I Cannot Do Justice to the Vagamon Ultrail Race

It has taken me a while to write this race report because my words cannot fully describe this wonderful experience. What a great start to a New Year! This is going to be a long one… In an attempt to not ramble on too much I will keep this focused on the race weekend. However I cannot fail to address that my trip to India was an awesome experience from beginning to end thanks to Monica & Amit of Unived Sports, and Unived Trail Runners Club athletes Rahul, Ashish, Arjun and Sanjay. I cannot express to you all how much you filled my heart ❤

Getting to the race

Getting to the hills of Vagamon was quite the journey! On Thursday afternoon we took a 2 hour flight from Mumbai to Kochi where we found a hotel for the night. The cab delivered us to the front desk – literally – he drove up the ramp into the lobby and dropped us right at the desk! We dropped off our gear and set out to find dinner in town, walking through the quiet beautiful streets of Kochi. We were on the search for “authentic” South Indian food. That was the theme of the weekend – they wanted me to have authentic experiences, even going as far as getting me to do things by telling me it was authentic 😉 We found an excellent dinner spot where I was able to try all sorts of delicious foods, which was the kickoff to my weekend of eating way more than my body was accustomed to! But how could I turn it down? (I tried sometimes, but wasn’t allowed haha).

The next morning we left for Decathlon where we check in and acquire our bib. This is where we met up with the rest of the UTRC boys and took a short walk to a breakfast spot. I tried more new foods – delicious Appams – served by a man wearing soccer cleats 😉 A sporting goods store is a perfect spot to wait around for bus transport so we hung out at Decathlon for a while and before I knew it they were serving the racers lunch. Not hungry at all, I was informed that I would only have one more chance to eat that day so I better fill up. I rallied and got it done. After lunch we boarded the party bus (yes, it even had a disco ball) and we began our 3 ½ hour drive to Vagamon.

All aboard the party bus to Vagamon!

The last hour + we climbed the narrow, winding roads that showcased the beautiful landscapes we would be running the next day. We made one pit stop on the climb at a vista so we could enjoy the view, and a vegan mango sorbet from the ice cream truck.

Mango pops!

Once we arrived at our cottages and checked in I had to quickly prepare my drop bag as we were soon leaving for the race briefing and pre-race dinner. The cottages sat high up on the hills and were quite cozy. Each cottage had 2 rooms and I was supposed to share my room with another 90k racer but she did not show so I had the room to myself. I shared the cottage with Anand, the race director for Malnad Ultra, and another gentleman. We decided to walk down the hill to the race briefing and it was nice to stretch out the legs and soak in the views of the beautiful tea estates. The race briefing was perfectly succinct. Then I loaded up (once again) on rice and dal before we walked back up the hill to turn in for the night. I organized and laid out my race day gear before getting about 4 interrupted hours of anxiety-laden sleep. I was worried about the heat – that was all.

Views on the walk to the race briefing

Race day!

The 3 a.m. alarm went off and I started my race morning prep. I had a cup of dry oatmeal with a splash of room temperature bottled water (you gotta do what you gotta do) and a packet of almond butter. The bus was ready to leave promptly at 4 a.m. as we descended into the valley snatching up other racers along the way. A gentleman sat next to me and as we introduced ourselves he said “oh, you’re THE Laura. You’re supposed to win today!” No pressure. We arrived at the race start and it was dark and cold. I was definitely happy about the cold start! I checked my bag, snapped some selfies with Rahul, then calmly made my way to the start line. Most ultras I race have that quiet, nervous tension at the start line. This one did not! So much energy and excitement – I couldn’t help but smile.

They sent us off into the darkness and the leaders took off at a good clip. Not knowing any of these runners I did not know what to expect and how the race would play out. I wanted to stay close to the leaders to get a feel for what would unfold so I tucked into 4th position. The trail wasn’t too tricky but there were plenty of rocks and ruts to throw you off with only the light from your headlamp. Within the first mile one of the guys in front of me took a serious ankle turn which caused him to stop and walk. Yikes! Within the second mile the next guy did the same. Okay, let’s focus and not do that. I was dancing the line of wanting to push these early miles to cover as much ground as I could before the heat set in and being conservative over trails in the dark. I now chose to lean towards conservative. I was sitting in 2nd and the leader was running strong pretty far ahead. As we were climbing I saw a turn off onto a trail that he had missed. I stopped and called out to him. When he turned around I pointed to the trail but he turned back around and continued. I was now in the lead and will admit I wasn’t very confident running out front in the dark. However as I climbed into a clearing I was overwhelmed by the quiet, calm beauty of running under the stars and moon with just my beam of light – I felt so much appreciation in that moment.

I didn’t hold the lead for too long before a few runners passed – one of which was the leader who I was happy to see found his way. He thanked me for warning him. Still trying to run conservatively on the trail sections I soon lost contact with them and twice went off course. However that wasn’t due to improper marking – I simply didn’t pay attention. And because the course was so well-marked I was able to quickly realize and correct my error.

I will admit that the competitor in me was a little bummed to fall off the leaders that early in the race, so it was time to adjust my mindset.

  • Do not focus on placement.
  • Do not focus on time.
  • Run your own race.
  • Respect your current fitness level.
  • Respect your recovery.
  • Respect the HEAT.
  • Soak up everything this experience has to offer.

As the sun began to rise the horizon was blanketed in beautiful pink and purple hues – simply stunning! I was excited to finally start seeing the landscape. Villagers were starting their day and some were out sharing the trails. It was nice to start seeing people and my smiles and greetings were happily returned.

At the 30k mark we had access to our drop bags where I was swapping out fresh bottles of RRUNN During Hydration Mix and RRUNN Endurance Gels. There were plenty of volunteers ready to cater to your every need and they were very insistent that I stop for a hot breakfast. I politely declined each time and was quickly back out onto the trails. Soon after that the two leaders came into sight – they were running together. I would be lying if I told you the competitive runner in me didn’t come back. I caught up to them around mile 21 and we all ran together for a bit and chatted. One of them kept calling me Super Lady 🙂 They were running strong and I was surprised to have caught up with them at this stage in the race.

Throughout the race there were many cows on the course. I obviously had a conversation with each one of them. We reached a spot of high cow traffic and just as I was scoping out how to maneuver around them I took my only spill of the day – I tripped on a rock and went down hard – startling the cows as they quickly moooo-ved out of my way (sorry I couldn’t resist). Santhosh and Sunil kindly stopped to make sure I was okay and then we carried on. It was great running with them and part of me wanted to stay and enjoy their company but I also really wanted to run my own race so soon after I was out in the lead on my own.

The next major chunk of this race is mostly a blur to me. We spent a lot of time in the heat of the day directly exposed to the sun and I was quickly melting. I do still remember all of the scenery, which is where I fail to properly describe the beauty of this course. I also remember suddenly emerging on the ridge at the highest point of the race and yelling out an expletive. It was so cool! Running along the ridge was also a welcome break as the winds were high. I kept spreading my arms like wings – letting the breeze hit my arm coolers for some relief.

Running along the ridge. Photo: Vibin Balakrishnan

At each aid station I would douse myself with water to cool off. I cannot tell you how many times throughout the day I went through my mental safety check – reciting my name, address and phone number. I did this so many times I was afraid I was reciting it out of habit, so I switched to my family members’ full names and birthdays. I even threw in some work passwords to really challenge the brain 😉 As a heat stroke survivor I have learned that if my mind gets fuzzy I’m in trouble. So even if I was a little too obsessive with checking in on my brain it gave me the reassurance that I was doing okay.

