Santa Rosa Marathon Race Report

Photo: Robert Boller

Photo: Robert Boller

“The constraints of ordinary reality are about to be suspended. It is a time to believe, down to the last molecule, that I am capable of magic.”     –  me

So, I posted this on Twitter before my last marathon race at this April’s Boston. Bad idea.

As it turned out, on that day, the constraints of ordinary reality were most definitely not suspended. Despite following the best training block of my life, with workouts indicating a 2:43-2:45 finish, I ran a disappointing 2:54. Ouch.

This Sunday I cashed a check written months ago with that near-perfect training block, and the magic finally happened. Don’t get me wrong, it was an enormous surprise to find that the speed was still there after running my first hundred-miler less than two months before. I knew I had it in me, but I certainly didn’t know that it would happen that soon.

This was supposed to be an under-the-radar training run. I get that it can sometimes come across as disingenuous when a person says they are running a race as a training run. But I did approach it this way. Running it was a last minute decision, my training had been lacking focus and it fell in the middle of a chaotic period in our family’s life. It shouldn’t have worked out, but somehow it did.

I chose to run this marathon as a litmus test for my fitness. I’m aware that the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying window is closing. Qualifying marks (commonly referred to as an ‘OTQ’), i.e. 2:43:00 or below, must be run by January 17, 2016 on a USATF certified and sanctioned course. I was pretty sure that I was going to run this marathon and find that I was waaay off this time and I should seriously just give it up and focus on what I’m actually sponsored to do, which is run ultras. But then Sunday happened, and without too much in the way of effort, I wasn’t that far off. It’s definitely making me reconsider what the rest of the year might look like.

So what was it that led to this 6-minute PR?

I did a couple of things differently in the lead up to this race. Since I’m currently self-coached, I thought I’d experiment a little. I switched out my body weight exercises for weight machines, doing explosive, low reps of very heavy weight about 2-3 times per week for about six weeks preceding the race, stopping about two weeks pre-race. I also ran the most mileage I have ever run. After Western States, my mileage looked like this (note that mileage is approximate in the early weeks. I ran by feel, being sure to respect my recovering body rather than by any set schedule):

  • Week One post-WS: no running for five days, then maybe 10-15 gentle miles towards the end of the week
  • Week Two: ~ 30 miles, some cross training
  • Week Three: ~ 70-75 miles, including first long run (20 miles, easy)
  • Week Four: 94 miles, including one five mile tempo at 6:04 avg pace
  • Week Five: big supercompensation-style week! 125 miles, including three doubles, a 3 x 3 mile session on rolling road at 6:13 avg pace, a 24 mile long run with 10 miles at slightly under marathon race pace, and a medium intensity 20 mile run including 18 miles at 6:50 pace. All easy runs were run extra easy.
  • Week Six: 94 miles, mostly all easy miles, but one 17 mile run with 12 miles at 6:14 avg, which felt way better than I thought it would.
  • Week Seven: 76 miles, with a classic Yasso 800s session on the track on the Tuesday. Usually by this point in a marathon training cycle I’m tired, and the last workout sucks royally. But this one was joyful. It predicted a 2:44-2:45 finish. It was right! I also threw in a short 3 x 2 mile maintenance session towards the end of the week at a few seconds under marathon race pace.
  • Week Eight: just 24 miles of running in the week leading up to the marathon on Sunday. That is one serious taper folks! It’s a good bit less mileage than I’d normally do here, but we were moving house and to a new town. I was busy. And tired. And frankly, had other priorities. Like starting the kids in a new school and trying to make our new place feel a little more like home for them. Packing and unpacking boxes.

 Looking back at that training, well, it’s a mess. Unfocused, and just running on a whim depending on what I felt like for that day. Plus, it was too short of a training cycle to do much in the way of speed development. But in the end, I won, with a time of 2:45:30 (gun time). Despite going into it with the full expectation that I might not even break 2:50, out poured the kind of run that we all fantasize about. I distinctly recall at various points during the race thinking I could and probably should push more. I’ll confess to being afraid to believe in my fitness to go much faster. Plus, I kept reminding myself that it was a training run. That my pace wasn’t quite at Olympic Trials level yet, so I shouldn’t burn this marathon too hard. I knew that if I wanted an OTQ and still wanted to squeeze in another ultra before the end of the year, I’d have to race again within weeks. Of course the flipside is that by running this marathon at a lower intensity, I might have ended up with about the best run I was capable of on the day. Who knows. I did run fairly even splits, losing only about 20 seconds on the back half of the race. That’s about as good as I can realistically hope for without being pushed by another female competitor towards the end.

I need to give credit where credit is due. Devon Yanko started the race right on OTQ pace (later dropping around mile 20). Another runner, Leigh Gilmore, closely followed. I hung back a little, but didn’t want to end up too far off the lead and besides, was feeling capable of keeping up. So I stayed between 30 seconds to a minute back, but within sight of the lead ladies, for much of the first half, finally catching up to them just before hitting the halfway timing mats. I would not have had the race I did without them in front of me pushing the pace.

Around mile 20 (Photo Credit: John Medinger)

Around mile 20 (Photo Credit: John Medinger)

Olympic Trials. This kind of outrageous goal still freaks me out immensely. It basically requires running 6:12 pace or better for 26.2 miles. In my book, that is seriously, mind-bogglingly fast. The fact that I can even write – with any sense of legitimacy – that I might be capable of reaching this goal, is little short of absurd. But what are we as runners without scary-sounding, just-on-the-cusp-of-possibly-reachable goals? So, yes, what the hey, I figure it’s at least worth a shot.

P.S.  This marathon is dedicated to Sandi Nypaver and Sage Canaday, who until recently, when our family circumstances changed, were my coaches. I couldn’t have run this marathon so well without the months of training that they crafted for me. I am forever thankful to these amazing people of integrity who transformed my running from avid recreational runner to where I am today (and as a side note, I’m particularly respectful of Sage’s outspoken views regarding doping and keeping this a #cleansport). They gave me wings to fly… and I flew.

On balance, it was a good Mom week, a good running week, and a cruddy housekeeping week. Not much new there!

On balance, it was a good Mom week, a good running week, and a cruddy housekeeping week. Not much new there!

Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run Race Report

It’s the kind of conversation that husbands and wives hope they never have to have.

“I’m sorry, but everything has changed. I’ve fallen in love and there’s no going back.”

We both stared at each other. A deep well of emotions flickered between us, but we were so overwhelmed that for a while neither of us spoke. After over ten years together, who could find the right words?

Then we locked eyes. Smiled. Hugged and held hands. It had happened to both of us at the same time and it was ok.

“We’re going to have to come back again next year,” I said. “No doubt,” he responds, “and next year I’m pacing you for more than seven miles.”

Western States had snuck its way into our hearts and it wasn’t budging.

Robert and Caroline Pre-race (Photo Heather)

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For those who say that Western States isn’t the prettiest ultra out there, I simply have to shake my head. Go run the first 30 miles and tell me if you still feel that way. My plan was to take the race out conservatively because the combination of altitude and climbing up the escarpment didn’t play to my strengths — but who would want to miss all that spectacular mountain scenery anyway?

As if that wasn’t enough to fill my mind, the place already has a special connection for me. I kept thinking about all the times we’d taken our young boys to Squaw. Before I discovered running, we took them out all day, hiking, carrying them in backpacks loaded with diapers and formula, sunscreen and baby wipes.

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All this pleasant distraction was probably the reason that I took a couple of spills down the technical descent after the climb up the escarpment. Looking down at my filthy, bloodied hand and legs gave me a strange sense of satisfaction. Well, this is supposed to be hard. Score one for the mountain.

I’d begun my first 100 mile journey at the back of almost all of the elite women. Letting them charge ahead was mentally challenging, but I knew the danger of trashing myself up front. I’d promised myself I’d still be smiling at Foresthill (mile 62) and I planned to keep that promise.

