Monday, May 6, 2013

Race Report: Trail Nut Half Marathon

Mountain Junkies LLC
Trail Nut 10k & Half Marathon
Saturday, May 4, 2013
Bedford, VA

This was the second Mountain Junkies event we had the pleasure of experiencing back in 2010 when I first discovered this amazing series of races. The Mountain Junkies are a husband and wife duo that "want you to have a great time", a tagline that is evident in every aspect of the events they put together. This event, the Trail Nut 10k and Half Marathon, is one of my favorites and so close to home I couldn't pass it up even with that vow I made with myself about racing anything this short before Western States (and then of course there's that ridiculous streak of mine).

I ran the 10k in 2010, it was only my third 10k ever, second on trails and I fell in love with the park that the race introduced me to and even more in love with single track. In 2011, hellbent on finishing the series despite being pregnant, I ran the 10k and announced with my t-shirt that I was expecting a 'future Mountain Junkie'. Last year was my first attempt at the half marathon, for which personal problems led to a pretty down evening and morning before the race start. I started the race hungry and with my mind elsewhere, with legs only a week off of my second ultra, and suffered greatly.

After swearing off shorter races earlier this year when the calf trouble befell me I had to sorrowfully remove the Mountain Junkies RNUTS from my race calendar. However, after last weekend's not so stellar performance at Promise Land I began contemplating the Trail Nut. I thought about just coming out, maybe sweeping the course or being a cheerleader, but I'd seen the race t-shirt and wondered just how I could do at a race for which speed of some sort would be necessary. Todd was encouraging that I run the half, not 'sandbag' and race the 10k, he was also excited about seeing what he could do at the half marathon.

Back and forth on registering, as well as which distance to choose all the way up until we arrived at Falling Creek Park kept the nerves and race jitters down to a very fine low, almost nonexistent. Uncertain how my calf would react I registered for the half marathon, figuring the distance would afford a slighter slower overall pace. With a few minutes to spare before the race briefing I joined Todd for a quick warm-up.

The pace was slow and the calf felt good, I began to think I could pull it off. I figured I would be fifth, trailing Dacia, Courtney, Lauren and Carrie, as long as I could hold it together.

Turns out "holding it together" is a real challenge for me.

I positioned myself at the start line around  Lauren, Courtney, Randy, people I thought I should be able to run with if I ran well. When the race began I tried to go out with them. Through the grass we ran, I was keeping with them but also immediately feeling the pace, you can't keep this, Alexis, back off now. Backing off before we even entered the single track was blow number one. When the calf began to tighten, as should be expected at this point, I tried to push through. When the pain in my calf began to spread to my foot like it did at that fateful 5k back in February I had to reign it in further and lose several more positions. This was blow number two. With the calf now irritated and with a diminishing pace I began to fall victim to the negativity, contemplating a DNF. Just tell Josh your leg can't handle this, you just ran an ultra a week ago, this was foolish at best. Struggling along, the determined side of me spoke up, you can finish this, it may take three hours, but you don't DNF, it's not who you are. 

The next few miles were a tad bit miserable, but I was in this thing. I was slipping just slightly in pace as I fought on, hoping the pain in my calf would ease as it is known to do after a few miles. I just kept trying to reassure myself that it would pass. However, by the time I found myself running on pavement the pain was radiating up the hip, not full out painful, but a threat of some kind. To top it off I've been dealing with a touch of plantar fasciitis in the other foot that decided to share it's frustration with me at this point. The persistent pain, while not severe, was blow number three. I was an absolute mess.

Then, shortly before the bike park, Sarah Taylor passed me looking strong. I followed closely behind as we made our ways up the grassy hill, taking in her beautiful stride, admiring her strength. When we came into the bike park and it was flat with countless people ahead of us running seemingly in circles my first thought was this is just cruel! I could see the runners ahead of me, but then as I ran further into the flat, winding section I began to see the happy, strong faces of runners quickly approaching. I always feel a certain weakness on flats and Saturday was no different. I started to focus on Sarah, how strong she looked.

Suffering in the first miles. Photo courtesy Mountain Junkies.
And finally, that determined side spoke up, louder this time: She IS strong! But you are strong, too. Yes, you feel pain, but aren't you an ultra runner? Isn't overcoming pain part of what it takes for success? Push aside the pain, pick up the pace and run strong. I heard these thoughts and I believed them. And just like that, my race came back together, instantly. I picked up the pace and focused on that strength that I possess but consistently forget to harness.

I still felt pain in my left heel and right hip, but I started to drown them out with this new-found focus on running well. If there was anymore negative self-talk it was only that it shouldn't take me nearly five miles to decide to run on strengths, not deficiencies. The next six miles were run well, I began to settle into a better race, a better day. I was a little disoriented coming through the first loop, unsure whether I should really be crossing the finish line or not. I decided to stop at the aid station to fill up my water bottle, I was worried it would heat up in the second loop, but I probably should have just dropped the empty bottle at what would be the finish line, I didn't end up drinking much of the water and it probably cost me some time.

