Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Hellgate 100K 2017 Race Report

Hellgate 100k

December 9, 2017 12:01 a.m.

Glasgow to Fincastle, Virginia

"Go do, you'll know how to
Just let yourself, fall into landslide"
-Jonsi

I've been quite a nervous wreck the days and hours preceding Hellgate but this year was quite different. I really had no idea what I was capable of running. I felt under trained to the point of not even feeling like a 'runner' anymore. But the simple fact was I was registered for Hellgate and my husband, Todd, would not accept me bowing out when I really wanted to over Thanksgiving weekend.

I was calm. Steve Higgins was going to crew. Sheryl Mawn was going to ride over to the start with us. I had my gear. This was not my first Hellgate. I knew exactly what I would need to do. At one point Todd joked to someone about my splits being like clockwork. I like routine, I crave reliability.
I think in some ways I would 'settle' forever if I could be guaranteed an ok day.

I wasn't nervous. I had my gear in order, more than I needed, everything I wanted.

It was cold, but we've had colder, last year. The snow that had me slightly concerned during the afternoon wasn't even present at the start. I was a little unsure of how many layers to wear. Todd, Kevin and Sheryl all weighed in.

Chelsie was in a great mood, she was hurrying me up out of the car for a pre-race picture. And I'm glad she did, that is part of the pre-race fun. After pictures we all headed over to the start.

Todd gave me a quick pep talk and a hug, we exchanged warm wishes, we figured for a multitude of reasons we wouldn't be running much of the race together.

As usual the last few minutes flew and also crept by in only the way that minutes before something grand can. Then we were off. And the first few miles were easy enough and perhaps a bit fun. I was cold and then hot and then there was Todd to help me with getting my houdini off and stashed away for later. The glasses I wore last year for all of Hellgate kept fogging over. It was both cold and hot. I was sweating and my toes were throbbing from the cold.

At the creek crossing I tried to use the rocks, they were slick, I slipped a little and just walked through the cold water the rest of the way across. Then it was further then I remembered to the aid station and I thought about how I mistake some of this race for other runs and races. At aid one you take a left turn and head up a gravel road to Petits Gap. The first few minutes of this road running were ok, as usual I found the legs to run more than I would have imagined, I was moving ok.

But then I started to walk. And it was cold. And my legs ached. Masochist. Too much racing and no training, I thought. And then I wondered "Why did I sign up for this? I'm in over my head." And then, as is SO common it irritates me I mentally started to crumble, "I can't do this today. I'm not trained. It's above me. I should just be helping Steve crew Todd and Kevin. That's what I'll do, they'll just have to understand. Then I felt like I was going to cry, biting my lip and honestly trying to fight off the ugly, knowing it was ugly. I thought about quitting, about sleep and warm cars, about it being ok to quit because I just wasn't prepared to run 65 miles. I tried to convince myself that it was ok to quit.

Then Todd caught back up with Kevin and I who were walking and he asked how we were doing. I didn't respond. I thought about how I wasn't going to tell either of them that I was done, it was unfair to unload and possible effect their moods with my own. They would just have to understand at the aid station.

Earlier in the run, about 2 miles in, I told Kevin that if I could keep Todd in sight I was going to try to follow him on the downhill to Camping Gap Road which is one of the nastiest and ugliest parts of the whole course. As Todd passed us Kevin asked if I wanted to try and keep Todd in sight as he started to pull ahead running. I told him no. I thought I'm not even going to run that section now.

Horton will never allow you into Hellgate again if you DNF.

And you'll lose your Western States qualifier.

I wanted to tell myself I didn't care about either of those things, but I did, and I do. And I believed those thoughts. So I told myself that I had to get through Petits. I had to just keep moving. I went through the next few hours in my mind and was glad that the aid station at Floyd's was now moved due to the Parkway closing and that I wouldn't be able to 'quit' again until Jennings. By Jennings I would just have to get my head together.

So I started to pick it up, just a little, tried to keep with Todd. We came into Petits, the three of us together at just after 1:30 am. Steve did great having all three of his runners there together at the same time. He gave me Mountain Dew and I swapped out my hat with a visor for a stocking cap. I dropped off my empty bottle of Tailwind and headed out. Todd was gone by this point, moving through that aid station in a way that argues the reputation he has for aid station loitering. I had to run the downhill without his pull. I vowed to run it hard anyways. It was rocky but it wasn't as bad as I recalled. I caught and passed Jeremy Peterson, he said Alissa was killing it and I remarked about his fun Santa Hat. I tried to move swiftly over the trail and I think I did well enough. Nearing the trickiest turn in the whole course where you turn right onto part of the Terrapin Course I caught up with a sizable group concerned that the course had been jeopardized and we had missed our turn. Through the group I saw Todd who found and made the correct turn. So without any missed time I made that turn but noticed there were at least three people who had missed the turn and were coming back uphill. I recalled being really worried about this very turn my first year.

Just as we made the turn Todd stepped aside. Turns out he was having trouble with his light but I didn't come to find that out until much later. I thought he was pulling over to use the restroom. I ran again hard through here for me. I had a large group of guys behind me so I tried to push so they didn't feel I was slowing them down. I made the turn onto Hunting Creek Road at 2:12 am. That is the exact same time I made it in 2013, the other snow year, and just about this time it started to snow, again. I was already in a different place mentally since Petits Gap road, I was now on to finishing.

I stopped to use the restroom and I pulled out my iPod. I started to think about the race, about racing in general. About all the people.

So many people had spoken during the day and hours leading up to Hellgate how 'fun' it was going to be, how 'excited' they were, how 'adventurous' it was going to be. These words were said again and again by many different people. Were they lying? I wasn't excited. This wasn't fun. Why couldn't I look forward and enjoy Hellgate?

I turned my iPod on at this point. And "Go do" by Jonsi came on. It was dark, and cold, snow was falling, it was an open gravel road with people ahead and behind me. But it was PERFECT. In this simple moment I seized what was right before me. I love this. I mean truly love the simple act of running, that I alone can do it. THIS is what I love. But this is what I rob of myself. The very enjoyment that I seek. And I know what it is.

Expectation. What I think others expect but really what I EXPECT from me. And I broke that down. I decided right there to throw it all out. Expectation, finishing times, goals, everything and just run. I listened to my music and I ran and I walked and I contemplated if it was snow or dust, dust or snow and my mind travelled to other places and things and I was very content in the moving, in the knowing that whatever my day looked like, it would truly be ok. That the people who love me would love me no matter what I could do, would do.

I got to Camping Gap at 2:55 am, I was happy with that. I got some grilled cheese and mountain dew, I hadn't eaten anything since the start, was just drinking Tailwind and wanted to eat some real food. It didn't go down great but I said thank you and kept moving. I ran every step to the grassy road and then I took walk breaks but tried to just be steady and enjoy the running.

Kevin had been running with me from the start. I don't think I had said six words to him. Finally, I felt good enough to speak. I told him about my rough patch, about how I don't know if all of those people are telling the truth but I want to be excited about running and I think the only way to do it is truly just do it for me. Whatever that means. And right then it just meant running fluid through the woods.

But the talking helped and we were moving well. Then Kevin stopped to go to the restroom and I heard this loud scream and I turned to see Todd running up giving Kevin a shout and a smack on the rear (pre-bathroom break I believe/hope). Todd said he had been chasing us for miles, since the Terrapin trail, he said we were running well. We fell in with him and just ran along in the beautiful snowfall. This was a lot of fun, I enjoyed this. And before long the grassy section was over, I took out some Lemon Oreos and Todd pulled ahead and out of sight. I ran trying to reel him back in to Overstreet Falls but he moves across rocks like water.

I was thankful to hear the creek in the darkness and finally see the lights of the aid station ahead, it is a shame to lose the crew access but it's also nice to have that aid two miles sooner. Clifton Williams crew was set up here and he offered me everything you expect from a cold, night race: broth, peirogies, quesadillas, grilled cheese and MASHED POTATOES! They were my favorite food of the whole run. I love to suck the potato filling out of the peirogies so mashed potatoes were perfect for me. After some mountain dew I was off and headed up to the closed Parkway.

I crossed over the parkway at 5:05 am, for having already gone through the aid station that is a pretty good time for me, probably the best time I've ever made it there. In 2013, my last snow year when the aid station was similarly moved due to snow I made it here in 5:25. I felt good about that.

The next section is hard for me, HARD hard. It's when my body usually gets done and really wants sleep but it's also downhill for several miles over rocky, somewhat technical terrain. I was running along getting really tired and trying to move as FAST as possible because I read once that will wake you up. Well, it doesn't work. And I swear I was running 'fast asleep' as this headlamp and runner passed by me and woke me up. I looked back and Kevin was gone, no one but the flying runner ahead of me. I stopped to go to the bathroom and still no Kevin. I went on down the trail but the being startled awake and Kevin being gone served to wake me some. I ran about as hard as I could down the trail. I tried to move fast enough that my feet weren't staying long on any unstable rocks but I still turned my ankles again and again.

Kevin caught up with me and I just tried to pick it up even more. I wanted real food and to see Steve at Jennings. My right hip were beginning to hurt and both of my knees were aching. I wanted some meds and just to stop at an aid station for a couple of minutes. I wanted coffee.

A few minutes before the aid station I was moving so fast over the open service grassy road wondering and looking off to the side to see if I could catch a glimpse of Jennings when I fell in a mud creek running across the course. I went DOWN, hard and fast on the right hip. I instantly feared it would make the hip worse but miraculously it seemed to calm the hip down as now the whole right side hurt like hell. Thankfully, no blood, no torn or broken limbs, back up and moving as fast as I could.

I made it to Jennings in about 6:15, again the quickest I've ever made it here. At this point, I felt like I was running just to run, I was having fun, I was feeling exactly what I wanted, that I was in charge of my day, and that it was becoming a good one. Something I've always wanted but never had at Hellgate.

Jennings Creek was awesome!! There were Christmas lights and inflatables, there were tons of people and so many there offering me things. Blake asked if I wanted to sit down and I said no. I saw Amy Albu, the first female I had seen in HOURS, and it reminded me that I was 12th, Steve later siad I was 11th there.  Don and Steve were on it, getting me everything I needed as quickly as they could. I took 3 ibuprofen and drank mountain dew. Blake offered me my husband's tater tots and I accepted and asked how long ago he'd left the aid station. He just laughed and said he's right there. I looked over to see beside the chair they had offered me was Todd. He was quiet. I immediately felt awful that I hadn't even noticed my own husband! Clearly I was more out of it than I felt. He got up and left, saying bye to Kevin but not to me which hurt my feeling slightly but I figured it was possibly because I slighted him slightly.

I got more Tailwind and Don informed me that I was not drinking as well as I thought. Sam Price offered me some broth and I took it, it was so hot and lovely. Leaving the aid station Wade offered me a bit of a Mimosa and I declined. But then I thought, what the hell and went back for a sip. I toasted with another Mimosa drinker who may or may not have existed? Either way, it was fun.

