Thursday, February 28, 2013

I Just Wanted to See You So Bad

I took ten days completely off. I experienced a combination of ups and downs over my respite. Some days I was properly content, I basked in the extra time as a family and focused on the splendor that is all that I have. However, other days were near record lows in the Merriment and Morale department. Too much time spent on nothing, I suppose. I waited as patiently as I could for Wednesday to arrive, worrying whether or not I should be running. The answer to 'how much time off' not having a clear answer, a diagnosis without doubt still unmade. Was it a good idea to venture out for the weekly Wednesday run?

With each passing day my legs were on the mend but yesterday they felt neither entirely healthy or strong.  I just wanted to go, it might be crazy or stupid, but I seriously missed the mountain and the people. In an attempt to manage any resulting discomfort I applied my small sampling of BioFreeze from last year's Trail Running Rampage and wrapped an ace bandage around the leg. I got dressed, fitted in my new Scott T2, and grabbed my iPod. I arranged a compromise with myself, I would listen to my body and break off from the group at any point I felt it was necessary for my own well being and recovery, agreeing to push nothing and call the run short at the slightest twinge.

I had hoped to be early, but instead we were a minute or so late. Driving into the parking lot my breathe caught, a considerable sized group was congregating around their cars, awaiting the evenings run. Nearly twenty, the group was more than double what it was just a few short weeks ago. This gathering might be inconsequential to many, even to those who attend weekly, but not to me. It is my sincerest hope that people will join us on the mountain every week, to experience the trails, gain confidence and endurance, socialize and counsel. To witness this gathering, yet alone be included in it, filled me with such an intense satisfaction I wouldn't have needed to run a step to make the journey over worth it.

Seeing that we were late the group, not wanting to waste daylight, set forth on the run. Expecting to run at least part of the run alone and remembering my iPod was still sandwiched in the console between the front seats of the van, I ran back to retrieve it. I was now placed at the back of the pack as we ran across the parking lot but I was just so happy to be running. Headed up the short hill that skirts the lodge I heard a whisper within Take it easy. Instantly I responded  I took to walking and told anyone in earshot I was out. Watching the sizable group move forward in an aqueous motion as they reached the top of the short hill and rounded the corner, I smiled to myself for reasons unclear but cathartic nonetheless.

Not wanting to slow anyone in the group down and remembering the promise I had made with  myself I hiked up to the old 'bald spot' at the top of the paved road along the slopes. I turned myself to soak up every angle, every conceivable view from the top. I felt pretty good, the legs, while tight, weren't overly upset. I turned around and headed back down at an easy run. I turned onto 1971 trail and turned on my iPod. I ran Peak to Peak, hiking the uphills and going along at a pace that felt comfortable. I absolutely just marveled in being out there on the trails. The further I went the more the muscles warmed up, the easier I took it the more forgiving my body seemed to be. I drank up the breathtaking views of the mountains as I climbed the Power Line Loop. The further I went, the better I felt, the better I felt the happier I became. I also genuinely enjoyed being alone, the knowledge that there was a large group out there on the mountain, probably breaking into smaller groups, gave me confidence and expunged any fears of running alone. I focused on my body and the miraculous but simple activity it was undertaking. I drank in the feeling of the cool sweat collecting on my back and my expedited heart rate, something I had failed to feel aqua jogging or cycling (yes, I am probably doing them both wrong).

The views, the rapidly beating heart, the warmed up muscles. Dear God, how I have missed thee. I felt incredibly free and impeccably content.  Every so often I would reassess what might be hurting, questioning occasionally my choice of steep hikes over flat terrain. Is this stupid? I decided without hesitation I didn't care. Sometimes, Stupid feels amazing.

If anything is made more clear and powerful every day it's just how important running is to me. I tried to shake it, lessen it's effect over me the past week and a half, but it's hold on me is relentless. It's what I want to be when I grow up and I'm not getting any younger.

I reached the top of Clear Cut and came down Flames road until it ran into Monogram road. I started back up the Power Line Loop on the single track portion. I was feeling good enough to run but kept convincing myself to take it easier than necessary. I was in no hurry to end up on the bench again if it could be avoided. Out there, walking and running, I was alive again. I didn't care about Terrapin or Western States. I didn't care about training logs or what the competition was doing. I was just so happy to be running.

I ran into some of the group my second time down the Power Line Loop and ended up hiking and running with Grattan and Kat to the Monogram where we paused a moment before heading back to the parking lot. I continued to ere on the side of caution, even at the end, with the muscles sufficiently warmed up I walked the final hill, following through with my commitment to take it easy and knowing that pushing too hard might result in pain later and more days off.

The run had started clouded with failure, I couldn't run with the group I wanted so badly to without holding them back or pushing myself too hard. But in the end, I found an equally enjoyable experience within the intimacy of the solo run that blended with the group's run. I shared the mountains, if anything, in a more powerful way than the ordinary Wednesday run. In this the run was in it's own right a success.

Afterwards I felt better than I had before the run, which I find is often the case. This morning I felt perhaps a little more pain than I had hoped would be the case but as the morning led into afternoon I felt about the same if not better than before yesterday's run. Either way, I wanted, rather in some way needed to go out yesterday and in that same, complicated way I have absolutely no regrets about my run.

If I were articulate enough I could convey what running means to me, suffice it to say it's a lot and I feel better today in many ways than I did during all of last week. I think some things became clearer to me with a forced break but I need to keep healthy because I need to keep running. I don't believe the road to recovery  has ended, and if anything how I felt yesterday just made me more conscious of how important it is to listen to my body so that I am not forced to take a longer, and undeniably harder break.

I'm still in a recovery period, still sifting through emotions, still trying to find the path I'm supposed to be on, but one thing is clear, trails are the perfect space for doing so.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Have To Be Tough Valley aka Apple Orchard Falls Trail

What makes me love trail running as much as anything I suppose is my honest and everlasting love affair with the great outdoors. From camping with my best friend as a kid to getting lost in the woods for hours on end with my sister, my love for creeks and trails has been around as long as I can remember. I can recall long aimless hikes, cool summer days dipped in the creek, swinging from long sturdy vines, traipsing along fallen trees and beaten paths. Unfortunately, I remember only two outings of this nature as a family growing up. One I actually only remember through pictures, the other an infamous afternoon I only wish I couldn't recall. Now with a young family of my own and an ever growing love for the mountains I want to share them with the small people in my life in the hopes that they will develop a life long love of their own.

Even before I took up running we started them on their way, when Cooper and Bailey were five months old we carried them up to Sharp Top. However, our hikes were sporadic until my pregnancy with Brodie. Every Sunday through much of the summer and fall that I was pregnant we took the three children hiking. Occasionally we took them into the mountains but most of the time we stayed nearby, exploring the trails of Candler's Mountain, Peaks View Park or Falling Creek Park in Bedford. That first summer the hikes were short and incredibly slow and often ended with at least one child being carried to the car. However, over the past two years they have grown and become more capable explorers.

We had a busy fall training for our first 50 Miler and took the kids out less and less and even post Masochist we haven't taken the kids out nearly enough. Yesterday, missing the mountains myself, I decided we should take advantage of my break from running and take our kids into the mountains. Apple Orchard Falls was my first choice. I think at first Todd would have rather just taken them to Candler's but he agreed that while convenient, Candler's isn't all that scenic.

The kids were excited about our adventure and helped me pack snacks and a picnic lunch. They picked out water bottles and chose their 'running' shoes. They didn't complain at all during the duration of the drive, they seemed to enjoy the winding roads and Sean asked over and over "Are those the Blue Widge Mountains, Dad?"

Being me, I worried about my leg, the cold and how the kids would handle the distance to the falls and back. Being kids, Bailey, Cooper and Sean immediately turned it into an adventure. On the way down to the falls they chattered excitedly about the sound of water up ahead and helped me clear the trail of debris. At one point there was a fallen tree and a scattering of tree bark. They wanted to stop and rid the trail of every piece of bark, after five minutes or so we hurried them along.

They loved climbing under fallen trees and over large logs and finding walking sticks their height. They didn't once complain about the cold and got their feet wet even though we tried to get them not to. They were excited as we approached the falls and headed down the stairs, something I have never been when arriving at the stairs.

