Woodside 50k Race Report

On a weekend when many of my friends and fellow athletes were out celebrating the end of the racing season with a bang at headliner races TNF50 and JFK50, there I was quietly lining up at a small 50k in Woodside, California.

It had been so tempting to join in the fun at JFK. JFK had been a goal race of mine since coming in second there last year. It suits my skillset and I wanted a shot at running a faster time there. But it wasn’t to be. Injuring my foot and the weeks off that followed meant that I was only just starting to train regularly again. I wasn’t ready for a race like JFK. I wasn’t ready to risk being broken again.

Instead, I decided to focus on Brazos Bend 100 miler in December. Last year, I ran the 50 miler, which had been one of those races that delivered a gift beyond my wildest dreams. I still look back with wonder at how I did it.

You might have noticed, though, that 100 milers haven’t exactly been my forte. (Not yet?) They’re a puzzle I’m determined to get right one of these days. Stubbornly, I decided to take one more crack at it this year. This time on a course I’ve proven I can run well.

Which brings me back to Woodside. With Brazos Bend three weeks out, I needed a low key long run. Hilly trails tend to make me strong. I knew I’d need a good dose of strong at BB100. I signed up, knowing very little about the race.

When I arrived, RD Greg Lanctot told me I was in for a treat, and he was right. The Woodside trails (near Palo Alto) are fantastic. Padded with needles from the trees, the terrain was a shaded journey through tall redwoods for miles on end. On this mid-November day, conditions were perfect. Crisp, cool air. The rainfall from a couple of days previous had drained well but left everything fresh and earthy. I could have stayed out there for days.

I hadn’t done much of anything in terms of climbing for weeks because it irritates my plantar at the moment. Javelina 100k had a little, but this 50k packed in 6400ft of it according to Strava. It was almost all very runnable and nothing too steep, except for one short section of 26% grade added a few days before the race. Maybe Strava got it wrong though because I think historically the race has only had about 4700-4800ft of ascent and I don’t think too much has changed. At any rate, I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed running it all. Guess I still had a little climbing fitness left over from this summer when I was training for Headlands 50k.

A few miles from the end, I came upon a runner who had passed me before the halfway mark. I had kept it in my head not to push at the mid-point in the race. The purpose of being here was to have a fun long run, not to truly try to race it since I needed to get back to training without pause the next day. So, I thought I’d just see how things shook out and keep things steady and unforced. With a handful of miles to go though, when I saw the runner (and now new friend, Vincent), I thought it wouldn’t hurt to get in a few faster paced miles and go for it. I surged and passed him, but he wasn’t about to give up without a fight! I kept my foot on the gas and was thankful for how good my body felt. I probably felt better in those last few miles than I did the whole rest of the run. It was wonderful to run fast again. I was able to keep the momentum and finish first, winning the race outright. It was what I needed at the right time on the calendar to boost my fitness ahead of Brazos Bend. And now, to tackle the beast I fear most and turn my attention back to 100 miles. An interesting little Birthday present to myself: the gift of pain. Probably only an ultrarunner can really laugh at that one, but trust me when I say that I intend it with good will and humor. That, and the belief that one day, I will get it right.

Race day Photo Credit: Robert Rhodes

Javelina Jundred 100k: The Box

Photo: Howie Stern

After being laid-up for eight weeks due to injury, Javelina Jundred 100k was never going to be anything but a celebration of the act of running, whatever the pace or outcome.

I definitely don’t recommend running a 100k directly after a two-month injury stretch. Just as I don’t recommend going from a handful of scattered miles to running 90-miles in the week ending a week before race day.

In case you were wondering, my coach doesn’t recommend it either. But, I really wanted to run Javelina 100k. I had missed out on so much by being injured. Races I had planned to focus on passed me by, someone else victorious. Friends were out crushing it regularly. Each week of injury had been a torture of multiplying proportions. I handled it well for the first month, thinking I’d be back to it before long with little fitness lost, but then the bone bruise happened. Instead of taking two weeks to heal, it took closer to a month. By that point, I was gasping to run, to race. I knew I had lost so much fitness, but I was desperate to fix it, in one big cathartic gulp.

