... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Bigfoot 40 Miler Race Report

I went into this the Bigfoot 40 Miler -- which is actually 43.5 miles, go figure -- knowing two things: I was undertrained on elevation gain (I blame Texas) and I was low on overall training volume (no one to blame but me!). According to my Garmin data, my maximum weekly mileage at peak had been 36.2 miles. Sometimes life is what it is, and I arrived in the tiny town of Ariel, WA, at the base of Mt. St. Helens at peace with the idea that the goal for this race was truly just to finish. It was something new, something challenging, and I was going to leave it all out there on the course. It was also important to me to give it my best to honor my dad, a runner with whom I hiked Mt. St. Helens twenty-one years ago and who died from bladder cancer ten years ago last month. I knew his presence would be strong. I was extremely lucky to have my best friend, Kate, pick me up at the airport and act as driver and support crew on this adventure. Without her, the logistics would have been so much more overwhelming. She picked me up on Wednesday night and we drove the hour or so to settle into our cute little AirBnb cabin, then spent the next day preparing for the race and catching up.

PRE-RACE (or "Wasps Are Pure Evil")
Disaster struck around 2pm when we left the house to go scout out the start line location. When I got out of the car to open the gate, I was stung on the heel by a wasp. Before I could even realize what was happening there were two wasps, then five, then fifteen, then thirty. I ran for the car and got stung again. I made it into the car but not without several of the angry little assholes in tow and we drove just far enough away to avoid the main swarm before jumping out to shoo more of them out. We got back in the car and continued but had to get out three more times before all of the wasps were gone. Meanwhile, my wrist and heel were on fire reacting to my moderate wasp allergy, swelling up and throbbing with pain.

Turmeric-honey paste
We continued as if it hadn't happened, and I steadfastly refused to think about the fact that all of my training and this entire trip could be for nothing if I couldn't fit my foot into my shoe in the morning. We stopped and got Benadryl and I super-dosed myself with it, which made the rest of the day a foggy, painful dream. When we got back to the cabin after successfully finding the start, we implemented every natural remedy known to man: turmeric, raw honey, apple cider vinegar, baking soda, and ice. Nothing seemed to make much of a difference.

This was by far the strangest and most difficult pre-race situation I've ever faced. Usually the night before a long race I am focused, visualizing my day and mentally getting into warrior mode. Having it be in question whether I would be able to start or not totally threw me off, despite telling myself just to act like I was racing and re-evaluate in the morning. I spent the evening battling my own mind and feeling unprepared. On the upside, another big dose of Benadryl before bed gave me the best pre-race sleep I've ever had.
Balloon Foot

When my alarm went off in the dark the next morning, I looked at the sting situation. It had reduced in size ever so slightly, and it didn't look quite as red and angry as it had the night before, but it still had a decidedly balloon-like appearance. I tried putting my shoe on and discovered I could do it if I loosened my laces dramatically. It hurt, but it was possible, so I declared that it was a tentative go and we gathered up my gear. I was terrified, as an already difficult race had just gotten much more challenging.

I think that we were both thrown by the situation, because despite having done a dry run of the drive from the cabin to the start the day before, we completely missed the turn and ended up ten miles too far down the road before realizing our error. Poor Kate was driving like a race car driver and panicking that we might miss the start. I had entered a strange state of Zen in which I had decided that if we missed it, it just wasn't meant to be. This also may have been me hoping against hope that I didn't actually have to run 43 miles on my throbbing sausage foot... in fact, I believe when we finally DID make it and they allowed me to check in just seven minutes before the race's start time, my exact response was, "really? Shit, now I actually have to do this."

THE RACE (or "Never-Ending UP")

Start to Blue Lake (11.5 miles)
Ultramarathon starts, compared to triathlon starts, are apparently fairly unceremonious. Kate, Michelle and I were standing there talking and then suddenly, without any signal that I could hear, the mass of people was moving toward the forest. I had been told that the first five miles was nearly constant uphill and that "power hiking" most of it was advisable, so I trotted briefly while talking Michelle, then slowed down and watched as she went off ahead.

Uphill it was indeed.

A photo that does no justice whatsoever to the spectacular view
The first mile was fairly mild, but miles two through five were ridiculous. We hiked up, up, up, through forests, surrounded by thick mist that obscured most of our surroundings. According to my Garmin data, we gained approximately 2200 feet in three miles, ending up well above the clouds by Mile 5 and emerging on the side of a mountain to a sight whose beauty is seared into my mind. All around us were large boulders of unusual and odd shapes. On one side, we got our first glimpse of Mt. St. Helens, towering above us. Mist was pouring down her side, soaked in golden sunlight as the fog burned away. To the other side, the sun created a circular rainbow in the lingering mist and beyond that I could see the tops of several other mountains peaks above the floor of clouds. It was breathtaking.

Boulder field
Next up came a new obstacle: a boulder field. Devoid of anything resembling a path, the next mile or so was basically a stretch of 2-4 foot diameter boulders that were hurled down the mountain when it erupted and that came to rest without any particular order spread out as far as you can see. Finding your footing is a challenge, both because of the uneven surfaces and the fact that occasionally if you get too cocky and quick, you'll step on one that looks stable but actually moves as soon as you fully commit and put your weight on it, sending you either falling or at very least scrambling to catch yourself. Combine this with the fact that there is no trail and you are searching for course markers and it makes for an interesting time. As it turns out, I am actually pretty damn good at scampering through boulder fields. This may have been the only section of the race where I passed a ton of people. I'm going to attribute this to some combination of ballet skills and spending a fair amount of time traversing lava fields in Hawaii. Wherever this otherwise useless skill came from, I was grateful. ("Fast" at traversing boulder fields, by the way, still equated to a 27-minute mile).

The rest of the first section of the race, I basically just remember that a lot of it was downhill. In fact, it appears that this race really only has two settings -- up, and down. "Flat" doesn't exist. One particularly glorious section was a packed dirt path with stable footing through a beautiful forest, downhill for nearly two miles straight, and I flew. I knew that I would regret this later because of the pounding on my joints, but after six miles at what felt like a snail's pace, I enjoyed every second of it, except for the moment when I realized we were undoing all of the climbing we'd done and that we'd probably have to re-do it in the next section.

Coming into the Blue Lake Aid Station
It was very interesting to see how my training interacted with the elevation gains and the weather. On the steep uphills I was clearly weak, and my heart would be pounding in my ears before I knew it. As soon as I reached flat or downhill and got to run, however, the cool air allowed me to recover incredibly quickly and thoroughly. Whereas training in Texas heat I would stay wiped out from uphill sections, I found myself essentially back to neutral as soon as the ground leveled out. I also noted that my actual run fitness was very high -- it was the power hiking fitness that left something to be desired.

Anyway, I reached the first aid station at Blue Lake, approximately 11 miles into the race, feeling fairly good. The aid station itself baffled me, since I'm used to triathlon aid stations. There were wraps and sandwiches and buffet-style candy, but none of those things sounded even remotely manageable, and there were an assortment of chairs (am I supposed to sit in the chairs?) Instead, I drank a little gingerale, ate some grapes, and sat down briefly to empty the dirt and rocks out of my socks and shoes before stuffing my foot back in. The foot was throbby and poured out puffily over the edges of the shoe, but the pain wasn't awful. I knew that the next section of the course would be the longest and felt that I should be preparing in some special way, but couldn't think of what that should be so I decided to just get moving. I refilled my water flasks and took off back into the wilderness.