Upon arriving at the falls they shrieked with joy and ran back and forth over the bridge. Again I worried they would wear themselves out before we made it back to the car. They paused momentarily for pictures and were ready to carry on with the adventure. Going back up the stairs they were a tad bit whiney which is only to be expected but when Todd told them when we made it to the higher falls crossing they could have a piece of chocolate they picked up the pace.

It was a smart move to bring along the Super Hero Chocolate they had received the day before at a birthday party, it was good incentive and a nice pick me up over the last half of the hike which is all uphill. Bailey and Cooper turned it into a game at this point. With Todd, Brodie and Sean behind a ways I just listened to the twins as they turned our hike into fantasyland. The group behind us were evil and Bailey and Cooper were trying to escape their capture. They started to name the sections, "We've made it to Low Valley", "This is Wet Valley" they called a low stream crossing. Bailey's names were my favorite, she christened one section "Mailboxy River" and referred to the whole hike as "Have to be Tough Valley". When we reached the service road crossing that takes you to Cornelius Creek we stopped to wait on the rest of the family and a bite of chocolate. I overheard Bailey tell Cooper, "My super powers will never dissolve." Cooper quite seriously responded, "Well, except when we get to the car."

For those who have run the Promise Land 50k, they know this last section of this trail to be the toughest, our kids were definitely tuckered out and cold and some whining did set in. To move them along we turned ourselves into turtles and rabbits, mice and snakes. We stopped and climbed rocks and found hiking sticks. Cooper, who had been our best hiker, grew tired and fell behind but overall we made it to the car without incident. Only Brodie had to be carried.

It was a long, slow hike with many stops and side adventures but my fears as usual were ill conceived. My leg held up fine though I was careful not to run a step. The weather, while cold, was planned for and proved to be no problem. The kids hiked better than any past adventure I remember and talked about it all evening long.

They all did a great job and I hope that many memories were made. My favorite part though was this morning in the car. On the way to pick Bailey and Cooper up from preschool Sean said to me, "Is that the Blue Widge Mountains, Mom?" It was, the view of the mountains is spectacular on that side of town. "Now that I can hike are you and Dad going to take me running in the mountains, Mom?"

Soon, Sean. Soon.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

And on the sixth day...

Agreeing to rest was a struggle this past Sunday night. My well meaning husband, who deep down I know is just looking for ways for me to be pain-free as much as I am, basically had to force me to agree to a break. That night I couldn't sleep, I felt like I was near breaking. It's simple really, running is that thing in my life that I exert the most control; when, how fast, how far. I determine the aspects of much of my running life and this forced recovery has overwhelmed me with how promptly it has removed those choices. I've been left with little control over something that assisted me in feeling grounded.

Day one of rest was hard. I awoke to a life I felt removed from and yet had to live. My runner's life. My closet, my shoes, my friends, my Facebook feed, my calendar, my diet, they're all a runner's. The pain in my leg was matched with a pain deep within me, like that of grieving. Why would I think I wouldn't return, you ask? Because I fear failure to be my middle name, it beckons in my right ear and was now whispering in my leg. I couldn't get my bearings, it felt worse than it obviously was. The scene from inside the middle though can be so much different than the view others have looking in or that you might have looking back.

Weakness doesn't suit me, neither does the unknown. The pain in my leg and not knowing how long the recovery would ultimately last made Monday hours longer than usual.  I decisively reckoned I had to get out of dodge. I contacted my brother and asked for safe haven. I made plans for Tuesday's travel, it busied me in ways that made me thankful.

Day two was easier, there is something to be said about long car rides freeing the mind. I arrived in Manassas with a slightly less clouded view, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the runs I wasn't running weren't weighing on me. Time lost, fitness slipping. My brother and his girlfriend could not have been better hosts, they readily accepted our hastily planned visit. We enjoyed Mexican food and they showed me something called Spotify.

Day three I was ready for a reprieve from the pain in my leg, but it was still there as tender as ever. I spent hours with Jordan, my hopeful-sister-in-law to be, trying to narrow down the body parts that were ailing me. Turns out your lower leg is a complicated place. Only two bones but many muscles and tendons that I was unaware of, the pain while originating in one place up nearer the knee was also down around my ankle. It was hard to determine the names or even how many different overused parts were fatigued. We took a break in the morning to visit the battleground of Bull Run, the Stone Bridge in particular and allowed the kids to stretch their legs. I took a picture of Bailey running at one point, the smile on a young child's running face is so innocent and perfect, it made me miss enjoying running more than the act of actually running. Walking wasn't troublesome and as we passed runners I envisioned future visits, future runs. Once a runner...

Perhaps it was the social network and news of that evening's run for which I was absent, but Wednesday night was hard. Lying awake my brain was a buzz of activity. Thoughts good and bad, but predominantly bad, kept me wide awake with the help of two cups of Green Mountain Coffee earlier in the evening I probably should have skipped. Listening to Spotify and allowing my mind to wander I suddenly had a simple child-like epiphany.

When I was young I used to think my life was a movie, the music that I played the soundtrack. I imagined the writing of this movie, of my story. As I got older and realized that my life was not so glorious or even interesting, the movie just ended. Lying in that guest bedroom the other night I thought about my life as a story, protagonist, antagonist. Every good story has essential parts. And every good story has conflict. I thought of Brodie, the struggle I had while I was pregnant, him at the end, well there just couldn't be a better possible ending. I smiled, with nobody watching in a dark room, a smile I felt deep down in my bones.  To be any good your story needs struggle.

Day four began after a night of very little sleep and yet I felt better than I had all week. I began the trip back home, several more hours alone with  my thoughts as the children napped in the back seat. I got several  messages from friends, even a few calls, people checking in on me and my leg. Boy it's good to have friends that care about you. I had stopped thinking about what may be bothering me and had decided I was going to go see a doctor, the desire to know stronger than the desire to be cheap. I had just told Todd my plans to seek another's opinion when a friend messaged me with a possible solution to both my need to know and my pocketbook. The story writes itself if you will allow it.

Yesterday, day five, I wrapped the leg with an ace bandage and occasionally rubbed some Hyland's homeopathic muscle therapy on it. I am avoiding pain medicine and anti-inflammatory drugs, having read they may slow the bodies natural healing process down. I messaged a few friends, reaching out for further help and finding solace in their words.

In the evening we had made arrangements to go see a play at E.C. Glass. I'd read when you're injured do the things you never do when you're training. It was part of the reason I'd gone to visit my brother. The spouse and I attempted a normal date night. We started by heading over to the Aid Station for a massage ball. Currently out of the them, we tried on a few pairs of shoes instead. After a little while, my honest and well meaning friend Jeremy asked about my injury. He held back nothing I believe, and I hope he didn't. He told me I was stupid to run that 5k, stupid to run twice the day after Holiday Lake, stupid to amp my miles up so early when Western States was still so far out. What may sound harsh was actually the brutal honesty I needed. I needed to realize that I had been stupid, made stupid choices when I was in control, but that I didn't need to continue being stupid. Funny as it may sound, the more Jeremy pointed out how poor my choices had been the better I felt. Micah Jackson was there and the two of them told many a cautionary tale of runners who were broken, many making stupid choices similar to mine, wanting like me to ignore the whispers of a needed break. They both shared advice that I instantly put in the ' advice from ultra-runners I look up to' folder in my brain. The story writes itself it you will allow it.  

Here I sit, day six. I am still in pain but I am taking back control. I am going to rest this leg, seek help for the pain and advice for it's recovery. I am going to eat better. I am going to be smarter, but I may need the help, the quick slap every now and then when I made a stupid choice or an avalanche of them. Todd does his best to steer me but being my spouse his advice sometimes comes through cloudy. I am taking today for rest, and maybe tomorrow and the next day. I am so deep in appreciation of the sound advice and honest concern for my recovery and I know I owe the legs the break they have been asking for. I've not been running, but the simplest of all things was made clearer with a week off. I am a runner but it doesn't matter what you are, sometimes you need time off from being what you are so that you can be better at it.

This break has already done a few things for me. It's made me realize I couldn't keep up at the pace that I was going and make it to Western States. If I really want to make it to California I need to go about it a different way. I have realized I have some really great friends, both running and not, and I am always growing in appreciation, there is comfort in your words, now is a time of great need for comfort. Thank you, dear friends. I realized that you can't make every run, almost ridiculously this is hard for me, but I need to keep perspective, tomorrow there will be another run. My fear of missing out and fear of failure are fears I need to add to the lengthy list of things that will only hold me back. The final realization, I still have so much to learn but I am a runner.

