Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Black Canyon 100k race report

My road to Black Canyon was not a smooth one.  In mid-November, I was busy enjoying some newly-gained fitness (culminating in a big new marathon PR of 2:55!) when I put a minor tear in my hamstring tendon.  Apparently hamstrings don't like it when you keep them so tight that you can't even reach in the vague direction of your toes. I was able to start running again on December 21, but since I had taken the previous 6 weeks mostly off, I knew I was looking at a solid 6-12 weeks to regain all of the lost fitness.  Black Canyon was exactly 8 weeks away...

There were other bumps in the road too:  a mystery health problem which I discovered after the race to be hypothyroidism, the decision to go back to self-coaching, a tweak to the injured hamstring, and even a freak snowstorm which took over the trails on my last training weekend.  When Divesh and I arrived in AZ for the race, I felt like I was showing up for a car race in a battered old wreck that could barely survive the drive to the start line.

Spot the Minnesotan!

There was one benefit to this though, and that was that being super unready made slow but steady pacing my only viable option for running a decent race.  Black Canyon is a golden ticket race where there are two entries to Western States to be won, so I knew that plenty of people would start off too fast.  I resolved to hang back, run by heart rate at an effort level that I knew I could sustain for 100k, and hope that the race was long enough for me to start catching people before the end.

That is definitely easier said than done.  It took a lot of willpower to settle into the middle of the race pack during those first few miles, especially once we got onto nice singletrack--partly because it's hard not to want to run fast on good singletrack but also because the trail was very crowded and it was almost impossible to run at my ideal pace on both the uphills and the downhills.  I think I was 18th at the first aid station!  I just kept repeating to myself, "no racing until Black Canyon City [mile 37.4]," even as people passed me left and right.

By mile 30, I could already tell that starting out slowly was going to pay off.  I didn't feel fast, but I did feel solid, in the sort of way where you can tell you're going to be more or less fine for the rest of the race.  I started to pass people but still mostly kept to my resolution to maintain my low HR--except for the few hundred meters after I ran past Jamil Coury, who was out on "active spectator duty" with a video camera.  I don't think there is any amount of discipline in the world that can keep you running a sensible pace whilst being chased with a video camera on a downhill!

After passing Black Canyon City, I took the brakes off a little and started pushing on the long gradual uphills.  The heat was rough, but I was recovering a little at each river crossing, and I was pleased to find that the uphills were actually feeling pretty good.

From miles 47-50 I had my only real struggle of the day.  I had been getting progressively thirstier for the previous couple of hours, and around mile 47 the thirst started feeling overwhelming--all I could think about was wanting ice water.  I was sort of expecting this to lead to a downward spiral in my pace and placing, but I surprised myself by pushing through it.  I saw Divesh at the mile 51 aid station and was reunited with another bottle of my sports drink; it wasn't cold, but it was for sure better than the empty bottle I'd been holding for the past few miles.  Divesh told me I was only a couple of minutes behind the 5th place woman.  We were just starting one of the race's longer climbs at that point, and it happened that that climb was where I had done a tempo portion of my last long run before the race.  "I can run this hill faster," I reminded myself, and it was enough to get my feet moving a little more quickly again.

After maybe a mile, I spotted the 5th place girl less than 30 seconds ahead--but she also spotted me.  She sped up and for the next 4 miles or so I would alternately get a little closer to her and then get dropped.  I was exhausted and thoroughly ready to be done running for the day, but it was also the most fun section of the whole race:  friendly racing with both of us still running strongly enough to be competitive.  At the top of the race's last climb, she zoomed off on an initially technical descent, and I figured I no longer had any hope of catching her.  But a mile or so into the descent, I came around a bend and suddenly saw her just ahead, with me rapidly gaining ground.

I contemplated hanging out behind her for a while to make sure that I really was capable of maintaining a faster pace all the way to the finish, but I realized that I actually felt GOOD.  As in, the fastest I had been all race.  I went past 5th place and shortly thereafter passed the next girl as well.  After that it was a fairly easy 3.5 miles to the finish.  I felt like I was flying the entire way, with energy to spare.  I've never had such a good last section of a longer ultra, and I hope there will be more to come like this one.

