but somehow it did, and I was able to get about 10 miles done (with a coffee and cake break in the middle!).  Right at the end I was joined by a friendly walker, which was a welcome change from all the boring trudging.

Arrowhead training--with palm trees.  So bizarre.

I might not be able to run but at least I got to spend sunset on the beach.

I'm still going back and forth on exactly how bad this situation is.  If the anemia hangs on until mid January, there's an outside chance I'd have to reconsider whether I can do the race.  If I am able to do the race, I guess I'll find out then whether my modified training program is a disaster or okay in its own right...

Friday, November 15, 2013

Margalef 2013

I've just come back from another visit to Margalef (Catalunya).  It was a climbing trip, although you'd never have known that by the quality of my "climbing."  I've not been climbing regularly for several years, but in preparation for the trip I had started going bouldering regularly and felt like I was getting a little stronger.  Unfortunately, it turned out not to be nearly enough to work on my old project, and not having done routes for a long time made me struggle with the prospect of falling off easier routes (for my runner friends:  easier routes tend not to be overhanging, which makes them scarier to fall off because there's potential for ankle bashing on the way down.  Both my ankles are permanently bad already, for different reasons.).  Dave helped me with some falling practice on a just-more-than-vertical route, which was useful but still not enough to convince me I wanted to fall off anything more vertical.  I've only got 2 months to train for Arrowhead and I guess it's important enough to me that I didn't even like the remote possibility of any ankle injury downtime.

That all sounds a little depressing, at least on my part, but actually we had a good time.  Even if I wasn't making much progress on my project, it was still fun trying the moves again and working out new ways of doing them.  I got to see my friends Carles and Elena, who are sadly moving to Australia in the near future.  There was nice sunny weather, Spanish practice, and plenty of good wine.  And Dave, who was dealing with his own ankle rehab situation and was only 4 weeks post-surgery, made an impressive progress from not really being able to walk to the crag to doing multiple hard routes in a day.

Then there was the running.  I got to do my favorite run ever for a second time, plus a few shorter runs and one "adventure run" under some time pressure from impending darkness.  The scenery is pretty good on the Montsant trails...

The fruits of the mountain provided

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mystery Mountain 12-mile

I know I shouldn't have, but I ran a race this weekend.  I took 4 weeks off after Sawtooth and have only just started to build a base back up for Arrowhead.  The last thing I needed right now was a race.  But on Tuesday night's GUTS run, everyone was telling me how good the Mystery Mountain races are and how I had to do one of them.  There are two races, a 26 mile and a 12 mile, both hilly and technical.  I thought about it for a while and decided I was allowed to do the 12 mile as long as I took it fairly steady.

It was worth it.  The races are at Fort Mountain State Park, in the mountains in the north of Georgia, and it was so beautiful there.  The start/finish area was a nice little lake, and the course went around the lake and then up the mountain.  It was a perfect sunny day, just a little hot and humid, but still nice for running.  The organization was great, the course was so well marked that it would have been impossible for anyone to get lost, and there were plenty of friendly volunteers.

I was running with my heart rate monitor and decided to run at road marathon heart rate, which I figured over 12 miles would be a good tempo run speed.  It worked out well; my legs felt good at that effort and it was fast enough to keep me in the lead for the women.  The hills were long and tough, and a lot of the trail was more technical than I was expecting.  Overall it was roughly the same difficulty footing-wise as the Superior Hiking Trail, but with much bigger hills (though also some more runnable parts than you'd get on most of the SHT).

When I picked up my number on race morning, I had noticed a sign with the course records.  The women's record for the 12-mile was 1:50.  I had no idea what that really meant at check-in because I didn't know anything about how hard the course was, only that people had said it was "hard."  But I filed the number away in my head, just in case.

Out on the course, I had no real idea how far I was most of the time because I only had a heart rate monitor, not a GPS.  But I came up with the plan that when I got to the aid station at mile 8, I would check the time and if it looked like I could possibly come in under 1:50, I would speed up and go for it.  I ended up getting to mile 8 at 1:20, so I would have had to do about 7:20 minute miles the rest of the way to beat 1:50.  This didn't seem too likely based on how the course had been so far, but I heard Helen's voice in my head telling me how you always have to try because you never know what might happen.  And, what if it turned out the last 4 miles were all downhill on runnable trail?  So I took off, running straight away into a pretty big uphill, but then amazingly enough the single track dumped out onto a wide, smooth...and downhill trail.  For a good half mile or so I thought I had gotten lucky and was going to make it, but the easy ride promptly ended and we were sent right back onto some hilly, extra technical single track.  It had been worth a try, though; you really do never know.  I ended up coming in at 1:55, tired and thirsty (I didn't bring water) but happy.

The after-party alone would have made it worth running the race.  Food by a chef from a local restaurant, the lake for an ice bath, and lots of good people to meet.  I'd love to come back next year and run the 26 mile, but I have a feeling it will conflict with my autumn road marathon plans.  We'll see...

