Beware The Chair: My C&O Canal 100 Miler Race Report

Me. And the log. Right before I moved over to the chair. Photo: Bill Susa

Ultrarunners warn, Beware The Chair. When you sit down mid-race, it sure can be hard to get back up.  After Saturday though, I have a new perspective. Me and the chair, it’s a love/hate thing.

C&O Canal is a pretty low key race. Off the radar screen for most. Yet from the moment I heard about it I thought: that race is for ME.

First of all, I love low key. Western States, Lake Sonoma and North Face are wonderful races to reconnect with many of the people I care deeply about in this sport, but I don’t like the feeling of pressure that comes with the inevitable spotlight. I’ve always preferred being the underdog. Zero expectations. All I need to do is relax and run my race.

Secondly, the race appealed to me in the same way that Brazos Bend did. It’s largely flat. With the exception of a fairly short but quite steep technical incline traversed four times during the race, it’s run on the gravelly, but forgiving, surface of the canal towpath. This type of course not only appeals to those looking to increase their odds at successfully completing a 100 miler — especially considering the generous 30 hour cut-off — but it’s a great set-up for a time-trial for those like me who want an answer to the question, how fast can I do it?

Before I get into the race itself I’m going to tell you something that I told only a handful of people before the race. My real goal. Ultimately, I chose to run C&O because I wanted a clear shot at running the fastest 100 miles on trail by a north American woman. Ever. What an amazing thing it is to even have a chance at something so audacious!

The third reason the race appealed was because average temps for the end of April in Knoxville, Maryland hover somewhere between 40 and 60 or so degrees. An opportunity to try a 100 miler without the intense heat of Western States? I’m in!

In the end things didn’t go exactly to plan, but I guess two out of three ain’t bad. Even by East Coast standards, the day was a steamy scorcher. Temps reached 91 degrees on race day — an all-time record-high. For something like Western States, everyone knows it’s going to be hot ahead of time. Preparatory heat-training is a key element of race-day success. For C&O, the forecast was for seasonally normal temps right up until about a week or so before race day. With no-one prepared, it resulted in the race’s lowest finisher rate (~55%) in its four-year history. I have the utmost respect for how hard those runners worked to try to finish. It felt like running with a sleeping bag over the head. The humidity was positively stifling.

Despite this, I managed to blow through the first 50 miles in about 6:40 (8:00/mile pace. For reference, the 100 mile trail ‘record’ is 8:37 pace). What in the world was I thinking? Well, this is over a minute per mile slower than my Brazos Bend 50-mile pace, and around 25 seconds slower than my 100k pace from three weeks ago on a hillier course. It didn’t seem unreasonable. In fact, it felt just as it should, downright easy.

On cruise control for the first half. Photo: Bill Susa

Until it didn’t. When the hottest part of the day set in, I started feeling overheated. It crept in and I couldn’t escape it’s claustrophobia-like grip. My pace declined, and my stomach stopped absorbing as many calories as I needed to keep up the effort. I ran into the start/finish checkpoint at mile 60 depleted and discouraged, ready to call it a day.

This is where I did something I’ve never, ever done before in a race, not even in my deepest darkest moments.

I sat down.

About a half an hour later, I got up.

As you might have guessed, it wasn’t quite that simple. (P.S. Nothing in a hundred miler is ever simple). Like I said, I ran into mile 60 and I sat down. On a log. And actual-fact reasoned that by sitting on a log, I was not technically sitting on a chair, so it sort-of didn’t count. Also, I didn’t want to get too comfortable.

After a few mins, I decided that since I wasn’t going any further, I would indeed like to get more comfortable. So, I moved to a proffered chair. Thankfully, I was surrounded by some ultra-veterans and my crew. They weren’t about to let me off the hook that easy.

What’s wrong? They asked.

It’s at moments like this that I’m completely aware what a perfectly normal response would be. ‘Well,’ it would go, ‘I’m at mile 60 of a 100 miler. I’m hot, I’m tired and I’m not able to digest enough calories. Forty more miles seems nothing short of unfathomable.’ In ultra-terms, though, that answer can be translated into: nothing. There is absolutely nothing wrong. I am weak and need to work on my mental game.

Sensing my weakness (somehow they knew), they went with the philosophy that you have to be cruel to be kind. I mean, these folks wouldn’t let up. ‘You’re an hour and a half ahead of the next runner,’ they informed me. ‘You came all the way out here,’ they said. ‘Do you want me to call Robert?’ asked my crew Andrea. ‘Sure,’ I said. What they didn’t know is that my husband, Robert, is my security blanket. He’ll tell me it’s ok and he loves me anyway. But dang it, Andrea must have gotten to him first. Because he didn’t. Instead, he sent me a photo of our two boys in front of some of my trophies. ‘They’re counting on you,’ he said. Manipulators.

Devoid of valid excuses, and tired of being badgered (for which, I am of course, eternally thankful…now) I did another thing I’ve never, ever done before. I got back up. You know what was the craziest thing about that? I was fine. Really. Fine. My pacer Colin ran with me for 10 miles until I said, you know what, thank you, and I’ll pick you up here on the way back. I got into a groove, and even though I wasn’t able to take in much sustenance, I kept going. One foot in front of the other. All the way to the finish.

[all together now] Put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor Photo: Paul Encarnacion

Despite not being a record-worthy performance, there’s much to be proud of. With the help of some incredibly decent people, I bounced back from my low point. And while it’s true that the second 50 miles took me a little over 10 hours, it still resulted in a not too shoddy 100 mile time of 16:51. It was wonderful to win a race overall and to set a new women’s course record. But far more than that is the joy in seeing it through. And finding that just when you think there’s no more to give, if you flip the coin, you might just find that in fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong.

Finish line happy face. Photo: Lance Dockery (RD)

 

Mind Over Matter: Mad City USATF 100k Road National Championship and IAU Americas Continental Championship Race Report

Photo: Bill Thom/runrace.net

Saturday March 18, text to my coach:

I’m going to pull out of Mad City. I’m not in a place mentally or physically to run a hard 100k. When running, which is normally my stress release, becomes the thing that is causing me stress (it’s a long list but definitely near the top because I care about it so much), it’s time to reevaluate what I’m doing. Simple really.

[insert supportive words from coach]

Sunday March 19:

I always want to push my boundaries as a runner and for sure that comes with a risk of pushing myself a hair too far or getting hurt. I truly wouldn’t want it any other way! It would have been glorious to run a fast 100k on the road in April or a fast 50k in March. But there are other races and other goals I can get fired up about down the road.

Thurs March 23:

I’m getting more jazzed for Mad City now. Pretty sure I’m going to do it even if it’s not a top-notch effort.

Friday March 31, after a disappointing tempo run:

From a pace perspective, this workout was beyond awful. Could NOT get legs turning over…Sure, I wish I had been quicker today, but oddly I’m totally ok with it… I know I can grind out 100k and I’m looking forward to it. The championship aspect doesn’t affect too much for me, just helps get me to the finish line.

Following a medium-long run, April 1 (one week before the race): I gotta be open and tell you this run felt like crud.

Contrast this to the training block leading up to March’s Caumsett 50k. Those weeks featured workouts that left me positively elated. I was psyched to get out and run! I felt like I was in shape to do something special out there.

As it turned out, Caumsett was a flop. The weather was bitterly cold, my body shut down and I couldn’t force out a single mile at goal 50k race pace. (Not a single one!). Talk about disappointing.

The experience damaged me. Inexplicably, my hamstrings throbbed endlessly for eight full days after the race, even though I dropped out at mile 22. More importantly though, it sucked the wind right out of my sails. At a time in my life when things are complicated and stressful enough quite aside from running (you’re just gonna have to trust me on this), the biggest casualty of Caumsett was my confidence. As someone who had never previously struggled with motivation — for pretty much anything, ever — I had days where I procrastinated running for hours.  One day, I actually cried because I didn’t want to face the workout that was on tap. That day was March 18, just three weeks before Mad City.