So I ended up 4th in 9:46, which turned out to be only one place away from a golden ticket after one rolled down a place.  But given that I figured top 10 would be a stretch based on my fitness going into the race, I am completely thrilled with this.  In fact, it's possible that I'm the happiest occupant of the "tough luck spot" in golden ticket history.  And since learning about my hypothyroid situation explains the symptoms I've been struggling with when running, I'm optimistic that I can sort those out by the summer and still have a strong season of mountain racing.

It was a rough post-race evening for me; although my stomach had behaved perfectly the entire race, I promptly threw up after starting my rehydration a little too enthusiastically with the finish line lemonade.  Diluted apple juice went down a little better, but I still had to make Divesh pull over a few times on the way back to the Airbnb.  It did make me smile remembering my friend Nick and I simul-vomiting over a wall in a layby while my friend Dave drove us home from the Highland Fling. 

Oh, and total calories I consumed during the 100k?  150.  And my best miles of the day were the last five.  Hurrah for nutrition research!

Divesh had to put up with the most pathetic spotter ever the next day

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Eiger Ultra Trail 51km race report

Thursday of race week: 

Really, Alicia?  Months and months of training, careful shoe and gear selection, lots of course studying, and then you forget to bring your race food to Switzerland?  Not a great start.  Fortunately I was saved by an East Asian market selling sticky rice flour.  Big cheer for globalization!

With the crisis averted, Divesh and I took the tourist train up to Schynige Platte to scope out support zone location and do some sightseeing.  Quality relaxation time!

Friday of race week:

The weather forecast has been confident all week that it will be raining and/or thunderstorming all day on Saturday.  Eeep.

Saturday, race day:

It's intensely sunny and in the high 80s.  *Slight* difference to the prediction!  The race started off with about a mile uphill on the road.  My stretch goal had been to try to win, but when I saw another girl take off up the road at about 6:30 pace whilst looking like she was going for a casual jog, I realized it would be suicide to follow, so I stayed back and did my own thing.

The first climb is not too steep and it's on very non-technical terrain, so you end up on the undulating section above Grosse Scheidegg (8km) relatively quickly.  Shortly thereafter, I ran into a roadblock:  cows.  There was a mother cow blocking most of the left side of the trail, a calf blocking most of the right, and not much room to go around on either side.  I stood around, considering my options and losing time rapidly, until I was saved by two friendly guys who told me to follow them.  "He's an animal doctor!" one of them announced, pointing to the other one.  It was an ideal little train to get behind, since we soon passed through several more cow sections and these guys definitely had their cow-dispersal technique mastered.

This whole section was very runnable and absolutely gorgeous.

The main issue here though was that starting around 14km, we were catching up to the 100k runners and had to overtake maybe half of the 800-person field.  This wasn't so bad while we were on the easy wide trails, but around 18km we got onto narrow singletrack that would continue for most of the rest of the race.  The options for overtaking were either to lose loads of time waiting for a wide spot in the trail or to leap around the 100k'ers on the rocky edges of the trail.  I started off with the latter but after several close calls with my bad ankle, I ended up going more and more for the former.  It was demoralizing though, and I fought with myself (mostly unsuccessfully) to keep the negative thoughts from forming.  I settled on the strategy of giving myself the goal of saying "good job" to each of the 100k people that I passed, but given the altitude and my effort level, I think all I really said to them was "ggghhhhhh."

We passed the summit of the Faulhorn, with absolutely amazing views, and went down a much more technical way than we had come up.  There were two spots for glissading, though!!

From about kilometer 30 on, the race became really only about heat survival.  It was SO hot.  I don't think I thought about anything other than how thirsty I was for maybe 15 kilometers.  I ran by Divesh at 35k and got my sports drink refill, which did provide a bit of an energy boost, but shortly after this the trail went into the woods and turned into a steep, technical, and tree rooty affair.  The trees were trapping the humidity and it was like being stuck in the jungle.  Back to thinking only about how thirsty I was...

