Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Terrapin Mountain 50k Race Report: Alexis

Terrapin 50k
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Big Island, Virginia

The past few weeks have had me simultaneously nursing a puzzling injury and trying not to entirely lose the base I've worked so hard to build over the first part of the year. Monday I was reading Sophie Speidel's blog and was making mental notes on how to race Terrapin, an event that has eluded me the past two years. However, Wednesday evening's run had me so down and out when the calf started up a mile in that I was back to just hoping to finish Terrapin. With two weeks off following Holiday Lake followed by four weeks of barely running, my training consisted of a handful of Wednesday and Saturday trail runs with a Tuesday or Thursday thrown in for good measure. My 'training' was only about pulling through my injury and I decided, after Wednesday's confidence beating run, that I was training through Terrapin. My goals were simple; to finish but listen to my body and maintain any pain within the 'run through' limits.

Friday I was a little out of sorts. I wasn't nervous like usual with the usual questions, who would beat me, how strong a field is it going to be? I was so worried that the pain in my calf would make it difficult to finish. I was literally wallowing in some of the lowest amounts of self-esteem I can remember. Then I happened across Jennifer Nichols status update on Facebook, she had posted a quote "The body achieves what the mind believes." I instantly knew there was truth, yet challenge, in that statement. How could I perform whatsoever at Terrapin if I didn't even believe that I could? Remember what you told yourself earlier this year Alexis, tell yourself what can be and make it happen.

Saturday morning saw me quite calm. I wasn't worried any longer. I had a simple plan but vowed to even throw it out at any time the day suggested. Once again we were late in arriving but we were able to say a few quick hellos to friends. I ate one Strawberry Banana GU, two Pepto Bismol, two Electrolyte tablets and a few Vitamin I as I waited for the start.

Before Holiday Lake, after I had cheerfully spread the news about Dennis offering to crew me, my sister had texted me, "Why have you never asked me to crew you?" I laughed, I smiled. Honestly, I didn't think she would want to, but I called her up and made plans for Terrapin. I told her she could only crew at Goff mountain AS unless she was willing to hike up to Camping Gap. She said she was up for it and we made plans for her to come out, cheer for me and crew me. I had completely forgotten however about the creek crossing on the way to Camping Gap something Todd told her about minutes before the start, in my defense I had given her an out when I called her the day before, doing my best to scare her away with claims of cold temps and steep ascents, but we both knew I wanted her there. Sometimes my family can seem a little disconnected from what I do and it was nice to have her familiar face out there and also be able to share a glimpse of ultra running with her.

I had decided because I was 'training through' Terrapin to leave my Garmin at home. Todd was even surprised by this, "you don't want to look at your splits later?" he'd asked. Knowing myself well I knew I wouldn't be able to hold with my plan of not racing wearing it, I did however have on my simple Ironman Timex watch so that I could keep some track of time.

I knew from training runs over the past few weeks that my calf is worse the first few miles of every run and when I try to push my pace. I knew I would need to take it very conservatively those first few miles Saturday morning or end up suffering the whole day, and possibly not even finish. Run smart, listen to your body I reminded myself at the start line.

Running from the Sedalia Center I started in the far back of the pack, but as we got on the road I would start talking to people and just fall into their pace. As we turned onto Reed Creek Road I was talking to Brenton Swyers and Andrew Charron, we were joking about my love for hills when my calf started to question what I was doing. I would have liked nothing more than to run up to Camping Gap with them but I had to listen to my leg. I bid them farewell and took to walking. And I walked and walked and was passed by droves of runners, this is usually quite difficult for me, so I reminded myself that it was important to let the leg warm up. I turned on my iPod and settled into the best hike pace I could. Fortunately, a great deal of my training over the past few weeks has been hiking, something I've always been quite poor at, I was happy to see that my hike felt comfortable but productive.

I had given myself an hour to Camping Gap. In life, I am a deadlines or distractions type, if I don't have a time goal, no matter how arbitrary, I can get incredibly unfocused. I set about doing what felt the most comfortable, not looking at my watch, and just hoping that it would be about an hour. I took a second GU and drank water. Then, shortly after the GU, my leg told me I could run again. It was awesome, it felt so good. I started to run and I was passing all of these people who were walking, which I took as a reminder to keep erring on the side of caution. At one point I passed my friend Freda who was doing the half, she said she thought I was long gone and I told her I needed to start slow (because of my calf). Someone up ahead turned and said "Sophie?" "No," I responded, "but thanks for the compliment." I was feeling stronger and stronger the farther we went and was gaining confidence in my plan.

I made it to Camping Gap the first time in 56:33, I was quite pleased. I filled up my water bottle at the aid station and headed off into the back loop, the part of the course I had not run other than the parts that are in Hellgate. Again, remembering Sophie's blog, I took the five mile descent very easy, several people passed me but I didn't let that bother me.