It didn’t bother me that I was 17th female into Duncan Canyon (mile 23.8). It was actually a higher place than I imaged I’d be at that stage. I had the pleasure of running with Meghan Arbogast for many of the opening miles and she reassured me that I was right on pace for a strong finishing time. A veteran of Western States, with deep ultra experience and well known for her smart pacing, I was in good company. Besides, the relatively slow pace allowed me to take on a ton of calories (250-300 per hour) without causing any stomach issues. The simplicity of drinking many of my calories with Tailwind in the bladder of my Nike race vest was a lot easier than fussing about with numerous sticky gel packets. Seeing my “B” crew, Kristina and Norm, at Duncan Canyon made for a seamless handoff with more premixed liquid fuel. (You need both an “A” crew and a “B” crew to make it on time to all of the aid stations that allow crew on the course.)

Anywhere that a runner gets to meet their crew is always a highlight and morale booster, and another one came right up. Robinson Flat (mile 29.7) was such a party though, that there was plenty to lift the spirits even if I hadn’t seen them there. The transition was once again exactly as planned. Some new premixed fluids, a spray of sunscreen, an ice bandana, a kiss for my hubby, and I was off. Now I was in 12th or 13th, we weren’t sure.

Coming into Robinson (Photo Kyla Cassazza)

Coming into Robinson (Photo Kyla Casazza)

I met my “B” crew again at Dusty Corners (mile 38) after passing Nikki Kimball and Denise Bourassa. Both ladies looked solid and weren’t far back, so I didn’t hang around.  A switch to a new vest with a prefilled bladder and I was ready to tackle the canyons. Soon Pam Smith caught up to me and we ran off and on together for a number of miles. The whole weekend, it was such a joy to meet and run with so many of these incredible ladies who have inspired me endlessly with their accomplishments. As we ran together, we passed Nike teammate Sally McRae. I believe this was on the descent to Last Chance (miles 43.8). Pam informed me we were F10 and F11 at that stage. She joked to me about how she wasn’t planning to really race this year after coming back from a stint of overtraining and so I didn’t have to worry too much about competing with her. Then she added, “that being said, if we’re still F10 and F11 at No Hands [Bridge, mile 96.8], I’m gonna have to race ya.” Chuckling, I thought to myself, Pam, I wouldn’t want it any other way. We leapfrogged through the canyons until eventually I passed her and didn’t see her again.

I felt good in the canyons. Not overheated, not overtaxed. I was consistently taking in calories and drinking water — and it was all going down well. I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with SoCal legend Jorge Pachecho, who had started the race with the flu and was having a rough day. Mark Lantz, who achieved his 10 day, 10 year buckle this year, also kept me company for a number of miles.

I guess I should have been concerned at some point because I basically didn’t pee all day, except for a quick stop about 12 miles into the race. That’s often the case for me in ultras, but over the course of 100 miles it’s going to catch up with you for sure. There’s always so much talk about hyponatremia and over drinking, but my tendency is to get dehydrated. I feel like I drank a lot and was sipping regularly (I wore a 70oz bladder in the canyons and drained it by Devil’s Thumb, which is the end of the first canyon). Mile for mile, I drank more in this race than I think I ever have in any other ultra. Still, I became very dehydrated. Since I was running well and taking in calories without issue, it took a long time before I noticed.

Michigan Bluff (55.7) was a bit of a blur. Robert and Curt Casazza, a local and running friend, awaited me, telling me I was in 8th place. Joelle Vaught had just come in to the Aid Station but was looking rough. A brief stop and I was on my way, feeling energized. One more canyon to go, Volcano Canyon, and in the end it was a mouse compared to the monstrous Devil’s Thumb and the long climb out of El Dorado (I joked with one spectator at the top of Devil’s Thumb that perhaps a more appropriate name for it might be Devil’s Middle Finger).

Michigan Bluff. Still smiling! (Photo Kyla Cassazza)

Michigan Bluff. Still smiling! (Photo Kyla Casazza)

I felt amazing coming into Foresthill (62). I was met at the bottom of Bath Road by my first pacer Kristina Pham and Curt, who assessed my needs before running up to communicate with my husband Robert on the main stretch.

Foresthill has got to be the best aid station on earth. With so many familiar and unfamiliar faces clapping and cheering it was impossible not to be deceived into feeling like something of a celebrity. I changed my fueling plan as I came in, deciding that since the Nike race vest was working out so well I should take that with me down the upcoming Cal Street stretch. There was work to do to get it ready and The Canyons race director Chaz Sheya and a couple of others all pitched in, giving me encouragement and a helping hand. Word was that now I was in 7th and I was all smiles, not too hot, not too tired. If my fueling was off, it wasn’t manifesting yet. This was what I had planned all along – to feel good at Foresthill and run a fast last 38 miles. I kept pinching myself thinking about how well things were working out. Adding fuel to the fire, I heard there was trouble up ahead. Some of the ladies were really struggling. I couldn’t wait to see if I could progress a few spots more on the most runnable sections of the course.

Heading down Cal Street after Foresthill with pacer Kristina Pham (Photo: Gretchen Brugman)

Heading down Cal Street after Foresthill with pacer Kristina Pham (Photo: Gretchen Brugman)

Inexplicably, a few miles down Cal Street and it all turned ugly. By mile 66 or 67, I became overwhelmingly thirsty, and also felt behind on my calories. In an attempt to make things right, I drank a lot. Too much. Then I added calories to the mix and my stomach just completely shut down. Endlessly sloshy with intense nausea. I tried everything over the course of the next few hours — gin-gins, ginger ale, coke, watermelon, Tailwind, Carbopro. My stomach reacted quickly with intense and sustained nausea each time. I walked a little, but still managed to run a lot of the Cal Street stretch. My stomach became worse and worse. We got to the river crossing at Rucky Chucky (mile 78) and I was despairing that I didn’t seem to know how to fix this issue. I had long since stopped eating and drinking but it was too little, too late. I stumbled over the river crossing, bonking and sick. On the other side of the river, the volunteer took off my lifevest and said with a sense of urgency, “I’ll do this quickly so you can get going.” What’s the rush, I thought. I’m barely able to move.

Just then, something made me turn around. Sally McRae was right at my back. That tough mother impressed the hell out of me with her near sprint past me and up the imposing Green Gate climb. It was one of those moments where, since I wasn’t in any state to give chase, all I could do was admire the effort and mentally cheer her on. Nice work, Sally. Atta girl. Go get ’em.

I hiked up the climb, giving my stomach more of a chance to settle. Curt had met us at the river and told me that most of the ladies field was still hiking up this same 1.8 mile hill, some looking bad. I was within minutes of advancing a number of spots. My body was suffering much less muscular degeneration than I expected — my glutes hurt more than my quads — but without calories and with the intense nausea, there was simply no energy to fight.

I met Robert at the top of the climb as darkness descended, picking up my very expensive, newly purchased headlamp. I turned it on. Out of battery! Now, I’m usually a pretty mild-mannered person, but this was simply too much. “What the *$#@!” I yelled at my crew. The battery had been fully charged that morning, but it must have been bumped on and the battery drained in between. The back-up headlamp was a twenty year old cheapo camping headlamp with a light so dim that it was barely worth the bother and a strap that had lost almost all elasticity. It jostled endlessly atop my head. I continued on my way, tripping and stumbling along the trail, bonking, dehydrated, nauseated and largely unable to see. As it turns out, there was one silver lining to the poor lighting. Fifteen minutes ahead of us, Joe Grant had seen a bear. And a mountain lion. Whether or not they were there when we passed, I wouldn’t have known.

The hundred mile distance is notoriously difficult to get right. At various points, I leapfrogged with Brett Rivers, Joe Grant and Ford Smith over the course of the last twenty miles. Even these extraordinary athletes, with deep 100 mile experience, are capable of having a bad day. As sad as I was for them that their day wasn’t working out, misery sure does love company. I took some solace from that.

I walked off and on for many miles on the most runnable part of the course. I lost giant heaping spoonfuls of time with each trudging mile, thinking I would be caught at any moment. Hours passed. I was planning to pick up my husband as pacer at Highway 49 (mile 93.5), and I kept telling myself that I just had to make it there and then somehow, magically, it would all turn around. There was no reason why this should be the case, but I had to tell myself something to make it through those dim miles.