Trying to cool off. Photo: Satya Sravan

Somewhere after the 50k mark Santhosh and Sunil caught up to me when I was at a low point. I didn’t even hear them coming. They asked if I was okay and I assured them I was just slowing down. I kept them in sight for a little longer but soon they were gone and I was sure I would not see them again. Pine Forest was a favorite for many of the runners but not as much for me as it was the one section that reminded me of running in the states. However I was happy to have some relief from the sun. On our return trip this area was now bustling with activity. As I ran through the small, crowded market two nuns stopped me and one asked “where are you FROM??” with such curiosity. As I hit the forest trail it started a stream of cheers. Each person was yelling something down the line and putting their hand out for a high five – from children to older women. It was fun and their energy fueled me. In the excitement I nearly blew by the turn but luckily a runner coming the other way yelled out to correct me.

Beautiful Pine Forest. Photo: Vibin Balakrishnan

I arrived at my drop bag for the final time and began mixing my last bottles of RRUNN During and re-stocking my gels. I was again being told that I needed to sit down and enjoy a hot meal which was the last thing I wanted. After politely declining, and being told again I should eat something hot, I was offered curry rice and I agreed to a small portion. A few seconds later I realized he said “curd” rice so I quickly ran over to tell him I was vegan and could not have curd rice (and let me tell you that small portion I agreed to was already a heaping mound and growing). Another volunteer told me I could eat the idli so I took one to be courteous. After taking a bite I said to myself “there is no way I’m keeping this down.” But to avoid being wasteful and rude I quickly shoved the idli down and grabbed the Thums Up (aka rocket fuel) I stashed in my drop bag and was on my way up the next climb. (*To be clear, the idli was good and I appreciated their kindness of fueling me, I just don’t typically eat any hot and/or substantial foods during a race.)

Late race struggle

I saw Santhosh and Sunil up ahead on the climb but even as I was guzzling my Thums Up I did not see myself reeling them back in. Once I hit the 60k mark my legs were in full-on protest. I also don’t remember exactly when my watch battery gave up on me, but that added to my feelings of despair. By this point I knew I was not getting anywhere near my goal of sub-10 hours so it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to not be reminded of the time. And with the ample aid stations which always provided mileage updates it was easy to know where I was on the course. I was living aid station to aid station – looking forward to dousing myself with water, drinking some cold RRUNN Watermelon, and treating myself to orange slices. I came upon an aid station where I was greeted with “sit down and we’ll make you an omelette!” I informed them I was vegan so no omelette for me, and also that I wasn’t allowed to sit 😉 They told me I at least had to have “special drink”. I did not know what this was but figured why not, and took a shot from a glass. A volunteer offered to pour water on me and I wasn’t turning that down. He poured a huge bottle over my head and I left that aid station with renewed energy from the special drink and the cold shower.

Running back through the villages I was a popular attraction. The women would stare intently into my eyes as I passed. I ran by a group of about 10 women sitting along a wall – conversation stopped and all heads turned to me as I passed. I then heard laughter and as I turned around one of them was taking a picture of me. Children were out playing and were very enthusiastic. They would see me and run into their houses to alert others to come outside. Lots of cheers, smiling faces, and high fives. I was very excited to see the final aid station which meant 5k left to run. When I arrived one volunteer told me it had been so long since they last saw me. In my tired daze I thought he was referring to how painfully slow I was now moving. He reminded me that they last saw me at 5:30 in the morning. Oh yeah, they were my first aid station of the day as well as my last. After what felt like the longest 5k ever, the finish line came into sight and I was ecstatic to complete my race as I broke the tape among a crew of happy volunteers.

11:43:29

Finished!

I quickly found Santhosh and Sunil and we all congratulated each other on strong performances (they finished together for 1st place). Monica was there to welcome me and I also found Amit who finished 7th (!) in the 60k, along with Arjun. Ashish finished soon after me and before too long Sanjay finished his race. I saw the physio for a wonderful post-race massage and we all sat around enjoying post-race food and recounting our days on the trails while waiting for our team photographer/videographer Rahul, who was also running the 90k.

Post-race with Ashish, Amit and Arjun

We received a unique clay finisher medal and for my overall awards I received a handmade coconut leaf hat and a beautiful painting from one of the volunteer’s 14-year-old daughter. What beautiful gifts to cap off a beautiful race experience 🙂

1st Overall in 60k & 90k

Nutrition

I was very excited to test a new line of Unived RRUNN Elite products on race day. I won’t give away too much yet…you will definitely hear more from me once the products are launched. It’s great to have the trust in a company to try new products for the first time on race day and have them exceed your expectations! Unived continues to create top nutritional products and I’ll be very excited to share them all with you. The flavors…okay that’s enough teasing for now. Throughout the race I drank 6 bottles of RRUNN Elite Electrolyte Mix and consumed 1 RRUNN Elite Gel per hour. I did not experience any stomach issues and felt properly fueled throughout the day. I supplemented this with some orange slices and water at aid stations and also popped a few RRUNN Caffeinated Salt Caps to help me battle the heat. I also enjoyed a few cups of the RRUNN Watermelon During Mix that was being served at aid stations because who doesn’t want a refreshing watermelon drink during a hot race? And let’s not forget the Thums Up!

aka Rocket Fuel

If you’re interested in trying any Unived nutrition products or performance gear you can use my code LAURA15 to receive 15% off at checkout!

Gear

Leading up to the race I went back and forth between my 2 favorites – Altra King MT’s and the Altra Superior’s. I chose the light and fast Superior as there weren’t too many technical or rocky sections. I also got to debut the Unived Race & Recovery socks which will definitely be my new go-to sock! The material was very soft and comfortable and I’m a big fan of the arch compression. They feature 3D dots along the sole of the sock as well as the achilles and this technology really added comfort while preventing fatigue in the feet. The socks got wet, went through mud, and endured the heat, yet I had zero blisters or hot spots. You’ll see pictures of me post-race still wearing the socks because even after almost 12 hours on the trails they felt good! Under my Unived Performance Air 1.0 Singlet (definitely feels like air!) I wore some DeSoto Cool Wings to add protection from the sun and heat. I went with my trusty Ultimate Direction Race Vest – lightweight as there’s not much to it with ample pockets for 1 liter of fluid and a stash of gels. I was also excited to sport the new Unived visor – I’m just not a trucker hat fan – visors for life!

Props

Overall my comeback race was a success. 2018 was a tough year and it was hard to safely build the mileage I needed to compete at 90k in the short amount of time I had available. Although this lack of volume was the main contributor to not meeting my goals on race day, I was still able to run, race, and thoroughly enjoy an amazing day on the trails! With the time that has passed since the race I recovered quickly and by respecting my current fitness level I am no worse for the wear! This has deepened the hunger in me for a strong 2019.

Thank you to the Soles of Cochin who organized this race. The Vagamon Ultrail was a first-class race experience. It was very well-organized, the course was well-marked, and provided plenty of well-stocked aid stations. Not only well-stocked with food and drink but also with enthusiastic and friendly volunteers who went above and beyond to provide a great experience for the runners – such a welcoming group of committed volunteers. To answer the volunteer who ran with me a short time during the race – YES! I am coming back to race in 2020 🙂

A thank you is not enough to express my gratitude to my Unived family. They made this race possible for me. They helped me through this injury – not only nutritionally but through their emotional support and commitment. They were also the most gracious hosts from the time I landed in India until I had to say some hard goodbyes (more like see you soon!) Also for making sure I had everything I needed on race day from nutrition to gear. I am beyond grateful to continue our partnership in 2019.

Rahul, Arjun, Sanjay, me, Ashish, Monica, Amit

Unived Trail Runners Club – you guys rock! Your warm welcome immediately made me feel like part of the crew. You all put the C in UTRC 🙂

Thank you to Altra for believing in me after a season of injury. I am humbled to be a part of the Altra Red Team again in 2019.

