The Road to Boston

Boston Hat Photo

Before I ever ran ultras, indeed not long after I started running (period), I decided I wanted to qualify for the 2014 Boston Marathon. Initially, I hadn’t realized that you even need to qualify for the race, but my friend Sheila had done so and explained the process. It sounded really challenging. I like challenging.

It was after the bombings had already happened. I’m not much of a writer to begin with, so I don’t know how to capture the way I felt about it, the way I will always feel, without saying anything but the most obvious things. Things that have already been said a thousand times over. I suppose I feel the way I imagine you feel about it. Anger, horror, disbelief. In particular — as a mother — grief. Just thinking about it still rips a tear in my heart. Like so many others, I wanted to run to show solidarity and to pay respect for the fallen and the maimed. In a small way, which, when grouped together with so many other runners would have become a big way, I wanted to be part of what it meant to be defiantly Boston Strong.

When I started training, I could barely string together three miles at the 8:24 average pace I would need to qualify (I was 38 and needed a 3:40 finish). Undeterred, I worked away at it, week after week. The first time I hit the 20 mile mark, I cried. Literally and figuratively, I had come such a long way.

Soon, the training started coming together and I was clocking 24 mile training runs at well under BQ pace. I stepped up to the start line of the August 2013 Santa Rosa Marathon brimming with confidence and eager to run, joining the 3:30 pace group.

If the experience hadn’t been so incredibly painful, it would have been humiliating. The Wall snuck up on me and pounced like a cat. It threw me in the air and dumped me on the pavement, pummeling me with its leaden bricks. In was unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life, before or after. Ultras included. By mile 16 I was dizzy, nauseous, suffering from both tunnel vision and double vision (quite the combo!) and had stabbing heart pains so severe that I could not adequately catch my breath. To add insult to injury, my quads seized up. It’s no exaggeration to say I could barely stay upright. I came through the half in 1:44, and hobbled through the finish in 3:53.

A few weeks later, baffled and humbled, I discovered that I was suffering from iron deficiency anemia. That’ll happen when you abruptly adopt a pescatarian diet, begin losing weight and piling on the miles all at the same time. Taking iron pills took me from a constant state of complete and utter exhaustion, thinking that I never wanted to run another step again, to feeling that life itself was breathing energy into my oxygen-starved body. Anemia is a cruel master; it had stripped me bare and robbed me of my dreams. I wanted revenge.

Six months later and without any specific training, I ran a surprise 3:06 at the 2014 Napa Valley Marathon. The accomplishment was a turning point for me. I had more than BQ’d (though too late for the 2014 race) — I’d started a personal revolution. The race was the kind we all fantasize about. Dead-even splits. Near-effortless. Running each mile faster than I ever could have imagined was possible. It lit a fire and left me ravenous for more. I hired a coach and salivated at the prospect of going sub-3.

The finish-line joy of a near-perfect race at the Napa Valley Marathon.

The finish-line joy of a near-perfect race at the Napa Valley Marathon.

Flash forward another six months to the Ventura Marathon (September ’14), where I ran 2:51:49. It wasn’t my best race and I think I can do a lot better than that, but it’s hard to complain about the progress it reflected. Since I turned 40 in December, my Ventura result was enough to qualify me for the elite field at Boston for the upcoming 2015 race, where I’ll be competing in the Masters Women division and hope to end up with a top five result.

A hot day at the Ventura Marathon.

A hot day at the Ventura Marathon.

Of course, in the background to this story is that during this time I’d started to run ultras — and started to do well at them. So it is that I find myself not only in the 2015 Elite Women’s Start at Boston, but a Nike Trail sponsored athlete. Just a few short weeks after Boston, I’ll be toeing the line at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race, and (someone! please!) correct me if I am wrong, but I believe I’ll start the race as the women’s leader in the 2015 Montrail Ultra Cup [as of the time of this post, the official 2015 standings had not yet been published].

