Sunday, November 4, 2018

SwimRun NC Race Report 2018: A Community of Racers


SwimRun NC in Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina, was the last race of what seemed like a very long season. It wasn't even on our original schedule - upon learning that it was an Otillo merit race and therefore the last chance this year to collect points for Otillo for next year, Whiting and I signed up at the last minute after we learned that a couple of women's team spots had opened. I'm really glad that circumstances led us to this challenging, gorgeous race.

Since the SwimRun race wasn't on our race calendar, Whiting and I had both registered for the Denver Rock n Roll half marathon the week before, so of course we raced it. Back-to-back weekends of racing had worked well for me last month, but last month I raced the events in the opposite order - SwimRun San Juan Islands one weekend and then the Bear Chase 50k the next, where I had a great day and a PR (I know a report is overdue for that one, but how can I be expected to write reports when I'm racing every weekend?!). Between the half marathon on Sunday and the SwimRun the following week, I flew to Roanoke, VA, for an unexpected work trip and ended up driving 4 hours (through the remnants of Hurricane Willa) to Raleigh-Durham, NC to pick up Whiting who flew in on Friday night. We stayed the night in a weird airport hotel and then drove the next morning to our cabin in Danbury, NC, that we would share with three friends - two who were racing (Kathy and Jeanne) and one super sherpa (Kitty, our Big Sexy Racing teammate).

The cabin crew - Kathy, Jeanne, Kitty, me, and Whiting
You may think after reading a whole paragraph about the week leading up to the race that I'm setting up the excuses for why I had a poor performance on Sunday. In fact, the opposite was true! I felt great; it was one of those perfect race days where everything feels good and effortless and easy. Racing back-to-back weekends seems to work for me and that's something to remember for the future. Unfortunately, this was also the first SwimRun race of the three we've done this year where Whiting had a hard time from the very beginning of the day. At Lake James and at San Juan Islands, we excelled together and struggled together and hit high and low points at the same time. At SwimRun NC, for the first time, our team had to get through a race where we were having completely opposite days.

I'm getting ahead of myself though. This very well organized race had packet pickup and the start/finish line at the same place, a cute little brewery called the Green Heron Ale House nestled in the woods on the shore of the Dan River at the edge of Hanging Rock State Park. Whiting and I did a little 15-minute shakeout run before the pre-race meeting at 4:15 on Saturday and then gathered with our friends to listen to the course description and rules. The crowd at the pre-race meeting was made up of people who were new to the sport and people who had come all the way from Sweden to race (they were easy to spot in their Otillo swag). Triathletes in the crowd stood out in their Ironman gear. When the race directors joked about how no swims would be cancelled here even though the river was swollen and flowing quickly from heavy rains that had just come through - "after all, this is not Ironman" - I was glad not to be wearing any of my Ironman swag!

Let me talk for a moment about swag, because the stuff included at this race was top-notch. In our race packet, along with our very official-Otillo-looking bibs and swim caps, was include a set of personalized cards with well-wishes from elementary students in the area, a really cute hat and T-shirt and a pair of wool socks for each of us, a foldable cup to be used on the course, and probably something else that I'm forgetting. Impressive.

Pre-race meeting

Good-luck cards from local schoolchildren were included in our packets.

Such cute well-wishes from future SwimRunners.
The meeting lasted about an hour and then we headed back to the cabin to eat dinner (prepared beautifully by my very healthy roommates) and get some sleep for the night. The race would start at 8:00 the next morning, so we'd need to be up by 6. At the pre-race meeting the race directors joked about how they didn't want anyone showing up at 6 am at the start line to set up their transition area. One of the many benefits of a sport where you start the race with all the gear that you're going to use for the day!

I'll probably overwhelm you with pictures of the unique, beautiful, and technical course, but I'll describe it too. It went kind of like this, and I'm saying "kind of" because one of the great things about SwimRun is that nothing is precisely measured: 15-16 miles of running broken into 11 segments and 3000 meters of swimming broken into 9 segments. The first 4 miles was uphill through the woods to a lake. Along the way we would climb up steep waterfalls that required ropes to grip to get a foothold. Once teams arrived at the lake, we would swim 500 meters across it and then pop out on the other side, run approximately a quarter of a mile, then plunge back into the lake for less than 25 meters, then shimmy down a slippery mudslide, cross a small stream, run up the other side, and do the whole loop again. Once the two loops were complete, teams would run up 600+ stairs to the top of Moore's Wall and back down the other side, return to the lake, and complete the two loops a second time. Then a 4 mile run back towards the finish line that included another (different) waterfall/rope descent and climb. The last part of the race was an 800 meter swim (float) down the Dan River to the finish line.

We lined up to start the race with approximately 60 male teams and 40 mixed teams and exactly 23 female teams. Whiting and I had a plan to keep ourselves reeled in by running by heart rate in the first part of the race. We'd swim the four 500 meter swims really hard and make up some positions, and then run at threshold pace at the end of the race, leaving nothing for the 800 meter swim because it would be downstream in a rushing river.

As I said earlier, the problems started from the beginning. Whiting's heart rate was too high as we traveled up the first trail, sharing last place with a couple of new friends that we met on the course. The four of us agreed to travel at a pace that would keep Whiting's heart rate in check, and then I think we all expected to crush the first swim that would take place at the end of 4 miles of running/power hiking uphill. In our conversation on the trail, we learned that this other team was also made up of Ironman athletes who are above-average swimmers; Aimee and Kerry were two more women who were looking for a different kind of challenge.

I knew that Whiting was frustrated but I asked her to lead the way to stay at a pace that worked for her and I checked in frequently about her heart rate. It was frustrating not to have the day that we wanted, but we both held hope that it would turn around.

The second waterfall.
 Finally, we reached the first 500 meter swim. Now was the time to crush it! We jogged past the announcer and a well-stocked aid station, past the speakers with booming music, past our lovely BSR teammate Kitty who was injured and therefore supporting instead of racing. We plunged into the lake. At San Juan Islands last month, Whiting had led the way on nearly all of the swims, and I expected her to speed past me again. That was not the case today, so I led, grateful that there were other swimmers in the water and volunteers in canoes to help guide the way across the lake to a little right turn at the other end of the swim. We passed a few teams in the water, which provided a boost.