I left out of the aid station with Kevin. It was just after 6:20 and I felt great, considering. I was surprised how dark it was and for how long up that climb it was dark. I've never left Jennings with so much darkness left. It felt good. I started to think about how well I was moving just running. I really appreciated that. I was enjoying the day, I wasn't running too hard and I wasn't chasing anyone or anything.

Todd was gone, we could see Amy a time or two in long stretches. From Jennings you go up a long road. Up and up and up. Then you go around a little gate onto a trail that is somewhat flat and you run over to a road that is down, down, down. At the end of the down there is another little gate to the right. Here is one of my three favorite spots in Hellgate. It's a short trail that takes you over to yet another gravel road up to Little Cove Mountain. But this little trail is stunning on a good day. And a snowy winter morn is a good day. It was the most amazing I have ever seen it. We passed Amy here and then later Todd, he just moved aside and said keep on I tried to apologize for my unintentional slight at Jennings he just said we were running great and told me to keep it up, I knew he meant it. The trees were snow covered and in patches it was like running through the likes of the frozen Narnia. It was possibly the highlight of my day.

Much to soon it was over. We were back on a road and there were a few cars and we made the turn up to Bobblets. A few minutes later there was Wade running up alongside us, at first I literally had no idea where he had come from, then it dawned on me that he must have been in one of the cars. He gave us bright smiles and good cheer and headed back down the road we had just begun on. Kevin shared a frozen but delicious Take 5 candy bar with me and we talked a few minutes. Most of the time we were just running alongside each other without a word between us.

We saw, caught and passed a few runners including another female. We made it to Little Cove at 7:54 am. Again, I had never been here before 8 am. I was convinced now that despite feeling out of shape I was moving well for me. At the aid station I drank mountain dew and asked about Brenton, he was in 12th there they said, I was 7th or 8th or somewhere, they couldn't be bothered with letting me know, it was kind of funny and I was thankful that I really didn't care. I figured I was somewhere between 8th and 12th.

We left the aid station and I looked at my watch. It was 7:56 am. I felt pretty good. I want to make Bearwallow in two hours, I told Kevin. If I could, that too would be the best time for me. I figured I wasn't going to be fast but I could be steady. And so I was. And it wasn't in my mind fast, my watch says I stayed fairly stead around 11-12 minute miles. I started for the first time all day to steadily pass other runners. This section, usually one of my LEAST favorites, that takes you to the Devil Trail and ultimately to Bearwallow, was beautiful on Saturday. It also felt EASY. It has never felt easy. The snow probably helped.

The only thing that wasn't easy was my freezing, aching feet. I told Kevin I was worried they were too cold and were going to cause me trouble with 5-6 hours left to run. He advised that I don't plan on changing them at Bearwallow because they were going to be cold and wet regardless. My first ipod died, then my headphones, thankfully Kevin had a back up pair on him that he loaned me. We got on some trail and I nearly tripped and face planted but caught myself a foot before the ground, the freezing feet were worrying me, if I can't feel my feet I can't move dangerously over technical ground as well.

But still we gained and caught more runners. There was a good group of us who met the Devil Trail at the same time. The Devil trail was just different this year. It wasn't easier or harder, it was both. There were spots that I think the snow made easier but then there were portions where the snow and leaves made it much more slicker and testy than other times I've run it.

I was through the Devil Trail quick enough, I was focused on making it to Bearwallow. I crossed the creek not worrying too much about the water but still managing to cross with dry enough feet. Then up the hill, across the road and over to the path that takes us to see Horty. I figured I was so far down from the front women that he might not even be there. Then I noticed Kevin was gone again. I looked back and up ahead and there were two women.

Turned out it was Amy Ruseicki and her friend who she introduced to me, Kelsey Allen. I had seen Amy's name on the list but hadn't seen her pre-race so wasn't even sure she was there. She said they had opted for naps and bringing in dinner in place of the pre-race festivities. Probably a smart move.
I told her I was becoming more and more hopeful of a sub 14 hour day as I was running towards the best time to Bearwallow by 20 minutes! If I could maintain that I could PR.

We came into Bearwallow at 9:37 am. That is nearly an hour faster than my first year and nearly 20 minutes faster than I had last year. I was stoked. Something about getting to Bearwallow. It's like the point in the race where it really changes from "can I?" to "I will!!". At least for me.

And I was in top mental shape here. I mean I felt good! Horton told us we were 5th, 6th and 7th. I was surprised to hear I had finally gotten that close to the top females and yet also surprised that getting there at 9:37 am I was 7th. Oh well, can't control who shows up, can only control what you can run, right?

Maybe.

So anyways, I am in a good place, I have Clifton offering me warm broth, quesadillas, peirogies, Opal has warm mac and cheese for us, Steve had mountain dew and all of my gear, Don was taking pictures and Sophie came over and told me that I was the closer and that I had this. That felt good, I want to be the closer. I got antsy. I wanted 5th, or BETTER! I told Kevin I had to get going.

I left, ahead of Amy and Kelsey and Kevin. I left on a mission. I was feeling ok other than my feet and knees. But who isn't hurting at Bearwallow? I was trying to make light work out of the next section. The path to Bobblets is MY section! It is my very, most favorite!! Except there are more hills than I remembered. And so. Much. Damn. Snow. And there's Amy and her friend coming.

I was racing. I wanted to move ahead. Maybe catch other runners. Other women. I tried to run. And when Amy was right there I tried to run harder.

Thing is. I couldn't shake them. I started to slip. I fell down. I had to stop and use the bathroom. I was becoming a mess.

By the time we made it to the road to Bobblets I realized something. I wasn't having fun anymore. I had been before Bearwallow. Then I got all wrapped up in a top spot and was having less and less fun. But I didn't let it get me down. I realized and accepted that I had pushed and maybe too hard and was feeling now like I had less than ever to give. But I just kept moving. It will be a good day if you do your best. Amy and Kelsey passed me and I settled back into my own day.

At Bobblets I saw many friendly faces, Tony, Joe, Sam, Gina, Blake, Anna. They gave me broth with rice and I let myself stand there with my friends for a few minutes and take in the cold morning in the woods. It was just after 11 am I believe, my watch said 51.8, their sign said 49. Kevin and I left yet again together.

We were walking out of the aid station and my legs felt so done. I was pretty mad at myself for running too hard the previous section. I still had 15 miles to run. I didn't think I could do it in 3 hours but I thought I could in less than 4. We walked for too long down a hill but I couldn't get my legs to move. I stopped for the restroom and finally found a little spark to get the legs to go. But it was at a ten minute pace, downhill.

We finally made the turn into the 'Forever section'. Mentally and physically I knew I had challenges ahead.

Ipod two died. Just on a good song too. I was the dead moving forward. I was a little disappointed that one six mile section going too hard could do me in, but then I also figured it was less than usual training on top of it. My knees were SO unhappy. I did well to keep it together here I think. Usually I have some really low spots here. I wasn't thrilled by any means but I accepted the responsibility that I hadn't trained like I could have and should have, that I ran too hard racing the last section, that I get carried away between who I am, could maybe be.

So it was bad,but not too bad. I told Kevin to go on, he went around me but then he looked back a time or two. A mile or so into this section he told me he didn't know where I would finish placement wise but he said he thought we could do 14 hours still. Every mile on my watch was saying over 17 minutes. I didn't think we could. I wasn't unhappy about that. There's always next year. We can do 14:30, that is a great time.

We were moving along, and I was still trying my hardest and it hurt, and my knees yelled louder still. I told Kevin to go on, he could and should break 14 hours. But he didn't disappear. It was a long, arduous journey through the weaving in and out to Day Creek, usually I like this ok, on this I didn't. We also found some of the thickest snow and leaves on the whole course.

Meghan Hicks caught us going into Day Creek, I had never met her, but I knew who she was, she was very friendly and kind. We kind of stayed with her but she got in and out of Day Creek before we even got there.

At Day Creek there were SO many familiar, cheering faces, Dennis, Melissa, Opal, Steve, Rhonda, Dana, Cam, Mike, they all were so positive and helpful, they said and offered all the things that are perfect. I didn't argue when they told me I could be 5th, that I was the closer and only 3 minutes separated me from 5th. I didn't want to unload about my knees and feet. They fed me mountain dew and helped me out of my jacket and pack and gave me a bottle for the road home.

I left Day Creek at 12:48. I thought my chances of breaking 14 were absolutely shot. I hd taken myself out of the running by being overzealous earlier. I would do the very best I had left, whatever my knees could give me. I was freezing and my hot hands were no longer working. A few yards out Kevin said he was going to walk to the parkway, about 2.2 miles. At first I wanted to argue, but then I felt my body and it said it didn't have a run in it left uphill. So I swung my arms and hiked with everything I could. Hiking hurt the knees but not as bad as running did.

I started to think about the time, started to wonder if I could pull off 14. I knew I would be disappointed if I ran 14:01, would second guess 60 seconds. Would have to wait a whole year to try again. So I drank a little Tailwind (which has mostly been amazing for me over these past few months) and hiked with purpose and mentally prepared to run the downhill until I either puked, cramped or finished. That bit about it being a goal to be able to walk Sunday, forget it, no longer important. I wanted to be able to tell Todd I had finally broke the 14 hour barrier, something he has told me for years I should be able to do.

We got to the parkway just after 13:30. As I walked across the closed parkway I wondered if I could run those final miles in under 30 minutes. How fast can you run a 5k after 60+ miles on no sleep, Alexis? Let's find out!

At least it's all downhill.

And off I went. Music on, legs doing there best to move, they didn't let me down. I passed Amy Talmadge headed back up the trail, flying UP! I passed a male runner and then, around the gate I passed Amy and Meghan, Amy cheered me on and told me I had the PR in the bag, I told her I really wanted the sub 14, she told me I had that too. But just in case, I pushed even harder. At the mile to go sign I had less than ten minutes, I pushed so hard, so scared that something would happen and I woul just barely miss it. Even through the camp I looked at my watch a dozen times I feel like.

Finally, the finish, 13:56:20, a 17 minute PR from last year and the first goal ALL YEAR that I have hit and I had totally put it aside these past few weeks figuring the training just wasn't there for it. I finished 6th female which is one spot from a 'podium' finish at Hellgate but it was a tough year. Top 8 females were under 14 hours this year. I am good with my time and my place.

The rest of the afternoon is really what I love about Hellgate, the slow shuffle back and forth to cheer in our friends and share race stories, pictures and pizza. I always forget just after midnight why I'm there but always remember come Saturday why Hellgate is special.

A few weeks ago I did a long run. On the long run I thought about Hellgate, I always joke that I hate Hellgate, that the only thing I LIKE about Hellgate it having FINISHED Hellgate. On that particular long run I gave Hellgate a good, hard thought. What if, it turns out, I thought, that Hellgate is actually my favorite? I shared the thought with Todd, he agreed that somewhere in my hard interior I have some love for Hellgate I just don't share outloud.