And I will see you on the mountain again.


Monday, February 18, 2013

Liberty Mountain 5k Race Report

On Friday evening, having yet to register for my anniversary trail run, I confided in my running journal (I keep several logs and journals in addition to this blog) that I was only about 90% sure I was going to run. The ongoing pain in my right calf when coupled with the last minute entry fee complicated my decision. In addition the weather forecast predicted a small chance of snow flurries and I assumed even a hard effort would result, at best, in maybe an 8-9 second improvement over last years race when my legs were not seven days out from a 50k or suffering an injury.

If it weren't this race, I would probably never have contemplated the thought. Three years ago, in 2010, after only a few months of running, the Liberty Mountain 5k was my first time ever running on trails, and I'm not sure that I even did very much running that day. I didn't know anyone except for my sister and spouse who I had conned into trying out this new adventure alongside me. I remember I had poorly fitting winter running gear that year, in the picture I look like a kid in their siblings hand me downs. Snow the week leading up to the race covered the trails that morning and I remember fondly being surrounded by Liberty students, some barefoot and dressed as Native Americans, howling as they sprinted past me on that first descent down Falwell Road. I had never experienced anything like it, the snow, the decent, the icy bridge crossing, the climbs that left me crawling rather than even hiking yet alone anything near a run. By mile two I had given up on the idea of racing, I decided to just hold on and enjoy not knowing where I was or where I was headed. That last climb up Lake Trail I kept thinking if I wasn't careful I would fall off what seemed at the time like a fatal cliff. That last switchback on trail forced me to dig deep for any energy I might still posses. I finished in just barely under forty minutes. But that race marks clearly in my mind the day my trail running began.

I came home and immediately looked for more trail races, that search led me to the Mountain Junkies. And the rest is history so they say. It wasn't until last winter that I really embraced the mountain that hovers over Liberty's campus, but it was that race, three years ago, that opened my eyes to the wonderful world of trail running. Each year I have gone back and run this so-called anniversary race, remembering that first time.

So you see, I had to run on Saturday. Or else that's what I told myself when I awoke Saturday morning feeling decent enough. I skipped the Virginia 4 and 10 Miler races this past fall which were my first race ever  in 2009 and marked the anniversary of running for me, I was a little depressed about this after the fact. I guess even now I'm sort of sad I missed it. I wanted to avoid feeling this same kind of sadness about the Liberty Mountain 5k.

I drove over to my second home and paid the kind Liberty student my registration fee before heading back out for my warm-up run. Within a minute my calf was asking me to reconsider. I ran less than a mile before the searing pain forced me to turn around and head back to the lodge. I was headed inside when I passed Frank Gonzalez. "Don't run today if you're calf is bothering you," he offered. I just looked at him, unable to respond anything more than, "Where were you fifteen minutes ago when I registered?" "I'm not kidding. Don't run. It will only get worse if you run on it. It's only a 5k." His words a warning swimming in my mind, agreeing with my body's plea.

But I'd paid for the race now. It's winter and the construction business isn't booming in these parts. I'm a stay-at-home mom with a racing fetish trying to weigh every dollar that goes out. I couldn't just change my mind. I had to run.

Standing at the start line, Sam Dangc told me not to run. I didn't move. Todd and Blake told me to move more towards the front. Still I didn't move. I was busy convincing myself that this would be a challenge of mind over body. I thought I knew what it was like to run through pain.

The first downhill was about place jockeying and evaluating who was out ahead of me, I passed a few females as I settled into my pace. Three tenths of a mile in Frank Gonzalez was off to the side of the trail, "Don't let that little girl beat you, Alexis". There were two girls directly in front of me when we made the turn onto the lower section of Lake Trail. I followed one of them, watching her feet, trying to focus on something other than the increasing pain. As my watch beeped, notifying me of the first mile split, I looked down to see 6:28, that must be wrong, I thought.

The pain in my leg intensified down Lake Trail and as we turned to run towards the steep hill that cuts over to Camp Hydaway Road Georgianna passed by me, I knew I was in at least fourth place, and my leg was begging me to stop. The competitive drive runs deep in me though so I pushed past Georgianna and one more female up that hill. On Camp Hydaway Road I reassessed, there was a young female runner a few hundred yards up ahead of me, maybe I could catch her on the gradual climb. But even before the climb is clearly visible the pain in my leg started to effect other body parts, sending a shooting pain up to my hip along my illiotibial band and down into my ankle and foot. The harder I tried to push the more painful each step became. I felt like I was moving in slow motion. I couldn't tell you what another runner looked like or a single song that came on my iPod. I thought about quitting but then saw the yellow sign that signals the top of that climb. Please, just make it there and it's downhill back to Lake Trail, the pain in my foot was now effecting my gait. If my body had been warning me beforehand it was punishing me now.

I don't know how I made it to Lake Trail, the effort was draining beyond reasonable measure and yet it felt so dreadfully slow at the same time. Coming up Lake Trail I passed three runners before getting stuck behind two guys, I couldn't exactly just ask them to step aside, there wasn't anywhere to go and I feared the race was over. This didn't stop me from barreling up the side of the crater-like mound before the last climb out of Lake Trail. I climbed up and over and made some howl, probably similar to the one I heard years before. Rounding the switchback that promises the end is truly near Todd and a female stood there cheering me on, you can chase her down, they encouraged. I was in so much pain I didn't even recognize the female, I had to ask Todd later who was standing beside him, it was Katherine Sibande, I should have been able to recognize her voice if nothing else. The pain was blinding. Looking back on that switchback I saw another female runner coming up quickly behind me, any further a distance and she would have had me, I've no doubt.

I finished the race in 26:05, a 1:54 PR for the course, which is not bad for the 5k distance, but I was even more surprised at the clock because I had felt so slow and been in so much pain. Still in the shoot I congratulated Sammy Schreiber, the fifteen year old female runner who kept an impressive lead the entire race. Fifteen feet later I just stopped, the pain in my right leg made the act of bending or moving nearly impossible. I had told my legs they were through, they were confirming this to be true.

I'd run a hard race, redefined my pain thresholds and set an impressive personal best on an unforgiving course in unforgiving terms. It was not a bad day. But if I'm to be entirely honest, I had gone out that morning in the hopes of a win and was now hobbling inside to get warm and re-hydrate worrying about what further damage I had just done to my leg.

Within a few minutes the foot pain had subsided enough for me to stretch the calf out along a piece of baseboard in the lodge. By the time I left an hour or so later the leg felt better except in one specific point in the upper right quadrant of the calf. I bailed out on the second half of that morning's run and went home instead for some massage therapy (thanks, Todd!), stick rolling and ice application while the family watched an afternoon movie. After the hour of so of man handling I went downstairs for a glass of water. The legs felt fresher all over except in that same nagging place.

What could it be? By nightfall the foot, legs and upper body felt pretty good all save for that tender spot on my right leg that was there even if I just walked across the room. Todd told me to cancel our Terrapin run planned for the next morning. I begrudgingly obliged. A slight crying fit similar to that a teenager might throw ensued briefly before I realized my body was telling me it was tired. Maybe we do need a break, I told myself as I headed up to bed.

The next morning I awoke to the exact same pain and tenderness in the leg in the upper right quadrant. While not full out painful to walk it persisted with every step. I started to hear a faint whisper, stress fracture? I tried to take it easy yesterday, but I will be lying if I said I didn't try to run. I did, it was painful, so I stopped. Stress fracture? 

After putting the kids to bed last night I perused some of my running books, in particular the sections on injury. More and more I began to wonder if what I'm now experiencing sounds like a potential stress fracture. If it is Tom Noakes, Bob Glover and Dagny Barrios all said the same thing, rest is the only treatment. I have't been to the doctor, I don't know that I will. A bone scan must cost considerably more than a race registration and if the treatment is rest I don't necessarily see the need. Some fractures don't apparently even show up for several weeks. Now I realize I don't know without doubt that it's a stress fracture, and quite honestly I hope I'm just overreacting and it isn't. But being an amenorrheic female puts me at an increased risk and furthermore I failed the 'jump test' on that leg. The outlook isn't so good. I'm sure there are varying levels of stress fractures, but it sounds as though it may take at least six to eight weeks complete rest if this is in fact what is distressing me.

