On the Rebound: JFK 50 Mile Race Report

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

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

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

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

When is it, he asked?

On Saturday, I said.

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

Tomorrow, I mumbled into my mug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the AT: Photo coutesy of Paul Encarnacion

On the AT: Photo courtesy of Paul Encarnacion

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

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

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

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

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

In the finishing chute. Photo: Amy Race

In the finishing chute. Photo: Amy Race

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

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

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

Thank you to my sponsors:

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

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

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Gratuitous sponsor pic

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.

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

On pacing

Most runners have their own favorite mantra. Anything from “you can do it!” to “stay strong!” or “believe.” I have mantras like that too. However, I also have a rather different mantra tucked away for when I need it. That is: “don’t be an a-hole.”

You see, when it comes to speedwork, tempo runs and ok, also to races, I have a tendency to want to go out too fast. I was reminded of this cardinal sin twice in the course of this week — reminders that also caused me to resurrect the aforementioned mantra.

Now, the manta itself varies. It can be anything from “slow down, a-hole” to “if you go out this fast you’re really going to look like an a-hole” or, “don’t be such an a-hole, Caroline”. At any rate, you get the idea.

Now what, you might ask, prompted me to bring back this motivational mantra?

The first incident was a review of some of the recently released photos from my latest race, the Lake Hodges Trail Fest 50k. In it, I can clearly see a lovely image from the start line. My feet, suspended in the air, determined glint in my eye, and — oh, yes indeedy — there’s me, out in front of the entire pack of my fellow racers. Yep, the whole darn field. Now, it’s true that I’ve been working on my speed these last months, and I’m thrilled to have seen significant improvements. However, it’s at times like this that that I need to remind myself ahead of time that when, inevitably, I am passed by any number of runners, I really should have pulled out that old “don’t be an a-hole” chestnut right from the start.

Out in Front Lake Hodges

I know I am not the only one. We are all flawed humans, muddling along and doing our best in this world, in all of our flawed-messy-ness. I take comfort from the fact that as runners, most of us can say: been there, done that. As runner obstacles go, though, this one seems especially tough for me, at least, to learn from.

Which brings me to the second reminder I had of the need to always keep the “don’t be an a-hole, stupid” mantra close in mind. Yesterday I ran a simple workout designed by my coaches: 2 x 3 miles (with warm up, drills, strides and a cool down, of course). The prescribed pace: 6:08-6:15.

Now, it’s been a while since I did a workout like this, and I darn well know that my fitness has improved. In fact, I know that I can crush this workout! Yep, this workout is going to be effortless! No effing problemo people! Just wait ’til you see what I got!

Yes. It’s at this point, going in to the workout, that the “don’t be an a-hole” mantra can be particularly effective. It might even prevent you from opening with a 5:55 mile. And ending the workout with a 6:32 mile.

Reporting workouts like this to your coach can be embarrassing. At this stage, I certainly have enough experience under my belt to know better. My bad.

Don’t let this happen to you, folks. Next time you’re tempted to go out too fast, just remember: you’re probably going to end up looking like a … Well, you know.

Ps. In the spirit of fun and great love for the amazing job my awesome coaches do, I’ll end with this video. It helps to illustrate the point that, yes, we can all be guilty of the going-out-a-wee-bit-punchy pacing sin. Respect.

 

Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon Race Report

Eyes fixed firmly on the clock at the finish line (Photo: Finisher Pix)

Eyes fixed firmly on the clock at the finish line (Photo: Finisher Pix)

Oh man. They got me. One solid road race performance and all I can think is, I wanna do that again. Faster.

It doesn’t hurt that this is undoubtedly one of the coolest half marathon races going. Wine country? Yep. Elite athlete field with — in running circles at least — household name appearances? Got that. Gorgeous scenery? Uh-huh. Fast course? Well, ask new course record holder Sara Hall, who ran an impressive 1:13:16 or defending four-time champ Tesfaye Alemayehu who ran a 1:03:22, and holds the men’s course record of 1:02:38, and I’d venture to say, yes, the course is fast. Just enough spectators to make you feel appreciated and add an energy boost? Definitely. Rare combo of a small town feel, but decent sized race? Yeah, it’s got that too. Apparently there’s also a pretty awesome party on the Sonoma town Plaza after the event, but I had a plane to catch. Next time.

