Monday, April 23, 2012

Race Report: Yakima Skyline 50K

Text message on Saturday, 7:42 a.m. "Have an amazing time, this is a magical race."

It was just about the only encouraging thing I'd heard in the 48 hours or so since I'd made the decision to run the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K.

My friend Tom loved running the 25K race last year. He sang its praises and did his darnedest months ago to get me to register this year. ridgelines? Sunny, hot weather? More elevation than any other race of the same distance in the entire Northwest? No thanks; when it comes to running, I adore my overcast Seattle skies, lush deep forests, and gently rolling hills for good reason.

To my relief, the race sold out early on, giving me a great excuse to not think about it anymore. But lo and behold, the seed got planted again a week or two ago as several people who'd registered got injured and were looking to pass off their race bibs to a willing runner. Anyone who knows me knows it doesn't take much arm-twisting to talk me into just about anything; before I knew it, it was Friday afternoon, I was at work and busily texting on my break to nail down a carpool out to Yakima for later that evening.
(This wasn't the first time I've jumped in to a race last minute. Last time I did this, I called it a "moment of optimistic impulse." Could there be a more apt term?)

The litany of potential menaces extolled to me in the 15 hours or so leading up to the race would have been funny, if they hadn't been so fantastically upsetting instead...first, I learned that the trails were rife with rattlesnakes and ticks. What?! Give me bears and cougars over ticks any day. Then I learned that the temperatures would be hovering around 80 Fahrenheit, which is so far above my comfort zone it's ridiculous. Then I actually looked at the elevation profile for the first time since last year when I'd decided I'd never do this race in my life; I'd be climbing and descending not one, not two, not three, but FOUR monstrous mountains.

To give you some perspective on the course (and the variety of trail races in general)...

American Women's 50K Record (Janis Klecker): 3:13:51
2012 Orcas Island 50K Women's Winner (Pam Smith) : 5:16:53
2011 Yakima Skyline 50K Women's Winner (Shawna Tompkins) : 6:49:29

Here I'd been thinking that I could probably expect a comparable time on the Yakima course to my time at the Orcas Island 50K, which I'd run two months ago in 6:31 - but as I lay in bed on Friday night at my friend Cassie's parents' house in Yakima, listening to the coyotes and poring over last year's results/stats on my fancy phone, I realized I was far more likely destined for somewhere around an 8-hour finish.

And, given that I'd missed dinner - having had a kale salad on my break at work on Friday, and then chowed down on nothing but handfuls of potato chips and a brick-sized chocolate chip cookie bar on the drive to Yakima - I felt I should take my expectations down yet another notch. Oh, and Cassie's mom mentioned how humid it had been in Yakima lately. Oh, and the winds atop the ridges might be enough to knock me off my feet. Forget about having tapered or carbo-loaded or remembered to pack a cap to keep the sun off my neck and face, or anything fancy like that either. This race was going to be a hot mess.

So you can imagine the tiny pang of hope I allowed myself to feel when I received Tom's text message twenty minutes before the race start on Saturday morning. Tom may not always come in ahead of me time-wise in races, but I'm pretty sure he always beats me in enjoyment of them. When asked what I'm training for, I tick off my upcoming schedule of races; when asked what he's training for, Tom's reply is "life". Tom FTW.

I promised myself, right there on the starting line at Yakima, to channel Tom's joyful and grateful spirit during my run...the least I could do, after he came down with flu-like symptoms on Friday and had to bail on his plans to come run it, too.

And so the race began. The first mountain climbs 2,000+ feet in 2 miles, topping out at 3,500 feet of elevation. I took this one slowly, falling behind others' lead, and trying to heed Tom's advice and not get intimidated by the chin-scraping climbing toward the skies.

Once the first climb was over, we were rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains - the Stuart range was out in its full glory, as well as Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier. Running atop the ridge felt, indeed, magical, with 360-degree views, cool fresh air, sunshine on my face, and above all, quiet. Nothing but the sound of the breeze whistling through the sage brush and the patter of my own footfalls in the dirt.