Monday, October 7, 2013

New trails, new rocks

After what felt like a very, very long time in the flatlands of Wisconsin, we have moved to Marietta, Georgia. Marietta is about 30 minutes north of Atlanta and is somewhere between a suburb and its own town.  Divesh was able to transfer offices within the same company, and my company is letting me work from home.

This is a big upgrade from Appleton.  Here, we have local trails, hills, and climbing in abundant supply.  Complaining about a lack of hills anywhere within an hour has been replaced by complaining about having to run up the giant hill on our street.  Not knowing any climbers or runners has been replaced by having so many events to go to and people to meet that we don't have time to fit in everything we'd like.  For example, we get to run with these great people every Tuesday night.

Because of the move and various scheduling issues, I'm going to skip the Ultra Trail Serra de Montsant for this year.  On the calendar for the immediate future are a 5-mile mountain race (up and down Mt. Yonah) and the Pine Mountain 40.  Next year will start off with Arrowhead but after that will mostly be about shorter road races.

A few of our new local runs and crags:

Pinhoti trail

Approach trail for the Appalachian trail

Amicalola State Park


HP40 (Horse Pens)

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Superior Sawtooth 100 + Minnesota Mile double

Last year my husband, Divesh, ran the Superior Sawtooth 100, which is actually 103++ miles, and had a great race.  At some point either before or after the race that year, I pointed out to him that the Minnesota Mile is held in Duluth on the day after Sawtooth finishes and joked that he could run both.  Sadly for me, he did, which meant that this year when *I* did Sawtooth, I had to run the mile the next day too.  After 103++ miles, you really don't need one more...or at least that's what I thought before this weekend.

Sawtooth 100 race report

My race may have ended well but it didn't start well.  About a minute before the race, with all the runners lined up at the start line, John Storkamp (the race director) gives us a quick motivational speech and then reminds us all that we were supposed to check in with race organization that morning even if we already had our race numbers.  "Did anyone forget to do that?" he asks us.  Errmmm..."Me!"  I have to yell, with everyone turning to stare.  

But things improved from there.  It was a nice morning even if it was already quite hot for 8 a.m. in northern Minnesota.  I had decided to run by heartrate, so I stuck to my prescribed beats per minute (145) nearly exactly and enjoyed a nice gentle run through the early easy-ish sections.  The heat was worrying but I stopped to dunk my head in every river we passed, and there was still the occasional bit of cloud cover at that point.

Not too far in.  Photo by Todd Rowe.

Just after Silver Bay (mile 25), the weather took a bit of an unfortunate turn.  The moderately-hot-but-sort-of-cloudy day turned into full sun, high heat, and higher humidity.  I had picked up extra water at Silver Bay to have for pouring over my head, but I still didn't have nearly enough for either drinking or dousing.  But even though the running here was uncomfortable, I was really enjoying myself.  I was feeling strong and was very proud of myself for having started at a sustainable pace.  I was also glad I had made the decision not to wear my camelback-type sack; it would have been an even hotter day if I had tried to run with something on my back.  And I was having fun meeting a few new people--one of them, a guy named Travis, and I talked for several miles going into Tettegouche (mile 35), which made that stretch much more enjoyable.  

By the time I got to Finland (mile 51), I was feeling downright good.  I had had a great segment from County Road 6 (mile 43) to Finland.  I was about a half hour ahead of my 30-hour pace plan, which gave me a nice buffer but wasn't so much that I had gone too fast in the first half.  I had been eating and drinking fairly well throughout the race except for a few isolated vomiting sessions.  And, it had just gotten dark and I was trying out my new headlamp, which it turns out is super bright and better than my old one.  Basically, everything was going as well as possible for such a hot day.

At Finland, I got the excellent morale boost of seeing Maria.  Maria had bought plane tickets to come from Denver to pace me before finding out she has a foot injury that needs another month of rest.  She, being the wonderful friend that she is, came out anyway just to stand around in the dark being bitten by mosquitoes while staying up half the night to wait on me hand and foot at aid stations.  

Divesh had an even rougher deal.  Last year he made the mistake of getting a great split time for the section between Finland and Crosby-Manitou (mile 63), so I gave him pacing duties on that section this year.  This is what I think is the hardest section of the whole course--it has the highest concentration in the known universe, or at least outside of the HURT 100 course, of giant tree roots which must be hopped--and it's certainly one of the most unpleasant.  We did pretty well on it, making good time on the first half and only slowing down when the roots got really bad.

When we made it to Crosby-Manitou around midnight, I got my second special-appearance crew member of the weekend:  Helen.  Helen, probably the most well-known and well-loved Minnesotan runner who doesn't actually live in Minnesota, came out from California.  Chris (Helen's husband) was running the 100 too but I managed to book her first and got her from Crosby-Manitou to Temperance (mile 85).  Poor Helen suffered through a rough night with me.  The humidity just kept getting worse and worse as the night went on, and it was almost as hot as it had been during the day.  My stomach was sick and it was painful trying to throw up.  Worse, I couldn't breathe because of the extreme humidity.  I kept getting panicky and telling Helen all about how I couldn't breathe, which I'm sure she enjoyed hearing 40,000 times over the course of the night.  She tried to keep my mind off the physical problems by telling me some good stories, and it was indeed nice to catch up with her since I hadn't seen her in a while, but I spent the whole night in a lot of misery and couldn't wait for the race to be over.  I've never experienced anything like that kind of humidity--it felt like being held underwater and trying desperately to get out but not being able to.  I think I was fantasizing about air conditioning for a good several hours.

At the Crosby-Manitou aid station with Maria.  Photos by Todd Rowe.

Finally, finally the humidity broke a little around 5 in the morning.  I had done so much walking overnight that I had gotten an hour behind schedule, so we didn't get to Temperance (mile 85) until 8:30.  I spent a while at the aid station there, trying to get my stomach back together and eat enough to be able to run a reasonable amount of the last 20 miles.  When I did finally get going, my legs felt surprisingly good and my stomach wasn't hurting nearly as much as it had during the night.  Running was working out well and I made it to Sawbill (mile 91) much earlier than I expected to.  Divesh paced me the last 8ish miles from Oberg (mile 96) to the end, and despite us being passed by a flying Chris and my very disloyal former pacer Helen, I was feeling good again.  A few weeks before the race I had done a 45 mile training run and I really think that was the way to go--my legs felt much stronger towards the end of this race than they ever have in a long race.  Stronger except for miles 99 to 101, that is, when I completely ran out of all energy.  No amount of Gu was helping, and we had to walk until there was long enough of a downhill that gravity managed to get me going again.  And then, just a couple of easy miles til the finish!  

The best part about Minnesota races is the people, and this one is no exception.  Sitting around the finish area talking to so many great people made all the pain worth it.  

I didn't make my 30-hour goal time, finishing in 30:55.  But on that day, with that weather, and with my legs feeling as good as they did in the last 20 miles, I'm happy enough with it.

Minnesota Mile

Unlike Sawtooth, the Minnesota Mile did get off to an auspicious start for me.  Divesh and I got back to Duluth around 8:30 Saturday night, about 6 hours after I finished, and headed out for dinner at the India Palace.  When we walked in the door, the first table of customers we saw were some of the elite milers.  We had obviously chosen well!  

I got a solid 9 hours of sleep that night and in the morning headed down to the start of the race for a warmup jog.  When I got down to the starting area, things looked like they were starting to go wrong.  I knew I was probably going to need something sugary to get my body through a fast mile at this point, but instead of eating something sweet at the house, I had decided to bring some chocolate chip cookies with me and eat them while I went to pick up my race number.  While I was getting the number, I discovered I had left the cookies in the car, which Divesh was currently parking a mile away.  I met up with Elsa, who was going to do the warmup jog with me, but I was a little nervous that if I did 20 minutes of running before the race on no sugar, I wouldn't have enough energy to even finish the race.  So in the end I decided to forego the warmup and find a coffee shop to buy something sweet; the best I could do was a biscotti with a packet of sugar dumped over it, but it was going to have to do.

I suspected that I wasn't going to be able to run much faster than a 9-minute mile, so I was in the slowest wave of the race.  I started in the middle of the pack at about 9 minute pace but quickly realized that my legs actually felt fine and that I could run much faster.  I picked it up a little but still was being pretty cautious since I had no idea what was going to happen if I pushed too hard.  My first 400 took a full 2 minutes!  From then on, I just kept speeding up and speeding up, and the faster I went, the better I felt.  I couldn't believe how much fun it was to actually run fast, as opposed to 100-mile pace.  Eventually I was going pretty much full speed with a giant grin on my face.  I may have had the most fun of anyone in the entire race, considering that racing a mile is supposed to be more about extended pain tolerance than it is about fun.  In fact, I may have had the most fun I've had in any race ever.  I crossed the finish in 6:42; my best post-high school mile time is 6:02.  Maybe there's something to this whole 103 + 1 challenge after all...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

(Almost) Long run on the (almost) Appalachian Trail

We were in northern Georgia for the weekend so I had the luxury of doing my Saturday training run on the Appalachian Trail.  Or at least, kind of the Appalachian Trail.  As I learned from Janette, a friend of a friend, before I got there, the southern end of the AT is actually in the middle of the woods.  The only way to/from it is a roughly 8 mile trail that starts from Amicalola Falls State Park.  (It seems logical to me to just include this trail as part of the AT, but never mind...)  So, technically, most of my run was on the approach trail, with just a few miles on the AT itself.

I didn't have much time to run Saturday morning so I left the hotel bright and early at 5.  I made it to the trailhead at 6, which is when I learned my first new piece of information about the area:  it doesn't get light until 6:30.  No, I didn't have a headlamp.

I hung out at the car for 20 minutes and then decided there was enough light to at least be able to walk.  Within a few minutes it was light enough to run.

Only a few miles to Maine then

Amicalola State Park is centered around a very beautiful waterfall.  Janette had explained to me that I probably wanted to park at the top of the waterfalls, but I failed to take heed of that and parked at the bottom.  That made my first mile and a half straight up the steep hill, though it was worth it for the view:

After the waterfall you finally get on the approach trail proper.  From there it's about 7.5 miles to Springer Mountain, which is where the AT actually starts.  It was GREAT running the whole way:  just the right amount of hills, a nice mix of technical and non-technical parts, and really not very hot for how you would imagine Georgia in the summer (this section is between 3,000 feet and 3,700 feet altitude, so that helps a fair bit).

I felt strong the whole way and had a hard time convincing myself to turn back when it was time.  Although I'd had 25 miles on the schedule, I couldn't fit it all in, especially with the delay to the start, so I had to settle for 20.  This was a little disconcerting; I only have two pre-Sawtooth long runs planned (this one and one on the 17th), so shortening one of them wasn't exactly ideal.  It was at least good to get some practice on rocky sections, but I probably could have done with a little more distance.

Another good part about this run was learning how friendly the local walkers and runners are.  Everyone I saw smiled and said hello and seemed to be really enjoying themselves.  How could you not, I suppose?  The trails were perfect.

The hills were deceptively big, though, and I was getting tired on a few of them.  Fortunately it turns out that trying to learn how to use your camera's self-timer is an excellent way to get a rest while pretending that you only stopped to play with the camera.

I might have a bit more work to do on learning to work the self-timer though:

About 8.5 miles into my run I made it to the official Appalachian Trail.  How could you not want to run to Maine when you see this?

Maybe someday...

Monday, July 8, 2013

Running in the Plitvice (Plitvicka) Lakes National Park, Croatia

After the West Highland Way race I spent an excellent week climbing in Scotland and visiting friends in England.  Now, my friend Maria and I are on a mini-tour of a few spots in eastern Europe.  This weekend we went to a national park in southern Croatia called Plitvice.  The park is famous for its ultra-clear, green-colored lakes--and rightfully so, it turns out.  I had no idea what to expect but I would never have expected it to be as beautiful as it was.

The park is basically 10 to 15 small lakes chained together by a network of walking trails.  The only real problem is that these can be full of walkers, especially in the summer.  I got a little frustrated at the beginning of our run by being stuck too close to too many people.  But, once you get to the halfway point of the main trail, you have the option of going off onto what the park describes as hiking trails.  This is where things get good!  We didn't see a single other person on the hiking trails portion of the run, and the trails were absolutely perfect for running on.  It was a rainy, foggy day, so we didn't get as many views as we might have on another day, but the woods were very pretty if a little spooky.  We had been reading in our guidebook that landmines are still a problem in some areas of Croatia, including this area, and the warning not to go off the trail didn't make us feel any less spooked!

Map of the Plitvice trails.  Finding this was no small feat!  There were no maps at the park entrance, only a tiny drawing on the back of our entrance tickets.  We found this map about a third of the way through our run.
One downside to the park was that it's an expensive day out.  The entry fee is about $20 USD per person, and you have to pay extra for parking.  A way to avoid this could be to park outside of the park, possibly in the town near spot 3 on the map, and run in (although keep in mind that you can only use the lake ferries if you've got a park entry ticket).

And, even if it's crowded, it's worth a walk around the lakes to see the amazing water (all photos by Maria):

After you leave the lake trails, you run a gradual ascent up a big hill/mountain for about 4 or 5 miles, if you're heading from spot St4 to spot 1 on the map above.  From there it's a steep downhill back to the lakes, and either a ferry ride (for the lazy, including us) or a run back down the other side of the lakes.  All in all, about 13 miles /22k of excellent.

On to the Dolomites tomorrow...

Sunday, June 23, 2013


It was my second year at the West Highland Way Race this year.  Last year I had finished the race but went much more slowly than I had hoped to go, so I was back to try for a faster time.  Unfortunately it wasn't to be--I dropped out at Beinglas (mile 40ish).

There isn't much of interest to say about my race, so I was struggling to think of anything worth writing a race report about.  Basically I was sick (nausea/vomiting) the entire time, and my legs weren't at all recovered from Squaw Peak, and neither of those are very interesting to read about.  But then I did think of something I wanted to write about:  DNFs.

Most of my friends have likely heard me say this before and thus can skip this blog and move on to the next thing to look at on the internet.  Now that I've got a blog, though, I can inflict this on the rest of the world...

The vast majority of ultrarunners have a "finish at all costs" mentality.  I can understand this mentality and I certainly shared it at one point.  But I think that for any runner to improve to his or her maximum ability, it's time for an attitude change.

The best way to explain this, I think, is to compare it to climbing.  In the UK, where I learned to climb, there is a strong "onsight only" mentality.  (As an explanation to nonclimbers, to "onsight" a route essentially means to climb it on your first try, from the ground up, without any falls.  A "redpoint," on the other hand, is a route that you climb successfully, but after you have previously fallen off it and worked on it.)  The idea among a lot of climbers in the UK, therefore, is that you should only do routes that you can onsight.  To them, if you fail and fall off a route on that first try (the climbing equivalent of a DNF), it means you weren't ready for the route and shouldn't have gotten on it.

