Race Review: Comrades Marathon

To understand why I was standing in the middle of a South African town at 5:30 in the morning surrounded by 20,000 mostly South African runners, we have to go back to April 2014. In our normal pre-Boston race week buildup, we tried to pass the time with running documentaries — trying to get ourselves keyed up to run fast on Marathon Monday. We came across Bart Yasso’s Runner’s World feature about the Comrades Marathon. Bart has run everything and been everywhere, and he had not run this one so he put it on his bucket list. We were in awe. On Monday, endorphins still raging and drunk from our Boston finishes and a few cocktails, Michael said, “Hey we should do that Comrades thing!” He’d heard about it before we watched the documentary. “Ha!” I said, “We aren’t ultramarathoners.” But Michael insisted we might be. “That’s more than two marathons. Think about how trashed our legs are right now! You want more of that?” I told him I would ask him in a few weeks when he wasn’t drunk.

Comrades is the world’s oldest ultramarathon. It is filled with badasses. Each person is a badass in their own way. South Africa television devotes an entire 12-hour block to covering it. Everyone knows whether it’s an “up” or a “down” run. When you tell an American that you’re running Comrades, though, they don’t understand. Rugby and running feel like South Africa’s national pastimes. The nation seems to rally around this event. It’s their Boston and New York and Super Bowl all in one. OK.

A few weeks later, I confirmed that yes, Michael was serious about wanting to run this thing. We’d need to wait for a “down” year, which would be an even year. The Comrades course changes directions every year, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban for the down years and vice versa for the up years. Downhill running seemed easier. Who doesn’t love running down a hill? But that meant having a goal for more than two years. And we aren’t ultramarathoners. I had two years to turn myself in to an ultramarathoner. OK. That was a long way away.

Buildup

I know I somehow ended up at this point, in May 2016, a point where I can reasonably imagine running 56 miles. My weekly mileage increased by about 15 percent, steadily and with the help of an amazing coach. But this also meant I needed to slow down some runs. This training was more about time on my feet and less about building speed. Except when it wasn’t and I was training for marathon PRs at the same time. Somehow, with a series of stepping stone endurance races and steady mileage buildup, the ultra seemed doable.

The first step I remember in the ultramarathoner plan was running a long way and practicing fueling. I ran Boston 2 Big Sur in 2015, which let me know that my legs could tolerate two marathons in a week at a pretty quick clip. But the first time I ran 50K on the roads, I hallucinated a dead bird. I had plenty of work to do. Aside from mental grit, fueling is a something you have to get right in ultras. Your body cannot run much farther than 26.2 miles without taking in some additional fuel — in my case, something solid. With some amount of fueling strategy figured out, I came in top female in my first trail ultra, The March, a non-technical fire road trail ultra in North Carolina. That was a building block for Stone Mill, a 50-mile trail run. I was mentally zapped after that race and I fell down in the first mile. But covering 50 miles is something my body can do.

In January, I ran the Goofy Challenge in Walt Disney World, which is a half marathon on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. The U.S. doesn’t have a ton of ultra-distance road races, and I wanted to train in conditions close to Comrades. In February, I ran the Cowtown 50K and broke the course record. With a pacing strategy and fueling plan nearly locked down, I was quite confident I could run Comrades.

I haven’t written about my disappointing performance in Boston here, but gosh, I felt like my training was finally coming together for that race. A combination of a warm day and a migraine at mile 8 meant I wouldn’t be breaking 3:00 in the spring this year. But in 2016 I have set personal records in every other distance I’ve raced: 50K, half marathon, 10-mile, 10K and three-mile. And with as long as I’ve been pushing and racing, I am pleased to see my times continue to drop. But I digress.

Comrades was on the horizon. I took a deep breath after the Boston setback and was determined to build my mileage up again for the six weeks between races. Twelve days after Boston, I organized a 35-mile long run around Washington, Maryland and Virginia where I really settled in on my Comrades race fueling plan. Without that confidence-building run and the miles in my legs, I wouldn’t have arrived at the start line with much confidence. Thirty-five miles on roads is a long way to go.

35-mile training run through DMV
35-mile training run through DMV

After about two year of gradual buildup and confidence building, I was ready to glide in for a smooth landing and an easy taper for the race. But I had two of my favorite May races on the calendar, races I don’t miss — the Capitol Hill Classic 10K and the ACLI Capital Challenge Three-Miler. Plus before Boston, I’d been having a weird kind of hip pain across the front of my lower abdomen. It wasn’t exactly my groin — a little higher. It woke me up at night a few times. I shrugged it off as maybe my period or maybe running too many miles ahead of Boston. I did put in a few 100-mile weeks. Then some time around the second week of May, the pain started again. My training was slowing down in to taper mode. I thought the pain would go away with a bit of rest or easier days. It didn’t. Then I raced twice and PRed twice in four days. At the start line of both of those races, I was telling people around me I wasn’t sure if my hip would hold up. It was tender. I was walking a fine line for both of those races.

I went to the physical therapist on May 18. Comrades was on May 29. She said she thought it wasn’t a stress fracture or a hernia (those things don’t wake you up at night) and gave me some exercises to help with the pain. But the pain kept happening at night, even with the taper. It didn’t happen the nights after my races, but it would come back on random easy days. On Monday night before my Tuesday evening flight, my massage therapist worked on my psoas muscles, which helped with some of the tension and let me get back to some ab exercises. The 17-hour flight to Africa wasn’t terrible. I slept for about six hours, and I managed a quick mile when we landed on Wednesday night to keep my running streak alive. The streak is almost seven years long. You don’t just throw that away because you had a late flight. Right?

We woke up in Johannesburg on Thursday morning and went for an easy shakeout. Bad news: the groin pain was real, and it was happening during the run. It was on the right side, and it had moved a bit to the right butt cheek. My goal was to finish Comrades — all 56 miles of it. Period. It is not a race for which I had a firm time goal. I wanted to finish the race in the 12-hour allotted time window. So I decided I would take a rest day. A real rest day. Aside from the fact that I felt kind of “off” in the morning — kind of how you feel when you haven’t had enough coffee — I think my rest day went fine. We flew from Johannesburg to Durban. We ate dinner with international runners. I slept well and without hip pain that night!

On Saturday, Michael and I ran a shakeout — him guiding us so we wouldn’t get hit when I looked the wrong way for oncoming traffic and me babying my hip and listening to it for any signs of pain. Everything felt … fine?

Race Prep

The Comrades race expo is like Boston but a little smaller, far less crowded and full of strange African things. Comrades knows how to treat its international runners, too. There is a special line for bib number pickup, and the volunteers walk you through every piece of what you need to bring. Plus there is an international food tent at the finish. And international runners get special bibs. We picked up our numbers and tog bags (drawstring drop bags are “tog bags” there) at the expo and dropped off fuel for our three drop bags at the Hilton across the street. The two best choices I made in preparing for this trip were signing up for these drop bags and for the course tour. In my drop bags I had:

  • 13.1 mile: 3 GUs, one Stinger waffle, one sweet potato baby food pouch, three salt tabs
  • 26.2 mile: 3 GUs, one Stinger waffle, cashew Larabar, beet baby food pouch, three salt tabs, pair of socks
  • 39 mile: 4 GUs, three Clif block shots, three salt tabs

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I overdid it with the salt tabs. But I like to overpack those in case I lose one or my fingers don’t work. My fueling plan was to have one salt tab every 90 minutes.

On Saturday morning, we took a fantastic course tour with Bruce Fordyce. The goal, he said, of the tour is to scare us. Without the course tour, I would have been cursing myself for being in way over my head. With the course tour, I knew I was in over my head. But I knew when the going got tough (and it WOULD be tough), I would have lots of beautiful views.

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After thoroughly shitting our pants on the course tour, we panicked and thought our best course of action would be to hang out in our hotel for most of Saturday afternoon. We ordered an early dinner. We were both asleep (asleep!) by 8 p.m.

Race Day

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The alarm went off at 2:15. I made a French press cup of coffee for each of us, and we staggered around the hotel room until we kind of had our wits about us. Neither of us pooped. We were overseas and had no hope of anything happening at 2 a.m. anyway. We put on our race stuff we’d carefully laid out the night before when we were lucid. Then we took a quick photo where we look really awake and hopped up on something (life?), and we stumbled into the South African darkness to our cab. Wait, the third best idea I had on this trip was ordering a cab two days early. Otherwise I doubt we would have been able to easily get to the bus departure area at 3 a.m. on race morning.