Deep in the land of suffer at Highway 49 (Photo: Peter Beck)

Deep in the land of suffer at Highway 49 (Photo: Peter Beck)

Finally, my stomach began feeling a little better. The sloshing and nausea was lessening. By the time I reached Highway 49, I felt I could carefully take in some calories again. After about 25 miles with nothing, it was essential that I found some small replenishment that wouldn’t be rejected. I grabbed a roll of Lifesavers candy from my crew, which turned out to be my savior, and just in time too. My husband joined me and I said a temporary goodbye and thank you to Kristina and we were on our way. A few pieces of the best tasting candy ever and guess what — I could run again! I jogged the next few miles, amazed at the difference in my physical state. We gently picked up the pace, with me moving as fast as my still-deficient body could go.

Then, descending to No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8), I thought I might have heard voices behind us. I grabbed some hard candy at the AS and shuffled across.

Getting candy at No Hands Bridge aid station (Photo: unknown -- if this is your photo please let me know!)

Getting candy at No Hands Bridge aid station (Photo: unknown — if this is your photo please let me know!)

As we began climbing again, Robert looked over his shoulder and whispered “Runners!” — but we couldn’t tell if it was a male or female competitor. My resolve flickered like a flourescent bulb for a moment before it finally turned on, full blast. Robert switched off his headlamp and we silently bolted up the switchbacks towards Robie Point aid station (mile 98.9). Adrenaline took over. I felt like I was really moving but the headlamps persisted and on one turn they were close enough to hear – two women’s voices. I was convinced it was Pam Smith, coming to make good on her promise to race me at No Hands!

We re-doubled our efforts and snuck into the aid station telling the volunteers to please not cheer or announce me by name or number. The less information that F9 got before she actually came in, the better. My whole crew was waiting for me at the Robie pick up location, but I wasn’t stopping. “We’re being chased, let’s go!” I urgently whispered. Thrilled to have my team running with me, we shared an eerily quiet middle of the night push with nothing but the sound of our footsteps racing up the road and down towards the track. I ditched my race vest on the road and sprinted the last few yards, the enormity of the moment sinking in (see video here). For as bad as the last thirty-plus miles were, I had somehow managed to defend my F8 position. A a top-ten finish guaranteed my return next year. It also gave me enough points in the race series to become the 2015 Montrail Ultra Cup champion.

With Men's Champion, Jared Hazen

With Men’s Champion, Jared Hazen

Breathing hard, I was whisked off to the medical tent after finishing, a voluntary participant in the medical study conducted by Stanford’s Dr. Marty Hoffman. Even though I had consumed what seemed like endless amounts of water, I still had lost 5% body weight and there was talk of an IV. I was also experiencing ‘ultra eye’ in my right eye –- a harmless syndrome caused by swelling in the eyeball which caused some temporary vision loss. Combined with the fairly useless headlamp and calorie deficit, it was no wonder I had been stumbling around on the trails.

As part of the study, I was randomly selected to receive a massage right after the race. It was truly an excruciating experience, but it’s a couple of days later now and I feel less sore than I would have expected to be — so maybe it actually helped.

Like I said, the massage kinda hurt (Photo: Robert Boller)

Like I said, the massage kinda hurt (Photo: Robert Boller)

I’m elated to have the opportunity to come back again next year. I’ve never experienced anything like the amazing vibe that stretched from Squaw to Auburn last weekend. Both me and my husband were blown away by it all. Regardless of how many years I am fortunate enough to be able to run in this, the most prestigious, competitive and oldest 100 mile footrace in the world, it now owns a piece of our hearts. It’s something we will always want to be involved with.

A shout out to my Nike team manager, Pat Werhane, and the whole Nike crew, for their support. In addition, many congratulations to my teammates for their exceptional performances. Kaci Lickteig, after struggling deeply at Michigan Bluff, fought back to a spectacular 2nd place. Sally McRae ran a smart, strong race start to finish, ending in 7th, and David Laney also did us proud with his 8th place finish. We’ll all #seeyouinsquaw next year!

It’s hard to express the level of gratitude I feel to all those involved in this race. Thank you, thank you, thank you. To all of the volunteers. To Race Director Craig Thornley. To Gunhild Swanson and Nikki Kimball — my heroes. To every single person who participates in and assists in making this event happen. You made this one of the most incredible experiences of my life and the truth is, I might just be obsessed. [In my haste to publish this post in a timely manner, I completely neglected to thank some of the most important people. I thanked them privately, but to have omitted them here is a huge oversight. My eternal appreciation is due to the people who epitomize what this ultra community is all about. They are people I didn’t know very well going into this adventure, but I like to think I know them a lot better now. My crew and pacers: Kristina Pham, Curt Casazza, Norm Bouillard, and their families. They sacrificed much to assist me in this, my first 100 mile journey. And my husband, Robert Boller. No matter what, I know he’s always got my back. In case you can’t tell from the rest of this post, it’s possible I might kind of like him 😉 ]

I’m over-the-moon excited to announce that a documentary film which focuses on the 2015 Western States race is in the works! The film is produced by USL.TV’s Mike Cloward, directed by Michigan Bluff Photography’s Myles Smythe and features 2015 Men’s Champion Rob Krar, UltraRunning Magazine’s Karl Hoagland and me! Please be on the lookout for it at a film festival near you later this year. You can keep informed of previews, updates and locations by LIKE-ing me on Facebook at Caroline Boller Running. Thank you!

Rob Krar at sunset during the filming for This Is Your Day (Photo: Myles Smythe)

Rob Krar at sunset during the filming for This Is Your Day (Photo: Myles Smythe)

 

 

Boston Marathon Race Report

Boston finish line

They filed in. The seasoned pros knew where to go and lost no time heading into a dark room. Where it led I don’t know. Some ended up upstairs. I saw race-favorite Shalane Flanagan’s chiseled and determined face stretching on the balcony above.

I’d been there for an hour and a half already, in the church where the elite runners waited before the start. Since I was staying with relatives in New Hampshire, it made no difference whether we drove straight to the church or to downtown Boston, where buses took runners to Hopkinton. We chose Hopkinton, so my husband could see me off at the start. But we had to arrive early because the roads into town for regular traffic closed at 7am. A kindly volunteer had let my husband in to the church too, so at least I’d had company in the early hours before the bus came.

As I waited, I reflected on my fitness. The groundwork had been laid with solid workouts. This was a body that had thrived on the miles and intensity. Sure, there had been one bad workout about ten days before the race. It was unfortunate, but easy to dismiss as irrelevant overall. I felt ready.

Before long, we got chatting to some of the other runners. I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly they were. I guess expected everyone to be pretty intense and uptight. Accurate or not, that’s the reputation of competitive road runners, in contrast to the community that characterizes the ultra scene. But by the end of the race I’d even made some new friends. The kind you really hope you see again.

Waiting at the church

Waiting at the church (Photo: Robert Boller)

Marathoners really are tiny. Here's two, sharing the same mat.

Pro marathoners really are tiny. Here’s two, sharing the same mat. (Photo: Robert Boller)

I was nervous about the weather. It’s been a year for testing my mettle in varying conditions. I’ve had freezing cold and ice at Bandera, scorching early season temps at Black Canyon and now strong headwinds at Boston. While I don’t exactly enjoy it, I seem to do ok with the heat. But headwinds? As I was about to find out, headwinds suck.

About 20 minutes before we were to head to the start, I joined many of the other elite runners in the warm up area. I felt like a bit of an impostor next to all that sleek speed. Luckily, before I had too much time to dwell on this, it was go time.

Back in the church, I peeled off my layers. Up first were the ‘real’ elites. By that I mean the ones who might win. Lined up, called out by name, and applauded by all as they filed out. A few minutes later, the rest of us ladies joined them (also to applause from the male elites – super cool!). I called out a final “go get em Sage!” to my coach, and he echoed the sentiment right back.

Right before the start

At the start (Photo: Robert Boller)

 

And they're off!

And they’re off! (Photo: Robert Boller)

Running Boston was the realization of a dream. The race filled me with inspiration. The crowds were absolutely incredible. I passed many runners who embodied what it meant to be Boston Strong. The blind. The wheelchair racers. The amputees. The military, who were walking the course in full regalia.

I’d envisioned this day for so long. Every time my mind’s eye saw me running strong and confident, the stars aligned for a magic day. Come Marathon Monday though, I knew from very early on that it wasn’t to be. I tried to keep it in perspective. My race is a small and insignificant part of the Boston whole. I was proud to be there, proud to run. Amazed by the courage of those who, against all odds, rise to the challenge of the Boston Marathon. Having a bad race-day performance doesn’t change any of that.