It all sounds so absurd, ridiculous even. Because the reality is, I’m just like anyone else. I’m just a Mom who has, rather late in life, discovered that she loves to run. Who finds perfect moments in the movement. Those moments when all of the work comes together and the body abides. That’s why I do it, that’s what I love. Just like you, right?

So… I want to know. What’s your Boston story?

Lake Sonoma Training Update

Let’s see… Ultra Runner of the Year Michelle Yates, course record holder Cassie Scallon, seldom-defeated Jodee Adams-Moore, super-fast Emily Harrison, consistent front-runner Stephanie Howe and an absolute deluge of other ultrarunning elites are slated to compete in the ladies field at Lake Sonoma on April 12 [Note: Michelle Yates and Cassie Scallon are no longer running. For further entrants updates see iRunFar’s women’s preview]. Whatever happens, it’s going to be one heck of a fifty-mile slugfest/track meet. It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that the already stout women’s course record could go down. Assuming everyone shows up, this kind of women’s field is a rarity and I’m just thrilled to be a part of it. Most US races don’t get a lot of fanfare, but this race is proving to be an exception, with planned coverage by iRunFar, Ultrasports Live, UltraRunner Podcast and UltraRunning Magazine. The men’s field is also stacked, but that’s a more common occurrence than the depth we’re seeing here on the women’s side. I only hope this exceptional women’s field receives the media attention it deserves.

As for me, I’m especially eager for the big day to arrive because Lake Sonoma has a special place in my heart, quite aside from the race’s world-class athlete field. This will be my first year running it, but my second year at the race. Last year, on the morning of the race, my husband and I ran a local Sonoma County trail half-marathon, since we lived in the area at the time. I was just a “regular” runner then, and had never run more than 14 miles in one go. The half-marathon was my focus race after a series of injury setbacks had marred my first dedicated and, undoubtedly, over-enthusiastic, year of running — everything from a partially torn Achilles to stress fractures in my left fibula and heel bone. I wasn’t especially fit, but had a decent and satisfying race nonetheless. For an additional shot of inspiration, we decided to head up to see the Lake Sonoma finishers come in. The idea that I would be running the next year’s race would have quite simply blown my mind; I was in awe of the fitness and toughness of these ultra racers. By the time we arrived, we narrowly missed seeing Sage Canaday take the win and the set the new course record. Still, seeing finisher after finisher planted a seed and made me realize that this seemingly impossible distance was maybe not so, you know… crazy. Now that I’m running it this year, and, as it has turned out, with Sage as my coach, Lake Sonoma feels like coming full-circle on my journey to committed running and racing the ultra distance.

I’ve done just about everything I can to get ready. There’s always a fine line between being optimally trained and over-trained and I’ve been dancing right on that line with the hope of a big fitness pay-off when the big day comes. Now, with less than two weeks until race day and no serious pre-injury niggles to worry about, it’s time to back off and let my body repair and recover. To avoid taper madness over the next ten days, I plan to do lots of yoga, engage in plenty of race visualization and take a few daytime cat-naps.

Here’s a little of what my training has looked like. After a solid marathon race at the Napa Valley Marathon, Sandi and Sage had me ease back into hard training despite my eagerness to jump right in — in hindsight, a smart move as the training cycle was tough (that’s why they’re the coaches!). The week after that we started ramping things up. I’m lucky that the Temecula area has a number of challenging trails to train on and since we’re new to the area I had a lot of dirt to explore. At the end of a ramp up week in both miles and elevation gain, I raced and won a San Diego St. Patrick’s Day 10k, despite feeling pretty sluggish and not being exactly thrilled with my time (40:00). The next week was a 100 mile week, a milestone for me. It included a 28 mile run with 5,000 feet of elevation gain up to an 8,700 foot mountain peak, as well as a weekend away at elevation with several runs up to altitudes of around 9,000 feet. Here are some pics from those adventures, including some cat tracks on a very isolated trail:



The view from the Old San Juan trail, Lake Elsinore

View from Toro Peak

View from Toro Peak


Getting "high" at 8716 ft (peak of Santa Rosa Mountain)

Getting “high” at 8716 ft (peak of Santa Rosa Mountain)

That's one big kitty. Thank goodness not super fresh!