Part of it was because of the slipped disc in my back. According to the MRI: “disc is desiccated,” there’s “disc height loss” and “broad-based paracentral disc protrusion” with an “annular tear.” Whatever that means. Now, I don’t want to make too much of this because clearly it can’t be that bad if I’m still running. And I am still running. At the same time, it’s been a persistent issue all year. The good news is that exercise is actually a recommended treatment for herniated discs. (I’m pretty sure they mean ultrarunning.) Months of PT and several acupuncture sessions helped to make things manageable, but by the time Mad City rolled around I’d lost far too much training time to rest days. (Sorry @restdaybrags if I don’t celebrate this). Hard-earned fitness, at an all-time-high in February, had turned tide and drifted away.

So when I chose to race Mad City, it was regardless of anyone else, and in a sense, regardless of myself. I went in with a simple mindset. A clear palette if you will. I accepted that my ability to be competitive was deeply compromised. Somehow, I still wanted to do the race. No, I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about rolling 10 x 10k road loops around Lake Wingra in springtime Wisconsin that especially appeals to me. Ultimately, I suppose I thought it would be fun to try something different. Isn’t that what running should be all about anyway? Enjoyment. It’s easy to forget that when I’m wrapped up in trying to achieve.

In the end, I guess I probably disappointed some people with my fairly conservative average pace out there (which didn’t escape being duly noted by the ultra-media). It wasn’t that slow though: I was running at course record pace for the first 40 miles or so, game to give it a go and see what shook out. I came through 50k at 3:39 and 50 miles at 6:09 (a new Masters 40-44 road record, since RD Timo Yanacheck was kind enough to have the distance certified as record-eligible by USATF). Around the halfway mark, the wind picked up fiercely. Parts of the course were fine, but on other sections, winds of up to 31 miles per hour definitely wore on me. Ultimately though, it was the fact that the depth of my fitness simply wasn’t there to see me through 62 quick miles. I finished in 7:51:03 (7:34 pace/mile), still good enough to win the national title and IAU Continental Americas Championship. It’s wasn’t my best day of racing, but sometimes staying the course despite the inevitable physical decline can make the difference between a successful day and a regrettable one.

Photo: Tracey Hulick

USATF’s Lin Gentling wrote an engaging race report of the day. This race doubled as the inaugural Continental Americas Championship, featuring men’s and women’s teams from the USA as well as Canada and Brazil. Before the race, I was asked if I’d like to represent the USA, along with Katalin Nagy. Absolutely I would!  After the race, Lin asked me for a quote for her race report. Here’s what I submitted:

“The honor of wearing the ‘USA’ singlet will always challenge me to bring the best race I can deliver. The lead-up to the race had been a less-than-ideal training cycle, which resulted in a tough last few loops. Ultimately, though, persistence won the day. My heartfelt thanks go to race director Tim Yanacheck, and all of the organizers and volunteers for all of their hard work in putting together a top quality event”.

 

Chatting to Lin Gentling post-race (Photo: Tracey Hulick)

The women’s podium with Race Director Timo Yanacheck (far right) and IAU President Nadeem Khan (far left). Photo: Tracey Hulick

 

With IAU President Nadeem Khan (Photo: Tracey Hulick)

Gear

Yes, these are sponsor plugs, but I’m lucky enough to have a choice in sponsors. I choose these because they make the products I’d be using anyway. I include details here because I find reading about race/nutrition strategy useful, so maybe you will too:

  • I used a combination of VFuel gels (2 gels per 10oz water bottle) and VFuel Endurance Formula drink mix (1/2 pack per 10oz bottle), with one bottle per 10k loop. This was definitely on the minimal side in terms of calories and hydration, but I think pretty close to the right amount for me for the type of racing and conditions. It wasn’t a super hot day (sunny and a high of 69 degrees), so I could get away with less fluids than I would normally want for a 100k. I will say this: I was super thirsty at the end! But I don’t think that affected my race much. Most importantly, my stomach stayed consistently happy all day. You can use coupon code ‘Caroline20’ to receive a 20% discount on VFuel products if you’d like to try them.
  • I wore the new Vapor Howe 4L Nathan vest. This way, I could pick up a bottle from my crew person at the start/finish area and sip on it throughout the next few miles, instead of taking the risk of overloading my picky stomach by downing it all at once. I know wearing a vest for road racing may seem odd, but it works for me. The vest is so light and comfortable I don’t even notice I’m wearing it. It’s convenient for having electrolytes handy whenever I might need them too, although I didn’t need any at all during the race, probably because the VFuel Endurance mix already has them in there.
  • I prepped about 15 bottles for the race, but in the end only needed nine. I met my awesome crew person and all-around incredible human being, Madison local Tracey Hulick (thank you! thank you! thank you!), only on race morning. We had a fairly quick hand-off before it was time to get started. I appreciate being able to organize everything I might need in my Victory Sportdesign Bear III. The 10oz bottles lined up perfectly in there, which hopefully made Tracey’s job a little easier.
  • Ultra-distance road racing is hard on the body and feet. I used ‘Maximum Protection’ DryMax socks and was so grateful for the protection they provided. 

    With crewing superstar Tracey Hulick after finishing (Photo: Gary Gellin)

    Yummy pizza and beer with Gary Gellin.

Chasing Ann’s ‘Ghost’ in the Land of Flying Pigs: Brazos Bend 50 Mile Race Report

There must have been a special kind of magic in the air across America last weekend, because in the span of a few hours between Saturday and Sunday, ultrarunning women kicked an unusual amount of butt. Gina Slaby set the new 100-mile World Record on the track at Desert Solstice, breaking Ann Trason’s 1991 mark. Maggie Guterl, Courtney Dauwalter, and presumed Ultra Runner Of the Year Kaci Lickteig all clocked overall wins in their races, with Maggie setting the overall course record to boot.

I felt it too. As dawn broke on Saturday in Needville, Texas, I relished the snap of cold in the December air. A quiet confidence whispered to me that of all the racing days that had gone before it, this was going to be my day. The Grinch sent me off and I felt the weight of a responsibility to bring my very best. I had told RD Rob Goyen and my crew John Stasulli (aka The Grinch) along with his son AJ that I was trying to break Ann Trason’s 50 Mile trail record. On Rob’s course, I thought I could even break 6 hours.

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The Grinch aka John Stasulli (Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer)

Brazos Bend is a swamp. A full-on, lime green, moss-covered swamp. The Grinch warned me that even in winter, mosquitos might be a problem. Then there were the alligators. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to see an alligator on the course (alligators? really?), but everyone told me I probably would. My friend Myles Smythe, there to film the race, had seen one just the day before. In the end, neither the bugs nor the alligators made an appearance. Instead, of all things, it was flying pigs.

Only a couple of miles into the race and a disturbing ruckus of snorting and stampeding feet erupted from the brush to my right. What the…? For a few seconds, there was only the noise, coming closer and closer with each passing moment. I looked at the oncoming runners on this out and back section. They looked back at me, wide-eyed. Right in between us and just a few feet away, a dozen or so wild pigs came streaking across the trail at a full gallop. I paused, pretty sure I could still hear more snorting in the thicket from the ones left behind. Here goes nothing, I thought as I braved my way through, waiting to be taken out by a charging, squealing swine eager to catch up to the group.

Attempting to outrun the piggies (Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer)

Attempting to outrun the piggies (Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer)

Once clear – phew! – I got back into my rhythm, paranoid now about the continued sounds I could hear coming from the scrub. Fast as I was going, I couldn’t seem to outrun them. At the first aid station, 40 Acre, 4.10 miles in, The Grinch awaited. “Two minutes ahead [of pace]” he informed me, rather sternly. I shot him a big smile, “Oh, but I’m feeling so gooooood” I shouted back as we made the seamless transition. At each aid station, I grabbed a 10oz bottle filled with one or two VFuel gels mixed with water — shaken, not stirred – and continued on my way.

Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

The plan had been to go out on 7:10 pace and stick there like glue. This would have resulted in a 5:58:24 finish, with a smidge of cushioning if I was flagging at the end. I was determined to try to break 6 hours. By the end of the first 16.67 mile loop, I was well under. Six minutes under. The course was as fast as promised, with only a few short sections of clay mud and deeper crushed gravel footing that weren’t quite as speedy as the rest of the essentially flat course. At home, my husband, Robert, and coach, Mario Fraioli, exchanged texts. Robert was ecstatic, of she’s-crushing-it mentality. Mario was a touch more reticent, knowing that at this pace the last 10-15 miles could turn into a one-way trip to ugly town.

