Out of the Ordinary: Brazos Bend 100 Race Report

BB100 Rob

Chatting with RD Rob Goyen at the pre-race briefing. (Pic: Trail Racing Over Texas/Stasulli Photo)

I don’t have a camper van. I don’t live in the mountains. My ability to post aspirational tales about epic international travel and adventures is limited. Not only am I not a Hardrocker, or a UTMB-er, but I don’t pine wistfully about running either one because they are totally impractical to my life. For those that do these things, you inspire me too. I love eye-candy mountain running pictures as much as anyone.

But no, for better or worse, my life isn’t about all-day playtime on gnarly terrain, gathering wood to make my own fires or any such things. I guess you could say my life is pretty ‘standard.’ I’m a lawyer with a mortgage, car payments, and two wonderful boys that my husband and I would do just about anything for. And even though I’m not on the PTA, we both coach youth track in our community. I love being ‘Coach Caroline’ and helping the kids in our small valley channel their energy into something safe, welcoming and healthy.

Why do I mention these things? I mention them because in the midst of a life that is, I suppose, largely ordinary (not that I would trade it for anything), ultrarunning is my crazy. It definitely fits squarely outside the box of what people ‘like me’ do, but it’s my sanctuary and I don’t just love it, I need it. I need it to grow as a person, to balance me, to engage my mind and body, to connect me with the outdoors. Sure, I’m the Mom who shows up to school disheveled, make-up free and salty. Yes, even though my run was likely hours ago, I’m still wearing my running shoes because I’ve been trying to squeeze in a couple of hours of work before school pick-up. I’m totally comfortable with that, because it’s who I am. But now, on top of everything else, we’re opening a new business, and trying to find a way to pay for that, and it’s almost Christmas, and that adds additional layers that make my head spin and lose me sleep. Running is my solace, my outlet for all of that.

Heading into a race, all of these things matter. Most days I wish life were simpler. Especially right now, when we’re in the thick of it, I wish that I wasn’t quite so overwhelmed by it all. I tell myself that the running will help with that, and it does. Let me assure you, if I knew one thing for certain going into Brazos Bend 100, it was that I wasn’t going to DNF. No hundred miler has ever gone that smoothly for me, but I’ve always found a way to persist. This 100 miler was on a course I know and love, with an amazing group of people there to support me and cheer me on. Stress in my life was at something near an all-time high, but somehow my running leading up to the race was going fantastically. I felt super comfortable with my race plan. I was open to the possibility that this was going to be the day that I nailed 100 miles, just as I was open to the possibility that I wouldn’t. I was committed to go the distance. Even if I didn’t nail it, I had prepped for that too.

BB100 Todd

Pre-race with Todd Falker. Brimming with the usual optimism. (Pic: Trail Racing Over Texas/Stasulli Photo)

BB100 Mike

Chatting with Altra’s Mike McKnight at the start line. (Pic: Trail Racing Over Texas/Stasulli Photo)

So, what went wrong? That’s a hard one to explain. If I had to guess, it would be this. When I was out there, it was clear that my body was trying to tell me something that my mind didn’t consciously acknowledge. Because ultimately, while running gives me sanity, running 100 miles is undeniably hard. In my state of mind, simply getting there became one more thing to try to squeeze in to an already packed schedule. The worm had turned, and instead of the race becoming outlet, it ended up feeling like one more insurmountable thing to do. At this moment in my life, I’d had enough, my body had had enough.

And yet, once I was there, I reasoned I had nothing better to do with my day than run. I kept waiting for the miles to click off, for flow to come, but they all felt forced and uncomfortable. I thought I needed to warm up from the 30 degree start time, but when I did, I found it wasn’t that. Give it time to find something sustainable, I reasoned, so I kept going. Now, 100 miles is a long way to fight against a rebelling body, so even though I knew my fitness was better than my body was willing to offer, I allowed myself to slow down a little. Alright, 8:30’s it is, I guess. Should be able to keep that going for a good long while, even if it’s not going to be an especially fast day. But no, then it was 8:45, 9:00, 9:30s. I could hardly understand what was happening when I looked at my watch. I don’t run that slow on my slowest post-race recovery days. I was less than 30 miles in. I fought back against those times because there is absolutely no reason on earth for me to be running that slow. But my back ached insufferably and my hamstrings cramped. I let it get to me. Deep down I knew that in that moment, I had crossed over from running as a release to running as a task. With only myself to blame for signing up for 100 miles in the midst of all that I have going on right now, it ended up feeling like simply one more thing I felt I had to do. This time, my body said no. And 32 miles later, my mind acquiesced.

BB100 early morning

Trail Racing Over Texas/Lets Wander Photography

BB100 mid morning

Trail Racing Over Texas/Lets Wander Photography

BB100 running

Trail Racing Over Texas/Stasulli Photo

 

Not finishing a race feels terrible, but I don’t regret it. This isn’t the end of the world. It’s just running! Running continues to be something that gives me great joy, and is endlessly rewarding across the spectrum, from the small ‘that-felt better-than-expected’ days to the big headlining ones. It continues to fulfill my hopes and dreams beyond anything I could ever have imagined. It is an essential, non-negotiable part of my being. I want to continue building fitness carefully and consistently. I have big, exciting goals for 2018! For now though, it’s time to start making this home feel a little more Christmas and a little less ‘we’re about to open a business’ with papers everywhere and boxes littering hallways and a garage filled with restaurant furniture. Let’s get this business open (finally!!), wrap up some time-intensive work projects in my other job, hug my kids, love my family. And yes, run.

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.