Kitty with the awesome announcer at the lake!
Disoriented and wobbly at the end of the very cold swim (55 degrees), Whiting and I climbed out onto the shore and made our way through the woods. As we walked (running was impossible, we were staggering like we were drunk from the change in equilibrium), we had a little discussion about how the day was going. I wanted Whiting to know that although the situation was frustrating, that I wasn't frustrated with her - we all have bad days. The chat seemed to make her feel better and we worked as a team moving through the mud, across the tiny swim, through the trees to a tiny technical descent that had turned into a mudslide because of the rain. Back up the other side to the aid station to do the whole loop again.
Hiking with purpose.
At this point, there were other teams around us because we were doing loops. That plus the booming music and cheerful announcer made everything feel very strange. In previous SwimRun events, even if we were running in a contained area, it felt spread out and isolated, quiet and natural. In this one, we were surrounded by people and there was more of a finish-line vibe right in the middle of the race. We later decided that there were pros and cons to the loops at the lake - you could learn the lines to take and feel more like you were in a race by being around other people, but you also knew that you had to plunge into that cold water 4 times and shimmy down the mudslide 4 times without getting hurt. I still haven't decided how I feel about those loops.

After we completed our second loop, we ran/power hiked up the 600+ steps to the top of Moore's Wall. I led the way, pulling Whiting with an imaginary 10 meter tether. We hiked with another team that we met along the trail. When we reached the top, a couple of amazing things happened: we popped out of the woods to see a beautiful view and have our picture taken in front of it, and a million other teams appeared. Apparently we had moved our way into the middle of the pack in the loopy swims, and there were other teams everywhere! This lifted our spirits as we said hello to Jeannie and Kathy and then ran back down to do 2 more loops of the lake. Of course several teams ran by us on the rooty, technical descent that was slippery due to wet fallen leaves, and we made our mental note to "get better" at trail running. I think I can speak for Whiting and say that we felt much better heading back down the other side of the hill.

Top of Moore's Wall
All that was left now was two more loops and then a run that was mostly downhill to the Dan River. We moved as quickly as we could, passing a couple of teams and getting passed by a couple of teams. Running through the trees down to the river felt strange - it was downhill and therefore easy to run, but there were just enough obstacles (roots, rocks, slippery leaves) that I couldn't get into a rhythm. I repeated our mantra of the day out loud to prevent us from tripping, "eyes down, toes up!" I was grateful to finally reach the river with a few trips but no falls. We'd made it! As we approached the river, we spotted Jeanne and Kathy floating down. They were close enough that if we swam hard, we could catch them.

The river was cold (53 degrees!) and it was moving quickly due to the heavy rains, and we plunged in with purpose. Whiting led the way and we pulled hard to gain ground. As we caught Jeanne and Kathy, they flipped onto their backs and we all said hello and chatted and laughed. Then the water became even swifter and Whiting ran into a fallen tree that was wedged in the middle of the river. This sobered us and we swam the rest of the way with caution. Swimming head-up, my torso bumped into a rock that I couldn't see and then I began to worry about what was actually down there below the water. Spectators on the bank directed us through the mini rapids, and soon enough we were crawling out of the water and up the stairs to the finish line in just under 6 hours. What a day!

The river was moving fast!

Last swim-out of the day.
The post-race food was the best I've ever had after a race (pasta and potatoes and barbecue with fixings and banana pudding and sweet tea!), and Whiting and I didn't even wait to change out of our wetsuits to eat it. We finally changed into dry clothes to attend the awards and raffle. As we sat in the warm sun and the podiums were being announced, the final team, our new friends Aimee and Kerry, crossed the finish line and everyone cheered. They had taken it easy and had a great day, and now they're hooked on SwimRun too. It's really fun to be on the podium but there's just so many other ways to have a wonderful day at one of these races.

I'm proud to say that Whiting and I walked away from the day feeling like we'd done many things right. We've learned a lot in one season. We fueled properly and paced properly with the circumstances we were given. We dressed right - we both kept our Zone 3 wetsuits zipped up all day and stayed cool on the runs and warm (enough) on the swims. We stayed blister-free with Ruby's Lube coating our feet inside of our shoes and calf-length wool socks. We communicated and worked as a team and didn't forget to have fun. We didn't come in last place - but we've learned that that's not so bad either. It's okay to have things to work on (trail running skills) as our first year in a new sport comes to a close.

I'm so happy to see so many new SwimRun races popping up in the US. Each one that we've done so far has been a completely unique experience, and I'm looking forward to many more. After each race, we've said "we'll definitely do this one again," and SwimRun NC is no exception. I'm thrilled to race in Casco Bay next summer and elated to be able to throw our names into the Otillo hat. Keep your fingers crossed for us!
A huge highlight was meeting Herbert Krabel in person - he's the biggest advocate for SwimRun in the US and this race is his baby.
*One of the awesome things about SwimRun races is that the amazing photographs are included as part of the race package. The gorgeous professional photos in this post were taken by Brian Fancher and Aaron Palaian.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

SwimRun San Juan Islands Race Report 2018: Two Friends on a Perfect Day

Photo by Aaron Palaian
After the third or fourth time this year receiving post-race texts proclaiming "this race was the hardest thing I've ever done," my friends have started to call me on it. But in a year of firsts, I've meant it each time, and a week later after time to reflect, I'm not taking it back about this one. The course and circumstances at SwimRun San Juan Islands made for one of the proudest finish line crossings of my life. It was a rewarding, remarkable experience, and as such, I'm choosing to call this one "Two Friends on a Perfect Day" (thank you Dear Evan Hansen) and not "The One Where We Raced for Cutoffs on the Toughest Terrain Ever and It Was Really Hard."