Still, it’s hard to reconcile when your dreams and the reality are so far out of whack. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that only three weeks of specific training — and a hectic travel schedule during that time to boot — didn’t result in my fastest marathon time. But somehow I am.

Still managed a genuine smile in the recovery tent (Photo: Bean Salmon Wrenn)

I made it! (Photo: Bean Salmon Wrenn)

That’s because my race day performance was far worse than I could even conceptualize going into the race. Heck, my C-goal was to break 2:50. I’m so much fitter and faster than I was in September when I ran 2:51:49! Since I’m not struggling with any injury and my workouts going into the race indicated a 2:45 finish or better, it had simply never occurred to me that my race could be this bad. (To put things in context, we’re talking about a 20-25 second *per mile* difference here. I’d done a 15 mile long run workout at 6:25 pace just 10 days after my race at Way Too Cool, and workouts had only gotten better from there. There was NO WAY I wasn’t running under 2:50.)

To find my legs heavy and uncooperative after a proper taper was a shock. My heart and lungs were ready to party, but my calves and hamstrings ached and dragged even in the early miles. Not that I had much choice, but the headwinds blew away any remaining resolve to gut through it no matter what. In the end, I finished in 2:54:08, 69th woman finisher (9th in age group). The women’s Master’s winner (my division) ran 2:46:44 — a finishing time that I’d hoped to reach. As Shalane put it following her disappointing Boston run, it sure was a “bad day at the office.”

You know what else she said? She said:

“Despite a rough race, I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to race the best in the world on the most storied marathon course. Races that don’t go well always make me appreciate even more the ones that do. Success is not linear. Time to keep pushing on.”

I can’t say it any better.

Post race relaxation with family and friends on our week-long family vacation.

Post-race relaxation with family and friends on our week-long family vacation. We ate. We drank. We made merry. And life came into balance once more (Photo: Peter Hauck)

A Day in the Life

Salad

I don’t know about you, but I’m always curious about what everyone else out there is doing in terms of training and nutrition. While I’m pretty sure there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer that works for everyone, I guess I’m hoping that by reading what they’re doing I might pick up some nuggets along the way that will work for me.

As my running progresses, I continually experiment with various approaches to see what seems to yield the best results. Nothing I do is set in stone. That said, in the hopes it may be of some use or interest to you, here are some of the things that have been working for me lately.

  1. Training. (many thanks to my coaches for giving me permission to share)

My mileage varies significantly depending on where I am in the training cycle. The ramp up to Boston has been shorter than ideal as I was only able to get in about three weeks of actual training. I had to recover from Way Too Cool, plus this week is full-on taper.

I peaked at 95 miles for one of the weeks during this cycle, which is a lot for me. I’m usually more like 65-70 mpw for maintenance weeks, peaking around 80-85 mpw for trail races. However, unlike many runners, I find the road training takes somewhat less of a toll on my body than the same distance on trail, so my recovery from these runs is fairly quick. (The trails I tend to run on are basically running straight up a small mountain and then straight back down, which can be kinda hard on the hammies and quads).

Here are some of the key workouts I ran during this training cycle. All workouts were on a gently rolling road loop, unless otherwise noted (all of 1.6 miles long — hello, boring! — but it’s pretty much the only flattish spot in Temecula). The mileage given doesn’t include warm up or cool down:

  • Paced runs of between 10-20 miles @ anywhere from 6:17 – 7:00 pace
  • 8 x 800 @ 2:42 + 6 x 200m strides (done on treadmill due to travelling to England for a family matter and in a frankly sh*te place to run outside)
  • 2 x 4 miles @ 6:07
  • 4 x 2 miles @ 5:54
Broke out the racing flats for a couple of the faster workouts: wheee!

Broke out the racing flats for a couple of the faster workouts: wheee!

All non-workout days were run easy, which is anywhere from a 7:35 – 8:15 pace for me, on hilly roads or gentle trail. Many of these easy runs include a short set of 100m strides to keep my legs feeling zippy.

Where do these workouts leave me for Boston? If I had another 4-6 weeks, I really think I’d have a shot at pulling off an Olympic Trials qualifier at the new sub-2:43 requirement (yes, I am British, but I applied for US citizenship about a month ago). However, I don’t have the luxury of more time. As a result, instead of risking a race-day disaster by going out too hard and dying in the last miles of the race, I’ve decided to try a more conservative approach, aiming for a time around 2:45. I’ll likely attempt that OT qualifier in the fall, perhaps at the Chicago Marathon.

I take significant time off from running after major races. Really the first week back following anything from the marathon up is pretty low key, with no running at all for at least three to four days, and then transitioning back quite slowly after that. Since I’m not able to sit still for long, though, I’ll often do a gentle spin on the stationary bike or half an hour of easy work on the elliptical in the days after a race just to keep the blood flowing and my mental state hovering somewhere near normal.

  1. Strength.

I’m an enormous believer in strength and core work. I spend 2-2.5 hours per week on strength training, mostly body weight exercises. Most of it comes from articles on Runner’s World or Competitor or from a Matt Fitzgerald book I like called Brain Training For Runners. I try to work one routine for about six weeks, then either make each exercise much harder or ditch it and rotate in something totally new. I always keep in some form of planks and side planks though and focus on exercises that target the glutes and hamstrings (which can otherwise be problem areas for many runners). This stuff is key for injury prevention.

Some suggested exercises:

I also throw in some easy elliptical sessions after many workouts or long run days, for up to an hour. It’s ridiculously boring, but helps maintain/develop endurance and keeps me moving instead of sitting, without the pounding of running.

  1. Recovery.

Sleep. We wake up early in this house. The boys are bouncing off the walls most mornings by about 5:30am. My husband and I hide under the covers for as long as we can before they start jumping on the bed and demanding ‘warm milkies,’ but let’s just say patience is not their strong point. This means when the day is done and the clock hits 8:30pm, I force myself to make my way upstairs most nights. Yep, it’s an exciting, all-out party around here :). Seriously though, don’t underestimate the restorative power of sleep in injury prevention and its role running progress. Get your zzzz’s people!

Nutrition. Find what works for you, but I believe you’re kidding yourself if your diet is full of crud and you think you’re optimizing your training. You’re just not. Period. You can probably get away with eating junk for a while if you’re in your early twenties, but since I haven’t seen that decade for some time, I do what I can to reduce inflammation, promote recovery, and provide my body the nutrients it needs to thrive. Eating well is also fantastically effective at staving off the petri-dish of colds and other errrgh!-wow-really? infections my kids bring home from school on a regular basis. The only daily supplements I take are Blood Builder iron pills (**but only under doctor supervision** — says the lawyer in me), Magnesium/calcium and Vitamin D. On the latter, yes, we live in California, but I use lots of sunscreen because I live in the desert (yay: Western States training! boo: everything else).

A typical day would be, something (loosely) like, as follows:

6:45am                 Black tea with splash of milk (Sometimes 2 cups. Depends how naughty kids are)

8:00am                 Ezikiel brand English Muffin with Kolat brand Blueberry Cinnamon Walnut butter, sometimes with a small smear of Manuka Honey

9:30am                 Pre-run: coffee with agave sweetener and unsweetened soy milk. Small fruit snack such as apple and satsuma, or if really hungry a packet of Think Thin Protein & Fiber Hot Oatmeal – Original Sprouted Grains, with a little sugar. (Or, sometimes, chocolate.)

10:45am               Run

12:30pm               Post run: if run was over 1.5 hours or included a hard workout, I’ll have a recovery drink or bar, or both after workouts lasting 3 hours+. Otherwise, no additional calories before lunch. Lunch is a bowl of Nature’s Path Blueberry Cinnamon Flax cereal with vanilla almond milk, hemp seeds, some nuts/seeds (almonds or walnut or sunflower etc) and a ton of organic berries, usually strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries — from frozen if out of season

1pm                       Gym for core/strength + sometimes, elliptical

2:45pm                 Snack: can be anything from leftovers to edamame to steamed broccoli or roasted sweet potatoes

4pm                       Second afternoon snack: small, often veggies and hummus

7pm                       Glass+ of wine or beer to celebrate kids going to bed (I super-love my kids. They are totally freakin awesome. If you so much as twitch otherwise I will kick your motherloving a$$. But, h*ll yes with the bedtime)

7:30pm                 Enormous salad with lettuce, half an avocado, extra virgin olive oil based dressing or oil-free miso dressing, sprouts, roasted beets, radishes, red pepper, arugula + two hard boiled eggs, or 4 oz oven baked salmon or other fish or vegetarian protein source

Typical shopping cart (really!)