The race begins at Cuvaison winery, with truly awe-inspiring views of rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see. It would be a good way to start, well, anything. The day before, I had driven the course and to be honest it made me a smidge nervous. They don’t call that first incline “butt burner” for nothing. Says an ultrarunner. But you know what? On the day, it barely registered. I should have known. I frequently find hills that seem intimidating from the perspective of car windows are much easier on foot. Plus, since the hill occurs at the very start of the course – with, thank you very much, a nice down-slope leading in to it to get turnover going — I felt like I just floated right up and over. It didn’t hurt that for a few seconds at least I was running only a little behind Runner’s World columnist, 5000m specialist and Oiselle pro athlete Lauren Fleshman. That’s pretty decent motivation, even if I had to cool it after that so as not to race the first few miles like a 5k, which would have spelt disaster. The few rollers that followed were fairly gentle, and net downhill. There was plenty of stunning scenery to distract if you looked, but the truth is, most of the time I was so focused on my race, my breathing, my pacing, that it all went by in a blur. A shame really, but I’d had the whole week in Napa to enjoy wine country already.

My coaches had emphasized the importance of trying to negative split the race, that is, to run the second half faster than the first. Wise advice, especially since my tendency is to go out burning hot and find I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. It’s simply lack of experience, ridiculous enthusiasm for this incredible sport and, yes, unwarranted over-confidence. I’m getting better. Still, I imagine it’s something I’ll always struggle with, particularly over shorter distances which seem deceptively “easier” somehow — which in reality, of course, they are not.

Each mile took focus and concentration to sustain the effort, but I felt in control and capable of more, more, more. Then, right around mile 7, I started to feel an uneasiness in my stomach. Having dealt with some monster stomach issues in the past, this made me, let’s just say, a tad anxious. The plan was to take my one and only gel around mile eight. Aid stations were spaced around miles 7.5 and 8.5 for this portion of the course. If I was going to take my gel as scheduled, I had to choose an aid station, since I wanted a gulp of water to accompany my gel. I took a gamble that the nausea was simply the very beginning stages of fatigue or an indication of my effort-level and that the gel could help, so I downed it right before the 7.5 mile aid station, grabbing some water on the way out. I have great faith in my gels, which has been a real trial and error process for me  — mostly a series of big, ugly errors — and now that I have found ones that work it makes taking a risk with a dodgy tummy at least plausible. (In case you’re wondering, I use VFuel gels and have never, not once, suffered stomach issues with them no matter the pace. Also, no, they don’t sponsor me but, yes, wouldn’t that be lovely. Hey, a gal can dream). Miraculously, the gel settled my stomach and I continued on my way feeling better than ever and determined to keep up the pace until the finish line.

I’ve been reading a lot about mental conditioning for races lately. It’s a topic that fascinates me, especially since I tend to struggle deeply with negativity toward the end of an ultra. I was determined to push any unproductive thoughts away the moment they entered my head. I kept telling myself all manner of reasonably cheesy self-cheerleading things like “you got this!” “stay strong” “make it happen” and my personal favorite “how bad do you want it?” (oh, I want it bad). You know what? Not one single negative thought successfully crept in. I did stay strong. I did make it happen. On that day, I gave what I had to give. I even negative split (who, me? yes, me!).

Now that the race is over, I can’t wait to do it all again at November’s Temecula Wine Country Half Marathon — only, you know, faster.

1:22:54 (PR)

With Olympian, 2014 Boston Marathon winner, and all-around amazing/inspirational human being, Meb Keflezighi

With Olympian, 2014 Boston Marathon winner, and all-around amazing/inspirational human being, Meb Keflezighi

With 2nd place finisher Lauren Fleshman. Who is also pretty darn awesome.

With 2nd place finisher Lauren Fleshman. Who is also pretty darn awesome.