Blue Lake to Windy Ridge (18 Miles)
The first I-don't-know-how-many miles were woodsy and fairly moderate. It was still uphill, but not in the soul-crushing way we had climbed the first five miles of the race. We passed through an amazing old growth forest with trees whose trunks were as wide as cars, and I again enjoyed the relatively easy footing. Somewhere in here, we went back downhill, again for at least a mile or two, and again I ran it, noting this time that my joints felt a little creakier. Eventually I popped out of the woods at a large gulch -- the Toutle River -- where we had to use a rope to climb down one side, cross the river, then use another rope to climb back up the steep incline on other side. Apparently in years past this section has been a major bottleneck, with runners waiting upwards of 45 minutes to use the rope, but this year it didn't seem to be an issue (or I was so slow that the traffic jam had already passed).

Somewhere in here I remember becoming vaguely aware that the site of the wasp sting on my heel was getting sore. The generalized pain in my foot had decreased (or blended in with the other pains I was feeling) and the swelling had gone down a little, but the specific point on the sting was bothering me. This section was switchbacks through what looked like small patches of alpine meadows, with small, sturdy-looking plants covering the ground. I ignored my heel and kept going until I arrived at what was, for me, the scariest part of the course.

Photo courtesy of Patricia Hopkins. The red arrow is pointing to people, for scale
Looking at it as I ran up to it, it didn't look so bad. In fact, it looked like something I would actually enjoy because it would be scary but in a fun way: an entire hillside, steeply graded, covered in soft material that appeared to be ash or sand, looking as if the entire side of the mountain had slid off and then been covered in powder. It seemed to go up sharply and forever to my left, and down sharply and forever to my right, with a path at my feet that was about eight inches wide and much too soft and prone to crumbling for my comfort. I ventured out onto the slope without much fear at first -- I've never been afraid of heights, so this didn't bother me. Within 30 seconds, however, I found my entire body tipping involuntarily toward the downhill and had to catch my balance. I shook it off and started again, and again I found myself tilting to one side, and this time when I corrected I got extremely dizzy. I looked around to try and calm myself, but as soon as I scanned my surroundings the whole scene started moving before my eyes. I bobbled again and almost lost my balance. I realized at that point that for whatever reason, my brain was not processing that the entire horizon was, in fact, at an angle rather than straight, and it seemed absolutely intent on slipping it back to flat even if that was not reality and made me tip straight off the path and fall down the seemingly endless hill. There was just enough mist to obscure the larger landmarks beyond this Hill From Hell, which I think was also contributing to my brain's perception that the horizon needed to be righted.

The only solution I could come up with was to look down at nothing but my feet and the six inches of ground in front of them. I tried to ignore my peripheral vision, which kept betraying me, bringing the vertigo back and flipping everything except my feet in circles. Step by step I went, with absolute focus. It was slow going, and I was horrified when I reached what appeared to the be end of the section only to realize that there were two more switchbacks crossing this nightmare of a hill. I felt like I was in some kind of sick fun house and my brain had betrayed me.

Pretty happy at this point
Finally I made it to the true end and off of the hillside and quietly rejoiced. The next section was probably the most moderate -- small, manageable rolling hills with some short, glorious flat sections in between. There were pretty wild flowers and nice views, and because of the flatter terrain I could see other runners all along the path ahead of and behind me, which gave a nice sense of safety and community. Throughout the race, I greatly enjoyed being passed by the 200-mile runners, who were incredibly fit and equally kind and encouraging.

I had lost track of the mileage here, but it would have been somewhere around the 22 mile point. Things were going well. The course dropped into kind of a Mars-like prairie, whose floor was sandy with scattered rocks. To the right, Mt. St. Helens loomed increasingly large, and to the left were mountains and valleys as far as I could see. Spirit Lake appeared in the distance, letting me know that we were getting (sort of) close to the next aid station. The sun had come out but was still not uncomfortably hot, and I just kept thinking how much my dad would have enjoyed this. I breathed deeply and was truly enjoying each moment.

I was also realizing that my water supply, while sufficient, was going to be a little tight. With just under eight miles left to the Windy Ridge aid station, I took stock of my situation and decided that ideally I should have refilled at the Toutle River. Since it was only about 5 miles into this leg, however, it had seemed unnecessary. Definitely a miscalculation on my part. I cursed myself for carrying the water filter I brought and not using it, and made a note to ration more carefully, and just as I was coming up with a plan to do so I came up over an embankment to find a perfect, gushing stream tumbling down over the rocks from the crater.

Oh good, we're climbing again. 
Apparently, I was not the only one who was relieved to see this surprise water source. Runners were stopped all along the banks, most of them smiling and chatting giddily as they transferred water from their filters to their bottles. My Katadyn filter worked like a charm, removing the silt from the stream and leaving me with deliciously cold, clean-tasting water as I continued forward. I thanked the universe for watching out for me and vowed not to put myself in a position again where I was relying on the universe's mercy.

Next up was more climbing. It wasn't as long as before (about one mile), and the scenery was phenomenal, but my climbing muscles were fatiguing dramatically and it was hard. We were basically going straight up toward the crater, which was a stunning and powerful view, but it was also awful because I could see the runners up ahead of me way off in the distance and still going uphill, and thus was able to anticipate exactly how long I would be dragging myself upward in tortured determination. I had mixed feelings about that section.

By the time it was over, my muscles were in not-so-great shape. I was in good spirits because we were down to about 3-4 miles from the next aid station and we were no longer going straight uphill, but my legs ached with every step and my left hamstring had tightened up. I tried to run as much of the next plains section as it would allow, and told myself I'd allow myself a longer stop at Windy Ridge to gather myself and see it would calm down. The other issue I was dealing with was the stupid  wasp sting, which since about Mile 20 had developed into what felt like a scalpel lodged in my heel, cutting into my skin with every step. I had had to stop three times to adjust my sock and shoe and re-lube it. Each stop resulted in modest improvement for all of ten minutes before it returned to full scalpel effect. I hoped to find some solution to this at the aid station as well.

Almost to Windy Ridge aid station!
The last section leading to the aid station was a gravel road on what turned out to literally be a "windy ridge." It was a fun section, both because the gravel was easy footing, the views were ridiculous (Mt. St. Helens to the left and some other gorgeous green and blue mountain range to the right), and you got to see all the runners headed back out from the aid station and cheer each other on. My muscles and joints were in full on mutiny, but I thoroughly enjoyed this part regardless. Besides, I had made it to the second aid station, through the hardest section (or so I thought at the time), and somehow tackling 13.5 more miles to the finish was actually sounding doable. Life was good.

I was into this aid station. After feeling unsure and awkward at the first one, the fatigue and pain erased any questions I had about proper decorum and I made myself right at home. Amazing volunteers were making hot food, including quesadillas and other deliciousness, but what was calling to me was the Cup o' Noodles in all of its salty, hot goodness (it was chilly up there). I happily munched on watermelon while  my noodles softened and then plopped myself down in a chair without a second thought. The broth was absolute heaven, and to make it even better there was a big old chocolate lab sitting next to me who was very interested in my soup, which was excellent because I got to pet him the whole time. I would have been pretty happy to just stay at that aid station all night. I took off my shoes, again emptying the dirt and rocks out, and doctoring my heel and toes as best I could, dismayed that I couldn't do much for my wasp sting but elated that there were no blisters to be found. I also found a foam roller and gave my pesky hamstring some therapy.

After the time I had allotted myself I refilled my bottles one last time and took off on the last leg, feeling decidedly perkier albeit still sore.