The start of this race reminds me, oddly, of the start line to get to Big Sur. It is dark as hell. Everyone is kind of quiet. You’re waiting on a random street for cushy buses. All you want to do as you careen through the darkness is sleep. The trip to Pietermaritzburg doesn’t feel like 56 miles. When you get off the bus, because you’ve gone up 3,000 feet, it is 10 degrees colder than in Durban. I was still nervous about my hip, so I gingerly walked down the street toward the portapotties, halfway expecting my leg to buckle because maybe my hip realized what was ahead. But no, everything felt fine.

We stood in what appeared to be the only line for tog (drop) bags (?) and then went to our separate corrals. Until this point for the past few days, I’d been doing stream-of-consciousness with Michael about my hip. It was like my security blanket of someone to talk to, to assure me that I WOULD finish the race, was gone. We said bye to each other and he headed to the C corral. I was in B. I made my way through a little group of guys trying to get in to the B corral. Not sure what that was about. This was around 5:15 a.m. I took a seat next to a fence and sat there in a daze. I tried to remind myself that I should run by feel and not let emotion overtake me. I remembered my fueling. Oddly, I wasn’t nervous. Just sleepy, mostly. One of my Facebook friends Richard walked by and gave me a few Clif bars. He said something about needing to get to the front of the corral. More power to him.

You don’t remember the start of most races you run. It’s just people milling around. The anthem plays. The race director might say something that you can’t understand over a loud speaker. Here, you remember the start. I am not South African. In fact, this is the first race I’ve been at where another anthem played. Well maybe in Erie, Penn., they played the Canadian and United States anthems. In my corral, when the South African anthem played several groups of grown-ass men wrapped their arms around each other and swayed from side to side. And when the Shosholoza played, a woman in front of me grew more and more animated the longer it went on. These were runners, and they were great, great people. The cannon went off (not a gun, guys, a cannon), and we were on our way. It was 5:30 in the morning, and I was running in South Africa while everyone I know was asleep. In one of those surreal holy shit this is my life and it’s weird moments, that thought occurred to me when I looked around at the stream of runners darting in to the night. What was this?

I don’t recall a ton about the first 10 miles or so. A lot of dark. A lot of houses. It was cool. Hills were starting. We came tumbling down Polly Shorts, and I knew my quads were going to have a long day. My hips, though, were not in pain. Admittedly, I was taking the downhills quite easy because I had this nightmare of cracking my hip with one wrong step down the steep declines. I kept my long sleeve shirt on for the first seven or eight miles. In any other race, this would have felt like a long time. But my breathing was not labored. My heart rate seemed fine. I felt like I was out for a nice run in the cool morning air.

I ran next to a man from Lesotho for about 12 miles before we spoke to each other. He finally complemented me on my careful pacing. I don’t remember the names of anyone I talked to at this point. Knew about half of them yesterday. But this guy was wearing a yellow bib so he must have been going for his 10th Comrades and green number. There is a whole system to bib colors and numbers that is infinitely interesting and quite helpful. By the end of the race, I’d started to really enjoy looking at bibs.

The course doesn’t offer a ton of fueling options other than water, Coke (sometimes) and Energade, which is Gatorade but a little different. The liquids are all in plastic tubes. I enjoyed the tubes and wish America would switch to that system, though paper cups might be better for the environment. The tubes were really easy to bite in to once I got the hang of it. And if I took two tubes, I could use one for drinking water and squirt another one on top of my head to stay cool. But great news. If something isn’t supplied by the course, the spectators will certainly have it. I passed so many people handing out oranges, bananas, potato chips, salted potatoes, candy bars, you name it. And the spectators genuinely know how fast you’re going and what your predicted finishing time might be. Michael had one guy tell him how far ahead of the 9:00 cutoff he was when he was 10 miles away from the finish line. I mean, what the hell.

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Through mile 26, my pacing and fueling were pretty steady. We were approaching some bigger climbs and, worse, some legit downhills, that I was not excited about. At the drop bag checkpoint, I was talking to the volunteers telling them if they saw Michael to tell him I was doing well and looked good. But then damn it if Michael didn’t come charging up the hill. He looked great. He grabbed some stuff from his fuel bag, and we took off together. The next downhill was a little too graded for me, so he went ahead. I caught up to him a few miles later. Then he caught me again shortly after that. My hip still wasn’t bothering me, but I took the downhills easy.

Somewhere around the 40th mile, the course goes straight down. For about three miles. No rest. No slightly flat stretches. Nope. Just straight down at a 6 percent grade. These kinds of hills are lots of fun to run down when you have fresh legs or when there’s some variation in terrain like on a trail. Straight down in the blazing sun on pavement is no fun. Anyway, I walked some of this portion. At the bottom of the crappy downhill, I stopped to ask a spectator to tie my shoe because my laces kept hitting my ankle. I grabbed a handful of potato chips and some water from his table and told him he’d pretty much saved my race. He had.

Past mile 45, I started counting down miles. The markers at Comrades are kilometers and they count down, not up. So I was trying to do all kinds of mental math about how far I was from the finish in terms my exhausted brain could understand. So 20K is 12.5 miles, so like. Like 17K is how long? When I started doing that, I hit another uphill section that was too steep to run at that point. The hills in this course are not to be taken lightly. I tried to compare them to anything I know. Hurricane Point? Like 12 climbs like that. Or the hill on Harvard that I run up almost every day? It’s like that but five times as long and steeper. And hot. More hill training next time.

When I realized I was close to the finish, near the 3K mark I guess, I decided I could stand to accelerate a bit. My legs wouldn’t move that fast but they still had a bit of turnover in them. And once we entered downtown Durban the streets became streets, not mountains. I could finally see the Hilton, which I knew was next to the stadium finish line. I picked it up a bit. With 2K to go, I wondered whether I would get super emotional at the finish. Probably too exhausted to cry that much.

Comrades finishes with a lap around the inside of a stadium. It’s something you remember, almost like coming down Boylston. There also is a strict 12-hour cutoff. So you could have, say, entered the stadium but not made it quite to the finish line, and the finish line could just close. Think about that. You’ve been running since 5:30 in the morning. It is now dark. And you are within shouting distance of the finish line, and that thing closes. Bull shit. That’s the rule. The last stretch of the course is on grass in this stadium and damn, it feels great on your feet. I kept walking through the chute to find Michael, who’d finished in 8:52, and I grabbed my rose, my medal and my Comrades patch.

We hung out for about 30 minutes and then caught a cab back to the hotel. The hotel staff had tuned our television to marathon coverage for us. We looked at each other and had a “holy shit, we did that thing we said we’d do” moment. Then we drank some beer.

What’s Next

After what I calculate to be about three years of nearly non-stop training where I’ve pushed my body to PR at every distance, I am going to take some down time. This might mean easy miles. It might mean more rest days. On Monday, the day after I ran 56 miles through Africa, I took a two-mile walk through the city and another two-mile walk on the beach. And it was fine. This means not pushing myself before I am ready. It means listening to my body and hoping that the hip thing was a blip but being prepared to take more time than I want to for healing. Elite athletes take rest days. They take down time and come back stronger. Now, I’m not saying I am an elite. But they know what works.

So onward to fall marathons. Onward to more long-distance racing. And onward to being healthier, happier and in a better position by the time I get to Tahoe the third Sunday in August.

  • Distance run: 56.1 miles
  • Elevation: 3,876 feet
  • Time elapsed: 9:31:20 (9:16:19 moving time)
  • Blisters: one on the bottom of my heel, not bad
  • Toenails lost: none
  • Food and beverages consumed: 10 GUs, two Stinger waffles, sweet potato baby food pouch, beet baby food pouch, six Clif shot blocks, seven salt tabs, five orange slices, a banana, a handful of potato chips, Energade, water
  • Hallucinations: kept seeing South African people who looked like people I know, but nothing too crazy

Race Review: Cowtown Ultramarathon

I’ve been away a few months. Training takes time and energy, and writing takes time and brainpower, and working on caucuses and primary nights and through Super Tuesday as a project manager in a real live newsroom takes a lot of time. But here I am on the other side of a bunch of hard work with a shiny new 50K road PR, legitimately pleased with my training and racing so far this year.

I sat down to write a post about how oddly well my training was going in early February, but I scrapped it. First, I’m superstitious, and I didn’t want to jinx a good training season by acknowledging that I was making progress. I’d written virtually the same post about a year earlier. The paces that were amazing to me then seem like my normal fast runs now. The post I wrote about being ecstatic to work in one 90-mile week seems like it was ages ago, but it’s really only been 18 months since I hit that first peak. I’m now stacking up multiple 90+ weeks to train for ultramarathons. I’ve changed my training to take easy days absurdly easy, pace-wise. Instead, I started using a heart rate monitor to keep my training in the 130 to 140 bpm zone on easy days. And I continued my strengthening and stretching routine from my hamstring injury in the fall, so I’ve maintained glute, hamstring and core strength that I think has kept any new injuries away.