Finally, thank you to all of you who stood by me last year. It wasn’t an easy one, but when you have a strong support system of family and friends who make you laugh when you’re feeling down or give you tough love when you need it – that makes all the difference.

Looking ahead it’s now time to start focusing on my next big race of the year – Comrades! There will likely be a race or two in the lineup before then, and potentially another exciting trip (more coming soon).

Congrats to all of the runners who tackled Vagamon Ultrail. It was a pleasure meeting many of you and I hope to run with you all again next year 🙂

Happy & Healthy training to you all!

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Ultra Race of Champions – Skylark Edition

The Plan
My main goal was simply to finish. I won’t say I didn’t want a podium spot but I still felt the sting of my DNF at Bandera so most important to me was finishing my first 100k. Normally I set time goals throughout my races but since this was a new course I had no data from which to formulate my goals. This was a “go out and run” kind of race and I welcomed this lax mindset – I took a lot of pressure off myself. I knew who my main competitors were, and relying on my race style thought I would be racing in 2nd place most of the day before getting caught (but hopefully not getting caught).

Part 1 – Whetstone (miles 1-29)
6.8 miles to the first aid station consisted of gradual climbing on a mix of paved and gravel/dirt roads. It was a great start to the race. There was no need to jockey for position to get onto the single track, and it provided the perfect warm-up for the legs. After the aid station it was onto single track and I was excited for the trails.

The next 8 miles contained rolling terrain with some technical spots and some nice climbs to prepare you for the day ahead. The miles were still ticking off quickly and I was feeling great. The course was exceptionally marked – I don’t think they could’ve done a better job. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t go off course around mile 15. There was an intersection, and a flag to mark the intersection, but instead of looking for the flag on the turn I bombed straight through it and ran a good 90 seconds before realizing I didn’t see any “confidence markers”. I stopped and turned around to look for the guy who had been close behind me. He wasn’t there. So back I went and sure enough there was the flag on the trail I was supposed to turn on. Of course I panicked for the time I just lost with that error but I reminded myself that it was very early in the day. This was a theme I repeated to myself multiple times throughout the race. From there we had a 3 mile descent to the lowest point of the course where we would turn around and retrace our steps 11 miles back to the 1st aid station. This was a very tight spot for 2-way traffic but it was exciting to see the race leaders coming through. Mocko and Jorge were running together chatting like they were out on a training run. Soon after was a steady stream of men taking chase. Amanda was making her way up – all smiles and looking strong.

It wasn’t long on my return trip before I saw Emily, and then Amy. Damn. They were close. Cue panic again along with the realization that I wasn’t even 1/3 through the race. I started playing the game in my head “how many miles can I make it before I’m caught”. I know this is a dumb game to play but it’s my way of setting mini-goals 😉 It must’ve messed with my mind because during the entire climb I was struggling. My legs felt weak and I was feeling overheated and dizzy on the steep climbs however I wasn’t sweating and I had goose bumps. This can’t be good. I thought maybe I should cut back on the effort but also realized how little effort I was already putting out. It was all very confusing. My hands and fingers were really swollen. I couldn’t remember if that meant I had too much salt or too much water. How could I have too much of either? I remember wishing Jay was here so he could tell me which it was and I could fix it. I sustained several cuts on my legs through this section and I was sticky with blood. My left knee cap was covered in blood and every time I put my hands on my legs to power hike I was making it worse. The cut wasn’t bad at all – it just bled a lot. I was chalking this section up to being the worst part of my day, and it was still so early. Let me just make it to mile 30 before I’m caught.

Part 2 – Those damn jagged rocks (miles 30-53)
I was elated when Whetstone was behind me and happy to be back on the roads for the next 4 miles so I could recover. We made our way onto the Skylark property and had to climb ever-so-close to the finish chute. That was a tease. It was nice to run on some open grass fields as we toured the beautiful property on our way back out onto the Blue Ridge Parkway headed to Bald Mountain. Once we arrived it was back onto the trails. What I remember most about this section was how painfully slow I was going. There wasn’t a whole lot of elevation change but the trails were plastered with sharp rocks that were looking for any opportunity to end your race. I normally enjoy this kind of challenge but wasn’t in the mood for taking risks, again saying that it’s way too early in the race. Eye on the prize – finish. This led me to hike a lot of this section. I hiked, and I felt terrible for hiking. In hindsight it was smart but it still hurt my ego. This was definitely where I would be passed.

I don’t recall much more of that section. I remember making our way down to some falls before another steep climb out of that valley. But the rest is a blur. Mentally I was focused on making it to the aid station at mile 53. That was where I would grab my bottle of go-go juice for that last 10.5 mile push to the finish.

Part 3 – Shaking my fist at Bald Mountain (miles 54-finish)
I was pumped to arrive at AS8 where I was greeted by the kind couple who I met before the start. They came down from CT to support their son and they were cheering for me at every opportunity. I asked how their son was doing and they told me he was doing great – and actually wasn’t that far behind me along with the next female. If they said anything else after that I didn’t hear it – my mind was fixated. I didn’t ask how far back she was – I never asked where she was all day because that’s one mental game I don’t like to play. I filled one bottle, swapped the other, and said my goodbyes. It was time to work. The aid station volunteer told me it was 6.4 miles to the next aid station after climbing Mt Bald. I audibly whimpered.

But I had a new fire in me. I made it 54 miles and I did not want to lose my position this late in the race. The next few miles turned out to be my favorite of the race. I don’t know how many times we crossed streams – it had to be at least 6. Many of them were knee deep or higher. Sure they slowed you down but the cold rushing water felt great on the legs and it also washed off the blood from multiple cuts. I knew that if I could maintain this momentum and determination I could hold 2nd place to the finish.

And then I hit Bald Mountain. Or rather Bald Mountain hit me. The climb was steep and never-ending, and it was quickly sapping whatever I had left in the tank. I started to get dizzy and wobbly on that narrow single-track and all I could think was “if I fall down this mountain I will have to climb it again. I do not want to climb this again.” And so I focused. My hamstrings clocked out for the day. Like “hey, we know we have to stick around for the rest of the day but don’t expect us to do any work.” Not only did Bald Mountain drain the energy out of me, but it also drained my watch. No more data to rely on.

After what felt like an hour I made it to the summit and that final aid station. I grabbed a cup of coke, a handful of pretzels because I was craving salt, and half-laid on the table for support while my bottle was filled. 4.2 miles to go. Half of this was road. “I got this” I told myself. I kept checking my watch on the road – I wanted to keep tabs on the distance I had left and what my pace was. I knew my watch was dead yet I kept looking at it hoping it would give me some reassurance. I also kept looking back – just in case.

Turning onto the Skylark property was such a relief. Just one more steep climb to the finish line. I said “time to light that last match” and then laughed maniacally at myself because there were no more matches. As I made my way up the S-turns a young boy at the top of the hill was shouting down at me “finish strong! C’mon – run strong to the finish!” It was adorable and I appreciated his enthusiasm and support, but I also wanted to yell back “this is my strong – you’re looking at it. Pathetic I know, but it’s all I got.”

Halfway up the climb I passed some of the male finishers who were at their cars cheering me up the climb. Then I saw Amanda hobbling back down from the finish. I was happy to stop and congratulate her on my way up. Yep, that was my finish – stop and have a quick chat. One more turn and the finish line was finally in sight. I crossed the line and Francesca asked if she could take my picture. So I made one last effort of the day – to look like I was feeling great. Then I proceeded to the bench where I collapsed between 2 other finishers. I thought to myself “I don’t think I’ve ever smelled this bad in my life” which kept me from sitting too long. I spared the 2 guys and quickly got up so I could start my hobble back down the hill to my car.

