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 .

Running down a PR at Cayuga Trails 50

Top 10 USATF Females. Photo: Jared Avigliano

I had one simple goal coming into this race – run a PR. After last year’s implosion (you can read about it here) I figured this would be an attainable goal for my 2nd 50 miler. I would be lying if I said a podium spot wasn’t also on my mind but after finally doing some research on my competitors (a mere 3 days before the race) I decided it was not wise to get hung up on that notion with the talented women coming to this race. I also had a “loose” goal of sub-8:30, but mainly I was concerned with the PR.

Race morning brought cool temps which was a pleasant treat when we knew what was in store for the day. The high humidity at 5 am was a stark reminder that the heat was on its way. I had some nervous energy as I was milling about and catching up with friends. For once I fully executed a taper and I was ready to go! Once I lined up at the start next to my friend and soon-to-be fellow Strong Hearts Vegan Power Teammate Jason Mintz I was also surprised by Ellie Pell who showed up to give me a good luck hug and, I was hoping, some of her speed 😉 First Caitlin Smith lined up next to me, then Sabrina Little, then Corrine Malcolm. The intimidation set in but also the excitement of seeing how this race would unfold!


The countdown clock expired and we were off! (I can’t say enough how much I love the relaxed start of ultra races!) The field slowly settled into a very relaxed pace. The lead pack was chatting, telling jokes, laughing… I was right behind Jason and we joked about how this felt like a group run and we would be totally happy if the pace stayed like this. As expected once we crossed the field and then the road to head out on the trail the race began. Sabrina took the lead within the first mile and Corrine was quick to tag along with her. I had to fight the urge to follow suit – I knew that if I wanted to have a successful race I had to stick to my plan. It wasn’t long before both Corrine and I passed Sabrina but then Kelsey Allen blew by and charged into the lead. I watched Corrine go with her and reminded myself to stay right where I was.

The miles were ticking by with ease and I felt totally relaxed. At each aid station I received info on the time gap between 1st and 2nd. It was fairly close which made me feel even better about how I was running. As I approached Lick Brook climb I caught up to Corrine. As we hiked this massive climb together it was great to be able to chat with her – she’s a cool girl with a great attitude. Once we reached the top she again pulled away and I again held off on chasing. It was still way too early for me to make a move I would pay for later. My Suunto beeped, ringing in mile 9, and I said out loud with excitement “I only have 41 miles to go!” Who was this voice inside my head?!? That’s how relaxed I felt and how much I was enjoying this course – which was every bit as beautiful as I remembered!

Photo: Kate Paice Froio

Around mile 19 I was surprised to see Kelsey just up ahead. At this point the marathon runners were coming through and one of the guys yelled “there’s only 15 seconds separating the first 3 females – now this is a race! I knew that she was in reach and I would pass her soon but hearing this got me super-pumped. I had to tell myself to calm down, relax, let it happen. I stuck to it and made my pass on Lucifer’s stairs, moving into 2nd place. I was still feeling totally relaxed and started to question whether or not I was taking it too easy. Looking at my watch I saw that I was going to finish my first loop under my goal of 4:10 – I was not going too slow.

I thought about how much better I felt at this point compared to last year and as I approached the halfway point I was ecstatic to see my dear friend Kate on the trail with her camera. She cheered, she chased after me, screamed “I LOVE YOU!” My spirits were soaring. Just as planned, yet another Strong Hearts Vegan Power teammate, Jay Phillips was waiting to replenish my fuel. I swapped my empty flasks for new bottles of Skratch Labs Exercise Hydration and Hyper Hydration, along with 2 more packs of Skratch Labs Fruit Drops and Huma gels, and was on my way. Now the race begins!

My plan during the first loop was to take it easy on the downhills so that I could save my legs for loop 2 where I could ramp up the aggressiveness. For some reason this wasn’t working – both of my knees and my bad hip were in excruciating pain reducing me to a hobble on the downhills. I felt fine on both the flats and uphills so I took advantage of these spots.

