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.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Wyoming Marathon Races 50k Race Report 2018: That'll Leave a Mark


"There's been a shooting. They won't let you run through the crime scene, so we have to modify the course." With a start like that, we should have known it would be an extraordinary day. The announcement from the race director quieted the small gathering of runners. We were waiting at the top of a hill on the dirt road behind the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Monument near Laramie, Wyoming to start the Wyoming Marathon Races half marathon, marathon, and 50k. The race director went on to explain that instead of running the intended out-and-back course, the marathon and 50k runners would repeat the half marathon course until the prescribed distance was met.
This event was low-key to say the least.
I took a bunch of still pictures from the drone footage posted on the race's Facebook page. Here's the small group of runners waiting to start.
The crowd gracefully digested this information and one of the runners led the gathering in singing the national anthem. Moments later, the pack was off and running down the road. I kissed Trent and reminded him to be careful: he planned to spend the morning fishing while I ran. "You be careful!" he laughed, and I ran down the hill to start my 50k day.

The plan I'm following for the Silver Rush 50 includes a couple of "training races" along the way and this weekend the plan required a 50k race. Laramie is only a couple of hours' drive from Denver, so this race seemed like a cool way to get the training done and to see a little bit more of our world. The race is at elevation (it starts just below 9000 feet), and although it isn't on trails, it is on mostly dirt roads so it seemed like a good pick.

Two things about the race made me nervous - surprisingly the altitude wasn't one of them! Because of the small field of runners, there was a real danger of coming in last place. And, the first 5 miles of the course was straight down a hill, which meant that the last 5 miles back up the hill would be tough. I had these things in mind as I trotted slowly down the hill: in the last few months of longer-distance trail running, I've become acutely aware of how easily you can ruin your day by running too fast in the first few miles.

A drone pic from the first few miles.
As I ran down the hill, I considered what it was going to take to run back up and down it 3 more times. But after about 45 minutes had passed, a pickup truck drove along beside us and the driver shouted out to the runners that the crime scene was cleaned up and we could resume running the original course. Hooray!

The sun shone brightly as we approached the half marathon turnaround point. As the half marathon participants turned around, the pack of runners thinned out and I continued happily along the dirt road, running mostly by myself with just 4 or 5 other people around me. I gazed at the gorgeous mountain scenery and felt joyful about the light wind that ruffled my clothes. Off-road running is amazing! The races are so much smaller and you spend time by yourself, just enjoying what's around you. Why didn't I start this years ago?!
Drone shot of the gorgeous scenery of Medicine Bow National Forest.
There's a short segment of the course that goes along the access road of the highway, but apart from that the entire course is on gravel roads. On the way out the course rolls mostly downhill, and I spent miles 8-15 marveling at how strong I felt. My goal was to spend less than 7 hours doing the race, and that seemed very possible when I hit the turnaround at 15.5 miles. Then I realized that I'd basically been running downhill for the last few miles and it was time to climb back up. That's why everyone who was coming back the other way was walking. Yikes. Also, it was getting hot and there was no shade on the exposed dirt road. For the first time ever, I fought the nausea that comes with pushing the pace too hard at altitude in warmer conditions. Although my pace already felt painfully slow, I slowed down. Ugh. This is so uncomfortable! Why did I decide to do all of these ultra-distance races this year?!

As usual, one of my favorite things was meeting all the people out on the course. I'd noticed a guy in a Kerrville Triathlon Festival hat at the start, and as he ran towards me from the marathon turnaround point as I was still on my way out, I stopped him and asked if he was from Texas. Ken from Austin and I became friends immediately - what a small world! At the marathon turnaround point, there was an aid station where I filled up my water bottles and grabbed my first cup of delicious Coke. The volunteer there was a Laramie local who's running a couple of big ultras this year. Yes, I stood there and chatted with him about it as we leisurely filled bottles. I guess at some point I'll have more urgency in racing these longer distances, but that was not the case last Sunday.

As I shuffled back along the out-and-back course, I spent miles 16-20 feeling pretty crappy. My legs were starting to hurt, I was feeling dehydrated even though I thought I was drinking plenty, and I was tired of eating Gu. But then, along with a little bit of downhill on the course, my mood turned around, and I tirelessly trotted back towards the finish line, marveling again at the scenery. I was alone on the course but aware that there was a runner slightly ahead of me and another one slightly behind me, both just out of my view. I saw a line of dark clouds slowly approaching and felt smug about having a raincoat in my backpack. I am sooooo prepared for mountain running. The shifts in mood that you experience in a long day of racing feel more intense to me in trail running than in triathlon. I'm not sure why I felt so much better at that point, but I welcomed the happy mood that replaced how I was feeling just 30 minutes earlier.

Approaching the last five miles back up the hill, I willed myself to run when possible and to walk as quickly as I could when running was too difficult. With about 3 miles to go, I saw Trent driving down the hill towards me! He offered some quick encouragement and then told me that he'd see me at the finish line. I complained that I might not make my goal time. The only thing on my mind was getting to the line before my watch hit 7 hours.

Then, the storm that had slowly been coming towards us for the last 2 hours made its dramatic entrance with a loud clap of thunder. I hurried to put on my super-light amazing new trail running raincoat and congratulated myself again on carrying it. The rain started to come down. I briefly considered that lightning was dangerous, but kept on running. Then, the rain started to fall harder. