Monday, November 24, 2014

JFK 50 mile 2014 race report

The start of this year's JFK was bitterly cold, nearly a record low for this race.  It was 16 degrees F when Divesh dropped me off at the starting area, and I told him that if it got colder than the starting temps for Arrowhead, including the warm year, we were turning around and going home.  Fortunately at JFK you're able to wait inside a school gymnasium for part of the pre-race morning.  Twenty minutes before the race start, all the runners have to leave the school and walk about five or ten minutes to the start line.  It was a strange, slightly somber procession.  I tried to jog to warm up but it was hopeless since we were only going to freeze again standing at the start for the ten minutes left before the 7am start.

At 7am on the dot, we were off.  The first 2.5 miles are on a road, up a big hill, which normally probably wouldn't feel very good, but on this day I just wanted to warm up, so it was actually pleasant to be going uphill.  Because it was cold and windy, my heart rate monitor was on the fritz and kept showing numbers in the mid 180s, which I knew was way higher than whatever my actual heart rate was.  Without the monitor to keep me in check, I probably ran too fast on those first couple of miles, but it felt so good to be finally on my way that I didn't care.

At mile 2.5 we turned onto the Appalachian Trail.  There was the usual trail race traffic jam as some people slowed heavily from their road pace, but the first mile of the trail is wide enough to pass so it wasn't much of a problem.  The trees blocked the wind and my heart rate monitor came back to life.  My goal was to keep my heart rate in the 155-158 range, though it can be tricky to stick to a particular heart rate on a crowded trail, when you don't want to be the annoying person who passes someone on a downhill only to immediately slow on the next uphill!  The pack thinned out by mile 6 or so and from there until the final descent off the AT, you could run without worrying about other racers.

The entire AT section was just excellent running.  The sun had come up and it was a beautiful day, still cold but perfect running weather.  The trail is a good mix of difficult, rocky sections (made more difficult by the leaves covering a lot of the rocks) and some easier, less technical sections; there are just enough non-technical parts to keep you from getting mentally exhausted by all the rock-hopping.  My pace felt conservative and comfortable, and my homemade sports drink, being used in its second race, was going down excellently.  I had high hopes for a good stomach day, and those hopes would end up coming true!

Before the race I had gone back and forth in my head many times over shoe choice for this race.  I know...but it's a complicated choice!  You've got the mostly-but-not-entirely rocky trail section, the crushed gravel towpath, and the road.  Trail shoes, for the rocks?  Super light racing flats for the towpath?  Cushy shoes for the pavement??  In the end, I decided to settle the issue with some math:  I timed how long it would take to change my shoes.  The answer was 37 seconds, which made the solution clear:  wear trail shoes for the AT and change into super light Hokas (my Hoka Cliftons are lighter than my road racing shoes!) for the rest of the race.  I knew I would save far more than 37 seconds, not to mention my ankle ligaments, by wearing trail shoes on 13 miles of rocks.  My one disappointment with this strategy was that although it left me all set to save some time by running quickly down the steep mile and a half descent at the end of the AT section, I wasn't able to put my trail shoes to use there because the trail congestion came back and the trains of people were too long to be able to pass.  It was a shame not only for the wasted time but also because the descent looked like it would be great fun to speed down.  Still, on the whole, I definitely appreciated having the trail shoes and I would probably go with the same shoe strategy if I ever do the race again.

I think I came into the aid station at the bottom of the switchbacks, which is mile 15.5, in about 12th place, but because I stopped to change my shoes (and also ended up changing out of three-quarter length tights and into shorts), I wasn't really sure where I was place-wise when I started running again.  All I knew was that I felt fantastic and was ready to speed up.  Just after this aid station you go back onto the AT briefly for a very enjoyable half mile of smooth trail and then you're dumped out onto the canal towpath.  The towpath section of the race is almost exactly a marathon--26.3 miles.  It took all the self-restraint I could manage not to set off too quickly in this section, but I knew I had to be patient.  Anyone who knows my patience level knows why this was the most difficult part of the entire race...

It was also the most boring.  I did enjoy the first few miles of the towpath, with the absolutely perfect weather and the nice light feeling of getting out of my tights and into shorts.  But I had seriously underestimated just how hard it is to run an entire marathon on pancake-flat ground.  I had done plenty of flat training runs, but never more than 16 miles at a time, since I tried to end all my long runs with 4 or 5 miles of hills in order to simulate the towpath-to-road transition at the end of JFK.  This was definitely a mistake and next time I would do at least one 23-25 mile run of pure flatness.  After 17 or 18 miles of towpath I was struggling to force my legs to keep moving at the right speed, even though I knew I wasn't too tired because I was still running almost exactly the same pace for the same heart rate (155ish beats per minute and 8:15 or so minute miles).  I also got sick and threw up once, though like in Flagstaff, it was only the one time and I felt immediately better afterwards, and more importantly stayed better for the rest of the race.  Overall it was a total win on the stomach front.

The towpath boredom was sometimes relieved by briefly talking with a few other runners, but I was on my own 99% of the time.  I did manage to catch up to a nice guy named Keith and talk with him for a while, but he was just a little too fast for me and I reluctantly had to slow down.  Fortunately he was using a run-walk strategy so we ended up leapfrogging each other most of the rest of the race, at least until he left me in the dust the last couple of miles.

The only other excitement during the towpath section came from finally starting to pass some women.  I think I had made it into 10th by mile 27, then 7th by mile 38, where Divesh pointed out that there were two more women only three minutes in front of me.  I was feeling rough at that point and thought I had no chance of catching them, but amazingly enough, one caffeinated gel later, I bounced back and made it into 6th.  The girl I caught stayed right behind me though and I knew it was time to try to find a faster gear.

I came off the towpath having done 3:38 for the slightly long marathon, which happily was seven minutes faster than I'd been hoping for.  I passed one more girl early in the final 8.5 mile road section, and from then on it was just pure pain, misery, and waiting for the end.  I was doing okay on the flats and downhills but every single uphill on that section felt like it was going to do me in.  It was only the desperation to hang onto my 5th place that kept me going.  At 3 miles to go there's a fairly large uphill and I stopped to walk the second half of it.  A guy from Alabama who I had passed a little earlier re-passed me here and said something like "Why did you slow down?"  He was sort of joking but sort of not, and he was exactly right--slowing down wasn't doing me any good.  It only slightly reduced the pain and it was just going to prolong the amount of time until I could stop running.  I tried my best to get it together and was also spurred on by a guy in a red shirt who flew by, looking like he was hardly working despite being almost 48 miles in.  At 2 miles to go there's another uphill and at the top I looked back--no women in sight.  I finally believed, for the first time, that I was actually going to hold on.  I relaxed a little, sped up for the downhill into Williamsport, and made the final turn towards the finish line, crossing the line for an official time of 7:32.

It was finally over!  Though I couldn't fully enjoy the finish because I was in so much pain, I was definitely happy.  My goals had been sub 8 hours and top 10 women, and both of those were "stretch" goals--I thought 8:15 was a more likely outcome.  From miles 30 to 50 I pushed myself as hard as I ever have, and, with the help of that Alabama guy, I didn't give up at the end like I often do.

Now I'm ready for a good long rest, during which I will hopefully finally figure out what I want to do with my next year running-wise...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

JFK 50 Training: A wise man, my mother-in-law, and a mystery foot pain

Starting out this blog post has made me realize that I never finished my Balkans trip report.  I'll just sum it up by saying that our final days consisted of being invited to a party in a ten-house village in Kosovo (we sadly had to decline), Maria being hit on by a drunk singer over a morning picnic, getting lost approximately 10,495 times, fighting our way through the trees and rocks on a steep Barkley-style descent, Maria using her previously-unknown-to-me tracking skills to lead us out of our lostness to within 50 feet of a hotel and bar (she's like a homing pigeon when it comes to wine), and both of us coming down with salmonella/e coli/vicious gut bug of death, though at least on our last day in Montenegro.  We lost a lot of weight during the following week!

Somewhere in the midst of all the stomach pain was a trip to Scotland to be support crew for Michael and Kenny in their Celtman triathlon (though fortunately for me, and also for Kenny who would have had to put up with me, Liam bailed me out of my pacing duties) and squeezing in a quick climb with Dave.  

This is why my JFK training began with three weeks of rest...

With such a large, uninterrupted block of time to train before the race, nearly three and a half months, I was excited to construct the ultimate training plan.  I gave myself a solid six weeks of base building with zero speedwork days, then six more weeks with intervals and tempo runs in the mix, then another two weeks to do a final weekend of back-to-back long runs and start easing off for the two weeks before the race.  In theory, this was going to be perfect.

In reality, it was almost perfect.  It certainly didn't start out perfectly.  Halfway through my basebuilding period, I felt awful.  My legs were sluggish and my pace for my regular training run heart rate was slower than it had been in about a year.  I was also visiting Duluth at this point and struggled with the humidity--and this is coming from summer in Georgia!  On one of the days in Duluth I ran with Rasmus at Lester Park and we mixed in a few speed intervals into a ten-mile run.  As I wheezed and gasped my way along behind Rasmus, he turned to me and asked, "Do you have asthma??"  No, Rasmus, no I don't.  Fortunately, being the wise man that he is, he reminded me to trust the training and not to panic and head off to the track for some 800m repeats, which would likely do nothing other than ruin my nicely-planned out basebuilding phase.  I repeated this to myself several times over the next few weeks and managed to finish out the phase without abandoning my training plan.

Then, my in-laws came to visit for two weeks.  I may or may not owe my mother-in-law a significant amount of credit for how everything quickly turned around for me fitness-wise.  My in-laws are Indian and my mother-in-law is not only a great cook but also seems to genuinely enjoy cooking for us when she visits.  Virtually everything she cooks is extremely healthy, and since this was at the same time that I started doing twice-weekly speedwork, it turned into an impromptu crash diet.  It's hard to say whether the speedwork or the diet had more of an impact, but one day I went for a run on a flat road as a bit of a fitness test--I do this once in a while, run at a heart rate of 150 beats per minute on a flat, straight road and see what pace that gives me.  When I'm in shape it's generally around 8:25 minute miles.  On this particular day, it was 8:00.  I figured it was a GPS malfunction and forgot about it.  Two days later I won a trail 10k and felt nice and strong.  The day after that, I tried the heart rate/pace test again, this time in a different location.  Same result.  Hmmm...!

There was one small interruption to my "perfect" training plan after this--the Flagstaff 55k.  It was the last race in the US Skyrunning series and since I had done the first race, I felt like I should really give Flagstaff a try to see if I could scrape together a few more series points.  The race was entirely at altitude (8,000 to 11,500 feet) and very hilly, so since I had been training on mostly flat-ish ground to get ready for JFK, I had pretty low expectations.  And while the results don't show it (my time was super slow because I took forever in the last 5k, even longer than such a hard 5k demanded), the race actually went really well for me.  I was running much faster on the flats and downhills than I normally would, all for the same race pace heart rate I would usually use.  My new homemade sports drink was working well; my legs felt strong pretty much the whole race and I only threw up once, which by my standards is a 10 out of 10 on stomach quality.  And even with the altitude and the lack of hill training I was still mostly passing people on the second-to-last big climb.  In that last 5k, though, I was seriously sunburned and overheated and was getting paranoid about heat stroke, so I took it easy and spent lots of time standing in little patches of shade trying to cool down.  So while my finish time wasn't very good, I was really excited about having felt so good in the first 50k.  I also got to meet some way faster yet friendly new runner friends.  And I feel fairly confident that I won't have to worry about heat or sunburn at JFK!   For anyone who's interested, Flagstaff was a great course with beautiful views and nice singletrack trail; there's a video summarizing it here.

For added satisfaction, I recovered quickly from Flagstaff, partly through spending four days on the Appalachian Trail with my friend Nick.  We were treated to a great show of leaf color, and there's nothing better than doing a totally different type of running to get fully recovered and revived.

After that it was back to JFK work.  I had some sections of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia that I wanted to see, and it's only a short hop from Virginia to Maryland, so I managed to get in two long runs on the actual JFK course.  These went fairly well although I was somewhat dismayed to learn that the hills on the Appalachian Trail part of the JFK course are nothing to sneeze at, and with a lot of that section being rocky, it's not going to be quite as fast of a 50 miler as I thought it would be.  Still, all in all, with 26 miles of towpath and 8.5 miles of road, it's definitely about running fast rather than getting up and down big hills, which is what I wanted.

If the race had been a week ago, it might really have been the perfect training period.  But then, the "almost" part of "almost perfect" set in.  Two days ago I started having a strange pain in the arch of my right foot.  I'm trying to avoid mentioning the possibility of it being the-injury-that-shall-not-be-named, the one that can take months to recover from, but so far that appears to be the most likely culprit.  Since JFK is my goal race for the entire season, I'll have no qualms about shutting the pain up with ibuprofen on race day and dealing with the aftermath later, but at the moment even a quadruple dose of vitamin I doesn't sound like enough to do the trick.  Fingers crossed.  Until then, if you have any thoughts on how to cure the-injury-that-shall-not-be-named in less than 8 days, please let me know...

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Day 4

Like every other day on these trips, Day 4 started off with a steep climb.  This time it was to a meadow that the trail description said would have a good view.  They weren't kidding:

The day's route involved briefly crossing into Montenegro but then returning to Albania for several more kilometers, passing through the small village of Doberdol, and then crossing over into Kosovo for the third section of the trail.  As we climbed out of Cerem and crossed into the next few valleys, the scenery changed from Alpine to a bit like the Pyrenees:

All was going well until about 1 kilometer after the summer shepherds' village of Balqin, where our trail markings abruptly ended in the middle of a large meadow.  It was back to map and compass time, which was a slight mental blow when we had gotten used to being off navigation duty.  The real problem was that we weren't sure if the markings were actually gone or if we had just gone the wrong way, so we spent a fruitless hour or so searching for the trail before deciding to plan our own route to Doberdol.  On top of this, we had pretty much polished off our remaining pite and the few snacks we had managed to buy in Valbone.  We sat down and assessed our situation:

Alicia:  So we have a couple of snacks left but no dinner?
Maria:  Right.  And no breakfast.
Alicia:  Okay.  So we have no dinner, no breakfast, and we don't know where we are, but other than that...everything's good?

After what felt like a very long time of making our way across a ridge in the hot sun, we arrived in the village that we had assumed from a distance must be Doberdol.  In one of our few lucky navigational breaks, it was.  When we got there, though, we stared up at a signpost, trying to figure out how the arrows pointing toward various other villages could possibly fit with what the map was telling us.  This problem was solved a minute later when a friendly guy from the village walked up to us, looked up at the signpost himself, and then rotated the entire post about 90 degrees.

The guy, who we decided to call Dimples, then took us back to the Doberdol mountain hut for some food:  milk, yogurt, fresh cheese, bread, tomatoes, and cucumbers.  All good, though at this point I was really ready for some variety; we'd largely been eating this same meal, or parts of it, for the past few days.  We ate a little and put the rest in our packs to save for dinner.

Hiking up the very steep hill out of Doberdol, we met a shepherd and proceeded to have a conversation that we'd also been having over and over again for the past few days:  the discussion of where we were going. This was not exactly a language barrier but more like a fundamental state of mind barrier.  The problem was, our trail was essentially a long, thin oval.  This meant that at any given point, it would have been faster to go across the oval to get to a particular town further down the route, rather than to continue around the oval.  So when I would say to someone that we were going to Town B via Town A, they would invariably point out that we were in fact going completely the wrong direction to get to Town B and that Town A wasn't even remotely on the way to Town B.  In most cases this eventually led to an impassioned discourse on why we needed to turn around and go a different way; I didn't have the language skills to explain that the whole point of the trip was to go the long way around.  The upshot was that we left a trail of people in our wake who believed we were complete idiots. Much the same as everyday life, no doubt.

After continuing on up the hill, we made it to the triangular border area between Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo:

This was a beautiful, very runnable section of trail, though we spent far too long trying to decide if we should be looking for trail markers, since the trail description claimed that the whole section was marked, or if we should just use the map to get to the next village by the best route we could come up with.  It got frustrating quickly, especially as the day went on and the sun started to go down while we were still on the high border ridge.

We knew we needed to get down before dark, partly because the trail description warned of a scary descent and partly because we didn't have warm enough sleeping bags to stay the night up high.  Our bodies were starting to complain from the long day and various aches, pains, and niggles appeared (Maria, staring at her feet:  "Is that my skin?!").  Eventually we found the right route--there was in fact no scary descent, and what the trail description called 4km was actually 10km according to signposts--and headed down to find a camping spot just above the village of Roshkodol, Kosovo.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Day 3

After a restful night in Okol we started off Day 3 with the climb up to Valbona pass.  This was a steep climb but fortunately it was broken up by a cafe three-quarters of the way up.  We happily traded our pure wilderness experience for the chance to have a coffee.

The other side of the pass was steep, grey, and beautiful:

The thin line across that hillside is our trail

On the way down we made a couple of new friends and played around on some boulders.  This was yet another place that I would have happily spent several more hours in if we had had more time in the schedule.

We climbed a nice V0 together.  The ascent in a suit was probably the most stylish ascent this boulder has ever seen.

Coming down onto the valley floor, we got to a "road" of crushed white stone.  The blinding whiteness of the rock plus the pine trees lining the sides of the road gave it an eerily Arrowhead-like feel:

After a few kilometers the gravel road dumped us out onto a paved road, the first we'd seen since Plav.  We had hoped to hitchike but when we still hadn't had any cars pass going in our direction by the time we got to the town of Valbone, we decided to hire a taxi for the remaining 13 miles of road to get back onto the trail.  These 13 miles took us to the small (7 or 8 houses?) village of Cerem.

Cerem ended up being one of our most interesting stops.  For a start, it was our first experience of the typical way of finding somewhere to stay the night in the small villages.  This way consists of essentially walking up to anyone in the village and asking if they know of anywhere you can stay.  We weren't in Albania long enough to be sure, but I suspect the answer is always "Yes--at my house."  That was the answer in Cerem anyway, so we were taken off to a beautiful house which fortunately had a nice warm stove going (it was cold and just starting to rain at this point).  The house belonged to a couple who had four kids, including one very smiley, sweet oldest son.  As soon as we arrived the son ran off to fetch his cousin, who was a 16-year-old dental student who spoke great English.  The cousin, like the rest of the family that we were staying with, lived in a relatively big city in Kosovo for 9 months of the year but came out to Cerem to farm for the summer.  It was impressive:  out of all the options he must have had for what to do with his summer (he was smart and undoubtedly a good student as well as funny and charming), he chose to come out to a village with no electricity, running water, or phone signal, and to do hard work every day, because he enjoyed spending time with his family and working on the farm.  He told us he would find us on Facebook--but only after September when he got internet access again.

Cerem was also the scene of our most amazing trail food.  The wife in the family that we stayed with cooked us pite, which can apparently be made in many different ways with different ingredients but in this meal was a large, round, potato and onion pie.  It was excellent, especially after a day of being hungry and living off yet more bread and fresh cheese.  The next morning we were thrilled beyond belief when the wife sent us off with more pite for the trail.

One cultural note that Maria and I both thought deserved attention is that in all the areas the trail passes through, adult villagers will always refuse money for food and accommodation.  However, as we were fortunately told in advance by an Albanian man who helped with our border crossing permits, it's okay, and appreciated, to give some money to a family's children in exchange for food or a room.  We're hoping that future editions of the official trail description will include that information so that if hordes of hikers do descend on the trail over the next few years, they don't unwittingly eat local families out of house and home.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Peaks of the Balkans Trail: Days 1 and 2

After a first evening of wandering around lost in the pouring rain and a morning of wandering around lost in the sunshine, Maria and I spotted salvation:  a signpost on top of a hill!  Surely that would tell us where we were and we could be properly on our way around the trail.  I ran over to the sign.

"What's it say?" called Maria.
"Turn back now..." I answered.

Maria laughed at my joke, which unfortunately was not actually a joke and was what the sign really said.  Whether it was referring to land mines or just the end of a day hike, it wasn't the most inspiring message for the start of a run, especially when you've just run across the ground behind the sign.

We were in Montenegro to run the 200km Peaks of the Balkans loop trail, which takes in a national forest area encompassing Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo.  What had happened was that we had accidentally started our run on the one section of trail that is completely unmarked.  Our starting point was Plav, Montenegro, and we were supposed to be headed in a counterclockwise circle through the rest of Montenegro and then Albania and Kosovo.

Coming out of Plav, a brief break in the rain

But with only a large-scale map that didn't show most of the trails on the ground and zero trail markings to help, we had been reduced to using the compass the whole time and going in the general direction that the trail was supposed to go.  The first evening, after 3 hours of running/walking in the rain, we spend a very soggy, cold night camping, unsure if we were even anywhere near the trail.  In the morning it was still cold and a little rainy-looking, and I was silently in favor of turning around and going back to Plav.  But fortunately we pushed on and eventually came upon the "turn back" sign, which, despite its negativity, did name the hill it was on, and that hill was on our map, so we were able to plot a cross-country route to intersect the trail.

Our navigational worries were far from over, but eventually we did find our trail that morning.  Everything improved dramatically at this point.  The trail was perfect and runnable.  We had great views on all sides.  And soon we were treated to our first experience of the region's amazing hospitality:  running through a small summer shepherds' camp, we were invited into a family's house for coffee, fresh milk, cheese, and honey.  In the two days before the trip, I had given myself a crash course in Albanian, and it was now time to attempt to actually speak it.  It worked!  At least, on my five-year-old level of ability it worked.  Maria improved our standing greatly by having remembered to bring cigarettes and chocolate to offer in return.  We left well-fed, caffeinated, and seriously impressed by everyone's friendliness.

Just after the shepherds' camp was one of the most beautiful sections of trail:

After this section the trail started being marked, which made our lives much, much easier.  We could put away the compass and map and just enjoy a pleasant, gradually downhill run into Vusanje, a village where we were planning to buy food for the remaining 20k over a big mountain pass to Theth.

But buying food was not to be.  Vusanje's one small food store ("store" is a little optimistic; think small roadside shack) was shut.  We were generously invited by a woman we saw out working in her garden to stay overnight at her house, but we had to press on since we were on a limited time schedule, not to mention that we were going to run out of food soon so it was a good idea to try to make it all the way to Theth that night.

From Vusanje we went up an easy trail through a deep valley lined with towering limestone spires.  The climbing here is undoubtedly good...

This was another excellent section of trail, though we did get a little demoralized by the false summits near the top of the pass.  We were getting seriously hungry (this would remain a theme throughout the trip...), though despite this Maria shared her remaining food with me.  My morale was also improved by getting to climb a nice little boulder problem near the top of the pass!

We saw a few people in this section--a couple of Germans, a guy who spoke Albanian but who I think was from Serbia, a shepherd with a huge flock of sheep and several herding dogs who were not amused at our presence--but overall the trail was quiet as usual.  Even in this section, which was one of the less remote, it was always noticeable how few people there were around.

Eventually we reached Qafa e Pejes pass:

 From here it was a beautiful but quad-bustingly steep descent into Theth, or actually Okol, a small village about 2km outside of Theth, where we stayed a very relaxing night in a guesthouse.  Staying in a guesthouse was so much better than camping!!  I had failed to learn the word for "dinner" in Albanian so I really struggled to ask if we could buy dinner there and for a half hour or so we weren't sure if we were going to get to eat.  But soon an enormous dinner appeared on the patio for us--eggs, cabbage and tomato salad, peppers, fried potatoes, pork, and bread.  It would turn out to be by far the most varied meal of the trip, and also, somewhat surprisingly, the only time we saw meat.  (I had thought Maria, a vegetarian, would struggle to find non-meaty food, but in reality there was barely any meat available.  The people who would have difficulty eating here would be those allergic to milk.)  Mirash, the guesthouse owner, drank some raki with us and did his best to keep us entertained despite my limited vocabulary.  We went to bed thrilled to be (a) inside and (b) not soaking wet.

Day 1:  Approximately 8km
Day 2:  At least 40km, probably around 45.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Bob Graham Round: Close but no cigar

The Bob Graham Round is actually where ultrarunning started for me.  About 8 years ago, when I was living in Leeds, running the odd road marathon here and there and doing a lot of climbing, my friend Ali mentioned that there was this challenge in the Lake District called the Bob Graham and that I should try it sometime.  It was the first I had ever heard of people running for longer than 26.2 miles.  I looked into it a little and never seriously thought about trying it, but in looking into it I found out about all these ultra races that looked so intriguing and just had to try a few.  So 8 years later when my friend Nick said he wanted to do the BG and that I should come with, I said I would.

The BG isn't very well known in the US but in the UK it's a popular long distance challenge.  The idea is to do a round of 42 peaks in the Lake District, starting and ending in Keswick.  Depending on the exact route you take between the peaks it's about 65 or 66 miles.  You've got 24 hours for an official finish.  It's the terrain and the ascent/descent that makes it hard--27,000 feet of ascent (that's ascent only, not ascent and descent...) and not much of what American runners would think of as "trails":  there are grassy paths through boulder fields, boulder fields on their own, scree, etc.

For an official finish you also need witnesses for you getting to each summit, so the support crew logistics are fairly involved.  I ended up with a great team of pacers and road crew who all kindly gave up their weekend to come out at antisocial times of day and night to help me.  I owe a HUGE thank you to Nick for organizing all the support crew even after he decided he wasn't going to do the run himself.  He saved me from what would have been many late nights over the past few weeks.

Leg 1:  Keswick to Threlkeld
12.5 miles
5,125 feet of ascent

At the Moot Hall door starting line.  
Jen was so prepared!  

I set off from the Moot Hall at 6:30pm on the dot with Jen Adair, my amazingly generous pacer for this leg.  I had only recently met Jen and yet she gave up her birthday weekend to pace!  Not only that but she was also great at pacing--she was way organized, super supportive and encouraging, and a great navigator.

After a surreal start next to a bunch of men dressed up in Star Wars costumes (??) we did a slightly overexcited run at 10k speed out of central Keswick and then got back to reality for a nice power walk up Skiddaw. We did arrive at the summit 5 minutes early but after that all calmed down and we stayed pretty much exactly on schedule the rest of the leg.  It was a beautiful evening and it felt more like a nice run with a friend than a big hard event.  We fought our way through the horrible bog sections in the middle of the leg and arrived at Great Calva and Blencathra on time.  I had decided to do the top part of the Blencathra descent on the super steep grass next to the scree field and it was the first, but not the last, time on the round that I looked down and thought "What am I doing?!"  I tried to block out the enormous vertical drop below me and ran down as best as I could, traversing over to the Hall's Fell ridge where it got more runnable and then doing my best (which is not very good) to run down that.

Leg 1, looking back towards Great Calva.  Not from the actual attempt but from a recce run we did earlier in the week.

We got into Threlkeld 15 minutes ahead of schedule, a good time I thought--we had a nice buffer but we hadn't completely overdone it.  My amazing road crew, Roslyn and Katusha at this point, had a nice cup of tea waiting for me and we did a quick reloading of food and water.  Jen's boyfriend Andrew had come out to cheer and he and Katusha both took some videos of us coming in; looking back at them now it seems like a lifetime ago that we looked that fresh!

Leg 2:  Threlkeld to Dunmail
13 miles
6,020 feet of ascent

Leg 2 is the "easy" leg of the BG so we had set up my schedule for this to be the night section.  We also had the generous help of Clare Holdcroft, who I didn't know but who had responded to Nick's request on a running forum for more pacers.  Having her there was really helpful because she could provide a nice morale boost and help carry my food, which left Nick, who was also pacing this section, to do the navigation--which he did very well; we stayed right on course all night.

Other than getting to see the moon on the climb up Clough Head, I didn't particularly enjoy this leg.  I was feeling nauseated most of the time and I never like running at night.  We lost a few minutes of time as well, and on the final descent I managed to step into a ravine and twist both feet, a painful jolt at 3 a.m...

Leg 3:  Dunmail to Wasdale
15 miles
6,640 feet of ascent

I kept my stop with the road crew at the end of Leg 2 to a minimum in order to make up the time we had lost on that leg, which was hard to do because all I really wanted to do was spend time with the great people in my support crew!  But all too soon it was time to set off on Leg 3.  Leg 3 is the hardest leg of the route.  It's the longest, it comes right in the middle after a tiring night, and the last half of the leg really packs in the hard climbs, with mostly rocky ascents and descents and an actual scramble to get up Scafell.

Bowfell (also not from the actual attempt; thanks for the photo, Nick)

Lord's Rake (not from the actual attempt either)

Nick pushed through some pain to carry on pacing me for most of this leg.  I also had the secret weapon of Andy Hobson pacing me, and that completely turned my day around.  He had gone to check out the route just for his pacing job, he was great company, and he was able to keep me going through some pretty rough patches.  I had been nauseated ever since the end of leg 1 and it was getting worse by the middle of leg 3.  Eventually, in the middle of a particularly hard climb, I stopped to throw up and then decided to spend 10 minutes or so resting to see if I could reset my stomach.  I hadn't been eating much, I was starting to slow down and get behind 24 hour pace, and I knew I was going to need some food in order to be able to make up time later.  I figured that even though we didn't have any time to spare, it might be a good investment to spend some time on a rest if that would get me eating again.  And after my experience at Cruel Jewel only 3 weeks ago, I wasn't keen on spending the whole race being sick--I wasn't even sure I would have wanted to continue if I were to stay that sick.

Surprisingly enough the stop worked.  After about 10 minutes I ate part of a sandwich and it actually tasted good and was clearly going to stay down.  I gave Andy one very relieved look and we started on up the rest of the climb (Bowfell I think?  I can't remember).  It was a big turnaround point.  Andy commented how I had perked right up and it really was pretty exciting to suddenly feel good again and to not have my stomach hurt.  It was also a gorgeous morning and I was finally able to enjoy the amazing views we were getting.  I started to think that maybe I could actually finish this thing.

We ticked off some of the hardest summits of the leg at a respectable pace but the weather was turning--the wind was so strong on a couple of the summits that we had to crawl at the top!  I found the descent off Scafell quite painful and broke part of a toenail off here.  In theory that shouldn't have been a big deal but it was strangely painful and ended up bothering me the rest of the run.

Right at the end of the leg we got one of the best parts of the whole day:  the good scree gully just above Wasdale.  I'm no fan of scree descents but this was the most amazing scree ever, just the right size bits for a soft run/"ski" down.  Andy and I were both grinning from ear to ear at the bottom.

Leg 4:  Wasdale to Honister
10.2 miles
4,845 feet of ascent

At the crew stop at Wasdale I was met with many more people who I couldn't wait to see.  James Rowe had taken over driving duties, and Julie Mair was there to cheer me on and collect Andy.  I had two fresh pacers waiting for me:  Jen, who had done Leg 1 with me, and Carrie Craig, who was down from Edinburgh to help out.  I had had a really nice time running with her for part of the West Highland Way Race and I was looking forward to getting to run with her again.

Leg 4 is my favorite; it has some of the best views and a few big climbs (I'm comparatively faster at the ascents so I do better time-wise on them).  It was raining when we set off but only lightly, and the sky was still bright so it didn't seem likely that we'd get the apocalyptic rain that had originally been forecast.

Views on Leg 4, again not from the actual round; far too sunny in the photo for that!
Jen and Carrie took great care of me on this leg, holding onto my food, water, and spare clothes and helping me out with whatever I needed.  We made good time on the first half of the leg, consistently getting to the summits ahead of schedule.  I got another glimmer of hope for making it around under 24 hours.  Then...the weather turned.  We had just gotten up Kirkfell and a storm rolled in with strong winds, driving rain, and enough mist that we couldn't see anything.  We got lost for a while and spent a while wandering around trying to get our bearings and get back on the route.  I had just put my waterproof jacket on but I was already freezing and with not a lot of food in my system I was getting seriously chilled.  By the time we got back on course I was a wreck.  I put on my second jacket plus one of Jen's but just couldn't get warm, no matter how fast we went on the ascents.  I spent the rest of the leg in a state of vague panic, not able to say much of anything (Jen told me later they couldn't understand much of what I was saying anyway when I did try to talk) and losing minutes off the pace at a rapid rate.

Great Gable, from a recce run two weeks ago.  Conditions at least somewhat similar to the actual day...

When we got close to the end of the leg Jen used her demon descender skills to go ahead and tell the support crew what was going on.  When I finally got down to Honister they had all my spare clothes ready for me and I did as quick of a clothes change (I had my friend Claire's "adventure trews" as waterproof trousers waiting for me, fortunately, or else I might not have gone out again!) as I could, stood under the hair dryers in the bathroom for a bit (Honister is the best road crew support point because there's a cafe there where you can go indoors), drank a cup of hot chocolate, and headed out again.

Leg 5:  Honister to Keswick (or not quite to Keswick, in my case...)
10.5 miles
2,326 feet of ascent

For this leg I had yet more good support.  I was rejoined by Andy, plus Nick's friend Katie Reece came out and it was good to see her.  I did feel bad for not giving her much of a run though, with my slow pace!  In theory this is the easy leg, since it's only 3 summits, 1 big descent, and then 4 road miles back to Keswick.  But with the rough end to Leg 4 and the time spent changing clothes and thawing out, I only had 2:15 for the leg, and I knew when I set off that that was unlikely to happen.  I gave it my best shot but when we made it to the summit of the last peak at about 23 hours and 30 minutes, it was sadly clearly over.  We eased off the pace and did the long, horrible descent back to the road, then Katie ran to get the support crew to pick us up.  I had debated in my mind whether I wanted to run into the finish anyway despite missing the cutoff but decided against it since 4 miles on the road in my water-flattened, thin trail shoes would have been pretty brutal on my body.  I'd rather just do it again some time and get it right.

It was a hard day.  The BG is probably the physically hardest thing I've ever tried.  Mentally it's not as bad as something like Arrowhead because you're constantly surrounded by pacers and you get to meet your crew several times, but the unrelenting pace needed for a 24 hour finish at the BG is brutal to keep up for that length of time over that terrain.  I also got far colder in the BG than I ever got in Arrowhead!

It was not the outcome I expected--I thought I would either fail sometime during leg 3 or make it to the end--but it was a good experience.  It was, after all, 24 hours of running with friends in the Lakes; that can never be too bad of a day.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Cruel Jewel 50 Race Report

The name "Cruel Jewel 50" is two-thirds accurate.  It's 56 miles, not 50.  But cruel is right, and jewel is right.

The jewel part:  This race is on a beautiful course in the north Georgia mountains.  The course has a nice flow to it, starting out with the easiest parts and then getting harder and harder until the big climb up Coosa Bald at mile 47ish.  Then, as long as your quads are still intact from the previous 47 miles, it eases off with a giant descent (2,500 feet I believe?) and an easy-ish last 3 miles.  And, for this year, the weather was one of the pluses.  After hearing the horror stories about last year's heat and torrential rain, I was trying to be mentally prepared for anything, but we ended up with perfect running weather the whole time.  It was even downright cold at the end--ideal for an ex-Minnesotan.

The cruel part:  There is a whopping 17,000 feet of ascent in this race.  The race is run mostly at night so there isn't much enjoying the scenery to do.  From miles 36 to 49 the course is on the Duncan Ridge Trail, and if you don't know what that means, trust me that you probably don't want to ever have to find out.

In theory I had a good race.  I came in second woman, just about made my absolute-best-case-scenario time goal (it was 14 hours, though I had expected to be closer to 15 hours; I think my finish time was around 14:05), and my legs felt strong the whole way.  I enjoyed large parts of it, especially the late evening hours and getting to see the eventual women's winner, Jaclyn, a couple of times as we went back and forth with each other--I was equal parts dismayed and impressed when she flew past me on the way up Coosa and I knew I wouldn't be seeing her again.

But despite all this, I don't feel like I had a good race.  I was so, so sick most of the way, throwing up with high frequency from around mile 25 to the end.  It was worse than Arrowhead; I was sick more often and it was all stomach acid coming up, which made for a very painful 8 hours or so.  I was still able to run okay until the last 7 miles but eventually I couldn't handle the pain and just started walking.  This didn't end the vomiting but it lessened it, and the motion of walking didn't hurt my stomach as much as the motion of running.  

It felt like just a little bit more damage to my body than was justifiable.  I don't know what that much stomach acid coming up in that short of a time span might do to my esophagus (though I'll be looking into it now...) and although my kidneys were okay despite me not keeping any significant amounts of water down in the second half of the race, they might not have been okay if it had been a hotter day.  

The race also left me no closer to figuring out why I get such terrible nausea in races--the weather wasn't hot and I wasn't overdoing the effort, and these are my two top contenders for causes.  I was wearing a heart rate monitor and in fact, if anything, I was pushing the pace too little rather than too much; for about 80 percent of the race my heart rate was actually at closer to 100 mile effort than 50 mile effort.  

I was actually going to drop out at mile 53 but I had forgotten that the aid station there was just an unmanned table with water jugs, so there was nobody around who could have taken me back to the finish line anyway.  I walked the 3 miles in to the finish but it was seriously unpleasant and not something I'd want to go through again any time soon.  If I can't find and fix whatever's causing the nausea, I may consider focusing on shorter (marathon to 50k) races for a while to give my body a break.  Even an easy 50 miler might be okay since I wouldn't be out there so long.  I just can't repeat the Cruel Jewel experience in the near future.

Once I finally started feeling a little recovered a few hours after the finish, it was a fun morning.  The race finishes in a cabin at Vogel State Park and there were lots of nice runners and volunteers hanging out and waiting for everyone to come in.  Divesh was out on the 100 mile course having a great day so I spent the day talking to racers and waiting for Divesh--although in a pathetic failure of support, I actually missed both his stop at the park at mile 85 *and* his finish.  It was clearly his fault for running too fast!   

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Calling all injured and formerly-injured runners!

Being in injury recovery mode, I have had running injuries on the brain for a few weeks now.

There are lots of good sports medicine studies that provide helpful info for deciding how to treat an injury, but there is also a lot of information that is still unknown or hasn't been studied extensively.  While more research will surely be coming, I have made an informal, unscientific study to try to get a few treatment suggestions for us in the meantime.  It's better than nothing!  I invite all injured and formerly-injured runners to fill out the survey here:

It should take 15 to 20 minutes.  You will see more or fewer questions depending on your answers.  There is more information about the survey when you click on the link.

The more recent the injury the better, though injuries from any time frame (especially for people with good memories!) are welcome.

I'm looking for at least 500 responses so please fill it out and then ask your friends to as well!  Thanks for your help.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Misadventures in Running Healthcare

Last Saturday I had a sudden, strange Achilles injury.  I've had trouble with tendinitis (or, as I guess it really should be called now, tendinopathy) in my Achilles several times in the past but have been able to keept the pain at bay with a program of eccentric heel-drop exercises.  Of course, it's hard to convince yourself to put in the time on injury prevention when you're not actually injured, so over the past year or so I've stopped doing the exercises.  I had about two days of general soreness before Saturday's run, and then when I was 20 minutes into the run, I felt a sudden pain and could no longer run.  It was hard enough just to walk the two miles or so back to the car.

I was pretty worried, since the sudden pain sounded a lot more like a partial tear (I did the calf squeeze test to check it wasn't a full tear and it wasn't) than "tendinitis."  And as I was recently saying to my friends Rasmus and Tracy, I wanted to know for sure which injury I was dealing with, because with a partial tear it's disputed whether running during the healing process is a good thing or a bad thing: vs.  So if an MRI did show a tear, I would need to do more research, and probably be more careful, before I incorporated running into my rehab plan.

So, I went to the doctor...and I was dismayed at what I found.  Not at what I found in my tendon fortunately--that was good news.  It looks like there's no significant tearing.  The cause of the sudden pain may have been a muscle pull at the point where the Achilles meets the calf, or some combination of tendon microtears and muscle damage in that area.  What I was dismayed about finding was the quality of the advice I got.

I went to a sports medicine clinic.  One of their doctors, Dr. 2, was listed as specializing in Achilles injuries, so that's who I wanted to see.  On my first visit, Dr. 2 was out sick, so I saw Dr. 1.  I wasn't too bothered about who I saw for that first visit since all I needed was for someone to order an MRI.  But Dr. 1 was nevertheless an orthopedic doctor and so in theory should have had a reasonable knowledge of tendon injuries.  However, he didn't know what eccentric exercises were, despite their efficacy in tendinopathy treatment being shown by studies going all the way back to the mid-1980s and confirmed by higher-quality studies in the late 1990s ( is a good general review).  Dr. 1 was also surprised by the idea of ultramarathons and suggested that I might have to choose between being injury-free and continuing to run long distances.  Dr. 1 didn't ask questions about the type of pain I felt when the injury happened or whether I had previously suffered from tendinitis--I eventually volunteered that information.

Dr. 1 did an ultrasound and thought he might see a partial tear, so he ordered an MRI.  A few days later I met with Dr. 2 to review the results.  As I mentioned above, he didn't see any significant tearing, so we started discussing rehab plans.  He asked whether I had been doing any PT/rehab yet and I said that after I found out the results of the MRI, I had started doing the standard eccentric heel-drop exercises.  His primary advice was that these were bad for tendon healing and that I should stop doing them.  Again, the evidence that these work is about as solid as it gets, e.g., and the only cases where the exercises might not be as effective are when the tendinopathy is located at the insertion point in the heel or when the patient is not an athlete, neither of which are applicable here.  And of course in those cases the efficacy was only reduced; there was no suggestion that the exercises were harmful.

Dr. 2 also prescribed a (brand name...) prescription-strength anti-inflammatory.  This is unlikely to do me any good ( and and may in fact do some harm (, not to mention the other standard side effects of NSAIDs.  And that is without even getting into the issues of (a) recent research showing that Achilles tendinopathy is not generally an inflammatory condition,, and (b) whether suppressing any inflammatory response is beneficial.

I am frustrated.  On one hand, I only went to the clinic for the MRI results, and I've successfully got those.  On the other hand, considering the high financial cost and time out of my day(s) that going to the clinic took, it would have been nice to get some accurate advice while I was there.  I will continue to design my own rehab plan based on real evidence, and I will keep a copy of the MRI images so that I can bring them for a second opinion if I'm having problems.  As it turns out, Hakan Alfredson, Mr. Achilles Tendon Expert himself, has a clinic in London, and I'll be in London at some point in the next couple of months.

When I left the clinic today, my question to myself was, what has to happen for this standard of treatment to improve?  And what can runners/other injured athletes do about it in the meantime?

I have no answer to the first question.  As to the second, beyond the advice that whenever my friend Dave finishes his injury prevention and treatment book, you should absolutely buy it--it focuses on climbing injuries but the general concepts are just as useful to runners as to climbers, and it is the best advice I've ever seen on injuries--I have two thoughts:

Stop assuming every doctor is equally qualified

Most countries have a longstanding cultural tradition of looking up to doctors and assuming that whatever a doctor says about your treatment must be right.  The problem is that when you stop to think about this, it's absolutely bizarre.  In every profession, there are people who are good at their jobs, people who are averagely competent, and people who are not good at their jobs.  To assume that doctors are somehow exempt from this phenomenon defies logic.  I have certainly seen in law that passing a bar exam is no guarantee of a competent lawyer--there's a reason that legal malpractice suits happen.  In a similar vein, passing medical board exams guarantees a level of base knowledge, and continuing education requirements guarantee additional learning in particular chosen topics.  Neither of those things guarantee that a doctor is current on the research in one particular area, that the doctor is good at interpreting and analyzing new developments in treatment, or that the doctor is good at collecting information from a patient and putting that information to use.

From the standpoint of an injured runner, the sooner the mindset of assuming every doctor is excellent at his or her job changes, the sooner treatment quality will progress.  A simple "Could you explain your reasoning for that?  I read a study which concluded the opposite..." could go a long way towards getting rid of treatment recommendations that are no longer supported by evidence but continue to be made simply because they always have been.  Today I was in a rush and didn't take the time to do this at my appointment, which I now regret.

Ask questions you already know the answer to

One problem for me, as an injured runner who's not in the medical field, is that it can be hard to tell if the medical advice I'm getting is good or bad.   I didn't come up with the most obvious solution to this problem until last year, and I still can't believe it took me 28 years of life to figure it out.  The solution is simply to ask questions you already know the answer to, and use the answers to those as a frame of reference for how seriously to take the answers to the questions you didn't know the answers to.  The way I see it, there are two correct answers to any question you can ask:

     -The actual answer, whether that's a black-and-white answer or an acknowledgement that the issue is a grey area and that there are competing possible answers.

     -A variation on the response, "I don't know, but I can find out for you."

These are equally good in my mind; where things go wrong is when you get an answer stated as a black-and-white answer which is factually incorrect, or an answer stated as a black-and-white answer where it is in fact a grey area.

I do understand that some injuries, particularly tendon injuries, are complex, that there are still a lot of unknowns about their causes and treatment, and that there is a healthy dose of voodoo in many of the treatments that are ultimately employed.  For example, I personally suspect that getting regular massage is the thing that cured by ITB problems, but I know the scientific evidence for this being possible is limited.  In other words, I'm willing to give an unproven treatment option a chance in some circumstances.  But what I experienced with my current injury was treatment recommendations that aren't simply unproven but that are in fact contrary to solid scientific research.  That's not good enough.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bainbridge Half Marathon: The Unknown

Google Maps may have perfected its omniscience over much of the world, but it has only a tenuous grasp over Bainbridge, Georgia.  It led us astray when we were trying to find my race's packet pickup, attempted to take us 14 miles out of the way on the five-minute drive to our hotel, and declared the name of the road to our dinner restaurant to be "unknown."

This was apt, because for me a half marathon was also a big unknown.  I had run only one previously and that was 8 years ago, well before I started doing any serious training.  I had no idea how fast I should try to run or what kind of heart rate I could maintain for that distance.  I eventually decided to run by heart rate rather than pace and to stick with a heart rate of 170, about 5 beats per minute higher than I'd run a marathon at.

This worked out perfectly.  I felt strong and comfortable nearly the entire race (miles 10 and 11 were on the rough side though!) and it was possibly the most evenly-paced race I've ever ran:  I averaged 6:57 miles in the first half and 6:58 miles in the second half, for a new PR of 1:31.  I felt like I wasn't a million miles away from being able to keep up a slightly slower pace for a full marathon, although I'd have to get better at eating and drinking on the run--I would have liked to have taken a Gu at some point during the half but I couldn't figure out how to do that without wasting way too much time, so I just had a few sips of the coke that Divesh met me with at miles 6.5 and 10.5.

One quirk of being so bad at short distances is that all my short distance paces are virtually identical; I don't seem to have a fast gear.  So during the course of the Bainbridge half, I actually got 3 PRs:  5k, 10k, and half marathon!  I was so tempted to try for a mile PR during the last mile, but I knew it was going to be slightly uphill with lots of turns and I just couldn't force myself to bring on that much pain for so little chance of success.  Of course, now I'm kicking myself for that...

The race itself was a good event.  It was a small local race, not the kind you would usually travel for but I really wanted to do a half on this particular date to fit with my training schedule, and this was the closest flat option.  It was pretty well organized and everyone was so friendly; this was one of the best parts of the race for me.  I also liked the no-nonsense approach to the race goody bags:  the entire contents consisted of a race number, four safety pins, and two packets of ibuprofen.  What more does any runner really want?


On the way home the next day, we went for a run at Providence Canyon State Park.  I had seen it advertised as the "little Grand Canyon of Georgia" so that sounded like something we just had to check out.  It was a bit of a letdown since 99% of it was just your standard wooded forest scenery, but 1% of it was like this:

I was also very pleased to discover that my legs felt completely fine on the run.  They were definitely getting tired on the uphills, but they didn't feel injured, dead, or sore.  Onwards with another hard training week then...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The verdict

Thanks for all the input on my race schedule dilemma.  I got some helpful comments on Facebook too, including:

----The AT section of JFK is a little crowded but not too bad.

----My friend Ed reeeeeaaally loves Telluride Mountain Run, maybe even as much as he loves pulling a sled though possibly not as much as he loves the beer mile.

I decided to go by process of elimination:

Maria said she would go out to Montana with me and do Run the Rut if I wait til next year, so that made it an easy choice to take that off the list for this year.

Le Grizz should, in theory, be a perfect option but I couldn't seem to get excited about it.  Also, I prefer my chances of surviving a race un-eaten by grizzly bears to be a bit closer to 100%.

I kind of want to run a road 100k next spring, which would be pretty similar to Door County in terms of distance/surface, so I eliminated Door County.

As Karen pointed out, TNF San Francisco can have major weather issues, and since that one is similar, in terms of what I want, to JFK, I'd put JFK slightly ahead of TNF on that basis. 

That left a seriously tough choice between Telluride, the Ultra Trail Serra de Montsant, and JFK.  While I was pretty tempted by Karen's suggestion of UTSM + winter road marathon, that would mean I'd have to commit to not doing a winter sled race...which would be tough.  I don't want to do Arrowhead next year but I'm still tempted by Susitna or maybe even White Mountains, if I could make it through the lottery.  

So, as much as I hate to leave the UTSM undone for yet another year, I think I'm going with JFK, assuming I can enter quickly enough to get in.  As an added bonus, two other GUTS runners might be interested in doing it too (one of them being a quietly super-fast previous JFK winner...).  Divesh took the news well that I had already volunteered him to crew for all three of us!

Since JFK isn't til November, I can maybe still fit in Telluride in August, although I would probably do it as more of a hard training run than a race so that the effect of racing at altitude doesn't take me out for too much of August training time.  It also leaves me time to try either a road marathon or the great local trail race Mystery Mountain Marathon in October.

Now I can get back to trying to get to grips with the Duncan Ridge Trail in time for Cruel Jewel...

Monday, March 3, 2014

Help me pick a race

After Arrowhead I have a little bit of a "now what?" feeling. My spring and early summer are set:  the Cruel Jewel 55 mile in mid May, the Bob Graham round on June 6, and the Peaks of the Balkans trail in mid June.
But after's wide open.  I have lots of possible plans and can't seem to definitively settle on anything.  Some of the races I'd like to do will fill up in the near future or have short entry windows coming up, so I need to make a choice.  Help me decide!  Any input on any of these races would be helpful.  Depending on the dates, I might be able to do more than one of them.  I'm also interested in doing a road marathon, so there's always the option to combine a road marathon (or a half) with training for one of the ultras.

The options:

  • Telluride Mountain Run.  August 9, 38 miles, Colorado.  Hard and scenic.  Pros:  I have friends doing it.  Cons:  it's at altitude.

  • Run the Rut.  September 13, 50k, Montana.  The course looks amazing--one of the only technical mountain runs in the US.  Pros:  I've never been to Montana, and I love the look of the course.  This one would for sure be at the top of the list if it weren't for the altitude.  Cons:  at altitude.  Weird hunting theme going on.  Could be expensive to get to Montana.

  • Le Grizz.  October 11, 50 miles, Montana.  Fast but scenic 50 mile course.  Could be good for trying a fast 50.  Pros:  another option to run in Montana.  Cons:  maybe not the most interesting course.  Also, grizzly bears??!

  • Ultra Trail Serra de Montsant.  October 18, 100k, Catalunya.  I was registered for this race last year but it ended up being too close after Sawtooth so I didn't do it.  Pros:  the course includes my very favorite running trails in the whole world, and it starts from the village I've stayed in so often for climbing (just out the front door of our rental apartment!).  Cons:  expensive plane ticket.  Right in the middle of the autumn so it could make it hard to do another race in combination with this one.

  • Door County Fall 50.  October 25, 50 miles, Wisconsin.  Road race.  Pros:  I'd like to see what kind of time I'd currently get in a long road race.  Cons:  it's a long road race!

  • JFK 50.  November 22, 50 miles, Maryland.  Pros:  it's a classic and really competitive.  Late enough in the season that I might have time to do a road marathon in late September and then train for this.  Cons:  it sounds like it gets a little crowded on the Appalachian Trail section, and I can't stand crowded trails.

  • North Face 50.  December 6, 50 miles, California.  Basically the same pros and cons as for JFK.

So that's the list...any and all thoughts appreciated, including suggestions for anything not on the list that should be!  

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Gear and weight saving at Arrowhead

A couple of people asked how I got my gear weight down to 19 pounds this year and I thought I'd share some gear/weight saving ideas.

First of all, the 19 pounds included food and water but didn't include the weight of the sled itself, which I think is 3 pounds (standard orange Paris Expedition sled).

So, gear.  I don't own a gear scale, I've never been into gear weight, and I've never even known the weight of what I've taken on past Arrowheads.  I only weighed it this year because I was curious, not because I was going to change anything based on the number.  But I was pleasantly surprised to see it was lighter than expected!

What I took:

Required Gear:

Esbit stove:  3.13 oz
12x Esbit tablets:  6 oz [just edited this--forgot it was 12 tablets, not 6, that I took]
6 matches:  ?? but negligible!
pot:  2 oz
Sleeping bag: 56 oz.  Rated to -72F!
Sleeping pad (I cut up a sled-sized piece of the ultralight and super insulating Volara foam): approx 10 ounces but I don't have an exact weight on this stuff
Bivy bag:  This one caused minor contention with Don Clark (the gear checker), but I used the Heatsheets emergency bivy bag (3.5oz).  He had okayed it in past years but this year, although he okayed it again, he did tell me to get a more substantial one for next time.  A bivy bag is irrelevant to my setup, though, because I sleep in my sled, using the sled and my foam mat as the ground insulation and my sled cover as the bivy top if I were to need it.  With a sleeping bag rated to -72F, however, there aren't many times when I see myself using a cover as well.
Headtorch:  7.8 oz including batteries.  Black Diamond Icon. A bit heavy but I wanted a high-output light to help keep myself awake at night.
2 flashing LED lights and strips of reflective tape:  Not sure, probably total of 8 oz?
3000 calories:  stop using peanut butter, people, chopped dried coconut is lighter!!!  12 oz
Two insulated water containers:  Granite gear aquatherms, 8.6 oz total
Two one-liter Nalgene bottles:  according to google, that's 12.4 oz.  Maybe I can save some weight here next time.

Total required gear:  7.9 pounds

Food and Water:

My friend Carles, who has no less than FIVE foot finishes at Arrowhead, explained to me his excellent strategy for food and water and I copied him.  Basically, you don't need to take a ton of food and water between checkpoints; you can eat and drink a little on the trail and then rehydrate and eat at checkpoints.  Ever read studies on whether Drink X helps people rehydrate faster than water/Drink Y/etc?  Those studies usually measure rehydration over a 30 minute period--i.e., you can rehydrate pretty quickly.  And in this race, I don't think spending time at checkpoints is "lost" time, because a small rest can really pay off later in the race.  So, the maximum I had with me at any time was 1.75 liters of water (3.85 pounds) and about 3,000 calories (approx 2.2 pounds).  I don't bring a cooler for the food like a lot of people do--I just thaw a bit of food out in my mitten before I want to eat it--which saves a nice chunk of weight.  My goal was to eat 75 calories every half hour, not counting the first two hours of the race and the first 1.5 hours after Gateway and Mel George, so my food was divided up into a bunch of plastic bags, which probably added another 4 oz.  I used an extra Aquatherm as food storage (4.3 oz).

Total food and water:  6.5 pounds

Other Gear:

4x lithium AA batteries:  2 oz
Spare headtorch:  3.2 oz incl batteries
Compression dry sack for sleeping bag:  1.8 oz
Bag to hold stove, pot, etc:  approx 1 oz? (a little over half the weight of the sleeping bag stuffsack)
"Do Not Disturb" hotel door sign--essential bivy item!:  1 oz
Down pants:  12.5 oz.  Western Mountaineering Flight Pants.
Big down jacket:  22 oz.  Mountain Hardwear Nilas jacket.
Clothes that I don't have a weight for:  one pair of extra socks, warm weather face mask (ha!), warm weather mittens (ha!), spare hat, and spare liner gloves.  Never used any of them, sadly.  Together they feel like they weigh about the same as the down pants so I'll guess 12 oz.  Sorry for the inexactness, gear junkies.
Trekking poles, only used for about half an hour...  12 oz.  Black Diamond Z Poles.

Total other gear:  4.21 pounds

That gives me a total of 18.61 pounds [edited after I added in the other 6 esbit tablets].  The extra weight to get to 19 pounds would have been from the weight of the bag that I put all my stuff in (the nice ultralight fabric bag that our altitude tent came in!) plus the weight of my sled cover.  Also there would have been a few extra ounces from my "polegies" that I put on the Z poles after I weighed all the stuff.

Another edit:  I forgot a couple of other things I took.  Two ipod shuffles plus headphones, and one little tube of Body Glide.  Not sure how much those weigh but somewhere in the range of 5 oz total?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Arrowhead 135 race report, 2014

Arrowhead doesn't start until a Monday, but the Arrowhead experience starts the Saturday before.  This is when racers head up to International Falls, when you get to see all your old friends and meet new ones, when you get to stuff yourself silly at the Chocolate Moose, and when the fear sets in.  The fear was particularly strong for me this year because the weather forecast kept deteriorating; by Sunday afternoon we knew it was going to be about -30 degrees F and very windy at the start.  I heard wind chill predictions of -50 to -60, and the first 15 miles or so of the course are pretty exposed.  What had I gotten myself into?

At 7am on Monday morning, the bikers are set off, and the runners' race starts 4 minutes later. Getting going is the best antidote to the fear because at least even if it's cold, you now know exactly what it's like.  And fortunately, it really wasn't that bad.  My layers were just right, and after we made a turn at 9 miles, the wind was largely a tailwind.  Everything was going well with the actual running too.  My legs felt strong and I wasn't coughing too often despite having some pretty bad bronchitis.

The first significant thing that happened to me at Arrowhead:  my watch froze.  This was roughly 5 minutes into the race.  What's more interminable than Arrowhead?  Arrowhead with no watch.  Up to 60 hours of having no idea how you're doing, fun!

Not to be outdone by the watch, my music quickly joined in with the technology problems.  The very first time I got my ipod out, my headphones snapped in half.  What's more interminable than Arrowhead without a watch?  Arrowhead without a watch or music.