Mile after mile, my pace remained consistent in the low to mid-6:50s. On a flat surface, I can usually lock into a comfortable, fixed pace and just go, go, go. Still, with each passing mile, I braced for the inevitable crushing burden of fatigue. On a 50-mile course, I knew it was coming, the only question was when. It slowly seeped in, starting around mile 37. The danger is always the pitfall of giving back all of those beautiful splits, losing them to the overriding slow miles towards the end. Thirteen miles of 7:30s, for example, could quickly erase all that I had accomplished up to that point. I held myself to stay on task, knowing that the pain was only temporary, willing myself to get to most I could squeeze out of each passing mile.

Towards the end, I was grimacing with the effort, alternating between growling out loud to self-motivate and wimpering with suffering. Oncoming runners looked duly concerned. My slowest mile was at mile 45, a 7:30 something, as I came upon the lead runner, Michael Daigeaun. A few days before, Michael had decided to drop down to the 50-mile race from the 100-mile because of an impending cold. He had been ahead the whole time, often just out of sight. We would exchange encouraging words to each other as we crossed at the out-and-backs. He’d been running strong all morning and at mile 45 I naturally fell into step just behind him, thankful at the thought of having some company in my decline. I soon realized that I needed to pick up the pace to stay on track though, and passed by. It helped, knowing he was back there. I imagined him closing in on me, spurring me to try to stay a few steps ahead.

In my mind, there was another runner leading the way. I knew that I was well ahead of Ann Trason’s historic 1994 run in Hunstville, TX at this point. Yet I still imagined her there, her ghost if you will, always slightly ahead of me and leading the way.* In that race, Ann ran 6:14:51 for 50 miles. I’m told this was the fastest women’s 50-mile time recorded for a race where the surface is entirely trail. The race no longer exists, but extrapolating from what little I know about the area, the course probably had somewhat more elevation gain, and was undoubtedly more technical with some root-laden course sections. I believe this is where the Rocky Racoon race is run, a course that is also known as generally fast and fairly flat — although it’s always hard to compare times run on any two trail races.

In the end, I came across the line in 5:48:01 (avg 6:58 pace), absolutely spent and raw with emotion. I’m so grateful to those who were there to capture some beautiful images of the moment. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the new overall course record, inching past Ford Smith’s 2014 time by 9 seconds, albeit on a slightly adjusted course. It’s also the third fastest 50-mile time ever run by a North American resident woman on any surface (Camille Herron holds the “world’s best” of 5:38:41, run on the road, with Ann Trason’s road time a close second, at 5:40:18).**

Photo: AJ Stasulli

Photo: AJ Stasulli

Saturday marked my 42nd Birthday. On that day something very unlikely happened to someone who still thinks of herself as a rank amateur among giants. The take home, I suppose, is to keep plugging away, take risks, and hold yourself to the task at hand.

Because you just never know when the pigs are gonna fly.

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Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

* Don’t worry, Ann Trason is very much alive, and thank goodness for that. She’s my hero, and she should be yours too. Whether or not you’re familiar with her accomplishments, they’re worthy of discussion, being nothing short of spectacular. Ann won the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run a whopping 14 times. She was voted Ultra Runner Of the Year for more than a decade. Ann set 20 World Records in the course of her career, at distances from 40 miles to 100 miles, and numerous course records, many of which still stand today. Stop for a moment and absorb that. It’s only in recent years, as the popularity of ultrarunning continues to grow and women’s participation in it surges, that Ann’s records have begun to be challenged. Ann set the bar so very high, at a time when her only real competition was often the men (whom she regularly beat, winning races outright).

**  The Brazos Bend 100 Mile course is USA Track & Field (USATF) sanctioned. The Brazos Bend 50 Mile course I ran on Saturday is exactly 50.01 miles. Each 16.67-mile loop is part of the six-loop, 100-mile course and the 50-mile course is simply three of those same loops. The difference between certified and sanctioned is this: a certified course has been measured as accurate for the distance. However, a course cannot be certified–is not officially record-eligible–if it does not meet the USATF criteria for setting records. For reasons unknown to the author, USATF does not certify trail races. Additionally, Camille Herron’s 50-mile time is officially a ‘world’s best’ rather than a world record because it was set at a point-to-point race, which is another type of course that USATF does not officially certify. Essentially, Camille holds the fastest 50-mile road time ever recorded and I now hold the fastest 50-mile trail time ever recorded, at least by a North American resident, and possibly anywhere (since 50-mile races are very much a North American distance). Just don’t call them American records or world records because some people get really bent out of shape about stuff like this. As Traci Falbo put it: tomato/tomato.

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The agony and the ecstacy, captured in one intense moment. Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

High-fiving Michael Daigeaun (Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer)

High-fiving Michael Daigeaun at the finish (Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer)

With RD, Rob Goyen (Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer)

With RD, Rob Goyen (Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer)

On the Rebound: JFK 50 Mile Race Report

I came back from Doha and the 50k World Champs feeling deflated. I knew there was nothing I could have done to change the outcome, but I was beating myself up just the same. I finished 16th but it might as well have been last. It felt like last.

Since my lungs were the problem in Qatar, my legs came out of it frustratingly fine. A 31-mile training run with 12 miles at uptempo pace and 19 miles at an easy pace simply added to my fitness. That definitely pissed me off. It was something in the air in Doha that set off the asthma — the prevailing theory being that it’s allergy-induced, not exercise-induced – so I didn’t think it was likely to happen again anytime soon. I still have no inhaler, though I understand that it’s a priority for me to get one just in case.

What to do next? I mentally flirted with the idea of doing something Mike Wardian-esque and hopping on the next flight to Maryland. I knew it had the potential to be a truly terrible idea, and frankly, that’s part of what attracted me to it. If I could race well when I shouldn’t, there would be something satisfying and redeeming about that. There would be no hype, no pressure, just me out doing what I love on a beautiful fall day.

Without any fixed ideas about it, I mentioned it to my husband on Wednesday morning, casually, over coffee. Hey, maybe I should run JFK?

When is it, he asked?

On Saturday, I said.

He looked at me. So, you’d have to leave…?

Tomorrow, I mumbled into my mug.

Dang it, he knows me too well. Snuggling with my boys on the sofa watching movies wasn’t going to make me feel better about my running. And I needed to feel better about my running. You should do it, he said.

Next, I talked to my coach. Surely he would talk me down? But I guess after a year of working together he’s got a decent handle on what makes me tick. A $283 Southwest booking later, a thumbs-up from the RD, Mike Spinnler, and just 4 days after returning from Doha, I made the trek back down to LAX, Maryland-bound.

There’s something incredibly refreshing about going into a race with no expectations. I’ve been wanting to run the JFK 50 miler ever since I heard about it. Being the oldest ultramarathon in the US, it’s steeped in history. Women (and men) that have been the source of countless personal inspiration have run the course. It used to be part of the Montrail Ultra Cup, with golden tickets giving the passholders entry into the enormously coveted Western States. In 2012, JFK featured an epic battle between legendary ultrarunner Ellie Greenwood at the peak of her racing form and ultra-newcomer and 2:32 marathoner, Emily Harrison. While Ellie ultimately prevailed, both broke the previous course record.

The race brochure highlighted the top women's performances, which read like something of a who's-who list of ultrarunners.

The race brochure highlighted the top women’s performances, which reads like something of a who’s-who list of ultrarunners.

The race starts out with a 15.5 mile section run mostly on the sometimes-rocky Appalachian Trail (known as the “AT”). My feet haven’t touched this kind of surface in a long time. It took me back to the origins of my deep love for trail running. There aren’t a lot of trails like this in California that I know of, but Santa Rosa’s Annadel State Park has 44 miles of them and I once knew practically every inch. Technical rolling singletrack with some fast sections and others that make you happy just to remain upright.

Featuring 1200 ft of elevation gain in the first 5.5 miles, the JFK course doesn’t start out gently. I was out of practice, but in the cool, crisp East coast air with golden brown leaves falling all around me, I was in heaven. This is my kind of trail.

On the AT: Photo coutesy of Paul Encarnacion

On the AT: Photo courtesy of Paul Encarnacion

I was careful not to get too carried away, unsure how my legs would feel later in the race following a 50k on the other side of the world just eight days before. Also, I hadn’t trained for a 50 miler, and other than Doha, had not run longer than a marathon since June’s Western States 100 miler. Determined to keep things aerobically comfortable, I chatted to the runners around me. Towards the end of the AT section, I asked the runner behind if he’d run the race before. Yep, he said, this is my 22nd time. I swung around. Oh, hi Ian! I said. (Ian Torrence was completing his 200th ultra that day, an absolutely outstanding achievement).