I consider most of 2016 so far to count as a gradual buildup toward the Boston Marathon where I’m hoping to break 3 hours. On the right day, I’ve got that. For now, I’m pushing Comrades to the back burner but maintaining a legitimate mileage base while I work on speed. I would like to run well at Comrades too, but that’s not this year’s “A” race. I know I’m physically capable of covering the distance but that it might mentally wreck me without some longer runs. But if I have to choose one thing to focus on, it has to be sub-3 in April.

To continue to build mileage and work on time on my feet, I ran the Goofy Challenge in Walt Disney World in January. The goal there was to have fun, relax and put in a bunch of miles. I ran my slowest marathon and half marathon times in years, in costume(!), in the heat at 5 a.m. Neither race was meant to be fast. I did nothing resembling a taper, and I walked around the Magic Kingdom until 10:30 the night before. But over the weekend I certainly got in a lot of time on my feet. After putting in 89 weeks the week of the Goofy Challenge, I dialed back the mileage the following week for a mini recovery. To build toward Cowtown and to build a base for Boston, I put in four more 90+-mile weeks. And in December I met a new running buddy who has helped push me to run faster earlier in the morning than I’m used to. She has helped me build that tired-leg speed as well, I’m sure!

Two weeks out I tried a legitimate taper leading up to Cowtown. The race was important to me, and I wanted it to go well. I didn’t want to run it on tired legs like I’d run Austin on much the same training schedule in 2015. So I ran a trail half marathon at a moderate pace, though not all out, eight days before Cowtown and put in one nice hilly workout the Tuesday before the race. Then I did several easy runs and one steady run over the last few days. I didn’t doubt my training or the taper, and I felt entirely ready leading up to the race.

The Race

Cowtown Ultramarathon tomorrow! My first road 50K, so it has to be a PR 💪

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My huge stretch goal going in to this race was to break the course record. With two elite athletes running ahead of me, I knew I wouldn’t win the thing. The course record was 3:54:20. On the right day in great conditions, I could break that. If I didn’t go out too fast, I at least had a shot. Plus there was a cash prize for breaking the record. I came up with a plan — decided to stick to 7:20 pace to leave room for tangent-running errors or late-race bonking. I would need 7:32 pace to break the record. Even if I didn’t break the record, I was sure to PR at the 50K because it was on a road. It would have to be faster than the 5:09 I ran in North Carolina last year.

On Sunday morning, I drove to the start from Mom’s house, did a quick jog to the line-free(!) portapotties, and then found a spot inside on the floor of the expo building to relax and stay out of the wind until the start. Conditions were not ideal. It was already in the low 60s with winds gusting to 20 mph.

Just chilling

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I relaxed inside and then jogged out to the first corral with about five minutes until the gun went off. I’d run the marathon here twice before, so I knew where I was going. The first corral was a bit crowded, but I edged my way toward the middle of the starting pack. The gun went off at 7 a.m. My first mile was a little fast on the downhill, and yes, it was hard to hold back all that taper energy. But damn it if I didn’t knock off consistent 7:20 miles. The miles seemed to come to me. There wasn’t a struggle to get there. The wind was pushing me along, and the pace felt remarkably easy. People were kind of passing me at the start. Everyone seemed to go out too fast. I stuck with my pace, even on the uphills, drawing from the fact that I could go much faster than 7:20.

About a mile before the half marathon turnoff, I started talking to a guy from Ireland who was going for a 1:35 half marathon time. He was right on pace. He was great company, but when I start talking, I run faster than I should. We pushed the pace to 6:40, which, yes, felt good, but, no, was not in my plan. He turned off to run the half course, and I kept going. I was alone here, but I knew if I kept the pace consistent, I could probably hold it for a while. The 3:10 pace pack was just ahead of me. At this point, what was a pleasant tailwind turned into an awful headwind. Still, I maintained my pace into the wind and up the hills. The temperature was climbing, and I started to take a Powerade (to drink) and a water (to dump on my head). Then some amazing angel from heaven handed me a damp blue towel around mile 14. This thing was like my security blanket. I dipped it in water. I sweated all over it. I might have waved it around a little bit. I’m carrying it in all my pictures.

Most of the middle miles of this race are blurry. I ran through neighborhoods where the roads were severely slanted. Maybe they weren’t that slanted in reality, but I had a hard time discerning where to put my feet. I didn’t specifically hallucinate anything, but I think the roads couldn’t have been that slanted there. Things were a little blurry as I continued to pass people and meander along between water stops. Still I held my pace. A woman on a bike kept hanging out near me. Then I realized HOLY SHIT she’s WITH ME. She had a sign on her back that said something about third place ultra woman. People started telling me I was in third in the ultra. Ran some more. Held my pace. Ate salt tabs and GU right on schedule. I ate a banana, so I know I’m at least still fine at taking in solid foods. I made a 20-second pitstop (I timed it) and tried to sing to myself to keep myself from freaking out too much or cramping. I finished the marathon portion in 3:11. That would be good enough for 11th female in the marathon if I’d stopped. It would have been faster than my stupid Hartford Marathon time from the fall. But I didn’t stop.

The last part of the race is quite clear. Once we made it to the Trinity Trail around 22 miles in, I knew where I was, basically, because Michael and I ran that part of the course in December. In December I didn’t know we were running the course, but when the race turned on to the path, it was instantly clear that some part of the course would be windy. In December, we had tailwinds and headwinds coming off the flat land and the water on a day that wasn’t specifically windy. On race day, there were gusts from all directions and some fun bugs and mosquitoes blowing in the gusty wind. The day was still heating up, and my pace started to fall off. In my head, I was trying to figure out how much longer until the turnaround and how much longer I needed to hold my pace. I went through two water stops where I had to come to a complete stop to pick up water because the volunteers weren’t paying attention. When I came back through after the turnaround, I yelled out, maybe in a slurred way, “Powwahryayyde!” and someone handed me Powerade. Honestly, that’s my only complaint about this race. The volunteers were great for the most part. The crowds were supportive in the right parts. I would have loved a day that was about 20 degrees cooler, but hey, what can you do?

finish line

Once the course joined back up with the full marathon course, I breathed a sign of relief. With a few miles to go, I always start counting down the portions left in Yasso 800s. You know how fast I can normally run an 800? Knowing that I can string just a few more of those together gives me some kind of mental trick to piece out the last part of the race. I rounded the last two corners to finally see the finish line. My pace had dropped with the wind and fatigue in the last few miles, but around mile 29, I knew if I could just keep a decent pace, I would beat the record. The finish line stretch was a little rough. My legs started talking to me, telling me they were starting to get tired and that maybe another GU or salt tab would have been a good idea. I powered through the last few hundred feet, which were cruelly a little bit uphill. I crossed the finish line in 3:53:40, beating the course record by 40 seconds. But hey, a course record is a course record, right?

A volunteer flagged me down and told me they were holding an awards ceremony. I’ve won recreational, small-scale races, but I’ve never been flagged down at a major event. The elites were hanging out and talking about the course. I felt out of place, but then when I started talking to such friendly people, I thought you know what? Maybe the fact that I’ve had a podium finish three weeks in a row says my training is going well. I should enjoy this. Here’s a writeup of the event. The woman who won is a complete bad ass who actually would have won the marathon if she’d stopped. This was her first 50K. She won the Cowtown 5K the day before.

Recovery this week so far has been a dream. I took Monday easy, but I was happy enough with a decent pace on Tuesday. I don’t want to jump back in to speedy stuff yet, and my legs are still not quite back, especially after not getting enough sleep this week with work duties. But I’m easing back in to the big miles and hard efforts that will position me for a strong marathon performance this spring. I have to think this race was one more building block to get me ready for longer road races. I stuck to a pace, I handled pain, and I hit the time I needed. Can’t ask for more than that.

On to Boston

What’s next?

I will most likely drop from the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA full marathon to the half. When I registered for the Rock ‘n’ Roll race, I don’t think I looked at a calendar. It’s just 10 days from now and way too close to Cowtown for me to run it well. Still I’ll get in lots of big miles next week to keep building up.

Because the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler is 15 days ahead of Boston, I’m planning to race it like I’ve always wanted to.

Finally, I have a trip to Tahoe planned for the week before Boston, so I’m hoping to relax and get in a few beautiful, easy runs before Marathon Monday.

More miles await!