By the second loop I was noticing how the rising temps were affecting me – I was already drinking more and realized I would need to focus on hydration for the rest of the race. The collapsible cup provided as race swag was a part of my fueling strategy as I stopped at every aid station to fill it with water – sometimes more than once. (thanks again Ian for reducing waste by avoiding paper cups!) Leading up to the race as I watched the forecasted temperature rise I decided to tweak my hydration plan slightly – and try something new. I knew that late in the race I could use a fresh, cold pick-me-up so I mixed a bottle of Vega Sport Sugar-Free Energizer that would be waiting for me at mile 37. Now after every beep of my Suunto I would look down and say “X miles to go-go!” (the name my sister and I use for this Vega drink). This helped me to have a goal and break up the race.

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Cooling off. Photo: Kate Paice Froio

When I arrived at the underpass aid station I was excited to see watermelon and after filling my water cup I enjoyed a slice before continuing. I also saw freeze pops which were so tempting and promised myself that I could have one on the way back with only 7 miles to go. I set another milestone to look forward to! Climbing Lick Brook a second time the heat was definitely rocking. After you get to the top you run through a few fields where you are totally exposed to the sun. I realized that I made a major error at the last aid station – I should have drank one of my flasks and refilled it instead of trying to ration. Now my fluids were really low and mile 37 seemed so far away. I hopped out onto a road crossing and saw a man carrying a jug of water to the course marshal. “Is the water for sale?” “No, you can have it for free!” I stopped and waited while he adjusted all he was carrying and opened the jug for me and oddly I only thought to have him fill my little cup 😦 I wasn’t thinking straight! It was still a relief and after thanking him and calling him my desert oasis I sped off.

About a mile from the aid station I came upon Jared who was hiking with a hydration bladder and I kindly asked if I could have some of his water. I stopped to take a swig and off I went again – this was getting rough! Finally I made it to Buttermilk Falls where I found Kate once again – I told her I was going to need my sparkle drop bag (all the cool kids have them) and she sprung into action – sprinting ahead, hurdling coolers to get the go-go juice I had been so anxious to enjoy. This time I remembered to fill both of my empty flasks and leaving that aid station with a slap on the ass from Kate and 3 full bottles of fluids gave me a burst of energy. Home stretch!

At mile 39 I heard someone behind me and turned around to see Sabrina,
and feel the impending doom that came with it. Sabrina has way more experience in ultra racing and is a very strong runner. I knew that my time in 2nd place had come to an end but for my own sense of pride I wasn’t going to go down without a fight! In that moment of despair I decided to surge – what did I have to lose at this point? I knew that it wouldn’t last but why not give it a shot. For 3 miles I was feeling strong – thank you go-go juice! When I got to the descent on Lick Brook I was once again reduced to a slow hobble and was sure it wouldn’t be long before she re-appeared.

I arrived at the underpass aid station anxious to claim my prize of a freeze pop. To my dismay I grabbed a purple tube of refreshment to find it was pure liquid 😦 I said out loud “oh, they aren’t frozen” to which a volunteer responded “we have frozen ones!” I waited for her to retrieve one and cut off the top for me while I tossed back the liquid one anyway. I grabbed the green one she handed to me and off I went. I can’t tell you the last time I had freeze pops so I didn’t remember how vile they tasted. But I can tell you they taste the same coming back up – which happened within a mile of eating them 😉 It was still worth it.

I was approaching Lucifer’s stairs when I heard 2 runners coming up behind me. As expected, it was Sabrina and she now had a running partner, Zach Ornelas. They were chatting away and making it look like they were on a relaxed, easy run. Once we summited the stairs I stepped aside to let them pass. With my surge I was able to hold her off for 6 miles but it was time to face reality. Now I started to worry about who was next – surely Caitlin must be closing on me (I did not know that she had dropped). I convinced myself that I could muster one last surge in these remaining 5 miles if needed. In all honesty I don’t think I could have, but I had to tell myself I could make it happen.

