In Beauty May We All Be – Leatherman’s Loop

A celebration of 30 years! Photo: Closer North

A celebration of 30 years! Photo: Closer North

This was my 3rd Leatherman’s Loop and I find myself already excited to return for the celebration next year! The founders and race directors have really created something special with this race – steeped in tradition and approached with the utmost respect by each runner and spectator – it is easy to see why this is likely the largest trail race on the East Coast drawing over 1300 runners to tackle Ward Pound Ridge Reservation’s natural obstacles. I promise you – come and experience this race once and you too will be hooked by its charm.

Giant peace sign made of flags. Each runner was asked to take a flag - a piece of peace - home with them, as that is where peace begins

Giant peace sign made of flags. Each runner was asked to take a flag – a piece of peace – home with them, as that is where peace begins. Photo: Flint

Maybe it’s the theme of peace that surrounds you when you enter the park. Maybe it’s the way Tony Godino is overwhelmed with emotion when he climbs the ladder to address his captive audience. Maybe it’s the way the Loop’s long-time, loyal friends and legends are introduced and recognized one-by-one for their achievements. Maybe it’s the way we are reminded to reflect upon and celebrate this very moment on this very day when we all come together to share this experience. Or maybe it’s how Danny Martin invites us all to recite the Leatherman’s Loop poem along with him before we are sent off into the wild. It’s all of this and more.

But once the start command is issued the craziness begins! A stampede of eager racers erupts and no matter how prepared I think I am for the punishing pace and battle for position, I always find myself getting quickly sucked backwards in the funnel. Today was no exception but I decided to take a chance and cut left so I could reach the outer edges and hopefully have a better chance to hold my own in the flurry. It worked! I was pushing myself to a pace that no one should be dumb enough to attempt in the opening 1/2 mile of a race but I was gaining ground and moving my way up the field just in time for the single track. I’m never quite sure how I make it through that initial field sprint without taking a terrible tumble. The ground is uneven and with the high grass it is hard to see the terrain beneath – getting tripped up seems inevitable. However I survived again – must be the spirit of the Loop!

That initial mile left my lungs searing but that’s part of the fun! You redline from start to finish at this race. All of the nuances of the loop come rushing back to me as I make my way up and down the risers, over rocks and roots winding through forest paths. I wore my Topo Runventures for this race which offered the perfect lightweight protection and grip to tackle everything this course throws at you. Occasionally there are some spots where you can make passes, but for a lot of the time you either keep up with the pace pushing behind you or get out of the way! I was holding my own and having a great time, naturally. Although the course seemed slightly drier this year the first water crossing appeared to be as deep as usual but I was able to make a pass or 2 running across.

First water crossing. Photo: Hailey Ivey

Exiting the first water crossing. Photo: Hailey Ivey

You reach a clearing which means it’s time for the first sand hill. With a mariachi band serenading runners with some upbeat tunes you can’t help but be feel excited to tackle that hill 😉 From there you make your way to the halfway point which means after a sharp left-hand turn you’re into mudflat territory. There’s no avoiding the deep mud lagoons along this section so you may as well embrace it and have fun! Once you tackle the flats there is one more sand hill to conquer, this one hosts a bagpipe player beckoning you to the summit, before the hard part of the course is behind you.

One of two sand hills. Photo: Michael Rodgers

One of two sand hills. Photo: Michael Rodgers

I had been taking it “easy” on the hills during this race – more than once reminding myself that this was not an ultra and I needed to hustle up every hill I encountered. Telling myself didn’t work, and during the 2nd half of the race I found myself being passed by a few guys on the uphills only to turn around and pass them back once the trail flattened out. Trading spots with these guys over the last 2 miles helped keep me motivated and on my toes for the last section of the race.

Once you exit the forest you have a short field to run through towards the final act of this race – SPLASHDOWN! You can hear the roaring crowds from far away – this is by far the main attraction of this race. And for good reason. Runners can’t see the bottom through the deep, rushing water so every step is an adventure! Being my 3rd time, feeling like I should be a pro at this by now, I had it in my head that I was going to charge through Splashdown like a maverick – impressing the crowds with my water crossing skills. Which could only mean that I should expect the exact opposite… First step in and down I went! Okay, I still have another large section to navigate – I got this. I climbed over the median and leapt into the next section with total confidence. Down I went again. All I could do was laugh at how far removed I was from my visualization of this. But there was no time for laughing at myself – I heard the crowd screaming “you’re the first female – GO!!!!!

Photo: Closer North

Photo: Closer North

I popped out of the water and began my final charge up the hill through the tunnel of spectators lining the way to the finish line. There was that familiar feeling – like I just ran through wet cement, not water, and now with the air hitting my legs each step felt like I was getting slower as I grew colder. I forgot to bring my watch to this race which was actually refreshing – I didn’t really need it and why not race without worrying about time and pace? Once the finish line clock was in sight I was sad to see that this had been my slowest Leatherman’s Loop yet. However that disappointment was fleeting because no matter what my time, or what my place at this race, it is so exhilarating to be out there pushing so hard on a challenging and fun course.

I was able to defend my title of 1st overall female for the day, but it wasn’t by a longshot! The crowds screaming at me to GO in the Splashdown knew what they were talking about. 18-year-old Gemma Nuttall was a mere 30 seconds behind me. I’m going to have to do some work to maintain my streak against the young talent that dominates this event!

Photo: Deborah Burman

Photo: Deborah Burman

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy holding on to that spot for one more year, and the award that comes with it. Each year I receive a large bag overflowing with goodies! If you know me, you’ll know that awarding me food is always a plus 🙂 And so I celebrated that evening with some pancakes and local maple syrup courtesy of Leatherman’s Loop!

Victory pancakes!

Victory pancakes!

One more awesome thing to note about this race is that every year they collect food pantry donations to directly benefit families in need. I wish more races would take advantage of the sense of community trail running fosters. Even if only half of the runners bring 1 item to donate, that can still make a huge impact. It definitely adds to the sense of family that this race nurtures.