50K race fail

Scanning through my recent posts here, it might seem as though nothing has gone right with my training or racing. I didn’t meet my 3:00 marathon goal in the fall, I pulled a hamstring and dropped out of Marine Corps, I had an awful trail training run where I sobbed and fell down a bunch of times, I busted my knee at Stone Mill. But really it’s easy to take the good days and great outcomes for granted. Just now I hunkered down with a jar of peanut butter and a sour expression to try to write through the shitty experience I had this morning. (I’ll get to that in a bit.) But before I do that, I’m going to list 10 things that have gone well lately. My problem is because I turn to writing to vent about a bad race or a terrible injury, this blog ends up looking like a list of failures. I’m actually improving! And in reality, things are not bad.

  1. I ran my 4,000th mile of the year. Already! My goal for 2015 was to run 4,000 miles, which is just slightly more than the 3,968 I logged last year. I blew through that goal on Dec. 1.
  2. I set a 5K PR (19:24) last week. It was 12 days after my 50-miler.
  3. My hamstring is pretty much healed. I haven’t had significant hamstring pain since before Stone Mill. The injury forced me to take a few easy weeks and slow down. There are worse things. Plus I am taking more time to strengthen and stretch because I’m more mindful of the hamstring.
  4. We booked our hotel and trip to South Africa. Comrades is starting to get real!
  5. My recovery after Stone Mill went as well as I could imagine. I didn’t overdo it for once! The first day was a little rougher than after a hard marathon. After that, I recovered in the same way I do for a hard marathon effort. A week after Stone Mill, I was back to running a steady 7:35 pace. On Thursday, my steady pace was down to 7:17.
  6. I’ve returned to feeling great running roads. In preparing for trail racing, I neglected road running a bit. Now I’m remembering how great it feels to glide along and not worry about my footing.
  7. We’re about a month away from the Disney races, and I have two great costumes lined up. And I’m not too concerned about times there, so it’s going to be a great vacation too.
  8. My diet has stayed remarkably not awful during the first few holiday weeks. I’m trying to cut down on sweets until I have my aunt’s chocolate pie on Christmas Eve. With less sugar, I’ve been able to maintain a pretty steady weight.
  9. I have a great week of running planned for my trip home to Dallas.
  10. I have two fun holiday races coming up: a holiday lights fun run in two weeks and a 5K in my hometown on Christmas Eve.

OK. That’s all great. But today I royally bombed a 50K. I signed up for a trail 50K kind of on a lark a few weeks ago as I was recovering from Stone Mill. And the problem today was not that I hadn’t recovered. It was that I haven’t taken care of myself this week. Our neighbors have thrown late-night parties twice this week — on Wednesday and Friday. They’re so loud we can’t block out the noise with our normal tricks like shutting the door or turning up the air for white noise. They’re the loudest they’ve ever been. That means I got five hours of sleep, maybe, for two nights this week. And on Thursday night, I was up half the night with awful cramps. My workday Friday had me moving to a new building and having one of the all-time worst workdays. I lost my key fob on the first day in the new building and managed to lock myself in an elevator well. Then I got more crap sleep on Friday night because of the partiers.

Maybe planning to run the 50K on a somewhat technical course I already know I hate wasn’t the best idea in the first place. I knew I was tired going in. I gave myself an out. Told myself I would be happy with 20. What I was not happy with was the terrible stomach cramps I had around mile 4 that had me dry heaving behind a tree at mile 5 so people would stop asking if I was OK and then cursing under my breath as I returned to the start at a jog. Not even a jog. A stagger. My planned “50K/maybe 20 miles is OK” became “10 will have to do” and then on the way home when I realized I’d been driving for longer than I ran, it became “fuck it all I’m going to pound the steering wheel and cry at this gas station goddammit I’m exhausted.” The only bright side to this one is I didn’t have any pain at all. I feel like I didn’t run. So I’m going to try for a low-key long run tomorrow on roads.

When things don’t go as planned, I lose my shit. Really. I have to get better at letting things go. If I don’t feel great, I shouldn’t feel bad for giving myself an out. There’s no reason to push through something if you aren’t feeling it. At least that’s what I would tell someone else.

No more trail races for a while. I don’t know why I thought this one would go well, given the week I’ve had and the disdain I have for trails. Roads, stupid.

Fail.
Fail.

Stone Mill 50-Miler

I’m finally on the other side of running 50 miles. Last week, I woke up on Monday and Tuesday morning with the jarring reality that I was running 50 damn miles straight. Realizing that made my heart beat a little faster and made me a little queasy. It’s a long way. I had never run that far, and I wasn’t sure I could finish it. But as the week wore on, I became more and more zen about the experience. That 6 a.m. Saturday morning start was barreling toward me whether I liked it or not. I love running, and I love being outside. This is just doing that for a long time with lots of fun people every five or six miles. Going in, I was mostly worried about my stomach and fueling and then about keeping my head right for many hours. I just needed to drag myself to the start line and not screw up any of my taper runs. Perhaps I should approach big goal marathons this way, too. Worrying about it won’t change a thing. I just needed to step up to the start line, push myself over the threshold and get on with it.

Race gear: drop bags, Suunto Ambit3 watch, Oiselle Verrazano bra, Brooks gloves, Nathan quickdraw plus handheld water bottle, Adidas Boston 2015 hat, Oiselle lux arm warmers, Nike dri-fit Rival shorts, Nike Terra Kiger shoes, Lululemon swiftly tech short sleeve, Petzl Tikka RXP lamp, Injinji RUN 2.0 midweight mini-crew sock
Race gear: drop bags, Suunto Ambit3 watch, UV Buff Cartons Cru, Oiselle Verrazano bra, Brooks gloves, Nathan quickdraw plus handheld water bottle, Adidas Boston 2015 hat, Oiselle lux arm warmers, Nike dri-fit Rival shorts, Nike Terra Kiger shoes, Lululemon swiftly tech short sleeve, Petzl Tikka RXP lamp, Injinji RUN 2.0 midweight mini-crew sock

The logistics involved with running 50 miles are more intense than running a marathon. I can throw some GUs, a watch and a pair of shoes in a suitcase and be pretty set for 26.2 miles. Fifty requires more planning and longer checklists. Some people use backpacks, but I felt more comfortable with the handheld bottle I trained with over the last six months. I never ran out of liquid because the stations were pretty close together. And the handheld bottle ended up breaking my fall once, so win-win!

Stone Mill allowed two drop bags for miles 28 and 40. And with a 6 a.m. start, it required a head lamp for the first 45 minutes or so. I decided to over-pack my bags with treats so I could choose what sounded good at the aid stations.

At the 10-mile/40-mile aid station, there were two bins for headlamps — to be taken back to the start line or to stay at the aid station for slower runners to pick up if they needed lamps for the run back. I decided to be pessimistic and put my light in the “I’ll need this for the run back” bin.

The 28-mile gear bag seemed like the better bag to overpack. In that one I packed a second pair of shoes, a clean pair of socks, a Larabar, a Clif bar, a packet of peanut butter, a Stinger caramel waffle, four GUs, four salt tabs, moist towelettes to wipe my face, lip balm, Tums. Of all those items, I took all the GUs, all the salt tabs, one towelette, lip balm, peanut butter, the Stinger waffle and a Larabar.

When I got back to the 10-mile/40-mile point, I grabbed my headlamp. At that point, I didn’t think I’d need it, but I didn’t want to be stuck in the woods at dusk. It was a security blanket. In my 40-mile gear bag, I packed a second watch in case my first watch’s battery stopped working after 10 hours (it didn’t), more Clif bars and Larabars, Tums, a few GUs, salt tabs and an extra shirt. There, I took one GU, the spare watch and half a Larabar. I knew at mile 40 I could make it home on what I had in my handheld, even if that meant walking.

Some race stats:

  • Distance run: 50.4 miles
  • Elevation: 2,895 feet
  • Time elapsed: 10:22:57 (moving time 9:47:20)
  • Scrapes and bruises: both knees scraped and bruised (right knee now black and blue and yellow), road burn on both quads, elbow gash, black toenail, windburn, minor shorts chafing, but the hamstring is fine!
  • Times I fell down: five
  • Blisters: zero
  • Food and beverages consumed: nine S-Caps, caramel Stinger waffle, miso soup, chicken soup, banana, Goldfish crackers, Cheez-Its, Tailwind, Gatorade, GU chomps, Clif shot blocks, two Larabars, Nathan’s maple peanut butter, half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, one donut hole, potato chips, half a piece of bacon
  • Hallucinations: none!

First of all, without a doubt, the best part and an unexpected surprise, of this race was our friends Jen and Tom coming out to crew Michael and me. They were at four aid stations and the finish. I didn’t ask them to be there, but they showed up at 7:30 in the morning at the first station and drove all over the course to meet us. They brought potato chips and bacon for me because I know I love salty, crunchy things in the middle of races. At times, especially as I neared the 40-mile aid station, one of the only reasons I decided to run a section and not walk it was because Jen and Tom were on the other side. If I ever run another trail ultra, I will nearly insist on knowing people at aid stations. Plus I saw other friends (Jamey and Ellie, Robin, Leah, Betsy, Sara) scattered throughout the course. I’ll certainly be volunteering to crew other races. The volunteers are just the best.