I was relieved to make it to the last aid station to fill one last bottle one last time. As I approached a spectator yelled “you can’t stop she’s only 5 seconds ahead!” An exaggeration for sure, and I assured him that I was not in a place to catch her at this point as I grabbed a slice of watermelon to power me through the last 3 miles. As I was about to turn onto the grass trail with about a mile and a half to go I see Jason Mintz in front of me! I knew this meant he wasn’t having the day he had hoped for but at the same time I was happy to have some company to finish the race. When we hit the home stretch and I could see that no one was behind me I could finally relax and enjoy the finish!

Jason and I crossed the line at 8:28:06 (that was my time anyway, his was oddly 4 seconds faster). I had a lot to celebrate – I ran sub-8:30, I made the podium with a 3rd place finish, and best of all – I ran my race and stuck to my plan! The heat was a factor but I think I handled it well (thanks to Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration – I swear by that stuff!) Sure there are plenty of areas I can improve on – could I have run those last 10 miles stronger had I been running higher volume weeks? I’m certain of it. This race was a step in the right direction and I’m excited to see what I can do next.

I cannot say enough great things about this race – Ian and his Red Newt Racing crew do a top-notch job at organizing and supporting this event. The aid-stations are well-staffed with knowledgeable volunteers – it really makes a difference. Thank you to all who donate so much of their time to make this event what it is! I also want to thank Topo for their support this year – this was my 2nd race in the Runventures and when you can run 50 miles without even noticing the shoes on your feet that’s a great sign! I didn’t have one single blister or even a hot spot. Also thank you to Skratch Labs for providing products that are easy on the stomach, ease my heat-sensitivity, and most of all taste delicious! I don’t think I could ever grow tired of those Fruit Drops! Thank you to Jay Phillips for coming out to refuel me at the halfway point, and to Kate who never ceases to amaze me. She captures great photos, runs her tush off, plants kisses on my salty face, and she’ll even give you a slap on the ass to get you on your way! Every time I saw her on the course (which was a lot – she was everywhere!) it brought a smile to my face and recharged me. And last but not least, thank you to Jay Friedman who pulled me around the track and up the hills of New Paltz week after week preparing me for this race. I got to see him once – when I was heading out on loop two. Little did I know he was having a terrible time due to illness and was about to drop out. He was smiling and cheering for me – giving me support despite what he was going through. It was tough day for many – the finish rate was 68%!

Check out the video from the race!

 

 

Topo Runventure Review

RV stock 1Now that I have about 200 miles on my Topo Runventures, it’s time to tell you about them. Weighing in at 7.5 oz (my size) with a 2 mm drop these trail shoes have certainly impressed me.

The good news: the shoes felt comfortable out of the box
The better news: the more miles I throw at them, the better they feel

Topo Athletic is relatively new to the scene but they are making waves by providing high-quality shoes while utilizing feedback received from athletes to constantly improve their line.

Fit
Topo Athletic’s main feature is the wide toe box on their full line of shoes. As a runner with small, narrow feet I never saw a need to have a roomy toe box, and instead opted for that snug fit. After long training runs and races on trails my feet – especially my toes – would ache. I thought this was part of ultra running and shrugged it off. Now that I’ve been running in Topo shoes I realize that my toes don’t have to, and shouldn’t, hurt after long runs.

I will admit that I was skeptical of having a wide toe box on a trail shoe. Surely there would be slippage either laterally, into the front of the shoe, or both. This isn’t the case for me. In lacing the shoes I still get that snug fit through the midfoot and the heel is comfortably snug as well.

A view from above - check out the room in the toe box

A view from above – check out the room in the toe box

Benefits of a wide toe box include:

  • your toes will splay naturally, making them stronger
  • allows more power in the toe-off
  • provides a stable platform

Upper
The upper is made of a durable, dual layer, rip & abrasion resistant mesh. I have put quite the beating on these shoes and so far the upper is showing no signs of wear or weakness. The dual layer has an added bonus of helping to keep debris out, but at the same time allowing breathability.

Dual layer rip-proof mesh upper

Dual layer rip-proof mesh upper

Another detail I find very useful is the ample toe bumper. I’m not the most graceful runner on trails so between the roomy toe box and the sturdy rubberized cap my toes have not complained once!