I cautiously picked my way down the steep Weverton Cliffs, which decline around 1000ft during the course of one heavily switch-backed, rocky and leafy mile. I recall having flashbacks to last year’s TNF 50 miler and the ensuing dental work. Once clear and onto the flat towpath, it was time to lock into a groove and cruise. For as much as I loved the trail, the towpath is where I knew I would run the strongest. I wasn’t sure going in what pace would be sustainable over that 26.3 mile stretch, but my coach Mario had assured me I’d soon find it. It took a mile or so, but I worked my way into a rhythm and was happy to see each mile split reflecting a consistent effort, anywhere from ~6:55 to 7:15 pace along the entire length of the towpath. (I averaged 7:09/mile on this section, faster than all but five other competitors, all of them guys!).

I felt confident that I had to be catching the lead runner, Leah Frost. I thought she would come back to me since this was her first 50 mile race and she lead from the start. I kept expecting to see her in the distance up ahead. Even though race splits show that I put a couple of minutes on her on the towpath, what I didn’t know was the damage was already done: she ran 11 minutes faster than me on the initial 15.5 mile AT section. My hat’s off to her for putting together an outstanding race, running the third fastest time in race history and ultimately finishing almost 9 minutes ahead of me.

The final 8+ mile road section started with a killer hill, reminding me of a shorter Bath Road-type incline from the Western States course. After that, it was relentless rollers all the way to the finish, none of which amounted to much, but at this stage in the game they certainly took their toll. It felt like I was crawling along, but was surprised to see that I was still running 7:30-7:40 pace.

I did some quick math and realized I was within striking distance of Meghan Arbogast’s Masters Course Record from 2011. Now, Meghan is an impressive runner in her own right completely outside of her age, and it stands to be said that she ran this course record when she was 50 years old. I am truly in awe of this accomplishment. At this point in the race, I knew third was not close and first was too far ahead to catch, so this kind of time goal is exactly what I needed to keep the legs turning over. I’d been following a male runner (who later introduced himself as David Lantz) for many miles along this final road stretch when I realized that I had less than 13 minutes left to cover 1.5 miles if I wanted to claim that record. It was within reach, but I needed a final mental and physical push. I called out to the runner, telling him I could snag the record, knowing that if I voiced it out loud I was committed to a trip to the pain cave to get it done. He picked up the pace and I followed suit, but I soon flagged as it was just too fast for me to keep up. He called out “COME ON!!” and I doubled-down, finishing a short distance behind (thank you Dave!). It made for an exciting end to the race and I came across the line in 6:32, shaving three minutes off the Masters course record and running the 8th fastest women’s time in course history.

In the finishing chute. Photo: Amy Race

In the finishing chute. Photo: Amy Race

When I got back to the host hotel, the staff saw me hobble in with my trophy and promptly gave me a free bottle of wine. Never have I been so thrilled about a bottle of Sutter Home Chardonnay!

Unsurprisingly, chardonnay and mint chocolate chip ice cream don't pair well. But I went there anyway.

Unsurprisingly, chardonnay and mint chocolate chip ice cream don’t pair well. But I went there anyway.

Thank you to my sponsors:

  • Nike Trail: I wore the Lunar Tempo shoes for this race
  • VFuel: I ate about 14 salted Caramel Apple gels along the way. The first 10 were super yummy 😉
  • Victory Sportdesign: they’ve got my gear-bag needs covered
  • … and a shout-out for the support of Picky Bars and Petzl, who fuel me and light the way

Thanks to the RD, Mike Spinnler and all the race personnel who were welcoming and accommodating at every turn as well as the wonderful volunteers, without whom this race could not take place – you are the unsung heros and I’m so very grateful for you.

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Gratuitous sponsor pic

Oxygen Debt: 50k Road World Championships Race Report

I was going to write a proper race report about the lead-up to and my race at the 50k Road World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Heck, I wrote 800 words on it and I was barely getting started. Instead, I’ve decided to spare you the details and give you the quick and dirty. From post-Western States until the race, it went down like this:

I got injured. So, I reluctantly gave up my auto-spot on Team USA.

Then, I wasn’t injured anymore. Luckily, a slot opened up on Team USA and I accepted.

My body initially resisted my efforts at a 5-week crash course in fitness to get ready for Doha. But after a few weeks, it relented. Scratch that, it blossomed.

Those last couple of weeks, training had been so good that I believed my fitness was close to where it was in March when I raced Caumsett and broke a 15-year old Masters American record.

But I also knew that fitness isn’t enough when you’re racing on bricks in the desert (yes, you read that right). I addressed all the known race-specific variables too:
* heat: sauna, lots of layers, train during the hottest part of the day, purchased ice vest for pre-race

* terrain: bricks: I chose my shoes carefully, settling on the Nike Lunar Racers 4 to give me the protection I needed with the fast feel I wanted

* nutrition: I made sure to practice and find the right balance of electrolytes, gels and water so that I could to ensure absorption in the heat

* jet lag: got there on Tuesday night before the Friday race (16 hour flight, 11 hour time difference)

* course: 20 x 2.5k loops. I practiced monotonous running in training, doing 1.5 mile out and backs for 20+ miles, also running on the treadmill

In the end, as things would have it, none of it mattered. That’s because it was a totally unexpected variable that ended my race.

A mere 15k in and my lungs felt like they were caving in. It took me a couple more laps to figure out what was going on. When it finally dawned on me that I was having an asthma attack (something that has only ever happened twice before, both times over four years ago), I tried hard to remain calm and keep running strong. Let me assure you in case you don’t have experience with this: it’s hard to run strong when your lungs aren’t working properly. Within a short time, the only way I could stay upright was to gasp and wheeze out loud, audibly fighting for each breath. I stayed that way for countless laps.

Photo: Vibhav Gautam

Somehow, I finished the race (in 16th, and 1/2 hour off my Caumsett time). Within seconds, I started panicking, realizing that the full effect of the attack was now crashing down on me. I felt like I could not breathe. What little lung function I had when running dropped dramatically when I stopped. I was rushed to the medical tent in a wheelchair, thinking to myself: I just ran 50k and I’m in a wheelchair! This is so ridiculous! And yet, I was absolutely grasping for every ounce of oxygen I could get. My fingers were blue in the 80 degree desert temps. I was hyperventilating. I had low oxygen saturation and was tachycardic (abnormally high heartrate). The cardiologist was able to get things under control relatively quickly by giving me an inhaler, but it was, without a doubt, one of the scariest things to ever happen to me.
So that was that. Halfway around the world, my hopes pinned to leading the way for Team USA ladies. It was over, and it was awful.

I’ll finish with some pretty pictures of the experience, because, geez, who wants to dwell on the cruddy stuff.

Press briefing before the race. Photo: Susan Dun

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More press briefing. Pic: Susan Dun.

 

Teammates!

Teammates!

Party in the trunk. Photo: Adrian Chouinard

Party in the trunk. Photo: Adrian Chouinard

Team USA

Team USA, along with our amazing manager, Susan Dun. Photo: Vibhav Gautam.

Opening ceremonies

With roommate and teammate Adrian Chouinard

With roommate and teammate Adrian Chouinard

We received five star treatment at the hotel. The hospitality offered by our hosts was truly outstanding at every turn.

We received five star treatment at the hotel. The hospitality was truly outstanding at every turn.

Just in case we started taking ourselves a little too seriously, there was Eric Senseman. Photo: Vibhav Gautam

Just in case we started taking ourselves a little too seriously, there was Eric Senseman. Photo: Vibhav Gautam

Closing ceremonies

Closing ceremonies

Team Gold for the Men

Team Gold for the Men

And silver for the ladies! Photo: Vibhav Gautam

And silver for the ladies! Photo: Vibhav Gautam

 

No Regrets: My Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report

The important thing is this: to be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become.” – Charles Dickens

Should I start at the end? Not the literal end, but the figurative one.

Any Western States enthusiast will hear over and over that crossing the American River is an iconic part of the race. Runners can’t wait to get to its refreshing waters. At 78 miles into the race, it should be a celebration that the finish line is within reach. All that awaits is 22 miles of gentle, forgiving trail, practically devoid of the rigors of traversing the canyons or the endless miles of downhill that trashed quads abhor. And this year, I arrived when it was still daylight.