Typical shopping cart (REALLY! Oh, ok, except for the kid’s stuff.)

Some dinner ideas. We try to minimize the carbs at night, often just sticking with veggies + protein and no grains. But not always.

Some dinner ideas. We try to minimize the carbs at night, often just sticking with veggies + protein and no grains. But not always.

Beans, green beans, mushrooms and quinoa with a side salad.

Beans, green beans, mushrooms and quinoa with a side salad. Note: I made this. My husband would freak. He does most of the cooking and darn it, this isn’t nearly pretty enough. I know need some cilantro or something to make this look nice. But, yeah, I also took this photo. And I was hungry.

Dinner 3

Salmon and veggies with quinoa. Again, I made this. My husband’s stuff is much prettier looking (and frankly, better tasting. But equally as healthy).

I also drink multiple cups of tea per day. Probably about 100oz or more of tea! Anything from black tea, green tea, yerba mate, chai tea (yep, all caffeinated) to red rooibos tea, decaf black tea, and nighty-night tea (not caffeinated). I drink no caffeinated tea or other caffeinated beverages after about 3pm.

The above notwithstanding, try as I might — and with the absolute best of intentions — I’m no saint. Conveniently left out of the list is that when my husband takes the boys out for donuts and there’s half of one sitting around at home afterwards, it doesn’t last long. When Christmas comes around, I eat my share of cookies. I’m still trying decide what to do with all of the Easter candy that has ended up in our house. Until I make that decision though, it’s entirely possible I might be eating some-a-lot of that. You get the idea. I try to keep this stuff out of the house, but darn it, it just seems to find its way in!

Anyway, all rambling aside, I hope this was helpful in some capacity! I’d love to hear from you if you have something that has been a success for you.

The Road to Boston

Boston Hat Photo

Before I ever ran ultras, indeed not long after I started running (period), I decided I wanted to qualify for the 2014 Boston Marathon. Initially, I hadn’t realized that you even need to qualify for the race, but my friend Sheila had done so and explained the process. It sounded really challenging. I like challenging.

It was after the bombings had already happened. I’m not much of a writer to begin with, so I don’t know how to capture the way I felt about it, the way I will always feel, without saying anything but the most obvious things. Things that have already been said a thousand times over. I suppose I feel the way I imagine you feel about it. Anger, horror, disbelief. In particular — as a mother — grief. Just thinking about it still rips a tear in my heart. Like so many others, I wanted to run to show solidarity and to pay respect for the fallen and the maimed. In a small way, which, when grouped together with so many other runners would have become a big way, I wanted to be part of what it meant to be defiantly Boston Strong.

When I started training, I could barely string together three miles at the 8:24 average pace I would need to qualify (I was 38 and needed a 3:40 finish). Undeterred, I worked away at it, week after week. The first time I hit the 20 mile mark, I cried. Literally and figuratively, I had come such a long way.

Soon, the training started coming together and I was clocking 24 mile training runs at well under BQ pace. I stepped up to the start line of the August 2013 Santa Rosa Marathon brimming with confidence and eager to run, joining the 3:30 pace group.

If the experience hadn’t been so incredibly painful, it would have been humiliating. The Wall snuck up on me and pounced like a cat. It threw me in the air and dumped me on the pavement, pummeling me with its leaden bricks. In was unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life, before or after. Ultras included. By mile 16 I was dizzy, nauseous, suffering from both tunnel vision and double vision (quite the combo!) and had stabbing heart pains so severe that I could not adequately catch my breath. To add insult to injury, my quads seized up. It’s no exaggeration to say I could barely stay upright. I came through the half in 1:44, and hobbled through the finish in 3:53.

A few weeks later, baffled and humbled, I discovered that I was suffering from iron deficiency anemia. That’ll happen when you abruptly adopt a pescatarian diet, begin losing weight and piling on the miles all at the same time. Taking iron pills took me from a constant state of complete and utter exhaustion, thinking that I never wanted to run another step again, to feeling that life itself was breathing energy into my oxygen-starved body. Anemia is a cruel master; it had stripped me bare and robbed me of my dreams. I wanted revenge.

Six months later and without any specific training, I ran a surprise 3:06 at the 2014 Napa Valley Marathon. The accomplishment was a turning point for me. I had more than BQ’d (though too late for the 2014 race) — I’d started a personal revolution. The race was the kind we all fantasize about. Dead-even splits. Near-effortless. Running each mile faster than I ever could have imagined was possible. It lit a fire and left me ravenous for more. I hired a coach and salivated at the prospect of going sub-3.

The finish-line joy of a near-perfect race at the Napa Valley Marathon.

The finish-line joy of a near-perfect race at the Napa Valley Marathon.

Flash forward another six months to the Ventura Marathon (September ’14), where I ran 2:51:49. It wasn’t my best race and I think I can do a lot better than that, but it’s hard to complain about the progress it reflected. Since I turned 40 in December, my Ventura result was enough to qualify me for the elite field at Boston for the upcoming 2015 race, where I’ll be competing in the Masters Women division and hope to end up with a top five result.

A hot day at the Ventura Marathon.

A hot day at the Ventura Marathon.

Of course, in the background to this story is that during this time I’d started to run ultras — and started to do well at them. So it is that I find myself not only in the 2015 Elite Women’s Start at Boston, but a Nike Trail sponsored athlete. Just a few short weeks after Boston, I’ll be toeing the line at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race, and (someone! please!) correct me if I am wrong, but I believe I’ll start the race as the women’s leader in the 2015 Montrail Ultra Cup [as of the time of this post, the official 2015 standings had not yet been published].

It all sounds so absurd, ridiculous even. Because the reality is, I’m just like anyone else. I’m just a Mom who has, rather late in life, discovered that she loves to run. Who finds perfect moments in the movement. Those moments when all of the work comes together and the body abides. That’s why I do it, that’s what I love. Just like you, right?

So… I want to know. What’s your Boston story?

Way Too Cool 50k Race Report

Running with Stephanie Howe at the start (Photo: David Roche)

Running with Stephanie Howe at the start (Photo: David Roche)

“Believe that you can run farther or faster. Believe that you’re young enough, old enough, strong enough, and so on to accomplish everything you want to do. Don’t let worn-out beliefs stop you from moving beyond yourself.”

                – John Bingham, sent to me by my coaches in my training plan for race week (I know, they’re pretty fantastic).

A lot of people asked me in the lead up to the Way Too Cool 50k if I was still planning on running it after all of the early season racing already under my belt. They seemed a little taken aback when I enthusiastically proclaimed that I was.

Why? Well, if I were a normal person, I might have at least paused to consider the wisdom of racing for the following reasons:

  • Just ran a hard-effort 100k at Black Canyon three weeks ago. Bandera 100k was five weeks prior to that. Preceded by December’s North Face 50 miler, again five weeks prior.
  • Since my training has been focused on longer distance efforts, perhaps a fast 50k without time for specific training is not the wisest choice?
  • How about the crowd of impressively, and let’s face it, seemingly out-of-my-league speedsters that were toeing the line at the start? I mean, those ladies definitely had the potential to take the shine distinctly off what has been a very good year so far.
  • Finally, I made the Elite Women’s Start at the Boston Marathon (in a mere six weeks), which is an absolutely unbelievable dream come true. Also, the Western States 100 miler is at the end of June. My 100 mile debut. On the ‘super bowl’ of big stages in the ultraworld. Maybe there are bigger fish to fry.

Of the above concerns, it was the risk of being put to shame by a group of twenty-something shorter-distance screamers that gave me the most pause. I mean, it hurts to get totally spanked by the competition. And yet, the familiar gnawing pang. I wanted to see how I could do. On a best case scenario, to prove that I had what it takes. That my legs know how to go fast as well as far. Alternatively, I knew that no matter how badly things might go, it’s incredibly motivating to come away from a race like this seeing how fast it can be run and how much I need to improve to compete with the best of the best. (It’s pointless questioning whether that’s even realistic for me. I didn’t get this far by thinking rationally about things like that.) So I took the plunge.

