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.

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