Photo: Francesca Conte

Epilogue
The course was tough. I definitely underestimated it in more ways than one. But then again so did many people as the web site claimed 7,202 feet of climbing while watches confirmed 12,000. But hey, who wants an easy ultra? We wouldn’t be doing this if it was easy. As with every race I have some takeaways to work on – it’s all part of the process (and the fun). Gill and Francesca created a challenging yet beautiful course and a well-run event. Their passion for this event is evident. I would definitely go back to give this course another go.

The Grub
As I wrote in my product review, Muir Energy was my fuel of choice for this race and it worked well for me. With the variety of flavors I never tired of them. Luckily I brought plenty of extra for my drops because I was finding that I had no appetite for solid foods and only wanted Muir. Since this product is working so well for me I am happy to announce that I have partnered with Muir Energy to fuel my future races! (insert shameless plug –> discount code for those who want to try it out –> LK10OFF) P.S. Passion Fruit Pineapple Banana is still my favorite!

As usual I relied on Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix for my electrolytes throughout the race. One error I made was not bringing any of my beloved Hyper Hydration. With the forecasted weather I didn’t think I would need it but I was wrong. I survived without it but I’m sure it would’ve helped me in those later stages of the race when the sun was beating down and my skin was a solid layer of salt.
The Gear
First I have to give a shout out to Henry Klugh of Inside Track. When my local running store basically told me “too bad” when I inquired about a rain shell I knew that I would have better luck at Inside Track in Harrisburg which was conveniently on the way. And that’s why I love small running stores – Henry went into the back, climbed the ladder, and went digging through boxes until he found his rain gear. He hooked me up with the perfect rain shell – lightweight, packs into its own pocket with a hand strap for easy carrying, and it matched my singlet, Altra Superiors, and even my drop boxes. Stylin’! Even though I didn’t end up needing it, Henry took great care of a fellow runner and eased my mind.

img_7475

The Altra Superiors are my go-to race shoe on the trail. Although the King MTs would’ve been great for the technical parts of this course, due to the amount of road and gravel they would’ve been too much. I’ll get to race in the King MTs soon enough – and I can’t wait to put those bad boys to the test! I also wore my trusty Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest 3.0. Enough pockets to store needed nutrition between drops, and it’s quick and easy to swap out my bottles or refill them when needed.

That’s why they call her Smash’em Basham! Photo: Jorge Maravilla

Finish Time: 11:54:06
Rank: 2nd Overall Female

The Dreaded DNF

I’ve been here before. Too many times now. I had to go back and look through my results to get an accurate count. I now have 8 DNF’s on my resume in my 12 years of racing. EIGHT! Ouch. The biggest lesson I have learned? They never get any easier to process. Some are out of your control, some are due to bike mechanical failures, and others come from a conscious decision to end your race in hopes of preserving your health, safety, or preventing a full blown injury. One thing they all have in common (for me) is the big black cloud that looms above when the decision is made to pull the plug. The negativity I bring down on myself for feeling weak and not worthy. And tears – there are always tears.

dbd

There are many people who subscribe to this philosophy and I get it. I realize how lucky I am to have the opportunity and physical ability to race – to simply “give up” when the going gets tough is not a decision I feel comfortable making. I also respect those who listen to their bodies and know when it’s not worth it to push. Here I was again, faced with the option to drop out or keep pushing forward and I decided to be a quitter. What would I have gained from continuing? A result? More mental toughness? A sense of pride for finishing? Fortunately I didn’t need any of these things. I am lucky to have plenty of races behind me and ahead of me. There may come a time where I face challenges which will make just finishing more important to me. I am not there yet.

I think my first DNF set the stage for me to make better decisions about my health and well-being while racing. I was racing really well at a half ironman in June of 2008 in some unseasonably hot weather. Next thing I know I wake up in an ambulance not having any clue what happened. I collapsed from a heat stroke about a mile and a half from the finish line. Once I was able to grasp what had happened and my memory of the events leading up to the collapse slowly came back I was scared. Being the control freak I am I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see it coming – that I allowed myself to race until I was unconscious on the ground being swept up into an ambulance. Death Before DNF was close to becoming a reality. My mindset had to change – I was wound up too tight around my racing.

I added 2 more DNF’s to my resume within a year of this incident – at a World Championship and then again at a National Championship. Not the races you want to quit. Was I being overly cautious? That thought crossed my mind as I pondered my decisions. But to this day I still believe I made the correct choices, although each time it took miles of convincing along with the accompanying tears. I knew I never wanted to sacrifice my long term health for a race again. I still can’t claim to have the healthiest relationship with racing, or more so with my identity as an athlete. However I have come a long way and Bandera was another example of the progress I have made.

There is no point in writing a typical race report for Bandera because I really only “raced” about 15 miles, struggled through 9 more, then walked 7 to finish the first 50k loop and bowed out. What I can say about the race is that the first 12 miles felt great. It was a lot colder than anyone had planned for but once we got running and the sun was rising it felt wonderful. After picking up our packets on Friday I was excited about the course – I knew the terrain was something I would enjoy. I was right. Lots of dirt, gravel and loose rocks. Punchy climbs followed by tricky descents. The course challenges your footing and forces you to run controlled while also offering plenty of ground to really open up. The course was well-marked and the aid station volunteers were excellent.

I won’t get into the particulars about what happened because I’m not sure it’s something everyone wants to hear about. An old medical issue that I’ve been able to manage for a few years decided to come back full force about 12 miles in and worsen from there. I don’t know what caused it, especially so early into the race, but I’m taking this down time to hopefully find better answers this time around and move past it. Since I am now somewhat a pro on the topic of DNF’ing, I present to you the 5 stages of my Bandera DNF:

  1. Denial – I’m feeling awesome! I’m running smooth and relaxed! This course will play well to my strengths! Wait, what is this I’m feeling? No, it can’t be. I’ve only been running for 12 miles and I’ve got this issue under control. This isn’t happening. It’s just a small hiccup and it will pass just like any other rough patch. Miles later it’s just getting worse and that’s when the first thought of “DNF” pops into my head. I try to push it out of my brain just as quickly as it enters. I won’t have to DNF – this wasn’t at all part of the plan. No way.
  2. Anger – Why is this happening to me? Why now? Why today? What could I have possibly done to cause this? Can I really not keep things under control for this one last race of my season? This race was a big one for me. I was ready to end my season after TNF 50 but no, I rallied and fought hard to get myself to this start line feeling primed and ready to race. And now it was spiraling out of my control. I was angry. I was cursing. But don’t worry, I directed 100% of this anger onto myself 😉
  3. Bargaining – By mile 20 I knew that I was in trouble. The issue wasn’t getting any better. A DNF was turning from a thought to a strong possibility. This is the stage where I start to focus on the “what-ifs” and the “maybes”. What if I just walk the rest of the race? Maybe it will pass. My history with this is that it doesn’t clear up until I stop moving but maybe, just maybe, this time it would be different. I have plenty of race left to salvage if only I can move past this. Or do I just say screw it and keep pushing myself to run even though my body is revolting. It is a smart tactical decision to drop out of a race and save yourself for the next one. There was no “next one” on my horizon – the conclusion of this race was the beginning of my off-season. So why should I care about potential damage to my body? Maybe I should just gut it out and deal with the consequences later. It was a dumb thought and deep down I knew it. These what-ifs and maybes were my desperate attempt to hold on to hope. Which leads to the next step…
  4. Depression – I arrived at the last aid station, aptly named “Last Chance”, with 5 miles to go. There was a sign at the aid station pointing straight ahead for the 25k course stating it was only .25 miles to the finish line. An obvious choice for someone who made the decision to drop out of the race. But instead, without hesitation, I turned right and kept walking. I had one itty-bitty maybe left in my tank, but really I turned right so that I could wallow in my self-loathing for 5 more miles. Yippee! About 2 miles in I realized this was a mistake but refused to turn around. I was dizzy, my walk was more of a shuffle, and I straight up stopped a few times. My only desire (beyond getting to that finish line) was to sit down for just a minute and rest. I knew that if I did this it would be too comfortable and prolong my day even more. So I continued along, shed some tears, and had my pity party.
  5. Acceptance – The previous stages are easy compared to this one. Luckily I was not alone at this race. I had other friends out on the race course so this was not the time or place for me to be negative. I had all of those miles out on the course to do that 😉 Once I spent some time lying down to recover I made it back to the finish line to see Tom and Tim come in on their first loops, watch Scott finish the 50k, and then head back out onto the course to crew for Phil. Distractions – they are key. And I enjoy helping others while they race so it worked out well.