That’s one big kitty. Thank goodness not super fresh!

photo (48)

Trying out the scientifically dubious, live low, train high technique in Idyllwild.


Anyway, the following training week wasn’t much easier, with 92 miles and a similar amount of elevation gain, putting my total elevation gain for the two week period at over 37,000 feet. Throw in a few tempo runs and crushing hill repeats during the period. To top it all off, I even managed to get out for a 27 mile run (with ~6,660 ft elevation gain) on the Lake Sonoma course while visiting my parents over the kids’ Spring Break.

Since I was just there, it warrants a mention that despite the unusually dry season the course is a bit wet at the moment. When I ran from the South Lake side on March 29th, Warm Springs Creek was up to the bottom of my shorts with a decent current due to recent rain. I’m pretty tall, so no big deal for me but if it gets any higher they may need a boat to ferry some of the more petite runners across! I was in the area again on Monday 31st (long story but not technically on the course because I got horribly lost from the No Name Flat side and didn’t even make it to Bummer Peak… oh, the irony). Conditions then were much worse, with a big storm front moving through. This first week of April is set for even more rain in the forecast. However, race week looks like it’s going to warm up considerably, with highs predicted in the low to mid 70s. Given that, I think it’s quite unlikely that the race will be cancelled due to flooding, but take note: creek crossings will probably still be on the high side. [NB: an email from race director John Medinger states that the creek crossings are actually pretty low now, so they must have receded after the rains]

Stream crossing on the Lake Sonoma course

Stream crossing on the Lake Sonoma course

Napa Valley Marathon Race Report

If the marathon was an exam, up until yesterday I would pretty much have scored an F. Like the Italian figure skater Carolina Kostner at the Olympics, in my own (albeit small-potatoes) way, I would prepare, prepare, prepare, then the big day would come and it was little short of disaster. All I have to say about that is, sister, ain’t redemption sweet.

Perhaps my former tales of woe will be helpful to some readers, so I’m going to elaborate with a list of what not to do. Thus, if you wish to have a miserable marathon experience, I suggest you train your butt off and then sabotage all your efforts with the following:

  1.  Don’t carbo load properly. If you think carbo loading means eating an extra bagel and a handful of jelly beans or a donut, think again. Carbo loading for the marathon is serious business and can make or break your race. Research on this issue suggests that ingesting 7-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilo of body weight in each of the days leading up to the marathon is about right. That’s waaaaay more than most people think. Moreover, in my experience, what you eat makes a difference too. I tried stuffing myself with carbs before previous marathons, but found the process so disgusting that I quickly gave up and went back to normal eating, meaning I basically failed to carbo load at all. Even stepping it down a notch and simply being more mindful of eating extra carbs in the marathon lead-up left me feeling like a bloated slug since I normally don’t eat a lot of carbs. At my last (trail) marathon, in which I somehow came in second after a difficult race, I won some pretty cool stuff, including a product called Carbo-Pro. You should know that I have no affiliation with the company whatsoever and was dubious about its usefulness in my life until I tried it. It dissolves in water, is practically tasteless, gluten-, preservative-, color-, dairy-, soy-, and sweetener-free and packs 50g of carbs per 2 scoops. It’s made of GMO-free rice and corn. It doesn’t leave me feeling bloated or full and I simply added it to water and drank two or three times a day for about four days leading up to the Napa Valley Marathon. It worked beautifully.
  2. Take gels you know can mess up your stomach. In case you think, duh, who would do that, consider that I didn’t know there were gels on the market that wouldn’t mess up my stomach. I thought it was normal for a certain sub-set of runners to suffer stomach issues when racing, that I was one of the unlucky ones and that the way forward was to train my body to accept said gels (which, incidentally, never happened). Then I tried ViFuel gels. Again, I have no affiliation with the company, although, in the interests of full disclosure, one of my coaches does and he recommended the product to me, thinking its unique formulation might help. No matter how I came to hear about it, I’m just thrilled that I found something that works. I feel so confident about their compatibility with by insanely picky stomach that in a pinch I will even take them without water, a concept that previously would have left me horror-stricken.
  3. Take gels and sports drink at the same time even though you have never practiced this before race day. Enough said. Just don’t do it.
  4. Be anemic. This’ll screw up your race (and your life!) but good, every time. Simply follow a vegetarian or pescatarian diet, ramp up your weekly mileage and then never get your iron levels checked. The complete and utter exhaustion that sends your dragging bones to bed at 7:30pm, makes a 9:00 minute pace feel as hard as a 7:00 pace used to feel and sucks all of the joy and motivation out of running? It might be overtraining . . . or it might be anemia. Get a bloodtest. (P.S. On a serious note, don’t take iron supplements without consulting a doctor and getting your ferritin level checked first because it can literally kill you  — especially true for men).

