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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Courmayeur–Champex-Lac–Chamonix


It’s been difficult to decide how to write a race report for CCC. On one hand the event is so amazing I don’t know how I could even do it justice through words. On the other, what came out of me on that day brought so much disappointment that it’s still hard to wrap my head around it. I don’t want to dwell on the bad and I hate excuses but I also feel that my memories of the good are clouded by the tug-of-war going on between my head and my heart for many of those hours. I could say something expected like “the tough days are when you learn the most about yourself” but that’s not the case. This wasn’t a test of my character or anything deep like that – it was simply an instance where shit goes wrong and you suck it up and deal with it through the end.

The only surprise of the day was that I couldn’t physically get what I expected out of myself. I shouldn’t be shocked based on how my body was feeling in the month leading up to the race. I managed to convince myself that by running less than half of my planned miles I would go into this race rested. That by avoiding hills my legs would be fresh for the mountains. And that by avoiding speedwork, well heck, I would just be fine. Stop stressing over the training and trust your body and your heart. Even after the race I believe all of that to be true. I needed my hip and pelvis to be “good enough” to race 101k and in my mind I was there. I knew that after the race I would pay dearly but honestly thought that I could race a solid effort and ignore the pain which is one of my strengths (or is that really a weakness?) to produce a performance I was proud of. So when my body responded the way it did I felt betrayed.

But that’s already too much whining. We all know what it feels like to be let down. Even if everything would’ve felt perfect on race day I still think I would’ve been humbled by those mountains. So let’s get out of my head and move on to the wonderful event that is Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc and all of its grand races. Many people have questions about this race so I will try to make this an informative race report.

Mandatory Gear

One thing that stands apart with the UTMB races is the extensive list of required gear. Luckily I was able to bounce my questions off race veteran Zach to see just how strict they are with the specifics of the gear. Turns out the answer is “very”. For example I had to buy 2 new torches (I now own FIVE) because the three I had are rechargeable. The requirement is for 2 torches with replacement batteries. I’m glad Zach gave me the heads up on that one because Amanda was turned away at gear check for that very reason (she was then also turned away because her emergency blanket was 1 inch short. 1 inch. Have you see the size of this girl? Way smaller than the average racer. So yes, they’re that strict). Another Zach tip – for waterproof gloves use medical gloves. The vinyl gloves were way lighter and took up much less space!

Once I had the required gear sorted it fit easily and comfortably into my new Ultimate Direction Hardrocker vest.You arrive at packet pickup with your full pack and at the first station they check your passport and print out the list of required gear with a random selection of 4 items that you need to show. From there, airport security style, you grab a bin to remove your 4 selected items for the next checkpoint. Mine were waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, long tights, and cell phone. Once you clear that checkpoint you retrieve your bib along with a 2nd chip. At the following station a volunteer attaches that 2nd chip to your pack. There is no switching packs during the race. Thanks to the excellent organization of this race I breezed right on through the registration process. However that was not the final stage of my gear check which I will get to in the next section.

Start Line

The start line is as epic as the videos portray. There is so much energy and excitement it’s tough to stay calm! For the CCC we are bussed to our start line in Courmayeur, Italy – another beautiful town! We were greeted with sunshine and mild temps – a welcome change to what was predicted for that morning. With over 2100 starters in this race they send you off in waves. I’ve heard stories about people getting into their corral over an hour before the start because of the crowding. Even in the elite corral it was difficult to get a good spot so it does pay to get into your corral early. While waiting in the corral 3 officials came to me for another gear check – this time I had to remove my pack and pull out all of my gear on the list to show them before they placed a sticker on my bib confirming my check. This was a random selection check and I of course had no issues with it, but I must admit that having to re-pack everything at the start line ratcheted up my anxiety a bit.