    The toughest part of this phase has been embracing my down time. My body and mind needed a break for sure but I was also expecting to have a solid race going into my off-season. This race left me unsatisfied and hungry to get back out there and redeem myself. I know that’s not the answer but it’s still tough to end on a sour note. I like to think that I learn something from every race – good, bad or DNF. I am grasping to find what I have learned from this one. The only take-away I have is that I need to get back to the Dr for more testing. I am surrounded by the best support system and I am grateful for that every day. On to the next season!

cats

Do you have experience with the dreaded DNF?
What was the toughest phase for you?
What is your best advice for accepting your decision?

The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championship

really wanted one of those days where everything just clicked. Don’t we all hope for that at every race? I didn’t have that – not even close – but I still had an amazing time at this race and as usual learned a lot! The course was everything people described it to be (almost). There was plenty of climbing which meant plenty of descending. The course was completely runnable. The views were absolutely stunning. The only thing I did not expect were the stairs – so many stairs! We talk about the stairs at Cayuga Trails 50 because they definitely stand out at that race. I couldn’t help but wonder if TNF 50 had an equal amount of them. They were wooden railroad ties, and not as steep as Cayuga, but there were so many of them. Up and down. I actually enjoyed them for most of the race – at least going up.

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Stairs and more stairs. Photo: TNFECS

It was a very chilly start for me – leaving the hotel at 3 am the air felt perfect but once we got to Marin Headlands it felt considerably cooler. Luckily The North Face supplies fire pits at all of their races. I squeezed into one and up against the guy next to me. He apologized and gave me room to get closer to the fire before I explained to him that I was invading his personal space to share his body heat, after which he thoughtfully obliged J I was regretting my decision to leave my arm sleeves back at the hotel. I was regretting my decision to skip buying a pair of throw-away gloves the day before. I arrived in CA on Thursday feeling like I was hit by a train. I had one day to pull it together and an easy detour to buy some gloves while I was out seemed too daunting a task. Everything would be better once the sun came up.

I felt oddly relaxed leading up to the start. I’ll chalk that up to feeling like I had properly prepared for this race. As the first wave was moved up to the start line I was looking for people I knew in the crowd to position myself with but it was dark and there was so much bustling energy I couldn’t figure out who was who. I was happy to see a fellow PA runner Jonathan Lantz next to me and it was comforting to know that he was going to be on the course with me today. Fellow Strong Hearts Vegan Power teammate Ellie Pell was with me as well ready to tackle her first 50 miler.

The start command was shouted and we shot off into the darkness. It wasn’t long before I noticed Magda in the lead group of women so I settled myself in behind that pack to get a feel for how things would go. The pace felt really comfortable for those opening miles even as we went up and over the first climb of the day. The lead group of us shot right past an early turn and luckily the field behind us started shouting. It felt like Black Rock 25k déjà vu as we corrected ourselves and quickly tried to get back in front of the pack. As we hit that first descent that’s where I realized my weakness – the lead women were bombing down the hill while I was trying to stay conservative – it was only mile 4! I was able to catch back up as we bypassed the first aid station but once we started that second climb they began to pull away and I thought it would be best to let them go. Time to run my race.

After dropping into Tennessee Valley I grabbed a cup of water and finally felt like I was settling in. However I was still really cold. It was difficult to eat because I had no feeling in my fingers, but what bothered me more was my legs – especially my hamstrings and quads – feeling cold, stiff, and tight. I found myself focusing on how much better I would feel if I would’ve worn capris. I kept telling myself that once the sun came up I would warm up and everything would feel better. It was still pitch black and sunrise seemed so far away. I was being a big baby and spending too much time thinking about things that were out of my control.

The best I felt all day was miles 10-15. I was sitting in 8th at the time but as we started the long climb to Cardiac my legs were again feeling so tight and weren’t cooperating. I knew I needed to grind out this 9 mile climb to McKennan Gulch where I could turn around and get some relief with the descent.

I had dropped 3 spots to 11th by the time we hit Cardiac and as simple as that math was I was so mentally frustrated I thought I was lucky if I was in top 20. Don’t ask me how I couldn’t pay attention to something so simple – it shows that my head was not in the game. The high point was seeing the lead men come through between Cardiac and McKennan. Zach Miller was out front moving like a freight train and I was super-excited to see him doing his thing. We both cheered for each other and he encouraged me by saying I was “up there” and then shouted “Go PA” as he made the turn heading down to Stinson Beach. Pennsylvania pride is strong! Existing in my negative head space I laughed to myself about his “up there” remark thinking he was trying to be nice.

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No more headlamp!

Frustration ran deeper as I hit the turnaround and made my way back down to Stinson Beach. This should’ve been a spot where I could open it up a bit and make up for that long uphill trudge. But I didn’t feel any better. Again my legs weren’t cooperating – the sun was up and I was still cold. I couldn’t shake this stiff feeling and my mental state worsened as I realized I was only halfway through the race feeling this terrible. There was no way I was going to give up but I started to have that talk with myself that this would be a race that I just need to finish.

On this out-and-back section I got to see some familiar faces which helped to elevate my mood. Karen Holland, Leah Maher who I only met that morning but is also from PA, and Anne Bouchard whom I raced with at TNF Toronto. Everyone was smiling and looking strong and I used that energy.

I was anticipating seeing my new friend Sandy who was crewing me at mile 29.4. I looked at my watch and realized I would be getting in right around the time I told him to be there and he had to take a shuttle which I know can be unreliable. I kept my hopes high that I would see him but on Friday I was already mentally preparing myself for the possibility of not getting my hydration and nutrition at mile 29.4. I rolled into the aid station at 9:06 and Sandy was nowhere to be found. I spent way too long standing around hoping he would magically appear – my backup plan thrown totally out the window due to my mental state. Finally I realized I had to move on so I slowly filled my bottles with water, grabbed a chunk of banana, and went on my way. Out of the way of the aid station I took another break to properly hack up all of the fluid in my lungs and clear my nose which I had only been half-successful doing while running. I looked up to see a poor, innocent bystander hiking towards me as she asked with concern “are you okay?” Sorry lady – no one deserved to see that.

It was a short run to the Cardiac aid station so I got my head together and realized that I would need another plan for electrolytes and nutrition now that I did not have my stash. I also had the attitude of “I’ll eat and drink whatever the f*ck I want because it doesn’t matter anymore.” I was a ray of sunshine. I arrived at Cardiac and grabbed a cup of Coke – yes Coke – and chased it with another chunk of banana because nothing else looked good to me and I remembered how bananas saved me in Switzerland last year. In a matter of minutes I felt a rush of life come into me. Huh. I guess it’s true what they say about that nasty, poisonous, rocket fuel. My whole damn attitude was turning around and at one point I actually yelled out “Coke” in an effort to praise my new-found savior. We dropped into Muir Woods and the beautiful redwoods. It was invigorating. We were now on the course with the 50k runners and I was definitely utilizing their energy. It was great to have people around and people to pass since I had been on my own for so long. Then I passed a familiar face – Team USA (duathlon) teammate Elizabeth Sponagle was tackling her first 50k and she looked great. I was so excited to see her as I was bounding down the trails with my new-found energy.