This time, when marathon race day arrived, it seems I finally got it about right. I was carbo loaded, gel ready and had recent blood test results in hand showing everything was normal. The bad news? Race reports about races that went really well tend to be a tad yawn-inducing, so I’ll keep the rest of this one brief.

My coaches helped me to formulate a race plan based on recent performances. Since they’ve only been on board for less than a month, there was little they could do to make me faster in the remaining time until race day. Instead, we focused on building a plan that was conservative but aligned with my fitness. Given my previous marathon performances, I was in sore need of a confidence booster at the distance, and a conservative race was more important than taking a more aggressive and risky approach.

Race morning dawned overcast and cloudy but pleasantly warm (50’s) and dry. It did start drizzling about an hour into the race, but I found this refreshing more than a hindrance. The course is fairly winding, rolling, and in places cantilevered for the first half or so of the race. Since the road is completely closed for this section, it made for a lot of wandering back and forth across the lanes to try to run tangential lines as much as possible. On the other hand, the rolling hills were very gentle and the course had quite a bit of downhill, so I think this made up for the inevitable ‘long course’ from failing to precisely run the tangents. Also, the curves and changing elevation made the course interesting in addition to being scenic and it wasn’t until I reached a fairly expansive straight and flat section around mile 18 that these pleasant distractions gave way to the need to focus to maintain pace.

In terms of the event itself, the race is well organized and had some unique aspects that I had not, in my limited experience, seen before. Hot showers at the finish line, a personal and friendly escort from the finish line to the photographer and then out to the spectator meeting area, and my hands-down favorite, the ability for any runner to place their drink in a ‘special drinks’ bucket which was transported to the racer-specified water station for pick up during the race. I thought this might not work out in practice given the number of runners but it turned out to be seamless since few runners took advantage of it (which makes me think I probably shouldn’t be advertising it!). On the downside, there were not anywhere near enough porta-potties at the start. After waiting twenty minutes in line with little forward progress and having to skip my warm-up as a result, I dipped behind the row for relief with just minutes to go until the start. This served one purpose (if you know what I mean) but left my stomach cramped and uncomfortable for the first eight miles of the race as my body adjusted to the fact that no, um, secondary relief would be forthcoming. Some might also consider the lack of pace groups as a downside too. There were none, but it didn’t bother me. Everyone just had to run their own race.

I stuck closely to the race plan, though dialing the prescribed pace up just a hair as the race progressed since I felt good and it felt surprisingly easy. The day played out pretty much perfectly, with me running almost dead-even halves (1:32:58 to 1:33:05). I finished in 3:06:03, good for a morale-boosting 8th place in this Road Runners Association of America (RRAA) National Marathon Championship Race. There was no wall-hitting, no stomach-turning, just simple, even pacing. The fact that I’m barely sore on this day after the race is a touch bothersome, since it leaves me wondering, what if I had just run a little harder? To have done so, however, would have been a huge gamble and it was so important that I left the race feeling positive. Of note is that the success of the race has left me seriously hungry for more. Sub-three is tantalizingly close, but I’m setting my sights well beyond that.

Napa Valley Marathon, I will be back in 2015.

Watch out, ladies!


Napa marathon finish