Monday, August 13, 2012

Angel's Death March 60K, featuring Zombie Tom and other friends

Alternate title considerations include:
 - In which it is discovered that I am not Van Phan
 - What cans of spinach are to Popeye, jars of kale smoothie are to Yitka
 - White River stole my mojo
 - Humbled!

Let's begin with the letter I spent 9 hours on Saturday composing in my head:

Dear White River, you fabulous, cunning beast,
You remind me of falling in love at 14. You wooed me, you made me giddy, you gave me the world. Turns out that I gave you everything, too - so when I tried my best to recreate the euphoria you let me taste, I found I had nothing left to give. You took it all, White River, you handsome, sly devil, you.

On Saturday, I attempted to run a 60K in the stunning Methow Valley of northern central Washington. I think that when I signed up for it months ago, my thought process was this: Well, I'll be such a badass by the time I've run White River, I'll be able to handle running 38 miles with 10,000+ feet of elevation gain two weeks later, no big whoop.

Granted, I have crazy friends who encourage this sort of thinking. I consort with folks like George and Van and Jason and Jenn and Stacey who do things like run a couple hundred miles in one go, or run across the desert in Jordan, or run from Seattle to Vancouver in a few days for the hell of it. Unfortunately, often as I associate with the nutcases, I am not quite (yet?) of the same blood. After Van finished running her own 200 mile race, she marched gracefully right into the role of race director/cheerleader/pizza-wrangler, and likely ran a cooldown marathon the next day. I'm pretty sure I'd be comatose at that point, not jogging.

All this to say that two weeks had somehow come to seem like a reasonable amount of time to recover between ultras. This turned out, for me, to be less than accurate.

Like any runner, I have a plethora of excuses ready to explain why I felt so miserable for approximately half of the Angel's Staircase 60K:
  • 90+ degrees Fahrenheit = 25 degrees above Yitka's melting point; I'm Dutch, not Kenyan
  • Not enough sleep for two weeks leading up to it
  • No green smoothie or boiled egg morning of (I am nothing without kale!)
  • Crappy diet overall the week leading up to it
  • Running at 6,000-8,000 feet elevation all day, where the air is certainly thinner than at sea level
  • Intense headache verging on migraine that lasted about four hours
The funny thing is, I did a better job than ever setting myself up to have an enjoyable race. I truly accepted that I would not think of it as a race, but rather as a gentle, easy recovery run with a ton of great scenery. I put no pressure on myself whatsoever. Naturally, there was a tiny part of me that hoped I'd magically feel like a million bucks and be able to pull off a fabulous race anyway - but I was pretty confident going in that that wouldn't be the case. After the first few miles, I was certain.

But I was okay with it! In fact, I'm still okay with it. I loved the course. I loved all the fellows and ladies who absolutely rocked it; seven of the top 15 finishers were female - woohoo! I loved feeling no hurry whatsoever, taking my time along the way to think, take photos, chase butterflies in fields of wildflowers. (You think I'm kidding...)

Mentally, though, I had nothing to give on Saturday. There was no inspirational drawing on deep stores of psychological prowess. If there'd been a van at mile 27 offering to take me to the finish, I would have hopped in it without a second thought. Fortunately, (given the old slogan that pain is temporary, pride is forever), I was instead very much alone at mile 27, very deep in the backcountry at that point, where the only way out was on my own two feet. The mountain, not my mind, deserves credit for the lack of DNF on Saturday.

And furthermore, I wasn't the only one. People puked. Runners had to be fetched off the mountain. My friend Tom died somewhere along the course, and came across the finish line seven hours later as a purple-skinned, muscle-twitching zombie.

Of course, I'm being dramatic - though, only really about the Tom dying part. To be fair, the course was amazing. 100% pure sunshine, spectacular views, fun familiar faces, plenty of Snickers bars. I felt pretty good for the first half. I think I was in the women's lead for a mile or two - though, for what it's worth, all us top seven women finishers were within about 20 minutes of each other the entire race...pretty awesome to be surrounded by so many strong, inspiring women.

James and Candice, as always, did a fantastic job putting this amazing race together for the handful of nut jobs who showed up for it. Bonus points for the rattlesnake and alpaca sightings on the mountain, and for the awesome volunteers, and for whomever furnished the Trader Joe's Just Mango Slices at one of the aid stations. As broken as Zombie Tom and I were at the end of this saga, I'd be lying if I said we weren't already planning our return for next year.

Please note that my legs are not as pale as they appear, nor does the lack of filth on them indicate that I stayed clean during the death march. Ladies just know where to find the wet wipes at the finish line.