Whiting and I were excited to sign up for the inaugural edition of this race when it was announced last winter. This was before a summer of chasing cutoff times at trail races, and we didn't think too much about the details of the course, choosing instead to focus on the beauty of the islands of the Pacific Northwest. As race day approached, the race directors frequently reported a few changes in the course, and each time an announcement was made, the course got longer. By race morning, we were aware that in 14 run segments and 13 swim segments, we'd be running 21 miles and swimming 4 on the trails and in the lakes of Moran State Park on Orcas Island, Washington. There would be 6000 feet of gain on the run course and we'd summit two mountains. We began (accurately) describing the race as "the Leadville marathon, with swimming."

Part of the challenge of this race was just getting there. Trent, Whiting and I arrived in Seattle at 3 am on the day before the race due to a flight delay. We slept for a few hours in an airport hotel and then drove two hours to Anacortes where we caught a ferry to Orcas Island. We drove straight to Moran State Park and since we were early for the pre-race meeting, we drove to the summit of Mt. Constitution to see the top of the first huge climb of the course. As Trent drove up and up, Whiting and I became more nervous about the next day, but I was glad to be able to see where we'd be going. 

Trent in the clouds at the top of Mt. Constitution
Then we headed back down to Camp Moran for packet pickup and the pre-race meeting at 4 pm, where the 150 teams in the long course and short(er) course races listened carefully to instructions about the next day's events. There was an anxious feeling in the room, I think because everyone was aware of how difficult the course would be. After the meeting we found our way to the cute seaside cabin we'd rented for the weekend and headed into town for a quick bite to eat. Laid out all our stuff for the next morning and got to bed fairly early. 

Pre-race meeting (photo by Aaron Palaian)
A view from the beach at our condo. One of those islands is Canadian!
It took some calculating to write accurate information on our paddles to guide us through the day. We included the distances of each swim and run leg and where we expected the aid stations and time cutoffs to be.

The race started at 7:15 on Sunday morning with calm conditions. The air temperatures were in the 50s and the water temperatures in the mountain lakes were in the 60s. There was one segment of swimming in the bay, which was 52 degrees. 

Whiting and I were thrilled to meet Lance Armstrong before the race. He and his teammate, Simon Whitfield (Olympic gold medalist triathlete) were racing too, which added some excitement to the day!
When the gun went off, we ran across a field and up a dirt road onto some singletrack trail, and as usual, Whiting and I found ourselves in last place. This isn't a bad place to be; based on our prior experience at SwimRun Lake James in April, we expected to move through the field throughout the day. I sensed a single set of footsteps behind me and wondered why one of the participants in the individual division was running behind us. Paul the Sweeper then introduced himself, and I laughed, told him our names, and announced that he should expect to spend most of the day with us.

There were about 10 miles of running, 2000 meters of swimming, and 2000 feet of elevation gain between Whiting and I and the first time cutoff at the top of Mt. Constitution at 11:15 am. Based on our experience in Leadville, we knew this would be tight, so we were racing from the very beginning of this race. We did take some time to marvel at the enormous trees on the Old Growth trail and delighted in the clear, cool water of the first big swim. Whiting took the lead on the first swim and that's how it went all day, except for the one swim in the bay where jellyfish caused me to practically run across the water in fear.

We had a little bit of back-and-forth with other teams. They'd run past us and we'd swim past them, as we expected. There was a jump off a 15-foot cliff that added some extra excitement. And then we were at the bottom of the climb up Mt. Constitution, making what we thought was good time as we power hiked up. We had a good pace going and expected to meet the time cut. Then, with 1.5 miles left, we reached a sign that said "Mt. Constitution 2 miles." What? We were hiking at a 28:00/mile pace and that would not be fast enough. At that moment, we redefined our meaning of the word "runnable." Neither of us was willing to miss the time cut and end our day early. For 40 minutes we raced up through the forest and joyfully reached the summit with 4 or 5 minutes to spare. 

Refueling at the top of Mt. Constitution.
We were in a huge hurry but definitely took a minute to look around at the amazing surroundings. (photo by Aaron Palaian)
Trent was there waiting with donuts! We refilled our water bottles, took a minute to eat, and then ran back down the other side. A couple of teams passed us and we found ourselves with Paul the Sweeper as company again. And of course, running down a mountain, we were both reminded of how poor our downhill running skills are. I was frustrated to see that we were running down the steep trails slower than we'd run up the other side. And we had to race for the next time cut at 1:15 pm.

After a couple of swims and another mountain summit (Mt. Pickett, with no view), we headed down again and realized that it would be very difficult to make the next cutoff. When we arrived at the Mountain Lake aid station 25 minutes after the cut, the first thing we saw was a sign pointing down to the next section of trail. Behind the stone wall the sign was hanging from was the actual aid station. We made a quick decision to skip the aid station and sneak off down the trail as fast as possible to avoid being cut. There was a scary moment when a woman drove down the road behind us in her car, and we imagined that she was coming to force us to end our day. But she drove by without incident, and we hustled down onto the trail, relieved. (It turns out that they were very generous with time cuts at this inaugural event, but we didn't know that at the time.)

Just incredible scenery. A couple of the tiny islands registered as .05 of a mile on my Garmin. (photo by Aaron Palaian)
We now had 3 hours left until the final cut of the day at the finish line. We had been truly racing for 6 hours and neither of us had much left. The rest of the day was a purposeful slog through the forest, running when we could, and walking when we couldn't. After skipping the aid station at Mountain Lake, we ran out of food and water, and we ended up sharing one last gel and a few small sips of water with another hour and a half left in the race. 

After what seemed like an eternity, we made our way across Cascade Lake for a final swim (with Whiting the rockstar swimmer leading) and ran up the hill to the finish line as the last-place team. We were greeted with cheers and hugs from the race directors, and a bottle of champagne! What a day. We both agreed that it was the hardest thing we've ever done, because of the terrain, elevation gain, and time cut requirements. Then we celebrated with pizza and beer at the coolest post-race celebration I've ever been to, with great food and new friends.