I spent the next couple of hours on cruise control, in the zone, enjoying the scenery and beautiful day and an unexpected flow of creative energy. I thought about my life, my future, my writing, specific projects I'm working on, people, ideas, everything...I just felt really, really good. The heat was manageable, the descents were a blast, and all systems were a go.

In keeping with my 2012 New Year's resolution "gratitude project", I devoted the entire second climb to reflecting on things and people I'm grateful for. I'm pretty sure I was talking out loud to myself at this point on the course, joyfully prattling away about Washington state, about the hatchling wildflowers along the trail, about the health of my body, about my wonderful parents, about all the friends and familiar faces I'd seen at the starting line. I thought about my recent run with George, where we'd talked about how running long distances makes you appreciate the smallest things so much more - a cool breeze, a cold splash of water from a stream, a Dixie cup of ginger ale. There's no need for excess, for Supersize-anything; that Dixie cup has the power to grant all the pleasure you can possibly imagine in that moment, after running through desert-like mountains for hours on end, parched and exhausted.

I thought about the late Harvey Manning, a local nature writer and conservationist whose passion and devotion to the local trails helped ensure my ability to run on them today. I thought about Kathrine Switzer, who challenged the notion that women shouldn't/couldn't run, by being the the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (in 1967). I thought about the legacy of Caballo Blanco, about Scott Jurek's tribute to him at REI's Running Expo last weekend, and about loving running for the sake of running. I thought about my new friend Jonathan, who several weeks ago gave me some of the best training advice imaginable for races like these (sustained treadmill climbs!), which I'd put to use and definitely felt the positive effects from on Saturday as I powered up those mountains. Jonathan's unit deployed to Afghanistan this weekend, so I reflected on how grateful I am to him, and all those throughout history who've served and defended our country. What a gift, to be a woman in America, and free to have experiences like this.

I hit the halfway point in a surprising 3.5 hours. By the time I started the third climb, however, my good vibes were faltering. The heat at the bottom of the valley was starting to feel suffocating and my feet were getting irritated from the exceptionally rocky and scree-ridden trails. Miraculously, my legs still felt pretty fresh. It made me grateful for all those vertical training miles logged in the Issaquah Alps.

I ran large stretches of the middle of the course with a friendly woman from Banff named Leslie. Let me now devote a paragraph of gratitude to Leslie. This woman is built like a mountain goat; I've never seen someone so steady, so strong - mowing up the ascents as though they were flat, tearing up the downhills like she was on the trail of prey. Beyond that, she had crazy positive energy, whooping and cheering all day long, high-fiving other runners on the out-and-back, even breaking out into song and dance in her own rendition of "Eye of the Tiger" as we approached one of the aid stations, just to get some laughs from the volunteers. What a fun and spunky woman! We chatted away mile after mile, passing folks one by one, and having a blast all the way. When the terrain forced us from a jog into a walk, she'd say triumphantly, "But we'll walk with purpose!" and just keep marching on up.

At one point, she whipped out her camera and said, "Smile!" So, there we are :)

When I finally started to lose my steam on the third downhill and Leslie pulled ahead of me, I felt a little panicked. I'd so enjoyed her company, her positivity and her strength; now I'd have to dig deep into my own stores of energy to keep going forward. My quads still felt strong on the third descent, but my feet were really getting chewed up. I stopped along the trail to peel my right shoe and sock off to try to lance as many blisters as I could with a safety pin from my race bib - unfortunately, to little avail. Most of the monster blisters were developing underneath thick callouses, and their fluids were not easily drained.

The final climb boiled down to sheer willpower. Amazingly, everything still felt pretty good, except my right foot and its forest of big, irritated blisters. The sun was getting hotter and hotter overhead, meanwhile, but I was greatly comforted by the knowledge that I'd soon get to stop running - and an icy cold river awaited me at the bottom. I was moving faster, much faster, overall than I'd expected, and this gave me a good mental boost that carried me all the way to the end.