Not too long after that I heard a loud scream of “NOO!” up ahead and I see the guy that I had been running near for most of the day hiking back up the hill. He said we were on the wrong course but I was sure we were going the right way and told him the same even though I had stopped in fear that we had done something wrong. 50k runners confirmed for us that we were heading in the right direction so we started up again. He said to me “you’re my beacon of light – every time I think something is going wrong I turn around and see you there and know everything is okay.” I appreciated his kind words but laughed and told him that wasn’t the wisest plan. He doesn’t know my track record.

I recalled what one of my training partners texted me before the race: “Remember the race doesn’t start til 35!” I wanted to respond “It’s TNF50 – the race starts when the gun goes off” but I knew what he meant. And I remembered it now because at mile 35 I was finally starting to feel like I could race. Just at that moment I came across a spectator who told me I was in 11th. Who is this lunatic who doesn’t know how to count? I shouted back a very skeptical “what?!?” and he confirmed that the 10th place female passed through about 10 minutes ago. I said “well…damn!” and thanked him for this info which was the first I received regarding my placement the whole day. Into the next aid station I grabbed another cup of coke, another bite of banana, and a handful of Clif Bloks to ensure I was getting enough calories.

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The climb from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley

I was looking forward to reaching Tennessee Valley as I was sure Sandy would be there this time with my bottle of go-go juice to get me through the final 10k. I had one more climb to tackle before that point and then only one more left in the race after that. The downhills were starting to hurt more and more so once you reached the top of the climb you wanted to celebrate only to realize the real pain was about to set in. I could see Tennessee Valley and the huge crowd awaiting as I made my way down and worried about how I would find Sandy. As I approached the aid station my head was swiveling back and forth along the crowd that lined the road only to see Sandy standing right in front of me, arms waving with bottles in hand. I was so happy to see him and he spouted so much encouragement. I wanted to hug him but there was no time to linger. I gave him my vest and grabbed my hand-held before hitting the aid table for another piece of banana and heading up the final climb.

I caught up to Jonathan at the aid station and was really excited to be with him for this final push. As we were hiking this climb I turned around and was certain I saw another female with an orange bib. Panic set in. I held my position for over 20 miles and I wasn’t about to give it up in the last 10k. I turned around one more time to confirm she was there and it certainly looked as if she was. I made two decisions: 1) I would not turn around again for the rest of the race – I would go as hard as I could, and 2) I was going to get up this last climb through equal parts running and hiking. Being the obsessive counter that I am I started a 25 x 8-count cycle of running/hiking until I made it to the top. Another painful downhill but knowing it was the final descent I pushed a little harder. Again we could see far ahead on the course to where the trail leveled out so I focused on that spot – knowing that once I reached the bottom I could open it up.

With about 2.5 miles to go I could hear someone coming up on me. Then I could tell it was a female. Another moment of self-defeat as I thought “I can’t believe I let this happen”. As she pulled alongside me I looked over to see her bright-colored bib and told her “great job” even though I didn’t recognize her. That’s when she said “I’m a relay and I can barely catch you – you’re so inspiring!” Her bib was red, not orange! Phew! She had a strong pace and I was determined to stay with her so that’s exactly what I did. I ran alongside her for those final miles with her encouraging me the whole way – she was so awesome! She said I was inspiring but really she was the one who inspired me. She was in her own race yet she dedicated herself to pushing me those last miles talking me through it the whole way.

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Coming into the finish

I hadn’t looked at my watch in quite some time so when I rounded the corner to the finish line I was happy to see that I had met my goal of finishing under 8 hours. I gave my finishing partner a hug and thanked her for her kindness. I wanted to quickly grab my bag so I could get my phone to capture Ellie’s finish and as I was exiting Sandy was waiting to congratulate me. It was so awesome to have him there. Turns out getting my bag was quite the ordeal so sadly I missed Ellie’s finish as she came hobbling over to me crying tears of happiness after executing an amazing race – placing 15th in that field at her first 50 miler ever!

Of course since the race ended my mind has been in a constant state of ‘what I did wrong – what I need to do better’. But that’s how we grow right? It was a great experience to be racing such a strong field of competitors on a truly enjoyable course. The weather was perfect and I finished without any battle wounds or injuries so I couldn’t ask for anything more. Onto the next one!

There are some people I need to thank for making this race a positive experience:

Scott Field of Keystone Bodywork who spends countless hours keeping my body tuned and making sure everything is firing properly. Even though I swear at him a lot and wonder what I’ve done to make him hurt me so, I know that his thumbs and elbows are giving me love.

Jay Friedman my steadfast training partner who never missed a track or hill workout. Even on those dark sub-freezing mornings he was there to pull me along and keep me in check. Oh and hey, he’s in the running for RunUltra Blogger of the Year so vote for him here!

Sandy Naidu who offered up his Saturday to a complete stranger by crewing for me at the race. I’m so happy I got to meet and spend some time with such an awesome person and I will definitely take him up on his offer to crew me again in the future! And of course I have to thank Jonathan Levitt for bringing the two of us together.

Canada – you threw one crazy post-race party the weekend before my race which sharpened my endurance skills, challenged my ability to roll with things that aren’t part of the plan, and probably gave me the nasty cold I had to deal with going into this race 😉

And finally Topo Athletic for providing me with the shoes that kept my feet happy all year long. Yet another race without a single blister or any pain in my feet. A special thank you to Kristine David who, when the replacement shoes I needed for this race were not available in my size, sent me her own personal brand-spanking-new shoes so that I had a fresh pair for race day. Now that’s service!

Results: 11th Overall Female, 7:47:53

Gear: Topo MT2 shoes, Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest 3.0
Nutrition: Vega Sport Pre-Workout Energizer, BeetElite, Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration Mix, Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration, Skratch Labs Fruit Drops, Huma gels, Larabar Bites, Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer, Vega Sport Recovery Accelerator…and of course Coca Cola and bananas 🙂

Lime Kiln Trail Runs – a Red Newt Racing event

Photo: Red Newt Racing

When I found out my training partner Jay Friedman along with Red Newt Racing would be hosting a trail run weekend in my neighborhood I knew I would be involved in some way. There was no doubt it was going to be a great weekend. I was simply waiting until after Escarpment to see how badly beat up my body was. I would either race or volunteer – I really wanted to race, obviously. I love the 3 race format – the challenge of tackling 3 events with little recovery time between each. This race offered 3 trail runs: a half marathon, a 10k, and a 5k. Your race entry fee allowed you to race all three events, or any combination of the three. But that’s not all – this weekend also focused on fostering the community of trail racing that many of us love. Two nights of camping on the exclusive Williams Lake Project property were also included in your entry fee with a lower fee for friends and family who were not participating in any races. Wait there’s more – you also had access to a food truck on site, breakfast both Saturday and Sunday morning, lunch and dinner Saturday, a CAVE PARTY Saturday night, and swimming in the pristine lake. Yeah, that’s a whole lot of awesome!

Tuesday morning I hit the track with Jay and Phil and was thrilled that I felt great and could still execute some speed. That evening I signed up for Lime Kiln Trail Runs! I did not plan to camp as I live so close to the race site and opted to sleep at home but I was looking forward to the rest of the activities.