So there it is, Masochist suits me and my strengths and I really love it in its way, but I think, at the end of the day, Hellgate is my favorite ultra. It encompasses all of the things that I really truly love about ultras, it's hard in such a way that it never gets easy. It has all of these special people who volunteer their time and lose sleep. It starts in all darkness that you must endure to come out the other side into a daybreak that only serves to then remind you how comforting the darkness of night really was. It's all there, the ups and downs, the beautiful trails and the unsteady ones too.

A friend told me on Monday in such a way, that I belonged there, at Hellgate. It's quite possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my running. I've read a lot of books and I've had a lot of thoughts that lead me to believe, that at the end of the day, all we really want is to belong someplace. If that's at Hellgate, well, that thought makes me pretty happy.

And that's a thing I've been longing to be.




Monday, November 6, 2017

2017 Mountain Masochist 50 Miler Race Report

Mountain Masochist

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Monroe to Montebello, Virginia


This past Saturday was my fifth Masochist. I went back and forth on whether or not not to register until a friend nearly twisted my arm to get me to sign up. Brenton said it would hurt my Hellgate race in December, I worried not running Masochist would hurt my Hellgate. In the end, for better or worse, I couldn't bear the reality of skipping MMTR if I could run it.

And I tried to talk myself out of it. Really I did. Between a nagging calf injury that just won't quiet down from Iron Mountain and a depressing month of October that included the passing of my grandmother, I was still ready to sit it out come Friday morning the day before. But it just felt like haunts from my childhood returning, where I quit before ever having to try. In an ongoing effort to be a better version of me I didn't want to not try. I wanted quite the opposite, I wanted to go hard.

But training hadn't gone as planned. I didn't think there was even a shot at a PR and I was nervous that I could even pull off a 9:30 on the training I had. So what did I do? I went to my log books from 2012 when I had never run a 50 miler, when I had even less of an idea of what I was doing. I didn't run mega miles or much track work. But I wanted something. I went for it. That was my one and only plan for this year's MMTR, just try.

I didn't run for ten solid days before MMTR, I thought little about the run, I didn't look up who else was running with the exception of a friend sharing the seeds with me, I didn't break down splits, I didn't plan my nutrition, I didn't make a list of reasons I could do it. I had just a few simple thoughts. I have experience, I know I can run Masochist. I want to be someone my children can look up to, I want to do my best whatever that meant. I wanted to test myself mentally and win.

I didn't set out clothes or measure a single bag of tailwind until 10 pm Friday. I didn't let top 10 worry me, but thought if I could pull off 9:30 I could do top ten and get a nice jacket. I scrambled in less than 20 minutes to gather all the gear I would need for a ten hour day. Chelsie told me earlier in the week that I was tough. I like the idea that I could be tough. And as little as I wanted to run 50 miles on Friday when I went to sleep I knew I would run 50 miles the next day.

This is not to suggest I was in a bad place, in many ways it is the opposite. I vowed to not let my head get the better of me. I knew my training wasn't where it has been going into previous MMTR's, I knew that my calf was a threat, I knew that my own self doubt was a bigger threat. I went into the weekend trying to hold on to the idea that I can do hard things in spite of all of that heavy self doubt. I had a good time with good friends on Friday evening at the dinner at Camp Blue Ridge, saying hello to friends from near and far. It is mainly this, I focused on, that brings me back. I love these people.

Saturday I was up at 4:30 am, quickly got dressed and went to eating. I ate four slices of Cinnamon Toast, something I think I only ever eat anymore before MMTR. It begins with eating, I told myself. Todd got the kids up who were all coming out to crew for the first time. They've volunteered before and a few have crewed but never all four. I was looking forward to having them out there, I figured they would help me hold my head together in any low spots at aid stations. Kevin Corell met us here at 5 am and we loaded up and headed to the KOA in Amherst.

We pulled in behind the Wilson's and went to check in and fit in restroom breaks. I wasn't nervous. I wasn't ready to run so long and hard but I wasn't unsure either as confusing as all of that sounds, it makes sense to me. I knew the goal was 9:30 if I could make it. I trusted if there was a way I would find it.

We were off before we were even able to grab a group Blue Ridge Trail Runners photo. I had my Mountain Hardwear vest stocked with an iPod and a few gels and a 20oz. bottle of Berry Tailwind. I had a new Storm headlamp and an old buff. Pretty soon I realized it was too warm for the buff and pulled it off before we had run a mile.

As expected with me, I didn't feel good on Pera Road. Everyone always seems to be racing and even though I am wearing a bib I never seem to have the legs for that first power haul. I tried to settle in and not care but I will admit a time or two I felt a little huffy and perturbed. At the turnoff to the service road I thought I would find more of a 'flow'. But my forehead and new headlamp were struggling to work together and I must have adjusted that headlamp 150 times. It was at least distracting I suppose. Kevin Corell had been running with me from the start but then Steve Higgins showed up. We joked and chatted for a couple of minutes and I asked Steve if he had seen Jeremy Peterson that morning when Jeremy says "I'm right here." It made me smile that he was right there in the dark. I was happy to be running alongside fellow BRTRs. I was happy when the sun started to come up. I was happy when we made the right hand turn to the "loop" that takes you to aid one.

But then I met a rock and turned my foot and pulled something like a tendon in my left foot. It hurt. I met a few more rocks, I didn't remember the loop seeming so technical and rocky. I got a little sour. I felt like I was trying to push but I couldn't find my grove. I was focusing on the foot. Kevin mentioned something about taking ibuprofen. I knew I needed to shake whatever I was carrying off.

Coming into aid one I decided I was going to music early. I just needed the distraction. Kevin mentioned painkillers again and I told him my iPod was going to be my painkiller for the time being. Steve pulled ahead as the road began to climb. Rick Gray passed by with a cheery hello as always. I put my iPod on and stored my headlamp and told myself to get working.

It worked. Immediately. With my music in I knew I wouldn't make for good company, but today wasn't going to work out the way I hoped if I couldn't pull my head into the race. I ran up that road pretty good and in the next couple of miles I passed 7-8 females so I probably wasn't running quite as well as I thought in those first 8 miles.

I was moving pretty good for me and wondering how long it would take to get to Dancing Creek and see Todd and the kids. I couldn't remember what it usually takes but I figured just over two hours. I tried to pick it up a little more. I came into Dancing Creek at 1:55, I thought that was GREAT! I was stoked, my bottle of Tailwind empty, I was proud of me, I had gotten into the race, drank well and arrived before I thought I would. Crossing the creek Sean (my son) handed me a new bottle full of Tailwind and Todd yelled just drop your bottle I'll get it. Todd kept me moving right through the aid station. He was pushing me out and I was like "I feel good, I think I'm doing good?" and he says, "You're ok. You're doing fine. You need to keep moving."

I knew enough that ok and fine were not synonyms for great and amazing. I was a little bummed. I had to keep on moving, my mood was a little like the trail through here with slight up and downs, I took a GU and drank my Tailwind, my bottle was halfway gone by the time I reached Parkway Gate. I went over to the aid station looking for mountain dew, my first time that day when Allen, Blake's dad says, "You need to pick it up if you're going to win this thing." And I responded, "I'm not winning today so it's ok." and there was a little banter back and forth. Not my finest hour. But I really was trying. It was hard to hear suggestions that I wasn't doing better in people's eyes.

In the next mile or so I focused on the fact that I knew things others don't. I knew that I was trying, I knew I came in under trained, I knew expectation gets to me more than it should, I knew that I needed to keep working, that if I kept working it would all work out. I ran up to Robinson Gap well in my mind. I ran way more than I walked. I finished my bottle of Tailwind and took time to really take in the absolutely beautiful fall colors. I personally find Masochist falls at a perfect time of year, parts of that course, if the weather has been favorable, are absolutely stunning.

I got to Robinson Gap in 3 hours, in retrospect that is not my fastest. I filled my bottle with Mandarin Tailwind and drank some Mountain Dew. I left that aid station just behind two girls. They killed the downhill, I tried to stay close but knew that my legs couldn't stand too much a beating and hold up in the second half so I tried to balance between hard and sustainable. That was honestly a little slower than I would like to run in the future.

Rick Gray, Kevin and a female from Alexandria were running along the roads at a fairly quick pace as the road leveled out some and Horton drove up in his white truck, "First loser!" he said to me. I laughed it off with Horton and then told Kevin it was fitting that the first person all day to tell me where I was placement wise would be Horton.

Not long after I came into a primarily BRTR run aid station and Blake told me I was tenth but really tied with a few for tenth. He gave me a PSLC :) and I drank a little mountain dew. I left in a little group, it was Kevin, Rick, the same girl whose name I can't remember, Greg and Marc Griffin a little ways up. I was starting to think about what it would take to get to Long Mountain, the 'half way', in 4:30. I figured I would need to make the reservoir by 3:40.

We were running along and though I was keeping up I knew it was taking more out of me than it should and it didn't feel easy at all. But I was managing. Blake had told us that the Reservoir aid station was further up than usual so I was surprised to see a huge group where that aid station usually is, turns out it was the posse of crews minus the aid station. Todd told me I was looking better than Dancing Creek and that the front girls were falling off. I kind of figured that was him trying to be more motivating.  We swapped bottles and left right at 3:40. But then I was worried that 50 minutes wasn't enough time to make it to Long Mountain the way my legs were feeling.

I was very focused and driven but also a little nervous that I was using too much to make the halfway point in 4:30 and maintain the effort to get 9:30 for the day. I played with the math and figured I could slow down a little after long mountain. I started to play with splits for the rest of the day. I climbed slower than I would have liked and had to walk more often than pleased me. I took another GU, I drank my Tailwind. My legs just felt done.

I did the best that I could and made it to our van where Todd and the kids were on the south side of 60 at 4:31. I felt like I could just fall over, I didn't feel like I had another 24 miles in me. I didn't feel like I had 9:30 in me. I actually held onto the van door as Todd got me more GU and swapped bottles. I had a swig of Mountain Dew and Todd sent us on our way.

We left Long Mountain at 4:32, just up ahead was Shannon and Mike P. I called out to my long lost friend Mike P, he said Anna was killing it. He said he was feeling it. Grindstone being it. I tried to run up some of the uphill as I saw Shannon doing as she pulled further and further ahead. Todd had said I was still 11th. I didn't gain on Shannon, instead I started to fade. My hamstrings and calves were done. I was struggling with each step. I felt like I used too much energy on the first half and had been just about average if not slower than usual. I started thinking about how much time I had left in the day. What do I need to run 10 hours? Eleven hours?

I told Kevin I thought I should have eaten something more substantial at Long Mountain. He said I was doing really well. I feared that I was not. That I was coming unglued. The legs felt shot. I would have loved nothing more than to call it quits. I told Kevin my legs felt like I was at mile 80 of a 100 not halfway through a fifty. I felt done.