I usually listen to Mario, because he is wise — and really, what’s the point of having a coach if you don’t listen. This race, though, I was stuck on it. So, he did the best he could in the few days we had, knowing that there’s not much fitness that could be gained. The only ‘improvement’ would come from reminding my body what it was in for. In the end, knowing I couldn’t be talked out of it, he bolstered me up and sent me out, neither of us knowing what might happen.

Photo: Myles Smythe/Michigan Bluff Photography

At the last minute, I realized that having a crew would be invaluable. At Javelina, runners see crews only at Jedquarters, after each approximately 20 mile loop is completed. In the 100k, I would see crew only twice, but given the desert heat (I’m told temps reached 92 degrees on race day) and the effect that can have on a runner’s stomach, I thought it could be key. I struck gold when on a whim I emailed local Phoenix resident Kristina Pham, figuring she’d have plans already at that late date. But her husband, Norm, and son, Enzo, were working the event, and no-one had asked her to crew or pace yet. What luck! Actually, the fact that she was willing to give up her day for me was touching. Kristina has crewed and paced me at Black Canyon 100k (2015) and Western States (2015). I already owe her, bigtime. She didn’t hesitate to help me again. She’s pretty incredible like that. Here’s her take on the day.

The race started out warm and quickly heated up. The second lap was the worst: a shadeless, full frontal sun assault. I was mentally prepared for this, even though physically, not so much. We’d only had two warm days that I ran in out in California, the Monday and Tuesday of race week. The Tuesday run, with friend and sometimes training partner Cassie Scallon, hadn’t been pretty. Me, hiking up the tiniest of hills and gasping for breath in the 100 degree heat, Cassie concerned for my wellbeing on this eight-mile run. It didn’t bode well.

Regardless of the weather, I was in for a world of hurt. It wasn’t the course, which is super runnable and non-technical. The ‘climbs’ were almost imperceptible, gentle as they were. A few short sections with a little rock, lots of undulating dips in and out of sandy washes, but nothing to beat up the feet too badly. I wore well-cushioned road shoes (without gators) and was happy with the choice throughout. The problem was that there was no avoiding the fact that my fitness was a shadow of where it had been.

By mile 8, I felt it sneak up on me. The sore lower back, the heavier than it should be breathing. The complaining hamstrings, the lack of ease or flow. Still, no matter how bad it got, I remained enormously grateful to be out there, running. This race was a gift to myself, a welcome release for all the pent-up frustration. It hurt, and I accepted it. That slow burn, sit and suffer that I learned to come to terms with at C&O Canal 100 miler. The pain cave. The box. I got in the box and rode it out, mile after mile, all the way to the end. I won, even beating all the guys except the new course record holder, and that felt so good. Sure, I could have run it faster at ‘normal’ fitness. But to dwell on that would be to completely miss the point. My fitness wasn’t strong, but my mind was better than ever.

Practicing the “fake it til you make it” approach by smiling through the pain. Photo: Kristina Pham

Thanks to Jamil, Hayley and the Aravaipa Running crew for putting on a one-of-a-kind and impressively organized race. It sure was a party out there, the black humor of celebration in self-destruction, triumph over desert heat, and for most runners, the incredible achievement of completing 100 miles in the sister race.

NB. To all those who heard me belting out Pink Floyd in the latter miles of the race, you have my sincerest apologies.

Photo: Aravaipa Running

 

An Unscheduled Interrupture

It’s tricky to write a race report about a race that results in injury. Hard to write about running when you can’t run. So yes, I won the Tampala Headlands 50k over a month ago (yay!), but the victory will always be tinged with something sour. At mile 25 of the race, I ruptured the medial branch of my plantar fascia.

Oddly enough, that’s not even the worst of it.

It had been the kind of build-up we all hope to have and almost never quite achieve. An even-keeled, deliberate ramp-up that delivered peak physical fitness at exactly the right time. Even better, this was coupled with a mental state of stoke that is often equally as elusive. Within an eight-day period on my biggest training week, I hit over 110 miles and over 16,000 feet of climbing. I should have been tired, but I was hungry for more. During this same period, others were training for UTMB races in a manner that left me feeling like something of a slouch. Talk about motivation.

For as fit as I was, there was a nagging heel issue that flared up whenever I did a big vert run. This didn’t hold me back because, well, isn’t there always something? It would calm down in between efforts, but never quite went away. No matter, I thought, the taper will fix that. And for the first half of the race, it did.