With fellow Syracuse runner Scott English in Courmayeur

Once we’re set free it’s an exciting run through the town before hitting the trails for our first climb of the day. The town is a steady stream of cheers and cowbells, and once we moved past the crowds I noticed…silence. Well – heavy breathing – but everyone was quietly focused on the task at hand as we were already climbing and would be without a break for the first 6 miles. There is no thinning out during the first climb to Tete de la Tronche. Once you hit the single track you climb at the pace that is set by those ahead of and behind you.

Those views though…

Before I summit the first climb, let me tell you about how amazing the scenery is. It’s a lot to handle really – you’re focused on your footing, what’s going on in front of you, yet you can’t help but look around to soak in some of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. Am I really here? We then had some descending to conquer before a nice long stretch along the ridgeline which offered more breathtaking views as the helicopter was buzzing low to capture footage of the runners along this exposed stretch. We made our way down to the Arnouvaz aid station before heading out onto our second climb into Switzerland to the summit of Grand Col Ferret. The amazing views continued along this relentless climb. Partway up the climb a French runner had stepped off the trail and was visibly crying. I stopped to see if she needed anything (newsflash: by this time I already knew my day wasn’t going to shake out). I really just wanted to give her a hug – I was feeling her pain for sure.


Let’s not forget the weather.

About ¾ of the way up the climb those stunning views abruptly ended when we were suddenly socked in by a heavy fog. The temperatures plummeted and I went from hot to frozen in an instant. I remembered the warnings about putting on your gear as soon as this happened but I knew I had to be close to the summit. Upon arrival it was so incredibly windy and you could only see feet in front of you. There were medical stations at the top of each climb and this one offered a volunteer who was holding our gear as we struggled to put on jackets in those whipping winds. After what felt like minutes wrestling my jacket into submission I then fumbled to put gloves on my already frozen fingers before starting the descent. It would take a few miles before I got feeling back into my fingers. That was my first taste in how rapidly the weather would change throughout that course.


Compared to the UTMB runners I’d say we had it super-easy. But I can’t even count the number of times my arm warmers went up and down, and my jacket came off then back on. Into the later, pouring rain hours I would plan exactly what wardrobe changes I would make coming into the next aid station only to show up feeling indifferent, shrugging my shoulders, and pushing on wearing the exact same thing.

An hour before our start a text was sent letting us know that there would be a weather-related course change. For our final climb we would not be going all the way to the peak in Chamonix. I’m not ashamed to admit that with the day I was having I was not at all disappointed with the altered course.

Crew

There is plenty of aid stations and they’re very well stocked. Yes it’s true – there is an abundance of cheese and sausage at the aid stations. I guess people eat it?!?! I was happy to see bananas and watermelon to supplement my stash of food. I heard not-so-great things about the shuttles that transport your crew to the 3 stops where they are allowed to assist you so I was neither shocked nor upset when I arrived at Champex-Lac and couldn’t find Jeremy or Lauren. I looked around for a bit (it was a very busy station), casually filled my bottles, and then realized it was time to move on. It was 17k up and over the next climb where I would hopefully see Jeremy to replenish my Skratch drinks and nutrition needs.

Sure enough they were ready for me at the next stop as a crew member is allowed into the tent 10 minutes prior to your runner’s arrival. Jeremy rocked it – all of my gear was at the ready and he was full of positivity. It was a really lonely day out there so it was great to just see and talk to someone I knew! Even though the next stop was only 11k further (but up and over another climb) they planned to be there for me just in case. It was a complete downpour and only one person was allowed in the tent which meant Lauren had to wait outside. I definitely had some moments of guilt for what they were enduring for me. It is way easier to run in bad weather than it is to crew. I think I even told him they didn’t need to go to the finish line for me which he of course brushed off as nonsense. It’s not an easy race to crew when you have to navigate long bus rides. I’m pretty damn lucky to have had them there!