Despite this being a local event I was not familiar with the trails – only the public rail trail which the courses utilized. Knowing that I shouldn’t expect too much from my body only a week out from Escarpment I had a plan to run “only as fast as needed” to win all 3 events. I don’t know who I thought I was kidding – no matter what the race I have a hard time approaching it with that kind of casual attitude. Lined up by the lime kiln that the event was named after, with Ian’s ram horn send-off I ran mile 1 of the half marathon at 6:44 pace. We started on the flat rail trail so it was justified but I realized my “take it easy” plan was a joke. It didn’t help that Syracuse Track Club teammate Jade Mills showed up to race as well so I had some tough competition!

After crossing over the trestle bridge we shot down the stairs under the bridge, crossed the main street in Rosendale, and proceeded to the only major climb of the course – Joppenbergh. From there we continued on mostly single track trails – nothing overly technical on the whole course but challenging enough! The highlight of all 3 races was passing through the cave – not something you experience at many races. It offered relief from the heat and the added challenge of your eyes adjusting to the darkness so that you had to pay attention to your footing.

Rosendale Trestle. Photo: The Ascend Collective

I’m not going to lie – I was feeling really tired during the half and although I knew I would complete all 3 races I was starting to dread how the other two would feel. As these thoughts crept in I decided it would be best to back off in hopes of saving something in the tank for later. I had been running with Mike Siudy but as we were caught by another competitor I let the two of them duke it out while I started my “cool down”. Hitting the last aid station Phil let me know there was one more mile to the finish line. I looked down at my watch knowing that couldn’t be right. Was Phil being mean with this foolery or did I miss something? It turns out there was some mismarking of the course making it 2 miles short. I was not at all let down by this. I crossed the line in 1:34:56, grabbed my Vega recovery drink, and straight to the lake with the other finishers to cool off before preparing for the 10k that would start in 80 minutes.

Recovery drink and recovery lake! Where I spent my day. Photo: The Ascend Collective

I recovered quickly and lined up for the 10k. This time we started in the opposite direction as this race would cover the 2nd half of the half marathon course. I felt totally recharged during the opening miles and before I knew it my watch hit mile 4 and I looked down to see that I was averaging a sub-8 pace. Since my “cool-down” miles worked well for me in the first race I decided to use this tactic again and backed it off to finish the 10k in 51:05. The temps were really heating up so I mixed a bottle of Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration and back to the lake I went for my cooldown. 1 hour and 1 race to go!

Lining up that last time for the 5k I was definitely feeling tired but pumped to finish the last race of the day. My stomach was growling from eating only a slice of watermelon and grapes between the races – I realized that maybe a gel before this final race would’ve been a good idea. Luckily it was a short one. The final race would traverse sections of both the first race and the 10k. I really enjoyed the change-up of each course but also appreciated that each race ran us through the cave.

Entering the cave. Photo: The Ascend Collective

The first and second overall males were a mere 20 seconds apart in cumulative time going into the 5k so I was excited to see how this last race would play out. When the race started I tried to keep them in sight to watch it unfold but as expected once we started climbing they disappeared. I tried to run strong for the first two miles and then once I passed Phil at his aid station one final time I felt confident enough to back it off for the finish, coming across the finish line in 25:32. This was good enough for 1st female overall in all 3 races! As an added bonus I was able to improve my pace at each race. 8:30 pace for the first race, 8:17 for the 10k, and 8:15 for the 5k.

Exiting the cave. Photo: The Ascend Collective

A high mileage training day with course support and running partners
An opportunity to race with the added excitement of strategizing
Negative splitting the races
  Lots of lake time!

I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the lake and hanging out with friends while enjoying the provided lunch and drinks. At 6pm dinner was served along with some live music before the award ceremony began. Every participant received a race poster, every runner who completed all 3 races received a brick from the original kiln that was stenciled to commemorate the day, and the award winners received pick axes. Very cool swag to top off the event!
From there the party moved to the cave which was now lit – it was cool to actually see what we were running through all day!
I think this event was a great success and everyone seemed to have had a great time – whether camping the full weekend or not. I am sure this race will continue to grow and I am excited to see this trail weekend at least double in size next year!

The Ascend Collective was on hand to capture the event and the photos from the weekend are stunning. Make sure to check out the full photo albums to get a look at the beauty that surrounded us.

Jared Avigliano’s video footage of the race and property can be found here.

Escarpment – Paying my dues to Manitou

I never wrote a race report after last year’s attempt at Escarpment. If I had, it would read something like this: I fell. A lot. At some points I could barely progress a quarter mile without falling again. I imagined Manitou pointing, shaking his head, and laughing at this newbie. None of the falls were exceptionally painful – not physically anyway. But with each fall the ground took another chunk of confidence from me and I started to question if I even belonged at this race. I was super-paranoid about injuring myself when it was time to train for Powerman Zofingen, and each time that thought crept into my brain I’d fall again. The end.

As you have probably learned by now I am constantly seeking redemption. It’s always hard for to listen to “never again” when “I can do better” is ringing in my other ear. Which is why I found myself on the start list for the 40th running of Escarpment on July 31st. If you are not familiar with this race simply go the web site and you’ll understand the attraction. To have such an epic race so close to home – how can I resist? Not to mention race director Dick Vincent is one heck of a guy who puts his heart and soul into this race. As do the extremely dedicated volunteers out on that course. The sense of community at this event is one of many highlights.

I accepted the challenge to go another round and Manitou rewarded me by providing exactly what I asked for on race day – rain. Lots of rain. And as an added bonus, cool temps! My goal was simple – run a faster time than last year. The first wave of men starts at 9:00 with the first female wave starting 5 minutes later. Again this year I was lined up with a strong and talented field of women. Kehr Davis was the returning champion and I was happy to see her – she would be my “gauge” in where I should be. Or more like where I shouldn’t be.

We were bubbling with smiles and energy as the anticipated horn blew releasing us on to the single track. I decided to go with Kehr and get a sense of how I felt. Last year she took off right from the start and within the first 200 meters I knew better than to try to stay with her. This year the pace was relaxed and I was feeling great. About a ½ mile in I felt the urge to pass. I knew this wasn’t the smartest idea so I stayed tucked in. But right around the mile mark I wanted to at least take a turn pulling and before long I had a gap on Kehr. Uh oh. Never fear – by mile 2.5 there she was to remind me of my silly error and I never saw her again! Such a strong and humble runner.

My plan was to run the first peak, Windham, at a steady pace as it is the easiest of the 3 (for me). Windham is a 3 mile climb ascending ~1800 feet. Once you reach the peak you are rewarded with a nice descent and some runnable miles before you hit the wall that is called Blackhead. At just under 1 mile you claw your way up for 1,000 feet. It’s a fun section for sure, but tough, especially for the vertically challenged. This year it was where I experienced my first fall of the day. I had a miss-step on one of the rocks and immediately started to slide back down the mountain. I was able to spin onto my back so that I could see what was below and my thoughts weren’t about hurting myself, but rather that I was going in the wrong direction and would need to tackle this part of the climb again.

You may think you’ll get some relief once you reach the peak of Blackhead, but the descent is equally tricky. Still lacking the confidence to tackle this course with reckless abandon I gingerly made my way down through the rocks and slick mud. This time when I fell at least I was sliding in the right direction. Next up is Stoppel Point – the 3rd and final major climb on the course. This climb is only about 2 miles long and a little less than 1,000 feet of climbing, but now your legs are feeling the effort from the first 2 climbs and you’re running on pure determination to get up and over. Near the peak you find the infamous airplane wreckage from 1983. This is where I cued the Stranger Things theme song – it fit the mood with the eerie crash site, low visibility, and rainy weather. And it meant that the hard part was over – 4 more miles to North Lake!