Michael, Matt and I arrived at the elementary school at 5:35. The volunteers were letting cars with three runners or more in to the lot, so we got a close spot and stayed warm until a few minutes before the start. The school wasn’t open at that point, so runners had to go to the woods to use the bathroom. I did my duty in the woods at around 5:55 and then headed to the start. We were all a little nervous, but the low-key, meandering start and slow first mile both helped set the tone for the day.

Matt and me. Crazy eyes and headlamps.
Matt and me. Crazy eyes and headlamps.

This brings me to the trail and to mile 2. At mile 2, I was just starting to wake up and move my legs. I was with a group that was keeping a 10:30 pace, which felt unbelievably slow. I noticed myself watching everyone’s feet and listening to all kinds of conversations. People were wired and ready for the miles ahead. Then I ate it. I wiped out. I don’t know if it was a root or a rock or what. Ugh. It was bad enough that for the rest of the day people asked me if I was the woman who ate it at mile 2. So my right knee had a gash on it, and as the next few miles wore on I could feel it bruising and swelling. Not good. But I still felt decent — maybe it was just endorphins — and picked up the pace on the road until an aid station at mile 14.

Mile 14: Not bad.

After a quick stop, I was back on the trail and kept a pretty steady pace until mile 24. I was running with a guy named Chris who was also running steady and hoping to break 9. I thought we’d do it together, but he went ahead when I started to fade.

Chris and me at mile 24
Chris and me at mile 24

The towpath portion was a nice break from the mental strain of the hills. My cadence clicked back in to place, and as I crossed the 25-mile point, I started to think maybe I could finish the race.

Chris and me again at mile 30
Chris and me again at mile 30

Then around mile 32 the downhills started giving me trouble. My swollen knee would lock up a bit as I tried to charge down hills. Charge might be a strong word. I mean, I was pushing the pace to around 10 minutes for a group of at least five people until that point, but then my knee started talking to me. I pulled the pace back and decided to pick my way down the rootiest downhills, walk the steep uphills and jog the flats. It was going to be a long day. Even with this strategy, I tripped again and again.

The next two aid stations are a little blurry. I remember peeing behind a bush and trying to scoot a little out of the way mid-stream so a little girl wouldn’t see me. I remember soup and crackers. I remember many stream crossings and one where I had to balance on a log much narrower than any logs I’ve ever been on. And I crossed it like I knew what I was doing.

I remember looking around through the trees at about 3 p.m. and realizing it was the afternoon and thinking I’d been running a long time. The sun was getting lower in the sky, and the trail was just glowing. The leaves stopped blowing, and I was alone and at peace. I wish I could run more in the afternoon.

The final run through Riffle Ford at mile 40 is pretty vivid. This is when I knew I was going to make it. My head was fine, and my fueling was decent. I put the 10 miles ahead of me in perspective. I run 10 miles every Tuesday, and I’ve been doing at least 10 on trails lately. I knew I had it.

Hill by Riffle Ford aid station at mile 40
Hill by Riffle Ford aid station at mile 40

I apologized to Tom and Jen for taking what felt like forever to get from mile 28 to 40. They were awesome and said it wasn’t a problem. I picked up my headlamp in case I ended up slowing more and couldn’t beat the sunset. I would be fine, though. Tom ran with me on the road to get to the trail entrance.

The last 10 miles were slow and lonely. But they were familiar. Michael and I had run about 7 miles of the course in training the week before, and this portion was and out and back, so I knew the big obstacles like the slanted rocks under the bridge and the big ups and downs.

When I finally got to the road section, I was relieved to be able to run without worrying about my knee locking on the downhills. I felt like I was charging up and down the final few hills. I wasn’t really going that fast, but at that point, this felt like the final quarter-mile stretch of a marathon. My final mile was at 8:35 pace. With the grade, it felt like a 7:25. I had plenty left in the tank.

Finished!
Finished!

The only thing that didn’t go well, aside from my dumb knee not cooperating, was a little stomach swelling. I probably took in too much liquid or didn’t pee enough. Something wasn’t right about my liquid situation. When I finally stopped running and went to the bathroom, my bloated belly went down. At the finish line, I was feeling a little waterlogged.

Finish line tiredness. Pulled an 8:35 final mile.

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This run gives me all kinds of confidence that I can complete the Comrades ultramarathon in May. I can probably go sub-9 if I’m smart about it. Stone Mill was probably harder for a cautious, non-trail runner like me, and I came in to it with general marathon training and a recovering hamstring and without the long runs I will put in for Comrades. I don’t know if I’ll ever do another 50-mile trail run again. Getting back to that point mentally will take me a good year. But I think I can do well at the 50K distance on trails as part of Comrades training.

Now, here’s a list of things I thought of on a 50-mile run:

  1. All the words to Bohemian Rhapsody
  2. Were there dinosaurs in Maryland? Why are these rocks slanted?
  3. Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango
  4. Yelling at anyone who has a dog off leash. (This might have been in gibbberish.)
  5. Here come guys on bikes. Guys on bikes. Big tires.
  6. Bright Eyes songs and then I tried to stop thinking about that.
  7. How many miles until the next aid station? (Over and over again.)
  8. Do I have to pee or do I not have to pee at all?
  9. I should probably try to clench my butt more or at least pretend to use my glutes.
  10. What time is it and do I need more salt pills yet?

So you had a bad race

I prepared for the Hartford Marathon as if it was the race of my life. On Friday while I was lying on the floor with my legs stretched up the wall, Michael said, “I’ve never seen you rest this much the day before a race.” I replied, “I don’t want to have to break 3:00 again.” Breaking 3:00 had become a kind of quest over the past five months. In April I surprised myself by pulling out a 3:01 in Boston in suboptimal conditions, and I crossed the finish line convinced I had a sub-3 somewhere in me. Then I ran a 3:15 six days later in Big Sur with lots of miles between the two races. Between Big Sur and the start of the Hartford Marathon, I’d put in more than 2,026 miles. I was faster, stronger, smarter, completely rested, even more rested than I was coming in to Boston. And I believed on a good day I could put down a fast time. So why didn’t it happen? I’m healthier than I’ve ever been and running stronger and more consistently than ever. By all measures, it should have happened.

Work weigh in numbers
Work weigh in numbers

I don’t know. I can point to several reasons why I finished my goal race in 3:14, which is 15 minutes off where I wanted to be. The answer is probably some combination of the reasons below. And I know a 3:14 is not a bad time. Plenty of people would be thrilled with that time. Hell, it gets you in to Boston Marathon registration on the first day. It just wasn’t the time I was supposed to run.

  1. I went out too fast. I started the race about 10 rows behind the 3:00 pacer because I screwed up my seeded corral bib and then couldn’t inch my way up far enough. After weaving through people for the first mile, I found the group. The group’s pacer was going way too fast. I should have backed off right there, when the group members started mentioning that the pace seemed a little too fast. There’s no reason I should be putting down a 6:33 on an uphill mile seven miles in to the race. That’s running like an idiot. My legs knew this. They gave out around mile 16. I couldn’t convince them to move. The second part of the race felt like a training run — like I’d run 100 miles the week before. Like my Jello legs were running through more Jello.
  2. I was too nervous. In most races, I show up and just start running when the gun goes off. I haven’t mentally played out how the run will go mile by mile. I go with the flow and follow the crowd. I mostly follow my body, and I’m sometimes pleasantly surprised by my mile splits. Maybe I have a pace in mind, but maybe I’m there to have fun. Most of the time, I have no race jitters. This week, I must have repeated “6:47, 6:47, 6:47,” to myself 50 times. My heart was beating out of my chest at the start line, and I wandered up to the start line after my warmup like a zombie. I was mentally exhausted before I’d started.
  3. I ran too many training miles. While I doubt my high mileage was the only source of a bad race, I ran about 10 percent more miles this training cycle over last. When I ran the 3:01 in April I wasn’t also training to run an ultramarathon , and I certainly didn’t put in as many trail miles. The trail miles and mileage increase both seem to have helped me race stronger at other distances, so I tend to think more mileage isn’t to blame.
  4. The wind. When I started slowing down the most, I was running alone and against what felt like a pretty legit headwind. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. By the time I turned around with the wind at my back, I was mentally wrecked and had seen the 3:00 goal slip away a few miles before.
  5. I ate beets. When I ran a sub-par marathon in Austin in February, I had terrible stomach cramps around mile 25. I’d had beets the night before and the morning of the race. I ate a huge bowl of beets for dinner Friday night and had stomach issues around mile 24.5. No beets next time. They’re good for training, but I can’t have too many of them before a race.