With 6km to go, we finally reached the valley floor and started the easy section back to Grindelwald.  This part is a very gradually uphill combination of bike path and road, so my main goal for the race was to put in a solid effort here, and I mostly achieved that.  I passed three naked men (not runners!), stuck my head in a cow trough of cold water, and tried to decide if I had heat stroke.  Just your average day at an ultra, basically.

The little mini vertical wall that you have to climb up to get to Grindelwald was especially brutal in the midday sun, but once that was done, it was just a fun downhill 400 meters to the finish.  I ended up in 2nd place, about 20 minutes slower than I was hoping to go, but the descent sections had been much more technical than I was expecting, and the heat had a definite impact.  It's a beautiful area and I would come back for sure, but for avoidance of traffic jam stress, I think the 100k, not the 50k, is the race to do here!

Monday, March 18, 2019

Coastal Trail Series Sussex 55km race report

After every race I make myself notes of what went well and what I should have done differently. Sometimes the should-have-done-differentlys are on the ridiculous side ("don't, on a whim, triple the amount of coffee in your sports drink") and sometimes they're more substantial ("I needed more hill training for this course"). After the Coastal Trail Series Sussex 55km, I am, for the first time, completely at a loss for what I could write in the errors section of the notes. I've spent the better part of the plane ride home thinking about it and the best I could come up with is that I should have taken only half a water bottle instead of a full one at mile 15, since it was only three miles from there to my next support stop. Not exactly a disastrous mistake!!

prerace sightseeing along the course

Most of my prerace concerns had to do with weather. The race is over exposed ground right on the coastal cliffs, and it was supposed to be around 30mph winds with gusts up to 50mph. It was freezing cold at packet pickup just before the race start. The guy manning the t-shirt desk wordlessly handed me a size medium. When I asked for a small instead, he gave me an incredulous look and asked if I had seen what the small size was like. I was confused for a second, then realized I was wearing 8 layers of clothing and was not looking particularly small at that moment.

Actually I guess I spent most of the prerace period looking ridiculous. While every other runner wandered around stretching and jogging and generally looking professional and prepared, I was the one wearing overly short pink children's sweatpants and scraping hard caked mud out of my shoe treads with a hotel room key card. One day I will nail the not-looking-ridiculous part of racing, but that day was not yesterday.

After the world's longest briefing, we finally started running. The first section of the race is straight into the wind, over the Seven Sisters hills on the coast. It's beautiful but it was like trying to run into a giant hair dryer--there were a lot of runners chasing after lost hats! Fortunately I had been out here for a training run so I knew what I was in for. I took it pretty easy on this section, then sped up to race effort after 5km when we turned inland and briefly got a bit of shelter. And the reward for surviving each headwind section was an amazing tailwind section, or at least amazing until a sudden tailwind gust nearly blew me off a cliff.

we ran past the Long Man.  it was very long.

People were friendly at this race, and getting to talk to a few people made the first third go by quickly. Divesh, my support crew extraordinare, met me at several places for water bottle exchanges, and never being far from one of those also made the miles fly by. I also had a nice half mile or so with Alice, who won the accompanying half marathon.

My first 25 miles were basically spent in suspense, wondering if and when I was going to hit a wall or bonk or possibly go insane from the uncomfortably loud roaring of the wind in my ears. But by mile 25, none of those things had happened. I felt oddly... good. Like really good. I was running up hills I would have thought I would have had to walk. I never got nauseated. The math changed from wondering if I had a shot at the course record to knowing that, absent some sudden injury, I was going to get it by a decent margin. 

And that was it really! Nothing dramatic to report, just a nice steady race with possibly my most even splits ever. I feel like a completely different runner from my pre-injury year.  So what's different than in the past? First, I've sorted out better training through coaching from David Roche. Second, I've put in hundreds of hours of nutrition research and have finally reached what seems like the right answers. Conclusion: it's definitely still possible to get faster when you're old and missing foot parts!