Finish time: 48:14

 

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Mind the Mud – The North Face Endurance Challenge DC 50k

logoIt’s hard to put into words how excited I was leading up to this race. It was my first trail ultra of the year and I was ready! Even the deteriorating weather forecast throughout the week couldn’t suppress my excitement. A little cold, rain and snow wasn’t going to kill my vibe – this was looking like a fast course! I had a 50k PR time etched into my mind and I was itching to grab it!

I woke up Saturday morning before my alarm went off – a sure sign I was ready to race! First thing was peer out the window into the artificially lit parking lot – I could tell it had been raining quite a bit throughout the night but it appeared to have stopped. Next order of business was to check my weather app – cloudy and staying below 40 throughout the race but the rain seemed to be gone during the window I would be racing. This put even more of a spring into my step. After eating 2 bananas and a packet of almond butter I mixed my Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration drinks for the day, layered up in plenty of clothing, and was on my way to the parking area where shuttles would await to take us to the start.

Riding on the bus it was still pitch black and I had my headphones in listening to my pre-race jams. I looked to the front of the bus and noticed the windshield wipers were on full speed and we were driving through a downpour. I was happy that I made the last-minute decision to dump my dirty laundry bag before leaving the hotel so that I could keep my gear dry. After a short hike to the race start in Algonkian Regional Park we were greeted with the most pleasant of surprises – they had 4 giant propane fire pits roaring for athletes to huddle around and try to stay warm. I had about an hour before the race start so there I stood – bundled up in rain gear with my backpack stuffed into a plastic bag to stay dry. Without those fire pits it would’ve been a rough wait. As we’re talking amongst ourselves I was listening to stories about how muddy this course can get even if it hadn’t rained in the past few days. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mud – it was like ice skating. The hills become big mud slicks and athletes have had to push each other up and over. The only “dry” area was at Great Falls Park. The stories didn’t stop and although I was assuming these were over-exaggerated tales I quickly realized that with the amount of rain that had been falling, it was time to forget about that PR.

Clearing up for the start

Clearing up for the start

As the 7 a.m. start time drew near the rain tapered off and you could feel the energy building as we had some relief. I shed my layers, checked my gear bag, and lined up at the very relaxed start where Dean Karnazes sent us on our way. The first 2 miles were grass to road to gravel trail and I ran them both at just over 7:00 minute pace. This was faster than I needed to go but I figured I should take advantage of these “clear” miles. Hopping onto the trail was refreshing as the mud didn’t seem nearly as bad as I had imagined. I can deal with this! At mile 4 we hit the first climb and it was great to finally have a change in elevation. But then…the trail dropped us down along the river and that’s where the real fun started!

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

So maybe they weren’t kidding about this mud! The single-track offered no option but to sink into ankle-deep slop. I’m not at all afraid of mud – I find it to be kind of fun. But yes it was slick and with all of the twisting turns you had to slow down significantly to maneuver through them. My pace quickly dropped into the 8’s and 9’s out of pure necessity to stay upright and not overshoot any of the sharp bends. I was loving it though! I knew that this slower pace would only benefit me later in the race. I also felt lucky to be in the top 10 at this point and getting some of the “fresh” tracks in the mud. We came to the next steep climb and there was no choice but to hike because, true to the stories, it was like climbing an oiled plastic tarp. Coming down the other side proved to be even more challenging, and I even considered sliding down on my rear as it may have been faster. However the random roots jutting out made me double-think that option 😉

Despite the slick and slow-running mud the miles were clicking by with ease. It had rained once and there was even a short hail storm, but neither were bothersome and I was feeling appropriately dressed for the conditions. I was only tiring mentally as I had to focus on every footfall. All I wanted was a short break from this terrain so that I could relax, settle into a nice pace, and enjoy the scenery. I could tell that the views around me were awesome as I heard the Potomac River roaring at some spots while at others it was completely calm and peaceful. For long stretches the single-track was twisting and turning through lush patches of bluebells. I was looking forward to reaching Great Falls Park where rumor had it there would be a much-needed break from the mud.

I was having fun in Great Falls!

I was having fun in Great Falls!

That break did not disappoint! Arriving at Great Falls Park I was greeted with stunning views of rock cliffs that made me say “whoa” out loud. At mile 13 there was another aid station which was also a main spot for racers’ crew, so there was an abundance of spectators, cheering, and energy. And such a nice change of pace on runnable trails! I was definitely enjoying this section (as were my ankles, knees and hip flexors) and I could finally open up my stride. There were two out-and-back sections in the Great Falls loop and around mile 16 I saw the 2nd female. By my estimate she was about a mile back. Way too close for comfort! I knew it was time to shift into another gear and tackle the 2nd half of this course. However Great Falls seemed to bring a 10 degree drop in the temps (that’s what it felt like anyway) and after feeling plenty warm up to that point I was suddenly wishing I had more clothing, especially on my legs which now felt frozen in slow motion. At the 2nd out-and-back spot I hit the turnoff before seeing her again, so I felt some relief that she hadn’t gained any ground during those 2 miles.