It was only fitting for Paul the Sweeper, who had spent probably 7 hours of our 9 hour day with us, to cross the finish line with us! He'd been taking down all the course signage along the way.
Champagne at the finish line for the Orcas Island version of Leadville's "last ass over the pass."
I'm really proud of this race. Whiting and I spent 9 hours and 4 minutes racing together and digging deep to stay in the race and have the opportunity to cross the finish line. As we compared notes, we realized that we had both gone through a difficult low point at the same time in the last half of the race, but neither of us was willing to talk about it and bring the other down. We worked well together to remember to eat and drink, transition smoothly between swimming and running, keep track of time, and generally keep it together over a long day. That's not easy, especially for two competitive people: Trent said that many of the teams crossed the finish line and then didn't seem interested in talking to each other afterwards. I know how lucky I am to have Whiting as a partner in this adventure!

New friends at the post-race party.
I want to say a big thank you to Trent, who supported not only our team but several others out on the course throughout the day. Donuts at the top of a mountain?! It doesn't get much better than that. Thank you to the folks at SwimRun USA who put on an incredible inaugural event: we can't wait to race your Casco Bay event in Maine next summer! Thanks to our coach, Nell Rojas, who understands our goals and continues to prepare us to meet them. And thank you to Whiting's family who let us have her for her birthday weekend in Washington. A shout out to our Big Sexy Racing sponsors: Ownway Apparel kits and Zone 3 USA wetsuits that kept us comfortable all day, and Ruby's Lube (no blisters at all, y'all). As always, thank you to everyone reading this, and I want every single one of you to get out there and enjoy the experience that is SwimRun!

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Leadville Trail 100 Race Report 2018

Three weeks ago today, the sun was beginning to rise over Turquoise Lake and I was a little more than 2 hours into the Leadville Trail 100. My day would officially end about 5 hours later at the third checkpoint. It doesn't normally take me almost a month to write a race report - I usually write them right away when the experience is fresh in my mind - but this one has been difficult to do. I'm not really sure why that is.

Maybe I'm a little bit embarrassed that I only made it 31 miles before missing a cutoff and being pulled from the race. Maybe I'm questioning my decision to start something that I wasn't sure I could finish. Maybe I should have waited another year to use my coin. Or maybe it was just such a big experience that it's difficult to cover in a blog post.

After pacing for Doug last year at Leadville, I was immediately inspired, as many people are, to begin an ultrarunning journey of my own. It's been a really cool and strange year as I've spent the first season in 9 years focused on something other than triathlon. As a beginner at both trail running and ultrarunning, I spent a year learning about a community that I increasingly want to be a part of, while at the same time feeling a bit like an impostor.

Doug! The inspiration and reason we have the "blame a Leary" hashtag
Four months ago I shrieked "Adventure!" and jumped headfirst into the Leadville series at the marathon, and after the first race I realized that this "summer of Leadville" would be more about chasing cutoffs than setting PRs. Subsequently, my mindset as an athlete changed over the last few months - I became more grateful about start lines than determined about finish lines.

That being said, I wouldn't have taken the coin for the Leadville Trail 100 if I didn't think I could actually finish the race. I knew it would take a perfect day for me to get to the finish line in 30 hours, but I did believe that it was possible. If not 100 miles, then I'd definitely be able to make it 50 - to the halfway point - because I had just completed a 50 mile race last month. But then I didn't. What happened? The very simple answer is that I just didn't go fast enough.

The Course
The race is an out-and-back course that starts in Leadville and winds around to the ghost town of Winfield. Along the way, you run on single track and jeep paths, past gorgeous lakes and through the aspens, up and down and finally UP as you climb to just under 13,000 feet over Hope Pass, descend into Winfield, and then turn around and head back to Leadville. There's a stupid amount of elevation gain in this event that starts at 10,200 feet. You get 30 hours to complete the race and earn the finisher's belt buckle. 

Preparing for the Event
Preparation for this race took more than the usual event. Yes, I ran a lot. I ran at altitude and I ran for many hours on many Sundays on terrain that simulated the race course. I practiced hiking up to the top of Hope Pass. But I also had to gather a team to crew for me, and I had to figure out what supplies would be needed for a race that would take 30 hours (or more) to complete.

Dad on top of Hope Pass during our training hike. I'm so disappointed I didn't get to this spot during the race!
At this race, after 50 miles, you can have pacers to run with you, carry your food, keep you company, and help you continue moving forward. I decided on a team made up of a crew chief and 3 pacers. The crew chief would be in charge of all the transitions in the aid stations where my team could help me. She'd be in charge of the schedule of picking up and dropping off pacers at the checkpoints where I'd be expecting them. The pacers would run/hike/walk/shuffle with me in 12-15 mile segments throughout the second half of the race.

I imported a fabulous crew chief and 2 amazing pacers from Texas: Dawn, Shelly, and Aixa, three tough, strong, smart athletes and incredible friends. My final crew member was my masters swim lane-mate Josie. She had run the Heavy Half in June when I ran the marathon in Leadville, and after that race she offered to pace me for the 100 if I got in. I jumped at the chance because she crushed it up Mosquito Pass in June and she's naturally motivating, positive, and inspiring - she'd be great at pacing over the Hope Pass segment.

The five of us had a great time on the Friday before the race, attending the inspiring pre-race meeting, unpacking our supplies at the airbnb, and planning the logistics of the next day. We all went to bed early and I slept well. We were up at 2:30 am to pack up the car and drive to the start line, nearly 30 minutes away, for the start of the race at 4:00.

The crew! Aixa, Shelly, me, Dawn, Josie
Race Day
Standing on the start line in my headlamp in the dark with 750 people was surreal and eerie. Doug and I began the race together, and as the gun went off, I felt lucky to be a part of this iconic event. I looked around and wondered how the people around me would do. I knew that only half of us would finish the whole race.

Trent drove up that morning from Denver to meet us at the 4 am start line.
My plan was to pay attention to my heart rate and to find that pace that feels like you can run all day and then run slightly slower than that. Every time I felt an urge to speed up, I squelched it. This is going to be a long day. You have to be patient. That's one thing about the race that was the same as at an ironman.