But no, the river is not my happy place. It’s a place where, two years in a row now, the story of a glorious day of racing reads like a book slammed shut, right at the point when you just can’t put it down. I’m not sure exactly what it is. All I know is that the frigid waters don’t invigorate me as I stumble across, struggling to gain purchase on the slick rocks. The beautiful downhill momentum of the previous 16 mile Cal St stretch of the course is washed away. Soaked for the umpteenth time on the course, the pain of pulverized feet becomes impossible to ignore any longer. I’m bonking, but I can’t bring myself to eat a thing. I know the darkness is coming. The river reminds me that I’m more tired than I’ve ever been.

Photo: Cindy Lynch

Photo: Cindy Lynch

“I am here for a purpose and that purpose is to grow into a mountain, not shrink to a grain of sand. Henceforth will I apply all my efforts to become the highest mountain of all and I will strain my potential until it cries for mercy.” – Og Mandino

It’s not like I planned to be bearing down on second place at mile 75. I can assure you, it surprised me as much as it probably surprised you. With all of the talent in the ladies field, I knew it would take a near-perfect day for me to be up where I was. By all accounts, I sure was having it.

I started the race conservatively, knowing that the hundred mile distance rewards the patient. No matter where I was in the women’s field at this stage, I had learned last year that it was largely irrelevant to finishing place. I chatted away with Nicole Studer and then Chaz Sheya, and was sorry to leave Chaz when he sprained his ankle at mile nine. Right away my stomach was bothering me, a common theme in ultras. But this time, finally, I knew I had the tools to deal with it the best I could. After only managing 50k at May’s The Canyons race, I had sought invaluable advice from nutritionist Meredith Terranova with respect to race day fueling. I’m certain I had a better race because of it.

Photo: Jeff Allen

In the high country. Photo: Jeff Allen

At Red Star Ridge (mile 16), I failed to grab any solid food. I thought I had another gel on me or there was another aid station before Duncan Canyon (mile 23.8), but there wasn’t. All I had was water. No big deal as it was early in the race, but it was too bad to have missed a fueling opportunity. By the time I came into Duncan, I was weak and lightheaded. I ran into the aid station with a somber look on my face. What had been a fairly unimportant crew stop on my race plan turned into a critical one as I grabbed the extra calories I needed to continue running strong.

Photo: Cindy Lynch

Coke. It’s all about the Coke. Photo: Cindy Lynch

Within minutes, I was feeling better. Then it was just a short stretch to Robinson Flat (mile 29.7) where I knew I’d get more star treatment from my primary crew team. I made my way into Robinson feeling amazing. What an experience it was! I arrived to crowds of people calling me by name, clapping and cheering wildly. I passed by Andy Jones Wilkins and gave him a huge high-five. My crew worked quickly and diligently. They had been instructed not to tell me my place in the women’s field until Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7), so I had no idea I came in 9th. Sure I was a little quicker than last year, but I thought there were so many ladies ahead.

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Photo: Kyla Casazza

Photo: Kyla Casazza

Photo: Kyla Casazza

After Robinson, I got into a rhythm and cruised along. Throughout the race my climbing was better than it has ever been before. I felt strong, confident and the miles simply flowed. Gradually, I passed some women, and entered the Canyons floating. This is normally my weakest section of the course, but instead, against any realistic expectations going into the race, this is the section where I effortlessly passed many of the top ladies. I ran into Michigan Bluff (mile 55.7) to see 2014 race champion Stephanie Howe and ultrarunner friend Kelsie Clausen jumping up and down, wooping and hollering to greet me. Holy cow, that was fantastic! I eased over to my crew in disbelief. I’m in THIRD?! Wow.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” Michelangelo

Part of me urges caution. How can I be in third place? This is Western States! Many of the best ultrarunners in the country are running today. It’s not called the superbowl of ultrarunning for nothing. But I also knew that 100 miles is a long way and anyone can have a bad day, just as anyone can have a good one. I felt smooth, controlled, totally solid. There were no red flags or warning signs of over-exertion and I didn’t feel the heat at all. I was ready to seize the opportunity. A brief stop in Michigan Bluff and I was on my way.

I cruised through the last canyon and up Bath Road into Foresthill (mile 62) a little after 4:30pm — 11.5 hours into the race — feeling on top of the world and wearing an enormous grin. I had just completed what for my skillset is the hardest section of the course, but I was feeling better than ever before. I chomped at the bit to cruise down the buff trails of Cal Street. I’d been riding a flow-state high for over 30 miles at this stage but it showed no signs of relenting. Never in my life could I imagine feeling this incredible 62 miles into a race.

 

iRunFar thought I looked pretty good too :)

iRunFar thought I looked pretty good too 🙂

 

 

After careful attention from my somewhat stunned and ecstatic crew (who barely got there in time), I picked up pacer Curt Casazza, telling him to stay behind me and let me set the pace. I didn’t want to upset the balance of whatever magic was happening. The miles flew by and I was in a groove. I knew I had to be gaining on 2nd place’s Amy Sprotson. By Cal 1 (mile 65.7), it was confirmed that she was within a few minutes’ striking distance [I didn’t know it, but in reality, she was about 16 mins ahead, which is still a lot of ground to make up]. Don’t think, just run, I told myself.

Despite diligent efforts to push through, I started to slow down after Cal 2 (mile 70.7), but not by too much. I was still making good time. Then Devon Yanko passed me a few miles after Cal 3 (mile 73). She was moving well, and I was starting to bonk, so I let her go. There’s still time, I thought. Just keep moving, Curt encouraged.

But before long, it was no use. My world came crashing in, and I was feeling every ounce of the deep fatigue of 78 hilly, hot miles. At the river, complete exhaustion washed over me. Despite this, I still had some fight left. Sure, I hiked up Green Gate, but it seemed much less imposing than last year in the daylight. The plan: change shoes, eat food, get moving. I was pale as a ghost, completely drained. Friend Ethan Veneklasen tried to impart some encouraging words as I struggled to pull myself together. Stephanie Howe and Kelsie Clausen, there to crew Stephanie’s husband Zach Violett, who I had passed earlier in the Canyons (but who ultimately finished well ahead of me), also saw that I was in distress. Even though the sun still shone, I was mentally entering a deep, dark place. A heartfelt hug from Stephanie, combined with all the other caring words I had received along the course of the day readied me for one last push. I let the calories settle in for a few minutes of shuffling until I was able to pick up my feet once again and at least move forward with some momentum.

Photo: Cindy Lynch

Photo: Cindy Lynch

By ALT (mile 85.2) though, I had nothing left. My right hip flexor was seizing up, making my steps small and painful. My quads were destroyed. I was bonking (again) and nauseous. Mentally and physically, I was done.

I picked up my next pacer, my husband Robert, at highway 49 (mile 93.5). He knew my race was over. Even then, I had no regrets. I gave it everything I had until I couldn’t give any more. It’s simply not possible to grow as an athlete unless you put it all out there, take a risk, and see what you’ve got.

In the end I got it done, sharing a few miles walking (painfully) hand in hand with my amazing husband under the stars. There was no quitting. I honestly never considered it. I owed it to all those who covet a Western States spot, and to those who support me in my endeavors, just as much as to myself to see it through. As for my husband, this has been his journey too. Balancing a workload that has transitioned into almost a full-time job (that I love), juggling family life with two young boys, and the stress of both buying and selling a home has meant that I’ve had to get creative trying to find time for running. While I manage to fit it in, I’m always chasing the clock to try to make it happen. It’s not easy. The little things like strength training have been sacrificed as I take the time to drive to trailheads and squeeze in 3-5 hour runs. Training for 100 miles takes a time commitment that involves the entire family. It’s tough on everybody. I’m ready to put this training block behind me and get back to a more sustainable routine.