But I really don’t know the answer for my poor performance. I beat myself up most of the day yesterday. I ate some cheesecake, had a beer, pouted. Why couldn’t it happen? What did I do wrong? I’ll probably never know the real answer. But I woke up this morning, and ran a 30-minute easy run at a startlingly fast pace. It was faster than I’ve ever been able to go the day after any race — even a 5K. I went to the gym and then later today went out for a second, even faster run. I think the race is out of my system.

Marine Corps is still on my race calendar for two weeks from today. I don’t know if I’ll try to break 3:00 again. It depends on the day, and I don’t want to stress about it (see 2 above). But Marine Corps has tons going for it.

I’ve run this marathon more times than any other one except Boston (2008, 2009, 2010, 2014). I know the course because I train and race on these streets. My friends and family line the racecourse; people I don’t expect to see will magically appear on the Mall or in Georgetown. I love it. So the goals for Marine Corps are to relax, have fun and be smart. There’s no crazy pacers to mess with my head. There’s just me. Dressed as Wonder Woman. Getting cheers from strangers and running because I love it.

Marine Corps Marathon outfit testing. Needs wrist bands? Also needs shoes.

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Race Review: The March 50K

I went in to this race with no small amount of anxiety. My only goal was to finish upright. I came off a strong training 50K two weeks ago that helped me build some confidence that I could at least complete 31.1 miles. But racing a trail 50K is different from running a training run on mostly roads on a home course that I know like the back of my hand. I’ve been training through heat and humidity for a few months, so I was confident my body could handle the temperature. But as I laid out my clothes on Friday afternoon, I understood that this would take more than the normal marathon race prep that has become almost second nature. I also didn’t end up wearing my headphones. I haven’t worn them much lately, and this didn’t seem like the kind of race where I’d want to zone out. Good call.

Only a little freaked out.

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Of course, preparing for this race started before Friday afternoon. My mileage has slowly crept up since Big Sur. I worked in a few marathon-distance training runs and a 50K in the past few months. In the past week, I got between seven and eight hours of sleep every night, and I monitored everything I ate and drank. I tried to taper even though my legs were begging to run more on Thursday night. And Friday morning. And Friday afternoon. But mostly, I convinced myself I could finish this distance.

We chose this particular race for several reasons — and we signed up about three months ago when 90-degree temperatures seemed unthinkable. Late July was a time of year we didn’t have any other marathons. My goal marathon is in October, so if I injured myself training for a long race, I would have enough time to recover. Plus it made sense to begin to build up toward Comrades with a longer race. This one was on a wide trail with rolling hills. It was written up as not technical, though it has “some lose sand at points.” I’m mostly a road racer, so anything that isn’t paved scares me a little.

The race started in the most anti-climactic way you can imagine. A guy — I believe a war vet — said, “Two minutes ’til race start.” Then, “One minute.” Then, “Y’all gah on now.” Michael and I exchanged a look of, “Hmm. OK?” and we were off. The first 11 miles are not too hilly, and with temperatures in the mid-60s, I was moving right along. At the first turnaround, I could tell I was about four minutes ahead of the second woman. I wasn’t too far behind the leading male group, either, but I knew I had a long way to go.

Sometime around Thursday morning, I started to worry about horseflies because someone mentioned them on the group’s Facebook page. It was all I could think about. Or maybe they were deer flies. Whatever the big, stupid, biting bugs are that follow me for miles at a time when I run in the boonies. I asked around about remedies and heard eucalyptus might work, so I went in to the race doused in eucalyptus essence and eucalyptus lotion. I also layered a bug spray/sunscreen combo on top of that. Still, around the ninth mile, a giant fly started circling my head and then moved to my legs. About a mile and a half of circling and swatting later, I’d had enough. I stopped to try to catch the bug. From behind me I heard, “Was it a spiderweb or what?” from one guy and then saw Michael next to him. Oh good, more people for the bug to attack. The bug moved on to swarm the three of us, and I got to run with Michael for the next eight or so miles. Win-win.

Michael and I stopped at the second aid station, around mile 11, briefly, to refill our handheld bottles and grab some fruit. Then we were off to the hills of the rest of the course. Around mile 15, where knew there was supposed to be some kind of course change because a portion of the course was closed, we started to see the three leading men come in to view. We were happy we were on track — that we hadn’t missed a turn. We followed them for a while. They came to a road that I was pretty sure wasn’t on the course map. I sped up to catch them to ask what was going on. We’d taken a wrong turn, somehow. We were running parallel-ish with the course. A guy in a truck drove alongside us to let us know someone had marked off a section that should not have been closed. We would be adding about two miles to the course.

Sometime around the 19th mile, I followed the group down a hill to the aid station. The three guys ahead of me took about two minutes each to grab supplies, and they filed out. I stayed a little longer and ate fruit, a Bearded Brothers bar, drank a bottle of water, put ice in my bra, asked for more bug spray … This part is a little blurry. But by the end of it, I felt like a new person. The volunteers were amazingly helpful. They refilled my water bottle, handed me cups of ice for my bra, lied and told me I looked great. I walked for about 100 yards, stopped to pee beside the trail where I was out of view and then kept running.

Here, I got the giggles because I started running through this underbrush area that was unlike anything else on the course. I kept thinking, “It is A SHRUBBERY” and then laughing and laughing and then hating my life because I had no idea when this slow stretch of overgrowth would be over. I couldn’t see my feet, and I there was sand under the shrubs. After about a half mile, Michael caught up with me, and we made our way out of the shrubs to giant hills that were straight-up sand. My legs were kind of shot, and running on sand wasn’t going great. But I kept it up. My mile splits aren’t terrible through here, but I definitely wasn’t putting down the 7s and 8s like I could in the first half.

We ran together for a while to the 24-mile aid station. The world’s nicest woman insisted on refilling my bottle for me twice. She was amazing. I ate the best Nutella sandwich I’ve ever had. Again I put more ice in my bra. And we were off. The three leaders passed us on the way to the aid station, which was the farthest point on the course.

Around the 27th mile, a guy shuffled past us the other direction and said, “Watch out. Slippery back there.” This launched me in to singing all kinds of Talking Heads. “Slippery People” seemed doubly appropriate.

Cool down
Stop acting crazy
They’re gonna leave
And we’ll be on our own

I might have been damn loopy by the time we got back to the shrubbery (!) and back to the heavenly aid station. Ah well. The volunteers cheered and whooped as I came down the stretch. I think I dropped several curse words in front of children while I was there. I was glad to be upright and happy to know I only had around five miles left. I left the aid station happier and much cooler than I’d entered. But because we came to the aid station from a different direction (read: we were lost the first time), I was confused about how to get home. Here’s my being confused.

Asking the volunteers which way to go.
Asking the volunteers which way to go.

Michael and I were together for a few more miles. I think he saw some kinds of animals at one point — guessing coyotes or wolves, maybe. And at some point I started chanting, “Same as it ever was. Same as it EVER WAS.” I crested one final hill and saw a flag in the distance. The final stretch of trail was probably half a mile, and I could hear the volunteers yelling for me the entire way. Running it felt kind of surreal. I’d never been that far before, and I certainly didn’t expect to feel so good. My finishing time for 33.2 miles was 5:09:28, which was better than last year’s woman’s winning time by about 30 minutes. And that includes two extra miles. I won a pair of Altras and a knife I’m not sure what to do with. Aside from the trail being poorly marked and the bugs swarming me off and on, I don’t think I could have hoped for a better first ultramarathon experience. Veronica, the woman who headed up the race, was so warm and gracious. Each of the volunteers made me feel like I was the most important person out there. They were phenomenal.

50K race winnings. Plus a pair of Altras! Not a bad first effort.

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The best news about the race is that I didn’t get hurt training for it or running it. None of the stomach or lethargy issues I had on my training run reappeared, probably because I kept my nutrition top of mind the entire race. I ate when I didn’t much feel like it, and I had two bottles for fluids for two-thirds of the race. And today I met up with Laura, one of my Strava buddies, and somehow managed to put down four miles at 7:21 pace. Maybe the endorphins are still going, and maybe the muscle soreness won’t set in until tomorrow. But right now, I’m cautiously optimistic I can do more of these crazy events.

Finishers: 4th and 5th place! And female win for me!