Cool, California. 7:59am. Since I was going ahead with the race, I decided to say hello to Stephanie Howe at the start line and run with her. Hey, why not. I knew (eventual winner) Megan Roche was likely to dust us all from the gun and her bold 5:50 opening mile immediately separated her from the rest of the ladies. Stephanie and I led the way for the remainder of the women’s field (about 6:15 pace), but the fast start felt comfortable enough and we chatted a little.

Well, it didn’t take long to figure out that the freshness I initially felt wasn’t going to last at this hot pace. Four miles in, I knew that if I wanted to finish the race strong, I was going to have to back off a bit. I just didn’t have that floating feeling that portends a great race and can carry me through for so many blissfully effortless miles. Instead, it felt like a training run and my legs wouldn’t turnover much faster than that. Bummer.

Heading down to Highway 49, followed closely by Lindsay Tollefson and new trail friend Curt Casazza (Photo: Inside Trail)

Heading down to Highway 49, followed closely by Lindsay Tollefson and new trail friend Curt Casazza (Photo: Inside Trail)

The middle miles were the hardest. Passed by ladies a few times over, I started to have the sneaking suspicion this might have been a mistake. But then, the gorgeous trails, the fact that I was almost never alone in this 1,200+ person race, the fact that part of this trail was a Western States preview, well, I just decided to sit back and enjoy it. Before long, with a few climbs in the back half under my belt, my legs co-operated on the more gentle sections and I finally found a rhythm. I’d passed a couple of women along the way and as the last half mile approached, a male runner wearing, of all things, a Hawaiian shirt, pulled me towards the finish. In true ultrarunning community spirit, he encouraged me to run hard with him for the last stretch. After we crossed the line, I surprised him with a kiss on the cheek, happy to have clung on to my position in the ladies field.

The problem is, I felt like I had plenty left in the tank. My legs hadn’t co-operated with the turnover I need for a fast 50k run, but they were ready to go all day. Just when I felt it was time to dig in and suffer, the race was over. Even so, I actually feel pretty good about the run overall. I didn’t come close to the podium, but my 5th place 4:06:40 would have won in 17 of the race’s 26 years (though trail conditions were definitely favorable this year). It also represents the 2nd fastest ladies Masters time on the course, behind Olympian Magdalena Boulet (2014), and is in the top 20 fastest women’s times ever run on the course. Yes, I actually looked those stats up to make myself feel better!

The upshot is I’m glad I ran the race. I hope never to lose sight of the fact that while it’s gratifying to do well, I’m ultimately doing this because I love it. Way Too Cool embodies many of the things that are hallmarks of the ultra scene. From first timers to course record setters, all are welcomed, celebrated, and encouraged in their efforts. I had a fantastic time meeting new friends both on and off the trail. From the jubilant aid station volunteers to the post-race vibe, Way Too Cool sure is a party! Regardless of whether it’s healthy for my ultrasignup score, I’ll probably be back to race here again.

Many congrats to my Nike teammates for their jaw-dropping performances. Megan Roche smashed the old course record by 7.5 mins. Patrick Smyth also took down a course record many thought untouchable, skimming 4 mins off Max King’s 2013 mark.

On the men’s side, it was a Nike podium sweep, with Ryan Bak in 2nd and Tim Tollefson in 3rd. On the women’s side, I ran to 5th and Lindsay Tollefson picked up 6th, in the deepest men’s and women’s fields the race has seen for years. Finally, a shout out to the awesome performances turned in by Stephanie Howe (2nd, also running under the previous course record) and YiOu Wang (3rd). Seriously nice work ladies!

Nike Trail Team members at Way Too Cool 50k (Photo, left to right: Team Manager Pat Werhane, Patrick Smyth, Lindsay Tollefson, Tim Tollefson, Megan Roche, me, Ryan Bak, Alex Varner, David Roche, Jarrett Tong (marketing manager at Nike)

Nike Trail Team members at Way Too Cool 50k (Photo, left to right: Team Manager Pat Werhane, Patrick Smyth, Lindsay Tollefson, Tim Tollefson, Megan Roche, me, Ryan Bak, Alex Varner, David Roche, Nike Trail Puppy Addie, and Jarrett Tong (Nike marketing manager)

Black Canyon 100k Race Report

Outside Mayer High School, before the start of the Black Canyon 100k, it was chilly and windy. We were all thankful to be able to hang out in the gym.

Just a few hours later, what I wouldn’t give for a wisp of a breeze under the scorching desert sun.

At my last race in January, the Bandera 100k, I let the lead women get away from me at the start and couldn’t close the gap before the finish. A tactical mistake. Here, my plan was to start with the leaders and hang tight. It had the potential to be an absolute disaster, but hey, in a race field that included 2013 Ultrarunner of the Year Michele Yates, 2014 #4 Ultrarunner of the Year, Kaci Lickteig, former Angeles Crest course record-holder Angela Shartel, among many other sponsored, veteran athletes, I felt like a bit of an underdog anyway. Why not push the chips all-in and see what happens?

So, I boldly lined up with Michele Yates. Oh, you know, no big deal, I’m just going to run with … um, Michele freakin’ Yates. I guess I wanted to find out if I could. Plus, she recently had a baby, and with a nod to the incredible athlete she is, it’s entirely possible that this might be my one and only opportunity to finish a race ahead of her.

Right from the start it was just her and me. I let her set the pace, feeling completely comfortable. After chatting for three miles, she soon pushed ahead as we hit the trail. I kept her in my sights for a while, but considering I was running in the low seven minute range already, I didn’t want to push much more at this early stage. Before long, she was gone. I glanced behind to see where the rest of the ladies were, but despite the sometimes long vistas, I was never able to spot anyone. It was only me, running alone.

Through the first two aid stations, I heard that Michele was three minutes ahead, but by Bumblebee (mile 19.5), word was that the gap was narrowing. My pace was no faster, so it meant she was slowing down. As I ran into Gloriana Mine aid station (mile 24, which I thought was at mile 22 if you listen to my post-race interview), I was stunned to see Michele. She ran out ahead but within a quarter mile she let me pass. She trailed for a short while, but before long she was nowhere in sight. So here I am, lead woman in a major ultra, feeling amazing. At the same time, I can’t help but think — where is everyone? Yikes!

We’d all been warned by RD Jamil Coury (who put on a superb event) to prepare for a tough second half, due to terrain and the impending mid-80 degree early-season temps on the completely exposed trail. He was spot on – it was like running two very different 50k races back-to-back.

For the first 50k, the course is positively dreamy. Fast, mainly smooth, rolling singletrack. Stunning desert landscape that continued throughout, with cactuses from as tall as a house to the short, deceivingly fuzzy-looking variety. A couple of long-horn steer stared me down as I passed close by. I wasn’t sticking around to find out if they were friendly. The iconic steel windmill (the race’s emblem) spun and squeaked.

I clicked off the first 50k in a not-exactly-hanging-about 4:19, thinking, oh wow, this is going to be such a huge PR! I love this course! I feel GREAT.

It all turned pear-shaped for the second 50k. I passed Hal Koerner (yet another first that is unlikely ever to be repeated!). The temps were soaring and the trail became increasingly challenging. We headed down a rocky and highly technical dry creek bed for a short while. I tried to make it look good, but the footing was tricky. In other words, I totally blew my shot at showing off my downhill skills in front of one of the sport’s best 🙂

Then I ran out of water and the private pity party began. I struggled along at a much slower pace. I picked up my pacer, Kristina, at mile 38 and she asked me how I was feeling. “Sh*t” was my response. It got worse from there. Now, this is the first time I have ever had a pacer and I basically used it as an opportunity to whine and moan about everything: how thirsty I was, how bad my stomach felt, how dizzy I was getting, how rocky and technical the course was now, how much I hurt. Sorry Kristina! Try as I might, I couldn’t catch up on my hydration and spent the remainder of the race feeling completely parched. It’s pretty lame to have any serious thoughts of dropping out while winning a race, but the truth is, I did. I was suffering. Big time.

As the sun and temperature finally began to lower, I picked up the pace in the last 10 miles. I was running scared, afraid of getting caught, pushing ahead despite residing squarely in the pain cave (I only learned post-race that Michele Yates and Kaci Lickteig dropped).