But I am not a quitter and I knew I could finish. I started to focus on what I knew. I knew that if my legs felt like this at mile 28 that they would feel even worse at Hellgate at mile 50. I needed to continue to push for Hellgate training. I knew I still wanted to feel I gave everything, no regrets. I wanted to feel that I left everything out on the course, and as much as I wanted to just quit I moved forward. Slow but forward. I wasn't going to quit on my goal of 9:30 figuring that would get me as close to my goal even if I missed it.  At Buck I filled my bottle up with water to top off the Tailwind in my bottle. I ate half a grilled cheese sandwich. It felt heavy on my stomach but I was also thankful for it. Kathleen Cusick passed me shortly after Buck and I asked her where she had been all day. I was still 11th or 12th. I felt like I was working very hard and not getting any closer to top ten. I told myself that didn't matter, just give it your all, that's all that you can do.

My legs felt heavy but I focused on staying together mentally. As much as I thought about being done I also really wanted 9:30 if I could. I broke down what I needed to get to the loop in and then run the loop in. At Wiggins Spring I got a hug from Jeremiah Clark and took 3 ibuprofen on the climb. I walked nearly every step of the climb to the loop. I was just focused on my legs giving me some relief, but instead my left calf was tightening up more and more.

I had wanted to get to the loop in 5:45 to give me 1:25 in the loop but I didn't have the legs, I felt like the sandwich had complimented the Tailwind nicely and figured that I needed more real food at the loop. There was a female ahead of me, I had played leap frog earlier in the race, I tried to push a little harder to catch her and work on my time to the loop that was not going to be 5:45. I started to see cars and people and that picked me up a little, the loop, while itself is a difficult part of the race, makes for about the biggest pick me up of the day in terms of people and aid. I made it to the loop in  about 5:55, I got some welcome hellos and mountain dew. Someone threw me a pierogi and Todd asked me who had passed me because I was still 11th. It was becoming frustrating to hear I was 11th but I just vowed to press on doing the best that I could.

With a pierogi in hand and a new bottle of Tailwind, I headed off into the loop. My legs felt heavy but they had felt heavy for ten miles or more now. The loop is tough, it always weighs me down, I made the decision to run it the absolute best that I could. Still gunning to be out by 7:10 so I could have 2:20 for the last miles to run 9:30. I started off well, that first mile or so is downhill or flat, why haven't I run better here I wondered? But after a mile or so there is more climbing, more technical rocky sections and that's before you turn to the summit to punch your bib at Mount Pleasant.

In the out and back I saw Anna Evans, Tracy Wu and 5 or 6 other females. In that same stretch I saw like 2 men. All day I was just running behind the top ten women and they were all running somewhat close together it seemed in the out and back. On my way back from the summit I felt like there were another ten women in the same stretch. I tried to not let any of that get to me, just push hard. And then my tight left calf started to cramp. I walked some flats and the rain started to fall, a cold rain. I knew it was only going to get harder.

I tried to run the downs in the loop better than I have, I tried to not let the damp, leaf strewn rocks shake my confidence but my legs were heavy and unstable. I kept at doing the best I could. The loop only seems to get harder the further into it you are. But everything must end and finally it did. I got back to the aid station at 7:06! I was thrilled! I had run the loop, to my knowledge the fastest I ever had and made up some time. I was in the aid station only briefly and knew I would have about 2:23 to make 9:30 which finally really felt possible.

I left with Kathleen Cusick and two girls were directly in sight running down the gravel road. I had grabbed three pierogies from Elisa at the aid station and was eating them and trying to stay with Kathleen. Gina Gilbert saw me and cheered, "yay, you're eating!" I had a lot of people tell me as I was leaving that this was my section, that I was going to finish well, that there were girls right ahead of me. Running down the road I told Kevin that I hated racing for a jacket. I want to run and run well, I want to do my best and get a good feeling from the day but I hate racing other girls. But then I couldn't decide if that is really true or I just know how much it takes and it's hard to get into doing it? I still don't really know that answer. I probably don't hate it. But it's hard and Saturday felt harder than usual to get into that top ten.

 I ran hard to keep Kathleen in sight, Kevin fell back and would catch up, I would look back but keep moving, I had the finish line on my mind. The rain fell harder and was colder. I wished I had gloves as my hands tingled and swelled. The rain made the running hard feel a little easier. Thankfully the cramps subsided. I passed a female and then shortly before Salt Log Gap I passed Kathleen.

I ran right through at Salt Log Gap but the hill just after brought me to a walk. I could see another male and female up ahead but my tight and aching calves made climbing miserable. I assumed leaving the loop I was still 11th so when I passed that third girl from the loop I assumed I was 8th, I had to keep working to stay ahead now. At the last aid station at the top of the road I filled up on water. I wanted to eat but I couldn't choose anything I wanted so I just left. I gave myself until 9 hours to hit what would have been the final aid station but wasn't going to be there this year.

At this point my legs were dead, but they had long been dead. I was running on the dream of going big and getting the best I possibly could from the day, despite not wanting to admit it to myself I wanted a jacket, but more so I wanted the top ten finish, I wanted a 9:30 because I fought and earned it even if I didn't train hard enough to 'deserve' it. I ate another GU and climbed the best I could, which felt pretty bad a time or two. Several times I wanted so badly to walk a flat or take a break but I just wouldn't let myself.

My calves were shot and yet I was happy to be running as hard as I felt I could possibly go. It was cold and foggy, it was fun in a sick sort of way. I kept telling myself that it didn't matter where I placed or what time it actually said on the clock but to not let up, drain every ounce I could.

I made it to where the last aid station would normally be at 8:38. I had 52 minutes to cover the last section. I told myself that even allowed for some cramping but to not let up until I cramped again so I pushed even harder. It wasn't fast, it was probably fairly slow, but I pushed until my lungs ached and yet my legs continued to carry me. I was thankful. I remembered Megan Stegemiller passing me through here in 2013 and told myself that it isn't over until the finish line. I thought about the summer and how I had been passed at the end of races, I pushed and pushed harder still.

I was so thankful for the turn from Spy Rock down to the fish hatchery to appear, it not only represents the end approaching but also gets steeper and so gravity helped the push even more. In a long straightaway I saw what I thought was a female way ahead. I knew the chances of catching her with a mile to go were unlikely but I thought it would be nice, I don't know that I have ever tried so hard in the 49th mile of any race before. I never gave a PR a thought, I just wanted to finish.

Crossing 56 I saw that it was indeed a female, just ahead of her yet another female or so it looked. The flat took some umpf from me but I didn't give up chase. I liked the new finish, it weaved along a creek and was somewhat a trail. There were two or three slick looking but otherwise fine bridges. Then there was the white tent, I was nearly done, I was so happy.

And then I saw the clock, it read 9:07, not once in the entire day had I given even one fleeting thought towards a PR. It had felt so hard, I had run eleventh or further back all day until after the loop, that I didn't even consider a PR. It was a good day, good for what turned out to be 7th female, a full six minute PR from last year when I had done much more focused training. I finished less than 45 seconds behind 4th place female. Top ten females finished within a half hour of each other all in under 9:20, that's the fastest MMTR for women that I've ever raced. I hadn't looked going in, didn't know if the race would be 'competitive', just figured isn't it always? I didn't want to know who I was racing against because I wasn't racing against anyone, not really.  But I did want to place as high up as I could and I can tell you it felt like a very hard day.

I am really very thankful for the day. I got more out of it than I ever expected. I knew I wasn't 'training' through but rather racing undertrained, I knew I would have to call on experience and my well of stubbornness and I did. It was the hardest 50 miler day I think I've ever had, which is good because it is also my PR at the distance. It gave me a little more confidence in the "I can do hard things" department.

It was a good time after like it always is, I enjoy the people, I love watching others finish, I love the bent over walking and the sharing of stories. I love a full calorie coke and warm lined crocs. My eye swelled up right after, it's a thing I don't understand and have been struggling with this summer and fall running, I think it's allergies but it only happens when running. But that couldn't even bring me down like it has been, I was on top of my own little cloud. I don't care what others think of my day, I know I ran to the very edge of my current fitness and that feels pretty darn good.

A big thanks to Todd and the kids for crewing me and to all the people who help to build me up and convince me that there's always more, that we could 'get better' because we are 'not dead yet'.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB4Avdlz3lk

Monday, September 4, 2017

Dusting the cobwebs off and getting back into it.

Iron Mountain 30 miler

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

Damascus, Virginia

"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good."-John Steinbeck

The Most Rambling Race Report Ever. It does eventually get to the race. Eventually.

When we last left off here, I was in a downward spiral of uncertainty. Knowing I didn't want to give up ultra running or running in general but just a bit too much of self-doubt and perfectionism going on for survival.

It's been a slow moving process, but a half dozen good self-help books and listening to (read:believing in) the kind words of loved ones got me slowly turned around. We had a busy summer, a good summer, but a busy one. I was in pretty decent shape when the walls came tumbling down in February. By the time I got my shit together I was in less decent shape and moving into peak traveling time. I set a few, somewhat reasonable summer goals and let running be less of a priority and more of just who I am, what I do. Not all of me. Just part of me.

June and July were busy with trips to Home-school conventions, Highland Sky, Western States, the beach, Gettysburg, and Busch Gardens. One weekend in 7 I actually got training in, at the TWOT loop, where we were treated to the best weather so I felt more "fit" then I probably really was.

Finally August arrived. Weekends away ended and I returned to something that resembled routine. The goals I had set-forth at the beginning of summer, to be in good shape for Iron Mountain, had faded. I had long accepted that this particular summer was too busy for hard training and lofty goals. When asked a few weeks ago about goals I said 5:30 was my goal for the 30 miler. I have run the 50 at Iron Mountain 3 times but I've never run 'just' the 30, and I really do believe that further is 'my thing'. I don't have conventional 'speed' when it comes to running. I just feel and believe (and maybe is in part why it seems true?) that I can just keep running. I actually considered switching to the 50 just because going further just seems to suit me. But then I didn't really feel so confident in my ability to do 50 any better than 30 on the summer I had (with weekly mileage that looked as follows: 11, 46, 12, 32, 68, 30, 55, 23). Usually summer is a very consistent time for my running, this summer I felt like I was literally all over the place.

I did get a couple good weeks of running in late July and August. While we were busy on the weekends I made a point to try to stay consistent Monday-Thursday and when the weekends finally settled I got a couple good semi-long runs in which included the Lynchburg Half Marathon which was a good time to test out some fueling changes I am working on and to get in a good 'steady' effort run of nearly two hours. I was feeling better about myself, my life, my choices, my running, my relationships.

In general it has been a good time to be running for me. I have been running less (for me) but trying to enjoy the running more.  I have focused on not taking myself so seriously, not putting so much stock in what a race result suggests about me and trying not to worry so much that others have the wrong idea about me. I was so bound to this theory of myself in which I was only as good as a clock suggested, I was only so good if I felt everyone liked me, I was feeling less and less worthy all of the time and basically becoming less and less of what I wanted to be, which was a bright spot in the lives of the people I love. I was moving further and further away from any successes, further and further away from being the inspiring role model I want to be for my children, and further and further away from what I wanted to bring to trail running when I started up the Blue Ridge Trail Runners.