Lake Sonoma 50 Race Report

Photo credit: Myles Smythe/UltraSportsLive

Photo credit: Myles Smythe/UltraSportsLive

Just as the light dawned on a foggy morning, we took our places at the start line of the Lake Sonoma 50. I tried to look for a few familiar faces in the ladies crowd but couldn’t see anyone I recognized. Over to my left was a sea of neon yellow singlets; the Nike elite men’s team out in full force. I saw Sally McRae and figured she’d be standing by the ladies contenders. She wasn’t, but it was time for the race to begin so I decided to slip in near her and keep her in my sights. The first 2.4 miles of the race are on paved road in order to thin out the pack a bit before hitting the singletrack, making for a speedy start. A couple of minutes after John Medinger, Race Director, shouted “GO” the neon sea had moved on and in their wake were Emily Harrison, Jodee Adams-Moore, Stephanie Howe and Angela Shartel, along with a few women runners I wasn’t familiar with. Before the race I had decided that in order to compete in this super-fast women’s field, I needed to be more aggressive than I was at Sean O’Brien. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to run the first few miles like it was a 5k. The ladies went out at a decent clip but I didn’t think it was crazy-fast by any stretch and it was a blast to run just behind this elite crowd.

As we hit the trails, there was a little angling for position but everyone was lighthearted and gracious. I settled into about eighth or ninth. Just up in front, Jenny Capel and Jenny Pfeifer stuck close together and stayed this way for a while. We took turns leapfrogging in those early miles.

Early on my stomach started cramping – unexpected stomach flu-like cramps, as opposed to the ones I knew in advance would be on tap for the day (yay for me!). I racked my brains to try to problem solve, but I couldn’t figure out why. Overall I felt great and was annoyed by this distraction, especially in the early miles. Gels have been known to make me nauseated, but not crampy, and besides it was a bit early for my stomach to be legitimately upset with me. Despite the discomfort, I tried not to let it phase me. (Side note: In the lead up to the race I had experienced tummy troubles but chalked this up to nerves. Immediately after the race and for several days following, I had diarrhea, whole body shivers and fever — I had caught a virus. I have no idea how much this actually affected my race day, if at all).

As I came in to Warm Springs (mile 11.6), I saw my crew person, Elizabeth, waiting. This is the first race I’ve been lucky enough to have crew help and it was amazing the difference it made. I gained a lot of time by simply switching out my wasitpack for a new, pre-filled one at each stop. Elizabeth would then take the old waistpack and refill it ready for the next turn. In addition, she took meticulous notes and let me know exactly where I was in the race. I truly can’t thank her enough for selflessly volunteering her time. At Warm Springs, Elizabeth informed me I was in 10th. I had used previous year splits (available on the Lake Sonoma website) to figure out approximately when I should arrive at each aid station in order to reach my goal time of 8:30. I was slightly ahead, but not by too much, and took this as a good omen for the day.

At some point a couple of women passed me. I can’t recall if it was after Warms Springs or the next aid station, Madrone, but I tried not to let it bother me. I was more concerned with making sure I maintained a sustainable pace and was taking care of myself. To my relief, my stomach felt a little better in these middle miles and I felt strong overall. On the downside, much of the race was pretty lonely. The runners were spread out but I wanted the company of others. It’s the first ultra that I didn’t make a new friend to run with for any length of time and I missed the distraction and bonding that running with another brings. Then I saw race winner Zach Miller on his way back from the turnaround looking super strong on an uphill. I didn’t recognize him and wondered if he would last the distance – boy was I wrong! It occurred to me that if I wanted that quick potty stop I’d better take it now as the rest of the men’s field would be hot on his heels. Mission accomplished a split second before my coach, Sage, and the rest of the lead racers came zooming past. Phew, that was close!