Doug ran ahead after about 2 miles. As I trotted alone through the forest, aware that people were running around me and leaving me behind, the enormity of 100 miles began to roll around inside my head. Each time I started to think about it, I pushed it away, willing myself to stay in the present. I took small victories. Every time my watch beeped with the passing of a mile, I congratulated myself for running a faster pace than the pace needed to meet the cutoff for that segment. When I crossed the first timing mat with 15 minutes to spare at mile 13.5 at the Mayqueen station, I raised my arms in victory as if it was a finish line. After the sun came up, I looked around and marveled at the views. As instructed by Doug, when I reached the top of the first climb on Sugarloaf Mountain, I celebrated to myself that I was taking part in the famous Leadville Trail 100. Me, a triathlete in disguise, running in this famous ultra.

And then my feet, in new shoes because I've spent the summer searching for the right trail shoe, began to develop hot spots that I couldn't ignore. As I tried to run down the famous 4-mile Powerline hill, my heart sank as I understood that my descending skills are still not what they should be, and I wished for my hiking poles that I wouldn't be picking up until mile 40. I texted my crew and asked them to bring my mile 40 shoes to the mile 23.5 checkpoint.

I reached the Outward Bound checkpoint with 10 minutes to spare and my panicky crew hurried me in and out with a quick shoe change and a refill of water and food in my pack. It had been raining for about an hour and I finally took the time to put on my raincoat. I had an hour and 20 minutes to make it to the next checkpoint 6 miles away at Half Pipe. If I'd done a little more research, I would have known I needed a bigger time cushion coming into Outward Bound to make it to Half Pipe before the cut. But I hadn't, and as I did the math on the way out of the aid station, I knew I wouldn't make it to Half Pipe in time to make the cutoff.

Running into Outward Bound in the rain
My crew and Doug's - Aixa, Shelly, Dawn, Whiting, Maggie
Hustling through the Outward Bound station
I kept moving forward at my too-slow pace, and when I arrived at Half Pipe 13 minutes too late, there was no fanfare. I took note of the other runners standing around, some of them crying, as I walked up to a volunteer standing in the middle of the path. I asked him, "Is that it, then?" And he said yes, my day was done. I asked if it was ok for me to continue on to Twin Lakes, 8 miles down the road where my crew would be waiting, and he said that would be fine but he'd need to take my chip.

I communicated with my crew what I was going to do, and as my jog down the trail to Twin Lakes turned into a walk, I had plenty of time to think about everything that I'd learned that day. Shelly met me 3 miles up the trail from the town at Twin Lakes and as we walked back together, I joked that at least she got to spend some time on the part of the trail that she was supposed to pace me on later that night. We met the rest of the crew about a mile from Twin Lakes and they cheered me up with hamburgers (right away) and wine (later).

With Shelly, I finally took a few minutes to stop and take a picture of the scenery.
All the love for this crew
Leadville! What a summer! It's almost too enormous to take in, especially the 100. Of course I want to do it again when I'm faster on trails and stronger at climbing and descending. The day after the race, several friends who paced or crewed drove down the mountain from Leadville as inspired as I was last year and I know several of us will be back next year in some capacity. That's my favorite part about Leadville - you can't help but catch the bug. Adventure!

Podcast
My Big Sexy Racing teammate Terry Wilson interviewed me on his podcast about the race. If you want some more details about the day - listen here.

Thank You!
Thank you to Doug who inspired me in the first place and spent a year giving me advice about running trails in the mountains. To Whiting, the incredible Leadville crew chief to Doug and my awesome SwimRun partner, thank you for your relentless positivity and unmatched planning skills. Thank you to Nell Rojas, who agreed to coach me on this journey with only 6 weeks until race day! To my friends who believed in me, in particular Maggie, Linda, and Orissa - thank you for your encouragement throughout this season. To my parents who spent a weekend up in the mountains with me as Dad joined me for a practice hike on Hope Pass, thank you for being supportive of all these adventures that I've chosen to take part in. To my amazing crew, Dawn, Shelly, Aixa, and Josie, thank you for giving up a weekend to travel to Leadville and be such a huge part of this experience. I'm honored that you shared it with me and I'm sorry that you didn't get to do all the the things that we planned on (maybe next time?). Of course a huge thank you to Trent who spent the entire Summer of Leadville up in the mountains as well, even though there were a million other things we could have been doing. And as always, if you're reading this - thank you for your support and encouragement! I can feel it every time I toe the line.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Race Report: Silver Rush 50 Run


At this time last week, I was running in a 50 mile race. I'm still sort of in awe about it.

When I signed up in January for the Silver Rush 50 run in Leadville, I intended for it to be my "A" race - the main goal I'd strive towards this year. For the first time since I trained for my first ironman in 2012, I had a big scary goal that I wasn't sure I'd be able to achieve. The feeling was terrifying, thrilling, wonderful, and intimidating.

Training
I trained for it quietly, using a free plan that I found online paired with advice from Dawn. I had a hard time telling other people that I was going to do a 50 mile run. I felt like an impostor, a triathlete posing as an ultrarunner: who am I to claim I can run 50 miles? Then I won my coin for the Leadville Trail 100 at the Leadville Marathon last month and everything changed. Suddenly the 50 miler became a training race on the way to the even more intimidating 100. With that change in plans, two things happened: the 50 mile race became easier to talk about and I started working with a coach.

I've been attending a functional strength class for runners held by Nell Rojas of Rojas Athletics since early spring. I've worked with a couple of coaches in the past, and through those experiences I've learned what I need: a local coach who has group training sessions and can see me train, an enthusiastic and supportive cheerleader, and a partner in the plan towards achieving a goal. Of course Nell fits this description and working with her reminds me so much of those days when Dawn was helping me learn to train to my potential in San Antonio.

I had a conversation with Nell in early June about starting to work together towards fall and winter running goals after the Silver Rush 50. Once I got the coin for the Leadville 100, I signed on with Nell immediately. I want every advantage going into the 100. So, for the final 3 weeks before the Silver Rush, I had the glorious benefit of focused, race-specific workouts that made me feel incredibly strong and confident going into this 50 mile run.

