Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Redemption Run

Training for Masochist is draining my desire to run. What seemed relatively feasible six months ago is becoming increasingly frightening, the self-doubt is mounting.
To be honest, I don’t really know what I’m doing. I jumped with little consideration into the distance for which I’m unfamiliar on either how to train for or complete. A few months ago I sincerely thought a determined effort and mental fortitude would be enough. I thought I was determined, I thought I had the mental fortitude. Turns out I am unsteady when it comes to effort and completely unsure of myself.
In September, at the 40 mile Trail Running Rampage, I encountered a bit of a hard time. At the time I would have said it was just a bad fall but now I see that it was the beginning of an unraveling that has continued in the past few weeks. During this hard time I wanted to quit. Not quit for the afternoon, quit for forever. I wanted to throw out my shoes, drop out of Masochist, and return to a life of frozen pizza and blogging. A first place finish at the 40 miler was a nice Band-Aid and I thought I was fixed.
And then a little more than a week ago I had a bit of a hard time at Deep Hollow. Again, it wasn’t a complete failure by any means but it wasn’t the success I’d been striving for either. A slip here, an episode of cramping there, I knew there were some things I had to work on but I thought an extended rest and recovery would suffice.
Then there was Saturday’s run, twenty miles on parts of the Masochist course and Appalachian Trail and once again a bit of a hard time. Except this time I didn’t even try to put up a fight when the unconstructiveness arrived. I let all the dark, uncooperative thoughts move in and take up residence for the last half of the run. I got quiet if not a bit ill-tempered. I let the group pull away from me so I could sufficiently wallow in my self-doubt and loathing. You won’t even finish Masochist at this pace I berated every ounce of my being.  Add wet cold feet and 30 more miles and you’re a goner I told myself.
I managed to complete Saturday’s run, but that was about all. I put on a happy face for my comrades but I didn’t tell them how miserable the run had been. Despite the beauty all around me in the mountains, the magnificence of the scenery at the summit, I had wilted in the cool temperature. I ached to just be content with the run but the feeling eluded me. My love for running and the trails had been replaced by an obligatory necessity to reach high mileage weeks, essential long runs.  I felt broken.
In an attempt to hit 30 mile weekends I needed to go back out on Sunday to run another ten. I did not want to go. I did not want to run. I wanted to stay at home with my family who I miss more often on these weekend runs as of late. And to make matters worse, I had to run alone. I tried to wiggle my way out of the run. I made the argument that I didn’t have time but my husband caught me in the lie immediately, go put on your new Hoka’s and go run, he urged.
A week ago, Todd had visited the Aid Station in Forest and purchased a set of shoes I’ve had on hold there for weeks. I had put them on but not run in them. I was hesitant about trying them; honestly a part of me was ready to not like them so I didn’t even want to give them a chance.  At Todd’s influence I reluctantly went upstairs, got dressed and pulled the Hoka’s from their box. With only a quick stop back through the kitchen to grab my Garmin and iPod, I was on my way.
I, as mentioned before, loathe the solo run. I can easily identify the reason. Fear. I am afraid. I am afraid of dogs, of strangers, of getting lost, of falling and needing help. The list goes on. I know I need to overcome this fear, at times I think I want to overcome this fear, and then I do little to actually overcome this fear.  Due to this fear I headed to the Blackwater Trail System on Sunday for my ten miles. The whole way over I wanted to turn around, head home, go anywhere else really other than for a run. I wondered if I would be strong enough to go the ten miles alone. I figured probably not.
The first few steps were uncomfortable so I sat down and readjusted my new shoes. I turned on my iPod and settled into the run. The paved trail at Blackwater is undemanding. The first mile flew by and I actually found myself enjoying the run.  The new shoes and I became acquainted, and more mile markers appeared and then disappeared. I made the decision to not look at my watch but just run, listening to my body, enjoying the run. By three miles I was in a rhythm, I could feel the steadiness of my pace and I began to grin. At five miles I was at 39 minutes, I had found my legs and my desire to run. I turned around and decided to try for a negative split. I took pleasure in feeling the small changes in elevation; I let my body feel the pace instead of having the watch inform me. Focusing on the actual act of running allowed me to revel in how amazing a process it truly is, I’ve lost sight of that lately. I seemed to have forgotten that girl who just wanted to make it to the next mailbox, who got anxious but also equally excited about racing.
I finished the run in 77 minutes. I felt strong, like I could keep going, I needed that. I needed to feel like I could go on, that I wasn’t’ done running’ when I was finished. I felt revived and relieved. Turns out I haven’t lost my legs or my will, just my direction.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Deep Hollow Half Marathon: Race Report (Alexis)

Deep Hollow Half
Saturday, October 6, 2012
Lynchburg,  Virginia

Two years.