The thing is, although this mentality is widely shared by average climbers, it isn't held by the best climbers.  Good climbers have figured out that to really improve, you have to temporarily fail, i.e. fall off.  You have to risk failure by trying routes that are too hard for you--at the time--but then work on them, train, improve, and come back to try again for a successful ascent.

As runners, I think we can learn something important from the fact that it's the average, not the best, climbers that share the onsight-only mentality.  It's time for us to figure out that sometimes it's good to drop out, and that being unwilling to drop out of any race will, in the end, hold you back.

There are two main reasons that I see for this:

1.  Learning your limits--so that you can run at them, not below them.

Let's say that a DNF is due to trying to operate at more than 100% of your body's capacity.  That means that if you are determined to finish no matter what, you have to give yourself a pretty safe margin of error.  You can't go at 99%, because you know that if any tiny little thing goes wrong, you'll be out.  So this means you're stuck at maybe 80%, or 90% if you're up for a gamble.

By being determined not to DNF, you've just given up any hope of achieving the remaining percentage.  You're never going to learn what 99% feels like if you don't make it to the tipping point past 100%, because what feels like 99% during a race generally isn't.  Depending on the race, that extra percentage between your failure-safe 80% and your true 99% could be a few minutes faster, or it could be a few miles longer that you're able to run without walking, or an extra hill you can actually run up even though you thought you needed to walk it...there are so many possibilities.

Obviously this doesn't mean I'm saying people should go all-out for a totally unrealistic goal and drop out when that doesn't work.  What I'm saying is to go for the best possible goal that is compatible with the training you've done.  Which brings me to...

2.  Training benefits.

Ultrarunners are, in general, not great at putting any kind of scientific or logical backing into their training.  The no-DNF mentality only adds to this.  At the WHW race this year, my goal was to do it in under 24 hours (I had done 26:30 the year before).  Because I had made a mistake with my training by doing Squaw Peak too close to the race and because I was sick, it became clear during the race that it wasn't possible for me to do it under 24 hours.  At mile 40 I had two options:  (A)  I could slowly run/walk the rest of the way and finish in 26+ hours, or (B) I could drop out.  Going for option A avoids a DNF but means a much longer recovery time--at least three weeks off serious training.  Going for option B means I just had a nice long training run and I can start in with easy runs whenever I want.  Option A might look appealing in the short term, or at least appealing aside from the prospect of enduring even more midge bites, but option B will make me a better runner a few months down the line.

In fact, the real mistake of my training leading up to the WHW was not dropping out of Squaw Peak.  If I had stopped at mile 20 or 30 there, who knows how the WHW would have gone...?  I might have had my 24 hour finish.

The training benefit part of this is especially true when there's an injury or a potential injury involved.  Ultrarunners love to tell stories about so-and-so-person who finished a race even though his broken foot was hanging out of his shoe, etc.  Yes...and how long until so-and-so was able to run well again?  How long did it take him to start improving again after the race?  How much more could he have improved if he had the benefit of that lost time spent on recovery?  I tried (and failed) to run the Sawtooth 100 on a broken ankle once, which I fully admit was a stupid idea, but what would have been even stupider would have been not dropping out.  Dropping out allowed me to rest up the ankle, recover in about three weeks, and be back running normally again a month later.

A few concrete examples of how an unwillingness to drop out can be a hindrance:  I remember back 5 years ago when a friend first told me about the Arrowhead race.  He was saying what an amazing race it sounded like.  I thought that I might like to sign up and asked him if he had ever done it.  He said no, he had never entered, that it was way too hard for him.  He's a much better runner than me, so that worried me, but I signed up anyway.  I didn't manage to finish it on three occasions, but then I did finish, and it was one of my favorite moments in all of my running.  My friend has still never entered.

Another example, also involving Arrowhead:  I mentioned once to a friend that I hate walking, so I was thinking that I'd like to try doing Arrowhead with mostly running.  My friend, who has finished Arrowhead walking and is a veritable ultrarunning machine, said something along the lines of that not being a good idea because it would be too hard and it would lead to a DNF.  But this was all in theory--he's never actually tried to run it, and so while he could theoretically do it faster next time using a run, he'll never know.

Me, I'd rather try and find out.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Squaw Peak 50 Race Report

This was only intended to be a pre-West Highland Way training race for me, but I got far more than I bargained for.  The Squaw Peak 50 is in the mountains just south of Salt Lake City, and the hills there, are, well, mountains.  And then there's the brutal heat, which even a few days of running in Wisconsin humidity hadn't prepared me for.

What a lot of the course looked like.  Photo from the race's Ultrasignup page.