Now it was time to mentally prepare for those long muddy miles on the return trip. I knew they would be in bad shape, but they were way worse than I had imagined! I was still hanging tough up until mile 24 but now the marathon runners were coming in the opposite direction making this tricky single-track even more challenging. Although my Topo Runventures were doing an excellent job in these conditions, I don’t think any shoes could tackle the muck that we were trudging through. My pace had become embarrassingly slow, and at one point I said to myself “this is a race – get moving!” The reality was that I couldn’t go any faster. I was skating on the mud and each step was a test in staying upright, never mind trying to accelerate. The only acceleration was the exhaustion in my legs. My only thought was that the 2nd female would surely catch me at this pace. Thinking was not a smart idea, not at all, because the slight distraction caused a slip I couldn’t recover from and down I went onto my hands and knees. I made it all the way to mile 25.5 without a fall. At least the landing was super-soft 🙂 I tried to wipe a chunk of mud off my face which only caused it to smear. Okay, I have my war paint – let’s finish this thing! I was still certain that I was going to be caught by the 2nd female and convinced myself that 2nd place would be okay. Quickly after I had this thought I said to myself “you didn’t lead this far to lose it in the final miles”, and tried to dig a little deeper.
MUDThat was a mistake. The next fall was much more dramatic as I was attempting to move way faster than my feet could skate under me. I crafted a head-first dive and slid a good 5 feet. Safe! There was a guy behind me this time as he yelled out “are you okay?” and I could only laugh as I shouted back “yes!” I was completely covered in mud on my right side. I quickly stood up and tried to wipe the bulk of this mess off me as I suddenly felt a few pounds heavier. The mittens had to come off as they were full of very cold mud. Having nothing on my hands meant I quickly lost feeling in my fingers. The temps still felt cooler than the start thanks to the 30 mph wind gusts (that’s what I heard they were anyway). I was so close to the finish that having frozen fingers wasn’t an issue. Shortly after the fall the lead male of the 50 miler was coming up behind me – I could hear his pacer shouting out every obstacle in his path. I took advantage of this fresh, helpful pacer and after allowing them to pass me, I hopped on for as long as I could manage. I could definitely feel his pain as I watched him navigate each step with caution. And he had way more many miles under his belt!

done

Instead of counting down the miles to the finish I was counting down the miles until I got to the gravel trail. I knew all I had to do was make it out of the endless mud pits. That point finally arrived and I thought “I don’t remember this stretch being so long!” I cannot even tell you how many times I looked back in those last 2 miles – convinced that the 2nd female was closing strong on me. Making that final turn to the finish line I saw that I had it! Way off my goal time but happy to have made it across the finish line in 1st place!

I may not have run the time I wanted and I could quickly tell that I was going to be way more sore than normal the next day, but I really had a great time! Racing in tough conditions makes the memory much sweeter. Being surrounded by such beautiful natural scenery makes the suffering much more enjoyable. The best part is how great I felt throughout the race – that feeling trumped every other victory! 🙂

Only 2 of us stuck around in the cold for awards

Sonja Hinish and I were the only 2 who stuck around in the cold for awards

This was my first North Face Endurance Challenge Series race and it definitely won’t be my last! I’m already signed up for the Championship race at Golden Gate National Recreation Area on December 3rd. And I would love to return to the DC race next year. The race was well-organized, the course was beautiful, and the volunteers…well they deserve an extra round of applause for this one!

This was my first race in my Topo Runventures and they served me well considering what I put them through. It was also my first race sporting my Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest. Both of these items deserve their own write-up and that is exactly what I will do. Look for product reviews coming soon!
shoes

Finishing time – 4:36:27

 

Caumsett 50k National Championship – A Day of Shortcomings

Before I get to the race, let me first mention how I arrived here. As many of you know, I was training for a road marathon – a marathon that is taking place this weekend. The half marathon I raced two weeks prior was to obtain elite entry to this marathon. While far from a PR, I just squeaked out the time I needed. I submitted my results that Monday and waited, and waited – rather impatiently – for my entry to be granted. By Thursday I followed up with an email asking if they received my submission and when I would find out if I was in fact racing. On the following Monday, still not having heard back from them, I made the decision to bump my race date up a week and compete at the Caumsett 50k National Championship. This wasn’t really a big stretch – only one week earlier and 5 miles longer is not a huge change-up. It just meant I had to start my “taper” that day. I registered for the race, booked my hotel room and changed my focus solely to this race.
arrgghhAs luck would have it, Friday night I received an email from the Rock ‘n Roll marathon coordinator confirming my elite entry 😦 It was too late to turn back and I kept my sights set on the 50k that was now 2 days away. I also held off on responding to the coordinator, just in case something went wrong on Sunday and I would be able to race the marathon as a back-up. Luckily a back-up plan was not needed.

I felt oddly relaxed going into this race. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that my training partner Jason Friedman was racing also. This race was 10 laps of a 5k loop with a small out-and-back section. In a way it was like chasing him around the track. Okay not really, I knew I should be nowhere near him on this course. But the fact that I knew I would see him occasionally would make me feel at home so to speak. When I found out Joe Murphy would be running that bolstered my spirits even more. Another competitor who would undoubtedly be faster than me, but who I had familiarity in running with (even though only for a short time).

at the start with Joe on my left shoulder and Jay on my right

At the start with Joe on my left shoulder and Jay on my right. Photo: SC Photos

It was going to be a beautiful day weather-wise. The sun was shining bright at Caumsett State Park. My biggest concern for the day was what to wear. It was in the low 30’s and expected to reach 40 by the time I would be finishing. I went with capri bottoms, a short-sleeved top, arm warmers, a hat and gloves with hand warmers. In hindsight I think I would’ve preferred tights – I do like keeping my legs warm. Otherwise I felt comfortable throughout the race except that my face constantly felt frozen. That was odd.

The course was great – a lot of flat stretches to really settle in with two rollers on the backside, and one tiny kicker on the out-and-back section. The toughest part was navigating the 180 degree turn around a cone. Simple enough on the first few laps but as the course became congested it was a spot that really slowed you down. GLIRC did an excellent job with this championship course.

I had multiple goals for this race. Beyond my A and B time goals, this race has the added bonus of being a Boston Marathon qualifier. They had a timing mat set up at the marathon mark to record your split, and then all you needed to do was finish the race for it to count. This was my first goal mark for the race – I was planning to hit the marathon mark in just under 3 hours, and then hold onto a sub-7:00 pace for those last 5 miles to reach my A goal of 3:35.