The Course
As part of a big weekend in the Leadville Race Series, there's a Silver Rush 50 mountain bike race on Saturday and a run on the same course on Sunday. The race starts in Leadville at 10,200 feet. The first 100 yards is a nasty hike up a ski hill. You reach 12,000 feet 4 times in 50 miles, with a total elevation gain of 7,000 feet. There's some single track, some gravel roads, some jeep paths, and a little bit of asphalt. Runners get 14 hours to complete the race, and while the course of this race is gentler than the marathon, it's no small feat to take on as your first 50 mile run.

Race Day
At 6 am on race morning, the national anthem played as a giant American flag waved at the top of the ski hill. Moments later the gun went off and I gave Trent one last kiss and started slowly up the hill, feeling emotional, with tears welling in my eyes as I considered the day ahead of me.

The first two people to reach the top (male and female) get a coin to the Leadville 100. People actually sprinted up this hill for it.

I think my face says everything I was feeling 2 minutes into this race.
I'd been told to take the hill slow and keep my heart rate under control, so that's what I did. I remember reading an article with advice about these races: the writer recommended finding a comfortable pace that you can run at all day - and then running slightly slower than that. I heeded this advice as I made my way along jeep paths through the woods, inhaling the pine-scented air, carefully watching my heart rate and eating and drinking at the appropriate intervals. I repeated a mantra that came to me early in the race - part of it came from Dawn, part from the Oiselle website, and part out of thin air because it worked for me:

Eyes down, toes up.
Heart full, wings out.

At 9 miles the terrain became steeper and more technical with water running over rocks down the trail and I wondered which parts of this the cyclists had to walk. Turns out it was miles 9-11. They took forever. Finally I reached the top and the reward was a glorious view of the mountains and a 3 mile run down a gentle gravel road to the first aid station where spectators and crew could meet you. I recognized that I was running well downhill and I knew that I was ahead of schedule on my way to the halfway checkpoint, so I was buoyant. I sang along with my music as I trotted down the hill. I'm going to do this!




At mile 14 I approached the Printer Boy aid station and met up with my amazing support crew: Trent, Whiting and Doug and their girls. I took a quick slathering of sunscreen and was on my way to the second climb. It passed in what felt like the blink of an eye and all of a sudden I was at mile 20. Five miles to food and drink at the halfway checkpoint at Stumptown. I reached some technical downhill and realized that I still need a lot of work with downhill running. As I gingerly picked my way down the rock-strewn path, I grumbled to myself when people skipped happily past me. I drank the last sips of water in my hydration pack. Uh oh.

Doug ran me into Printer Boy and peppered me with facts and encouragement.
Seeing Trent's face at aid stations was everything. 
The weather felt hot as made my way into the Stumptown aid station and all I wanted was water. As I approached the hill up to the aid station, I saw Trent walking down it towards me. He gave me some of the water that he was carrying, then walked me up and around to the aid station where Whiting, Melina, and McKenna were waiting. They had unpacked my drop bag and had it waiting for me with a chair. "I don't want to change my shoes," I said. They asked me what I did need and then carried it out with NASCAR-like precision: full bladder of water, two full bottles of sports drink, snacks in the back of my backpack moved to the front so I could access them. Another kiss from Trent and I was on my way again, 45 minutes ahead of the halfway point cutoff of 7.5 hours.

Stumptown smiles
I felt confident as I made my way back along the route I'd just come down. There was a little turn to the right and I was on my way back uphill again. This time, I was headed towards a section of single track above the treeline which is significant because a few minutes later, the clouds rolled in and it began to hail. I couldn't help laughing as I stopped to grab my raincoat from my pack. Hail just follows me around (no it doesn't, it's what happens in the mountains in the summer). Along with a small pack of 4 or 5 runners, I made my way down the single track in the pea-sized hail. I hoped that it wouldn't get worse because there was nowhere to hide from it. We were running/hiking along a ridge on the side of a mountain, and although it was beautiful, I wondered how the bikers did it the day before. I'd topple over and roll down the hill, I thought. We passed what looked like an abandoned well, it looked like something from Game of Thrones and I thought to myself that if I'd been on my bike I would 100% have fallen into it. As it is, I ran past it with one hand out blocking it from view, laughing to myself about how scared I was.

The hail stopped after about half an hour and the rain stopped soon after that. I wiggled out of my raincoat as the sun tried to make an appearance. There was one more aid station before the descent back to Printer Boy. As I stopped to empty my pockets of gu packets and grabbed some more gu and sports drink from the table, the volunteers urged me to take a garbage bag and wear it as a makeshift coat. "It's warm," they pleaded. They were so persuasive that I stood for moments arguing that I didn't want one: I had a raincoat in my backpack and I wasn't cold. Looking at my data after the race, I spent 23 minutes of this day at zero miles per hour and I think I spent 6 of them here. With the loss in momentum from arguing about a trash bag, I decided to take a minute to sit on the ground and empty one shoe of the small rocks that were rolling around in there. I stopped for a luxurious port-a-potty break instead of just using the woods for natural breaks like I'd done all day.

I took off running again down the hill to Printer Boy: five miles to go to get to mile 36 and my friends and family. Along the way I saw a spectator who told me, "you're doing great! You have plenty of time!" She clearly had cutoffs in mind, so I didn't really have plenty of time. As I rounded the last corner down toward the road that would lead to the aid station, I saw familiar faces. Trent and my teammate Chris were standing at the bottom of the hill. Chris had done the bike race the day before and was out for a training run. "I'll run you up the hill!" he exclaimed, as Trent (in his waders because he'd been fishing) drove the car up the road to the aid station. Chris's energy was contagious and we made our way up the hill as quickly as I could go. When he encouraged me to run I said no, choosing instead to hike with purpose.

I have the best teammates ever! Chris ran with me for about a mile.