The lure of the finish line reeled me in. With about a mile to go, a member of the UltraSportsLive team or a race volunteer (not sure which) was waiting for me, sprinting it in to let people know I was coming. It was an outstanding thing to do, and meant that I felt a victor’s welcome as I pounded out the last few hundred yards. It was oh-so-sweet. A win at a Montrail Ultra Cup race. A ‘golden ticket’ to arguably the most prestigious ultra race in the US, the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. It was, without a doubt, worth every second.

Elation at the finish line (Photo credit unknown: if this is your photo, please let me know so I can give you credit!)

Hugging my pacer Kristina (Photo: Norm Brouillard)

Hugging my pacer Kristina (Photo: Norm Brouillard)

 

Ladies Podium (Photo: Aravaipa Running)

Ladies Podium: 2nd, Angela Shartel, 3rd Gina Lucrezi (Photo: Aravaipa Running)

Even though days have passed and it’s starting to sink in, I remain truly amazed that I came away with the win. In my usual ‘I can do better’ way I think there is a lot more that I can give to this course, to the 100k distance, to my running in general. I learned much about what it takes to manage racing in the heat — the additional complexity that it brings to nutrition and hydration strategy, particularly in the latter stages of a long race.

No one wins a major ultra without an awful lot of help along the way. I wouldn’t have been able to dedicate myself to this sport like I have without my husband’s proud support. My coaches, Sage Canaday and Sandi Nypayver of VO2Max Coaching, have guided my progress for the past year and I’m incredibly grateful to them for their unwavering belief in my potential. Thank you to Jamil Coury and Hayley Pollack of Aravaipa Running for encouraging my entry into the race and putting me in contact with local crew and pacer, Norm and Kristina. As for Norm and Kristina, you guys were quite literally my oasis in the desert. Last, but most certainly not least, a huge thank you to Nike for believing in me — a 40 year old, newbie mother runner that no one had ever heard of.

#seeyouinsquaw

Bandera 100k Race Report

Mile 57 and I’m fumbling, fingers frozen, in the 30 degree temps. I’m trying to stuff a gel pack in my pocket at the Last Chance aid station. A volunteer, after assisting me, looks me in the eye. In a firm but kind Texas lilt, she says:

“Got everything you need? Good.

Now, get after it!”

I take the advice to heart. With a shot of adrenaline and a renewed sense of purpose, I’m gone. (If I could please rewind and give that superb lady a hug, I would).

My first 100k started conservatively out of necessity. One of the most technical sections hits you right out of the gate. The mix of large and small rocks result in something of a scramble up the steeper sections, hampered on the day by slippery ice. Each step I took was a delicate gamble, hoping not to lose footing from underneath me but not wanting to cede much ground in the ladies field. Slipping and sliding, we all picked our way up. Close to the end of this section, a small group of ladies broke away from the group. I wasn’t prepared to risk a bad fall at this early stage, so I let them go. Looking back, this was a tactical mistake. I think I would have had a shot at a higher place if I had made the decision to keep up with them. Lesson learned.

I’ll confess that I spent much of the first 50k loop in a bit of a state of shock about the conditions. I’d heard there were a good number of flat and fast sections on the course and I was eager to make up time here. But making up time on these sections was impossible. They were thick clay. I have never run in anything like it. In case you haven’t either, I’ll attempt to describe it. Moments after entering this terrain, a layer of mud — seriously 3-4 inches thick – forms on the entire bottom surface of the shoe. And stays there for miles. Attempting to remove it is hopeless as more will immediately form. In addition, the trail mud sucks at the shoe, so that you’re not only sporting probably about 3 pounds of dead weight on the bottom of each shoe, but it’s as though your foot is being grabbed and pulled from underneath with each step. I couldn’t find a steady rhythm in the soul-sucking muck and ended up losing time here, where normally I would have gained it.

Not my shoe, but this pic does a good job of showing the mud platforms that formed on the bottoms of runners shoes (many thanks to Steve Miazgowicz for the pic). Now, go run! Fast!

Not my shoe, but this pic does a good job of showing the mud platforms that formed on the bottom of runners shoes (many thanks to Steve Miazgowicz for the pic). Now, go run! Fast!

As I came in from the first 50k loop, somewhat discouraged, a spectator locked in on me, smiled, and tapped her head a few times. It was clear what she meant:

I know. It’s tough out there today. But it’s all mental. Choose your race.

 

Coming in from the first 50k loop. Game face, on. (Photo credit: Enduro Photo)

Coming in from the first 50k loop. Game face, on. (Photo credit: Enduro Photo)

Reinvigorated, I ran hard the whole next loop, trying to make up time. A female runner had passed me a little before the 50k mark and I was determined to catch back up to her. Inconveniently, the weather had cost me precious minutes, between removing my jacket and stuffing it into the pack, having to stop to remove gel packs and salt tabs because I was having trouble using my half-frozen fingers, and needing five, count ‘em, five potty breaks (turns out I could have drunk less water in the cold temps!).

Running with a new sense of purpose in 50k loop two (Photo credit: Enduro photo)

Feeling stronger in 50k loop number two (Photo credit: Enduro photo)

In running, as in life, we’re all just looking for a little progress. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that despite having a solid race at TNF 50 in December, there was the nagging annoyance that when I pulled up next to F4 in the last miles of the race, I failed to summon the energy to battle it out for the spot. It’s a weakness of mine, not the first time it’s happened. Now, you may also recall that I claimed if the race had been for a podium spot I would have been all in. Writing that is one thing, but when it comes down to it, well … really?

Where are you F3? Where are you? I’ve been chasing you down for miles. Ever since starting the second 50k loop, I’ve been running hard, but I start to lose hope as the miles go by and she’s nowhere in sight. I keep telling myself I’ve simply got to be catching up to her. But it’s just me, my thoughts, and the squelch, squelch, squelching of the mud under my sodden feet.

Mile 53 yields a shining beacon of hope. A 50k-er casually mentions as I pass, “You know, the next runner, she’s not THAT far up ahead.” Sweet relief! I increase my pace a gear, determined to catch her and not to let the opportunity slip from me when I do.

Mile 58. When I finally catch sight of her at the top of a climb, I’m ready. Charging up, I pass her and tear down the trail for the next four miles to the finish, looking back just twice. I don’t know why but I was utterly convinced I could outkick her. I gave it everything — and in the end I prevailed. (She described me afterwards as “like a bear in the woods” as I raced ahead of her! Yep, I wasn’t giving up that spot for anything.)

So, there it is. The progress we’re all seeking. The sense of accomplishment when you succeed. For me, this was a difficult race on a course that should have favored my speed, but instead was hampered by my lack of experience in the cold, wet and clay mud. Despite that, I never gave up hope that things might turn around. I showed up in Bandera wanting to win, and that didn’t happen. But when it counted, I unquestioningly poured my entire self into the chase — and for me, that’s a victory in and of itself.

Lastly, but most certainly not least, thank you, thank you, thank you to all of the volunteers. They weren’t just there all day long, but all through the night too. In freezing cold and icy rain. Standing for hours and hours on end. Simply out of the kindness of their huge Texas hearts. Amazing.

10:39:38, 3rd place.

My first belt buckle and a pretty snazzy trophy to boot (Photo: Robert Boller)

My first belt buckle and a pretty snazzy trophy to boot (Photo: Robert Boller)

Nike Trail Elite!

Well, Christmas has definitely come early for this lucky girl! It is with complete, over-the-top joy and excitement that I can today announce joining the Nike Trail Elite team! This is truly a deep honor and, as you can imagine, I’m still pinching myself. It is my humble aim to repay the trust and belief instilled in me with performances that are worthy of the privilege of being a member of this ridiculously accomplished team.  You can see some of the current team members on the Nike website here.

As it turns out, the transition will be an easy one — most of my gear is Nike anyway. It fits, it works, it looks good and it’s excellent quality. There’s a reason this brand is so successful and it’s because they don’t ‘just do it’, they do it right.

Wishing you and yours a very merry holiday season and all the best for 2015.

As for me, I better get out and get after it!

Nike Zoom Wildhorse: these are the shoes I wore for my first ever ultra win, at Whoo's in El Moro 50k.