Lastly, for a dizzying video that's apt to make you feel as nauseated as I did for 4-5 hours on Saturday (and give you a little taste for the stunning nature of the course), here ya go:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ultra-Rambly Race Report: White River 50 Endurance Run

One week ago, I ran my first 50-miler, the White River Endurance Run. I'll borrow a couple lines from my friend and fellow 50-miler-first-timer Tim's race report on his blog, A Little Runny, and warn you that what follows is "kind of long, but whatever. You all have proven that you have the stamina for this kind of thing - either by running freaking forever, or by putting up with me to this point in life."

For those who aren't familiar with White River, a quick primer on the course: it's essentially a figure-8 course, with a 27ish-mile loop and a 23ish-mile loop, each of which has a monster climb, totaling about 8,700 feet of climbing (+ the same in descent; 17,400 ft. total elevation change) altogether.

The White River course profile superimposed over the Boston marathon course profile

Two weekends before the race, Jenn and I spent the better part of our Sunday doing a training run on the White River course. We ran 75% of the first loop, including most of the climb, and then ran the entire second loop on duly tired legs. This, probably more than anything, gave me all the confidence I needed for race day.

Our 38ish-mile training run had been tiring, but not awful. We got to know the terrain. In training, I felt wiped out and got grumpy by the time we hit Skookum Flats (6.6 mile from the finish; see course profile above) - but after an honest check-in with myself, determined that the exhaustion was purely mental, not physical. Once I shifted my perception of the last stretch on Skookum as a miserable slog to pretending I was just out for an unusually scenic lunchtime run (since Lauren and I frequently run 6ish miles in the middle of our workday), it actually felt pretty good. I promised myself to tuck that lesson in perception into my arsenal come race day.

Fast forward two weeks. I rode out to the course on Friday with Jenn and her boyfriend Greg, who was our supportive, exceptionally patient weekend chauffeur and cheerleader. Of the 340-some pre-registered runners, as well as volunteers, I counted several dozen whom I'd consider good friends. Most everyone camped out at the starting line on Friday night - so the evening was a great time, hanging out with so many of my running buddies, sharing in pre-race jitters, sitting around the campfire and packing our drop bags.

They let us request our own bib #s. Obviously, I chose my lucky number! I attribute at least 50% of my success to having this one pinned on my shorts :) The other 50% I attribute to, as I've said before, the spectacular training advice and encouragement of Major Jonathan Shark. A huge shoutout to him in Afghanistan - present with us in spirit, always, at these races.

Morning of, I got up to see off some of our friends who took the early start - Linh, Ras, Van, Maylon, Simon, Tracy, Dana, Craig, Lars, among others - at the crack of dawn. Breakfast was the usual green smoothie (blended at home the day before, mason-jarred in a cooler), boiled egg, and dark chocolate - plus a little leftover quinoa/berry porridge that I'd had for dinner the night before.

Somehow, Jenn and I both kind of lost track of time after that, dilly-dallying back at our campsite. At 6:27 a.m., we were both still hanging out in our tents, taping our feet, lathering on Body Glide, and doing who knows what else. When we suddenly realized how late it had gotten on us, we dashed toward the starting line, pinning our race bibs on our shorts as we ran, and made it just in time. Takao, who photographed the race along with Glenn this year, snapped this of the two of us as we took off. I'm in green; Jennifer in blue.

Amazingly, I felt pretty darn great the whole first 27-mile loop. There were so many familiar faces on the course, I had plenty of awesome company with whom to enjoy the course - George, Jenn, Kevin, Ben, Mike, and quite a few other folks running their first 50 milers, too - a couple young, energetic guys from Spokane, and an awesomely strong runner from Canada named Meredith. It was mostly cloudy for the first few hours, which was pleasant.

I felt like I was running a *little* faster than I should...but I used my breath as my pace gage; as long as I felt like my breathing wasn't getting labored, I maintained that pace - which, after two weeks of serious tapering, was a pretty darn good clip. I ran without a Garmin or pace chart of any sort; my biggest priority, truly, was to enjoy the course and have a good first 50 experience, so I didn't want any kind of time pressure hanging over me. I've been working a lot on trusting my intuition more (with running, to be sure, but also in life in general!), and as I said to Jenn during our training run weeks before: "I don't need to worry about pacing myself; I'll let the mountain pace me."

On a funny sidenote: I did run with a simple Suunto stopwatch. At 9 hours, it beeped off. Apparently, at that point, it assumes there's no possible way you're still exercising. Silly watch.

But rewind a bit. I got a great boost at the Corral Pass aid station around mile 17, where there were so many familiar faces among the volunteers. Fellow 50-first-timer Linh and I hit the aid station at the same time, and Deby snapped a photo of us before we took off again for the woods.