Once the starting gun went off I quickly settled into a relaxed pace, clicking off ~6:30 miles. It was only slightly faster than I needed to go, but knowing how I like to race it was good for me to have a slight buffer on those early miles. I hit the first 5k at 20:13, then 20:25 and 20:55. I was progressing as planned and still feeling somewhat relaxed. I knew within the first mile of this race that it was a race for 2nd place. Caroline Boller went out hard and appeared to be getting stronger each loop. The out-and-back section was great because it gave me a chance to see her in her groove and cheer for her, then also cheer for Jay and Joe who were both looking smooth and strong as well. And then of course, to see where the next female was 😉

Those early miles - still looking happy. Photo: SC Photos

Those early miles – still looking happy. Photo: SC Photos

On the 4th lap I started to feel that gurgle inside me. I knew I didn’t need to use the bathroom – I know it’s TMI but I certainly took care of things that morning. No, this was the good ol’ GI issue that had plagued me for a long time. The one that I have 95% under control. I was sure this wasn’t going to be an issue, but also realized that I wasn’t drinking a whole lot during these early miles. With cooler temps I wasn’t as thirsty but quickly realized I needed to start hydrating to avoid issues. Finishing loop 4 I grabbed my pre-made bottle of Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix from the makeshift aid station Jay set up for us. I decided to carry this for one loop and sip on it through those 3 miles. I clocked 21:00 even on the 4th lap.

Upon finishing that lap I dropped the bottle off at our station, but knew I needed to duck into the port-o-pot. Luckily it was a quick stop but it still interrupted my rhythm, and increased my 5k to 22:05 for that loop. At this point I was mentally struggling a little – I know that when this issue starts, it only gets worse and it saps my energy. So I focused on staying positive. Lap 6 put me at 21:45.

Lap 7 is where I started falling apart, and I was no longer running sub-7 minute miles. I still felt the urge to use the bathroom, and now my bad hip was starting to hurt with every step. I of course started cursing road running for beating up on me. However most of my training up to this point had been on pavement and I hadn’t experienced any pain outside of the norm, so why now? Was it all in my head? I knew I needed to use the bathroom again, but the 1 port-o-pot at the halfway point was occupied when I arrived and I definitely didn’t have time to wait for it to open. I decided to tough it out until I finished the lap. I was happy to see that my lead on the third place female was growing when I was finishing the out-and-back section, but as I stopped for bathroom break #2 – this one taking much longer than the first – I began to panic that all of the time I was putting on her was going down the shitter (pun intended). Lap 7 – 23:27.

The growing agony on my face. Photo: We Are Athletes! Racing Team

The growing agony on my face. Photo: We Are Athletes! Racing Team

Lap 8 was all about trying to stay positive. The marathon mark was drawing near and I was doubting my ability to run sub-3:00. By now the pain in my hip had spread to my right glute, and I could feel it shutting down. Soon after that pain was growing in my lower back. Obviously whatever I was feeling in my hip was causing me to change my stride. I focused on form. I also made a pact with myself that I would not use the bathroom again until I hit that marathon mark. I couldn’t waste another second. I got to that out-and-back section with high anxiety as I waited to see the 3rd female coming my way. I never saw her. Phew! This eased my mind as I hit that 5k in 22:33.

I’d like to say that I pushed lap 9 to get that sub-3:00 but sadly it wasn’t happening. Now I made a pact with myself that if I just stayed strong through mile 26 I could back it off for the final lap and a half. All I needed to do was run sub-8’s for those last 5 miles and I would hit my B goal of 3:45. It was with mixed emotions that I crossed that marathon mat – my time was 3:01:22 (per Strava – not official). I was bummed to have come up short on my goal but also happy to have hit this point in the race knowing that I only had to finish this lap, and then run one more. It felt good to ease up a little – I was still running sub-8 but felt way more relaxed. Finishing lap 9 in 23:45 I confirmed that the third female was still nowhere in sight and I could “enjoy” my 10th and final loop. As I made my final turn toward the finish line I saw that I was just out of reach of going sub-3:40. I wish I would’ve looked at my watch sooner and pushed just a little harder to reach that mark, but I was satisfied with my 3:40:17 and 2nd place overall female finish. Jay was waiting at the finish line for me and we both celebrated a tough but rewarding day. Both Jay and Joe had strong races – Jay snagging 3rd in the 40-44 age group and Joe placing 9th in the open division.

The Aftermath
I woke up Monday morning feeling totally recovered. Yes, I normally recover quickly due to my vegan diet, but this was way more noticeable. I had minimal soreness in my legs, and even my hip pain had subsided. I could’ve gone for a run in the morning (don’t worry, I was smart and didn’t). Most of the soreness I felt was in my back and shoulders – likely from running tense. I thought this was a fluke at first, and that the soreness would kick in later that day or the next. It didn’t. This made me feel better about backing off on those last laps instead of pushing through the discomfort. What do ya know – maybe I’m finally becoming a smarter racer!

My unexpected energy and happy legs also had me thinking I should go ahead and race the marathon this weekend. Why not shoot for back to back races and see what I could do? How quickly I forgot the pain in my hip and how I swore off long distance road racing only 2 days prior. I was riding on a post-race cloud – feeling invincible for bouncing back so quickly and wanting a 2nd chance to redeem myself for my missed goal.

Luckily I got off that cloud (thank you Jay for helping to talk me down). I need to take advantage of this quick recovery and dive into my next block of training. It’s time to start running on trails to prepare for my next 2 ultras, and more importantly, structured bike workouts that I’ve been neglecting since September. Another long race means another week off from strength training that I cannot afford. So I emailed the Rock ‘n Roll coordinator to tell her I would not be racing Saturday just to seal my decision. Even though as I type this there is still that voice in my head saying “just go for it!” Oh the trials and tribulations of a race addict…

 

Tune-up race – NYCRUNS Central Park Half Marathon

nycruns logo

Last weekend I ventured to NYC to run a tune-up race prior to my marathon (which is now only 2 weeks away!!). Also to obtain the elite qualifying time I needed for that marathon. Did I run time I needed? Yes. Did I run the time I wanted? No. But hey, that’s what tune-up races are for – to see where your fitness is and what improvements need to be made. Yes, I am celebrating a win, however the greater experience I got from this race lies in what I take away from it. As with any race, you learn.