It hasn't been a sharp turn and now it's all on the up and up, it's been a hard focused effort. It's been fighting the voice in me that says I don't deserve, I am not worthy, it's been holding on to the little pieces of love and devotion I trusted and bridging those together to make a foundation to stand up again on.

I didn't know, or really care, what I was going to run time-wise at Iron Mountain. I knew I wanted to have a 'good day', I wanted to be as bright a spot as I could be to the people I love, I knew I wanted to believe in the training I had done and trust in myself the things I have come to believe, that I can be a smart, hard worker when I choose. I wanted to try and keep in check the things I have learned make me suffer most, namely perfectionism and comparison.

Thursday evening was the first time I had sat down and really thought about 'times' for IM. I put together a simple picture in my mind of the race and took out the 50 mile section. I figured I could run the creeper trail in 8:30-9 minute pace, climb at about a 15 minute pace and then run to Skull's Gap in about 3:06, I usually can pick up the second half so I figured I could run the return in about 2:23 as it was shorter. I had my mind set on a realistic, doable 5:29 with the hopes of picking up time if I felt good.

Friday morning I packed for the race which gets easier and easier all the time. It seemed to go so smoothly I was worried I had forgotten something big. When Todd got off after lunch we headed to Damascus, Virginia with our oldest, Cooper. Cooper loves the trail community every bit as much as we do and never turns down an opportunity to join us even if all we can promise is rain and a small corner of our camper (really just our old Honda with the seats removed).

We saw the Gilberts and Adcocks upon check-in and then headed over to have dinner with a good size group of the BRTRs who had come down. Sam Price had reserved the deck at the Old Mill Inn just over from the start/finish line. It was a serene location and felt like a family reunion. We stretched the whole length of the deck and there was a sign that said "closed for a private party", I don't like to think of us as a private party, I would rather think of us an open invitation party, but it still felt good to see so many join us in Damascus for a run that has stole my heart. It's fitting the two would find each other.

At first I felt ridiculously, oddly, nervous with so many people there. I have never been or seen myself as popular, never had a lot of friends, and even though it was Sam's thing it felt like Cheers, it felt like everyone knew my name, it felt strange and lovely and like I alone somehow would mess the whole thing up. And then I realized how selfish and big that made me seem, that I alone could wreck this thing suggested I was bigger than it. This couldn't be further than what I really believe, and just like that I felt calmer, more settled. I like these people. I just feel like if I could carry them around with me I could be ok anywhere. I think that's what family is all about.

After dinner we headed over to the camp, we had a few small conversations about the race and a few people asked me how I thought I would do. I told them I wouldn't win, but I wanted to run as well as I could and feel good about that. I thought I would run between 5:18-5:29. I drifted a bit around camp and finally went to our camper at about 10:30. I had a little trouble falling asleep but I slept ok considering once I did fall asleep.

Todd woke me up at about 6:30, I had packed everything I needed and a dead iPod I didn't before leaving town but I hadn't really 'readied' anything the night before. I was kind of a hot mess racing to get everything in order. I can be a little bit of an idiot. I managed to get myself together with the help of some delicious, world changing coffee that a Mr. Wade Stout delivered to me (at my selfish request of course). Only once I was ready to go over to the start from our camp did I realize EVERYONE and their son was already over at the start, kindly Kevin had stayed back to accompany me over.

I had all of about 6 minutes at the start area before we were off and running. I had only had about half of my coffee and a Softee Enteman's Powdered Donut for breakfast. Despite those donuts being, well, soft and delicious, I would have liked to have eaten better/smarter/more. Oh well. We were off and running. I started with Wade and Chelsie but then saw Todd just up ahead. I was kind of hoping (erroneously) that if I could stay with him on the Creeper I would maybe (not) hike up the climb after the first aid station with him.

I wanted to keep at or around an 8:30, my first couple were a little slower than that. My stomach wasn't loving me and I just honestly can feel a little blah starting out. The first 4.7ish of Iron Mountain are on the flat and somewhat monotonous Creeper Trail. Usually I don't mind, but Saturday morning they just felt like more work than fun. I did get a few quick hellos in with Dennis Coan, Tim Spaulding, and Robert Drinkwater. I mostly ran right beside or behind Todd, we chatted a bit and he wasn't loving the Creeper either. He told me to calm down about my stomach, it would be fine in a few miles (which proved true) and he saved me from bees at one point mid-way which kind of freaked me out a bit. Horton rode by us a time or two and told me near the end of the Creeper section that I was 7th female, I thought that way good. I stayed in sight of but behind Andy Rollins the whole way. We had sort of bit of backwards trash talking going into the race (that he may not even remember) about who would be slower on the Creeper. I said I would be, he said he would be, maybe it was a really clever way (because it worked) of keeping me behind him on the Creeper, but it was also the first of several 'games' I played all day.

I had made a target of running the Creeper in 45 minutes. It was a little shorter than I thought but I did it in a little over 42. I stayed with Todd through the first aid station there as you're crossing the road and going into and up the first trail climb, but he immediately pulled away. I was hoping my Tuesday hill repeats would help me, and they did, I felt better on hills than I have in a long while, but the man is a master of steep trail ascents. It's as though his legs were made for just that.

Fortunately, despite his pulling away on the climb, I felt pretty good. I felt like my repeats were paying off a little. I thought that the climb went on for a few miles but I really only felt like a mile and some of it was rolling or not very steep. Other than the first half mile or so there was some very runnable sections.

I felt good, I was running fairly smooth and comfortable but not easy. I saw glimpses of people I knew a time or two up ahead and just tried to remain in that range of effort. I was going to pay more attention to time and mile splits but I was feeling mentally pretty good and decided I didn't need the inaccuracies of Garmin to make me feel like less. I  was passed by a few runners and I passed a few runners but then fell in step with Holly Knight. She has such a sweet voice and is always so kind and friendly. We were running through a really lovely, rolling section of trail when we came to the first of the road crossings. I thought maybe that was where the aid station should be but she had run IM 30 last year and knew all too well where we were as she had mistakenly made a wrong turn there on the return trip in last year that cost her time and gave her extra 'bonus' miles.

We ran along until we did come, not much further along, to Tammy's aid station. Iron Mountain 50 2013 and Tammy will always hold a place in my heart. I got a quick hug and a cup of Mountain Dew and was out. There is a little climbing in both directions coming into and out of this aid station. but I really love the solid single track that is the Iron Mountain Trail. It's rocky in a few spots but most of it is just perfect trail running. I caught up with a few 50 milers and Dru Sexton told me that Todd was just up ahead. And just as I caught site of his Hawaiian shirt he was gone.

I suppose that was a little like a game.  I figured he heard Dru and had run off away from me. He tends to do that and I don't tend to mind. It's a way for him to pull me along. I ran from here pretty well, especially on some rocky downs, until I caught up with him. He said he was in the throws of outrunning his current fitness but he felt pretty good overall. About this time we started seeing 30 milers on their return trip. We were commenting on where Josh Gilbert would be when the first female and right behind her, Krista Offield. I wasn't surprised that Krista was right behind or with the leading female as I expected her to be up front and most likely win, but she was in fourth place overall and looking strong!

We still had a ways to go but it was fun to see where everyone was and a lot of this section is on downhill or rolling to even flat terrain. Todd and I made it to Skull's Gap together, I looked down and was delighted to see that I was 21 minutes ahead of schedule!! Running with Todd and not paying attention to a watch had paid off. I came in to the aid station, swapped bottles with Kevin who was crewing and took a few swigs of a Mountain Dew and was off with a half-hug from Cooper.

I left feeling good. They had said I was fifth female and I was feeling happy about being up on my time guesses. But then I was alone as Todd had hung back at the aid station. It was still fun to see the outbound runners and cheer them on, but now I was moving uphill and I didn't feel anywhere near as strong as the inbound runners had looked just a few miles before on this very same section. I walked more than I liked but I was still feeling pretty good overall.  Thankfully much of the climbing in the second half is over after a mile or two and the trail becomes more rolling once again.

Then I started playing leap frog with another runner. He stopped for a cramp then caught up and passed. He stopped to take off his shoe and then caught up and passed. He finally commented to me, just as I was going to joke with him, that he wasn't intentionally playing leap-frog. Fortunately for me, I like games, so it helped to pass the time. We leap-frogged a time or two more before he was done due to quad cramps.

Then I saw Doug up ahead, still climbing well. At this point I was beginning to assess my day. I felt good but not great, I thought I would likely run about 5:20 and thought I could maybe hold my 5th female spot that way. I felt I was fueling well on Tailwind and GU and figured it would be a good if not great day. I was completely contented in that. I wouldn't even turn on my iPod.

Doug and I came into Tammy's aid station at about the same time but I ran through. I had half a bottle left and figured I would be good to go. I saw Laura Duffy up ahead but I didn't really feel like I needed to race. Doug commented about me catching her and I told him that I wasn't sure that I wanted to get into a race.

But then a few things happened. Just as I was succumbing to this day I figured had been planned for me I slipped on some mud. Up until this point I felt pretty good. It was rainy and cool and didn't even seem as humid as the earlier miles had. But that slip in the mud instantly pulled or strained a muscle in my right calf. And it hurt. It hurt bad. It hurt to walk or to run. I started quickly to re-assess the day. Was I going to finish? Could I run 6 miles on this kind of pain? Was I going to half to walk it in I wondered as I pictured myself dragging my painfully limp leg across the last bridge to the finish line. I was sad but then, honestly, kind of angry. Here I had been ok with a good day and now I was in this pain. I took a few ibuprofen and decided that if it hurt to walk and it hurt to run I might as well run until it just became too unbearable to move forward. So I actually picked up the pace with the one focused thought of just getting it done and over with. It was no longer a fun, smooth day, it was now work.

And honestly at this moment, I had some good but hard thoughts. I thought about this same section of trail in 2013 wearing me nearly to the core and yet I overcame. I thought about who I want to think I am. A smart, hard worker. I don't know that it was smart per se to pick it up, but it was hard work and I felt good doing it. I pulled my iPod out and focused on making it to Damascus. I got a little worked up, in a teary but good way about being stubborn and being a fighter.

And quite honestly, it felt good to push through. It felt good to run hard. It felt good to feel like I was racing. It felt good to feel like I was flying down a trail, moving well. It felt good to be me. I caught up with Dennis and he said that third female was just ahead. I said I wasn't sure, and he said "You're the closer" and I thought, I like that name Sophie gave me, I want to be that person. And I asked Dennis is I could pass him and he said "of course" and there was just something so perfect about it that I can't really put into any better words. It just felt like a thing coming back that was gone and you didn't even realize how much you missed it.

I got a little worried about the calf getting worse and taking me down. But more than that fear was the want to try and see if I could maintain the momentum to the finish line. I caught third female and Andy Rollins and I got so excited when the trees began to thin and I knew the town was coming.

On the roads of Damascus I was caught between wanting to push harder and fearing my leg would just give out. But thankfully the legs cooperated through the town and on the short section of Creeper trail back to the finish line. I was pleasantly surprised that the clock said 5:07 running across the field. I was even happier that Cooper ran along the grass with me to the finish. I was done.