Nike Zoom Wildhorse: these are the shoes I wore for my first ever ultra win, at Whoo’s in El Moro 50k. Check ’em out — they’re awesome!

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships (TNF) Race Report

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, so I’m going to let them to do most of the talking.

Leading into the race, I was definitely feeling strong. By way of example, on the day before the race, my husband and I ran a short shakeout jog. Well, I thought it was a jog, but Robert informed me I was darn near close to dropping him. For two weeks it had been the same thing, I would think I was going slow, but would look down at my watch and realize I was going faster than anticipated.

It’s not always that way. I had gone into April’s Lake Sonoma feeling less peppy, a little heavy from all the vert and miles. My body hadn’t quite caught up yet. This time around, I had run less vert (about 12-15,000 vertical feet over 85-90 miles in peak weeks, as opposed to 18-20,000 over 95-100 miles for Lake Sonoma training), but had a couple of strong 50k races under my belt, coming six weeks and eight weeks out from the race. The races were key fitness builders, and I was excited to feel that it was all coming together at the right time for TNF.

Shakeout run TNF

Refuelling after the shakeout run with a bucketload of sugar last minute glycogen loading.

Going into the race, we were staying at my parent’s house in Napa (over an hour’s drive from the race), so it was going to be an early rise to make the 5am start. As usual, I didn’t sleep well anyway, and was up by 12:45am, so by the time the race started it’s safe to say I was fully awake.

The anticipation and buzz at the start of this race, of any race really, is special. While there were many faces I recognized, there are few that I actually know, since I’m still new to the scene. Being somewhat awkward in social situations with new-to-me people anyway, I never quite know how to bridge this gap without either sounding like a fan or being self-promotional. Do I say “Hello, my name is Caroline Boller. You don’t know who I am because I always come in behind you in races. But hi! — and hey, I’m actually a halfways decent runner” or later simply “Congratulations on your race!” — each of which would surely be followed with a stilted silence. Yep, still working on that one. Luckily, my friend Julia Stamps-Mallon was there, and we chatted until it was time to join the bustling crowd at the start.

Julia and me at the TNF start

Julia and me at the TNF start

The race plan was to stay in the back half of the women’s top ten for the first half of the race, then start to move up. With so many strong racers, I wasn’t sure how this would work in practice, but I stuck to the plan and felt completely comfortable through the early miles.

Chatting with a new friend in the early miles.

Chatting with a new friend (Photo Credit: UltraSportsPhotos)

Rather an epic shot of the run through Pirates Cove in the early morning hours. Who wouldn't be smiling? Photo credit: UltraSportsPhotos

Rather an epic shot of the run through Pirates Cove in the early morning hours. Who wouldn’t be smiling? Photo credit: UltraSportsPhotos

At around mile 24-25, on the way into Pantoll Ranger Station, I spotted Bryon Powell of iRunFar, still feeling light on my feet and entirely positive mentally. He joked around with me, asking what I looked so happy about, and I responded something like “What, I’m having a great time out here!” and this is the pic of that moment:

Photo credit: iRunFar

Photo credit: iRunFar

All morning, I had been leapfrogging with my friend and storied track rock-star Julia Stamps-Mallon, running her 50-mile debut, with her stronger on the climbs, and me catching up on the descents. Other than that, I had a vague idea where I was in the women’s field, but wasn’t too focused on it. It was around this time that I came upon Nike Trail Elite runner Alicia Shay. We enjoyed some waterfalls cascading from above to the runoff down below, leaving shallow but surging water crossings — a spectacular sight that left me elated to be running in such a stunningly beautiful place. As we came into the turnaround at McKennon Gulch Aid Station, I started counting each woman runner ahead of me. I followed Alicia’s lead into McKennon, but with a quick turnaround was out of the Aid Station before her.

I soon came across and passed YiOu Wang, who was struggling to pick her way down from the top of Matt Davis trail as it descends into Stinson Beach (she later dropped due to injury). In contrast, this sometimes technical descent was the kind of terrain that I absolutely love, and I skipped down it gleefully — steps, rocks, roots, the lot — catching up once more to Julia and, as it turns out, passing her for good this time around as I ducked under a fallen tree. At Stinson (mile 33), my husband Robert was waiting for me, making for a swift transition and a welcome sight as I steeled myself for the grind up Steep Ravine’s many steps — and even a ladder! I kept waiting for Julia to catch me on this section, which was strong motivation to just keep pushing, but when I finally emerged from the forest and continued the climb to Cardiac AS, I couldn’t catch sight of her.

This section called for some real work. You DO NOT want to mess with this person right here (looking ahead to the upcoming ascent):

Photo Credit: UltraRacePhotos

Photo Credit: UltraRacePhotos

When I arrived at Cardiac, it was practically a busy metropolis of activity — with swarms of marathon, 50k and 50 milers taking advantage of a brief recovery after their inbound climb. The course coming out of Cardiac the second time was one of many course changes in store for the day due to trail and weather conditions, so I wasn’t confident I knew where I was going. Someone called out to me “nice long descent from here” but for some reason I kept thinking I might be going the wrong way. Sure there were confidence ribbons, but we’d already come up Cardiac so they would be there regardless of whether we also needed to descend. I spent about two minutes stopping, asking folks if they knew whether I was going the right way, even running back up Cardiac for a bit in something of a panic. Finally reassured by someone official-looking (he had a clipboard) that indeed I was heading in the right direction, I continued the descent. This section had been a stream of water on the way up, but by this point, with many other runners on the course, it was a sloppy, goopy, super slick mess on the way back. There was a lot of course congestion here, but almost everyone was totally respectful and moved aside as I practically surfed the muddy surface, probably splattering many with wads of the stuff as I passed (I’m so sorry if this was you!). The added technicality of the river of slime truly didn’t bother me. I felt capable and strong, bombing down regardless of the conditions. In a child-like, puddle-jumping way, they were elements of pure fun.

Post-race legs at my parents home. Sorry about all the mess guys!

Post-race legs at my parents home. Er, sorry about all the mess Mom!

Coming in to Tennessee Valley for the second time (mile 45), I saw Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I knew I was in fifth and could see 4th place Anne-Marie Madden just a few seconds up ahead. I had caught her fairly quickly — too quickly as it turns out. Anne-Marie later told me she’d been experiencing stomach issues, but a quick stop at the AS and a cup of Coke later and she was good to go. We were neck and neck out of the AS, but she soon powered up Marioncello and was gone before I could even muster the energy to put up a fight. This was a little demoralizing, but I was determined to push on, clinging to the faint hope that the climb would tire her out and I could catch her on the final descent down Alta. It didn’t happen. This is something I’ve got to work on: my mental readiness to go to the mat and pull every last fiber of my being into a final push to beat out the next competitor at the end of a 50 mile race. I’m pretty sure if the race had been for a podium spot, I would have given it everything without even pausing to think.

Despite this, coming in to the finish line was amazing. The cheering crowds (thank you!!!), the sense of accomplishment, the knowledge that this was by far my best 50 mile race to date, all accumulated into this:

A somewhat cringe-worthy (um, it's not like I won here), but genuine moment of pure joy. Photo credit: UltraRacePhotos

A somewhat cringe-worthy (um, it’s not like I won here), but utterly genuine moment of pure joy. Photo credit: UltraRacePhotos

And the next day I got to celebrate becoming a Masters athlete.

40 year old ultrarunner: I like to think of it as giving new meaning to over the hill. Insert groan here.

40 year old ultrarunner: I like to think of it as giving new meaning to ‘over the hill.’ Insert groan here.

To sum up my feelings about this race, to be sure it contains much to feel good about. Fifth place in a race that many, including Runner’s World, categorize as the default 50 mile national championships.  Less than four minutes off the fourth place finisher. An over thirty minute 50 mile PR. I didn’t blow up, and instead ran steady from gun to finish, working my way up from the back half of the top ten, and — aside from a couple of tough climbs — feeling good all day. Moreover, this caps off my first year of running ultras, and only my second full year of running, period.

At the same time, there’s much to work on and I know in my heart that my best performances are still to come. I’m grateful for this body that continually surprises me with how much it can take and how quickly it can improve. I’m appreciative of supportive friends and family who allow me to take on this great adventure into the unknown. And, if you’re reading this, I’m thankful for you, too, for taking this journey with me. See you in 2015!