Despite the outcome of Western States (12th place in 22:06), it was a privilege to be able to run this race again. I love the journey of running 100 miles of trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn. The race organization and buzz is unparalleled, and the volunteers are the absolute best anywhere. They make this race. I’m so thankful to my crew and pacers, who executed to perfection. Crew and pacer Curt Cazassa, his lovely wife Lhia who took outstanding care of the kids for the weekend, their daughters Kyla and Mari, my friend Cindy Lynch, and helping hands Fern Blanco and Chris Perillo, thank you. To my husband, for your unwavering support as crew chief, as pacer and for the million other ways that you make this happen, thank you. To my coach, Mario Fraioli, whose guidance I trust completely, thank you. Thank you to my sponsors, Nike Trail, V Fuel, and Victory Sportdesign. None of this is possible without all of you.

My people. So much love.

My people. So much love.

A Progress Report: Mokelumne River 50k

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Photo: Michael Cortez

“Be nice to people and always respect your rivals. But when the gun goes off, flip the switch and come out swinging.”

– Mario Fraioli, taken from a recent issue of his excellent Tuesday missive, The Morning Shakeout.

Normally, I couldn’t agree more with this racing philosophy. Granted, I have a hard time not silently cheering on my fellow competitors for their efforts, even when they’re beating me. Ultrarunning is hard and deserves respect. Yet when push comes to shove, out comes the inner competitor in me, and I’ll fight to finish a step ahead.

Every now and then though, the situation calls for a somewhat different approach.

When the opportunity arose for me to race Mokelumne River 50k in Valley Springs, CA I jumped on it. That’s in the Sierra foothills to those who, like me, had never heard of it. Not only did it neatly fit into my build-up for June’s Western States 100 miler, but I knew my friend and Western States crew, Curt Casazza, would be running it too. We live quite far apart, he and his family in the Sacramento suburbs while we’re down the California coast just north of Santa Barbara. When the occasion arises and our families get together to share a weekend, we enjoy running together. We’re well matched, with similar marathon and 50k times.

So that’s how I find myself driving five-and-a half-hours to what felt like the middle of nowhere last Friday afternoon. As I get closer, I make a right hand turn and start getting glimpses of a large and quite beautiful lake, surrounded by mature oak trees and classic California rolling hills. Well alright, I think to myself, this is isn’t half bad. I make my way to my cabin on the north side of the lake. The race is on the south side, but accommodation options are slim and I didn’t book early enough for most of them. The cabin I’m staying in is older, complete with original 60s/70s fittings, but it’s well maintained and spotlessly clean. There’s plenty of space and just about everything I could ask for, including a large deck with a view and a barbeque. Since I arrive after 8pm, I’m not going to have much use for the amenities, but I can see returning to spend a few days here with the family and enjoying runs and family hikes along the lakes’ many trails.

With the 6am start, the next day I’m up early and quickly out the door. Along with a number of other cars driving in for the race in the darkness, we struggle to find where we’re supposed to be. Still, without too much hassle I find Curt and we make our way to the start line. Many runners are camping right there, some participating in all three days of the running festival’s events.

Before we know it, we’re off. RD Paulo Medina hops into the van to lead us out, but it takes him a short while to get ahead of the mass of runners and without markers we’re not quite sure where to go. Once we get on track, Curt and I naturally find ourselves running together at the front. There are many miles of single and double track on the course, as well as some shorter fire road sections. The climbs are rolling and plentiful, but there are also long stretches of faster terrain. None if it is especially technical, though the opening and closing of numerous gates costs a little time and momentum, there being perhaps a dozen or so on the out and back course.

Photo: Paolo Medina

Photo: Paulo Medina

Photo: Paulo Medina

Photo: Paulo Medina

The miles fly by, we’re chatting away, and I’m not even looking at my watch. When Curt mentions we’re over the 20 mile mark, it catches me by surprise. That’s usually when I have a low point during a 50k, but the whole race my energy was steady and constant. I had been careful to take a gel at the start and every half an hour thereafter, which seemed to be the right amount of fueling for the effort. VFuel sponsored the race, so there was plenty of opportunity to stock up at the aid stations. Whether it was the nature of the course, the right fueling plan, the pleasant distraction of having someone to run with, or whatever else factored in, we actually managed to negative split the race’s second half. That’s something I’m certain I’ve never done in an ultra before.

Photo: Paulo Medina

Photo: Paulo Medina

We made the decision early on that if we were both feeling good and running at around the same pace, we’d continue that way until the finish line. There was no ego on the line here, just two friends out for a run. I didn’t feel any pressure to compete and go to the well, and that was a decision that I made with my coach going in. The race came at the tail end of a substantial training cycle, but even with race week being a ‘down’ week I still managed over 80 miles. Moreover, I knew that the following week called for close to 100 miles, so I was conscious of not wrecking myself during this race.

In the end Curt and I tied for first overall, coming in together at 4:08:10. Setting the new course record was the icing on the cake of a perfect morning on the trails.

Photo: Paulo Medina

Photo: Paulo Medina

There was beer at the finish which is always a sign of solid RD-ing in my book. On top of that, the race swag was outstanding. Instead of another medal — because really, who needs one — all runners were spoiled with top quality half-zip pullovers from a major apparel brand and a super nice coffee mug that I’ll actually use, among other things. The whole atmosphere had a relaxed, family-friendly feel, with numerous little ones merrily hopping around in the grass or, as the day heated up, in kiddie pools, while they waited for Mommy or Daddy to finish their race.

It’s been immensely helpful for me to run a couple of low key races in the build-up to Canyons 100k and Western States. (In case you missed it, I ran a trail half marathon at Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, CA earlier this month too.) Since these races were scheduled as moderate efforts, their relaxed vibes ensured I didn’t overdo things. This meant I could quickly recover and get right back to training again. In a couple of weeks though, the training wheels come solidly off. I’ll test my fitness at the burly Canyons 100k, with its 14,000ft of climbing, all run along Western States trail. In terms of getting prepped for Western States, it doesn’t get much more specific than that!

 

Gear:               Nike Kieger vest with two 10z hard bottles. Kieger shoes. Victory Sport Design drop bag.

Nutrition:          VFuel gels (8), water

Aloha Doha: Caumsett 50k National Road Championships Race Report

Photo: Greater Long Island Running Club

Photo: Greater Long Island Running Club

There’s nothing quite like going straight from the finish line to the airport security line. Disheveled hair, salty skin, clothes still wet from the race. At the last minute, I remembered to take off my jacket and unpin my bib so as not to set off the metal detectors, garnering some strange looks in the process. Once through the line I rushed to the ladies room. Time to break out the wet wipes and change into normal-people clothes, only to find to my dismay that I’d missed packing an essential under-layer. Sigh. Bring on the airport margarita.

I hobbled over to the bar and ordered what turned out to be the best tasting margarita I can recall. But maybe that’s because the bartender made it strong and I downed it in about five minutes before grabbing my to-go sandwich and rushing for the gate. Feeling good by this point, I joined the boarding line and called my husband for a short pre-flight chat. I giggled something about needing to shower but how I probably shouldn’t voice that one too loudly. Then, he made me say it. Say it out loud, he urged. Embarrassed, I told him, I can’t. But he insisted. Laughing, I went for it, astonished at the words even as I said them. National Champion. American Record holder.

Two laps down, eight to go... (Photo: Ed Grenzig)

Two laps down, eight to go… (Photo: Ed Grenzig)

Since I’ve been hitting the pavement for the past couple of months it seemed fitting to run the year’s first ultra on the road. Despite poor recovery from January’s Houston Marathon PR, I ran in February’s Olympic Trials, knowing it was unlikely to be a shining accomplishment in my racing life but eager for the incredible experience. Toeing the line at Caumsett just three weeks later meant that my legs definitely weren’t as fresh as I would have liked. Still, the last week before the race saw my body performing close to ‘normal’ for the first time in a long while and I took that as a sign that it was at least worth a try.

This race checked a lot of boxes. I wanted a spot on Team USA for the 50k World Championships. To gain that, I would have to win the race and also come in under the minimum time standard of 3:33. My secondary goal was to break the Masters American Record of 3:28:30 held by Mary Coordt since 2001.

On race morning, the weather was a perfectly chilly 35+/- degrees with little wind. The loop-style format meant that I didn’t need to look at my mileage, simply counting how many laps I had completed and how many I had to go. Ten loops was a lot easier to get my head around than 31 individual miles. The plan was to come in around 20 mins per 5k lap and a timer at the start/finish made this easy to ascertain.