Racing on the Marin trails is always a treat. It’s been a while since I’d been up there and I’d almost forgotten the delight of freefalling down singletrack with sideways glances of the Golden Gate Bridge, or the grind of steep climbs in thick fog over the Pacific. I had run some of the trails before, but there was a lot of new ground to discover. The kind of trail running that’s at the very essence of why we do this. Exploring something new, fast, on foot. It’s pure joy.

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Photo: Victor Ballesteros

The trails were a mixed bag of everything Marin. Fire road, singletrack, road, steps — so many steps! — the infamous Steep Ravine ladder, roots big enough to act as (more) steps. Steep climbs, long climbs, switchbacks, screamers. In advance, everyone said to save some for the last long ascent. Then they paused and told me again, looking me straight in the eye. The last climb is brutal, they said. But hey, this is ultrarunning. Wouldn’t want it to be too easy.

On the day, it was more brutal than I could have imaged. Sure, I was working hard, but this was a 50k. I was prepared and had paced it reasonably well to endure steady suffering over what for me is a fairly short, if intense, distance to be racing. No, the brutality was the rip I felt in my plantar on an especially steep section at mile 25. I paused for a few moments, not sure quite what to do. Ultimately, I realized that the damage was already done. I still had almost 7 miles to go (the course ran a little long this year due to a re-route) and I was in the lead. If this turns out to be the last race of my season, I reasoned, I may as well win it.

I lost plenty of time over those last miles, hobbling up to Cardiac aid station, asking if they knew how close F2 was. They assured me she was some way back, but I guessed that F2 was Kate Elliot, a strong runner from Santa Barbara that I’ve run with before. My lead wouldn’t last long at the rate I was going. I made my way up the trail by putting all the weight of my damaged foot on the outside ball rather than the heel. That wasn’t going to help me on the three-and-a-half mile descent down to the finish though. As I crested the hill and started descending, the severity of the injury was apparent, since there’s not much way to avoid using your heel on the downhill. Still, I was determined to press on. I could almost see the finish line from there. Bombing runnable descents is my favorite, but not that day. That day I cried as I made my way down the switchbacks and then onwards to the finish.

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Landing on my injured foot at the finish. Note the pain face. (Photo: John Medinger)

Fast forward and four weeks later the plantar was healing well. It had taken a couple of weeks to get an MRI and diagnosis that there was a full rupture (and a partial rupture of the central branch). I had tried a couple of runs but I knew it wasn’t ready. So I hopped on the Alter G (anti-gravity treadmill) and had a few sessions. It felt amazing to run again and my foot felt acceptably fine.

After just three runs on the Alter G, which were alternated with pool running to be on the safe side and allow for recovery, I felt something odd on the top of my foot. Pinpointed pain. I was confused by this, and dismissed it as a tweak. It didn’t go away.

A few days and a few runs later I had another MRI and another diagnosis. It was a bone bruise caused by unconscious compensation. My footstrike had changed with the plantar injury, causing an undue amount of pressure on my outer foot bones. My 4th metatarsal found this unforgiving, swelled up and caused microfractures on the inside. Essentially, a pre-stress fracture.

I’m in a boot for a couple of weeks here as I allow things to heal. It’s definitely going to change the game plan for the rest of the season. After at least six weeks of injury, there’s going to be a lot of fitness lost. I was in a rush to get back to things initially, but that was before the bone bruise.

Realizing that I was doing too much too soon was hard to accept. After the new diagnosis, it forced me to take a step back and accept the reality. I could take two weeks now, or risk months of injury. The process of getting to this point, when I had big dreams and goals for the end of the year (always my strongest part of the season!) was something akin to grieving. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Finally: acceptance.

I don’t know when I’ll be in good enough form to race again, but I’ve come to accept that uncertainty. It won’t stop me dreaming big or trying hard. I’d love to get in a race or two before the end of the year if my body permits it, though I don’t know if that will happen. First and foremost, I’m committed to giving myself the time I need to truly recover. If you’re curious about how I’m handling cross training during this non-running period, check out my Strava. Over the past few weeks, you’ll see, it’s all there. The denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression and, yes, the acceptance.

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Enjoying catching up with friends at the finish. Almost better than the race itself. I love this ultrarunning community. (Left to Right: Victor Ballesteros, me, Alex Varner, Jena Ballesteros. Photo: John Medinger)

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.