When I reached mile 36, I'd been out there for almost 10 hours. I had 4 hours to make it back to the start. The 14 miles ahead of me included a 3-mile hike up the hill I'd run down joyously that morning, plus 11 miles of downhill running to the finish. "You've got a good cushion of time," Doug encouraged me as I made my way through the station, filling up with water and sports drink one more time, "just don't squander it like I always seem to do." (Foreshadowing. Ugh, Doug. You really know how to write a story.)

Trent walked me up out of the aid station and we laughed as a spectator joked, "look, he's racing in waders!" Whiting ran up the first part of the hill with me and then I was on my own again to finish the race. Armed with hiking poles now, I hiked up the hill but was losing momentum. I had to pee and I was with a group of people on an exposed road with nowhere to hide. The feeling became more uncomfortable as the minutes ticked by too quickly. My music stopped playing as my phone's battery drained. I guess this is the part where I'm supposed to dig deep. I finally found a place around a turn in the road to stop to pee and take a moment to reset and get myself ready to tackle the downhill.

As I took the turn off the road to tackle the first 2 technical miles of downhill followed by 9 gentle miles, I was ecstatic to not be going uphill anymore. That feeling immediately turned to desperation as I took note of how slowly I was descending. Time was running out. As I reached the less technical section, I became aware that I wasn't moving as quickly as I'd expected, and I was moving as fast as I could.

I saw a spectator cheering as I approached the final aid station. I asked her if there were any time cutoffs besides the one at the finish line at 8 pm. "Yes," she replied, "there's a 6:00 cutoff at the aid station ahead." I looked at my watch: it was 5:57. "You're okay," she said, "it's about half a mile up the road!" I can't run half a mile in 3 minutes on a flat paved road on a good day, let alone after 42 miles of running. But I moved as fast as I could toward the aid station and noted all the people standing around it as I approached. It was 6:05. Would they cut me?

Nobody made any attempts to pull me from the course, so I grabbed 4 gu packets and asked one of the volunteers, "is the finish 8 miles from here?" "No, it's 7," he replied, and I smiled. I could do 7 miles in the 2 hours that I had left.

It was actually 8 miles to the finish.

I covered the terrain as quickly as I could, stumbling over rocks with eyes glazed from tiredness and dehydration. As I approached what I thought was the last mile, I could hear the finish line. I can do this! I ran down the small stretch of asphalt and heard someone cheering from their front porch, "you can do this!" And then I turned the corner and a figure standing at the top of the hill was yelling down at me: "ALADEEN MOTHERFUCKER!"

What? My friend Brian from San Antonio and I had a joke about yelling that phrase from the Borat movie at each other during races, usually on the bike. But that could not be Brian. Was I hallucinating? Turns out it was Herb, who has been up here on a camping vacation from Texas: he'd come to surprise me at the finish. I ran towards him and asked, "how far is it from here?" "About a mile," he replied, jogging off down the trail. It was 7:55. The volunteer at the aid station had been wrong about the distance, and I wasn't going to make the time cut. I handed my hiking poles to Herb and moved as quickly as my legs could carry me up one more climb and around some cruel switchbacks that took me further away from the finish line. He made me chase him and we weaved through the trees toward the final descent.

Herb captured my last desperate rush for the finish.
Trent was waiting at the finish line as I jogged down the chute. I didn't make the time. Do I still cross the finish line? As my face crumpled with tears, he told me, "you just ran 50 miles, who cares. Cross the finish line." So I did. I was greeted by friendly faces who put a medal around my neck and handed me the coffee cup that says "Finisher," and the photographer snapped some uncomfortable photos.

Fourteen hours, 8 minutes, and 31 seconds. Not an official finisher, didn't make the 14 hour cut.

I've often wondered at ironman races how people feel when they don't reach the finish line by midnight. How bad does that feel? How disappointed must they be, to have trained towards a goal and then not reached it? Turns out, the overwhelming emotion in a situation like that is pride. I just ran 50 miles. At the beginning of the day, I didn't know that I could do it. What a ridiculously huge achievement. Who cares if it took 8 minutes longer than it was supposed to?

Most awkward finish line picture ever. That's Trent at my side, relentlessly encouraging.

I was mad that Trent made me smile for this photo, but I'm glad he did.

Post Race Drama

My post-race experience didn't go as planned. As soon as I crossed the line, I felt cold and nauseated. I couldn't eat or drink and I started to hyperventilate. I had such trouble trying to slow my breathing that Trent wondered if I needed to go to the hospital and eventually summoned one of the race representatives to help assess the situation. She asked me a few questions and between gasps for air I gave her my answers. In the meantime, Trent was on the phone with Whiting and Doug who were looking for an urgent care down the road in Frisco for us to go to. This has happened to me before, after Ironman Louisville, but the difference is that in Louisville, Trent had an inhaler for me to use right away. (Guess what's going in the bag for the next race?) I think this happened as a result of extreme emotion after a day of extreme exertion (Louisville was the last race where I really gave it my all before this).

The folks assessing the situation determined that I would be fine if I drank water and headed to lower elevation. After about an hour in the car back to Denver, my breathing slowed and I started to feel a bit more normal.

Thank You!
I want to say a big thank you to my friends, family, and Big Sexy Racing teammates for all the support. Especially to Trent, Whiting, Doug, Melina, McKenna, Chris, and Herb for the support out there on the course. This really is a team sport and I'm so grateful to my crew. Thank you to Nell for getting me as ready as possible for this one and the upcoming challenge at the Leadville Trail 100. And to everyone reading this, of course I am ridiculously honored that you're reading this and joining me in the adventure - thank you!

I'm looking forward to applying everything I've learned towards the next race. In 5 weeks I'll toe the line for the 100 and after last weekend's experience I'm confident that I'll be ready to put forth my best effort. I'm surprised and happy that even after not making the time cut at Silver Rush, I'm actually feeling more confident about the 100. I absolutely love everything about this trail running adventure! See y'all in August.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Leadville Trail Marathon Race Report: The Summer of Leadville Begins


Before I toed the line at the Leadville Trail Marathon on Saturday, I was already registered for 3 of 4 running races in the Leadville Race Series this summer: the marathon, the Silver Rush 50 miler in July, and the Leadville 10k race in August. (Missing from my list of runs was the Leadville 100, which you have to enter through a lottery or qualify for.) Several of my friends and teammates are racing in each of the mountain bike races and runs in Leadville this season, so much so that we've dubbed this the "summer of Leadville." The marathon kicks off the race series.