Whatever it is, it is distressing me.  I am a wreck at the mere mention of taking that much time off. I only took five days after Brodie was born, even less after most of last year's ultras. Todd asked me and I agreed to take the week off, see how it goes, let my body rest like I should have done after Holiday Lake. If it isn't any better we'll go from there, week to week. But Terrapin might no longer be possible, or Western States.

I know many people have suffered injuries and come back to running, Jamie Swyers, Mike Mitchell, Melissa Goodrich and Jordan Whitlock all come to mind. But for some reason I fear that a few weeks off will make me soft, the desire to run will disappear and starting over will be too much for me to handle. I can take pain, patience on the other hand, I am severely lacking.  Todd assures me that I'll recover and possibly come back stronger. But I feel the loss of control and feel tricked by my body. I can already feel the depression settling in, questioning and second guessing everything. Maybe you're body can't really handle all this running, who did you think you were anyways?

I don't know what exactly ails me at the moment, but it's ready for me to stop ignoring it and ready for me to start addressing it. I am ready to run pain free and if that means taking a break or reassessing my training, then that's what it means. Who knew not running would be as hard as taking up running?


Friday, February 15, 2013

If you are what you eat, does this make me a Fruit Loop?

Recently a friend referenced my blog while running. They claimed to have enjoyed reading it but requested that I might discuss my diet or share recipes in addition to the race reports and honest rants.   I filed the idea but I was convinced I had little to offer on the subject of nutrition. Last Saturday evening, after Holiday Lake, I reflected on my fueling during the course of the race.  While a somewhat success, I had chosen to eat a GU every forty minutes and stuck to it, I decided I could still use further improving. But more importantly, while consuming a Dominoes' cheese pizza single-handedly that evening, I began to think about fuel and nutrition outside of racing or race day. So here it goes, in an effort to please my reader, I divulge my 'diet' and gain the superlative unhealthiest runner in town.

I am an ovo-lacto vegetarian, have been for nearly seventeen years. This means I do not consume meat, fish, or poultry but that I eat eggs and dairy products. Sounds healthy enough, right? Except that I am a terrible vegetarian. What started as part of a teenage girl's mission to save the world has everything to do with the way I feel about eating meat and has little to nothing to do with being healthy. I crave processed, white foods. Breads, rice, ranch dressing, pizza, while yes every day please. Macaroni and cheese. Gooey cinnamon rolls coupled with an afternoon cup of coffee steeped with commercial creamer is my ideal snack. Two cups of Fruit Loops and a diet coke right before bed. Green plants and colorful fruits, while beautiful, seem as safe from me as the meat I choose not to eat.

You see I started my third lifetime attempt at 'running' just after giving birth to baby number three in September 2009 to join my husband's quest for adventure, which at the time was focused on adventure racing. It was also to lose baby weight without having to drastically change my eating habits, because I love to eat and always felt so restricted when having to 'diet'. And I believe, if memory serves, all prior weight-loss attempts had been met with initial loss followed by eventual overall gain.

In the beginning running a quarter mile was an impressive feat. But as the miles came more easily and the pounds began to drop off I became further committed to running. Running was having an overall effect on me that I found pleasing. To help balance my new running habit I began making my own low-sodium broth and soups, I cut back on sugar and started baking more homemade breads. I ended up gaining my own thirst for adventure and losing sixty pounds.

As the miles continued to increase and the weight kept coming off I started to worry I was losing too much weight. Then I caught strep throat and dropped down, in my mind, below my lowest desired weight. In the weeks that followed I started eating more donuts, more often, I stopped making homemade broth and I went back to my favorite white, overly processed foods. For the last three years, save for being pregnant, I have weighed within a five pound range that I'm comfortable with. However, a quick glance at my 'diet', which consists all too heavily of coffee, diet soda, bagels and banana bread and I know I need a little change.

But you see we're not going to call it dieting or else you will be lose me within hours. No, we're going to have to sell it to this ultra-signup fanatic as part of training. And it can't be too drastic, this Fruit Loop craving competitor is going to need small baby steps in order to commit. So on Sunday, to jumpstart this initiative, I decided I wanted more green in my life, so far this week I've eaten a salad several days, albeit with Ranch Dressing (remember baby steps). I even ate a dozen or so carrots in between. This, consuming more real food, vegetables and fruits, will be challenge number one.

I am hopeful that the improved eating habits that I aim to slowly incorporate will have a positive effect on the way that I feel, but I'll be honest I'm hoping for it to have some greater, far more reaching effects. I am hoping to eat a balanced enough diet that aids in the building of more muscle strength and maybe to help avoid injury, something I feel all too prone to at the moment. Instead of fueling just for the race, I will strive to keep fueling for every day, every run at the forefront of my mind.

Hydration will be the bigger problem for me I imagine. Cherry Coke Zero is my vice. Sometimes I eat just so that I can enjoy the diet soda that accompanies it. Then there's coffee. Coffee over the past several years as I struggled to overcome my dislike for the early morning run has started to challenge the soda pop addiction. I am smart enough to know that water is better for me, but am I smart enough to care? At the moment, it would appear, the answer is no. Last week before Holiday Lake, Chelsie sent me daily reminders to drink water. If she hadn't sent me those texts, I would not likely have drank an ounce before the race. I'm too much of a hedonist I suppose. I encourage my children to drink water, grimace at the thought they might one day like soft drinks. I supply water for my dinner guests and group runs, but allow it to nourish and fulfill my own body, instant and constant battle met. This, introducing my system to water on a more regular basis and not just during and immediately following running, will be challenge number two.

I do not like to blame others, we are for the most part a product of our choices. But the thought remains that we are also a product of our upbringing. I survived high school, quite literally at times I'm afraid, through my consumption of Rice-a-Roni, Fruit Loops and Pepsi. I lived with my father, and while I whole-heartedly believe he did the best he could, he struggled financially and he didn't support my well-meaning move to vegetarianism for several years. The taste for ring-shaped, colorful cereal pieces is ingrained within my poor, unrounded taste buds. This, the shift from a life of processed foods to a more balanced whole food approach, will be challenge number three.

Your taste buds are supposed to tell your brain whether or not to swallow something, aid in the decision of whether or not what you've put in your mouth is 'good'. They are designed to keep us alive and yet they are influenced by your brain and what you've been trained to think is good, healthy or bad. However, my sister has told me and a google search confirmed, that taste buds go through life cycles and die away and thus can be changed throughout your life. I am going to use this insight to help commit to small baby steps for two or three weeks at a time in the hopes that the focus attempts become more permanent, positive habits.

Will I give up diet coke? Not likely. Just being honest. Will I forsake a lifetime addiction to Fruit Loops? Possibly, but ultimately the goal, as I see it, is to drink more water and eat more wholesome foods will continuing to keep the words restricted, diet and forbidden separate from my eating. Besides, I still haven't found the Dunkin Donuts on Liberty's campus...

Am I really just a lost cause?


Monday, February 11, 2013

Holiday Lake 2013 Edition (Alexis' Race Report)

Holiday Lake 50k
Appomattox, VA
Saturday, February 9, 2013

OK, so I chickened out. Or rather I remembered who I was and took Jason Captain's advice: Remember, it's just a race number, run your race. 

When we last left off I was drowning, as is my usual pre-race formula, in self-doubt and anxiety. I really wanted to be the girl seeded third who finished third but I also doubted I was fast enough. I was so nervous, but finally in the last few days I began to come around, find peace. The training was done. With the taper on there was nothing left but second guessing and bagel consumption. I tried to find balance.

The night before the race I found myself reading Bob and Shelly-Lynn Glover's The Competitive Runner's Handbook, I figured it was what everyone else getting up early the next morning to run Holiday Lake was doing at five to midnight, turns out that book doesn't even mention Ultra Running! I had to settle instead on reading the chapter on road marathons. It drilled heavily the 'go out a little easier than goal pace' theory. Having heard this advice before and feeling there must be a reason I was rereading it the night before the big race I finally committed to not chasing any one out of the starting gates.