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)

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

Oxygen Debt: 50k Road World Championships Race Report

I was going to write a proper race report about the lead-up to and my race at the 50k Road World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Heck, I wrote 800 words on it and I was barely getting started. Instead, I’ve decided to spare you the details and give you the quick and dirty. From post-Western States until the race, it went down like this:

I got injured. So, I reluctantly gave up my auto-spot on Team USA.

Then, I wasn’t injured anymore. Luckily, a slot opened up on Team USA and I accepted.

My body initially resisted my efforts at a 5-week crash course in fitness to get ready for Doha. But after a few weeks, it relented. Scratch that, it blossomed.

Those last couple of weeks, training had been so good that I believed my fitness was close to where it was in March when I raced Caumsett and broke a 15-year old Masters American record.

But I also knew that fitness isn’t enough when you’re racing on bricks in the desert (yes, you read that right). I addressed all the known race-specific variables too:
* heat: sauna, lots of layers, train during the hottest part of the day, purchased ice vest for pre-race

* terrain: bricks: I chose my shoes carefully, settling on the Nike Lunar Racers 4 to give me the protection I needed with the fast feel I wanted

* nutrition: I made sure to practice and find the right balance of electrolytes, gels and water so that I could to ensure absorption in the heat

* jet lag: got there on Tuesday night before the Friday race (16 hour flight, 11 hour time difference)

* course: 20 x 2.5k loops. I practiced monotonous running in training, doing 1.5 mile out and backs for 20+ miles, also running on the treadmill

In the end, as things would have it, none of it mattered. That’s because it was a totally unexpected variable that ended my race.

A mere 15k in and my lungs felt like they were caving in. It took me a couple more laps to figure out what was going on. When it finally dawned on me that I was having an asthma attack (something that has only ever happened twice before, both times over four years ago), I tried hard to remain calm and keep running strong. Let me assure you in case you don’t have experience with this: it’s hard to run strong when your lungs aren’t working properly. Within a short time, the only way I could stay upright was to gasp and wheeze out loud, audibly fighting for each breath. I stayed that way for countless laps.

Photo: Vibhav Gautam

Somehow, I finished the race (in 16th, and 1/2 hour off my Caumsett time). Within seconds, I started panicking, realizing that the full effect of the attack was now crashing down on me. I felt like I could not breathe. What little lung function I had when running dropped dramatically when I stopped. I was rushed to the medical tent in a wheelchair, thinking to myself: I just ran 50k and I’m in a wheelchair! This is so ridiculous! And yet, I was absolutely grasping for every ounce of oxygen I could get. My fingers were blue in the 80 degree desert temps. I was hyperventilating. I had low oxygen saturation and was tachycardic (abnormally high heartrate). The cardiologist was able to get things under control relatively quickly by giving me an inhaler, but it was, without a doubt, one of the scariest things to ever happen to me.
So that was that. Halfway around the world, my hopes pinned to leading the way for Team USA ladies. It was over, and it was awful.

I’ll finish with some pretty pictures of the experience, because, geez, who wants to dwell on the cruddy stuff.

Press briefing before the race. Photo: Susan Dun

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More press briefing. Pic: Susan Dun.

 

Teammates!

Teammates!

Party in the trunk. Photo: Adrian Chouinard

Party in the trunk. Photo: Adrian Chouinard

Team USA

Team USA, along with our amazing manager, Susan Dun. Photo: Vibhav Gautam.

Opening ceremonies

With roommate and teammate Adrian Chouinard

With roommate and teammate Adrian Chouinard

We received five star treatment at the hotel. The hospitality offered by our hosts was truly outstanding at every turn.

We received five star treatment at the hotel. The hospitality was truly outstanding at every turn.

Just in case we started taking ourselves a little too seriously, there was Eric Senseman. Photo: Vibhav Gautam

Just in case we started taking ourselves a little too seriously, there was Eric Senseman. Photo: Vibhav Gautam

Closing ceremonies

Closing ceremonies

Team Gold for the Men

Team Gold for the Men

And silver for the ladies! Photo: Vibhav Gautam

And silver for the ladies! Photo: Vibhav Gautam

 

Aloha Doha: Caumsett 50k National Road Championships Race Report

Photo: Greater Long Island Running Club

Photo: Greater Long Island Running Club

There’s nothing quite like going straight from the finish line to the airport security line. Disheveled hair, salty skin, clothes still wet from the race. At the last minute, I remembered to take off my jacket and unpin my bib so as not to set off the metal detectors, garnering some strange looks in the process. Once through the line I rushed to the ladies room. Time to break out the wet wipes and change into normal-people clothes, only to find to my dismay that I’d missed packing an essential under-layer. Sigh. Bring on the airport margarita.

