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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Brace Yourself: Houston Marathon Race Report

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A kiss for my mama at the finish (Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik)

On Wednesday, we laid my mother to rest.

On Sunday I ran the Houston Marathon and qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials. It was the last possible date to do so. I was wearing my mother’s ring and holding back tears.

On the first day of the New Year, my Dad had called during dinner. Immediately, I threw a few items in a case and engaged in a panic-filled, adrenaline-fuelled 5-hour night drive. During which time I clung to the hope that I would arrive and miraculously everything would be ok. We’ve made a mistake, they’d say. She’ll be just fine, they’d say. After all, if anyone could beat the odds it was her. She always was a tough one.

But it wasn’t ok. She had suffered a massive brain aneurysm. Which then caused her to suffer a cardiac arrest. Which threw a blood clot into her brain. Which led to a stroke. The stroke that eventually obliterated her entire right frontal cortex. As if that wasn’t enough, when she lost consciousness, she had aspirated fluid, later developing severe pneumonia. When the full picture about her condition emerged, it quickly became clear that my mother’s condition was almost hopeless.

Yet hope we did. What else could we do? While simultaneously bracing for the worst, my Dad and I, and later my brother, who flew across from England, spent agonizing days at the hospital by her side. We were desperately searching for signs that she would come back to us. It was utterly alien territory and we were unsure how interpret her ‘poor’ (hospital-terminology) responses. We were told she was a ‘5’ on the scale of consciousness used by the medical profession. We knew that this was the worst possible score, but I only looked it up for the first time in writing this blog. The brief description cuts to the bone. Level 5: deep coma; decerebrate rigidity; moribund. Chance of survival: 10%. Regardless of the grave assessment, we talked to her as she lay unconscious and intubated. We told her what she meant to us, why we needed her so very much.

When the time came, we held her hands and gently stroked her hair as she passed. The heart-wrenching hospital visits ended, but a new undertaking awaited. We worked as a family on the myriad arrangements, and there was much to do. We spent two days searching through thousands of photos, organizing them by date and selecting only the very most meaningful for an electronic photo gallery to be played at her service. Moments captured that made us laugh and cry, but most of all, remember. Things and times I had long since forgotten became instantly, immeasurably, treasured. Heed this: take more photographs.

Wednesday’s service was a beautiful tribute to her life of joy, adventure and laughter. When we arrived home late on Thursday I quickly unpacked and repacked a case for Houston and set the early alarm to catch my morning flight out of LAX. One busy activity rolled into another. For over two weeks, each waking moment had been filled with tension, tasks, grief, too-little sleep. Or running. Never have I been more grateful for the outlet of running.

I arrived in Houston late on Friday afternoon. Collected my bib, hopped on the hotel treadmill, got food, fell into bed. A familiar sense of hustle.

Then, on Saturday, for the first time since my Dad had called to say my Mum collapsed and was being airlifted to UCSF ICU, I found myself alone in a quiet hotel room. There for the sole purpose of running my fastest marathon to date and qualifying for the Olympic Trials. In the silence, my world abruptly stopped turning so confusingly fast. At last I tuned inwards. How was I feeling as I readied for the next day’s race? Beyond exhausted. Emotionally wrecked. Empty.

I was awoken on Sunday morning at 12:30am by a piercing, crushing headache. Two Tylenol, a few more fragments of sleep, and it was go-time. My head throbbed mercilessly under the quilt of acetaminophen, but it eventually subsided before the start.

As a new American citizen, I wept at the national anthem, choking back emotions that were all too ready to spring to the forefront once more. The gun went off and I tried to settle into a rhythm. I took great comfort from a training block that assured me I was more than capable of doing this. No matter what the day brought, I held myself to meet the task at hand unrelentingly, to get the job done. Nothing else would suffice.

Predictably, there was nothing easy about it. My body ached and grumbled almost from the start, pleading with me to stop this madness. There was no lightness, no flow. Even the early miles took commitment, effort, focus. I shut it out and thought of all the people who believed in me. I thought about pain and how nothing could compare to the last couple of weeks. If there was a mantra I held dear in this race, it quickly became the lie I told myself over and over. There is no pain. There is no pain. There is no pain. Sure there was — a virtual avalanche of the stuff — but it wasn’t enough to stop me. Not today.

The mental intensity I mustered to continue running at a qualifying pace was ugly. It was so much that I could not gather the physical strength to take my usual last gel at mile 21/22. It sat right there in my pocket. I thought about it a lot in those last miles. I really should take that gel, I thought. It would help, I thought. But I knew that if I did, the effort of carrying out this small, simple act would break my stride, and with it risk breaking my very will to continue. So I didn’t.

I crossed the finish line, expecting a flood of emotions to hit me. I kissed the ring I had worn in my mother’s honor and blew it to the sky. In truth, all I felt was a sense of calm relief. A goal so outrageous that I couldn’t even acknowledge it out loud at the beginning of 2015 had been achieved. It brought me a moment of peace in a storm of tumultuous emotions. My efforts had been worthwhile. I had done it, and Mum would have been so very proud.

2:44:25 (gun), 21st female, 6th American, 2nd Masters

Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik

Photo courtesy of Wendy Shulik

Equipment/Nutrition/Coaching:  Note, this is a mixture of sponsors and non-sponsors. There’s no favoritism here. It’s just what I use because I like it.

Nike gear:

  • Lunar Racer shoes
  • Epic Run shorts
  • Western States Nike Trail team singlet
  • Sunglasses: Run X2 S

Pre-race fuel:

  • 2.5 hours before: bowl of oatmeal with whole milk and sugar, cup of black tea, cup of coffee
  • 1 hour before: 2 scoops Gen UCan (I like Tropical Orange or Pomegranate-Blueberry)
  • 10 mins before race: 1 Mountain Berry VFuel gel, sips of water

In race-fuel:

  • VFuel gels, Mountain Berry flavor (at miles 6, 12, 17)
  • Sips of water from Dixie cups

VFuel have been my go-to gels for a couple of years now. Why:

  1. They *never* upset my stomach, even without water
  2. They aren’t as thick as some other gels out there
  3. They taste great

Post-race recovery:

  • Picky Bar (favorites are Need for Seed, All in Almond or Blueberry Boomdizzle)
  • 2 scoops of Hammer Recoverite (Strawberry)
  • An enormous protein and carb-rich meal
  • Celebratory beer

Coaching: Mario Fraioli

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