Up the next morning before the alarm went off I started the coffee and set about eating as many bagels as I could, turns out that number was just slightly less than two. I of course, hoping to eat at least three, took this as a bad omen. Especially since step one of my 'Race Plan' was wake up at 3:30 am and eat 'a lot'. Otherwise I followed my pre-ultra routine: completely slathered Bag Balm feet, Injinji Toe socks followed by a pair of sock guy socks on top, favorite Nike shorts, two sports bras with GU sandwiched in between. I was excited for two new apparel items to add to the mix, a new pair of highlighter yellow Zensah calf sleeves (thanks Erin) and an Aid Station Ultra Running Team jersey (thanks Aid Station!). Donning the Hoka Stinsons, I headed to the car. The drive to Appomattox was quiet, I vowed to not utter any negative thoughts about myself and found nothing else to say to Todd.

We got to the camp and set about checking in and affixing race bibs to our favorite shorts, I also took precautionary Imodium and ibuprofen. Scattered nervous hellos followed before finally heading out to the start line. On the way outside I completely lost sight of Todd in the large, dark crowd. I assumed he wanted it this way so I didn't even bother to look for him. I situated myself mid-pack and waited silently for the race to begin. When it did it was with a sigh of relief, finally the sigh of relief said.

And then it was just running. I moved more easily and rapidly going up the hill than I had planned, remembering the warnings about place jockeying on the trail being somewhat difficult. I didn't have a light or headlamp but the road, single track and service road in the first few miles were tame enough that it didn't pose a problem. I found myself running behind a few guys and two girls. I wasn't sure who they were at first but as the sun came up I recognized the girls as Rachel Corrigan and Jenny Nichols. I felt good about my pace and placement at this point, they were seeded well and I figured if I was right behind them I was doing alright. I was running comfortably and decided to just stay behind them for awhile but not much later I passed them going up the semi-steep hill before the first aid station.

From aid station one to two I had a great time. If any of this race was to be fun it was certainly this section. I settled into my pace, danced along to my music in my mind, and skipped like a kid when the Avett Brothers came on my iPod. My right calf and hip were noticeable but not extremely painful and I focused on having a good run then on the discomfort they were trying to provide. On the road that leads to the second aid station two beautiful, fast and fit women blew past me. I started to wonder where I might be placement wise when Horton drove by right after and yelled something, my music and his vehicle prevented his words from reaching my ears, this may have been for the best.

Coming into the second aid station I ran right through but noticed that they called off our numbers "103, 106" so quickly that I knew Rachel was right behind me. I smiled, I was kind of hoping she would pull ahead and I could chase her. I started to wonder where Todd was, I didn't know if he was ahead of me or behind. I noticed that my hip was no longer hurting and the calf, while maintaining a steady groan wasn't growing more painful. I wasn't having too bad of a day. I ran on, knowing the next aid station would be where I got to see my 'crew' for the first time all day.

The weekend before we had a group run with friends. One of them, Dennis Coan, mentioned he wasn't running Holiday Lake but would be coming out to watch. I half jokingly asked if he would crew me. He quickly responded yes. This was to be one of the best things that happened for my race, securing crew. Albeit a 50k, and a fast one at that, the knowledge that someone you know is there cheering you on at several aid stations over the course of the day is a blessing. Not only was I excited to know that soon I would see Dennis it also made it possible to avoid stopping at any aid station all day long, which I did.

I was feeling the need to pee, simultaneously wishing I was cool enough to just relieve myself while running and looking for a good place to pull off. Being winter there was very little coverage offered by trees and brush. I ran on, the need growing stronger each mile. A fellow runner, Anthony Sweitzer, took my mind off of the need as we ran towards aid station 3. He pointed out my race number and said something about someone thinking I could do well, the thought started to balloon inside me, where am I? I was hoping top ten, thinking maybe seventh or eighth.

Photo Credit: Kristen Edmondson.
The 'Eleventh' Moment.
I ran into aid station three and someone pointed out Dennis, I was reaching out to exchange bottles with him when he said "Good job, you're eleventh." "ELEVENTH?!" I repeated, maybe even shouted. I was instantaneously shocked and disappointed. It was true I had been running only comfortably hard and had decided that my goal of sub 5 was ultimately more important to me, but I was still hoping to place top ten. It was not the good news I had been anticipating. Grabbing more GU I headed off into my favorite section of the entire course.

This next section is like coming home, the terrain seems like those last miles before you reach your own driveway after a long vacation,that feeling of comfort and ease on familiar turf, if only it was the home stretch and not the route to the halfway point. I picked my pace up following Dennis' news, even though I had vowed not to spike at any point of the race save for that last .6 miles of road at the very end, my dumb brain can't always keep with that run your own race mentality because it wants so badly to race. Running up a hill shortly after the aid station iPod number one delivered more solemn news, battery low.

In a sudden low I took to walking up a short steep hill for the first time since a hill  near the start of the race, around the lake when I walked due to those walking ahead of me on single track in the dark. And just as I began walking I heard a voice, "Alexis, you don't walk hills, you looove hills." For a moment I wondered if I was hearing things, I turned to see Andrew Charron coming up behind me. I don't know where he came from but he was just so perfectly placed, he came upon me literally just as I needed exactly that kind of push. He made another sweet gesture, something about him not being as fast a girl as I was. I held on to his compliment and pulled it right back together, race disaster averted. Thanks, Andrew.

It was about this point that I started to come across the front runners headed out for their second loop, what another nice distraction for my mind. I greeted every runner with a congratulatory tone, calling the names of those I knew. Finally, just before the bridge that takes you around the odd little gate I passed my husband Todd, "Catch me" he goaded. So he was in front of you after all. Finally, I had found my rabbit. All day I had been hoping for someone I was pretty confident I could stay with or catch but I hadn't found anyone. I train with Todd, he wasn't that far ahead at this point and I knew it would take time and effort but I also thought I could catch him.

I came into the halfway point at 2:23:45. Too fast, I told myself, I had been aiming for 2:25-2:28, the news that I was eleventh at aid station three had made me push my pace. Dennis and Charlie Peele were there, full water bottle in hand but my bottle was still over half filled and I knew I had enough GU. I ran right past them and back out on the course, not wanting or needing anything, and not wanting to lose any time. I felt bad that they had driven to the aid station for me to not need anything but was happy to see their smiling faces just the same. By doing this I gained a position or two at the halfway point, I was finally in the top ten.

There was a female runner just ahead of me leaving the aid station, I thought about pacing off of her, but she was fast, too fast for me and it wasn't long before she disappeared. Turns out she was wicked fast, finished fifth overall female. I continued to offer encouraging words to those headed into the turn around but my brain started to get fuzzy and I think I actually said "hello" to many a runner like we were just out for a Sunday stroll passing one another. And then iPod number one died. This was my race music iPod and I had only carried my back up iPod from Hellgate because it was charged that morning, now I was so happy to have made what seemed like a silly decision earlier that morning. I turned the second iPod on and hoped that it would make it to the end of the race. I still loved this section in reverse but between the flying female, the dying iPod and the brain fuzz I was starting to struggle. I looked down to see that I had just reached twenty miles. Hallelujah it is just your wall!, OK, climb over it, time to move on. Truth is, the legs were starting to ache, the feet to burn. I was really wondering if I could keep the pace for the next twelve plus miles.

At the next aid station I swapped bottles with Dennis, grabbed three more GU and gave him my gloves. He told me I was about three minutes behind Todd. Hoping to catch him before the next aid station I ran more of the hill that follows this aid station than I had planned, this was after all one of the two hills I had given myself permission ahead of time to walk. Yet, I was on a mission now to catch my dear husband. Unfortunately, I needed to pee more than ever. Finally, a mile or so from the aid station I threw my bottle down and headed into the woods. It took me about two minutes in all I figure, I had chosen a briar-y pit instead of real coverage and a female runner passed by me. I called out a rather awkward hello from my not-so-well-covered-pitstop and slipped one more place.

