... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Study in Beauty and Pain: Xterra Trail Running Championships

One of the perks of my Hawaii Sport Magazine job is that each year, our "team race," which we all get free entry to, is the Xterra Championships at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu. Let me be clear here, this is the championship race for the Xterra trail running series, but it is also open to members of the public, like me. In no way, shape, or form did I qualify for any kind of running championships.

In 2013 I couldn't participate because I had already signed up and trained for the Keauhou Lavaman triathlon, but this year (December 2014) I was determined to make it. Kualoa Ranch is like a jewel -- a sparkling, beautiful treasure tucked into the mountains offering just a tantalizing hint of its beauty from the road. It was one of the places I had always imagined exploring. It was also the spot where they filmed part of Jurassic Park, if you need some reference. It has dramatic cliffs cut out from the mountainside, deep green valleys, streams, and pretty much every beautiful thing you could imagine. I wanted to run there, with a passion, and this was my chance. There was a 5k, 10k, or half marathon to choose from, and because I figured I could experience more scenery with a longer distance, I chose the half marathon. I'll be honest, too, I'm just a perfectionist and I'm not good at passing up the biggest/hardest/stupidest thing available when given several choices, so the 13.1 miles sounded good.

I had been running, but not the kind of running I should have been doing to train for this race. Three miles here, four miles there, all on pavement... I'm an idiot, let's just leave it at that. I think that my embarrassingly naive outlook was something along the lines of "it's just running. No bike, no swim, I can walk if I need to... I'll be fine."
Again, I'm an idiot.  I kept thinking about how I killed it at the 8.2-mile Great Aloha Run after only training for 4 miles, but I was soon to find out that Kualoa Ranch ain't no Great Aloha Run.

We flew to Oahu on Friday for the race on Sunday morning. It was really fun to be back and Sean and I had a great time revisiting our old favorite spots, seeing friends, and adventuring. We were both excited, and when Sunday morning rolled around we were up early and to the ranch with time to spare. As we drove onto the huge and expansive property, we were blown away by its beauty. It is more gorgeous than we could have imagined. Up close the mountains are practically sheer drop offs, covered in a green velvety underbrush, the valleys are lush, and the sun was soaking it all in that special golden light of morning. It never occurred to me that the fact that the sun was up for two hours before the start of the race at 9AM might not be a good thing, heat-wise.

Already tired but stupidly optimistic
We started together, but I didn't last long at Sean's pace as we headed up a long hill almost immediately. My plan had been to run at least the first six miles (HA!), then alternate walk-running the rest. I made it about two miles, nearly all up hill, before walking. The scenery was mind-blowing and I was in fantastic spirits. The course flattened out again around mile 3 or 4, so I started running again. What I hadn't counted on, though, was the uneven ground that twisted and torqued my joints with every step. Why I didn't think about this when "TRAIL run" is in the title of the race, I have no idea, but I didn't. I was wearing 3 year old running shoes with very minimal cushioning left and by mile 4 my feet were aching and bruised and I could feel every single pebble under my feet. My left knee was starting to feel stiff and have sharp, stabby pain, and my right hip was getting a weird tight feeling. I was embarrassed at how much pain I was in so early in the race. I walk-jogged, focusing on the scenery: a forested gulch where we rain through the woods, a meadowy mountainside with a view of the ocean, a breathtaking trail with very welcome shade. It was hot, very hot. My running intervals got shorter and shorter until, at around mile 6, I decided to just walk for a while. The pain in my knee was like a knife at that point, and I felt the compulsive need to stop and stretch my hip every few minutes despite it making very little difference. At this point, I was getting frustrated as people passed me and I watched my planned finish time slip away.

As I entered a forest full of bewilderingly tall trees, I knew I needed to refocus. I crossed a stream, then stopped and just sat down in it. The cold water felt like heaven on my joints, and since my shoes were already full of water from previous stream-crossings, I didn't mind the sloshing. In fact, it felt good on my aching feet. I allowed myself to sit for about a minute and decided that my goal now was just to enjoy the rest of the course with no concern about my time. I ate a few gummy squares, which usually helps when I'm getting mentally exhausted and foggy. When I got up, I felt optimistic again, and I walked in awe through the ancient forest with the sunlight filtering through its branches. It was beautiful.

Then, I hit the hill.