When I hit this point my focus was on running strong to the finish. I was having flashbacks of last year where in the last few miles Sheryl Wheeler came blowing by me like a freight train as I gingerly tiptoed over the rocks like it was my first day on a trail. Sheryl is a strong runner who craves mountains – the more gnarly the better for her! I knew she had to be gaining speed and momentum and must be hot on my heels. Any time I felt myself easing up I reminded myself that she was on the hunt. What I forgot is how technical some of those sections are in the last few miles. I wanted to hold 2nd place but I still wasn’t willing to take any risks for it. So I charged full speed ahead on the runnable sections hoping that would be enough to hold her off. I could hear cheering from the finish line and as I passed a volunteer he shot off 2 pumps of the air horn to announce that I was coming. I made it! Across the finish line and directly to Dick to give him a hug thanking him again for this amazing race and the opportunity to run it. It wasn’t long before Sheryl arrived bounding through the finish line – not even 90 seconds behind me. Wow that was close!

I hit my goal running almost 10 minutes faster than last year. I felt way better too. I rewarded myself by heading to the lake to cool down and wash off – high on the list of my favorite parts of this race. Then it was back to the finish line to cheer in the other runners with a great crew of people that I love to be around. As I said my goodbye to Dick he said “I hope to see you next year” which he quickly followed up by saying I would be back next year – it had already been decided. And I can tell you he’s right – I can do better.

The magical, mystical Blue Mountains

I’m going to have to apologize up front. I went into this race with the full intention of actually paying attention to the course so that I could provide an accurate description for those who would consider making the well-worth-it trek to the Georgian Bay in Ontario for this North Face Endurance Challenge. However as usual I was lost in my own little wonderland of racing and would have a very hard time recounting what I encountered at any given point in the race. Except for maybe the last 3 miles where around each corner – surprise – let’s climb up the ski slope some more! And then descending the face of the mountain one last time – using every ounce of energy to not come tumbling down. But let’s back it up a little.

The Prep
Friday morning I drove from Syracuse to the Blue Mountain region and I was immediately enchanted by this place. Beautiful rolling terrain, windmills, fields of wild flowers, unicorns. Yes, I’m certain there were unicorns in this picturesque fairy tale land. It had been over a month since my last ultra and to say I was amped to race is an understatement. Once I saw where I would be racing my excitement grew ten-fold. I checked in to my hotel at 6 and heated up my good ol’ pre-race curry while I sat in bed with my course guide fanned out around me. It was time for a cram session! Looped courses make it easy to strategize but this course had no rhyme or reason. At this point all I knew is that I wanted to beat last year’s winning time which was 5:46. So let’s shoot for 5:30!

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I had the course map, the elevation profile, and the aid station-to-aid station detailed course description in front of me and came up with my plan. I rehearsed the plan over and over in my head. I considered writing it down on my arm – sure I would forget. Nah – I hammered it into my brain – I was ready.

The next morning brought gorgeous sunny skies and perfect temps to start the day. Obviously, I was in magicland! As I lined up at the start I met Anne Bouchard and she definitely looked strong – I needed to watch out for her. Since there was going to be a lot of climbing in the first few miles my plan was to go out easy – always my biggest challenge. Since I was sure Anne was right there with me I hit the first mile at 7:40 and reminded myself, repeatedly, of my plan. And this is about the point where I cannot tell you much about the course.

The Course
Let’s just say it was a steady mix of running across the exposed slopes, running up ski trails, running down ski trails, hopping off ski trails into extremely twisty turny single-track trails through the woods – going up, going down. There were some sections of stone access roads, dirt roads – long straight roads where you could see yet another climb ahead of you. Around mile 7 there was a small cheering section ahead with signs as we made a right turn. When you see a sign that says “Make this hill your bitch” you know you’re in trouble. There were even some sections of paved roads which were nice for opening up your stride a bit. In some of the wooded sections the trail was so soft and the trees were so tall you felt like a small spec floating along. There were some rocky sections, roots, wooden bridges – but not a very technical course. We crossed one small stream, twice. I loved the mix.

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The Company
I can’t tell you exactly where I linked up with Matt – it was very early on in the race. I also can’t tell you who came upon whom. But we seemed to fall into sync with each other as we traded on and off leading and we began to chat. His goal was 5:30. Perfect! It was a great distraction as I realized by mile 5 or so that my “rehearsed” plan of how the course was to play out did not at all match what I was experiencing. I don’t know how to explain it really – as the race went on I realized that I actually had no clue of what I would encounter at each chunk of mileage so I threw my plan out the window and just raced! The other perk of running with Matt is that he had pretty extensive knowledge of the course. There was a long section running through very tall grass. My tick-phobia was kicking in big time.

Me: Matt, do you have a tick problem here?
Matt: A what?
Me: Where I’m from I could expect at least 20 ticks on me at this point.
Matt: I’ve never had a tick. Found one on my dog once.

Once?!? This truly is a magical place! No ticks! As a matter of fact, I don’t recall there being any bugs at all. When we reached the halfway point I looked at my watch and asked “the 2nd half is easier than the 1st half right?” He responded with a resounding “yes”. We were well ahead of 5:30 pace and this got me pumped.

img_4897-1Matt and I ran alone for quite some time before Tarzan caught us. Okay his name is Anthony – something I did not know until I looked him up in the results – so during the race he was Tarzan. He was very built for an ultra runner, and the fact that he was shirtless accentuated this. After he passed I was mesmerized by his calf muscles. He was also full of positive energy which made me want to hang on to him. He would occasionally let out a loud whoop, or start clapping, or yell back at us “you guys are doing great – keep it up!” This guy was great! It was also his first 50k – he was obviously having a blast. His goal was top 10 and I was sure he had it in the bag. For a while the 3 of us ran together but they tended to linger at the aid stations when I was prepared to breeze through quickly. I felt a little guilty about this but without any knowledge of where the next female was I had to race my own race. I actually thought about asking for some info at an aid station but decided I didn’t want to know. I’d rather keep racing scared the way I like it.

With about 9 miles to go I took off at the aid station and was feeling really strong so I started to push. This was also sparked by looking at my watch and realizing that sub-5 hours was surely going to happen. On an undulating forest trail I heard that loud shout from Tarzan in the distance and I returned the call. When he caught up to me I could tell that although we were both running strong, we were both struggling with the distance between aid stations in the last few miles. By now the heat was turned up and although there was aid stations o-plenty they seemed so far away. And we were now back on the ski slope with a lot of sun exposure. I kept thinking to myself it would all be downhill from here. Wrong! There were a good 5-6 climbs in the last 3.5 miles. Just when you thought there is no way there can be another climb, you made a right turn into another wall. This was taking it out of me and soon Tarzan was out of view.

I hit that last aid station with one mile to go – the steep downhill… Almost as steep as Loon Mountain’s Upper Walking Boss. After running it at mile 6 of the race I knew what I was in for and tried to hammer down it to the best of my ability. Seeing Tarzan pass a runner on the descent made me want to get one last pass too. And right near the bottom I got it. From there it’s a short shot across the mountain to the finish line. I crossed in 4:46:17 – 1st female and 8th overall.

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The Hoopla
I have not experienced such a lively finish line outside of World Championship races. A long line of spectators screaming and ringing cowbells made the finish feel amazing! And then of course there was the award ceremony which seemed more like a concert. The crowd was packed tight and deep making it hard for the award winners to get to the stage. We quickly learned what this was about – November Project was in full force at this race as there was a marathon relay event. The top 3 overall males and females were brought up for each event. As their name was announced the crowd would chant their name. Once the podium shots were taken the “crowd surf” chant started and every one of us answered the call. It was a unique experience to end an amazing race day. North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario, I love you. I’m pretty damn sure we’ll meet again.

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I may have said it once but I’ll say it again – The North Face Endurance Challenge sure knows how to host a top-notch race event. I’m glad I discovered this race series and can’t wait for the Championship event in December!

P.S. Good luck to Anne who will be heading to UTMB to race CCC – my goal for next year!