I hobbled over to the bar and ordered what turned out to be the best tasting margarita I can recall. But maybe that’s because the bartender made it strong and I downed it in about five minutes before grabbing my to-go sandwich and rushing for the gate. Feeling good by this point, I joined the boarding line and called my husband for a short pre-flight chat. I giggled something about needing to shower but how I probably shouldn’t voice that one too loudly. Then, he made me say it. Say it out loud, he urged. Embarrassed, I told him, I can’t. But he insisted. Laughing, I went for it, astonished at the words even as I said them. National Champion. American Record holder.

Two laps down, eight to go... (Photo: Ed Grenzig)

Two laps down, eight to go… (Photo: Ed Grenzig)

Since I’ve been hitting the pavement for the past couple of months it seemed fitting to run the year’s first ultra on the road. Despite poor recovery from January’s Houston Marathon PR, I ran in February’s Olympic Trials, knowing it was unlikely to be a shining accomplishment in my racing life but eager for the incredible experience. Toeing the line at Caumsett just three weeks later meant that my legs definitely weren’t as fresh as I would have liked. Still, the last week before the race saw my body performing close to ‘normal’ for the first time in a long while and I took that as a sign that it was at least worth a try.

This race checked a lot of boxes. I wanted a spot on Team USA for the 50k World Championships. To gain that, I would have to win the race and also come in under the minimum time standard of 3:33. My secondary goal was to break the Masters American Record of 3:28:30 held by Mary Coordt since 2001.

On race morning, the weather was a perfectly chilly 35+/- degrees with little wind. The loop-style format meant that I didn’t need to look at my mileage, simply counting how many laps I had completed and how many I had to go. Ten loops was a lot easier to get my head around than 31 individual miles. The plan was to come in around 20 mins per 5k lap and a timer at the start/finish made this easy to ascertain.

The course was somewhat more rolling than I had anticipated. Near-flat by the start/finish, but through the wooded sections it was undulating. The route follows a bike path loop followed by a short out and back section ending with a 180 degree hairpin turn. Hundreds of runners of varying speed — many wearing headphones — meant it was a constant exercise in dodging and weaving. No course is perfect, and despite these few negatives overall this is a solid championship course.

I was fortunate to have access to a personal fluids table near the start/finish. I set out six bottles, and in contrast to my Olympic Trials experience, managed to get the ratio of VFuel gel to water spot on for this race, using only about 3oz of water and one full gel packet per bottle. On a cold weather day, this was all I needed to keep ticking along and in the end I only used five of the bottles. The race had various ultra-style aid station food on hand for those who wanted it, including hot soups, and also a separate water station at about the halfway point on the loop.

There were timing mats at the marathon mark, used by several runners as a Boston Qualifier. I came through around 2:49:30, which works out to a 6:28 pace. The last few miles definitely became slower as I continued to the 50k mark and my 3:22:50 finishing time equates to 6:32/mile [actually, it’s officially 3:22:51, the clock must have just ticked over]. Contrast that to my Houston Marathon pace of 6:16/mile, and I think it’s fair to say that with a little less racing in my legs I might have been able to run a faster time. Regardless, I’m thrilled with the result, especially since this was a solo effort — there being no ladies or men running a similar pace on the day.

It felt incredible to break the tape knowing that my goals had been met. A National Championship title. An American Masters Record. A spot on Team USA for the upcoming World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Plus, since I’m a dual citizen (I became a US citizen in July), I believe I’m eligible to submit my finishing time for English records. My 3:22:50 3:22:51 would be ranked as the third fastest 50k on record, nosing ahead of legendary Lizzy Hawker’s personal best by just 23 22 seconds! (Per Association of Road Racing Statisticians website).