The terrain up near Corral Pass is absolutely stunning. It cleared up by the time we got up there, so we were rewarded with spectacular views of Mt. Rainier. The scenery reminded me a lot of Colorado - rocky, remote, bathed in sunshine, dusty dirt and the delicious scent of pine. I felt high as a kite - alive, strong, verging on euphoric.

Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

The descent back to Buck Creek was a blast - though I resisted going full-throttle on the downhill, having been properly warned not to blow out my quads here so early in the race. Plus I had developed a blister on my pinky toe that was starting to give me some trouble. And my tummy, as usual, got a little hot and bothered during the high-jostling downhill.

At Buck Creek, I plopped down in the grass to change socks and deal with my blister before it got out of control. I also discovered that I had rivers of blood down my left leg, as I'd apparently gashed open my left knee climbing over a giant downed tree on the course, and failed to notice that it had been bleeding for miles. Thank goodness for the Best Volunteer Ever, who came over and took care of my every need, without my having to articulate a single one of them (good thing, because I was tired, panicked about losing time by stopping too long at the aid station, and generally a little loopy). He wiped off my legs, refilled my hydration pack, emptied out all my GU gel and energy bar wrapper trash from my pack, took my shoes and socks off and helped me change socks...all while I was sitting there, a little loopy and dumb-founded. What a hero!

Kathy was there to help me get my hydration pack all situated again, and cheered me on my way. I probably spent about ten minutes total at Buck Creek; once I got back up to run again, I didn't feel like it at all. I wolfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as I trotted through the woods toward the second monster climb, and at this point, hit my lowest point mentally. A lot of cheery runners who looked like they were in far better shape than I had blasted through Buck Creek as I was sitting in the grass with my guardian angel wiping blood off my legs. My muscles were grumpy. My stomach was grumpy. I was grumpy.

As I began the next big climb, I felt pretty negative - frustrated I'd lost time at Buck Creek, worried I'd done the first loop too fast, berating myself for not moving faster on the climb, feeling panicked and unnecessarily competitive with other runners as they pulled ahead of me. But I quickly realized that there is ZERO room for negativity in endeavors like this; it would be a long 23-mile loop if I couldn't shake it.

So I shook it. I let it all go. I gave myself total permission to walk the entire climb and feel no pressure to run. Others pulled ahead; I fell back. Then, abruptly, I felt a deep sense of peace, because I was alone on the course for the first time. I must have gotten quite lost indeed in the joy of this temporary solitude, because without even realizing it, my legs got their mojo back. Before I knew it, I was passing people again on the climb, and energetically trotting up the very terrain I'd given myself permission to walk.

I even found it within myself to jump for Glenn (at his cajoling!) at mile 37, approaching the summit of the second climb at Sun Top.

The next stretch of the course is infamous: six miles of straight downhill on a hard-packed gravel service road. This was, by far, my body's favorite part of the whole course. Sophia and I fell in step with each other for nearly the entire descent, cruising hard at 7:30ish miles or so the whole way, making up loads of time, passing people left and right, and chatting it up. It was at this point that I started paying more attention to my stopwatch, and realizing that a sub-10-hour finish might be within reach.

Unfortunately, my stomach got pretty upset during the last mile or two of the downhill. Fortunately, I knew from my training run with Jenn that there was a little outhouse at the bottom of the road; I made a beeline straight for it. Unfortunately, there was already someone in it, taking her time. I waited several minutes longer than I wanted to, watching runner after runner blaze by me...but waiting my turn for the luxury of a bathroom was ultimately the right decision.

I hit Skookum Flats with renewed energy, drawing on the same psychological games I'd played with myself in training two weeks before. My legs felt remarkably lively. I'd fueled well all day, and still had plenty of energy to burn on those last few miles - so I cruised. I passed more runners. I wanted that sub-10-hour finish badly.

When I emerged from the woods to the cheering sounds of the crowd at the finish line, I felt so happy. What a crazy sense of accomplishment. JB - who I'd originally met when he came to rep SCOTT shoes at the Seattle REI Running Expo I helped put on this year - gave me the biggest hug as I came across the finish line in 9:53:34.

The wonderfully awesome team that is Jamey and Heather captured this great moment for me:

Thank you, thank you, thank you to absolutely everyone in my life who helped me pull this one off. To all of you, your support has meant the world to me - whether in the form of planting the seed in my mind to register for this (thanks, as always, Tom!), running with me in training, listening to me ramble about running, sharing WR-specific training advice, or for simply believing in me...thank you all. This day rocked.