That’s how long I've been waiting to run Deep Hollow. In 2010 I was battling a bout of ITBS when I passed over the half marathon for the 5k distance. I remember being beat by nine year old Abby Gonzales and watching the half marathoners finish. Several of them were covered in dirt and blood, I envied their sweat soaked shirts and proud, exhausted expressions crossing the finish line. I am going to run that race I told myself, next year, I’ll be back. I came back in 2011, but not as a participant, but once again as a spectator at the finish line as I was counting down the hours until the arrival of our youngest child. Waiting on the hillside along the finish line I cheered in fellow runners, anxious for my husband to finish. I knew he wanted to finish in less than two hours and was worrying about his whereabouts when he finally came into the camp at 2:20. He was not happy; he’d gotten off course and had run some extra mileage. His pace was right on target, his time was not. Coming into 2012 we both had Deep Hollow high atop our race lists; I was eager to finally get to run the race that had eluded me and Todd was hell bent on finally chasing down that sub-two hour finish.

For the better part of our training year Todd and I have trained on the trails of Candler’s Mountain. Long runs, short runs, slow runs, tempo runs, we've done them all. We know that mountain well. It is this point that made this particular race stressful for me in the last few weeks. When I don’t do well at a road race or an out of town race I can tell myself that I don’t run roads, that I didn’t know the course. However, if I didn’t do well on our mountain, on our turf, how would I recover from the letdown?

In the past six weeks we’ve run sections of the Deep Hollow course countless times and the whole course in what we thought was its entirety on three separate occasions. I ran it the day after the Lynchburg Half Marathon in 2:32 as proof to myself that I didn’t leave enough on the Lynchburg Half Marathon course the day before. Two weeks later we ran it again in 2:35 as a long run. Not pushing the pace, just seeing what we could do running it through. The Saturday before the race we ran the course but not in order, chasing Jason Captain for nine miles, finishing in 2:12. It was with these numbers as well as an in-depth study of past years race results that I chose the arbitrary finishing goal of 2:10.

As the days before the race grew short I started to have anxiety about the race. I don’t throw that word around without a full understanding of what I intend to get across. When I thought about Deep Hollow my legs would become weak beneath me, my heart rate increased and my palms would become sweaty.  Failure wasn't an option and yet the thought ceaselessly weighed on me because I wasn't sure what the boundaries of failure meant for me and Deep Hollow.

I run because I am competitive. My umpteenth attempt at ‘starting to run’ was successful in 2009 because I signed up for the Virginia 4 Miler and got swept up in the spirit of the struggle. I want to race because challenge builds character. I want to push my limits, evaluate my strengths and shortcomings. But I know I’m not Ellie Greenwood and so I have to establish what success and failure mean for me and my abilities and goals. I take the idea of running and racing very seriously, perhaps too seriously. Maybe some days I lose perspective. Sometimes I wonder if I should race at all. And yet I’m also undeniably lazy. I would rather only run four or five days a week; a six day running week is virtually unheard of in my training log. I skip runs with little hesitation.  I hate getting up early to run, I dread running alone. Or in the dark.  I am only half-committed to speed work. My greatest, and sometimes only, motivator is proving myself. I want to believe in myself and I want to win over other’s respect and approval. It all boils down to low self-esteem, a high level of self-doubt, my astrological sign and probably something my parents did or did not do when I was growing up. I should probably see a therapist. Instead, I run.

So back to the week before the race, I was aiming for 2:10. Todd thought I could possibly run sub-2:00. I was not at all convinced in my ability to run a 2:10 and cringed every time I heard him tell someone he thought I would do really well. The half marathon is a wonderful distance, perhaps my favorite to race. The perfect distance really, short enough to run fast, long enough to recover from mistakes and yet you’re done before you ever reach a wall.  I ran portions of the course Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and came to the conclusion that in sections the course is very fast, it’s the last few hills over the last few miles that appear the most defeating. I knew that I had to be careful about fueling and energy conservation because of these last few miles.