Gorgeous views toward Mt. Adams
Windy Ride to Finish (13.5 miles)
My perkiness was quickly dashed to hell when I realized that after the lovely gravel section, our course veered off to the left and directly up the hill I had noticed on the way in and thanked my lucky stars I didn't have to climb. The initial, mild ascent took me onto a picturesque ridge, no more than five feet across, with Mt. St. Helens towering over me to the right and that beautiful blue and green mountain range spreading out endlessly to my left. It was, once again, spectacular. I tried to focus my mind on the beauty rather than the ugly hill rearing up in front of me, so steep that there were stairs/ladders embedded in the ground because it was nearly impossible to keep your footing in the soft ground at such a high grade.

Blahhhhhhh. That's all I thought about as I climbed. Of course I'm having to do this right now. Blahhhh. Of course it's so steep you need a ladder. Blahhhhh. Trudge, trudge, trudge, blahhhhhh. Oh, it looked like you had reached the top but it actually turns at a 90 degree angle and continues for another quarter mile? Of course it does! Blahhhhhh. 

So many beautiful colors!
When it was finally over, I rejoiced a little because this last section was supposed to have 1000 feet less elevation gain than the previous sections, and I figured that ridiculous hill must have taken care of a fair amount of it. For several miles I plodded along contentedly (except when I heard something large moving in a bush just off of the trail and smelled the very distinct smell of a wild animal, prompting me to hurriedly dig my pepper spray out of my pack and carry it for a while). The trail was mostly gentle ups and downs along hillsides with trails that were wide enough that I felt safe and comfortable. The foam rolling seemed to have done some good, because my hamstring was significantly less obtrusive. The best part, though, was the wild flowers. This section was like a botanical garden, awash with every color in the rainbow and offset by the incredible backdrop of the mountain range below me. Around every turn was a new kind of flower to dazzle me. I thought about my husband and wished he was there.

Somewhere in this section I also (finally) dialed in my nutrition. The dramatic uphills and downhills had made it challenging for me to figure out exactly how often I needed to fuel, but here I figured out that a gel and water one mile, an electrolyte capsule and water the next, and Skratch the next, repeated on a loop, was the perfect balance. I felt energized and mentally strong, despite my achy body.

The trail then dropped down into a long, flat plain mostly devoid of life, be it human or plant. Again I could see a long way in front and behind me, but there were very few runners this time, just two people up ahead of me in the distance and one back about a quarter mile. It felt a little lonely, but my biggest issue was my heel, which was now so painful that I was making little involuntary pain sounds every time it hit the ground. I fought to keep running but eventually had to stop to once again readjust my socks and shoes. The guy behind me passed me after kindly checking to see if I needed anything. This bothered me not because I was in any way feeling competitive at that point but I didn't like the idea of no one behind me for miles just in case I fell or got injured.

The sun was sinking low in the sky and I knew it wouldn't be much longer before I had to start thinking about it getting dark. The clouds were also looking increasingly menacing. I got up and trudged forward, doing my best to ignore the pain. The landscape was mostly browns and grays, and the hulking mountain was once again shrouded in mist. At her base was a herd of pure white mountain goats (one of my dad's favorite animals) and I found a smile once again thinking of him, our adventures, and how he would enjoy what I was doing. Before I knew it I had nearly caught up to the two runners who had been out in front of me, and it turned out that one of them was a woman with whom I had been leapfrogging earlier in the race. The runner who had passed me was also visible ahead of us. I felt better having people close by again.

When it started to rain, I felt some strange combination of fear and amusement. Much like the water filter earlier in the day, I had been cursing that I brought the (relatively) bulky raincoat with me because it was cumbersome in my pack, but here I was, whipping it out as quickly as possible and thanking the powers that be that I had it with me.

Soon after that I caught up to my "race friend" and the other runner, who turned out to be her husband. He was battling serious nausea and fighting to keep moving. In style typical for this race, we found that the climbing was not done -- in fact, far from it. Up, up, up, we went. The finish is down, where are we going? I wondered. Up, just up. And more up. Then, through an unsettling series of gulches where we had to scramble down very small, very questionable paths with pieces of "path" crumbling and falling out from under our feet. I commented on how glad I was we were not doing this in the dark, and my fellow runner responded that yes, that was true, but it made her nervous about what we would be doing in the dark.

As that light began to dwindle, her statement stuck in my head. I could tell that she was starting to get scared, and it made me nervous. Some time in here, we had caught up to the runner ahead of us. He seemed experienced and confident so I tried to stick with him. With about seven miles to go, he stopped to adjust something, and said "okay, you be the rabbit for a while." I was feeling a building sense of dread as it was decidedly "twilight" now. Running the last part of the race in the dark had been part of my plan, but now that it was actually happening it seemed a lot more scary. I knew it would benefit me to cover as much ground as I possibly could before we totally lost the light, so I took off in one last adrenaline-fueled effort. I ran and ran and ran, realizing that I had put a little space between myself and the other runners (not ideal) but assuming they weren't too far behind. (I was the rabbit, after all!) By the time it was undeniably "dark," I only had five miles left and I was pretty pleased. I had not, however, encountered the other boulder field I knew was out there, which made me a little nervous.

When I finally made the decision to stop and take out my headlamps, I fully expected to see the other runners on the trail traversing the gulch behind me. I was somewhat dismayed when they were nowhere to be found, even after I had gotten out the lights, put them on, repacked my pack, and put it back on. Shrugging it off, I turned on my headlamp to discover that the fog had rolled back in and I couldn't see six inches in front of me because it was like thick white soup lit up in front of my eyes. Working on a Plan B, I held the light in my hand so that it was closer to the ground. It wasn't ideal, but it worked.

I was still in a section of trail full of less-than-ideal footing, with rocks to climb over and gulches to go through. The mist cleared out a little and I was able to put the headlamp on my head, which made it slightly better. To add to my anxiety, though, flashes of lightning had begun and were picking up in frequency. I kept looking back and hoping to see another headlamp behind me, but I was all alone. It's okay, I told myself. The lightning can't be that close, there isn't any thunder. As if on cue, the thunder began. I counted the time between the lightning and thunder. Over 10. No worries. Then it was 8, then 5. With the headlamp on it was difficult to locate where the flashes were coming from, so I decided to stop briefly and turn the light off so I could determine the location of the storm. As soon as the light went out I was instantly terrified and exhilarated, knowing the vastness of what surrounded me and seeing the absolute blackness enveloping me. I didn't have to wait long before I got several flashes of lightning, each followed by the requisite rolling thunder. It appeared that the lightning was centered beyond the top of the hillside, which comforted me a bit because I appeared to be headed down the hill. I didn't see any actual strikes, either, just flashes. All the same, I rejoiced when I finally made it to a brief section of forest. The trail was smoother and I felt less exposed.

My joy was short-lived, however, as I quickly popped out onto -- you guessed it -- a boulder field. I had known it was coming, but somehow in the back of my mind I was hoping I had misunderstood. Challenging in the day time, picking your way over boulders is ridiculous at night with only the light of a headlamp. And since there is no trail, the only way to determine your route was to scan out over the field with your light until you find the tiny reflective marker placed there to guide you. I moved as quickly as possible and was pleased when I saw that it wasn't too far to the trees. The storm was picking up. The lightning and thunder were now only two or three seconds apart and I could see distinct strikes up toward the top of the hill. I said a little thank you when I reached the trees again.

Here is where things just got awful.