Photo: Greater Long Island Running Club

Photo: Greater Long Island Running Club

It will be an absolute honor to represent the United States in November. Having spent a nearly half of my life in each country, it’s true that I’m as much English as I am American. However, I won’t be submitting a resume for Team GB consideration. I live in the USA, and my husband and I raise our children here. This is very much home and I’m incredibly proud to have the opportunity to run for the stars and stripes.

[Added 3/9: thank you to ‘Tropical’ John Medinger and Ultrarunning Magazine for pointing out that my 50k time ranks as the 8th fastest of all-time in North America. I had no idea!
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So cool!]

Thank you to Carl Grossbard and the entire Greater Long Island Running Club, to my coach and my family for their support. Additionally, many thanks to my incredible sponsors. To Nike Trail for supporting me even as I hit the asphalt. To VFuel for making the only gel on the market that I trust completely to never upset my stomach. To Victory Sportdesign, maker of the world’s best drop bags/diaper bag/travel purse/whatever organizer. To Picky Bars, because having real-food bars on hand that stand up in any weather is an essential part of my recovery. Also, they also make for nice plane snacks.

#alohadoha

[awesome hashtag credit goes to 50k World Champion Camille Herron]

Photo: Ed Grenzig

[Looks like 3:22:50, but officially, it’s a second later.] Photo: Ed Grenzig

Hot Enough For Bikinis: Olympic Marathon Trials Race Report

 

Enjoying a brief moment of shade on the first loop. (Photo Credit: Tim Meigs)

Enjoying a brief moment of shade on the first loop. (Photo Credit: Tim Meigs)

“You’re here! You made it! You’re running in the Olympic Marathon Trials! You are my inspiration! Make today count!” shouts the world’s best spectator, who is literally jumping up and down, arms pumping wildly with enthusiasm as she stands on top of a concrete post at the USC campus. It’s the first lap, and she’s no less animated on the second, the third or even the fourth. Come the final, fourth lap, though and I decide to throw some love back her way. Fixing her in the eye, I yell “THANK YOU! Thank you for being out here supporting us. You’re amazing!” Momentarily, she ceases her tireless cheering, flashes me a smile of gratitude, and then proceeds to get right back to the task at hand. By this point in the race the front runners have long since passed, Olympic rings branded on the podium finishers on the sizzling tarmac. Lap four, and the spectator is no longer encouraging the lead pack with her seemingly endless fervor. Instead, she’s doing her very best to rally some of the nation’s fastest marathoners as they suffer through classic marathon apocalypse.

For as tough as my race was, I had plenty of distinguished company. The stats are telling. Two hundred and forty six women ran under 2:45:00 to qualify for the Trials. With a relatively generous two-and-a-half year qualifying window, it’s safe to say these are currently the top marathoners in the country. Fast forward to the Trials, though, and the numbers start to get a little funky. Of the 198 women who started the race, a full 49 of them didn’t finish — 25% of the field. It’s even worse on the men’s side, where there were 166 starters and 61 drops, a 37% attrition rate. Moreover, on the day, only 18 men and 40 women were able to run paces that would have met the bare-minimum qualifying standard to be there in the first place. I started the race ranked #159 and ended #108. If you ignore my slowest-in-two-years finishing time and simply look at finishing place, it appears as though I had a stellar day out there. Professional marathoners far more accomplished than I trailed behind, including two members of the famed Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, as well as several 2:30-something marathoners and sub-1:15 half marathoners.

Photo: Robert Boller

The route sure was spectator friendly, though not exactly scenic. Photo: Leilani Rios

I only just ‘squeaked’ into the Trials. So why was I in such unexpectedly esteemed company? The course’s 80+ turns didn’t help, but mostly it was the weather. At the athlete technical meeting at 4pm the night before the race, we were told the women’s start would be 77 degrees, with temperatures rapidly climbing to a high of 81. As if that’s not crazy hot enough, it always feels so much worse early-season, especially on radiating, shadeless asphalt.  In the end, actual temperatures were somewhat lower. Despite this, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any runner who didn’t think it felt every inch as oppressively, stiflingly hot as forecasted. Even though I had tried to squeeze in some last-minute heat training, it simply wasn’t enough to prepare me. It’s one thing to run in warm weather and quite another to run fast. On the wise advice of my coach, I started conservatively due to the conditions. Still, my overheated body threw on the emergency brake with a long ten miles to go, and thus began my descent into the apocalypse.

Lap 1: I’m at the Olympic Trials! This is freakin’ awesome!!