I crossed the finish line in 7:27:52, and in 5th place for women. (My butt kicked yet again by a handful of women in their forties! :P ) The rest of the day was a blur of cookie-munching, river-soaking and kombucha-guzzling - an amazing day, to be sure. Back to Seattle that night, in time for work the next morning, where I hobbled around on my severely blistered foot and took home our work library's loaner copy of Fixing Your Feet. It'll be a few days before I run (or even walk comfortably) again on these puppies...


Average weekly mileage in 8 weeks leading up to race day: 40 miles + sporadic cross-training (cycling, strength)

Peak weekly mileage: 58 miles

Longest single run in training: 31 miles

Race Day Breakfast: Green smoothie, boiled egg, cup of coffee, bottle of GT's Kombucha

During the run: 3 scoops of Perpetuem (carb/protein beverage mix), 7ish GUs, 10ish Endurolytes (electrolyte/salt tablets), ultra grub at the aid stations (ginger ale, boiled potatoes, bananas, orange slices), boatloads of water

Lessons learned: If it's sunny, bring a hat. Don't wear black. Don't forget to put sunscreen on the backs of your arms. If it's hot, put ice cubes in your water at the start. Lace your shoes tightly. If there's going to be a lot of scree, small trail gaiters are probably worth it. If you're going to bring a Ziploc baggy of Perpetuem, better double-baggy it - and for the love of God, don't put it in the same pocket of your hydration pack as your fancy phone.

So. The secret to running a solid race?
Potato chips for dinner.

And rockstar sunglasses.

In other words, low pressure and low expectations :)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alternative spring break: Blood, sweat and tears

This week is spring break for Seattle Public Schools. It's also the week after REI's month-long Member Rewards Sale and the Seattle store's annual Running Shoe Expo. This all means I get a week off from coaching, and a little "calm after the storm" from the hectic past few weeks at work. Although I don't have the means to go anywhere special this spring, I am taking what advantage I can of the virtually endless menu of adventures within (the magic number, apparently!) 35 minutes of Seattle.

Mountain running with George

Yesterday, George and I spent the better part of the day exploring unmarked trails on Rattlesnake and Tiger Mountain (35-minute drive from Seattle). We were scoping out a way to connect the two mountains, in anticipation of an unofficial 100K that my running buddies are organizing next month. I won't be able to run the "race" itself day of, but I'm happy to tag along in the meantime for planning it. And what a great way to start a Monday morning - driving against rush hour to get to the mountains instead of the office.

On our way!

It was quite the adventure run. We had maps, fancy phone GPS and a rough idea of where we wanted to go - but wound up exploring hidden trails and bushwhacking a good deal more than planned. We climbed up to panoramic views of the valley, we pounded the descents, we marveled over hidden gems of trails, we splashed through mud and puddles, we told stories, we laughed. At some point, we found ourselves caught up in a horrible mess of nasty thorns and brambles, which lacerated the hell out of my bare legs. Ouchies! But we laughed about that, too.

We also pulled off a waist-deep river crossing in icy cold water - twice!

George's video of our Raging River crossing

A wonderful weekday adventure indeed. 4+ hours in the mountains, and we're already plotting out our recon mission to check out all the trail offshoots that we didn't get to fully explore, since evening work shifts beckoned us both back to Seattle.

Island biking with Mac

Today, I hopped on my bike in the morning for an epic day of human-powered exploration on Bainbridge Island (a 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle) with my friend Mac, who's born and raised on Bainbridge. He gave me the grandest of island tours, meeting me on bike at the ferry landing and taking me through town, from park to park, coastal roads to forested singletrack, hidden lakes to hidden beaches, killer climbs to heart-pounding downhills. What a BLAST. We skipped rocks on the water, ducked in to the public library, visited the community horticultural haven Bay Hay & Feed, rode by Mac's childhood home, and shared a delicious pizza at the Treehouse Cafe on the south of the island. Along the way, Mac regaled me with stories and a wealth of information about local history, traditions, animal and plant life, and prominent people who have lived on the island.