This race took place, as you can infer by the name, in Central Park. The half marathon consisted of 3 loops – each one slightly different from the last. As much as I studied the course map I was nervous about making an error. However the signage for each loop was easy to read and understand, the volunteers and course marshals were on top of directing you appropriately, and I had the added benefit of the lead female cyclist riding alongside me throughout the entire race. Not only would she tell me whenever an aid station was near, but she would also ride ahead to each intersection that she could stop and make sure she was directing me to the appropriate loop. She was awesome!
nycruns courseI started at a conservative pace (what?!?) and held a fairly consistent pace throughout the race. This is not my racing style – I tend to go out too hard and hang on for dear life. It’s what has always worked for me. Sometimes I like to experiment with “doing it right” – or at least doing what other people preach is right. Today was one of those days. At the start line I chatted with a man who had arrived from London 2 days prior and decided to do this race while he was in town. We talked about our time goals and I gave him my A and B goals. He then asked if I was going to “go for it”. I told him it depended on how I felt. While there was no need to put it all out there it would’ve been nice to test myself. But…I definitely wasn’t feeling it and I certainly didn’t go for it. I felt controlled the whole race, but not strong enough to push it. It was a good way to start the season 🙂

Photo: NYCRUNS

Photo: NYCRUNS

This was the first race in my Topo Tribute’s. Verdict: I love them. They are super-lightweight, extremely breathable, and provide the perfect amount of protection for the ride. Basically, I did not even notice my shoes at all, which is exactly what I want in a zero drop racing flat. If you want to read a comprehensive review of the Tribute, check out this one.

TOPOKLINE20 for 20% off

TOPOKLINE20 for 20% off

NYCRuns put on a great race. It was well-organized, well-staffed, and they provided nice swag along with a post-race spread including lots of fresh fruit that you don’t normally see at races. Berries and grapes? Yes please!

And now some work to do before my next race…

6 minutes, 4 seconds

FFA logo

It went by so fast yet it felt harder than any 6 minute race effort in recent memory. 6 minutes and 4 seconds was all it took for me to fall out of love with tower racing. A short but torrid love affair that left me feeling hurt, disgusted, and even deceived. Why did it have to hurt like that?

One Boston Place

One Boston Place

Why tower racing?
The Empire State Building Run Up has been on my bucket list for a few years, quietly tucked away in the “something new” category. Every year it pops into my head and then I go online to check it out only to find out the race has already occurred. So this time I was ready. And I was excited. I submitted my lottery entry, marked my calendar for the day the climbers were announced, and planned my training for the event. The training itself was exciting to me. I am not at all bored with my current training but the thought of adding a new element sounded cool to me. Especially since I will be running the Cayuga Trails 50 again this year, and for those of you not familiar with the race, there are a lot of stairs to climb!

At last the big day came and the entrants for the Empire State Building Run Up were posted. My name was not there. I was gutted. I don’t know why I so badly wanted this race – I was super-bummed to not get in. I did something I rarely do – I called in a favor from a friend to see if there was any chance I could slip in through some back door. No go. I knew it wasn’t going to happen this year so I emailed the race director and asked what I needed to do to receive elite entry for 2017. The answer was:

“Next year’s qualifications are not set in stone, but being one of the top 15 ranked women in the U.S. would help.”

And that’s how I ended up in Boston last weekend to attempt my first tower race.

Training
This section will be short and sweet. I didn’t train on stairs nearly as much as I thought I was going to. The best training occurred when I stayed at a hotel in Philly right before the holidays that was similar in height to One Boston Place. I ran from the basement to the top 3 times in a row. It was tough, taxing, and exhilarating! It was also a great learning experience – by the 3rd climb I had a better grasp on pacing and ended up with my fastest split. I came back to New Paltz and suddenly that state-of-the-art stair climbing machine at my gym was not so bad-ass. It did the job to get in some workouts but the top speed was not fast enough for me to put in any real hard efforts. Once you have a taste of climbing actual stairs the hamster wheel doesn’t provide the same experience. Not by a long shot. However I felt that my experience in Philly gave me the confidence I needed to perform well in Boston.

Race Day
The race starts at 8 a.m. with climbers being sent off in 10 second intervals. My start time was 8:12:15 which gave me time to scope out the start line. It was a quiet check-in during those early hours – there were 1,737 climbers scheduled to start throughout the day so it was going to get quite chaotic. The check-in process was very well-organized and after I went through my race prep it was off to the 39th floor where I would drop my bag before returning to the lobby.

Once my time came to line up in the chute the rest was pretty much a blur. You stand at the start line where a volunteer sends you off 10 seconds after the person in front of you disappears into the stairwell. You wear the timing chip on your wrist and when given the “go” command you simply swipe your wrist across the table as you enter the stairwell and it’s time to start climbing! I ran into the stairwell feeling totally flustered and confused. How hard is it? You find the stairs, which are right in front of you, and you run up them. I was out of my element and, I guess, pretty anxious.

I learned in Philly that looking down at my watch to check my time was not a good option when trying to avoid tripping up the stairs. My goal for this race was to go under 6 minutes but I really wanted to get as close to 5:30 as I could. I set the interval timer on my watch to go off every minute. That way all I had to do is briefly look up to see what floor I was at. If I could climb 8 floors between every interval alarm I was in great shape to meet my goal.