Toe bumper for added protection

Toe bumper for added protection

Midsole
A stand-out feature on this model is the midsole which includes compressed EVA on top of a full length TPU rock plate (which you can see at various spots on through the outsole).

A view of the TPU rock plate through the outsole

A view of the TPU rock plate through the outsole

In New Mexico I encountered sharp rocky terrain that I do not see as much on my local trails. Not once did I find a “soft spot” on the shoe where I could feel sharp rocks.

Outsole
I was most skeptical about the outsole of the Runventure. Mainly because I have been accustomed to trail shoes with aggressive soles and deep lugs. During my first true test – a technical run in wet conditions – I started out holding back on the wet rocks and descents. However I quickly gained trust once I found that these shoes had great traction and before long I was pushing the envelope to truly test their grit. I was pleasantly surprised (and relieved) by their performance.

All terrain outsole with breaks to allow for a smooth ride

All terrain outsole with breaks to allow for a smooth ride

They may lose some traction on super muddy or loose terrain but in exchange they maintain the minimal ground feel. When I raced at TNF 50k it was a mudfest. At times I was wishing I had a lugged shoe with more traction to get through that muck, but quickly realized that I was happy to not be carrying around the extra weight of mud caked into the tread.

The Topo Runventure offers a ton of protection in every area of the shoe while also maintaining a light weight and minimalist feel. I even heard that Maggie Guterl raced in the Runventures at The Georgia Death Race, where she earned her Golden Ticket to Western States! If that’s not a testament to these shoes… Congrats Maggie!

If you’re interested in trying the Topo Runventure, or any of Topo Athletic’s shoes, you can use code TOPOKLINE20 for 20% off your order. If you want to know more about any of their shoes feel free to contact me!

Happy Training!

A minimalist’s dream – the Ultimate Direction TO Race Vest 3.0

My very first hydration pack was from Ultimate Direction – this was back in the day when I had no use for a running pack that carried hydration, had lots of space for gear, and plenty of pockets for easy access to nutrition and other fun items. I still thought the pack was very cool and mainly used it to run commute in Syracuse – rolling up my “work attire” as tightly as I could to fit it into the pack.

Once I discovered my love of trail running I purchased my first handheld – the Fastdraw – and after trying different handheld options and sizes from other companies I found that I liked the Fastdraw best. It is easy to drink out of, easy to fill, and it fit my hand well without having to “hold on”. But in all honesty, I do not like handhelds. I prefer to have my hands free while training and racing. Handhelds still have their place in my gear closet for those training runs or races where a pack is too much but I still require some fluids. They had a place that is – until I got my hands on the TO Race Vest 3.0.
UD fullI was in the market for a new race vest this year and the minimalist TO 3.0 caught my eye immediately. So much utility packed into such a small vest – it was a quick and easy decision. I will review the features of the vest highlighting the pros and cons.

Rear
The upper half is open mesh which allows maximum ventilation and reduces the overall weight of the pack. The lower half consists of 2 layered pockets – both which I can unzip and access while running which typically isn’t easy with the minimum range of motion in my shoulders. One pocket has a key clip so that you don’t have to worry about your key falling out when you open the zipper.

Rear pockets

Rear pockets

Along with the mesh on the upper back which extends over the shoulders to the chest pockets, it’s worth mentioning the edging that runs all along this pack. It is super-soft making it comfortable against your skin. As someone whose skin is very sensitive to practically anything that touches it while running, this material is the most comfortable I have come across.

Mesh and edging

Mesh and edging

Front
I’ll start with the 2 pockets that sit closest to the shoulders. They both have Velcro closures which is a bonus. One with a flap covering the pocket (I believe this one is waterproof) and one without.
UD pocketUD flap pocket

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sternum strap clasps are easy to open and close. Sounds like a minor detail, but this is something I have struggled with on other vests/packs – especially when it’s cold and my digits aren’t functioning well. The sternum straps can easily be adjusted to multiple positions along the length of the vest with a simple t-hook.

Sternum strap clasp - a simple squeeze of the blue and you're free!

Sternum strap clasp – a simple squeeze of the blue and you’re free!