My wonderful tour guide leading the way through beautiful island forest.

Aside from one minor crash on my bike (marking the second time in two days that the outdoor world has gashed open some of my skin and drawn blood!), it was a lovely day. I rode the ferry back in peace, with jello legs and a contentedly full belly. Once the ferry docked, I geared up for my least favorite part of using my bike for transportation - riding it through downtown around rush hour.

Seattle: Drivers vs. Cyclists, Again

Most of the 15ish minute ride from the ferry landing back to my apartment went just fine, despite increasingly intense rain. Until. Until, until, until. The street I was riding on downtown had "sharrows" - meaning it's designated by the city of Seattle as a bike route, and is marked by a bike logo on the pavement to remind cars to be mindful of cyclists - but no designated bike lane. As I approached an intersection, the right lane in which the sharrows and I were turned into a right-turn only lane. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I could merge over to the going-straight lane, merged over, just as the light at the intersection turned yellow. I still had plenty of time and space to brake for the light, and came to a complete stop with no issue.

Several moments later, I heard screeching brakes behind me. I couldn't tell if they were bike or car brakes, but looked back just as a cyclist came to a screeching halt within an inch of me on my bike, and began screaming obscenities. For one second, I was terrified I'd somehow cut him off - but I quickly realized his wrath was not directed at me, and had everything to do with a van that had apparently nearly collided with him. I didn't see what happened, since it all unfolded behind me, but I imagine it had something to do with the weird lane merge (and poor visibility in general, due to the rain).

Anyway, the driver of the van immediately rolled down his window and said, "Man, I am SO sorry, I didn't see you." The cyclist didn't take this well, and went berserk. He started pounding on the side of the van, hitting it, kicking it, dropping F-bombs right and left, and screaming at the top of his lungs at the driver. The driver handled this remarkably well for a few more seconds, apologizing again and trying to make peace with the cyclist. The cyclist's anger only escalated at this point, as he screamed obscenities and yelled at the driver to get out of the van so he could "beat the shit" out of him. The driver asked, "Are you serious? Man, I SAID I'm sorry", to which the cyclist continued to scream and scream and scream. This is where the driver started to lose his cool, too. He got out of his van and started screaming back. The two of them continued in a screaming match - escalating rapidly from yelling about whether the cyclist was wearing enough flashers to be visible to screaming threats at each other - and I found myself praying silently that neither of them would pull a knife or gun on the other...they were both so, so angry. (Keep in mind, I was within three feet of these guys, with nowhere really to go until the light changed.) Words here can't begin to do justice to the level of rage these two had for each other.

It was not pleasant. Eventually, the light did change, and I pedaled so damn hard away from the whole scene. My heart was pounding. Something about the adrenaline of it all must have triggered something in my system, because as I arrived home safe and sound a few minutes later, I more or less had a panic attack and started bawling. I really can't handle rage; it terrifies me. Although I've had a number of good adventures over the past month (and that's most of what I prefer to share in the online realm), it's also been a difficult month for me, with a lot of emotional upheaval, loss, transition and overall uncertainty. (AND, the stress of more things going wrong with my car; it seems like these problems will never end. Sigh. Sidenote.) So, in some ways, the emotional release of adrenaline-charged crying felt good today.

