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

Photo: Bill Thom/runrace.net

Saturday March 18, text to my coach:

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

[insert supportive words from coach]

Sunday March 19:

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

Thurs March 23:

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

Friday March 31, after a disappointing tempo run:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Tracey Hulick

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

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

 

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

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

 

With IAU President Nadeem Khan (Photo: Tracey Hulick)

Gear

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

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

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

    Yummy pizza and beer with Gary Gellin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: AJ Stasulli

Photo: AJ Stasulli

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

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

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Photo: Trail Racing Over Texas/Myke Hermsmeyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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