Next in line is the bottle holsters. The fabric of these pockets make it easy to get the bottles in and out as the pocket maintains its shape – I’ve found that I can remove and replace a bottle with one hand after loosening the opening using the cord locks.

Bottle holster

Bottle holster

The vest comes with two 500 ml Body Bottles. Once you’ve switched to soft flasks there is no turning back. They conform to your body, shrink as you empty them, and the wide mouth makes them easy to fill & add powdered mixes on the go – you can even add ice to your drinks. The hi-flow bite valves live up to their name – I like a high volume of liquid 🙂

Hi-Flo Bite Valve

Hi-Flo Bite Valve

Below the bottle holsters are 2 more pockets. These mesh pockets are great for stashing nutrition. One issue I did have during my first race with this vest is that once the body bottles were empty these mesh pockets do not hold items in as tightly. I had to stop twice during my race to retrieve gels that came flying out. Now I stash only the nutrition that I will be using in the early miles or once I replace the fluid in the bottles. With all of the other storage options that are easy to access while running this isn’t an issue for me.

Finally, below the mesh pockets are super-convenient trekking pole holders. Although I do not have a use for these yet, someday…

Mesh pockets and trekking pole holders

Mesh pockets and trekking pole holders

I will admit that the first time I wore this vest on a long run I didn’t like it. And I was super-bummed because I wanted to love it. The location of the bottles on the chest make it uncomfortable for women (*note this is not a women-specific vest, and Ultimate Direction offers a women-specific line). The bottles were bouncing around too much making it very annoying. Since I was testing it out the weekend before my first trail 50k I realized that there was no way I could run with this for a race of that length. Feeling dejected after my run I noticed that there was room to tighten the pack on the side straps. Voila! Problem solved – no more bouncing bottles!

1st race in the TO 3.0 - TNF DC

1st race in the TO 3.0 – TNF DC

Pros
lightweight – The abundance of ventilation & lightweight materials make this vest super-comfortable – like you’re not even wearing a pack. (the pack weighs in around 6 oz, just over 8 oz with bottles)
storage – For a minimalist vest there are plenty of pocket options (6) and all are easy to access on the run.
aesthetics – I love the color and overall look of this vest. The fact that it matches my Suunto is an added bonus, and totally coincidental 😉

Coordinating like a boss

Coordinating like a boss

Cons
lower mesh pockets – Although I like the deep storage capacity of these pockets and the ease of getting into them, the only thing holding the items in are full body bottles. Smaller items like gels can easily fall out while running if your flasks are low or empty.
fit – I ordered the small and every adjustable strap is as tight as it can go. For me the fit is perfect. Make sure you order the size that will work for you and spend time adjusting all 4 straps to get that snug fit. If you have any bounce the vest will not be comfortable. (*follow the sizing instructions on UD’s web site). So…not really a con, just a word of advice!

My fun photo shoot when the vest arrived - thanks Eric Eagan for the inspiration

Yippee it’s here! My fun photo shoot when the vest arrived – thanks Eric Eagan for the inspiration

 

 

 

 

 

In Beauty May We All Be – Leatherman’s Loop

A celebration of 30 years! Photo: Closer North

A celebration of 30 years! Photo: Closer North

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

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

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

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

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

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

First water crossing. Photo: Hailey Ivey

Exiting the first water crossing. Photo: Hailey Ivey

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

One of two sand hills. Photo: Michael Rodgers

One of two sand hills. Photo: Michael Rodgers

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

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

Photo: Closer North

Photo: Closer North

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

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

Photo: Deborah Burman

Photo: Deborah Burman

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

Victory pancakes!

Victory pancakes!

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

Finish time: 48:14

 

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

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

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

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

Clearing up for the start

Clearing up for the start

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

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

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

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

I was having fun in Great Falls!

I was having fun in Great Falls!

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

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

done

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

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

Only 2 of us stuck around in the cold for awards

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

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

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

Finishing time – 4:36:27

 

#TrailsRoc 0SPF – a humbling day

Gathering for the start. Photo credit: Ben

Gathering for the start. Photo credit: Ben

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Mike Lesher

Photo credit: Mike Lesher

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

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

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

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

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