That boulder field was like a little appetizer boulder field. After just minutes in the trees, I was spit back out onto another boulder field, and this one stretched as far as I could see. With each lightning flash I looked out over the boulders stretching in front of me hoping to see an end, and each time I was disappointed. I steeled myself and forged ahead, moving as quickly as I could in the dark and rain. I thanked my good fortune again that I had decided to pack the rain jacket, because at least I was warm and dry. A quarter mile went by. Then another. The storm was worsening and moving closer. I could see actual lightning strikes now, and there was only a 1-count between the strike and the thunder, which had changed from a rolling sound to sharp cracks. In horror, I scanned my surroundings and realized that I was nearly at the top of a ridge and that I was by far the tallest and most electrically conductive thing for what appeared to be miles. I considered sheltering for a while, but there was nowhere to shelter. There wasn't even a rock I could crawl under. So forward I went, trying to stay calm because there was nothing to do but keep moving. Scan for reflective marker (and hopelessly look for an end to the boulders), move as quickly as possible toward it, repeat. Three times I mistook a reflective marker for another runner's headlamp and got excited, only to get there and realize I'd been mistaken and that I was still alone. Each lightning strike and thunder crack I'd cry a little and hope that the next one wouldn't hit me. I thought about Sean and what a stupid way to die this would be. I was bordering on losing it mentally and realized I had to focus. Focus on getting home.

Thus my mantra was born: Fast. Safe. Get home to Sean. 

I repeated this phrase, sometimes in my head and sometimes out loud, alternating the order by current priority.

Fast, safe, get home to Sean. Fast, safe, get home to Sean. 
*Trip on boulder, almost fall.*
Safe, fast, get home to Sean. Safe, fast, get home to Sean.
*Lightning strike so close the thunder shakes me.*
Get home to Sean, fast, safe. 

And thus I went, for what seemed like forever. I know that the boulder field was at least a mile long because I got an entire (painfully slow) mile split on my watch while I was out there. At one point I did actually find another runner and almost cried with relief. I wanted to be best friends and never leave her side. She, however, seemed almost paralyzed. She told me that she was lost and couldn't find the next marker. We did a quick scan and I immediately spotted it up ahead and pointed it out to her. She said that she had seen that but that couldn't possible be it because it was too difficult to get to (because there were boulders in the way, basically). The route between us and the marker seemed exactly like what we'd been crawling over for the last three quarters of a mile, so I told her I think we just have to do what we have to do to get there. She still seemed hesitant, so I asked her if she needed anything and then took off. With lightning striking every which way, I wasn't in the mood to stand out in the middle of this open space any longer than necessary. Fast, safe, get home to Sean. 

In retrospect, I probably should have stayed to figure out if that woman was okay because she didn't seem to be thinking clearly, but apparently I wasn't either because all I could get through my brain was to keep moving and get to shelter.

It seemed to last forever, but finally, finally I made it back to the forest and almost hugged the tall trees that would give me some form of protection from the lightning. I know a forest isn't any guarantee of safety in this situation, but it's a hell of a lot better than playing human lightning rod on top of an exposed ridge. Almost as wonderful, the trail was a TRAIL again. I was so freaking happy, I trotted along with my joints jarring but my mind finally more at ease. I remembered from the start that just after rejoining the trail that leads to the finish, there would be one more exposed area, but it was short and there was a clear trail. When I reached it, I said a little prayer to the lightning gods, put on my dad's hat that I had been carrying with me, and started repeating my mantra again. One bolt of lightning in front of me scared the bejeezus out of me but I made it back into the woods safely and knew I was home free.

When I saw the light from the finish filtering through the trees, I looked at it, looked away, and looked back twice to make sure I wasn't imagining it. When I had assured myself it was real, I started smiling. Oh my god, I made it. I ran through the arch and met blanket-clad Kate, thoroughly relieved to see me. I immediately felt better, my body sore but my mind soaring. I wanted to wait at the finish to make sure the runners I'd run with were okay, but I knew my husband was sitting up waiting to hear that I hadn't fallen off a cliff or died of exhaustion so I grabbed some chicken soup and headed for somewhere with cell reception.

In my search for words to describe this experience to those who ask, the best I can come up with is "wild." It was wild in every way. At its best moments I was awed by the wild beauty of the scenery and the overwhelming feeling of power of the mountain. At its worst, I felt lost and alone in the wild expanses of rugged terrain. Experiencing it all tapped into the portion of my heart that connects to that feeling of wilderness and longs to be lost in nature. The idea that you can show up seven minutes prior to the start with no athlete meeting, go running off into the mountains with only two aid stations and no real Plan B if something goes wrong, and cover 43 miles in one day reinforces that feeling of wildness as well. And yes, you CAN finish a 43 mile race running no more than 36 miles per week.

I want to thank many people for their help both in this journey and for motivating me while I was out there. For some reason during triathlons I always forget to think about the things and people I've identified as "motivators" during the race, even when I need it, but during this race I ran through that list many a time. My dad, for being present with me in spirit. My husband, Sean, for putting up with my training for this race, for his confidence that I could do it, and for being the very best motivation to make it home safe. Kate, for her total presence and willingness to help in any way needed while we were there, which was a huge burden lifted, and also for being there to hug me at the finish. The athletes I coach, both for their support and for showing me every day how hard work leads to great things -- I thought of you all out there. The trail runners of Austin who shared their knowledge willingly and eagerly and helped me find places to train in my new city. The Ladies Ultrarunning Facebook group, from which I learned soooo much in my temporary transition from triathlete to trail runner. My coworkers and our patients at my job, for their encouragement, support, and interest in this crazy pursuit of mine -- thank you! I thought of you all out there many times as well. Michelle Suber, for getting me into this insane adventure and for talking training and strategy. We didn't see each other out there much, but it was nice knowing there was a familiar face on the trail and I'm so glad we can share and compare this memorable experience.

Now it's time to lay low for a month or so, after which I'm excited to get back to being a triathlete and start training -- Ironman Texas 2020 here we come!

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Forging New Trails... Or Something Like That

This week marks ten weeks since I took the plunge (read: got my shit together) and started training for the Bigfoot 40-Miler, a tricky misnomer for my first 43 mile ultramarathon. I was tricked into invited to do this race by my friend Michelle in Hawaii just before we moved, and at the time it sounded like a wonderful opportunity to meet up with her while attempting something new in the great outdoors and building a solid run base for Ironman Texas next year. After selling our home and moving ourselves, our cat, and our two dogs across an ocean to a place that appeared to be flat as a pancake, where I had zero knowledge of the surrounding area and its trails, however, the idea was sounding pretty daunting. I tackled “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning” by Jason Koop and made it to page 50 or so before freaking out and having to stop because I was overwhelmed by the idea of water crossings, hydration packs, trail shoes, and navigation. The statistic about how most ultra runners sustain damage to their intestines during their races was fun, too. I had started running again and was excited when I could manage 4.5 miles. Not promising. 

I spoke with Michelle, who wisely pointed out that it might be a good idea to compartmentalize a bit — work on locating some trails, come up with a training plan, and actually do some more running — before trying to decide which brand of toe socks I should try or which pack has the highest capacity bladder, whether I should camp the night before or get a hotel, and which foods I should pack for the aid station. 