It's still in there, all the thoughts of this weekend. And I will likely be mulling them over for some time. I can tell you about the time before and the actual race but those last few miles were something else. I had forgotten what it felt like to really hurt and to really work and to want something. There is  clearly still some work to be done, like I suffer with the worry that it is selfish to want to be good if ultimately I want to be just a bright spot to the trail community. But I am working on that. I know that I want to be a good mother but part of that is having something for me, whether it seems selfish or not. That thing for me, my running, hopefully ultimately makes me better for them. I like to think that this is similar. I want to be the best that I can be for my loved ones, but part of that is realizing the best that I can be for me.

All in all, it was a really good, much needed weekend. So many friends had good days despite a few who didn't have very good days. Running the 30 allowed me more time to socialize with my tribe on Saturday even though it was rainy.I like these people, I like laughing and joking with them, I like playing games with them. I like that they take each other in and accept one another. And I really like that I have friends who bring me coffee :-)

-Alexis

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Desperate for a Deep Breathe: Holiday Lake 2017 Race Report

Holiday Lake 50k++

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Appomattox, Virginia

"And the darkness can come quick, the dangers in the anger and in the holding onto it"
-Alternate Routes

Let's jump right to it. I'm a head case, a basket case, a nut job, call it what you will. I am a dynamic disaster. I am my own worst enemy. I am responsible for my actions and my choices. My race at Holiday Lake was one of my worst thanks to a downward spiral of overwhelmingly negative self talk. That's the gist of it. For the more in depth side of it, keep reading.

Back in December, after Hellgate, I started getting asked what was next. Inspired by Alissa Keith and her performance at Hellgate I wanted to jump into training, give my all, work hard and improve. I chose Holiday Lake and decided that I wouldn't ever break the 4:50 time barrier if I didn't want it and go for it. I set my sights on a 5 minute personal best and told those who asked the plan.

I did a few tempo runs with Todd, Krista, Alissa and Kevin. I did track Tuesday with people who don't seem to mind that the weather is less than my age. I pushed hard a Wednesday evening or two. I didn't put too much emphasis on long runs, I focused on faster turnover and a bit more flat running. I enjoyed myself. I didn't hit more than 45 miles in any week after Hellgate and many were in the 30s but I didn't dwell on that. We got out only a couple of times to the course to run a loop and I didn't let it get to me that I didn't run faster than 2:23 for a loop. I had faster times, I could still hit my goal, or so (I thought) I thought.

Then race week came, and you may be surprised to hear that taper madness didn't come with it. There were pressing matters much more important. Like why do I hold in all of this anger, why am I not always honest about how I feel, why can't we just get along. Todd and I have had a rough year, a roller coaster of highs and lows but the week before Holiday Lake was about rock bottom. Fortunately a good kick in the butt by a few loved ones and we were finally climbing back out together, stronger. But that left little time for Holiday Lake worries.

Friday evening we went out to the pre-race meeting and dinner. Note to self, when you have done this once you have honestly done it enough. I couldn't eat, everything made me antsy, I wasn't good company. However, at one point Frank Gonzales walked over and we were just standing there, facing the rear of the assembled crowd and this happiness and calmness overcame me, but just for a moment.

I didn't prep for the race until 10 pm Friday and I felt like it took four minutes. Being my fifth Holiday Lake and a short (~5 hours) race it just seemed like there wasn't that much to prep. The weather forecast also looked favorably so there was less clothing and gear to worry about. I went to bed before 11 and was cautiously but optimistically awaiting the race.

Saturday morning I woke at 4:15 am, Todd got up and made me coffee and sent me on my way. He was very encouraging. I met Kevin and we rode to the camp in Appomattox together. He knew I was worried about my goal and he tried to reassure me that it didn't matter what I ran, only that I enjoyed it. We got to the camp and said a few hellos. I was nervous enough that I couldn't eat, I ate maybe three bites of oatmeal and about the same portion of a donut. My stomach was rocky.

 I headed over to the bathroom and waited in the long line to be only disappointed when my turn came. Waiting in line I had a chat with Krista about the race, I told her that she was going to do great but she maintained that she was under-trained. I told her that we always see each the other person better than we think when she tried to assure me that my track and tempo runs were going to pay off for me. I reminded her that she was right there with me on tempo Thursday and the previous Wednesday but she just brushed me off.

I was nervous, I had run track and tempo runs, pushed a few Wednesdays, all in the hopes of a few minute personal best. I know who I am (sometimes) I am not "fast". I know that fast is relative, especially at ultras, but Holiday Lake is not my strong suit unless it is covered in snow. I don't have natural speed, I have, if anything, a stubborn streak and endurance. I had a lot of friends saying encouraging things but I had, as it turned out, a lot more self doubt than confidence regardless of what my training log suggests.

For the first time ever I started near the front of the pack, I wanted good trail position, I wanted a good day. I wanted to run with Annie Stanley and found her in the pack but she ducked out of the group just before the race started when she realized she hadn't grabbed her water bottle. Instead I started out with Kevin, Marc and Justin. We were running too hard for me probably but it didn't feel too hard and so I hung. Mile one and two were good. I heard Justin talking about who would win and I wanted to speak up and tell him about a fellow Blue Ridge Trail Runner, Nick Reed, and how he was going to be a contender. Instead I kept quiet, it will be either way and speaking up wouldn't change that I decided.

I was moving along, happy to be running with Kevin and wondering how long I would stay with him when I realized my shoe, my double knotted shoe lace even, had come undone. I stopped just past the bridge as you enter the state park to tie it and Krista ran right by. I don't know why that bummed me out so bad, but her insistence that it was going to be just a run, that she was under trained and would under perform, surprised me to see her right behind me when I felt like I was pushing. But it was a race after all, we had bibs on, I tied my shoe, cursed my inability to tie them from the get go better and got moving again.

I saw Krista, Kevin, Marc and Jeremy just up ahead and worked to catch back up with them. However, on the other side of the state park Krista made a move to pass that big group of guys and I accepted defeat. I backed off, sure that I couldn't keep up the pace that group was keeping and let them pull away. I settled in to a slightly slower pace and watched them pull away.

Headed up to aid one I walked, I berated myself a little but I was torn between pushing harder and not blowing up. I realized that I may have done some harder runs, but short harder runs, I wasn't confident in my ability to push hard for 30+ miles. Todd had told me to believe in myself. I repeated that to myself and kept moving. My headlamp kept slipping so I pulled it off just before the aid stop.

At aid station one Todd was there to give me my sunglasses and hat and take my buff and headlamp. I told him I didn't want either and he insisted that I stick to the plan. In some ways my race had been over since the bridge but he tried to jump-start it. He told me Kevin and Krista were just ahead and told me get going. I left but truly didn't want the hat so I dropped it just a few hundred feet from the aid station.

I settled in behind Marc Griffin and went to my music. We ran steady through the trail section just after aid one but when we crossed the road around mile 6 I got passed by a few females when I slowed up to take GU #1 of the day. I had been 5th at aid one but quickly slipped to 9th in the following few miles. That was a hit that I didn't enjoy taking as I felt like I was already running too hard. I don't like to start out ahead and push and I don't like to be passed, I would rather be chasing. I was in a bad place and slipping when I remembered that Todd said I had to believe. I picked it up and told myself that I could do it and worked hard to pass back two females.

Coming into aid station two I felt like I was working harder than I needed to for a 50k. I wasn't enjoying anything but I told myself to just keep pushing. I would work hard to catch a female runner and then a few minutes later they would pass me back. Leapfrogging back and forth from aid two to aid three. Don Don was there at aid three and offered help and encouragement but I wasn't in any mood to accept either, I was trying to hold the day together and that was already taking it's toll.

Then Annie Stanley passed me and I went into 10th spot. I thought this was OK, I would just hang with Annie, she is a great, steady runner and has done exactly what I wanted to do at Holiday Lake. But then she just flew through the trail section. She came up and was gone in a blink. I focused on the front runners who would soon be approaching. I was wondering when I would start to see them and hoped that Nick would be leading.

Nick didn't disappoint. he appeared out of nowhere, moving like water and looking good with no one in sight behind him. I screamed and cheered and basked in his apparent good day. It was awesome. I was confident in his win at that moment. Then other runners started to appear and pass by me, I offered them all a "Good job" or "Great job". I allowed their presence as distraction as I waited for the turn around.

Near the dam I realized that my legs felt heavy. I hadn't been looking at time, didn't know what time it was or how I was doing. I hoped that I was running well but I feared that I was not. I thought about the very hard start to the week that we had had. "Life stress is body stress," I told myself. But it didn't make me feel better even when I repeated it. I felt like my legs were each twenty pounds heavier than usual. I ate a second GU.

I set my sights on seeing Kevin on the out and back, just after the dam I saw him, he literally stopped and cheered me on for a moment. I kept on running. He's a better person than I am I thought, I didn't stop and move aside and he's in the faster pack. Then I started wondering about what time I would make it to the turn around. I was still slightly optimistic that I had run loop one well.

Then I came in to the turn around and saw the clock. It said 2:22:40 as I approached the aid station table where I had my bottle refilled for the fist time and drank two small cups of Mountain Dew. Alissa, Dennis and Frankie were there and they said "Good job, Alexis." I said something about this not being my kind of race.

I left out of the aid station at 2:24ish. And I was confident in one thing. I wasn't running 2:24 or better on loop two. PR hopes dashed. Feeling rotten that I hadn't been faster, that I could run faster on a training run than I just had. Feeling like my legs were a million pounds each. Feeling done, done. done.

Only I wasn't done. I had 16 miles left to run. And then I had the true race ending thought of the day.

I thought about Todd, his encouraging texts that very morning, the talks about how negative I am and how that is bringing us down. I thought about my race and that I just COULD NOT believe that I was any good and certainly not that I could be better than I have been, and I thought, "You are such a disappointment. Todd is going to be so disappointed that you let this happen." And then there was blackness. Such an overwhelming feeling that it was all true. That I am a disappointment. I thought about what Todd said, that so many people believe in me. That isn't a comfort, it is a weight.  To feel that people believe in you when you know who are really are is hard. I know who I really am, I am not good. I am a first class letdown. That even if I could be good I won't be good because I don't know how to be good, I don't know how to get out of my own way, I don't know how to be positive, or try, or believe. I want to quit before trying because I can't stand the fact that I could try and fail. I would rather fail and wonder if I could have been better.  And then I started to cry. And then my throat started to close up and I realized that my heart was racing even though my pace had slowed to the point that I couldn't catch Jeremy walking right ahead of me. Then I realized that right in the middle of a race I was entering a panic attack.

I started to get even more upset when my throat felt like it was closing and I started saying "take a slow deep breath" over and over. I knew I was not helping anything and was causing my own breakdown. I knew I was responsible for the negativity and I just needed to shake it, but knowing a thing and doing a thing are not interchangeable.