Coming out of the woods I could still see the female runner who had passed me. Over the next few minutes I worked on catching back up with her. Just before the power line section we exchanged introductions. Chantal Rose, one of the two females who had first passed by me headed into aid station 2, was as friendly as they come. We chatted about the course, our families, our shared Alma mater. Running along the power line section I caught site of red soled shoes far off in the distance, mid thought I said to Chantal, "I think that's my husband up there. I want to catch him." With my sights finally set on Todd I started to focus more on catching Todd. Through this section I passed Brenton Swyers who cheered me on to catch Todd. As we excited the power line section I didn't change my pace, if anything I slowed a tad, let Chantal run ahead and took the time to consume another GU. I planned to very slowly and steadily reel him in. Coming up the long climb to aid station 2/6 I passed Jeremy Ramsey, Jared Hesse, and Micah Jackson who were out for a run headed in the opposite direction, they too cheered me on to catch Todd, I smiled, assured them I was trying and moved on.

I ran the hill to the aid station well but I wasn't gaining on him like I would have liked. He was running well. I had hoped to reach him before this aid station but I didn't. He was stopped at the aid station when he turned and saw me approaching. I don't know if this is where he first caught sight of me since the turn around but he didn't wait, he took off immediately. I decided to reign it in a little, I had a sense that he didn't like seeing me so close, like maybe he was hoping to hold me off. I backed off and just ran steady but kept him at a comfortable distance.

I was conflicted here. These last eight miles are where the race is ideally run in mind. I wanted to run them well. At the same time my body was fatigued, my legs were beginning to rebel, and so was my stomach. I had followed my fueling plan methodically, taking a GU every 40 minutes on the nose the entire day but my stomach was starting to turn. Luckily, I had planned ahead for this. I pulled out my little roll of berry Tums. After struggling for a moment to open them while running, I bit into the package and consumed Tum and wrapper combined, extra fiber I told myself. I ate three Tums and put the package away. My stomach settled soon afterwards and was great the rest of the race and day. However, at this same time we were running in some of the muddiest terrain of the day. My Hokas began to feel heavy, I could feel my pace slowing. I was trying to run on the sides of the road and looking for the best spots to step, I worried I was wasting energy. I was anxious to come to the creek crossings and I was hopeful that this was the worst of the mud and muck. Fortunately, it was.

I lost sight of Todd a little through the stomach trouble and muddy road sections, he was nowhere in sight through the creek crossings. But then, less than a mile from the second creek crossing I came right up on him, walking. I was kind of excited, hopeful. I thought, I've caught him now we can push each other to the finish. But as I pulled up beside him and started walking with him he instantly and slightly harshly, warned me off "I'm done, go on, don't start walking. My race is over." I didn't, couldn't, respond. I just started running again.

A few hundred yards later we took a turn and I noticed him running again behind me. So it's my turn to lead now, huh? This is when the race became increasingly hard. With Todd and Chantal behind me (She had stopped at the aid station) and now no one in sight to chase I was able to focus on the aches and pains, the slowing pace, I felt alone. It started to wear me down. The next section was mostly flat but went on seemingly forever. To top it off, try as I might to speed up, my legs were starting to tighten and I thought I felt cramps coming on. I drank water and wished for salt tabs. When I came upon Debbie Grishaw I was hopeful that I was close to the final aid station. She told me no more than a mile and a half. That was farther than I wanted, needed it to be. A quick glance at my watch had me at 4:07, will I make sub 5? I wondered.

Finally, after crossing another road I could see cars up ahead, the promise of an aid station. I took it for granted that Dennis would be there, I needed electrolyte pills. Finally, the aid station came into sight and there in the middle of the trail, Dennis, water bottle in hand. Salt tabs! I yelled. He pulled them out and handed me the bag and I was off but not before a quick backwards glance, Todd, Chantal and another guy were right on my tail. I needed that. I took two salt tabs and guzzled water.

If the previous section had been hard, the next section only redefined hard. The first downhill was nice but on the first uphill I was met with weakness, I looked back and saw Chantal and the other male still right behind me, I took to walking and admitted defeat. I'll take tenth, I told myself waiting for Chantal to pass me.

Only Chantal didn't pass me. When I reached the top of that short hill I was a new person. Pity party over, you're running this thing in. I took inventory as we ran around the lake. Head is good, so is the heart and breathing.  Knees, calves and feet, not so much. From the quads up we were still good, but the lower body was done. There, with Chantal right on my tail, was the door to the what I imagined was the pain cave, I went in.

I wanted to run harder than I was running, I kept making promises to my legs if they wouldn't fail me. I just couldn't run much faster but I did run every single step. Some of those hills would of liked to break me but I gave it all that I had. I was chasing the clock and being chased, the pressure was immense, even if it was all self-imposed.

I was relieved coming through the beach section, I knew I was finally headed into the last stretch of the race, soon I would be done. I knew there was a hill coming up in the final mile and a half. It was one of two hills I had granted myself permission to walk. Running towards it I changed my mind, I was strong enough to run it. At the top of the hill I knew it was just a matter of maintaining effort at this point. When I passed over the 'one mile to go' sign I was elated, the euphoria alone of what I had just done was enough to carry me through to the finish. The trail section that followed felt shorter than ever before and when I saw the fence up ahead I pressed on harder.

Reaching the road was immensely overwhelming emotionally. I hit the road and knew that basically it was over, I glanced at my watch, 4:48. Knowing I could possibly walk it in and break five hours, that I was going to meet my goal, that I had done it, was incredible. Then the Mountain Goats "This Year" came on the iPod, my Hellgate song. If I could have slowed the moment down, freeze framed it, I might have, but instead I decided to run as hard as I humanly could to the finish line. After all it was mostly downhill. At the risk of sounding like a blubbering fool I will disclose that it was a tear filled moment. The clock read 4:51:21 as I passed by it.

Two minutes later Todd crossed the finish line.

The rest of the morning we hung near the finish line, cheering in many other friends as well as strangers. A lot of friends ran personal bests; Chelsie, Blake, Kim, Wade, Jamie (a 25+ minute improvement with a bad ankle!) many more ran their first ever ultra: Kelly, Kevin, Lindsay, Phil, Jeff. And even more ran Holiday Lake for a second, third, fourth, etc. time. It's all incredible in my mind. If you ever want to be inspired, make your way to the finish line at an ultra.

I wanted so badly to break five hours, but Saturday afternoon, with that feat in the bag, I was not as proud and happy as I thought I would be. There was steeper competition than I might of anticipated coming into Holiday Lake this year, but the second guessing crept in before we even reached our driveway. I hadn't met my seeded place, I hadn't negative split. A lazy afternoon and evening gave way to an early bedtime. Ten hours later I awoke; fully refreshed. Before I even stepped out of bed and tested the muscles and calf a thought took shape; you ran not one but two sub 2:30 loops yesterday at Holiday Lake, at the start of the year you didn't know if you could run one sub 2:30 loop. Be proud of what you did for once.

The calf was tight yesterday morning but two very laid back short runs on Candler's mountain suggested that my muscle memory is pretty good, no soreness to report. All in all, I believe I had a good day, I ran a smart race for me. I knew my ability and I ran to it. Maybe I have a faster Holiday Lake time in me, but I believe I ran pretty close to my fitness level at this point and time on Saturday. I think that the extra time on roads over the past few weeks helped my race but I will be happy to get back to almost exclusively running trails. If I learned anything from Saturday it's that trails and distances further than 50k are what I would like to focus on as my training continues.

I am so thankful to have many great people in my life. Many friends and family that encouraged me, trained with me, offered advice and a shoulder to whine on. In particular I would like to thank my wonderful husband Todd who puts up with this crazy girl, Dennis Coan for crewing me, my mother-in-law Pam who cared for our children over the weekend, David Horton for another great event, and The Aid Station for their sponsorship. And finally, Jason Captain for that oh so simple piece of advice last Wednesday night. In the end it was just a race number and I think I did 'race', but I ran the race I wanted to run from the beginning, so thanks for that reminder.


The Rabbit and the Pain Cave

                                   Holiday Lake 2013

I've been called a rabbit  and I guess its true that you need to know your place, but am I just a rabbit?  We all joke about it, even Horton, that she is always chasing me.

It has become customary for me to go out faster than Alexis at a race (any race), and for her to chase me down.  This works out fine for the most part, because that is just how we run.  Alexis is a start slow and negative split it kind of gal, and I am a go out hard and use it up while it feels good kind of guy.  Feeling nearly dead by the end of most races.

Depending on the distance she will catch me or not, but having me to chase evidently makes her run faster.  Being chased by her doesn't really change the way I run, and as far as my ego is concerned, well that's between me and my therapist.