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So what’s next? Other than continuing to build toward running Comrades in 2016, I’m taking on a big, scary goal to run a 50-miler in November. Everyone needs big, fun, scary goals to keep going, right?

race view

Boston 2 Big Sur: Big Sur Marathon Recap

The Big Sur Marathon is undoubtedly the most beautiful race I’ve ever run. The scenery is everything they talk about but more vibrant and the smells — the redwoods and the sea air — are perfect — and sounds — waves and drums and footfalls — are what running should sound like. Sure, the roads slant away from you, and you kind of lose your place when you’re trying to run. The wind this year was particularly awful, not just at Hurricane Point. It blew straight on and from the side for miles 6 through 21. But this was my second marathon in a week, and maybe making a time goal was not the most important thing for this race. Even so, I ran a 3:15:36, which was right on track for my optimistic A Goal.

I spent this week as I would any vacation week, stupidly running more miles than I really should have because California running is glorious and always beautiful. Every day except one, I deviated from my plan. I was dumb. But I was happy. And looking back on it, I wouldn’t have changed any runs this week.

A recap:

  • Tuesday: We landed in San Francisco, and I got in a few miles in Golden Gate Park for 12 for the day. It should have been 10, but I felt good.
  • Wednesday: I thought I’d have an easy run across the Golden Gate bridge for maybe six miles, but I felt great, so I ran some hills. And I ran 10 miles. Oops. Then we walked about five miles around the streets of San Francisco. My feet weren’t happy.
  • Thursday: Actually, I think I did well to only run five easy miles on trails on Thursday. Michael and I went to Marin to hang out for the morning, and we walked about a mile and a half around Muir Woods.
  • Friday: I finally had my legs back, so I celebrated by running seven miles at 7:37 pace. Way too fast for a recovery/taper week. But I got to see the ocean on my run!
  • Saturday: Stuck to the plan for once and ran a short shakeout run with Bart Yasso.

On to the race! Big Sur starts at 6:45 a.m., and the buses need to be off the road for the runners to funnel on to the road, so that means everyone needs to be in the tiny runners village no later than 5:30. My 4:15 bus was one of the last to leave Pacific Grove, and we arrived at the start line around 5:30. If you back out that timeline, that means I had to wake up around 3:30 to hurriedly gather myself and my stuff to get to the bus on time. And because we’d been in California since Tuesday, I couldn’t use my East Coast/West Coast powers to wake up early.

The runners village is a setup of rows and rows of portapotties (I only had to wait in line for about two minutes both times I went) and tightly packed, nervous runners huddled together in the darkness. There is coffee, water, Gatorade and maybe snacks. I didn’t look for snacks. I tried to find a place to put my towel so I could stretch. That was kind of a success. After about 45 minutes, the race announcer started to call the later wave starters to line up. Because the road is so narrow, there isn’t really room for runners to make their way to the corrals, so they have to line up back to front. The wave 1 runners shuffled around and did weird warmup drills until about 6:40 when the announcer finally called for the final group to line up.

After a few introductions for the elite athletes, everyone edged forward a bit, and we were off. The first six miles are rolling downhill. They aren’t all downhill. But they’re blocked from the wind. In hindsight, I probably should have gone faster here because this was the only point in the race that running felt normal.

A strong headwind — stronger and more unrelenting than anything at Boston — knocked us in the face right at the seven-mile mark. You could hear the group let out an audible groan, and everyone shifted to try to get behind someone else. We were out of the cover of trees, and the people I’d been running with and the ocean came in to a kind of technicolor. But the wind. Ugh.

For the next four miles, I stuck with a group of guys and one woman who were trying their best to fairly take the running burden and shield each other from the wind. I would tuck in behind a guy and run beside another for a while, and they’d reposition themselves after about a mile. I wish I could have stuck with them longer, but the group seemed to disband at a water stop.

Mile 10 has a nice downhill that I tried to not take too fast. I had to tie my shoe during that mile because the WIND UNTIED MY SHOE, which took about 20 seconds.

Wind on Bixby Bridge
Wind on Bixby Bridge. Also: heel striking and awful form!

On Friday, Michael and I drove the course, so I kind of understood how awful Hurricane Point might be. It is deceptively long. I’m used to running hills with steeper grades in D.C., but I don’t train on any hill that is two miles long. So miles 11 and 12 were 9:05 and 8:18, respectively, but Strava tells me the grade-adjusted pace for those miles is 7:08 and 7:09. That’s what it felt like. And wind. So much wind.

The Bixby Bridge piano player was adorable, but I wasn’t going to stop to listen. I plowed through and tried to get my mind right for the rest of the race. Looking at my watch, I could tell I’d need to run a negative split to get to my goal. The rest of my miles were all under 8:00 pace, and I ended up averaging 7:26 for the race. I even stopped for strawberries at mile 23 and ran a 7:33 mile. So hooray for negative split!

Done! Cumulative time: 6:17:02

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My overall placing for the B2B for women was fifth out of 219. I came in ninth of 2,133 women overall, which is pretty good, considering I didn’t have fresh legs. The B2B tent was stocked with all kinds of food — sandwiches, fruit, cookies — and beer that I promptly chugged. I got a sweet medal and jacket, and I got lots of cheers for running Boston along the route. The race was incredibly well executed for a medium-sized event. The race communications, water stops, bag check, swag, pasta dinner, expo. Everything. Everything was organized like the best marathons you’ve run. Hell, the guy who gave me my race shirt bag even put my number tag on my bag for me.

I know I can run Big Sur faster than 3:15 now that I understand the course. I would adjust my training to work in more long hills and more back-to-back weekend runs. I had plenty of those on my schedule, but I could have flipped the order to run Sunday longer instead of Saturday.

One of my goals for next year is to break three hours at Boston. I would love to run Big Sur again some day when the lottery gods are smiling, but I can wait another five years before I return to such a punishing course.

This week I will run easy, fun runs. I started this morning with an easy recovery run in Palo Alto. And later this week, I’ll put together my race and non-race goals for the next few months. I know I’ve got a three-hour marathon in me, and I have more PRs to set.

Boston 2 Big Sur: Boston Marathon Race Recap

The first part of the B2B Challenge is complete, and I’m beyond happy with the result. My A Goal (a 3:00 marathon) coming in to the taper was quite aggressive. My PR was a 3:02:21 in St. George last fall, but that course is notable for its crazy downhill profile. That day was perfect. I ran the tangents. There was a tailwind. Boston is a tougher course. Running better there seemed like a long shot. But goals should be aggressive.

Training went well this winter, even through the coldest temperatures D.C. had seen in decades. I knocked out my training runs and nailed my 3:00 marathon goal pace during tempo runs. I’d had a sub-par race marathon in Austin, another hilly course, in February, that I was trying to get over mentally. A lot would have to go right for a new PR, and a lot would have to go right to break three hours here.

My taper went remarkably well, though holding back during those final runs wasn’t easy. Last week’s key workout was a 10-miler with two miles at marathon pace. I also practiced running in the rain and running in to a significant headwind at marathon pace. I didn’t know how handy the thoughts of those runs would be on Monday.

Ready for Athletes Village looking like a homeless Teletubby.

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This year I went all out with my warmup getup for Athletes Village. I might have looked like a total idiot, but I had to be the warmest person in the tent. Michael and I hopped on the first round of buses to Hopkinton. We left around 6:25 and were off the bus by 7:15. I spent at least an hour relaxing, nearly asleep, under the tent. My nerves only started to kick in around 8:30. Somehow I remember the road to the start line being longer. This year, the distance between the tents and the corral seemed shorter. It isn’t. I’m crazy. Got in the corral around 9:40. We’d had a passing rain shower around 8 a.m., but there wasn’t much wind or rain at the start. I decided to try for my goal pace and assess that pace and the weather after the screams at Wellesley, when maybe I’d be feeling optimistic.

The one mistake I haven’t made at Boston in the last three years is going out too fast. I have to be OK with a slower first mile. This year was no different. My 6:58 pace felt incredibly easy, given the downhills and crowds, and I knew I would be going faster soon. The next few miles ticked off perfectly: 6:42, 6:43, 6:42, 6:49, 6:36, 6:40. I kept on like this through Wellesley — past Wellesley. I took my GUs on time. I sipped Gatorade when I needed it. I even held my goal pace through a downpour during miles 14 through 17. Everything went well. I could have done without the headwind and the downpour, but I dealt with it.

The one thing I could have done better this year, and the thing I could probably stand to work on in every race, is running the tangents. Boston is a point-to-point course with only four turns, so I’m not losing time on the corners. I did tend to weave a bit more than I needed to. I would get frustrated and dart around a slower runner or a walker, especially at the end. That adds up. My final Garmin reading came in at 26.3.