Going out for the second, shorter loop I felt pretty good, the heel was the only thing still really nagging me and I hoped to drop the pace even more. However, at about eleven miles the fatigue began to set in. I would have to settle for holding the pace, the legs may be capable of holding that pace for a half marathon but they really just aren't trained for it at the moment. When I came upon Blake with less than two miles to go I wondered when he had passed me. He said he'd accidentally cut the course, that he'd already told Gina about it and that he'd see me at the finish as he let me pass by him.

Coming into the final miles a volunteer directing the half marathoners told me I was in third place for females, I had been kind of hoping to chase Courtney down, but there was no one out in front of me that I could see. I had a runner behind me the entire second loop, I kept encouraging him to pass me but he kept assuring me that he was just trying to hold on. The short, but slightly steep final section of trail was not as hard as I recalled last year. I had planned on not pushing the final steps but when I saw I was capable of breaking 1:50 I picked up the pace to secure that feat.

Within moments of passing the finish line I had several people tell me I was third female and several tell me I was fourth. I didn't let the confusion bother me, I was preoccupied with a fair bit of itching. I had sat down in the grass and I don't know if that's what caused the itching but most of my legs and torso itched. Thankfully, Gina saved me with a Benadryl.

Turns out, I was third. One of the females in the race had unintentionally cut the course along with Blake and a few other guys. I felt really bad about this, like I was stealing third. Todd assured me that, while everyone involved felt bad, I was third and shouldn't feel bad about accepting the award.

Courtney Griffin (2nd), Dacia Reed (1st) and Alexis Thomas (3rd)

I urge everyone who hasn't run a Mountain Junkies race to do so, I have started several posts about just how well put together and carried out they are, but I think you just need to go out and participate to really feel what I would try to convey in a post. Conquer the Cove is next month, go sign up! You won't be sorry, but you may be sore!

Once again, post race, I'm floundering, frustrated. I feel lost. I know I can run well but being injury prone and with Western States looming closer everyday I am probably worse than ever before. I told Todd yesterday that I can't wait for July 1st, I'm just ready to see how it all turned out. I keep saying that I don't want to disappoint everyone, but to be honest, I'm most worried that I am going to disappoint myself, fall apart and quit before my time. If I could just locate that strength I know I have, bottle it up and have it ready I know I would be alright but instead I keep misplacing it, and that has me truly running scared.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Promise Land 50K (Todd)

So much fun, Horton couldn't fit it in 31 miles!

This was my second running of the Promise Land 50K++, so I knew what I was getting into this year, and somehow I still managed to be surprised by how hard it was.  I mean it's only 34 miles over some of the most scenic trails and hardest climbs in central Virginia.  Should have been a walk in the park.  Right?

But before we get into all of the gruesome painful details, lets talk about what makes Promise Land such an epic event, and not just another run in the mountains.  Promise Land is kind of like a festival that centers around a race.  A 24 hour gathering of friends and  family (some may say rivals or competition  but when you all get together and sleep in a field before the race you can somehow transcend all of that) where we run in the mountains for 5 to 10 hours.

I don't know how early people start showing up to camp, but when we got there at 5pm on Friday there were a lot of tents already pitched   We parked near Dennis Coan and Sam Lynch and started to set up our campsite at the same time James Decker and Dru Sexton arrived and began to settle in right next door.  It was nice to know our neighbors.

With our camp established it was time to wander the grounds and seek out our friends, some whom we train with on a weekly basis and some we only see at races.  But more than just runners are here, people bring their spouses, children, siblings, and friends to Promise Land.  Local runners and even some out of town runners who aren't running show up for the party.  And of course our newly adopted kid Sam who crashed in our tent and is always eating our food.  (For as little as $.50 a day you too could sponsor a really fast under-privileged Asian kid from California.)  And we commence to eating large quantities of food, or at least that is what I did.  Pizza, and lots of it.

Next up is the famous Horton race briefing which lasts a while, but it is more a way for Horton to hang out with this incredible community of runners that he has assembled than anything else.  "If you get lost you're stupid" is the type of guidance given out, intermixed with some 'random' and 'impartial' door prizes, and outright harassment of anyone who Horton knows well enough.

After the race briefing the bon fire is lit, and we all congregate around it discussing our strategies and worries until someone is crazy enough to jump the fire.  (Wade-O's are evidently entirely too flammable to attempt this feat.)  With fires jumped and pizzas consumed we begin to disperse to tents, campers, and back seats around 10 pm, where we make our last minute gear preparations and try to settle in for a good 5 - 6 hours of sleep.  Note:  Alexis' only two complaints about camping were the smell and the quiet.  But the quiet was pleasantly broken at 4:30 am by Horton and his bullhorn.  The smell, well that's just nature.