I've been looking forward to this marathon more than any other race this season, possibly because it would be my first-ever race in Leadville, the place I've been dreaming about since pacing Doug at the Leadville 100 last year. It was meant to be a training race on the way to my "A" race of the season - the Silver Rush 50. I've only been brave enough for a month or so to say out loud that I'm going to attempt a 50 miler. But at the start line of the marathon on Saturday I had another dream in mind - anyone who finishes the race within the 8.5 hour time limit would be eligible to enter a drawing for an entry to the Leadville 100.

Eight and a half hours for a marathon: that's more than double the time of my marathon PR. But it starts at 10,200 feet, climbs to 13,100 feet, and includes 6,000 feet of elevation gain on steep, rocky trails. Even with the thin air and tough terrain to contend with, I didn't think it would take me more than 7 hours to finish.

I'll say it right now: I completely underestimated this race. From the moment we crossed the start line, we were hiking (walking) uphill out of the town of Leadville. Doug started before Whiting and me, and as we huffed and puffed up to the 1.5 mile mark and 30 minutes had already passed, Whiting received a text from Doug: "it becomes bearable after about 2 miles."
I soon learned that although I am incapable of turning around and looking backwards while hiking uphill without getting dizzy, I've really improved at moving quickly uphill. I didn't realize that Whiting wasn't behind me anymore until I stopped to take a Gu after maybe a little more than an hour. I realized that I would be spending this really long day all by myself and although I was sad not to have a giggly fun time with Whiting, I dug in and embraced the challenge.

It seemed to take forever to get to the big three-mile climb up to the top of Mosquito Pass and the turnaround point. As I climbed up and up, picking my way through loose rocks and trails that were muddy with snowmelt, the weather changed and it began to lightly rain. My teammate Chris came back the other way and then Doug passed by on his way down. Both offered encouragement; Doug snapped a photo and told me that Lance Armstrong was racing today, too. (What?)

Doug took this photo. The only reason I'm smiling is because I saw him before he took it.
Such relief and happiness to reach the turnaround point after 3 miles of climbing straight uphill.
I was eager to get to the turnaround because the second half of the race was basically downhill. Even though it took me four and a half hours (!!!) to reach the halfway point, I assumed that running downhill would be easier and that I'd still be close to my 7 hour goal. But as I began picking my way down the steep trail strewn with large loose rocks and gravel, I understood that my day would be longer than expected. I became quickly frustrated with my inability to run quickly downhill. I just couldn't do it. I helplessly watched people that I'd passed on the way up run nimbly by me.

When I reached the aid station at mile 16, I heard someone else ask the volunteers about the time cutoff. "You've made this cutoff," the volunteer replied, "but you're about five minutes behind where you should be to meet the next one." What? It took me a moment to understand that the consequence of not getting to the next aid station fast enough would mean getting pulled from the race. This was a brand new experience for me. I began writing my race report in my head. "Humbled," I imagined myself writing. "I completely underestimated this race."

I made a conscious effort not to get discouraged. Even though mile 20-21 was nicknamed the "trail of tears" because of its cruel incline after so many hours of racing, I ran as fast as I could towards it, and once I approached it, I hiked with purpose. As I passed other competitors, they congratulated me on my pace. I felt hopeful.

Eventually I approached the mile 21 checkpoint. When I asked a volunteer to confirm that I'd made the cutoff, she exclaimed, "you're 15 minutes ahead of it!" I was jubilant as I ran through the aid station.

As soon as I passed it, the next challenge loomed. The next 5 miles to the finish would be nearly all downhill. My quads were screaming and my fear of falling prevented me from doing anything more than a little shuffle down the miles of trail. Frustrated, I watched again as all the people I passed going uphill ran by me with ease. "I need to learn how to run downhill," I wrote in the race report in my mind.

Finally I reached the town of Leadville and ran at my pitiful 13-minute mile pace down the long, straight stretch toward the finish line. I knew I had definitely left everything I had out there on the course. Whiting, who had had to DNF due to altitude sickness, was running up the road towards me and encouraging me to continue. It was wonderful to see my family and friends as I approached the finish line, and at 8 hours and 2 minutes for my final chip time, I crossed the line with so much satisfaction. What a day! Even as I crossed the finish line I was plotting how to improve my time next year.
So much joy to cross the finish line, especially with Harper running down the chute with me!
We sat and drank beers and ate post-race food as the final finishers crossed the line. Then the awards ceremony began. First the winners were given their awards. Then 50 qualifying slots for the Leadville 100 Run began to roll down. Just like in an Ironman race, the slots were allocated by the size of the age group. The winners were offered first dibs and then the slots rolled until they were gone. I listened hopefully as they called out the names in my age group, but the 4 allocated slots for females 40-49 went as quickly as they were called.

Once the rolldown was complete, another 50 slots were raffled off to anyone who had finished the race within the cutoff time. What seemed like a hundred people scrambled to place numbers into a fishbowl and then we all waited impatiently to hear our number called. I wasn't sure whether to hope for my number to be called or not. But when my number came up, I screamed, "I want it!" and ran to the front to claim my coin.


The Coin.
Just like that, I'm registered for the Leadville 100 and I have a new "A" race for the season. With legs still sore from this ridiculously difficult 26.2 mile race, I have to question my ability to complete four times the distance with only 2 months to prepare. It's like a dream. The last time I impulsively leaped for something like this, I ended up jumping off a ferry at Norseman a few months later. That journey was one of the greatest, most memorable, crystallizing times of my life, and I'm reveling in such similar feelings that come along with the golden coin to Leadville.

 Adventure!
The Summer of Leadville would not be possible without the inspiration of Whiting and Doug Leary!
At the start with future pacer Josie (she promised!) 

I was informed that Lance Armstrong felt the same way about the downhills as me - here's proof from Instagram.