The next two miles are a blur of not being able to breathe, crying, telling people who passed "good job" wondering if I sounded like I was crying and four belittling thoughts on repeat. I was thankful that I was wearing those sunglasses I had tried to refuse at aid one, I hoped that they would cover up the puffy eyes. I couldn't shake the tears. At one point I said "good job" to a fellow runner and I thought "You honestly think that everyone out here is doing a good job but you" it was ugly.

I tried to focus on Buster Douglas like Todd told me to at the end of the week. I tried hard to focus on my "why". But it turns out I didn't have one. I couldn't at that moment come up with any reason why I should run hard. I didn't care. I was trying to calm myself down. But if I am honest, which is what I am going for, I think I wanted to fail.

In fact. I'm almost certain of it. I came into the turn around as tenth female and I kept wanting a female to pass me so it could officially be over, my race. I wasn't going to walk it in, though I did consider even that at one point, but I didn't want to be contending for a top spot. Then a female passed me and I was thankful, it was over. But she was only ahead for a minute. I kept expecting her or another female, Amy Albu, Jennifer Anders, Holly Knight, Chelsie, someone, anyone to pass by.

I came into aid five and Sophie cheered me on, that I was in tenth but I was the closer. Tammy cheered me on. But all their words fell on dark ears, I didn't want to be negative so I just didn't respond. I knew I wasn't chasing anyone down because I didn't want to. There was no desire. There was no why. If it sounds ugly, that is because it was.

Up the hill out of aid five I caught Jeremy Peterson. He said "About time, Alexis. I have never been ahead of you this long in a ultra race. I've been wondering when you were going to catch me when I saw you at the turn around." "I was having a mental breakdown." I replied. He kind of laughed and said that he had a little physical breakdown when his stomach revolted just past the start of loop two. I had noticed him up ahead walking but I hadn't seen him get sick. That was the only talking I did in loop two other than to aid station volunteers and "good job" to passing racers.

I had come down from my panic attack but the day stayed dark. I was out there alone and I would stop crying and try to run for a few minutes and then I would fall apart again. I wanted it to be over but even that wouldn't push me to try. I had a few cramps start up and I berated myself more, I hadn't drank well, I hadn't eaten well. Going up to aid six I walked the hill. I drank water and took a fourth GU. I didn't want to see my friends. I didn't want to see the disappointment in their eyes. I was completely aware of the fact that I was wrecking my own day and I just couldn't shake that, and when I thought about it, it made me so damn sad that I would start crying again and have to calm myself back down.

I have had some bad races. I am a bit of head case. But I don't think I have ever been so self-aware of being a head case and not been able to shake it. I started to work on not having a good day but just getting the day I was having over with. Blake filled my bottle at aid six because I knew I didn't want to stop for anything in four miles at Todd's aid station. Blake asked if I wanted anything but he didn't say anything else.

I left and felt confident that I would run those last eight miles and be done soon enough. Then I thought about Mike and Blake and how they didn't even try to encourage or cheer me on. Like they knew me well enough to know that I was done. It may be strange but it was comforting, to know my friends could read me. They offered up their aid but left the other words alone.

I ran on. I kept expecting some women to pass me. I didn't see any runners. I started to think about coming into Todd's aid station. That he was going to be disappointed in me. That they were all going to try and pick me up. I would just run right through without talking to them. They are great but I just couldn't talk to them. I needed to get the race over and start working on not letting it drag me down any longer than it had already.

I gave time to thinking about why I was racing. I love ultra running. I used to be amazed at what I could do, I could run a mile, then five, then thirty and even a hundred. I used to be proud of my body and what it could do. But I wasn't proud of anything I was doing Saturday. I don't like feeling like there is a target on my back right now, I know that my head and my why are all mixed up. I can't explain why they are, but in many ways they are the same things that have been making me a quitter all my life. I thought about quitting running, about quitting ultra running, quitting racing. But that made me sad too. I truly want to get better. And not so that I can PR or win anything. Truly, at the end of the day, I just really want to like me.

And out there on Saturday, I don't know that I have ever liked me less.

I was nervous about coming into aid seven. I didn't want to cry. I wanted to be done crying for the day. I didn't want to be negative. I didn't want to drag my friends down.

Coming into aid seven Todd was headed backwards on the trail. I turned my music off. "What is going on?" He asked. I am having a bad day I told him. "Why? What's wrong?" I really didn't want to say. I didn't want to speak at all. "What? What is it?" I told him I had a little breakdown a little panic attack after the turn around. "But why?" He was insistent. I really didn't want to say. "I feared you would be disappointed in me" I finally said in the seconds that were passing like hours. "That's ridiculous. You need to get moving. You are going to have to try like hell now to break 5 hours." I didn't say another word. He didn't get it. I wasn't running for 5 hours. I was running to finish.

Don asked if I needed anything, if I wanted to drop my pack. I said no and ran right on through. I got a little emotional as I left their aid station. I didn't want to let him down even about the 5 hour mark. I picked it up a little and thought that he was good for me. He doesn't let me quit. But then I started to cramp worse. I reeled it back in. The race was nearly over. The day was not. I started focusing on making sure that I didn't spill negativity at the finish line or to Todd later. This is nobodies fault but my own. I had to get over that fact in record time or risk bringing more darkness down upon me.

Then I hit a stump and cramped up. I couldn't get the cramp out and I couldn't walk. "This is fitting" I thought. This is perfect for this day. I just couldn't shake the negativity. I finally got the toes to loosen and work the cramp back out. I had about three miles to go. I just needed to finish. From here I would run easy until I cramped then I would walk until the cramp subsided, I watched roots and stumps carefully and emptied my bottle before the state park. I was amazed and honestly a bit angry that no females had caught me. I was running poorly and felt that I didn't deserve to finish top ten.

I was careful over the rooty sections not to cramp and walked all the uphills and a few flat sections due to cramps. I started to cramp every minute or so it felt, didn't matter how slow I ran I just kept cramping up. I admitted I hadn't done a great job of hydrating and was thankful for the temps staying cooler than had been forewarned. I walked the big hill up to the last section of trail near the end and wanted to run that whole short section of trail but I cramped up twice more. I started just chanting finish line is all that matters to myself. Don't cry at the finish line.

I got out on the road and it was almost done and I was thankful. Then my hamstring cramped at just past a half mile to go. I stopped and was massaging it out when I look up to see a runner approaching. It was Rachel Corrigan. She smiled and waved. I laughed a dark laugh inside, perfect I thought. I started to run again and I told myself not to run too hard. I wondered if I would cramp. I wondered what would happen if she caught me, would I push or let her have it?

She didn't catch me. I don't know if she tried but I was thankful that I didn't have to make those last second decisions. I don't know what I would have done. I finished in 5:04, tenth female. I crossed the finish line and Kevin was there and Tammy said something, I am not even sure what she said but I could feel what she said and I hugged her and even though I bit my lip hard to try to hold it in I started to cry. Tammy and Sophie were on it, they said all the right things, not every day is a PR day, not every day is a good day. I was very thankful for them at that moment.

I shed those few tears but then I set about to turning the day around. It was only lunchtime. I still had friends to cheer in, Candy to pass out and friends to spend time with. The race wasn't a success. I have a lot of work to do. I don't have all of the answers. Maybe I never will. But I have some really great people in my life who care about me. I am lucky even if I don't always see it.

I don't want to be sad. I don't want to be negative. I don't want to be a dark shadow over anyone's day. I want to be better.

I haven't shed a tear since Saturday. Usually in the week following a race I am up and down. I have been ok this week. I think I had all the emotions on Saturday during the race that there isn't anything left to feel. I know what happened. Maybe in a longer race I could have come back, but I don't know, I was feeling pretty done from pretty much mile two. I know what running means to me, and I know how much my self loathing is contributing to not just racing but so much of my everyday life. I have had a bad week but I have also had a good week.

I have accepted that I need help. I know that if I can't fix the negative self talk that I will not escape it, that I can only push it down so much before it will erupt. It isn't in the pushing it down that I need to work on. It's in the getting it out. Turning it away from the beginning.

I used to need to race because I wasn't a runner. If anything positive came out of Saturday it was the confidence that I am a runner. I need to work on my 'why' and I need to work on me. But I love running, and I love the people, my people, and I am proud of them and I want to support them, cheer them on, lift them up. I don't want to walk away from anything. I just want to quiet the voice in my head that says that I can't because I am not good enough. All I want is to be good.

-Alexis

Friday, May 20, 2016

Peak Ultra 200 Miler

200 miles. 40,000 feet of elevation gain. The Green Mountains of Vermont.

I can't say with certainty what drew me to the 200 mile distance. The challenge of the unknown perhaps? The prospect of testing myself against something unimaginable? My lifelong quest to find my limits? My boyish propensity for doing everything in the scale of "Epic"? I don't know, but I signed up anyway.

I signed up for the race before I really looked into it much. Which is just as well since information about the course is elusive at best. The race web site tells you that the course is 20 loops of 10 miles, that the course is different each year, that the course tends to be "Moosey."

So I secured at crew, and trained. The crew part was easy, Alexis and Kevin basically said that I wasn't going without them. They love to see me suffer, they're that kind of friends, and the chance to witness suffering of this magnitude was too much to pass up. The training part was uncertain at best. How do you train for a 200 mile race? Run, a lot. I put in more miles than I ever have for any event, which for me isn't saying a lot, but I put in almost two full months of 80 mile weeks. And ran a handful of 50K training runs.

During the taper weeks I exchanged a few emails with the RD and found out that the time cut off for the 200 was going to be different this year. Stricter. I thought that was interesting since no one even finished in 2015, and on top of that the new cut off was a little vague.

The new time cut? The race starts on Thursday morning at 7 am, I had until 7 pm on Saturday, or whenever the last 50 miler runner entered their last loop to begin my final (20th) loop of the course. The 50 miler, which started at 7 am on Saturday, gives it's runners 12 hours to run the first 40 miles of their race, and the 200 mile runners 60 hours to run 190 miles. Confused yet? Basically all I had to do was maintain a pace faster than the 50 mile runners were expected to for four times as long. Simple enough.

Vermont


When we arrived in Vermont on Wednesday night before the race, we couldn't find anyone who knew anything about the event. We found the venue, but it was a ghost town. We asked half of the population of Pittsfield VT, the quiet little mountain town that hosts the race, but neither of them seemed to know what we were talking about either. So we went and set up camp where the emails had instructed us, and hoped for the best.

It was a cold morning when we awoke, 35 degrees and clear skies. We drove down the mountain to check in and all seven of the registered entrants were there and ready to go. It was obvious that I had come from the farthest point south, as I stood there shivering in my three layers, stocking cap, and gloves next to these New Englanders in there short sleeves.


Pete Coleman, the Race Director, checked us in and hung our bib numbers on the wall in the bunk house. He said that it was an intimate event and we would be going by our names not our numbers. The bunk house was the aid station, sleep station, and check in between every loop. Later, he explained, there would be a water-stop at the top of the mountain, but not until the sissy 100 mile runners started on the following day. Evidently by signing up for such a challenge as this, we had stated something about our fortitude, whether accurate or not, that implied that we didn't need any support out there on this measly little ten mile loop.