In other ways, it all just makes me so sad for Seattle. That moment was such a sharp contrast with the quiet, rural roads and forested trails that Mac and I spent all day riding. There is a tremendous amount of animosity between drivers and cyclists in this city. I am both a driver and a cyclist, at different times, so I'm not on one "side" over the other. There are reckless drivers, and there are reckless cyclists; neither are acceptable, not when lives are at stake. Unfortunately, for the most part, the streets of Seattle are not designed to safely accommodate both; it bums me out that I live somewhere where safety is a reason not to ride my bike. But it is. I love my life. I love biking, too, but moments like this evening make me ask how much, and is it worth it?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Badger Mountain 100-Mile Challenge: Inspired by my friends

One of my new year's running resolutions for 2012 was/is to volunteer at more races. Trail races are typically low-budget affairs that rely heavily on passionate swaths of volunteers who come out to make possible the amazing feats of their running compatriots - whether by checking in runners at the start line, manning aid stations, or serving as a direct support crew to individual runners. Since I've run more than my fair share of races at this point and reaped the benefits of the unbelievably awesome local running community, I figured it was high time to wear the volunteer's hat for a weekend!

It was with this mindset that I agreed to crew and pace for my good friend George last weekend at the Badger 100-Mile Challenge outside of Kennewick, Washington. (Yes, 100 miles. On foot.) It's only a few hours' drive from Seattle, but the terrain couldn't be more different from what we Cascadians are used to running through. My typical trail run is through tall, dense forest, a cocoon of bright green moss and ferns and pines. Kennewick is a barren, treeless desert of dirt and dust, exposed ridges, scattered with tumbleweeds and sage.

George was not the only running buddy of mine tackling this beast of a race; I knew several other folks, mostly through the Seattle Mountain Running Group (SMRG) I've been bumming around with a lot lately. By the end of the weekend, I'd know many more, and far more intimately. This being George's first 100-miler, and George being the kind of awesome friend everyone was eager to come out and support, there was a small entourage of us out to crew for him - Jenn, Glenn, Topher and myself. I'd never even been to a 100-mile event before, so aside from being excited to support George's accomplishment, I was psyched to get to witness firsthand what a race like this does to the minds, bodies and spirits of its runners.

The race started at 7 a.m. on Friday in steady rain and 50mph winds. After a steep initial climb, the 60ish starting runners faced long miles ahead along exposed ridges. We managed to miss George at the first crew-accessible aid station (CREW FAIL!) because he, and the other runners, were all booking it so hard to get off those ridges and away from the miserable weather. It wasn't until mile 22ish that we saw George and many of the other SMRG runners come through, and were able to dole out clean clothes, homemade cookies, and bottles of thick, goopy Perpetuem to keep them going.

Topher's old school VW bus made for the perfect movable aid station, with a dry spot for our running friends to get the fuel they needed before moving on. Our runners' clothes had already gotten so soaked that our crew's first mission was to cruise into the nearest town to find a laundromat and some high-powered dryers. The next few aid stations went by in a flash - amazing how all of Friday flew by, as we drove and parked and waited and made bottles of Perpetuem - and repeated. Fortunately for our runners, the rain let up in the afternoon.

Most of the runners were approaching the turnaround point at mile 47ish around sunset on Friday. Amazingly, at this point, most of the runners we saw were still in great spirits - awake, energized, positive, and confident. I wondered about whether my presence was actually of value to them; everyone seemed to be doing just fine! Usually, the dropout rate for tough 100-mile events like these is right around 50%, but seeing all the smiles and good humor as the runners trickled in to that aid station, I wondered if anyone would be dropping at all. Where was all the misery and soul-reckoning I'd heard about at these events? I was proud of and excited for all the runners I knew out there, and duly inspired.

Our man George, happy as a clam. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.

Finally, night fell. The aid stations have a different feel at night, with their quiet, unassuming presence tucked away on the sides of mountains, the party lights, the Dixie cups of chicken noodle soup, the stoves fired up for ultra-grub like pancakes and quesadillas, the folding camp chairs set up to support the slumped bodies of increasingly fatigued runners. It was a really neat experience to hang out at these aid stations through the night, staring into the darkness and watching for the tiny, bobbing light of a runner's headlamp in the distance. The lights of Kennewick lay out below us, a blanket of stars above us.

The white line on the right side of this image is from the headlamp of a runner.