The Newton hills were tough, but I knew I’d lose some time there. Once I crested Heartbreak, I did a quick calculation, in kind of a half-math, weird, what is 8+7 what I don’t even ugh math, thing and realized I would certainly be setting a Boston personal record. I would need to walk to miss it. I then tried to reason my way through whether breaking 3:00 was possible. Well, if Heartbreak is mile 21 and I have five-ish miles to go, how fast do I have to run? How far off is my Garmin? Can my legs hold this pace? Would I need to go faster? Probably would need to go faster than seven-minute pace. But there’s a lot of downhill and cheering. I’ll try?

Miles 22 through 26 felt windier than the rest, but I tried to will my legs to run through a final kick. I couldn’t quite hold my goal pace for the final miles, which would have brought me under 3:00. I ran 7:00, 6:58, 6:53, 7:09, 6:53 (for the final .3). At the 25.6-mile marker, I figured I would need to run a 6:00-mile to end up under 3. I would have to settle with a 3:01-something, but I’d definitely push it all the way down Boylston. Coming down Boylston is always my favorite part of the running year. Coming down Boylston with a shiny, new PR (3:01:26) is even better. I came in somewhere between my A and B Goals, and I’m pleased with how well I ran, given the wind and rain. I’m sure I can break 3:00 in the fall on the right course.

After the race, aside from a few stomach issues and minor knee aches, I felt pretty good. This week is about recovery and relaxation and getting my mind and legs in a good place for Big Sur.

I ran half of Ten-Mile Tuesday long the Charles this morning before we left for San Francisco. I’ll finish up my miles on the West Coast, and I’ll look forward to a week of recovery running.

Gradual Progress Toward the Elusive Three-hour Mark

I’m dropping in an update on how training has been going. I’ve dealt with ups and downs, but my overall fitness is noticeably better. For most of January and February, I ran around 90 (usually 93) miles every week. I layered in two speed work sessions most weeks and a second run on Tuesdays. I also added a second longer run most weekends. My legs seemed to be able to handle the increased stress, especially if I took an easy day on Monday. In D.C. we had the coldest February in years, so my training went inside for about a quarter of the time. The roads were simply too icy to go outside some days.

The Bad

A viral infection sidelined me for longer than I’d like. I felt in a total funk for about a week. I shook the initial fever, vomiting and chills in about 36 hours, but I wasn’t able to get past the worn-down feeling for about a week.  I kept up 10-mile Tuesday with a fever and extreme nausea. It wasn’t pretty. I went to Dallas to visit my family and escape the snow-covered trails, but I was too sick to finish my second long run. In hindsight, a light week probably wasn’t the worst thing for my body. I convinced myself that I was actually dealing with overtraining symptoms. Overtraining and this nasty viral bug have the same symptoms. The doctor reassured me it would pass. It did.

I ran a sub-par marathon in Austin and had extreme stomach issues around mile 25. They persisted on my cool down run. I did make a handy map to keep track of these kinds of incidents, however. (You’re welcome.) I know I shouldn’t complain about a 3:16 marathon on a hilly course in warm weather. But I know I’m capable of running faster, and I wish my body could have cooperated that day. I also ran 84 miles that week, which amounted to a tiny taper. In reality, just a few years ago, I would have been ecstatic to put up a time like that. It just wasn’t my day.

Not my best time, but maybe my hilliest marathon.

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The Good

In the middle of a speed work session, my treadmill broke on what was the coldest day of the year to that point. That seems bad. I put on four layers and finished my run outside and felt entirely bad ass for doing it. Bonus: I was on day 364 of my yearlong warranty. The treadmill is fixed now.

I set a 27-second PR in the half marathon this week. The PR came on a nasty rainy day and on a hilly course, so I felt pretty good about it. My previous PR was in perfect conditions on a flat course, so this was a noticeable improvement for me. And it was a few weeks after that awful viral stomach bug, so I might have still been a little weak. Still, progress.

Finally, I settled on two goal races for 2015: the Hartford Marathon in October where I’ll try to break 3:00 and a low-key 50K in North Carolina in July. The goal of the 50K is just to finish upright.

Race Review: 2014 Battlefield Half Marathon

When you register for late autumn races dazed by the heat of summer, you don’t really remember that early November in Virginia might be a little chilly. But Friday night and Saturday morning had temperatures below freezing in northern Virginia. I’ve only run in tights once this season, and I wasn’t excited about wearing them for this race, so I braved the elements and went with shorts and a short-sleeved shirt and arm sleeves. That meant I had to jump up and down at the start line to keep warm, which is exactly what you want in a race.

We stayed in Winchester in a hotel not far from the race. Winchester is about 90 miles from D.C., and I didn’t want to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to cut it close getting to a half marathon. Parking lot attendants quickly guided us to a parking spot in an open field (uh, part of the battlefield), and by 7:15, I’d picked up my bib, cutesy zipper gear bag and technical shirt. This was the inaugural year for this race, a fact I learned about an hour before running the race. Typically, I don’t sign up for first-year races because they might end up like a big hot chocolate mess. Except for a few minor kinks, overall this was organized well.

On to the race. A cannon blast from the battlefield kicked off the race right on time at 8 a.m. I passed a few slower runners right at the start, but the timing signs helped people seed themselves correctly. The course is a little strange — it goes out for half a mile through a neighborhood and then returns through the starting area to the back side of the battlefield, behind a barn and down a gravel trail. You end up returning through the same area 11 miles later.

I passed a few female runners after a rough patch on the course around mile 2. Then, for the next seven miles I was pretty much alone on the road, back in my head with the occasional spectator yelling something nonsensical. My past few races have been either heavily attended (St. George) or had a lot of spectators (Marine Corps and Army Ten-Miler), so I’ve had something to distract me from the pain of running. The scenery in the fall in Winchester and the horses and hills in the distance are pretty, but it’s not enough to take your mind off the fading dots of people in front of you or the hill ahead or the maybe pain maybe in your right foot maybe ouch. Relay handoff areas were scattered every three or four miles, so those runners provided a nice cheering section.

This course is hillier than it looks in the race elevation profile. The race emails say the course is moderately flat. That’s a lie. Miles 4 through 6 are almost all uphill. There’s a rewarding downhill stretch near the end, but you have to run over a cross-country-type road in the last mile.

I finished as the seventh woman and 27th overall out of about 600 people in 1:30:36. This is about two minutes slower than my PR from Erie a few months ago at the beginning of the race season. I caught a woman in front of me when I accelerated at mile 10. Around mile 9, I thought if I could keep a 6:40 pace or so, I could gain on her, which I did. Then the course turned back to the battlefield, and I missed the unmarked turn. That threw me off, and I ended up behind her. Boo. I’ll still count a 1:30 on a tough course two weeks after my second marathon of the season as a great time.

Cons

Nobody told me to turn at mile 12. I’ll forgive a lack of clear course markers most of the time. I wouldn’t expect a race with fewer than 1,000 entrants to even mark every mile, really. But please just tell me where to turn on the course. I ran about 15 seconds out of my way and had to double back to get back on the course.

Funky out and back course to start. Maybe I was just mentally thrown off by this weird way to start. It seemed like the race didn’t get really started until we crossed back through the start area. To be fair, people would have probably tripped all over each other in the off-road part of the course if we hadn’t spread out early.

Almost no crowd support. About 11 miles of the race had no spectators. I did have one woman in a lawn chair in her yard yell to me that I was “halfway there” around mile 4.5. “That is a lie!” I yelled back.

Odd sign-up process. Frederick County put on this race. I remember about five screens in the signup process on the government website. And I had to enter my educational information.

Pros

Nice scenery. The leaves were turning, and the hillside views were quaint. This race actually reminded me of one of the first half marathons I ran back in 2006 in Sedalia, Mo. It winds through large stretches of farm land and finishes in a small city.

Great weather. Yes, it was cold. But when I started to feel my feet after the first mile, the weather seemed almost perfect. It wasn’t windy, and it wasn’t yet cold enough for frost to form on the roads.

Technical race shirt and bag. The small race shirt was a little large, but a technical shirt is always nice.

Post-race food. Standard bananas, Gatorade and bagels were, of course, at the finish line. This race stepped it up with chicken sandwiches and pumpkin crumb muffins too.

Race Map

Battlefield Half Marathon course
Battlefield Half Marathon course

Splits

Split Distance Average Pace
1 1 6:47
2 1 6:38
3 1 7:07
4 1 6:47
5 1 6:59
6 1 7:19
7 1 6:50
8 1 6:49
9 1 6:46
10 1 6:57
11 1 6:34
12 1 6:54
13 1 6:53
14 0.2 6:22

Details

  • Course: lollipop thing
  • Terrain: roads and some stupid terrain
  • Website: It’s down right now, but Google Frederick Battlefield Half Marathon