To be fair, I was also having an unusually bad day.  Something (altitude, most likely?) was wrong with my stomach right from the start and by mile 4 I was ready to throw up.  I tried not to, though, because I thought it would be too embarrassing having everyone around me assume that I was sick already because I had so badly misjudged my pace!  At this point I could tell it was going to be a long day...

The race starts off on a paved bike path for 2 miles, then turns onto a singletrack trail up a hill.  It's cold, since the race starts at 5 am, but it's great weather for running. We keep climbing up and get an amazing view of the lake and mountains at sunrise.  More climbing up on singletrack and a rocky road, which winds around to a pass near mile 15.  It's cold up here--Fake Tony (this guy had such a perfect Anton Krupicka imitation look going that since I never got his name, I went with Fake Tony, although he seemed like a much nicer person than his namesake) says I'm lucky to be wearing gloves, but even then my hands are so cold that I can't move my fingers enough to put some Gu I picked up from my drop bag into my pack.  A nice guy named Barry helps me.  A few minutes later I realize it was a wasted effort because I'm too sick to be able to eat any of the Gu anyway.

After mile 15 it's a long downhill, but my stomach hurts too much to run very fast.  The sun comes out and it's immediately way too hot.  I realize I forgot to put on sunscreen, which is bad news at 7,000 feet with red hair.  To balance this out, though, I get lucky on the navigation front:  there are some sudden turns off the rocky main track onto singletrack that I would have missed if I hadn't been able to follow Barry, who, fortunately for me, has done the race before.

Everything feels awful and I consider dropping out at the mile 20 aid station.  This is only a training run after all, and I don't want to overdo it and be too tired to race the WHW.  But I can't drop at 20 because I figure I need to get in at least 40 miles today or it will be too short of a pre-WHW long run.  I decide to slow down to 100-mile pace and treat this as practice for keeping the pace up when I haven't been able to eat much.  I get plenty of practice at that because in the end only a few pieces of fruit, a cookie, and two Gu stay down for the rest of the race.  I even throw up my Tums, which is a new low for me.

Again I wonder if I should drop out.  Maybe I could stop at the mile 33 aid station and add on a few more slow, easy miles on my own?  But the last uphill section ends at mile 40 and then it's all downhill to the finish, so if I'm going to run more than 33 miles anyway, I might as well do the race.  Only 7 miles more of uphill, how bad can it be?

Bad.  Very bad.  Before the race, the race director had talked about how this was one of the hardest 50s in the country.  I didn't doubt that it was at least somewhat hilly and hot, but I figured he was just saying what runners always like to say, that their local race is the hardest/longest/most technical____.  Well, this guy may have had a point.  In addition to the other hard bits of the race, the climbs out of mile 33 are brutally steep and entirely in the hot sun.  The second of the two climbs is straight up a giant hill with no switchbacks.  It takes me 1 hour and 15 minutes to do a mile here and that is fast enough to be passing people.  Even going more slowly than planned, this is definitely not just training anymore.

I have music with me but I'm in too bad of a mood to listen to it.  Everyone else seems to be suffering too--a guy in a white tank top and I trade looks of pain every time we leapfrog each other.  It takes absolutely forever to get to the top of the pass.  I see Divesh at the aid station just on the other side of the pass, and he looks about as happy as I feel.  There's an unpleasantly steep and rocky descent for 6 miles down the other side of the mountain.  I try to convince myself it's good training for the descent into Kinlochleven, which is undoubtedly true, but it's not what my mind wants to hear right now.  Finally, near the end of the descent, I get to see a familiar face when Clark, who we had met the night before at the pre-race dinner, passes me.  The rockiness eventually eases up into smoother, less steep trail.  There's a bit of confusing route-finding at the bottom of the hill but, like clockwork, Barry shows up to point me at the right trail. 

A few minutes later, we end up at the last aid station and from there it's just 3.5 miles on paved road to the end.  I'm fully intending to walk here to limit the leg damage, but a friendly girl named Allison runs up and catches me and I realize it'll be a lot more fun to run with her than to walk on my own.  Plus faster to the finish = faster to a soak in the nice cold creek.  About a mile from the end, Allison drops back but Clark's friend (whose name I can't quite remember now), who had DNFed but was now out on the course to see Clark finish, shows up and kindly runs with me to the end. 

The end result?  I probably should have dropped out.  I'm pretty concerned about whether my legs are going to be fully recovered from this by June 22.  My time was 11:36, in comparison to my 8:55 50-mile split from the Fling a month ago, and I feel a lot worse after this than I did after the Fling.  The course was hard enough that even if I had been having a good day, I probably would have been over 11 hours.  So, I'd say it's definitely not a race to use a training run, but with the beautiful scenery and tough climbs, it would make a nice goal race.

Now I just need all your best recovery tips...