Ode to the Poles

I was never keen on the idea of using poles in a “running” race. Even after I broke down and bought them it was still struggle to train with them. I ended up relying on them way more than I ever could’ve imagined. They served me more as crutches – especially on those downhills. I’m not sure if I would’ve finished without them. If I had it would’ve tacked on a few more hours. I never want to use them again. At least I hope I never have to rely on them in that way again. But now I do see and respect their purpose. Especially at a race like CCC. Thank you Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles for carrying my unstable a$$ all around those mountains, and for taking a beating when I was really angry about my dependency upon you. After all that you only left 2 small bruises on my hands 😁

Always Have a Plan B

As I slogged my way up that first mountain my hope was already tumbling backwards behind me. Coming to terms with my Plan B was the best decision I could make – enjoy the experience and finish the race. Once you let go of your expectations (which was by far my toughest obstacle of the day) it frees your mind to focus and fully commit to your backup plan. Well look at that, maybe I did learn something from this race after all!

Merci Beaucoup!

My deepest gratitude goes to Jeremy and Lauren. Not only did they face some last-minute obstacles just to make it to France, but it’s a huge trip and time commitment for little ol’ me. I am humbled to have friends that are willing to give themselves so selflessly to my endeavors. I had door-to-door service before and after the race because of them. They walked 4 miles from Chamonix to my hotel in the middle of the night to retrieve the car and have it waiting for me at the finish line. Seeing them along the course gave me the push I needed. I will always be grateful that they were there for me in such a big way.

Another huge thank you goes to Altra. Everyone on that team is always looking out for me to make sure I have everything I need. My brand-spanking-new pretty blue King MT’s were sadly caked in mud (and manure?) by the end of the race but who cares what your shoes look like when they perform like champs! And thank you to the Altra France contingent for their hospitality.
Thank you Muir Energy for keeping me stocked in the cleanest and tastiest fuel for tackling mountains. I have 4 words: Passon Fruit. Pineapple. Banana. Seriously. There are many delicious flavors and I enjoy them all but I can’t get enough of that tropical cocktail.

Thank you Skratch Labs for keeping my electrolytes in check with flavors I crave all day long.

And many many thanks to each and every one of you who reached out to me in multiple ways throughout this trip. I was feeling the love for sure!

Now it’s time for a little break time off while I work out some issues. Only time will tell what’s next on my schedule but I can guarantee that I am hungry to get back out there and run the world!

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.

img_5359

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!

Loon Mountain Race Take 2

*** Notice***
By reading this race report you hereby agree to remind me of said race report in the event that you see another short distance mountain race on my schedule.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Loon Mountain Race. 6.6 miles with over 2,200 3,351 feet of vertical gain, the last kilometer of which hits grades of 40%+. It is intense and challenging – right up my alley! However this year all I could hear in my head was “this isn’t fun.” Perhaps Loon Mountain Race should be a bucket race list and I have checked it off not once, but twice. Enough for me!

I took a shot at this race in 2014 not knowing what I was getting myself into but looking forward to a new challenge. That’s exactly what I got! I placed a disappointing 21st but was hungry to take another shot at it. The need for redemption is always strong in me. In 2016 Loon Mountain Race was again the USATF Mountain Running Championship which meant the field was going to be stacked deep – just as it was in 2014. However this time I decided to throw some specific training into the event in hopes of bettering my position in the final standings. So after 1 week recovery from Cayuga Trails 50 I hopped into a 3 week training plan for a short, intense mountain race. It’s always exciting to throw a different training block into the mix and I was really looking forward to these 3 weeks. My overall run volume did not drop from my lead-up to Cayuga but the intensity increased as well as adding more doubles to the schedule.

After 1 week my training hit a wall much like the one you hit when you make that right-hand turn and face the Upper Walking Boss on Loon Mountain.

upper walking boss
A seemingly minor issue in my lower leg was causing a lot of pain and swelling which would only behave with short, easy, flat runs. Local athlete and ART extraordinaire Scott Field was ready and willing to jump in and provide relief. So much so that I was able to run 2 track workouts the week of the race which turned out to be my fastest track workouts of the year! I found myself itching to race a road 5k instead of a mountain race but I was still excited to give Loon another shot expecting to both race and feel stronger this time around despite the lack of actual hill training in the 2 week lead-up.