Thus I drew up a fueling plan based on my goal time and scribbled it out on a little yellow legal pad. I grabbed four Strawberry-Banana GU from our bulk supply and laid them out with my fading Zensah sleeves and favorite Nike shorts. The morning of the race I tried to eat as much as I could but I had to force myself to eat three thin slices of toast, my stomach was wrapped tight due to nerves. I felt sick, almost as though I had the flu, my muscles seemed weak and I was nauseous. It was partly due to this distraction that I left my water bottle at home, a mishap I didn’t even recognize until we were on the mountain about to warm-up. I knew there were six aid stations along the course, a generous number for the distance, but I also yearned for the comfort a water bottle in hand provides. Todd asked around and secured a bottle for my use from Joe. The search for a spare water bottle did cut our warm-up run short but I didn't fret it, I was far more contented to have a portable hydration source.

With minutes to go to the start I took my first GU, took a final restroom break and made my way to the start line. Familiar faces were a comfort but my stomach was a ball of nerves. We started and I was immediately passed by a group of about ten. I was running faster than my target pace but I knew single track was right up ahead and I knew I would rather not have to pass others on trails. The single track we took however was not what we had run on training runs and it threw me off slightly, had me second-guessing how well I really knew the course. Todd passed me on Lasso, seconds later Jamie Swyers did. I tried not to let this bother me, I had convinced myself (or so I thought) that I was comfortable with a few of the seasoned ultra runners beating me, especially Jamie and Sarah Quigg. I’ve seen their times, I’ve seen them out running, I know they’re both strong runners.  It was still a setback to see Jamie pass by me running so effortlessly. I decided to hang on to her and Todd as best I could from that point.

Then at 1.48 miles a most ridiculous occurrence, I fell between the slats of a bike ramp. I never take the bike ramps in training unless they are the path of least resilience. However, I was chasing the group ahead of me which included Daryl, Jamie, Todd and a few other guys and when some of them took the bike ramp I thought (or rather didn’t think) to follow them. And I run on my toes and my right foot went between two 2x4’s, down to my shin. I was running fast and when my leg went down the action-reaction between shin bone and ramp was quite painful. I was trying to use a small tree by the ramp to pull my leg free and yet I look up to see no one has stopped and they are pulling further ahead of me. I managed to pull free and make it off the ramp and I looked down at the watch, 1.48 miles, that’s where my race probably ends, I told myself (always the optimist). And just like that the negative feelings started pouring in. For a moment I thought my race was lost.

Fortunately, I had a very negative race a few weeks back and I've been working on remaining strong. The struggle and yet resulting success at Douthat was at least a half-boost. Buy my shin hurt. Run until the aid station at Falwell Road, I urged the negative side. I knew that the pain might sub-side; I was more concerned with getting the anger and unconstructive thoughts to go with it. I ran easy up the hill on Lake Hydaway Road, watching as Todd and Jamie pulled further and further away. By the time I crested the hill they were out of sight. I ran hard down Lake Hydaway all the way to Lake Trail. On Lake Trail I could see Jamie at times but I was struggling, I took my second GU and walked a few steps up one of the small hills I have vowed in the past I would never walk again. It was becoming a rough day. I saw a girl behind me on the switchback at the top of Lake Trail, I was running scared. I knew if I didn’t pull it together I was going to spiral out of control.

I made it to the second aid station ahead of my goal for the day, perhaps too far ahead of my goal. I told myself to slow down, find a rhythm and a better pace. I ran the next few miles on Monogram Road and Monorail trying to refocus on my race. I didn’t run the switchbacks on Lower Dam Trail as well as I had during any training runs so I made up with it by running breakneck speed down Downhill Run. I teetered between running fast and feeling good to feeling spent and slow. On Bobsled I started to really contemplate my finishing time, I knew my pace was dropping and I wouldn’t break 2 hours, but I knew I could still easily hit my own goal of 2:10.

And before long I was on Walk in the Park, such a misleading name, it’s a hard section for me, hilly. I had a guy in front of me which was nice; I like to chase, or nevertheless to follow. I got passed going up a hill and decided to take another walk break to a count of 30 on the long hill that skirts Clear Cut Road and take a third GU. I was feeling tired yet was still having bouts of energy where I felt good, I took the downhill sections very fast.