The course was somewhat more rolling than I had anticipated. Near-flat by the start/finish, but through the wooded sections it was undulating. The route follows a bike path loop followed by a short out and back section ending with a 180 degree hairpin turn. Hundreds of runners of varying speed — many wearing headphones — meant it was a constant exercise in dodging and weaving. No course is perfect, and despite these few negatives overall this is a solid championship course.

I was fortunate to have access to a personal fluids table near the start/finish. I set out six bottles, and in contrast to my Olympic Trials experience, managed to get the ratio of VFuel gel to water spot on for this race, using only about 3oz of water and one full gel packet per bottle. On a cold weather day, this was all I needed to keep ticking along and in the end I only used five of the bottles. The race had various ultra-style aid station food on hand for those who wanted it, including hot soups, and also a separate water station at about the halfway point on the loop.

There were timing mats at the marathon mark, used by several runners as a Boston Qualifier. I came through around 2:49:30, which works out to a 6:28 pace. The last few miles definitely became slower as I continued to the 50k mark and my 3:22:50 finishing time equates to 6:32/mile [actually, it’s officially 3:22:51, the clock must have just ticked over]. Contrast that to my Houston Marathon pace of 6:16/mile, and I think it’s fair to say that with a little less racing in my legs I might have been able to run a faster time. Regardless, I’m thrilled with the result, especially since this was a solo effort — there being no ladies or men running a similar pace on the day.

It felt incredible to break the tape knowing that my goals had been met. A National Championship title. An American Masters Record. A spot on Team USA for the upcoming World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Plus, since I’m a dual citizen (I became a US citizen in July), I believe I’m eligible to submit my finishing time for English records. My 3:22:50 3:22:51 would be ranked as the third fastest 50k on record, nosing ahead of legendary Lizzy Hawker’s personal best by just 23 22 seconds! (Per Association of Road Racing Statisticians website).

Photo: Greater Long Island Running Club

Photo: Greater Long Island Running Club

It will be an absolute honor to represent the United States in November. Having spent a nearly half of my life in each country, it’s true that I’m as much English as I am American. However, I won’t be submitting a resume for Team GB consideration. I live in the USA, and my husband and I raise our children here. This is very much home and I’m incredibly proud to have the opportunity to run for the stars and stripes.

[Added 3/9: thank you to ‘Tropical’ John Medinger and Ultrarunning Magazine for pointing out that my 50k time ranks as the 8th fastest of all-time in North America. I had no idea!
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So cool!]

Thank you to Carl Grossbard and the entire Greater Long Island Running Club, to my coach and my family for their support. Additionally, many thanks to my incredible sponsors. To Nike Trail for supporting me even as I hit the asphalt. To VFuel for making the only gel on the market that I trust completely to never upset my stomach. To Victory Sportdesign, maker of the world’s best drop bags/diaper bag/travel purse/whatever organizer. To Picky Bars, because having real-food bars on hand that stand up in any weather is an essential part of my recovery. Also, they also make for nice plane snacks.

#alohadoha

[awesome hashtag credit goes to 50k World Champion Camille Herron]

Photo: Ed Grenzig

[Looks like 3:22:50, but officially, it’s a second later.] Photo: Ed Grenzig

Hot Enough For Bikinis: Olympic Marathon Trials Race Report

 

Enjoying a brief moment of shade on the first loop. (Photo Credit: Tim Meigs)

Enjoying a brief moment of shade on the first loop. (Photo Credit: Tim Meigs)

“You’re here! You made it! You’re running in the Olympic Marathon Trials! You are my inspiration! Make today count!” shouts the world’s best spectator, who is literally jumping up and down, arms pumping wildly with enthusiasm as she stands on top of a concrete post at the USC campus. It’s the first lap, and she’s no less animated on the second, the third or even the fourth. Come the final, fourth lap, though and I decide to throw some love back her way. Fixing her in the eye, I yell “THANK YOU! Thank you for being out here supporting us. You’re amazing!” Momentarily, she ceases her tireless cheering, flashes me a smile of gratitude, and then proceeds to get right back to the task at hand. By this point in the race the front runners have long since passed, Olympic rings branded on the podium finishers on the sizzling tarmac. Lap four, and the spectator is no longer encouraging the lead pack with her seemingly endless fervor. Instead, she’s doing her very best to rally some of the nation’s fastest marathoners as they suffer through classic marathon apocalypse.

For as tough as my race was, I had plenty of distinguished company. The stats are telling. Two hundred and forty six women ran under 2:45:00 to qualify for the Trials. With a relatively generous two-and-a-half year qualifying window, it’s safe to say these are currently the top marathoners in the country. Fast forward to the Trials, though, and the numbers start to get a little funky. Of the 198 women who started the race, a full 49 of them didn’t finish — 25% of the field. It’s even worse on the men’s side, where there were 166 starters and 61 drops, a 37% attrition rate. Moreover, on the day, only 18 men and 40 women were able to run paces that would have met the bare-minimum qualifying standard to be there in the first place. I started the race ranked #159 and ended #108. If you ignore my slowest-in-two-years finishing time and simply look at finishing place, it appears as though I had a stellar day out there. Professional marathoners far more accomplished than I trailed behind, including two members of the famed Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, as well as several 2:30-something marathoners and sub-1:15 half marathoners.

Photo: Robert Boller

The route sure was spectator friendly, though not exactly scenic. Photo: Leilani Rios

I only just ‘squeaked’ into the Trials. So why was I in such unexpectedly esteemed company? The course’s 80+ turns didn’t help, but mostly it was the weather. At the athlete technical meeting at 4pm the night before the race, we were told the women’s start would be 77 degrees, with temperatures rapidly climbing to a high of 81. As if that’s not crazy hot enough, it always feels so much worse early-season, especially on radiating, shadeless asphalt.  In the end, actual temperatures were somewhat lower. Despite this, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any runner who didn’t think it felt every inch as oppressively, stiflingly hot as forecasted. Even though I had tried to squeeze in some last-minute heat training, it simply wasn’t enough to prepare me. It’s one thing to run in warm weather and quite another to run fast. On the wise advice of my coach, I started conservatively due to the conditions. Still, my overheated body threw on the emergency brake with a long ten miles to go, and thus began my descent into the apocalypse.

Lap 1: I’m at the Olympic Trials! This is freakin’ awesome!!

Lap 2: Slow, but still awesome!

Hot and lonely (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

And, then there’s Lap 4: hot, lonely sufferfest in full swing (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

There were many reasons I didn’t give up. My Dad had come to watch me for the very first time and my kids were out there. I couldn’t face letting them down. The painful events of the past few weeks left me comfortable with the suffering, those I’ve lost ever-present in my thoughts. At the same time, I relished the raucous cheering of the plentiful crowds, thrilled to hear people calling me by my first name many times (only my last name was printed on my bib!). Most of all, I continued because when I look back on the experience, I wanted to be able to know I did it. No mental asterisk, no qualification. When I finally made it within sight of the finish line, I took a long few moments to savor it. To soak in the applause and to appreciate that I had run against the country’s fastest. To know that in a lifetime of events, this is surely one of the most special, most magical of them all. It had been a rough day for so many, but the real prize, at least for me, was in being there.

I’ll finish with a few tricks, tips and observations that proved useful on Saturday, as well as some things I learned about the world of professional marathoning:

  1. When the forecast calls for warm weather, it may sound extreme, but consider investing in an ice vest. I was surprised to see that there were dozens of marathoners pre-cooling with them before the race. Men’s champion Galen Rupp even used some high-tech ice mittens in conjunction with the more ‘traditional’ ice vest.
  2. I was far too conservatively dressed, being one of about three ladies not wearing race briefs. I imagine it would be quite freeing to run around in my undies, and I’m definitely going to try this at my earliest road-racing opportunity. (I don’t think they’re really the done-thing on the ultra scene). I took inspiration from the fact that just about everyone was doing it, even the ones who, like me, don’t quite have the rockin’ bod of Amy Cragg.
    Ladies in bikinis: I mean, they look good! (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Ladies running in bikinis: It’s genius! I love it! (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Running with practically the only other girl who isn't wearing briefs. (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

    Running with practically the only other girl who isn’t wearing briefs. This must be early. I look happy and there is shade. (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

  3. Heat train. What’s the downside? None. Upside, potentially lots. Unfortunately, I live in a fairly rural area with only one sauna that I know of, and it’s at a hotel. And they won’t let me use it. Boo-hiss.
  4. If you’re lucky enough to have access to personal fluids during a marathon, put a handle on the top, so you can grab it easily while running. With this approach, out of eight bottles, I only missed one. Between perspiring hands and a relatively fast pace, it’s harder than you might anticipate to pick up and keep hold of your bottle. Also, consider how much fluid you’ll actually drink. Even on a day as hot as Saturday, I struggled to down more than about 4oz from each water bottle, yet I had mixed the VFuel concentration as though I was consuming all 8oz each time. Given that I failed to grab one bottle, this meant I consumed less half the calories I normally would in a marathon, a huge miss. (As a side note, I give enormous credit to the race organization for successfully executing the largest personal fluids operation in race history. It was flawless.)