As I worked my way up the three biggest hills of the course, I was totally in my groove and honestly didn’t even notice them, breezing right up with some trotting and power hiking combos. Not far from the top I saw Emily Harrison coming back down, pursued shortly thereafter by Stephanie Howe. Kaci Lickteig and Jodee Adams Moore (possibly not in that order) were the only other women’s leaders I recall seeing, meaning that the rest were still in the keyhole at the turnaround. I must admit that I didn’t realize the significance of this, since it meant we were all pretty closely bunched. After the race, I saw a tweet from Meghan Hicks of iRunFar that there were five women within five minutes of fifth place Angela Shartel at this point on the course. A runner named Leslie (Howlett) caught up to me during this section. We started chatting and it was good to have company, even if for a short while. Meghan Hicks was waiting near the top of Bummer Peak, telling us we were in 11th and 12th place. Passing through No Name Aid Station (mile 25.2) I waved at Jorge Maravilla, who has always been so welcoming at the San Francisco Running Company in Mill Valley. (I stopped in there last summer for the first time, before I had ever even run my first marathon, and go back whenever I can for their incredible knowledge and ultra-specific merchandise.) Leslie was behind me again out of the AS, and we cruised back down Bummer at a decent clip (6:xx min pace). I was surprised she was still there at the bottom since downhills are my strength. Hers too, I guess! Soon afterwards she passed me for good, looking solid. I was still ahead of my goal pace so didn’t give chase, trying to conserve energy for a consistent race and telling myself it was still early. The next few miles passed quickly and were a big ego boost as runners still making their way up to the turnaround shouted kind words of encouragement as I passed.

As I made my way up the hill into the Madrone AS (mile 30.9), Bryon Powell of iRunFar was there, shouting “come on!” and stating he was “just there for motivation.” I picked up my headphones, and Elizabeth told me that there was a runner right ahead of me looking spent. Talk about motivation! I turned on the music and the speed soon followed. I screamed by Lydia Gaylord, feeling amazing, and spent the next few miles grooving to the tunes and riding a wave of intense euphoria unlike anything I have ever experienced in a race before. I felt simply unbeatable and cruised along at a super speedy clip. Well… you guessed it, what comes up must come down and the fast pace wore me out quickly. Not my smartest move, but it was amazing while it lasted and allowed me to pass both Lydia and, next up, Jenny Capel, quite definitively. Back in tenth place, I wondered how far ahead the other runners were and if anyone was blowing up, just as I was starting to tire myself.

Soon the sun came out and beat down on the course. I had hoped for a hot day since we basically live in the desert now. If anyone could handle the April heat it was me. The morning fog had lasted a long time and when the sun finally did come out it wasn’t exactly scorching (low to mid seventies?), but I imagine it was still enough in this early-season race for many runners to feel it. A few miles later I was out in the open fields running a trail cut in to the hillside when a sharp movement on the bank to my right caught my attention. I turned around, surprised. Turns out, I was not the only one caught off guard — a snake had reared up and tried to strike me! Thankfully I ran past fast enough that it missed me. I saw it slithering swiftly across the trail. I looked around, amazed, to see if anyone else had seen it, but there was no one there. Again, I felt pretty down not to have another runner near me to share that crazy moment with. (In case you’re wondering I have no idea what kind of snake it was, I couldn’t tell the color in the sunlight and wasn’t exactly stopping to check it out but it was about three or more feet long, though thin in circumference, and certainly got the adrenaline flowing!).

At this stage — mile 35 or so — I was still on pace for an 8:15-8:20 finish, but I started to realize that I was going to lose some ground from this point on. My stomach started feeling crampy again and indeed didn’t let up before the race ended, or afterwards for that matter. While I had no big bonk per se I just started to feel super fatigued. I told myself to keep moving until Island View and then if I saw other ladies it would be time to step on the gas and bring it home. Otherwise, I would to simply try to maintain my pace as much as possible. This is right when my Garmin died, but I didn’t need the watch to tell me that in reality I was slowing considerably. I had been really happy with my hill performance in the race up until this time, running as much as possible and feeling fit and powerful. Now, even smaller hills were eating at my confidence and I walked up a lot of them. I started cramping in my left hamstring and quad and in my mental fog forgot that I had salt tabs in my back pocket. I finally got one from Elizabeth at Warm Springs (mile 38), but should have taken two and carried one with me as I wasn’t able to get another until Island View (mile 45.5) by which point the leg cramps had long since returned.

