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 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!

Advertisements

For Jason

I can only imagine how excited you must be to make your debut at Western States 100 because my excitement for you is through the roof! From the day your name was drawn at the lottery I saw a switch flip – you poured all of your focus and energy into preparing for this race. From the sidelines (aka Strava) I watched you hammer out some killer training weeks and share how well your body was responding to this training. It’s been fun to quietly sit back and watch it all unfold.

You suffered some heartache throughout the journey too – with an injury that caused not one but two DNF’s in races that you had strategically planned for the sole purpose of prepping for this race. DNF’s are painful enough but when you’re relying on them to test fitness for a big event they can be even more crushing. However you stayed calm, cool, and focused. At least to the outside world – you don’t have to admit what was going on internally 😉 Your ability to hold it together and stay the course was admirable and it paid off when you showed up at Cayuga Trails Marathon and had a phenomenal race – just as I expected. You are ready!

While it has been exciting and inspiring to watch – I can’t even imagine how awesome it will be to experience all this hard work coming to fruition on June 24th. I am honored to be a part of it and want you to know that I plan to be the best damn crew and pacer you’ve ever had! That should be easy right? I just have to be better than a lawn chair – how hard can it be? Seriously though, I’m going to put as much prep into this as I would my own race.

I’ve re-read your Western States Wishlist to brush up on things. While you’ve already checked a few things off that list, and others I’m not sure I can help with, you better believe that I’m making #7, #8 and #9 my priorities!

What do I ask of you?

No apologies. I am there 100% for you and your race, no matter what happens. I’m on board to do whatever it takes to help you reach your goals and have an amazing experience along the way. (except for carrying you on my back. Not that I won’t – but I watched Jamil’s video and I don’t want to get you a DQ!)

Let’s do this! #veganpower #seeyouinsquaw

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.

tnfca1

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.

tnfca2

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.

tnfca3

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 🙂

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!

img_4937
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.

img_4933
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.

img_4896
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.

img_4900
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!

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.

img_0666

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!

 

 

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

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

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

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

Clearing up for the start

Clearing up for the start

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

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

Those early miles had hardly any mud!

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

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

I was having fun in Great Falls!

I was having fun in Great Falls!

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

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

done

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

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

Only 2 of us stuck around in the cold for awards

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

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

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

Finishing time – 4:36:27

 

Caumsett 50k National Championship – A Day of Shortcomings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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