I was definitely not in the racing state of mind the morning and felt stressed. I knew I would need to get a decent warm-up in before the start – the climbing begins almost immediately so you better be ready! After about 10 minutes of warming up I felt over-heated and downright exhausted so I headed over to the start line to hang out and wait. Save it all for the race. For me a terrible warmup normally leads to a good race. I was excited to see Katie O’Regan at the start line and it was a relief to hear that someone else had the same goals as me and also the same uncertainty. Neither of us was there to podium – we just wanted to see what we could do. Sayard Tanis also made her appearance to the start line looking primed. It was great to see so many PA runners in the mix!

I had my sights set on top 20 and when the race started that’s exactly where I placed myself in the pack. The first climb felt like we were crawling but was also pretty manageable. In 2014 the women raced a shorter 4 mile course. Turning onto the Nordic Section was new territory for me and turned out to be my favorite part of the course (because it wasn’t totally uphill!) The trail was completely shaded with rollers and a bunch of muddy trenches to run through. Now we’re talking!

Once you pop out of that section you cut across the mountain and prepare to climb for almost the remainder of the race. It was helpful to find markers on the course letting you know how many miles were left. I wore my GPS but never even had a chance to look down at it! With 2 miles to go we rounded a corner where a group of male racers (they started an hour before us this time) were standing to cheer us on. One of them told me I was top 20 but as I started the 2nd hardest climb of the race, Upper Bear Claw, I turned around to see a rather large group of women right behind me. And sure enough the passes started as I was barely moving up that hill. Somehow these climbs felt way tougher than last time even though I felt better equipped to handle them. Wrong!

Finally I reached the gondola where you get some relief before the final, monstrous, Upper Walking Boss. “Haulback” is all downhill from the gondola to the base of the final climb and “haul-ass” is what I did on this section. Even though I knew a top 20 placement was long gone, and after that it didn’t really matter to me where I finished, I still wanted to push. No point in saving my quads so I bombed the hill! And there ahead I saw that final turn where you abruptly face the wall. I knew I would be hiking the whole thing so it was time to put my head down and get it done. My calf felt like it was going to explode at this point and I briefly considered calling it a day here instead of risking damage. On that climb there is no way to approach it gingerly. I immediately realized that was the dumbest thought ever – the Upper Walking Boss is what makes this race epic!

Every time I looked up it hurt just a little more when you cannot see an end in sight. One female had already passed me so I stopped looking up and decided to instead look back. There were a few women behind me but they seemed to be moving at the same pace as I was – can you even call that a “pace”? This motivated me to keep pushing and hold onto my spot. I got really excited to see the “500 meters left” sign only to realize that 500 meters up that mountain meant I was still nowhere near close to the finish 😉 But now we were getting into spectator zone and the guys did a great job at motivating us up that climb!

As I drew closer to the finish I looked back one last time to hear one of the guys say “no one’s close – you got this”. Another guy shouted “1:09” in an attempt to get me to push for a sub-1:10 finish. That was just what I needed to hear as I tapped into my empty tank for one last push to the finish. I didn’t have a time goal for the race but having someone motivate me to look up at the clock and inspire me to finish strong was huge. I finished in 1:09:38 which put me in 25th place. Katie hit her goal of top 20 snagging the 20th spot, and Sayard was right with me finishing 27th.

That race downright hurt. Brutal. But it was great to connect with friends I haven’t seen in way too long and I also got to meet fellow Topo athlete Kyle Robidoux. He is beyond amazing!

Now don’t let me scare you away from this race. Loon Mountain is a course you should definitely experience if you’re a mountain-lover. Acidotic Racing does an excellent job organizing and hosting this event. I mean, already by the end of this race report my mind is churning – should I go for redemption on my failed redemption? And this is where I go back to the top of the race report to read it again .