I took a step back, read the part of the book that covered training plan design, and went to work on that. The mileage increases were a little frightening (turns out that five months isn’t very long at all when working your way from 4.5 mile runs to 30 miles) but I was intrigued with Koop’s training strategy (for the tri geeks reading this, he’s a big proponent of reverse periodization) and so I came up with my training schedule, starting with lighter volume and more high intensity work and gradually progressing to long runs at a slower pace, focused on terrain similar to that which I’ll be running at Bigfoot. Somewhere in there, I assumed, I’d be ready to think about which solid foods would digest after 34 miles and which techniques I’d used to doctor my feet when they get soaked in streams along the way. 

Pretty Brushy Creek
I ran 5 miles for my long run, and then I ran 6. Then 7.5, and 8, and 10. When I hit 12, I started exploring trails. I started stalking the Austin Dirt Runners Facebook group to hijack their routes, and I discovered the Brushy Creek Trail system, which offers both paved trails and unpaved off-shoots running up into the forested hills. Two weekends ago I did my first long run with over 8 miles on real trails, 12 long miles total navigating rocks, hills, creeks, and tree roots after a full day at work, and although I had a lot of sore muscles afterward (it literally felt like I’d given myself a lower abdominal hernia) the run instead felt pretty damn good. After a much needed recovery week, I’m back at it again this week.

So far, the process has had several positive surprises and several challenges. 

In many ways, it has been nice to be off-road, in nature, and experiencing new things on the trails. The trails off of Brushy Creek offer an assortment of views and terrains from soft packed dirt alongside a swift-flowing river to arid landscapes where juniper, cacti and tough little yellow wildflowers are the only foliage that survive. In between there are lakes, fields of Texas Bluebonnets and sunflowers, waterfalls, and even the occasional wild animal. I didn’t know what to expect from Texas landscapes, and I have to say that at this point I’m very impressed with the beauty here. 

Building mileage
I am also very pleased and relieved with how my body feels after a long trail run when compared to running on the road. Although my muscles get more sore, the softer terrain and variation of movement patterns leaves my joints feeling delightfully comfortable. No knee pain, no SI joint jarring, and no ache in my hip. Yes, I’m an old lady. Shut up. Because of this, and the inherently slower pace necessitated by dealing with rocks and tree roots, it feels like I can run much longer without tiring. 

I have also enjoyed the process of getting to know my new trail running shoes, which are decidedly different than my road shoes in that they have a “rock plate,” a stiff shank in the sole that protects the foot from the bruising often caused by rocky surfaces. When I first put them on they felt so immobile and unbending I immediately felt running on the ball of my foot and was concerned that I would be tortured with blisters. After about 6 miles, however, they seemed to warm to my feet and hug them gently instead of fighting them. 

Along with these pleasant surprises have come challenges. The first is my own damn fault — I am a very antisocial runner. As I get into these longer runs during which I’m heading off into the wild blue yonder for hours and hours at a time, I can’t help but admit that I would be MUCH safer if I had a running buddy. Whether the risk is injury, meeting someone sketchy on the trail, or getting lost (managed to do that my very first long trail outing!) it would be much smarter to stop running alone. The problem is, I hate people. Okay, I don’t hate people, but I have what seems to be an unusual love of running alone. I love the silence, I love the focus, and I love being out in nature with no one else present. I find it meditative to connect with my footsteps and my heart beat — in fact, I’m one of the only runners I know who doesn’t wear headphones and listen to music. Then there are the added complications of distance and pacing when running with others. Finding someone who wants to run the same distance at the same pace as you is like finding gold in a ditch. Almost impossible. As I head out on a new trail next week to knock out 14 miles, though, it’s a little nerve wracking. 

The other obstacle I run into is the sheer amount of focus and mental stamina it takes to do long runs on uneven surfaces, particularly on trails that seem to just loop endlessly through indistinguishable dry forest. In Hawaii, the trail runs I did took me on beach paths, through pastures with sweeping mountain and ocean views, and through towering, majestic valleys. The Brushy Creek off-pavement trails serve their purpose and have their beautiful moments, but it really does often feel like someone cut endless arbitrary switchbacks through a small section of forest, which is in fact exactly the case. Although I ran over 12 trail miles today, my net distance covered (from my car to where I turned around) was less than one mile. 

Love on the trail
I am choosing to look at this particular struggle as an opportunity to train my mind, since I know there will be plenty of times during Bigfoot that I am jaded, tired, and don’t care about the view. Despite these feelings, I need to be able to keep my mind sharp and focused on the task at hand. Perhaps I just need to get a little more creative with my imagination and come up with an epic destination that I can imagine I’m heading toward. I am also hopeful that the trail I’m going to explore next week will have more of an actual “destination” to it, since it is not switchbacks. We’ll have to wait and see on that. 

The third challenge is not particularly trail-related but rather a reflection of my work schedule. Because I start at 7AM, I have to get up to run at 4:50AM to run during the week. The time is sometimes challenging, but even more than that is the fact that it’s dark outside and there’s nothing to look at. (Can you tell I’m a visually-focused runner?) During my run this morning, however, I saw light on the horizon for the first time so I’m hopeful that the longer summer days will take care of this one for me until the race. 

Slowly but surely, working through issues as they come and running more and more, I am finding myself ready to continue to delve into the specifics I’ll need to know in order to complete this race. I’ve even found that once a week or so I feel like reading the book that scared the crap out of me in the beginning, and by tackling 1-3 chapters at a time I’ve found a manageable way to learn the material. As with all new adventures, it’s a work in progress.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Tryptophan Dreams

It's been a long time since I wrote anything.

I had decided that after Honu in June, I would take a break from structured training to rest, refresh, and revisit the parts of my life that had been significantly neglected during the 2017-2018 season of two full Ironmans and three 70.3s. I wanted to spend more time with my husband, more time writing (clearly not this blog, haha!), more time with my dogs, and more time doing Hawaii things like going to the beach and hiking.

I have done these things with mixed success. I've found that after spending 18-23 hours a week training outdoors in the sun and heat for the past year, the beach and hiking sound less appealing than I had anticipated. I've done some, but certainly not as much as I had imagined. Still, I have spent quite a bit more time at home, in my yard and walking around my beautiful surroundings, and for that I am grateful. I have gotten much more time with my husband, and not only during 7-hour bike rides! We've spent quite a bit of time working on our house, relaxing together, and, to combine with one of the other goals, we've been spending a lot more time walking and playing with our dogs! The dogs have definitely been better-behaved now that we've been able to train them a little more and be with them more often. I also started training them to run with me, which is an interesting process that mostly involves me getting pulled along for the first mile as they sprint at break-neck speed, then enjoying one mile of perfect tempo, then me pulling them along for subsequent miles as they get tired. It has also made them freakishly strong, something I should have thought through before embarking upon this little endeavor, as now I can barely control them when I have to handle both of them at once. The writing has been a mixed bag... I can't say that I've gotten a lot done, but I did come up with and start a big writing project that I am very excited about.

Anyway, back to triathlon.

I had planned to begin training the last week of August for the Honolulu Marathon, which is December 9th. I did one week of light training (read: a couple short runs), and then we had some very bizarre and stressful circumstances come up that forced us to be away from our house for the next month and that wreaked havoc on my system. Once we finally got home and got things mostly back to normal, I decided that jumping into marathon training was just asking to get sick or injured, and that for now, that goal needs to put on hold. In its place, I am focusing on something fun and (with any luck, since entries fill up within 15 minutes of when registration opens) I'll be doing the Tryptophan Triathlon on Thanksgiving -- a 1/3 mile swim, 15-mile bike, and 2-mile run. This allows my training to be short sessions that still allow time for other things, and that don't seem overwhelming as my body reawakens and gets back into the swing of things.