    Effective water bottle technique

    Effective water bottle technique.

  5. Note to race organizers: if you’re kind enough to set out water bottles for hydration or cooling, please consider asking the volunteers to loosen the lids first. It’s a small thing, but without it, the ‘neutral water’ station we passed multiple times on the course became a horrible tease. I’d pick up a bottle and try as I might my sweaty palms could not open the dang thing. I tried hands, I tried teeth, but those Dansani bottle tops are practically glued on.  Eventually, I would have to throw it down on the ground, unopened, which was impressively frustrating.
  6. Always view the big picture. For as hard as parts of the race were, I never lost track of my joy. My gratitude. The fact that participating in the Olympic Marathon Trials is a momentous moment in my life and my finishing place in it largely irrelevant. I took the time to soak in every precious drop of the beauty in the accomplishment. I will never, ever forget.
  7. To all who organized, supported and sacrificed to make #LA2016 happen, not just for me, but for every runner entering the race, we owe you an unpayable debt of appreciation. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! We couldn’t do it without you. Truly, this was your moment too.
    My support team (Photo: Robert Boller)

    My support team (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Photo: Robert Boller

    Photo: Robert Boller

    Still covered in salt after the race, but at least I have my priorities straight (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Still covered in salt after the race, but at least I have my priorities straight (Photo: Robert Boller)

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Brace Yourself: Houston Marathon Race Report

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A kiss for my mama at the finish (Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik)

On Wednesday, we laid my mother to rest.

On Sunday I ran the Houston Marathon and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials. It was the last possible date to do so. I was wearing my mother’s ring and holding back tears.

On the first day of the New Year, my Dad had called during dinner. Immediately, I threw a few items in a case and engaged in a panic-filled, adrenaline-fuelled 5-hour night drive. During which time I clung to the hope that I would arrive and miraculously everything would be ok. We’ve made a mistake, they’d say. She’ll be just fine, they’d say. After all, if anyone could beat the odds it was her. She always was a tough one.

But it wasn’t ok. She had suffered a massive brain aneurysm. Which then caused her to suffer a cardiac arrest. Which threw a blood clot into her brain. Which led to a stroke. The stroke that eventually obliterated her entire right frontal cortex. As if that wasn’t enough, when she lost consciousness, she had aspirated fluid, later developing severe pneumonia. When the full picture about her condition emerged, it quickly became clear that my mother’s condition was almost hopeless.

Yet hope we did. What else could we do? While simultaneously bracing for the worst, my Dad and I, and later my brother, who flew across from England, spent agonizing days at the hospital by her side. We were desperately searching for signs that she would come back to us. It was utterly alien territory and we were unsure how interpret her ‘poor’ (hospital-terminology) responses. We were told she was a ‘5’ on the scale of consciousness used by the medical profession. We knew that this was the worst possible score, but I only looked it up for the first time in writing this blog. The brief description cuts to the bone. Level 5: deep coma; decerebrate rigidity; moribund. Chance of survival: 10%. Regardless of the grave assessment, we talked to her as she lay unconscious and intubated. We told her what she meant to us, why we needed her so very much.

When the time came, we held her hands and gently stroked her hair as she passed. The heart-wrenching hospital visits ended, but a new undertaking awaited. We worked as a family on the myriad arrangements, and there was much to do. We spent two days searching through thousands of photos, organizing them by date and selecting only the very most meaningful for an electronic photo gallery to be played at her service. Moments captured that made us laugh and cry, but most of all, remember. Things and times I had long since forgotten became instantly, immeasurably, treasured. Heed this: take more photographs.

Wednesday’s service was a beautiful tribute to her life of joy, adventure and laughter. When we arrived home late on Thursday I quickly unpacked and repacked a case for Houston and set the early alarm to catch my morning flight out of LAX. One busy activity rolled into another. For over two weeks, each waking moment had been filled with tension, tasks, grief, too-little sleep. Or running. Never have I been more grateful for the outlet of running.

I arrived in Houston late on Friday afternoon. Collected my bib, hopped on the hotel treadmill, got food, fell into bed. A familiar sense of hustle.

Then, on Saturday, for the first time since my Dad had called to say my Mum collapsed and was being airlifted to UCSF ICU, I found myself alone in a quiet hotel room. There for the sole purpose of running my fastest marathon to date and qualifying for the Olympic Trials. In the silence, my world abruptly stopped turning so confusingly fast. At last I tuned inwards. How was I feeling as I readied for the next day’s race? Beyond exhausted. Emotionally wrecked. Empty.

I was awoken on Sunday morning at 12:30am by a piercing, crushing headache. Two Tylenol, a few more fragments of sleep, and it was go-time. My head throbbed mercilessly under the quilt of acetaminophen, but it eventually subsided before the start.

As a new American citizen, I wept at the national anthem, choking back emotions that were all too ready to spring to the forefront once more. The gun went off and I tried to settle into a rhythm. I took great comfort from a training block that assured me I was more than capable of doing this. No matter what the day brought, I held myself to meet the task at hand unrelentingly, to get the job done. Nothing else would suffice.

Predictably, there was nothing easy about it. My body ached and grumbled almost from the start, pleading with me to stop this madness. There was no lightness, no flow. Even the early miles took commitment, effort, focus. I shut it out and thought of all the people who believed in me. I thought about pain and how nothing could compare to the last couple of weeks. If there was a mantra I held dear in this race, it quickly became the lie I told myself over and over. There is no pain. There is no pain. There is no pain. Sure there was — a virtual avalanche of the stuff — but it wasn’t enough to stop me. Not today.

The mental intensity I mustered to continue running at a qualifying pace was ugly. It was so much that I could not gather the physical strength to take my usual last gel at mile 21/22. It sat right there in my pocket. I thought about it a lot in those last miles. I really should take that gel, I thought. It would help, I thought. But I knew that if I did, the effort of carrying out this small, simple act would break my stride, and with it risk breaking my very will to continue. So I didn’t.

I crossed the finish line, expecting a flood of emotions to hit me. I kissed the ring I had worn in my mother’s honor and blew it to the sky. In truth, all I felt was a sense of calm relief. A goal so outrageous that I couldn’t even acknowledge it out loud at the beginning of 2015 had been achieved. It brought me a moment of peace in a storm of tumultuous emotions. My efforts had been worthwhile. I had done it, and Mum would have been so very proud.

2:44:25 (gun), 21st female, 6th American, 2nd Masters

Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik

Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik

Equipment/Nutrition/Coaching:  Note, this is a mixture of sponsors and non-sponsors. There’s no favoritism here. It’s just what I use because I like it.

Nike gear:

  • Lunar Racer shoes
  • Epic Run shorts
  • Western States Nike Trail team singlet
  • Sunglasses: Run X2 S

Pre-race fuel:

  • 2.5 hours before: bowl of oatmeal with whole milk and sugar, cup of black tea, cup of coffee
  • 1 hour before: 2 scoops Gen UCan (I like Tropical Orange or Pomegranate-Blueberry)
  • 10 mins before race: 1 Mountain Berry VFuel gel, sips of water

In race-fuel:

  • VFuel gels, Mountain Berry flavor (at miles 6, 12, 17)
  • Sips of water from Dixie cups

VFuel have been my go-to gels for a couple of years now. Why:

  1. They *never* upset my stomach, even without water
  2. They aren’t as thick as some other gels out there
  3. They taste great

Post-race recovery:

  • Picky Bar (favorites are Need for Seed, All in Almond or Blueberry Boomdizzle)
  • 2 scoops of Hammer Recoverite (Strawberry)
  • An enormous protein and carb-rich meal
  • Celebratory beer

Coaching: Mario Fraioli

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