This section, while downhill, was very monotonous and near the bottom, where it levels out I started to get burnt out on all the road running. Then I had a wardrobe malfunction, my GU that I usually sandwich between two sports bras kept falling out and I would have to stop and pick them up. I ended up having to stick them in the first bra, pressed against my skin, this wasn't very comfortable. I'm going to need to plan something else for future long runs and races. I hadn't run on roads since Holiday Lake, it is not my favorite thing, and I started to get a little mentally bogged down here.

When we got to the turn on Goff Mountain I was thankful, in a way, that we were about to start climbing. I thought I saw Jeff Martin ahead, I ran and walked to catch up with him, we ran a short ways together and I ran on but with the burnout a little less after a quick chat with a friend. Then up ahead, I thought I saw Brenton and Andrew, this definitely raised my spirits and I ran and hiked at intervals to slowly catch up with them. When Andrew caught sight of me he said "Nooooooo" while I simultaneously cheered "I looooove hillllllllls!" I ran with them a ways before pushing on. I had just started walking again when I saw Blake and Kevin up ahead.

Usually, at races, I never get to talk with people, I'm all 'head down on a mission' so to speak. Saturday I enjoyed the brief conversations with friends as much as anything else. Blake had fallen just as he had started the descent down Hunting Creek Road and was pretty banged up. I felt bad that such an unforeseen moment could quickly change the kind of day you were having. I used this as a reminder to be thankful for each relatively pain-free moment. Blake had news of Todd, he said he'd passed Blake's mom getting onto the single track about 41st place and looking good. Blake and Kevin were about 110th when they'd passed by his mom a few minutes later.

Thrilled that we were on single track I ran on up ahead, this section was quite runnable. I hiked a few uphills and took some of the steep switchbacks carefully but overall really began to enjoy myself, the first time all day. Coming out of the single track I passed a huge group that had been crowded together on the trail now all stopped at the aid station, I took this opportunity to gain another dozen spots. I'll  be honest, there were a couple times throughout the day, like at this moment, that is was really very hard not to be racing.

I settled back into intervals split between hiking and running. I had given myself the arbitrary time of two hours to do this back section but my lack of running uphill over the past six weeks made that a challenge. I did mourn the race that could have been slightly and settled into running the best that I could for the day. After a mile or so of uphill I saw Grattan Garbee up ahead, his tie-dye compression sleeves gave him away. He was running and hiking the hill same as me and it took a few minutes to catch up with him, at one sharp switchback he looked back at me and I gave him a mischievous wave to suggest I was coming for him. We ran a few minutes together, he said he was glad to see I was running smart and he said he was feeling really good himself.

Near the top I realized I wasn't going to run this section in two hours but it would be close and that wasn't too bad for some arbitrary goal I had set, not knowing what to expect from my leg or lack of earnest training. The top of Hunting Creek Road was steep and as I climbed I ate another GU and two more Electrolyte tablets. I reached Camping Gap the second time in 2:59. My sister ran over and swapped bottles with me and handed me two GU, she seemed a bit frazzled and cold and I felt bad that she would only see me a minute or two the entire day but was glad she was there. She said I was tenth female which delighted me as I felt that I had been running very smart and comfortable. I passed by Horton in his truck who asked how I was doing, he'd seen me at the start and I had told him I was just training through Terrapin which I sensed disappointed him. I told him my sister thought I was tenth and I was pretty content with that. I wondered if that too was a disappointment but didn't take it to heart, just ran on through and into the WHOR loop.

On Thursday the WHOR loop had seemed so difficult as we had marked the course, it was yet another confidence depleting run. However, on Saturday as I crossed paths with the front runners and was feeling warmed up and comfortable it didn't seem nearly as bad. I kept waiting for the calves to tighten and rebel on the climbs but they never did. Now this is by no means to say that I ran the whole thing, I walked a great deal of this loop but I also ran more than I thought I might which wasn't too bad. I started to feel that I was running really smart for me, I was feeling great and with no real pressure was actually having a good time. Then I passed another female, which excuse me for this, always feels nice.

I had to wait in a short line to punch my bib at the top of the WHOR loop and I laughed inside, good thing I'm not racing today and then cruised down the other side. I passed only one runner on the downhill, I was taking this section conservatively because I feared the trail was possibly slick after slipping on Thursday. Approaching the bottom of the loop I saw Brenton, "Your hubby's only eight minutes ahead of you." This too excited me, I wasn't hopeful that he was having a bad day only that my day was going better than I had originally planned.

Running back to Camping Gap I felt amazing. My legs felt good, I still had a good deal of energy and I was excited about the prospect of having a better than planned day. I passed runners going into the WHOR loop, cheering them on and saying hello to my friends. Their encouraging words in response only drove me on harder, it was seriously the highlight of my day. Funny, I'd really dreaded the WHOR loop, hadn't even given myself a time goal because I didn't want to be disappointed and it turned out to be a pretty good section of the day.