At first, I was horrified at my condition. A 20-minute run felt difficult, and my legs were exhausted after a 30-minute ride. What I'm discovering, however, is that my body seems to have been in some sort of deep recovery hibernation, because after the first week I feel it "opening up" and while I've definitely lost some endurance, it seems like my speed is surprisingly stable. This week my run pace was back down into the low nine minute miles, and I actually found myself running at 8:35 pace by accident a couple of times. I can't hold that pace for more than a couple of 10-minute intervals, but it's still very encouraging when I think about how I felt last week.

This week's training plan -- yay for getting to go watch KONA!
Swimming has felt good -- really good! Not in that I'm fast, but it feels relaxing and calming and I'm enjoying my 20-30 minute sessions instead of hour-long sessions. The bike also feels good. I've missed it! I've missed the feeling, the wind on my face, the speed, and the challenge. My lady bits, on the other hand, have not missed it and are less than thrilled that I'm riding again. It's both a fun time to get started again and a terrible time to get started again because all of the Kona athletes who are here. It's energizing to see them but embarrassing to have them see me! Oh well, what can you do?
These short training sessions are reminding me of how *fun* triathlon can be. Don't get me wrong here, I LOVE Ironman. It's my passion -- the day of my first Ironman was better than my wedding day (don't worry, my husband already knows and agrees!) and nothing has ever given me the kind of fulfillment and sense of accomplishment that Ironman does, but even though I enjoy it deeply, I can't quite describe it as "fun." Sprint training is FUN. Right now my long run is 35 minutes and my tempo run is 25 minutes, and my long bike is 1:30. I can hop on the trainer, do my cycling technique sets and drills in 30 minutes, go to the pool and swim for 25 minutes, and still have time before work! It's amazing! And, because the durations are short, I can push the intensity more than with long aerobic sessions. It's very satisfying.

So here's to a season of triathlon fun and hopefully a Thanksgiving Day adventure!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Ironman 70.3 Hawaii 2018 Race Report

This year marks my 3rd time doing Ironman 70.3 Hawaii (“Honu”), and just like years past, this year the race presented new challenges, new experiences, and new accomplishments. We knew this year would be different and special because Sean’s sister, Ashley, had decided to “tri” with us. It was her first 70.3 and first triathlon in almost ten years. In addition, Sean’s race buddy from Ironman Coeur D’Alene, Stephanie, was here racing from San Francisco. And, to top it off, the race also had the special distinction of being on my 32nd birthday! 

Because of what has been going on in our lives in the past few months (traveling in Europe with Sean’s family, organizing and dancing in a ballet performance, and then leaving my ballet teaching job to start classes of my own) my focus has been elsewhere. Although I had trained pretty intensively from January to the beginning of April and picked up again with relative focus after returning from our trip I was feeling a little out of sorts triathlon-wise. To add to that feeling, I dislocated my left shoulder two and a half weeks before the race and had barely been able to swim since then. My goal had gone from “go fast” to “have fun and finish.” I did, however, somewhere in the back of my head, want to go for my goal of really pushing myself on the intensity, past what I’d done before. I knew that wasn’t going to be possible on the swim, but I told myself I’d push the run and see what I could do. 
Hanging with Mike Reilly at the expo

The expo and athlete meeting, like always, got me a little more mentally checked in. To add to the fun, Mike Reilly was there so I got to thank him for giving me the double-call (having the audience tell me “you are an Ironman!”) at Kona and get a photo with him. I also felt very fancy checking in at the special Ironman All World Athlete check-in table, and got a good giggle when the volunteer working asked how much it cost to get the VIP check-in. The guy next to me explained the All World selection process, followed by a decisive “we earned that shit.” All of my missing toenails (which have finally grown back!) agreed with him wholeheartedly. 

Race eve came and we carefully gathered our gear for the morning. Sean and I applied Ashley’s race number tattoos and I almost cried looking at her eager, excited face and realizing how much I hoped she’d finish. Other than that, I kind of kept to myself. I’m realizing that I’m kind of anti-social pre-race.

One of the most dramatic benefits to becoming more experienced in the sport is the ability to actually sleep well the night before a race. Whereas in my earlier triathlon days I would toss and turn or lie in bed the whole night staring at the ceiling, I now go to bed around 9:30pm, fall asleep without issue, and get 6 hours of solid sleep before my alarm goes off at 3:30am. It’s quite lovely, and something I will never take for granted. 

Much to my delight, they had moved the start time up by half an hour this year, from 7am to 6:30. I was hopeful that this would eliminate the issue that I had battled with last year when they instituted a rolling start without taking into account the fact that water conditions deteriorate dramatically between 7 and 8am, resulting in some nasty waves and chop for those of us starting later. I went through my morning routine – get up, eat, shower, tattoo, braid my hair, and double, triple, quadruple check my gear – and then it was time to head for the shuttles to the start. 

T1 pre-race is always fun. So many excited people, so much energy! Apparently, they mentioned my birthday over the PA system but of course I was too focused to hear it. At 6:15 we all headed toward the start, and at 6:30 the first wave took off. We were excited to see the legendary Karen Aydelott in the start area, along with Mike Reilly and Ironman god Mark Allen. Sean’s wave went out around 6:40am. After watching him start, I tried to get Ashley settled, then took off on my own to warm up. I ran up and down the beach, then hid and did my weird ballet warm ups that seem to do more good for me than any conventional exercises. Time went by quickly and before I knew it I was joining the women in my age group in the start corral and . I seeded toward the front, not so much on purpose as that I was talking to my friend Sara and she’s a really fast swimmer, and then there we were at the start gates with the signals beeping and so off I went!

My mantra for the swim was simple: “slow and steady,” I told myself over and over again. “You dislocated your shoulder less than three weeks ago and you haven’t swam more than 1500 in three weeks. It’s not going to be a fast swim, but that’s okay. Just stay on the outside so no one knocks your shoulder out again and be slow and steady.” Oddly enough, this swim felt the best of any Honu swim yet. I never got to the point of feeling totally exhausted, and because I was just trying to stay steady I didn’t really leapfrog with any other swimmers. When I passed someone, it was because I was decidedly faster, and when I got passed, it was clear that I was not going to gain my position back. It was kind of a peaceful mindset to swim in. About halfway through the swim my shoulder started tiring – not crunching or clicking or popping or hurting, luckily, just tiring – but it manifested in a definite tendency to drift off to the left, which I had to keep correcting for. I was certain I must be swimming a sine curve.

On the final stretch, I started getting passed by the fastest of the female 20-24 group. There was one girl who was so fast that at first peripheral glance I actually thought she was some kind of sea creature or mermaid. Her movement was so graceful, smooth, and powerful, and she passed me with a kind of speed I still can’t quite comprehend. It was so beautiful to watch I was transfixed, then within moments she was gone. 

Soon enough I was rounding the last buoy, hearing the announcer and the crowd, and heading for shore. I exited the water, did my best to run gracefully with a non-double chinned smile for the cameras, and then walked through the showers before running for T1. I couldn't believe it when I glanced down at my watch and saw my swim split - 36:30, three and a half minutes faster than last year!