It is now time to get up and run.

The hour before the race goes by incredibly fast, and if you're not careful to get your gear ready the night before you could be caught scrambling when the mob of 350+ runners take off with a yell and begins to climb that first little hill at precisely 5:30 am.  David Horton does not start his races late.

The three miles to the first aid station is all uphill, and I have found in the past that uphill starts tend to be tough on me.  I am happy to say that this first climb was easier than I could have hoped for, but not do to my training or toughness, but to the presence and support of friends.  I started in the back of the pack as I was still fumbling with my Ipod when the race started (the stupid thing ended up not working at all the entire day).  My friends carried me up those three miles easier than I have even made that climb before.

I started out running with Kevin Correl and Blake Edmundson at the very back of the pack.  Alexis was somewhere near by when we started, but we lost her in the dark mob almost immediately.  Once we got out on the road we caught up with Mike Donahue and the four of us ran together for a while.  Somewhere during the first mile we picked up Phil Layman and lost Kevin and Blake, had a conversation with Charlie Peele who was recovering from an Achilles injury, but still running.  Then we caught up with Dennis and Sam, our camping neighbors.  This would prove to be the best thing that happened to my race.

This race was my 10th Ultra Marathon, and I almost always seem to run alone.  No matter how many other runners are out there at a race, I have always stuck with the "Run Your Own Race" motto, and never tried to match pace with anyone for long.  I have trained with and raced against Dennis Coan a lot, and I knew that he is usually stronger than me, but not so much that I can't keep up for a while.  When we hit the single track climb after the first aid station I pulled away from Dennis and Sam.  Not intentionally mind you, it was dark still and I really enjoy that particular section of technical single track.  But not long after we got on the grassy road section Dennis was back at my side.

This section rolls up and down for four or five miles, and I realized that I had slowed way down once Dennis had caught back up.  I adjusted my pace to match him through this section, and we commenced to passing people and moving along at a pace that was just barely faster than comfortable.  A perfect Ultra pace.   We fell in with a couple of other guys through here and formed kind of a pack.  John from the Naval Academy was the only one who stuck with us for a while though.  We passed Jamie Swyers, who was second girl at the time, and headed into aid station #2.

I emptied my water bottle in one big gulp and started to loosen the top before we realized that the aid station wasn't there.  I have been warned by race directors before that the front runners may beat the aid station crews to some locations, and that the rear of the pack may not get the full benefit of the aid station due to them running out of supplies.  This bit of race doctrine has never before mattered to me as I am a solid Mid-Pack runner.  As it turns out, the crew of this aid station got lost, and I am in no danger of losing my Mid-Packer status.  So we were off to Sunset Fields without water.

Just like Dennis pulled me along the grassy road section, I think I helped pull him up the White Oak Ridge trail to the parkway crossing.  We ran pretty strong in this section, and hiked better than those around us when we did hike.  This race was coming together for me.  After we crossed the parkway it was Dennis' turn  to do the pulling again, as he set the pace a couple of notches past comfortable and we discussed what kind of splits we needed for a sub-6 hour finish.  John the future fighter pilot hung right with us.

The three of us left Sunset Fields a little spread out.  I was the first on the trail, with John right behind me, but Dennis had a real crew there and was a little slower getting out, it would be a while until we saw him again.

We were entering the Dark Side:  "Face this alone, you must."

The five or so miles between Sunset Fields and Cornelius Creek are some of my favorite miles of this race, technical downhill that I seem to be able to zoom down a little faster than some.  I caught up with Zach Quigg on this downhill section.  I was surprised to see him, and ran with him for a few minutes.  Zach is much faster than me, but hasn't been having a good year at the Ultras.  He said he was feeling fine, just taking it easy.  So I passed him and continued down the hill towards Cornelius Creek Aid Station.  On this steep and technical downhill I had to make my one and only pit stop of the day to relieve myself in the woods.  TIP:  If you have to get off of the trail to use the bathroom, do it on a technical downhill trail.  Everyone is looking at the ground in front of them and no one notices you even if you are only a few feet off the trail.  John the future pilot passed me here, but I caught up with him pretty soon and ended up leading him into the aid station.

This is where my race went south last year, and in my opinion where the Dark Side really begins.  Coming out of Cornelius Creek you run down a gradual sloping road for about two miles before you get back into the woods and the trails.  I felt alright, but slow on this road as three or four guys caught and passed me.  Last year I died and became a zombie on this road, and plodded along for the next 12 miles.  This year was different, when I turned off of the road and into the woods I immediately caught up with all of those guys who had passed me on the road, and then I passed them.  This is where I said good-bye to future-fighter-pilot John.