I tried singing as entertainment, but all I managed was the sound of a dying seal (I could say that this was because of the bronchitis and trying to sing through an iced-up face mask, but in actuality these had nothing to do with the dying seal sound), so I moved onto talking to myself and looking out especially hard for the various geographical landmarks that I remembered from past races and training runs.  There's the Double Hill, the Swamps of Despair, the Tim Roe Curve, and finally, fortunately, the Conga Line Hill, which signifies that you're less than a mile from the first checkpoint, Gateway, at mile 36.

I got into Gateway feeling very good.  Everything had been going well physically, and I had made it to Gateway at almost the exact time I wanted to get there (within 5 minutes, despite not having a watch!).  Before the race I had made myself a little index card with a list of everything I should do at Gateway, in order of when I wanted to do each thing, so that I could do everything as quickly as possible and not forget anything essential.  Having the list was helpful and definitely something I would do again.

I headed out of Gateway feeling strong and excited for the night section.  I could tell I was moving quickly when I got to a road crossing, which I knew from a training run was 4.8 miles after Gateway, in what seemed like a very short time.  After a few hours the temperature began to drop quite a bit and the wind picked up.  Although I was still feeling good, the night was a bit scary at times.  It was cold enough (-32 or so) that stopping for any length of time wasn't an option.  My hands were staying relatively warm while they were inside my liner gloves, heavy mitts, and holding onto chemical hand warmer packets, but I knew I had to be careful not to take off the mitts for longer than a quick food grab.  I was also starting to throw up frequently and had to make sure to keep walking as much as possible while throwing up, to avoid getting irreversibly chilled.  On the plus side of the nausea, I wasn't able to eat much between miles 60 and 72, so I didn't have to stop to refill my food bag from my sled at all.

I ended up not seeing anyone else for the entire 36 miles to Mel George's--a very long way without company, a watch, or music.  The stars were beautiful, though!

It was even colder and still the middle of the night when I got near to Mel George's, the mile 72 checkpoint.  The last mile before the checkpoint goes right across a large lake.  More scariness here--my eyelashes had frozen so solidly shut that I couldn't get them open enough to see the markers showing you which way to go across the lake.  I tried to pull some of the ice off with my fingers, but that was getting my liner gloves wet so I had to stop trying that.  I ended up just tilting my head at some bizarre angles so that I could look out of the unfrozen bits of eyelash.  The joys of winter races...

When I got into Mel George's, I discovered to my surprise that it was only 3:50 a.m., far better than the 6:30 I was guessing it to be.  I was the second runner and first woman in, but I knew that didn't mean much since I planned to sleep off the nausea there and stay as long as it took to get my stomach back together.  Unfortunately I couldn't manage to get to sleep, and my stomach stubbornly refused to calm down.  I tried ondansetron (a chemo drug used to control nausea), toast, juice, grilled cheese, and plain water, but nothing would stay down.  I alternated between trying to sleep, throwing up, and trying to eat for about 6 hours.  Eventually I realized that it just wasn't happening and that I might as well get going.  I was a little wary of going into a 38-mile stretch on major calorie deprivation and dehydration, since I didn't want to end up in trouble and needing a snowmobile rescue, so I decided that I'd walk a few miles out of Mel George's, and if I didn't feel any better, I'd turn back.  I have to admit that I didn't feel any better when it came to the decision time and that I went on ahead anyway based on nothing more than a hunch that everything would work out.

Even a few days later, I still can't figure out why I was able to keep going "quickly" (in the Arrowhead sense of quickly, which is to say very very slowly in the normal world) on so little food and water, especially with having to pull a sled of gear behind me.  I was keeping down 10-20 calories occasionally, maybe once an hour, which was not nearly as much as I would have expected to need to be able to do any running.  And I was still doing some running right up until around mile 100.  Was just a few calories all my body really needed to run slowly?  Was it the thought of possibly being able to get a good time?  The constant nagging feeling that my friend Helen Scotch was about to catch and pass me??  I would love to know, as it will undoubtedly be useful in many other races.

That whole second day on the course was a mix of good and bad experiences.  The good ones included finally getting some company (Greg, from Portland, who provided plenty of good conversation for the several miles we were together), feeling strong leg-wise, and enjoying a comfortable 45 minute rest in my warm cozy sleeping bag at the mile 98 shelter.  There weren't many bad parts--strangely, I had no real low points during the entire race--but there was the constant stomach and chest pain, and I was bored out of my mind for hours on end in the mile 98 to 110 stretch (which I SWEAR must be longer than 12 miles!).

At mile 110 the tipi checkpoint was serving hot cocoa and my stomach was actually interested in it, so I took a few minutes to sit by the fire and hang out with Matt Long and Greg.  I filled up a water bottle with more hot cocoa and then set off with Greg about 15 minutes later.  From here there are a couple of miles uphill, one super exciting fast descent down Mt. Wakemup, and then the flat, loooooong 26 mile home stretch.  My legs were still feeling oddly good but I was nervous to run since I hadn't been eating--I was concerned that if I started running, I might just pass out and get hypothermic (or Helen would catch up, which was obviously a greater concern!).  So I decided to settle into a nice fast power walk.

About 10 miles from the end, I finally had a brain wave (the cold weather must have been inhibiting the production of them, or at least that's what I'll tell myself).  I put a chemical handwarmer into my mitten and threw my watch inside the mitten.  Five minutes later, I had a working watch.  I discovered it was 4 in the morning.  If I could do the last 10.5 miles in about 2:45, I could make it under 48 hours.  Time to pick up the pace...!

Things were tough here though.  Since it had been so long since I had eaten, my body wasn't producing much heat and I was getting extremely chilled.  I ended up putting on both my warmest down jacket and my down pants.  At some point around here I thought about how I was "running" this race by doing a mix of walking and stumble-jogging, how I was wearing a face mask full of frozen vomit, and how my pants were on backwards and were falling down, and I started wondering if road runners who think ultras are ridiculous maybe have a little bit of a point.

As I got closer and passed the turnoff for the old course's finish, I started to get more and more concerned about why it seemed to be taking far longer than it should have.  Just as I was considering whether I might be lost, I caught up to a very cold Jeremy Kershaw, who was also convinced we must be lost since we were heading away from what appeared to be the lights near the finish.  We talked it over for a while and he eventually called the race director, who confirmed we were in fact going the right way and that we had about 2 miles to the turnoff and then another 2.5 to the finish.  I was freezing cold and knew it was going to be very close on the 48-hour front.  I took off at a fast walk and then broke into a run for the first time in many miles.  At the turnoff I looked at my watch and saw I had 33 minutes if I wanted to get in under 48.  I decided to spare one of those minutes to take off the enormous down jacket and down pants and then got started running.  It was probably more of a lurch but felt like a sprint.  There was one tiny little steep downhill where my sled went in for the kill (it knows it can crash into my Achilles on those little downhills if they're steep enough) but missed, so that gave me a nice morale boost to speed up.  I really didn't think I was going to make it but somehow pulled into the finish line at 7:03 for a 47:59.

And that was Arrowhead finish #2.  Thank you to all the racers, race founders Pierre and Cheryl Ostor, race directors Ken and Jackie Krueger, and the volunteers for making the race what it is, which is the best event of the year.  Congratulations to all the racers and especially to my husband Divesh and to Helen for both having a fantastic first Arrowhead.  They clearly have a faster learning curve than I do!

I'm not sure I'd run the race again, since it's unlikely that it would go better than it just did. But as Carles and I were discussing the day after the race, there's still a bike race and a ski race that we've never done...

Things that worked well for me:
-Having food divided into bags of what I wanted to eat every half hour
-Hoka Bondi Bs with a windproof cover glued onto the top (thanks, Lynn Saari)
-Stopping to bivy as soon as the sun went down on the second night, instead of doing a few hours of slow sleepwalking and then having to stop to bivy anyway.
-Not using poles.  Although they would have allowed me to walk faster, I find them incredibly annoying for this race because they're constantly in the way when you want to eat/drink/etc.
-Keeping my sled light.  It ended up right around 19 pounds after a few last-minute additions and subtractions.  Unfortunately even a light sled was only slightly better than proportionate to body weight compared to most of the guys in the race, but it was a start.

Things I should have done differently:
-Bought some tape and tried to fix my headphones at Gateway.  I think I could have gone a good bit faster on the second night with some music.
-Saved some more weight with less food.  Even if I had been eating well, I don't think I could have eaten all the food I brought.  And even if I had eaten it all, it wouldn't have been the end of the world to have had to ration a little near the end.
-Put my down trousers on a little earlier when I started getting seriously chilled towards the end.  I think I got too complacent because it was the home stretch and I didn't consider how cold I could get in two or three hours when I wasn't eating.