Another goal of mine for this year was to reduce my transition times. Last year I did this race having not done a triathlon since 2015 and with my focus being on Ironman in August, so I had told myself to take my time in transition and set myself up well on the bike. I had taken my own advice a little to literally, however, and spent an eternity in T1 putting on sunscreen, hairspraying my hair (yes, seriously. What the hell was I thinking?), loading my gels into my pockets, putting on my heart rate monitor, drying my feet… eating breakfast? I honestly don’t even remember what else I was doing but my T1 time was a mortifying 11:xx minutes! This year I vowed not to repeat that performance, so I had applied my super duper waterproof sunscreen pre-swim and taped all of my nutrition to my bike so that all I had to do was put on bike shoes, helmet, and go. And that’s what I did! Shakily, but successfully, I took six minutes (six minutes!) off of my T1 time.

The first little 8-mile out and back to Mauna Lani felt good. My legs felt okay, by breathing was normalizing nicely. I saw Ashley on my way back and she looked like she was doing well, pumping away, so I started the trek up to Hawi feeling optimistic. My first few 5-mile splits were fast -- easily on pace for my goal pace of 17.5mph. The course conjestion was much more noticeable than last year. It seemed that on every hill I was having to slow down and dodge people to avoid getting in the drafting zone. I do want to give credit to the race officials, who were very present, keeping a close eye on the crowds but making very careful penalty calls only to those who were clearly drafting intentionally, not those merely caught in the mayhem and trying their best to leave proper space.

The weather, thankfully, was mild this year. The vicious, frightening crosswinds of last year were almost non-existent, and for this I was very grateful. From the beginning of the bike, though, I could tell that my nutrition was a little off. This wasn’t surprising to me because before our Italy trip, it seemed that I had accidentally fat-adapted myself to the point where I hardly needed any fuel during even long training sessions. Runs and rides where before I would take upward of four gels I could do on Skratch and water alone, and somehow my pace was still faster. Then we went to Italy, where I spent three weeks eating pasta and gelato twice daily. When I came back, I was slower and back to needing fuel on my workouts. Although I made efforts to get back into fat adaptation before the race, it just wasn’t enough time and I was left in a strange no-man’s-land of needing some fuel but not as much as normal, and never being able to tell exactly when I would need it until it was too late. 

This was the case during this ride. I would try to eat on my normal schedule – a gel every 40 minutes or so – but it seemed like way too much, and I think I ended up taking one every hour or so instead. I was also insanely, insatiably thirsty from the moment I got out of the water to the moment I crossed the finish line. I didn’t want Skratch, I wanted gallons and gallons of pure water. A big part of my nutrition strategy is listening to my body’s cravings, interpreting what they mean, and fueling accordingly but I also know that drinking only water for a 3+ hour ride going into a two and a half hour run, both in sweltering sun and humidity, is a bad idea. I watched Jodie Swallow’s 2013 Ironman Kona performance where she was hospitalized for hyponatremia and I have no desire to experience it. 

So I kept guessing, trying to combine what my body was telling me with what I know to be necessary to get through this kind of race. It was semi-successful. I got a big surge of energy right before the long six mile climb to Hawi, which worked out nicely, but after flying down the (wonderful) descent I just ran out of gas. My legs felt like they had nothing, like they were big blocks of cement, and mentally I felt a little fuzzy. It didn’t help that we picked up a decent little headwind heading back, either. I had been on target to PR by over five minutes, and usually the return is faster than the ascent, but it took the opposite pattern and I got slower and slower as I rode on. It was quite irritating and put me into a somewhat negative head space as I neared the end of the bike course. I pushed hard for the last five mile split, determined to hang on to my PR, and managed to get in one measly minute faster than last year. Not bad, but very disappointing considering the kinds of paces I’d been riding in training. 

Into T2 I went, with the same goal in mind as T1 – get in and get out, FAST. No nonsense. I even had a race belt, even though I hate them and usually spend the extra time pinning my number on just to avoid it riding up and flapping around over and over. Helmet on, shoes off, shoes on, belt on, hat on, and out I went! I took off fast, hoping to hold a 9:00 to 9:15 minute mile pace during my planned 4-minute run intervals before walking 1-minute, resulting in a 10:15-ish mile pace on average. 

I was quickly reminded of why running at Honu is nothing like running in training. About three quarters of the run is on golf course grass and steep little golf course hills. There is no hope of finding your rhythm, no hope of getting a good stride going, it’s just squish, squish, squish, up and down and up and down. And it’s hot – not just normal hot, but a steam room-like hot that seems to be frying you from above while the evaporating moisture from the grass smothers you from below. Can you tell how much I like this run? 

Pushing through the yuck
Having started the run a little frustrated, I was just hating life for the first few miles. Around Mile 3, for the first time in my racing career, I had to truly talk myself out of quitting. “I just really don’t want to do this,” I thought. “I’m not going to do this. I’m going to stop.” I pondered this option for a minute, thinking back on all those torturous speed sessions I’d run, all the hill repeats on the bike… did I do all of that for a DNF? “Okay, I won’t stop, but I’m just going to walk the rest of the race.” That was my next bargaining chip. Again I thought back on my runs – intervals I didn’t think I could make it through, paces I didn’t think I could hold, fourteen mile paced runs fighting headwind and midday Hawaii heat… I kept running. I also remembered that when I start to feel this way on long bike rides it’s usually due to lack of calories, so I reached in my pocket for the gel I hadn’t been able to get down on the bike and sure enough, within minutes, I was feeling better. 

Once I made it through that dark place, things actually started to improve. It was very uncomfortable, but I was able to hold very close to my goal paces in all but two spots on the course. The Hell’s Kitchen section, a stretch of flat, paved, sun-exposed road that most people dread, actually provided a welcome respite. It’s paved, it’s flat, and when we got to it on both the first and second loop I was able to pick up my pace significantly and make up for some lost time. The second time I went through that section I came up on Ashley, on her first loop, seeming a little frustrated that she was walking but still powering through. She was in the company of another athlete and they seemed to be doing okay. I was so happy to see that she was still going! I used my one minute walk interval to walk with them, then wished them well and fought onward. 

Based on the conditions I had adjusted my goals a little – hold 9:30 or faster paces during the run intervals for an average of sub-10:45 minute miles. A little disappointing, but still over a minute per mile faster than last year. I powered on. It felt very different from last year, in which I felt great for the first lap and then completely fell apart on the second lap. This time I was actually feeling better and better (all relative, of course!) as the race went on, and the miles ticked off steadily rather than dragging by. I think with six months of Ironman training, two Ironman races, and six months of intensive speed and power work, I am just a little more used to suffering this year than I was last year. I was still fighting the overwhelming desire to drink six cups of water at every aid station, trying to control my liquid intake while taking care of my body as best I could. As a random and fun surprise, there were a couple of friends out on the course who knew it was my birthday, and told me happy birthday every time we crossed paths. The unexpected result of this was that complete strangers who heard them started saying it too the next time I saw them, which was an excellent pick-me-up as the race went on.

Soon enough I was at Mile 12. I felt like I could run more than my specified interval, but decided to save it for the last set and speed up a little if I could. Up and down and through the grass we went, but now the end was in sight. Once I passed the last aid station my watch showed that there was about a half mile left, and I decided I could run it all and pick up the pace a bit. This wasn’t an “I’m feeling great and have extra energy” kind of being able to pick up the pace, more of an “I promised myself I would push to my absolute max and leave nothing out there” kind of thing. It took everything I had. I finished the last stretch around the grass and savored taking the right turn to the finish instead of the left turn for another lap. As I approached the finish, I saw Sean’s mom and dad. I ran under the arch feeling absolute relief that it as over. I hadn’t looked at my overall time on my watch once during the race, nor had I added up my individual splits, so had no idea what my time was. Given how the race felt, I was just hoping for 6:30 or under, which would take over 20 minutes off of my time from last year. I was still feeling a little disappointment at how things had gone. 