This trail section was like a homecoming of sorts.  It is a lot like the trails I do most of my training on, and I felt fresh and fast here.  Coming into the Colin Hollow aid station I had caught up with a couple of new guys, and we were in and out together, and I used them to pace off of for the next 4.67 miles back to Cornelius Creek.  I'm not saying that David Horton is a liar, but if that section is only 4.67 miles, then I...

I saw Clark Zealand running this section in reverse, and I managed to maintain a pretty steady pace even though I was starting to feel tired and hot.  I knew that after this section the race was basically run.  The climb up the falls trail was hard and slow, and the five miles after that were hard and fast.  I just had to get back to Cornelius Creek and I would have beaten the Dark Side.  My sub-6 was looking very likely.

I was in and out of the aid station exactly on the splits that Dennis and I had discussed.  I wondered where he was, and how his race was playing out.  Coming into the aid station I saw James Decker leaving and I wondered if I had a chance of catching him and finishing with him.  But alas, it was not to be.

I left Cornelius Creek running with two guys and we ran for most of the first mile of the 3.5 mile climb back to Sunset Fields.  And then the wheels started to come off.  I suddenly felt weak and started hiking.  They pulled away.  I started feeling nauseous  and couldn't get a gel to go down.  A group of hikers passed me.  I ended up squeezing the gel out onto the ground so I could stuff the wrapper in my pocket, after gagging a couple of times.  A few more hikers passed me.  I was finally at the falls.  I still had 1.5 miles to climb.  I started to feel light-headed, and actually sat down on a big rock for a minute and drank some water.  I managed to make it up the stairs, stopping to sit down for a couple of minutes on the nice bench with the great view.  Joe Dudak passed me here and encouraged me not to give up.  I made it to the last little water fall, and I waded into the creek and stuck my head under the cascading water.  It felt icy, but good.  I realized how hot I had gotten.  I drank straight from the falls and filled my bottle.  Feeling slightly refreshed I set off at a decent hike.  I crossed the road (.9 miles to go) and someone actually ran past me.  I made it to the AT crossing and a voice called out my name from behind.  Dennis had finally found me again.  "Hurry up," I told him.  "I need you to pull me the rest of the way."

When Dennis got to Sunset Fields I was sitting on the sidewalk being force-fed by Charlie Hesse.  "Eat this, drink this, you're not done yet."  Charlie was like something between a guardian angel and a field medic.  "Get up," Dennis said.  "No."  I didn't mean it, but I just sat there while he got his aid from the volunteers.  Then Jamie Swyers came out of the trail head and asked what I was doing sitting down.  I told her I was done, as she ran right past the aid station on her way to a strong finish.  My sub-6 had slipped away on that nasty climb, but I was ready to suffer for another 5 miles and be done with this race.

I let Dennis lead out of the aid station (like I had any choice), and we caught up with Jamie in the little grassy field.  Together the three of us hiked the last hill of the day and lamented our missed sub-6 finishes.  But then we all acknowledged that we would comfortably PR, and then we decided to see how close to 6 we could get.  Dennis led down the single track to the last aid station.  I watched his heels and ran without thinking, and somehow came back to life on this section.  The rhythm of running down hill blurred out all of the aches and pains I was feeling, and Jamie's taunts from behind distracted me from any negative thoughts that might still have been bouncing around in my head.  We decided to blow past the last aid station, and run every man (or woman) for themselves when we hit the gravel road.

I pulled ahead of them right away, but this is where the road is dangerously steep, and I was feeling too numb to be even the slightest bit cautious.  I just wanted to be done running.  I expected Dennis to pass me as soon as the road leveled out a little, and wasn't surprised to hear footsteps near the State Maintenance sign.  I was surprised when it was neither Dennis or Jamie who was passing me, but some girl I had not seen before.  I looked back at this point and only saw empty road.

With about one mile to go the road levels out even more, and I knew I was slowing down without so much help from gravity.  I heard another runner coming, and expected Dennis to be there at my side, but it was Brenton Swyers this time, Jamie's husband, flying past me.  I told him that it was unsportsmanlike to pass someone suffering this bad with less than a mile to go, but he left me like I was standing still, evidently thinking I was kidding.

I passed the big squirrel and remembered Chelsie's advice from the night before:  "Dig deep at the Squirrel, only a quarter mile to go!"  But there would be no digging this day.  I must have lost my shovel somewhere on the climb up the falls.

6:03, official finishing time for Promise Land 50K++ 2013.

The next few hours are a little hazy as I hung out and ate and re-hydrated and soaked in the cold creek behind the camp, twice, and watched my fellow runners finish.  It was a glorious day to run in the mountains, I came expecting to suffer and let me tell you, I was not let down.