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

 

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