When I looked down at my watch for the total time and saw 6:18, the weirdest thing happened: I started to cry. There were some tears at Ironman Coeur D’Alene and a few more at Kona, but this was an uncontrollable flood of emotion, overwhelming relief that it was over and a release of all the pain of the race. It wasn’t the 6:15 I’d hoped for, but it was pretty damn close. Close enough to make me happy. It meant that I had taken 33 minutes off of my time from last year, and that I had been 12 minutes faster than at the much easier Mini Monster race I did in February, giving me a new 70.3 PR. It also meant that all the grueling work I put in since Kona had actually paid off. I had to stay in the athlete finish area for a couple of minutes before going out to meet people just to get my emotions under control. 

Sean had a rough day. His stomach went bad almost immediately on the run, leaving him only able to walk most of it. He fought through like a warrior and finished. Ashley kept up her steady work, pushing through the heat and the pain, and crossed the finish line of her first 70.3 victorious! Congratulations to both of them as well as all the other finishers, and thank you to my mom and Sean’s family for their support, my dad for being with me in spirit on many a long run, Michelle Suber and Krista Graves for being run/adventure partners extraordinaire, Melissa Schad for being by swim race buddy and awesome inspiration, and all of the athletes I coach for inspiring me daily with their hard work and determination.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Delicate Tightrope Walk of Training-Life Balance

After the incredible honor and amazing experience of completing Ironman Kona last year on a Hawaii resident lottery slot, I sat down to think about what my goals for the upcoming year would be. I had just finished ten months of absolute -- and I mean absolute, a total of three missed workouts out of approximately five hundred scheduled -- dedication to Ironman, and I knew that I would feel a little lost afterward. Having made the mistake in prior races of not having any direction afterward and wandering off into the never-never-land of no training, I knew I needed to put something on paper.

I have always considered myself a slow triathlete, one who was happy just to be out there with everyone, to get to the finish line, and to gradually improve my own performances, even if those improvements still landed me solidly in the middle of the pack. Finishing an Ironman was such a huge goal, a long and monumental undertaking, that other goals seemed to pale in comparison. I was also fairly surprised by my performance at Kona, in which I took nearly ten minutes off of my bike time from Coeur D'Alene and over fifty minutes (!) off of my marathon, for a total of 59:15 faster, obviously a huge PR. Combining the seemingly lackluster appeal of non-140.6 endurance goals with my piqued interest in my ability to get faster, I essentially came up with a goal that can generally summarized as "get fast."

I should note that when I analyzed where I fell in my age group in Coeur D'Alene and at Hawaii 70.3 last year (I left Kona out of these calculations because I was clearly way out of my league!) I was in the top quarter in the swim, the top third on the bike, and in the bottom quarter on the run. This clear trend made me wonder if I could improve my bike a little and my run a lot and end up in the top quarter of my age group. So I sat down and wrote down the times I thought I might be able to do with a whole lot of work, and sure enough when I added them up it put me at number 13 in my age group compared to number 34 this past Honu.

I made some aggressive training plans -- the most notable was including the Run Less, Run Faster half marathon as part of my triathlon training. I also schedule weekly hill repeats on the bike and a weekly power-focused ride in addition to regular long rides. I did this fairly successfully starting in January. I got up at 5AM every day and was out the door in the dark. The running was crazy... so much harder than what I'm used to! At least every other week I was sure I wasn't going to be able to hold the paces the plan dictated, but somehow I always did, even if it almost killed me. Weekly interval runs that left me breathless and panting but feeling accomplished, and sure enough it started to show. My legs felt much stronger, my stride got longer, my "springs" were much more effective, and the unofficial PRs started coming almost weekly. My 10k PR improved by almost three minutes in the four months I did the program. My cycling was also improving dramatically with my weekly hill repeats, averaging 18+ mph on rides without putting in much extra effort. It was hard work but it was awesome. I felt on-track to kill it at Honu.

Sean and I NOT being triathletes!
Then in April we went to Italy for three weeks. The week before the trip my training was mediocre, both because I had a lot to do before leaving and because my mind was already flying over the Pacific. I struggled with it for a few days, but after talking to Sean I realized that this year is just not the time to try and get super serious. Two Ironmans and two other 70.3s have taken their toll and I need a break physically and mentally. I decided it wasn't worth it to say no to pasta and gelato in Italy for the sake of saving two minutes at Honu. It wasn't worth forcing myself to keep a strict training schedule while we were there. My husband and I need time together, my pets need attention, my non-triathlon life has to be given some time to exist too.

So, as I return to my training post-Italy with five weeks until the race, I am taking a slightly less rigid, more moderate approach. I will still work hard, I'll still train and do what I can, but life comes first, at least for now. I have so many good things in development (coaching, most notably!) that I want to put energy into them and see where they can lead. 2017 was an extraordinary year in triathlon for me. 2018 is going to be an extraordinary year in the rest of my life.

It doesn't come easily to us Type A athletes to back off, and that is one of the reasons I believe it's important. It's great to improve and to be disciplined and focused, but sometimes I think that for people like us that is almost easier. It's almost more of a challenge to take a step back and be a little less structured, a little less intense. It's a lesson I'm learning and working on, sometimes with more success than others.

So here's to Honu 2018 -- hopefully faster than previous years, hopefully fun, and hopefully a complement to my life as a whole rather than the focus of it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

"Aerobic-Focused:" Code for "Really Long"

Week five was what our training schedule innocuously referred to as an "aerobic-focused" week. Our long run jumped up to an hour and ten minutes, our long bike to 2:15, our swim to an hour, and all of these things were to be performed at under 75% of max heart rate. Per the schedule, I had been doing quite a few runs under 75%, so that wasn't too much of an adjustment. In fact, my ability to run in an aerobic state is showing dramatic improvement, something that encourages me greatly! When I first started I had to walk frequently to stay under a heartbeat of 150 beats per minute. Now I can run at a half-decent pace (half decent for ME -- don't get too excited) for what seems like forever at 138! When I started this heart rate training I had hoped that it might solve the riddle of why I am so exceptionally slow, and I think it's working!

As it turns out, what I thought was a moderate run pace was actually jacking my heart rate way up -- high enough that I couldn't maintain it for long distances. In the short term slowing down seems counterintuitive, but I'm discovering that as my body gets better at processing energy aerobically (using oxygen and burning fat rather than glucose) my pace is picking back up and I can hold that pace for distances that used to demand walk breaks. It's encouraging.

That said, I do feel like each workout lasts forever. The runs aren't too bad, but the bike this week was brutal. I decided to ride with my friend Barbie down in Kona, despite the fact that they issued a high wind advisory for the area. We started out and immediately it was just like a bad joke. Determined to follow my training plan, I down-shifted and down-shifted trying to find a gear that allowed me to stay within the aerobic heart rate zone. Barbie probably thought I was crazy. In my two easiest gears, I could barely keep my heart rate where it was supposed to be, the head wind was so bad. It howled in my ears, it felt like I was cycling dragging a beached whale down the highway.

Knowing that the return trip would be significantly faster with the tailwind, I added an extra 20 minutes to the trip out. Turning around felt like losing 100 pounds and growing wings! We flew back to Kona! Even with the time adjustment, we arrived back over 10 minutes early, meaning that the trip out had been over 50 minutes longer than the trip back! I did a little cool down to add some extra time, and then we filled up on some delicious post-ride burritos. All in a day's work.