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Climbing at Rib Mountain, Wausau

We were all set for a relaxing Sunday rest day until it occurred to us on Saturday evening that we could <gasp> go climbing on Sunday.  This is the sad state of our climbing:  we've gone from "it's a weekend, where are we climbing?" to "are we climbing this weekend?" to "oh yeah--I guess we could go climbing."  Anyway. Divesh had been to check out the bouldering at Rib Mountain a few weeks ago and we decided to head there for the day.  Access for climbing at Rib Mountain has only been recently restored after a four or five year hiatus, so I thought I'd get some photos and information for anyone interested in checking it out.

First impressions were not exactly favorable.  The rock turned out to be a very shiny, slippery quarterzite.  If you like climbing at Devil's Lake, you might enjoy the rock here, but if you have any decent taste whatsoever in rock type (only teasing, Paul and other DLers!) you may be unimpressed.  There were also several groups of unusually loud tourists which we never really seemed to get away from no matter how far from the main area we went.

But Rib Mountain did have some things going for it.  First, the rock isn't as bad everywhere as it is on the first boulders you get to.  The photo above is looking away from the car park and the boulders in the photo are the set you first get to, the ones which leave a little to be desired in rock quality.  If you go left and slightly down the hill, though, you get to a much nicer area with several good problems.  We tried and/or did a couple of short cracks and a traverse, and fell off various other things.  Most of the problems in this area of the crag were V4 or under, although there was a hard-looking problem involving two shallow seams that we didn't try.

Divesh wants me to point out that he's not actually standing on the ground here.

We were also lucky enough to run into a nice bunch of climbers from Madison.  They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them--it's not the kind of place you expect to see anyone else!

There was also more bouldering down the hillside to the right of the tower, like this prow that Divesh tried:

On the whole, it's an okay crag to try...once.  If, God forbid, you do need to find somewhere to boulder in central Wisconsin, I would personally go for the somewhat nearby Rattlesnake Mound over Rib Mountain:  better rock quality, nicer atmosphere (despite the name), and easier-to-find problems.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

2013 Highland Fling Race Report

Hoka Highland Fling (Milngavie to Tyndrum, Scotland, along the West Highland Way)

The course:  An easy first 12 miles with non-technical trail and just a few rolling hills.  Then a big climb and descent, followed by many more rolling hills and one longer climb starting from mile 27ish.  Technical running from around mile 35 to 39, rolling hills that feel way too long around mile 41-45, a rollercoaster section of steep ups and downs in a forest, and a flat and easy 3 miles to the finish.

The numbers for my race:  53 miles, 9:33, 4th woman

My race was neatly divided into four different parts:

Part 1:  The Dark Miles

Not dark as in pre-dawn but dark as in grim.  It's not the best sign when the first few miles of a race feel bad.  It's even worse when it's the whole first 17 miles that feels bad.  I started the Fling nervous because I hadn't been feeling great for the past week.  True to expectations, when the race started, I immediately felt like I was working way too hard for my pace.  I let my heart rate go quite a bit higher than planned just because otherwise I was going to end up just jogging the easy first 12 miles and wasting loads of time.

One nice part about this section was that I found a lot of friendly people to run with.  I had been running exactly the same pace as a guy named Colin for a while so we started running together and talking, and the miles passed quickly.  I was also impressed that at least half the population of Drymen appeared to have come out to cheer for the race and people were offering fruit to runners by the side of the road!

View from Conic Hill

Part 2:  Happy Times

As we were heading up Conic Hill around mile 17, things changed.  All of a sudden I felt completely fine and ready to run.  I have no idea what happened but whatever it was, I was okay with it!  I sped down into Balmaha as fast as I could and picked up a few gels and pickle juice from my drop bag.  The volunteers were amazing and would have everyone's drop bag ready for them by the time they were in the checkpoint area, so there was zero wasted time getting anything out of your bag.  This was in keeping with the organization of the race as a whole, which was probably the best I've ever experienced.  

Section between Balmaha (mile 19) and Rowardennan (mile 27)

I got a nice steady pace going over the next few miles but half expected things to go downhill again at any moment.  Happily, they didn't.  I felt strong and comfortable, was able to eat and drink plenty, and felt like I could keep up my pace indefinitely.

Looking at the course from the other side of Loch Lomond.  Miles 27 to 40ish do a rising and falling traverse along the hillside in the photo.

The technical section.  Photo by Nick Smith of
The only minor problem was the heat--it wasn't particularly warm most of the time but when the sun was out and the wind died down, there was definitely suffering; I kept running out of water and was filling my bottle from streams or drinking extra at the checkpoints, and I splashed cold water from puddles on my face more than once (this seemed normal at the time...).  I was still feeling pretty good by the time I got to the last checkpoint, Beinglas, around mile 41.  I was in 4th place at this point but a spectator told me the first 3 women were all bunched up and that 1st place was only about 7 or 8 minutes ahead of me.  I was getting tired but figured I had no excuse not to up the effort a little at this point.  It sort of worked--for about two minutes.  But then...