As I ran downhill into Island View I saw Leslie and Tera Dube not far back up the trail from the AS. They were just a few minutes up and close together. I looked at Leslie and she looked bad, very pale — a face of determined suffering. Tera just looked down, all business, but I could tell she was struggling too. I tried to make it look good and knew I needed to get into hunting mode to claim those spots – they were within my grasp and looked like fairly easy pickings. I worked hard to mentally rebound and tried every trick in the book to get myself back in the game, but my body wasn’t having any of it.

I finally rallied somewhat for the last mile but by then it was too late. Even though it wasn’t an exciting finish, it was satisfying in other ways. I crossed the line in 8:40 and tenth place in a super competitive race. (Splits from the Lake Sonoma website show I was still on 8:25 pace until mile 45.5. Ouch, that was a slow last few miles.) I know that with time and experience those last ten miles will improve. For context, just a few years ago, my 8:40 would have been the winning time on this course. Women’s ultra racing is getting seriously FAST! I guess I could take this as a sign that maybe I’m not up to scratch in today’s most competitive fields but I think it just means there’s work to do to truly contend. Most of my competition were professional athletes, or at least seasoned ultrarunners. I’m brand spanking new at ultras and with less than two years of any real running on my legs at that. (Side note alert: anyone else find it interesting that ALL of the top ten men’s finishers are sponsored athletes yet only six of the top ten ladies are sponsored in this amazingly competitive race? It was similar at Sean O’Brien too with only four of the top ten ladies with sponsors. Sponsors, time to step up and invest in the women’s field!) Anyway, it was also fantastic to cross the finish line of my former “hometown” area ultra, with an almost one hour improvement over my Sean O’Brien finishing time, set in February. A huge thank you to Sage Canaday and Sandi Nypaver of V02 Max Coaching for coaching me over the last couple of months, taking me from total novice to feeling much more prepared and confident in my running.

Next up, Ice Age!

Lake Sonoma

Photo credit: Nate Dunn/UltraSportsLive

 

Sage Advice

Not sure when is the right time to get a coach?

For me it was a pretty easy decision. I’ve been working away at this running thing for a little while now, basically making it up as I go. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a student of the sport and read whatever I can get my hands on. Lots of base running, a tempo run, an interval session and a long run each week, et voila! runner gets faster. Still, being self-coached requires creativity, something I lack. Maybe a 10k tempo run every Monday is not the best use of my time and efforts? Enter the professionals.

One of my new friendships forged on the many miles of the Sean O’Brien trail was with Kevin K, who is coached by Sage Canaday and Sandi Nypaver of VO2 Max Coaching (http://vo2maxproductions.com/). The timing was right and I was eager to hear how it all worked. Kevin was happy to oblige.

Since Sage is the course record holder at the Lake Sonoma 50 miler (in a staggering 6:14), and Lake Sonoma is my next ultra, it seemed like a natural fit. Not to mention that he’s also a two-time Olympic Trials qualifying marathoner, and a 1:04 half marathoner. Given my love of speedwork, his approach was a philosophy I could relate to.

Sandi is no slacker either. Not only does she have a slew of top ultra finishes to her name, but she also recommended I work a 10 minute ab routine into my training 2-3 times per week. You can see her demonstrating how “easy” it is below. Of the 10 suggested minutes, I lasted just six on my first attempt and experienced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for two days after. Clearly, I have some work to do.

One of the first pieces of coaching advice I received was to take it easy on my upcoming “fun run” half marathon, scheduled for just a week after Sean O’Brien. We (me and my husband) signed up for the race because a couple of out-of-town friends were also entered. I knew I’d be feeling my first 50 miler on my legs and the point of going was to enjoy the run, not injure myself or set back my recovery by working too hard. Goal met. I had a blast. The race had significant elevation gain for a road race — about 1000ft — but after the 11,000+ ft I’d tackled a few days before, it felt like nothing. I came in third, and loved every second.

At the San Dieguito Half.

At the San Dieguito Half.

This pic makes me laugh. Not the most flattering, but good to know that after all the work I've put in, those muscles are there when I need them!

This pic makes me laugh. Not the most flattering, but good to know that after all the work I’ve put in, those muscles are there when I need them!