Glenn jumped in to pace George (essentially, run alongside him, ensure he stays awake, moving, and on course - a job that's part babysitter, part designated driver, part coach, and part therapist) from mile 47 on through most of the night. Because most of the aid stations for that stretch were not crew-accessible, the rest of us took the opportunity to curl up in our vehicles and catch a few hours of shuteye.

The next crew fail came in underestimating George's pace yet again. He and Glenn powered through the night, passing many other runners, and gaining speed as others were just starting to slow down. They blazed in to the aid station we'd parked at to nap around 2:30 a.m., a few hours ahead of when we were expecting him. Jenn traded places with Glenn to pace George for the remainder of the race, while I waited for another runner friend of ours, Ras, to come in so I could hop in to keep him company for the remainder of the course.

Running through the night is a crazy thing. My only other experience with it is the Ragnar Relay, but that's never more than a few miles before you hand off the baton to the next runner. I joined Ras at around 4 a.m., and for the next 8.5 hours, we were out on that course together, battling fatigue and steep hill climbs and the sheer emptiness of a race course that had dwindled down to the smallest handful of determined athletes. From there until sunrise, we only saw one other runner. We made our way over jeep trail after jeep trail, hill after hill, until the sun came up. That sun felt good.

This was Ras's second 100-miler, and though he was definitely hurting from long, unexpected stretches on pavement, he kept in great spirits. We shared amazingly lively conversation over the sunrise, through winding vineyard trails, along the highways, up and down more and more mountains. It was cool to spend more time getting to know Ras, since he and I have run a lot of the same races, but had never officially met before last weekend. (...Although he's made guest appearances in my photo albums before, given that we have similar climbing paces; the clicking of his trekking poles was the soundtrack to my ascent at Angel's Staircase last August.)

Ras + my shadow at the top of Angel's Staircase, August 2011 - Little did we know it wouldn't be the first time we'd share mountain summits!

While trekking along a seemingly endless stretch of road, we stumbled on a group of 7 or 8 runners, walking the opposite direction as us. They'd gotten terribly off course in the middle of the night and were trying to find their way back to the aid station we'd just come through. They all had hamburgers in their hands - apparently picked up along the road while lost - which they gnawed away at, eyes glazed over like zombies, as they stared confusedly at the two of us. These things happen at ultramarathons, I guess. We wished them luck and continued onward.

We saw George and Jenn at one of the later aid stations, along an out-and-back portion of the race; they were a couple hours ahead of us on the course, but it was great to see familiar faces. By the time we rolled into the final aid station, Ras's wife Kathy jumped on course for the final few miles.

The final few miles were probably the most scenic of the entire course, at least that I saw, with sweeping views of the valleys below us, and a highly runnable trail that seemed to give many of the exhausted runners new life in their legs. Amazingly, I'd soon learn, ALL of the runners I knew doing this race MADE it to the finish under the 32-hour cutoff. Pretty impressive, given that only 34 of the original 60+ starting runners finished. Later, stories trickled in of other runners dropping, due to turned ankles, muscle cramping, hypothermia, and feet so swollen that shoes had to be cut away with scissors. I attribute the finishers' achievement to their relentlessly positive attitudes, their tenacity, their training, and the running community camaraderie we're fortunate enough to have out here in Washington. Everyone had families, friends, crews, other runners, pacers and a team of exceptional volunteers rooting for them, and everyone rocked it!

So, after all that, am I more excited or less excited about someday trying to tackle a 100-miler myself? More excited, to be sure. Perhaps not this race in particular (the terrain didn't sing to me; the course markings still need some improvement), but I've got buckle envy, for sure.

Photo snagged from fellow Kansan, and 2012 Badger finisher Jeff Webb

I've got some work to do, but I have a pretty constant source of motivation from the people in my life out here - a huge congrats to all the runners at Badger this year, and a big THANK YOU for inspiring me with your superhuman accomplishments and triumph over a punishing and merciless mountain challenge.