I had a great run at Holiday Lake this year.  In my usual style I went out hard, but it was more then just what I do, this year I had a plan.  Like all great plans it was simple:  run harder than I was comfortable running, and try to hold it together through two loops.  It was going to be a test of my pain threshold.  You see, this was going to be my eighth ultra run, but the first one I have ever raced.

My friend Frank affectionately talks about this place he goes when he runs.  The Pain Cave.  If you ask him about his race strategy  you will get an answer like this:  "I'm going to see how deep I can go into my Pain Cave, and we'll see what happens."  I knew what he was talking about, we all have a Pain Cave, it just happens to be a place I don't like to spend much time in.

Oh I've been to my Pain Cave before, peeked in the entrance, 'Hello, anybody home?' and then  quickly retreating.  Slowing my pace down, walking a hill.  I have never went in there and tried to make myself at home.  It is a dark place and there are scary things in there.  There are demons.  The kind that tell you to stop, right now before you hurt yourself.  The kind that tell you that's not normal muscle fatigue, THAT is a serious injury.  The kind of things that needle away at your determination and drive.  'You've run strong, you could walk it in at this point.'

Oh those Demons have always held too much sway with my sub-conscience, which you spend a lot of time talking to in an Ultra.  But I was ready for them this year.  At mile twelve I was still ahead of Alexis (run rabbit run) and still feeling good.  But the voices in my head were getting stirred up.  Friends at that Aid  Station told me I was doing great, that I looked strong.  I felt strong, 'but you're running too  fast, you can't hold this.'

And so it began.  I made it to the turn-around at just under 2:20.  Right on target as I wanted to run a 5 hour race and I knew I would slow down in the second half.  I spent too much time fumbling around in my drop bag for gels and electrolyte tablets, and headed out for round two still feeling strong.  100 yards onto the trail I saw Alexis heading into the turn around, we exchanged encouragements in passing and were off.

I made it through the woods around the lake and back to the next Aid Station at 20 miles in 3 hours flat.  My legs were feeling tight, and I just knew that cramps were imminent.  I grabbed two ibuprofen from Alexis' crew, mostly just to ease my mind.  I'm pretty sure I knew when I swallowed them that pain killers aren't going to prevent cramps.  I also grabbed a handful of pretzels and forced myself to eat and hike up the hill coming out of the Aid Station.  I wanted to run, but forced myself to walk and ingest some real food.  It was like trying to swallow cement.

Right before the top of the hill I started running again.  Having to stop in the woods twice before I reached the power-line section, the doubts in my head were getting larger and louder.  The power-lines mean 10 miles to go, my first year at Holiday Lake this section broke me mentally.  It seemed to be up hill from both directions, and so monotonous that you think it's never going to end.  10 miles to go.  I used that to fuel me.  I put my head down and pushed on.

At the next Aid Station, mile 24 roughly, I was feeling better in the legs than I thought I had a right to.  I pushed up the hill to the Aid Station strong, I was afraid that if I took to walking at any point now I wouldn't be able to make myself start running again.  As I grabbed my water bottle from the Aid Station worker and started running again, I saw Alexis coming into the Aid Station.  I don't know how I had managed to stay in front of her for this long.

Downhill to the creek, I kept expecting her to zip by me with a smile and a wave, but as I splashed through the cold water I looked back and Alexis wasn't even there.  Where did she go?  'Slow down, if you're running faster than her at this point then you're going too fast.'  But I didn't feel like I was going too fast.  My legs were tired, but I hadn't changed my pace except for letting gravity help me get down the hill to the creek.

I looked back a couple of times on the rolling road between the creeks, and didn't see her.  Was she hanging back trying not to pass me?  Did she think I would give her an unnecessary race if she pulled up beside me?  She clearly overestimated me at this point if that's what she thought.  At this point I was running on battered legs and will power.  My friend John's voice telling me:  "If you don't want to quit on the second loop then you did something wrong.  Keep going."

Through the last of the creek crossings and up the hill.  I checked my watch to see how much time I had to run the last six miles in and realized it was time for a GU.  'This hill looks like a good place to hike and eat.'  When I broke stride to open and eat that gel Alexis appeared at my side instantly, as if she had been running invisibly right behind me waiting for a sign of weakness.

And then she started hiking beside me.  Every bit of wanting to out run her to the finish line vanished just as quickly as she had appeared beside me out of nowhere.  I knew she was in the top ten females, but I wasn't sure if she was eighth, ninth, or tenth.  I knew she couldn't afford to loose time or position slogging the last six miles in with me.  I had led for 26+ miles, good job rabbit.

"Go on," I told her, "I'm done.  You can't run with me.  I'm spent."  She looked at me almost hurt.  "Get out of here!" I yelled at her.  She shook her head at me and tried to tell me that I was wrong, but she started running again.  I let her get about 20 yards up trail before I started running again.  I didn't want to race her, but this was a race.

This is where I really started to notice the HURT.  We crossed the road and started running on the single track treadmill to the next Aid Station.  The last Aid Station.  Every step was an effort, and even with all of that effort she was pulling away.  I got passed by two more people before I got to the Aid Station.  "How are you feeling," someone asked.  How was I feeling?  I was on target to make my 5 hour goal.  My legs felt like they'd been beaten with hammers.  My stomach was threatening rebellion.  For the first time all day a thirst had set in, probably dehydration.  How was I feeling?  I was fading fast, but I could do this.  Let's see how deep this cave goes.

Down to the lake, over the rolling trails, through the beach area, all by myself.  Climbing out of the woods I saw runners.  Was I actually catching up with someone?  One mile to go, 4:45, "You could walk it in."  I ran  the last mile in 8 minutes flat, but more importantly, I was deeper into my Pain Cave than I had ever gone before, and I had survived.  Survived and learned a thing or two about myself.

Official finish time 4:53.

Maybe I am a rabbit, but I think I could be a little more.  And besides, if you've got to be chased by someone, I would chose Alexis every time.


Thanks to everyone who came out to Holiday Lake this year;  David Horton and all of the wonderful volunteers,  all of the friends who ran and suffered with me, and all of the friends who crewed and encouraged runners.  We have an incredible trail running community family around here, and whether I'm hitting the trails by myself to enjoy the solitude or with a group enjoying the fellowship, we are all connected through the dirt we play in.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Stubborn Love

This post is going to be jumbled because my nerves are making me twitchy and unable to articulate. 

It has not been a good week. Too many miles, too many hills and too much intensity finally caught up with me near the end of last week. I don't know what got into me but after running two loops at Holiday Lake, albeit at a long run pace, I felt so good on Sunday that I went out and ran another six miles, then went and ran the next day and then the next day. 

OK, perhaps I should back up. On New Year's Day I went out for a run that included some snow and ice covered trails. With just a few miles left, coming down the steep section after Fat Man's Misery on the Terrapin Course I slipped on ice and went down on my left knee. It hurt, but just a tad and I ran strong enough on it to finish the day's run. However, two days later I started to get an ache in my knee that was especially bothersome after sitting for awhile or coming down the stairs. At first I had no idea what was causing the discomfort until I remembered the quick fall I had taken. The knee progressed until it ached with every step. Ice and ibuprofen but little rest followed.. Despite the growing pain in my knee I decided to take on two loops of Holiday Lake for fun. Only my motivation wasn't fun, it was to see if I could run through so much pain, to see if I should even register for Holiday Lake. And thus convincing myself that my knee was only bruised I ran two painful loops at Holiday Lake. Painful but completed. Between loops I registered for the race. I could barely walk come that evening but I had gained a little knowledge as to what kind of pain I could put myself through. 

My knee hurt for 27 days. There was little that could be done for it and some days were worse than others. Finally, some reprieve and the pain and discomfort became less noticeably until finally, last Thursday I noticed it wasn't bothering me anymore unless I bowed down on my knee to tie someone's shoelace or pick something up. 

It was Thursday though that my ankle spoke up, asked me to back off the hills a little and remember we had a race coming up. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I had run a lot of hills. Why, you might ask, especially when Holiday Lake doesn't even have any real hills? Because I like hills? Because a smart man once said I'm not happy unless I'm injured? I don't know why I ran so many hills for such a flat course, but my ankle was groaning. Thursday night, instead of running hills, I ran a not quite tempo run on the flat trail at Blackwater with Grattan. This, my ankle told me later, was not what we had in mind. You clearly can't hear us down here, perhaps we should speak louder? 