At ten miles I decided I could hit 2:03 if I could run a sub 30 minute 5k. It sounds like a reachable goal but the last three miles of that race are on terrain that can break you down. The hills become more numerous, and even though I ran them in training they cry out walk break when you’re over ten miles in on race day. I had felt a few twitches in my calves up until this point. And even though there was only about two miles left in the race I decided to consume the fourth and final GU of my race plan, only about 20 minutes or so after the third. I drank the last of my water to wash it down. I knew I was getting close to the end; I started to feel some sort of second wind. And yet I took a final walk break when I saw Cheyenne and Debbie at the top of the final hill on the course. They were telling me about Todd, he had been en route to reaching sub 2 when they’d seen him. They looked so happy and full of energy. I wanted to steal their liveliness but I just took a longer walk break instead. When I took to running again I knew I was in the homestretch, so close to the finish I dug deep and picked up the pace. 

I was barreling downhill with a half mile to go when the cramps in my calves came back. Like fireworks rippling through my calf muscles, spasms catching and releasing, over and over. I tried to run faster but I was scared they would get worse, that I would fall on the trail. I prayed that they would cease. My pace slowed, the calf cramps continued, especially painful in my left leg, but I ran it in. I was so angry I wanted to cry; I bit my lip to hold it in. I felt betrayed by my body; I didn't even steal a glance at the clock as I crossed the finish line. I stopped, ready for the cramps to release. But they continued to spasm for several minutes.

Todd told me my time, 2:03:20. He gave me a little bit of a hard time for not being faster. I felt conquered by the course, by my weaknesses, the contractions in my calves. I have now had a string of poor finishes (in my opinion) due to cramping, three half marathons and a trail marathon this summer have all ended with cramping in the final miles. I have been trying to narrow down the culprit because it is humiliating to have it keep happening. At the 40 Miler I purposefully did not run the last mile in hard because I didn't care about the few seconds lost not doing so and was terrified that I would cramp up.

Having suffered from leg cramps during pregnancy in the past these cramps are different. They start with slight twinges in the calves and propel to tighter, rhythmic spasms the harder I push.  I never cramped until earlier this year with my first race fueling with GU or similar products. Am I taking too many GU? Or not enough? Do I need to consume more electrolytes? Am I not drinking enough water? Or am I just running beyond my ability? I have been looking for answers and to have it happen in the final steps of Deep Hollow was quite disheartening.

Immediately, despite the knowledge that I had finished third overall female, I felt like I had let people down. It took me half the day to realize I had let myself down with my perceived ideas of what others expect of me. I ran hard on a tough course. I grumbled about the calf cramps and the twenty or thirty seconds they may or may not have really cost me, I whined about my shin (which is still bruised and tender) but I can’t call Saturday’s run a failure. I reached my goals, what more did I want or need exactly? Will I never be content? Will I always be chasing a slightly faster time?

Sunday I awoke to sore legs, it was the first sign that I’d run plenty fast at Saturday’s race. My calves were tight, tender and sore. They carried that soreness that accompanies calf cramps the morning after they hit in the middle of the night, when you've all but forgotten about them. I begrudgingly took the day for rest following the advice that rest and recovery are part of training. I had hoped to hit 30 mile weekends between now and Masochist but I questioned the benefit on running long on tired legs and a downtrodden ego.

Today, after a few days further reflection on the race, I feel slightly better. I still have a lingering soreness in the legs but I've mostly returned to my ways. I skipped Sunday’s long run and cut yesterday’s run short, we can call that laziness. I spent hours worrying about Deep Hollow before and after, and now it’s on to hours spent worrying about Masochist but we aren't going to call that obsessive. No, I’d rather we call that passionate.


Looking much happier than I felt following Deep Hollow.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Deep Hollow Half Marathon 2012

Yesterday was the Deep Hollow Half Marathon at Liberty/Candler's Mountain. It is a brutal half course if I do say so myself but Todd and I both managed to hit our goals...for the most part anyways. I am working on a more in depth race report but here are the numbers:

Todd: 1:58:00
16th Overall
2nd in 30-39 age

Alexis: 2:03:20
22nd Overall
3rd Female Overall