Lap 2: Slow, but still awesome!

Hot and lonely (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

And, then there’s Lap 4: hot, lonely sufferfest in full swing (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

There were many reasons I didn’t give up. My Dad had come to watch me for the very first time and my kids were out there. I couldn’t face letting them down. The painful events of the past few weeks left me comfortable with the suffering, those I’ve lost ever-present in my thoughts. At the same time, I relished the raucous cheering of the plentiful crowds, thrilled to hear people calling me by my first name many times (only my last name was printed on my bib!). Most of all, I continued because when I look back on the experience, I wanted to be able to know I did it. No mental asterisk, no qualification. When I finally made it within sight of the finish line, I took a long few moments to savor it. To soak in the applause and to appreciate that I had run against the country’s fastest. To know that in a lifetime of events, this is surely one of the most special, most magical of them all. It had been a rough day for so many, but the real prize, at least for me, was in being there.

I’ll finish with a few tricks, tips and observations that proved useful on Saturday, as well as some things I learned about the world of professional marathoning:

  1. When the forecast calls for warm weather, it may sound extreme, but consider investing in an ice vest. I was surprised to see that there were dozens of marathoners pre-cooling with them before the race. Men’s champion Galen Rupp even used some high-tech ice mittens in conjunction with the more ‘traditional’ ice vest.
  2. I was far too conservatively dressed, being one of about three ladies not wearing race briefs. I imagine it would be quite freeing to run around in my undies, and I’m definitely going to try this at my earliest road-racing opportunity. (I don’t think they’re really the done-thing on the ultra scene). I took inspiration from the fact that just about everyone was doing it, even the ones who, like me, don’t quite have the rockin’ bod of Amy Cragg.
    Ladies in bikinis: I mean, they look good! (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Ladies running in bikinis: It’s genius! I love it! (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Running with practically the only other girl who isn't wearing briefs. (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

    Running with practically the only other girl who isn’t wearing briefs. This must be early. I look happy and there is shade. (Photo: Mario Fraioli)

  3. Heat train. What’s the downside? None. Upside, potentially lots. Unfortunately, I live in a fairly rural area with only one sauna that I know of, and it’s at a hotel. And they won’t let me use it. Boo-hiss.
  4. If you’re lucky enough to have access to personal fluids during a marathon, put a handle on the top, so you can grab it easily while running. With this approach, out of eight bottles, I only missed one. Between perspiring hands and a relatively fast pace, it’s harder than you might anticipate to pick up and keep hold of your bottle. Also, consider how much fluid you’ll actually drink. Even on a day as hot as Saturday, I struggled to down more than about 4oz from each water bottle, yet I had mixed the VFuel concentration as though I was consuming all 8oz each time. Given that I failed to grab one bottle, this meant I consumed less half the calories I normally would in a marathon, a huge miss. (As a side note, I give enormous credit to the race organization for successfully executing the largest personal fluids operation in race history. It was flawless.)

    Effective water bottle technique

    Effective water bottle technique.

  5. Note to race organizers: if you’re kind enough to set out water bottles for hydration or cooling, please consider asking the volunteers to loosen the lids first. It’s a small thing, but without it, the ‘neutral water’ station we passed multiple times on the course became a horrible tease. I’d pick up a bottle and try as I might my sweaty palms could not open the dang thing. I tried hands, I tried teeth, but those Dansani bottle tops are practically glued on.  Eventually, I would have to throw it down on the ground, unopened, which was impressively frustrating.
  6. Always view the big picture. For as hard as parts of the race were, I never lost track of my joy. My gratitude. The fact that participating in the Olympic Marathon Trials is a momentous moment in my life and my finishing place in it largely irrelevant. I took the time to soak in every precious drop of the beauty in the accomplishment. I will never, ever forget.
  7. To all who organized, supported and sacrificed to make #LA2016 happen, not just for me, but for every runner entering the race, we owe you an unpayable debt of appreciation. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! We couldn’t do it without you. Truly, this was your moment too.
    My support team (Photo: Robert Boller)

    My support team (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Photo: Robert Boller

    Photo: Robert Boller

    Still covered in salt after the race, but at least I have my priorities straight (Photo: Robert Boller)

    Still covered in salt after the race, but at least I have my priorities straight (Photo: Robert Boller)

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