We lined up, reminiscent of a firing squad, all awkward and somber, and took a few pictures like soldiers preparing to leave for the unknown. Not sure which of us would make it back, but fairly certain that it wouldn't be all of us. Pete told us to relax and have fun, and sent us off into our first loop without ceremony.


The Loop


Armed with the knowledge that the course is different every year, and that the few race reports I had found estimated that the loop contained between 1200' and 1600' of elevation gain, we set out as a group to conquer the first climb. We trotted out of the gravel parking lot and into the woods, and no sooner had the Farm disappeared behind us then the ground rose up in front of us forming one of the steepest hills I've ever traversed as part of a race. (Alexis ran a loop with me later, and her watch said that we gained almost 500 feet of elevation in two-tenths of a mile.)

We hiked with our hands on our knees and joked about how bad this was going to feel at mile 150, but the truth was that it was bad the very first time. The grade fluctuated as we climbed, and the group spread out. By the time we had covered the first mile I had lost sight of half of the field of runners, and I would never see most of them again. Eryk ran ahead of us whenever the trail wasn't intolerably steep. I hiked ever step of the climb, and was able to stay within talking distance of Ryan.

The climb lasted for about three miles, but the last mile was completely bushwhacking. We hiked from streamer to streamer, through waist-high thorns and ankle deep mud. Over fallen trees and through shoe-swallowing bogs. By the end of the weekend we had created a trail where there was none before. (Also in this section there was several sightings of Moose droppings, a novelty to a southerner.)

When we finally stopped climbing the trail dried up and gave way to well worn mountain bike trails. This section, The Labyrinth, was a winding maze of trails that corkscrewed around itself several times, while weaving in and out of dense pockets of old cedars and pines. Ryan pulled away from me here, only to come running straight back at me a quarter mile later running the wrong direction. After that we stuck together until we made it to the Cabin at the Top of the Mountain, wandering off trail just once more and having to backtrack to find our missed turn.

The view from the cabin was incredible. The Green Mountains of Vermont stretched out in every direction for miles and miles. And from here we began our long decent. Four miles of gradual switch-backing downhill, punctuated with the occasional little uphill or mud hole. The farther we ran down the swampier the trail became. One grueling climb broke up the monotony of the everlasting downhill. As smooth and graceful as the downhill was, the uphill was every bit it's opposite. Straight-up steep and rocky, hands-on-knees hiking. And then more downhill.

The decent ended abruptly with a sharp turn and a nose-dive down-hill to the river, the lowest point on the course. To call this slope a trail is being generous with the name, and it was littered with softball sized rocks that shifted under the leaves and slid with you, causing mini-avalanches every couple of steps. Half way down this drop, which was about a quarter mile long, a fallen tree blocked the path. The only way around was under it, so you slid like a base-runner stealing home to get by it, hoping to recover some semblance of balance on the other side, or tumble the rest of the way down to the river.

After a short jaunt along the river bank the course began to climb up gradually back towards the Farm. This section was the toughest later in the race because you would get close enough to hear activity, only to turn in the other direction and run away again. With about a half mile to go I ran into a streamer blocking the trail, a universal sign to not continue on straight, the catch was it wasn't at an intersection. Finally I noticed a streamer to the right of the trail, in the woods. And then another beyond that. And so we bushwhacked up a hill, about 40 yards, to another trail. And then down a quarter mile of stone steps to the start/finish/bunk house.

The Race


At the end of the first loop I had run for 2 hours and 14 minutes. The temperature had climbed from 35 to about 70, and I felt pretty good. There were two guys running ahead of me, Eryk the local, and Ryan from Philadelphia. I knew that I just needed to get in a good rhythm and stay there, and the loops would start ticking away.

By noon it was mid-80's and I was having trouble eating. I hadn't even run an Ultra yet, and I was hurting. I was way behind on food and hydration. At the end of my third loop things got a little tense with me and Kevin. He was trying to force calories down me, what was he thinking? I told him I that I wanted to eat, but I just couldn't. He was not understanding or comforting, what a jerk. I left carrying food and a lot of extra mental baggage. Half-way through my fourth loop I was doubting my chances. My loops were getting slower and slower, my legs were heavy and my stomach was rebelling. Somewhere in this loop I caught Eryk, god only knows how, and he told me that he was worried about the stiff cut-off and that is why he had went out so hard. We agreed that we needed to finish five loops before we lost the sun, and I hiked away from him.

At the end of the fourth loop I just wanted to sit and eat slowly, but Kevin and Alexis weren't having it. The temperature was starting to come down a little, but I worried that it was too late, damage done. I wasn't ready to quit, but I was far from optimistic about my chances. Then they brought out the chocolate milk, I'm not sure who's idea this was, but it didn't work the way they hoped. I drank a big cup of milk and started to hike away. That's when my stomach rebellion went to full on revolution. I vomited, and hiked a few steps and vomited again, and again. I was afraid that I was close enough to camp that they would hear me, so I hiked fast to escape before Alexis could chase me down and make me eat again to replenish what I just lost.

I started to feel better, you know the old vomit reset button, but I also knew that I truly was running on empty now. When I got up to the Cabin at the top of the mountain I sat down and ate a couple hundred calories. and then commenced to covering that down hill fast enough to beat the dark back to the Farm. I didn't make it, somewhere before the river I had to dig my headlamp out, but it didn't matter. I felt better. The temperature was dropping. I could eat again.

I got back to camp and ate a ton. Switched to my big head lamp, and put my music in at Kevin's urging. It was already so cool that sitting around for more than a few minutes caused me to start shivering. I got up and ran. And each loop felt better than the one before it, and by the time the sun came back up I had run 80 miles.

I set a secret goal at this point, to run the first 100 miles in 30 hours (the Course Record for 100 miles is 27 hours!). I figured that if I couldn't do that then I couldn't run the required 190 in 60 hours. So Friday morning, as the 100 milers took to the course and the rain settled in, I focused on those next 20 miles. It was during these morning loops that I was getting reports of the other runners. Several of the 200 mile runners had already quit, the only girl bailing after her very first loop in which she had gotten terribly lost in the Labyrinth. Eryk had spent almost eight hours out on his seventh loop in the night and was sleeping in the bunkhouse. It was just Ryan and Matt and me left if Eryk didn't come back to life.

I hit my goal, but only with a minute or two to spare. Alexis ran my tenth loop with me, and I felt like we moved pretty good. I didn't tell her about my time goal, but having her out there motivated me to push a little harder. The weather settled in with a steady soaking rain for most of the day. I changed socks a number of times, but it was impossible to keep your feet dry. The course which was swampy in places to begin with was a nightmare in the rain. Long stretches of trail turned to bogs or creeks. Rocks seemed to sprout moss instantly with a little moisture. The downhill became treacherous in places forcing me to walk sections that were runnable a few hours earlier.

By the time the light started to fade the rain cleared out, I headed into my second night with a clear head and a goal: 150 miles by sunrise Saturday. My legs felt good, and I had eaten well all day. The soggy trails and feet were a fair enough trade off for the cooler temperatures. But after my first night time loop I was tired, no exhausted.


I guess it showed on my face, because my slave-drivers actually took pity on me and allowed me to sleep while they prepared some food for me. It was so cold, but all I remember is sitting down and someone throwing a blanket over me. The next thing I know the blanket is yanked off and I'm eating hot mashed potatoes and cheese quesadillas. Without a doubt, this was the best meal I have ever had. In my entire life!

Then I'm up and stumbling up the hill. Kevin yelling at me to put my music in. I run better with it. He was right, at least at night. I've always loved night running, but I was in the zone after that nap and meal. I cranked my music up and knocked out two great loops before day break. It was during this second night that the woods started to come alive with things that weren't real. Sleep deprivation is a powerful drug. Snakes and bears and a green sheep, not to mention the crazy mountain people blending into the landscape. I saw a porcupine a few hours before sunrise, but I'm pretty sure he was real because he moved, albeit slowly, across the trail and made a chittering noise at me. None of my other hallucinations made noises.

150 miles done. I was half way though my 16th loop and now the 50 mile runners have started. I kept telling myself that I just had to out pace the slowest of them.

Pete had my buckle out on the table in the bunk house. A carrot on a stick. Every time I checked in at the end of a loop it was right there, pushing me forward. A little pierce of metal, that stood for so much more. I was the last one going, Ryan and Matt had both given up. Eryk never came back from the night before.



160 miles done and I'm moving better than I have any business moving. Still running the downhills, and hiking well up the inclines. Somewhere out on this 17th loop my left ankle started bothering me. But it didn't matter, I had not come this far to back off now. The downhills started to feel worse and worse. Damn it, I thought, I still have legs to run and I'm being done in by a contrary ankle!

I shuffle along and scrounge up a couple of sticks. I remember at this point that Mike Mitchell was going to lend me some trekking poles for this little adventure. Oh well, too late for that now. So I'm crutching along the downhills, anticipating the ups because they don't hurt.

170 miles done, no time to waste. I know I'm slowing down so I grab food to go and keep moving. This loop was a blur. I just remember that Alexis started with me and I asked her to leave at the Cabin on top of the Mountain. It hurt too much to have company.



180 miles done. I had five hours to finish a ten mile loop to be allowed to start my last loop. Every step, up or down or flat hurt. I was leaning heavy on my sticks and I was not optimistic about the outcome. But they would have to make me quit. There was no way I was not going on, even if it meant an unofficial finish.

190 miles done, 59 hours and 5 minutes. I hadn't seen another runner in 30 miles, and my tired mind had convinced me that there was no one else left running. Had all the 50 mile people been fast and finished? Was Pete going to let me start my last loop? Yes, he said, get your ass back out there!

I turn around to stagger to the bunk house to check in and some guy in a chair looks at me, as ragged as I must look and asks: Do you need some balls? I just stare at him and walk into the bunk house fuming. Alexis follows me in and asks whats wrong. Who is that jack ass who asked me if I wanted some balls? I yell. I just ran 190 miles, who does he think he is? Alexis just laughed at me and said: POLES. He was offering you his poles. And she points at my two pathetic tree branches. These are all I need, I mutter and walk out into the dark.

Once more into the breech. The last loop was as relaxed as it could be. There was no more cut-offs. Kevin and Alexis were both with me. I felt like a tour guide, taking them around an historic site that I was intimately familiar with. Step here. Watch out for that rock. It gets a little boggy around this switchback. The ankle hurt worse with every step but I couldn't care any less. I came to Vermont to run 200 miles, and I did it.

Finishing time: 62 hours 57 minutes 32 seconds. First place out of one finisher, seven starters.


I couldn't have done this without the huge amount of help and support, selflessly given by Alexis and Kevin.


(If you look closely you can see the endless stone steps behind them)

I also want to thank my Sponsor, Pearl Izumi for believing in this mediocre distance runner, and helping me believe in myself.


I have more reflections on this adventure, but I will save them for later. You've been forced to listen to my rambling long enough! 

-Todd