I came back into Camping Gap at 3:58, I had run the WHOR loop in 59 minutes, I was quite pleased. I stopped to swap bottles with my sister and grab a few more GU. I talked to Blanks Blankenship who ran up the trail to take my picture. I was leaving when an AS worker said "Great job, you look really fresh." I said thank you to the person and acknowledged inwardly that I felt really fresh. Just up ahead I saw Phil Layman and Jenny Nichols. This surprised me, I would never have thought that I would catch up with Jenny or Phil. After a quick hello they pulled ahead on the climb to summit Terrapin. I slowed, remembering what I had read, climb Terrapin smooth and relaxed. I ate a GU, two Electrolyte tablets and three Tums. I drank water and focused on not letting the heart stress about the climb. Before long we were at the summit, punching our bibs and on our way to Fat Man's Misery.
Photo courtesy Blanks Blankenship

Jenny let me pass on the downhill, she said she wasn't as strong on the downhill. I usually am not, especially this particular section, but I was feeling really good. Phil stayed behind me until Fat Man's Misery where he got to witness me literally fall into the crevice between the two boulders that make up this obstacle on the course.  Ouch! Both my elbows and my bottom felt that. I was a little disoriented coming out the other side and was thankful another runner was just through the other side and reminded us to punch our bibs.

In the Rock Garden I encouraged Phil to pass me but I tried to stay with him as best I could. I ran this section between Fat Man's Misery and the AS at Terrapin Lane as fast as I ever have and even passed one more female along the way. Since the beginning I had been telling myself that if I felt good at Terrapin Lane I would run hard from there to the finish. All day I had seen this as a good option to make up some time and get a little racing in. When I got to the AS there at Terrapin lane I was happy to see Dennis Coan and Charlie Peele. I handed my hat and gloves off to Dennis and asked for salt tablets. Dennis said he had some in his car but I told him that wasn't necessary. A volunteer offered me salted popcorn instead, I took a big handful and asked about Todd as I headed out. "He's fifteen minutes ahead of you," Dennis said. Knowing I would never catch him I headed on in the hopes of running a strong finish.

Two bites of popcorn later and I immediately started to have the sensation that worms were travelling through my right calf, my injured, listen closely to me, calf. With no electrolyte tablets left and not wanting to ruin what had become a pretty good day I decided, on the slow uphill climb back to the Terrapin Ridge trail that I needed to take it easy and avoid cramping. Despite how the rest of me felt, which was pretty good, I couldn't risk cramping. I walked the uphill back from the AS and then some of the turn once I was on the single track trail. I was a little disheartened. I felt so good but I didn't know why I had just experienced that strange calf sensation and I just couldn't risk it, especially when I was supposed to be 'training through' Terrapin.

Then I realized something even more foolish. Despite what must have been my longest stop of the day at the AS at Terrapin lane I hadn't filled my water bottle up. It only had a few ounces left in it. I was feeling nervous, really hoping to keep the cramps at bay. Shortly after I had another wave of cramps so I ended up eating another GU, my ninth for the day, only about 20 minutes after my last one and drank the rest of the water in my bottle. Fearing I still had a few miles left and with the sun warming up for the day I stopped and filled my water bottle at a stream crossing. It tasted fine though so I nursed it as I weaved in and out on this section of winding trail. I looked back at one point and saw no one behind me, I really wanted to run this section harder but the cramps had me scared. I didn't enjoy this section, usually one of my favorites, as much as I would have liked because of the fear of the unknown and cramping.

When I saw Reed Creek I was very excited, I hadn't had any cramps for a few minutes and figured I had less than two miles left. I ran the downhill section well if not slightly fast. When I arrived at the turn off of Reed Creek road however, I could feel the lack of speed training and road running over the past month and a half on the mostly flat section. I also had a twinge of cramping on the road so I ran easy due to that as well. When I passed Todd less than quarter mile to the finish he reached for my water bottle, just then the Mountain Goats came on my iPod. I smiled a great big smile. Fearing further cramping if I tried to sprint in the finish I took it easy and coasted across the finish line in 5:39.

Overall for my current level of training, which has consisted of an average pace of over 11 minute miles, I feel I had a very good day on Saturday. I would have liked very much to not have muscle cramps the last few miles but even despite this I feel I ran a very smart and conservative race. I didn't surge at any time during the day, I carried out what fueling plans I had made and I listened to my body, backing off when there was pain or cramping. Even though I didn't push it per se, Terrapin is still a really tough course. My body was sore afterwards and my elbow tender and bruised.

I ended up finishing 50th overall and there is a part of me that wonders how I would have done if I'd been strong and healthy this past month, able to train efficiently and race well. Or if I'd been able to keep cramps completely at bay. At the same time, I finished well enough that I wonder how much better I would have even ran if better trained. My goal in January had been to run Terrapin in sub 5:30, I was only 9 minutes off of that time. Oh well, maybe next year.

Very thankful for all the friends I have met through ultra running, and their encouragement and support. It is always fun to see friends out on the race course. I am very thankful my sister was out there on Saturday, she isn't sold on ultra running but I think it may have opened her eyes a little to what we do, though her opinion that we are in fact crazy may have only become more etched in her mind. And of course, a big thank you to the Aid Station for letting me be a part of their running team this year.

-Alexis


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