The pain in my ankle began to travel up my right calf.

I tried to take it easy on Saturday, but the boys had such an inviting run planned in the mountains that I couldn't say no. I tried to run easy, but the boys are so fast and I want to be faster. With my calf and ankle now belittling me, I turned it down a gear the second half of Saturday morning's run. And yet I couldn't just stay off of it, so I ran Sunday. But Tuesday morning, on the dark trails at Candler's, the calf finally threw a hissy fit I couldn't ignore, walking many a short hill I would normally run, I finished my run with a growing pit in my stomach. From left knee to right ankle and calf why can't my body keep up with where my mind would like to take us?

And yet, I can't tell if my calf and ankle are really injured or if that is a little lump of worry down there festering in my leg. It isn't getting worse, but it isn't going away either. Aleve offers no relief, massage either. Epsom baths, ice, foam roller, nothing seems to help. 

Yesterday I got a pre-race email for David Horton, the race director for Holiday Lake, attached was the list of entrants for this year's race and race numbers. It appears I have been seeded third female. Immediately, my  mind responds, you can't live up to that, my leg concurs.

I had a bad run last night. The leg is just there, etching away at my confidence, tearing me down in size. The guys were all offering comforting words of advice and I just kept getting more and more worried, more and more quiet. A few of the guys really did say some encouraging helpful words of advice. On the way home, Todd chastised me a bit for playing down how well I am going to do on Saturday, he warned that I come off downplaying what I'm going to do and then go out and do really well. This upset me immensely, I'm not downplaying anything! My calf really does hurt! I really am worried about this race! And yet, when I calmed down I understand the point he is making and I only feel worse.

I'm not used to people thinking I can achieve  I am used to people overlooking me. I am used to having to prove myself, of being told I probably can't, I am pushed by the desire to prove people wrong to stop being overlooked. This recent change of having people believe in me, think better of me than I do of myself, it's daunting. I feel a pressure I'm afraid I just can't live up to. Truth is, I guess I like the feeling and I'm afraid that it will disappear if I don't do well, can meet the expectation.

This morning, first step out of bed, the calf is there, warning me. I am a nervous wreck. 

On the drive to drop my kids off at preschool I finally come to terms, I finally have some peace, because I  remember something about myself that maybe someone else knows too, something so clear you would think I would never forget it but alas, sometimes I do. I am stubborn, headstrong and competitive and these things will pull me through on Saturday unless I break my leg. I will worry and fret, complain and whine but come Saturday morning I will run the best that I can for that day. Whether it be 'fast' or 'slow', who at this point knows, but it will be all of me, the good and the bad. I will fight against my body, my body will fight against my mind. I won't quit unless I break something, am bleeding uncontrollably or vomiting profusely. Will my effort be enough to match my seeded place? Maybe, maybe not. I must remember that my race number is just my race number, that it may or may not be my day, but to give all of myself regardless of outcome. The goal on Saturday should be simple, just do your best, have no regrets.

So I'm off to eat bagels and count out my GU but I leave you with this song that basically sums up my relationship with  ultra running.


Remember, you signed up for this.

To run further and further, it is true, you have to train to run further and further. This is fairly obvious and I won't argue with the simplicity. However, I have come to believe that endurance running is as much about the mind as it about physical ability. In the week or so leading up to Masochist as the runs grew shorter and few between I spent more and more time convincing myself that I could run 50 miles, a feat just scary enough to dread but short enough to attempt. I read and reread certain passages and articles I'd bookmarked and began to compile a list of things to remember should the race try and wear me down.

At first only a few small reminders, it all fit on a nice post-it but as race day approached the list grew longer, until it ultimately filled a sheet of notebook paper. Filled with simple suggestions and observations, reminders and encouragement, they were the sort of things a well rested me would tell a struggling me should we happen upon each other out on the trails. A reminder to remember particularly grueling sections of past races or just to simply smile and drink in the beauty that surrounds, it was to be my secret weapon come race day.

The night before MMTR I readied my gear and chose a particular pullover because it had an arm pocket. I neatly and gently folded this piece of paper and stashed it away, ready and waiting. I had an almost perfect day at Masochist. I ran comfortably, yet steady, I listened to the cues from my body and pushed when I felt that I could, I fueled before my body begged and I finished ahead of even my best case race day scenario despite troublesome snow and a few low points. I never pulled the list from it's hiding place because I never needed it, however, I would like to think that I never needed the list because I had made the list.  A few times during the day I did picture the list, between Salt Log Gap and the next aid station for instance, and I drew from it inspiration and encouragement, give all of yourself regardless of outcome. 

I don't know how I'll do this weekend at Holiday Lake 50k but I can assure you that this piece of paper, faded and folded quite small, will be tucked away somewhere on my person, my better half ready for the rescue.


Monday, February 4, 2013

A Pacer or a Racer?

Two years ago this week I set out to run 30+ miles around Holiday Lake, my first ultra marathon. Having never run further than twenty miles or longer than five hours I was, to put it lightly, a tad nervous. Shin splints, knee pain and inexperience had me shaking at the start line.

I had a plan; two or three eleven-minute-warm-up miles followed by an increasingly faster pace for the remainder of the first loop in hopes of an overall time of 2:50 for the first loop. Todd had agreed to run with me and we hoped to run the second loop about the same, if not a few minutes faster. We both wanted to finish in under six hours.  The first few miles went as planned with the exception of frozen, aching toes. But my plans went south when my knees started to hurt nine miles in, an IT issue left unresolved set about wearing me down both physically and emotionally. At mile twelve Todd ran on without me. Despite the knee pain, the doubt that I would even finish and the disappointment of Todd leaving me I managed to pull my race back together in the second loop, managing to run not only a negative split but finishing ahead of my time goal in 5:29.

In less than a week's time I will set out to run that same ultra again. This time it will be my third 50k and sixth ultra and it isn't the distance that frightens me. I feel pretty confident in my ability to run for thirty miles. I know the course forwards and backwards. I have a better understanding of fueling than I did two years ago when I ate four chomps and a few quarters of PB&J. I want to pace myself, run a steady race and finish, if possible, in just under five hours. I can't believe I am evening typing that, admitting to my best case race day scenario, but yes, I would love a sub 5 finish. However, I am getting a lot of feedback from many directions that I need to race on Saturday. Go out hard and hold on. This is daunting. Frightening.

And so it begs the question, am I a pacer or a racer? Up until this point I have been a pacer at the ultra distances, driven by arbitrary time goals, paces or time cut-offs. I have believed up until this point that success is in running at a steady even effort and feeling (relatively) good all day, in finishing. It's going to take real effort on my part to race this coming Saturday, in convincing myself that I can if I try. These past few days I have focused on what it will mean to race, and how to determine my success or failure if I change from time goal to overall placement. If I pace, I listen to my own body, run my own race entirely and maybe run sub five. If I race, I risk pushing too hard too soon and bonking and maybe run sub 5. If the end result is possibly the same why does the word race scare me so badly?

The answer is, simply put, because deep down I know I am a racer. I want to do well, succeed, chase and be chased. It's scary, yes, but exhilarating. I want to go out to Holiday Lake and run as fast and well as I possibly can, but I don't want to feel like everyone's eyes are on me as I attempt it, because what if I fail?

I've yet to really fail at a race, but the closest I have come to feeling that I have was going out too fast at a 10k early last spring. Knowing it was too fast, but wanting so badly to feel like I could be that fast, I decided to hold on. It didn't work, I wasn't strong enough. My pace, finishing time and ego suffered because of it. The memory has encouraged me to hold a little something back at every race of every distance since.

This is not to say I haven't run hard at an ultra, I have run hard but never from the start. I like to hold back until the end is near, when I feel mostly confident in what I have left in me and how far left I have to go. I know the solution to racing for me is somewhere in the middle, going out faster than I would like and pushing sooner than I might otherwise.

I'm still uncertain about Saturday's race, I'll probably go back and forth the remainder of the week about race plans and strategy. I know one thing, when the race begins I will give it as much of myself as I can bear, all that remains to be seen is whether that effort is out of the gates or with five miles left to go. If everyone could just avert their eyes, promise to love me no matter how I preform, and have an Orchestra of tiny violins at the ready should I fail, that would be kind of wonderful.