Going into this race I constantly drew upon my climbs in Philly – what it felt like, what worked best, etc. That seemed to have all gone out the window. Within a few short flights I passed the female who started in front of me. Okay, passing was really hard. I don’t even know how to explain it. Once you catch someone you have to find that extra gear to climb past them quickly to avoid being in their way. It is a lot simpler on the bike and while running, but this felt totally different. I also noticed really early on that the air in this stairwell felt entirely different from what I experienced in Philly. I was having a tough time breathing within only seconds of starting. I was hoping that this would even out as the climb progressed. My first interval alarm went off right as I hit the landing of floor 8. Perfect!

But my lungs were burning. Bad. I alternated between climbing a couple of flights taking 2 stairs at a time and using the handrails to utilize some upper body strength to pull myself up the stairs, and then taking one stair at a time so I could “run” them. This seemed to be working well for my legs. The floors were flying by but at the same time I felt like there was no end in sight for the stabbing feeling in my lungs. By the time my 3rd alarm went off I was only at floor 22. This wasn’t too far off my pace but I was only slightly over halfway to floor 41! I was able to pass a few more people along the way – that never got any easier.

When my 4th and 5th alarms went off I didn’t even bother to look at what floor I was on. I felt dizzy and each shallow, labored breath caused searing pain. I could taste that awful acid in my throat. My legs weren’t hurting – why weren’t they hurting? I’m clearly not going hard enough. But I can’t possibly push any harder with this hot knife lodged into my lungs hampering my breathing. I felt like I was in some kind of dream sequence – I was dizzy, my head was throbbing, the lights seemed dimmed and hazy, and even though there were volunteers talking and cheering their voices sounded completely muffled. The only thing I could hear was breathing – not just my own breathing but everyone else who I would come upon. I caught 2 more climbers – 1 right behind the other. I knew I needed to pass them but I needed to sit behind them for just a second or two to muster up the energy to make the pass. At that moment my 6th alarm went off and I realized that we were at the finish line. 6:04.

Across the finish line you stumble into a hallway lined with chairs and volunteers. I was still very dizzy, my head was throbbing, and the sounds still seemed muffled. Bodies were everywhere – like the girl sitting on the floor draped in bags of ice and a puke bucket in front of her. I quickly moved past. Everyone was coughing and trying to catch their breath. I found a spot at the end of the hallway where I crumbled into the corner on the floor. A volunteer was following me and kindly took my timing chip. This area felt suffocating so I grabbed a cup of water and headed down another stairwell to the 39th floor to collect my belongings.

I will spare you the ugly details of the events that took place as I struggled to regain composure. What I will say is for an effort this short, it was one heck of a recovery! At least I wasn’t the only one struggling in the bathroom. During that recovery I tried to come to grips with what just transpired. I was frustrated that my race didn’t go as planned. I wasn’t even paying attention to make my final kick up the last flights like I had practiced. Had I done that I would’ve passed the last 2 competitors and reached by sub-6 goal at least. I couldn’t understand why it felt so different from when I ran the stairs in Philly. I was expecting my legs to tire and my calves to burn. Sure I was expecting to have a hard time breathing. I was expecting my whole body to feel spent by the time I reached the top. I did not expect to have pain so sharp in my chest that it held me back. And fresh legs. Moral of the story: I need to train my lungs. It was a huge positive that my legs felt great and I wasn’t even sore the next day. It was a huge negative that I had a hacking cough and rattling lungs for 2 days after. The running miles I sacrificed for this race really brought me down mentally. I vowed that I would never race a tower again unless I had nothing else in the lineup that would be hindered by it. By now my attitude has softened, at least a little 🙂 Missing workouts is always tough for athletes but once you straighten your head out you forge ahead.

A few hours after the race I was able to determine that I was sitting in 1st place for females and 12th overall. Of course this end result was not final with the time trial start so I was on pins and needles up until the awards ceremony. But alas I was able to hold that position, barely edging out the 2nd place female by a mere 4 seconds! Despite having a rough start in the tower racing world I was happy with my result and it felt great to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new. I have yet to plan my next one but I know there will be more to come!

Sau-Mei Leung (red), Me, Kelly Spencer (2nd)

Sau-Mei Leung (red), Me, Kelly Spencer (2nd)

The Fight For Air Climb participants raise funds to support the mission of the American Lung Association, helping to make a positive impact in the lives of those affected by lung disease.

 

Powerman Zofingen

Team USA - missing a few

Team USA – missing a few

I hadn’t traveled to race at an ITU World Championship event for Team USA since 2012 so it was time to get back out there and explore. Powerman Zofingen has long been on my bucket list. Known as the “Kona of Duathlon” there is a reason this race has kept World Championship status for so many years. Since its first year in 1989 Powerman Zofingen offers a challenging yet breathtaking course in a spectacular, friendly and inviting environment.

Switzerland is just as beautiful as I had imagined – and as everyone had described it. As usual I only wish I had more time to explore instead of solely focusing on my race. The challenge came with the training leading up to race day. Once I stepped outside my hotel in Olten I wanted to break loose and spend hours admiring what the countryside had to offer. Whether running through the historical section of town over cobblestone streets and onto the rolling roads on the outskirts, or riding through the neighboring towns – each more fairy-tale-like than the last – I wanted to stay out all day and play! How could I keep the volume and intensity in check when every time I saw a hill on my bike I just had to climb it and find out what was at the top? I’m pretty certain I squealed with delight more than once while out riding. At one point I passed a network of running trails in the woods and couldn’t decide if I was relieved or disappointed that I wasn’t carrying a pair of trail shoes on my bike. I would’ve ditched my bike in the woods and set out for hours. But that’s enough about how enchanted I was with Switzerland – let’s get on to the race! (you can see my photos from Olten and Zofingen here)

Race morning was definitely chilly as I left my hotel in the dark and hopped on the train for my 10 minute ride to Zofingen. Knowing this race has a history of inclement weather I erred on the side of caution and packed just about every option available for race day. The forecast called for a chance of showers but the time frame was short and as the sun came up I had my doubts that we would face any bad weather at all. I knew that first 10k was going to be fast and I would surely warm up quick. Arm warmers and gloves would definitely overheat me which would then cause me to be very cold on the bike, so I opted to race with my kit and nothing extra.