Up and over those we went.
It wasn't so much a hill as a mountain, if I'm being practical. What we were doing, although I wasn't aware of it at the time, was scaling one of those sheer cliffs I had admired from a distance earlier in the morning. It was steep enough that using your hands as well as your legs didn't seem unreasonable, and it stretched up in front of me beyond my line of sight. It was horrifying, and there was no shade. What was now nearly mid-day sun beat down on me mercilessly. I climbed probably 500 feet before my heart went insane, beating at least 180 beats per minute, so loudly that I could hear it in my ears and feel it in my brain. Knowing this was not good, I stopped long enough for it to calm down before continuing. I think this hill was about a mile and a half long, but it felt like five miles. I stopped at least three times to keep my heart from exploding, but was semi-relieved to see that I who had caught up to a fairly large number of people who were beaten down by the hill and the sun, some of whom who had given up completely. I fantasized about flat ground and allowed myself to imagine the downhill that must be waiting for me up ahead. In an ultra-fatigued and overheated haze, I daydreamed about anything but up.

When I made it to the crest of the hill I was giddily excited. There was an aid station, thank goodness, because due to the fact that I was taking so much longer than I had anticipated, I had run out of gummy fuel squares. I stocked up on gels and turned back to the race.

The closest to a smile I could muster - just focus
There was about a quarter mile of flat, albeit narrow and sketchy, trail that wound its way along the ridge of the top of the mountain, and it felt amazing. Then, everything went downhill, both literally and otherwise. The first few steps down the side of mountain felt fine -- they had to be chosen carefully because the trail was a mud slick, ultra slippery and dangerous. In fact, I later watched a video of a competitor slipping and falling straight off the trail into the bushes (at about 1:38 of the video in the link). As I continued down the hill, however, it felt like my joints were being lit on fire. The knee that had been stiff and painful locked up completely and refused to move, the other knee felt close behind it, and both hips burned, ached, and refused to move normally. I cursed myself for fantasizing about the downhill portion and wished with every bit of my soul to be back to that horrible uphill. I would have happily crawled the rest of the race up that hill if it would take away the daggers in my joints.

Down, down, and more down. For every painful minute of that uphill, there was its downhill counterpart. I didn't know my joints could hurt so badly. By the time I made it to flatter ground, the damage was done. I could barely walk. I kept trying to run just to make the time go by faster, but I could only last a couple of steps before my knees and hips would buckle and I'd be forced to walk again. For a moment, I actually considered stopping and hoping that someone would pass by and call a medic, but again my perfectionism won. I cried -- yes, cried -- but kept walking. I tried to focus on the scenery, but the pain was too intense. That last mile was the longest mile I've ever done.

Me and my precious medal
When I made it to the finish line, I was so relieved there are no words. I don't really remember the last 10 minutes of that walk, I just remember getting that finisher medal draped around my neck and suddenly realizing why people like finisher medals -- a tangible thing saying "I did it." I found Sean, who was vomiting and delirious, limped toward shade, laid down, and took off my shoes. I may have cried some more.

After eating a little real food and lying down for a while, my mental fog finally lifted and I started feeling better -- happy, even. I hobbled my way around the finish area taking pictures (to remember this terrible day?) and getting food for Sean, who was still throwing up and mostly incoherent. Once the immediate pain was over, I was so proud of my finish I could hardly stand it.

This was by far the most painful race experience I'd had to push through. Not only was I physically unprepared, but my mental game going in was nowhere near where it needed to be. I learned the hard way that even running, just running, can kick my ass. The difficulty that may have been lost removing swimming and biking is more than made up for by pure tedium and frustration in those middle miles, and although I was extremely tired, out of breath, and exhausted during the Olympic distance triathlons I've done, this experience was a whole new type of difficult. Fighting through actual "something's wrong" pain instead of just muscle fatigue is a whole new animal, and like everything else in triathlon training, it has made me stronger.

I flew home alone, as Sean was staying an extra day on Oahu, and quickly realized my ordeal wasn't over. Hauling my bags to the airport and even walking short distances was still mind-blowingly painful, and once I allowed my body to rest it tightened up to a point where I could barely move. The fire in my joints was still burning, neither knee would move, and my hips felt out of place. I made it on and off the plane in an excruciatingly slow shuffle, and ended up crying in the parking lot because my car was so far away. It took over a week before things loosened up again.

So what was it that was plaguing my joints? The knees turned out to be just IT band issues, and after the most painful massage I've ever experienced from a physical therapist, they felt much better. The hips, however, were determined to be sacroiliac joint dysfunction, and  I'm still doing physical therapy to try and get that under control. Turns out, something was out of place, but my wonderful physical therapist clunked the joint back where it was supposed to be and I'm up to 6 miles running with no problems. I'm optimistic that with continued strengthening I can get that mileage up.

Ironically, this experience only made me want to go back and do it again, but better. In 2015 I am planning on this race, and I am planning on hours upon hours of trail running to prepare (although nothing can prepare me for that hill). I know that I can do better, and now that I know what to expect I will be much more mentally prepared as well. Plus, it really was the most beautiful race I've ever seen, and I just want to soak that all in again.

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