Part 3:  The Meltdown  

...I was met with the bonk.  I had been eating a ton of Gu but apparently it hadn't been enough, and I was suddenly out of all fuel.  I couldn't do much more than stare vacantly into the distance and stagger along.  Bouts of jogging only lasted for 30 seconds at a time.  I had one Gu left that I had been trying to save for the last three miles but I took it anyway.  It wasn't enough, though, and the zombie walk continued for close to two miles.  Then, very luckily, I was saved by three people.  One was a racer who passed me and must have noticed that I wasn't looking so good; he asked if I was okay and offered me some jelly babies, which I don't actually like but which looked like the best food in the world at that moment.  I downed a bag of them in about 5 seconds.  Just after that I met a spectator (she was a member of one of the Edinburgh running clubs) and shamelessly begged for food and water from her.  She was very nice and gave me some kind of crunchy chocolate ball and filled my water bottle.  Total bliss.

Part 4:  Back to Normal...Sort Of

I started walking up the first of the rollercoaster hills and by the time I got to the top, I was feeling much better.  I started running again and was soon caught by Lucy, a relay runner who slowed down and ran with me for a bit and really cheered me up.  By the time Lucy went on ahead, I was feeling nearly as good as I had felt for the middle part of the race.

One of the nicest sections--big downhills on soft pine needles

I crossed what was roughly the 50-mile mark in 8:55 and knew I had only 3 miles of flat, easy ground left.  I struggled a bit still in this section--I spent a while sucking the remnants of Gu out of the empty packets I was carrying--but overall I was happy to be feeling reasonably good again.  The final two miles are actually one of my favorite sections of trail:  something about the look of the trail and the brush to the side of it reminds me of Spain.  The finish line was set up where the By The Way hostel is in Tyndrum and it was an impressive sight, with a massive finishing chute lined with flags of countries racers had come from.  All in all, not a bad day, though next time a bit more food and a bit more hill training would probably not go amiss...

Monday, April 8, 2013

Highland Fling Training and a 10k win!

I'm just about to wrap up my training for the Highland Fling, a 53-miler in Scotland, which will be April 27.  I made a few new choices in making a training plan for this race, so I'm kind of interested to see which things go well and which things go badly on the day.  What I've been doing:

  • 2 speed workouts a week, usually one tempo run and one interval session
  • 2 back-to-back long run weekends, with a longest long run of 28 miles
  • Getting more sleep, although I did fail spectacularly at this this past weekend and am paying for it by coming down with a cold
What I've decided not to do that I normally would have done:
  • A 50k training race
  • Hill repeats--I had so much trouble fitting them into the schedule that I decided to hope that the hills I do in my regular runs are enough
  • Taking one day a week completely off.  Instead of Monday being a complete rest day, I've been doing some easy swimming, which isn't exactly stressful physically but also isn't complete rest
What I wanted to do but failed to manage:
  • At least two days a week of core strength sessions.  I think I managed once every other week on average--oops!
  • Mile repeats.  Because it kept snowing so much in March, I didn't get on the track until this past week.  I ended up doing 5x1200m indoors at the Metrodome a few times, but it wasn't quite the same since my limiting factor at the Metrodome is coping with the heat rather than how fast I can run.
  • Weights, to correct a strength imbalance in my hamstrings (for some reason the right one is really weak)
So we'll see what happens, but my prediction is that the flatter parts of the Fling go well, followed by a big struggle on the hills coming into Beinglas and that steep rollercoaster section through the forest coming into Auchtertyre.  

This weekend, my training plan called for me to run a 10k race.  We had to drive to Ohio for a wedding anyway, so we decided to head to Illinois on Friday night to visit our friends Carles and Elena, and we talked Carles into running a local trail 10k with us on Saturday morning.  Elena was clearly a good-luck-inducing cheering squad, because we all had good races, and I ended up winning mine.  I had to teach Carles the meaning of "sandbag" after he claimed to be completely out of shape but promptly finished 16th out of 240 overall.

Most of the course was on trails and it had enough hills to make it slow, but I was pleased because it was the first time I've felt comfortable running under 7 min miles.  I averaged 7:05 miles, although in reality I didn't run any 7:05 miles; it was 6:50ish on the flats and downhills and 7:20ish on the uphills.  I won an unlikely but nice combination of Mexican pottery and a Chinese figurine:

And it was sunny, dry, and perfect running weather:

Photo by PhotoNews Media

Just two more long runs and two track sessions to go, and then it will be taper time...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Indian Himalaya: A Run With A View

Divesh and I spent the past week in India visiting relatives.  Fortunately for me, a lot of his family is from an area at the edge of the Himalayan foothills, so while visiting them we were able to go for a quick run.

We started from Nainital, a popular tourist town with a scenic lake, and ran up to Snow View--which, as you might imagine, gives you a view of the snowy peaks across a few valleys.  From Snow View we explored a few short trails until we finally hit the jackpot and found a long-distance one.  We didn't have much time and some of the trail was too icy (with steep dropoffs!) to run, but we ran enough of it to know we wanted to come back.  Apparently it goes about 20k to a village/hamlet type of thing, and judging from the terrain we could see, it's going to involve a good amount of ascent and descent...