When it comes to World Championships Zofingen is a very small race. This means that instead of having starting heats we all start at once. It was great to have all of the Team USA women starting together and helped to calm my nerves a bit. However it was intimidating to start right behind the elite women knowing I would have to fight the temptation to chase them. As AC/DC’s Thunderstruck blasted through the speakers it was time to line up and start this long day of racing ahead of us.
Powerman startThe gun went off and without even sizing up the competition I went to the front (#tothefront). At least I exercised restraint and did not push to catch onto the elite field that wasn’t far ahead. Almost immediately a Belgian athlete joined me and instead of feeling the need to get away from her I was thrilled to have someone alongside me. The first loop of the 10k run starts uphill and then continues to get steeper. I was feeling strong and in control. Once we leveled out the elite field disappeared into the trails and I was content to hold a steady and manageable pace. With a majority of my running and racing on trails this year I felt right at home on the gravel trails in the woods. Before long we were descending the 2k back into transition before heading out onto loop 2. This is when Ms. Belgium made her move and I let her go – the mantra always playing in my mind “race your race.” I kept her in close range for the 2nd loop and as we got into transition one of my strengths showed itself as my fast transition had me heading out on the bike right alongside her. With a straight, flat shot out of town it wasn’t long before I passed her and I was right where I wanted to be – leading the amateur race. Time to race scared 🙂

I didn’t have a chance to preview either the run or the bike course before the race but with three 50k loops to tackle I would use the first loop to settle in and see what this course was about. What I wasn’t expecting – the long flat sections of road where you could settle into those aerobars and just hammer! It felt awesome! I was smiling and having a blast. The sun was disappearing and the rain was starting but it was very light and I wasn’t too worried about it. I was cold but it was bearable – I was having way too much fun to let a little bad weather bring me down. The climbs also weren’t as daunting as I was expecting as they twisted and turned through both wooded hillsides and open countryside showcasing some views that were worthy of taking my eyes off the road. For those who don’t know my state of mind while racing, I hardly ever notice anything around me because I am super-focused. On this course I was soaking in a lot of the beauty surrounding me.

Powerman bike

Of course I’m smiling – look at these views!

At the halfway point on the bike there was an announcer and a crowd of spectators there to lift your spirits after the longest climb. It was great to hear the announcer cheering me on as he told me I was the first amateur. The highlight of my ride came around the 40k mark of that first loop. On a swooping downhill into a turn I noticed a race official and a small crowd of people. As I got closer I saw a helicopter sitting in the field right along the road. Once I approached that spot the helicopter lifted off and flew above me, following me along the road. After some time shadowing me he flew to my right and spun around to face me. It was such a cool experience I had goosebumps. I arrived back in town feeling great and excited to head out for round 2.

Loop 2 brought worse weather – it started to pour this time causing turns to be taken with some caution. My spirits were still high as I thought to myself there is still plenty of time for this rain to stop and the roads to dry 🙂 I was definitely very cold and wishing I would’ve worn those arm warmers and gloves… On the first descent I was shaking uncontrollably and even screamed “woo hoo” out loud to let it out. Being cold is a great reason to work harder on those climbs right? Soon after that halfway point I was passed by an athlete from Denmark. She passed me and then slowed down, so sure enough I passed her back once I caught back up to her. It wasn’t long before she passed me again and this time she stuck with it. Within minutes she was out of sight. I was certain I would not see her again on that bike course. I finished loop 2 still hitting my goal pace. Time to tackle it once more!

The third time around I was starting to feel fatigued. Luckily the rain had stopped and the roads were drying quickly which was a major help. My main focus was to maintain a solid effort on the final 50k and not let anyone else pass me. I was definitely ready to get out of that saddle and of course I had Ms. Denmark on my mind. Exactly how big was the gap she put on the bike? Would I be able to reel her in at all on the run?

I entered transition happy to be off the bike with the added thrill of the 2nd and 3rd elite men alongside of me. Once out onto the first 15k loop I realized we were running the finish of the first 5k loop. Oof! This meant a good 2k climb to wake up those running legs. After climbing for what felt like an eternity we emerged into a park which offered views of the town. I felt like I was running on a CX course – following the white tape that outlined the lanes as we wove all around this park like it was a maze before heading back onto the wooded trails for one small loop. Heading back into the maze the 2nd time I was starting to see the next females behind me. It was hard to get any sense of how far back they were but seeing the competition always sparks that fear in me. I was looking forward to hitting the 13k mark knowing I would have the 2k downhill back into transition. While it was too early to attack that downhill and trash my quads I found that I could barely pick up the pace at all – it felt like I was slowing down! This is when I started to panic. I had another 15k to run on this same loop – how could I be feeling so bad so soon? Coming into transition to start the 2nd loop I used the cheers of the crowd to rally me into a better mental state for loop 2.
Powerman runBack to that first long climb. Was I walking? No. Did it look like I was walking. I’m sure it did. I knew I needed to maintain a pace similar to the 1st loop to secure the gold medal – I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. At that moment my stomach started growling. I nailed my nutrition as planned – the same as I did for American Zofingen and as I had practiced in training. My body was obviously in need of more fuel though. At the first aid station I grabbed a section of a banana and the relief was almost immediate. I suddenly felt like myself again and was picking up the pace. I figured if my stomach had been growling I was probably at quite a deficit so I continued to grab banana at every aid station in addition to taking my gels on schedule. That was just what I needed! The beauty of a long race is that sometimes you have the time to recover from an error. I’m very grateful that my stomach gave me the signal I needed to salvage that run. I was able to enjoy the rest of the race and this time on that final downhill 2k I could kick it into gear knowing the finish line was near.

Running back into the “stadium” for the finish was anti-climatic because, as those who watched the live feed know, the elite flower ceremony was taking place as I was finishing. The crowd was quiet and all eyes were on the podium. I was just happy to see that finish line knowing I was under my goal of 8 hours. As I turned the final corner there were some USA spectators cheering me on as they held out a flag for me to carry across the line. Unfortunately I didn’t see this until I was passing them and I didn’t have it in me to turn around and grab it. I was ready to pass through that finish line and head straight to the bathroom 🙂

Team USA had an excellent showing at Zofingen taking home quite a few medals! It was great to make some amazing new friends and reconnect with others – that is hands down the best gift I’ve received from this sport.

Medal ceremony

Medal ceremony

Some of the athletes have raced there more than once. I was proud to say that I had no desire to come back and do it again. I checked it off the list. Done! I will honestly say that at first I was disappointed to be competing at a World Championship event with such small numbers. After racing I had a different outlook knowing that this race is a whole different monster – there’s a reason why the numbers are low – and I was out there competing among the best. On the flight back to the states the next day I was already thinking about what an amazing experience that race was, and then my thoughts turned to how I could improve on my performance now that I know the course and discovered a major error in my fueling. By the time I arrived home I was ready to sign up for 2016 🙂
medalResults:
Finishing time – 7:53
10k run – 37:24
150k bike – 4:51:20
30k run – 2:21:20
8th Overall Female
2nd Overall Amateur Female
1st in 35-39 Age Group
Calories burned – 9,500

 

#TrailsRoc 0SPF – a humbling day

Gathering for the start. Photo credit: Ben

Gathering for the start. Photo credit: Ben

When Eric Eagan of #TrailsRoc invited me back to run the 0SPF 1/2 marathon trail race in Victor New York it didn’t take much twisting of my arm. I had a great time last year – the trails are well-maintained, the terrain offers a little bit of everything, and the race crew and volunteers make you feel like family. And yes, when you can go to The Red Fern in Rochester for a post-race meal…it’s a no-brainer! This year fellow Strong Hearts Vegan Power teammate Sean Scott joined me which was an added bonus!

Last year I was able to take the win and a new course record after racing the 2 previous weekends. I was fully prepared to beat last year’s time – this year I had almost a full month off from racing and with this race falling in the middle of a new build phase I was feeling strong! Perhaps I felt too confident because I failed to focus on some key components. So the race turned into a humbling experience – one that is needed from time to time to remind you that races don’t always go as planned, even when you go into it feeling 100%.

When we arrived in Victor the skies had cleared and the sun was shining bright! Turns out some pretty crazy storms greeted them early in the morning making the #TrailsRoc crew work extra hard to ensure the trails were ready for the racers. But along with those clearing skies and bright sun came humidity. What is the #1 thing I always pay attention to the week leading up to a race? The weather! Especially where heat is concerned. I can never guarantee how I will fare on a hot day but I can at least take some important steps to prep my body. Leading up to 0SPF I knew that there was a chance of storms, but I never even bothered to look at the temps and consider that this could be a prime condition for high humidity. I guess I figured the race was short enough that it wouldn’t matter. When we slip in our planning we are quickly reminded of it 🙂

In fact, when the race started I still didn’t think I would have an issue. Talk about being over-confident! In the first mile I was feeling overheated but we were also exposed to the sun for most of it and I knew soon enough I would be in the shelter of the trees, settled into my pace, and my body would calm down. By mile 2 my face felt very flushed and my head was throbbing like it was going to explode. Mile 3 came and I had to succumb to walking runnable hills – not because my legs were failing me but because running up them caused my temps to soar even higher. I was stepping off to let people pass me by this point – there was a lot of single track and I felt bad holding people back. I played my usual game when things aren’t going well and convinced myself that I would reach a point where things would improve and I would feel like myself again. My first point was 3 miles but obviously that had passed with no improvement.

Photo credit: Mike Lesher

Photo credit: Mike Lesher

I then told myself that after the turnaround I would feel great and negative split the race. Okay, sometimes the self-talk can be a little too far-fetched 😉 I was able to hit the turn-around still in 2nd place but the next few females were not far behind. Hitting those hills on the return I was close to crawling – I actually doubted my ability to walk up the steep ones as I was feeling a little dizzy. I filled my Inov-8 Race Ultra Vest with 1.5 liters of water thinking this would be more than enough for 2 hours of racing but it was draining quick. There were aid stations on the course but they did not provide cups (and the racers were well aware of this – thank you #TrailsRoc for avoiding unneccessary waste!) I knew that with my pack I would not need to stop for water but I now realize that in hot races I rely on dumping water over my head at every opportunity. I could have very easily packed my collapsible cup provided to all athletes at the Vegan Power 50k and solved this problem very easily. Another lesson learned!

I arrived at an aid station and the wonderful volunteers offered ice. I didn’t have to think twice about stopping for some! They were kind enough to shove a huge chunk down the front of my shirt and it felt amazing. At this point I was walking and jogging whenever I felt the urge. My GPS sounded off the 9 mile mark and I laughed at how much further I still had to go at this pace. Yes I laughed – at this point I was totally fine with how my day was going. No one ever wants to have a bad race but once it goes wrong there is nothing left to do but chalk it up as another learning experience! My finishing time was over 15 minutes slower than last year. That’s over a minute per mile slower! OOF!

Not a total loss though because I finished the race (in 5th place), I got to enjoy the company of some awesome runners, and you better believe I still had that post-race meal at The Red Fern – rainbow sprinkle donut sundae and all 🙂 And it snapped me back into race mode – or more importantly race preparation mode. With Escarpment coming up this weekend you better believe I am prepping for heat and humidity!

Thanks again to Eric Eagan and the #TrailsRoc crew for inviting me and hosting a top-notch event! If you are not familiar with this group – check them out! They are a non-profit organization promoting trail running, maintenance and preservation. The proceeds from their events support the maintenance of trails and their conservation efforts – a worthy cause to all of us.

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And of course…here’s your race video to learn more about the group and the event!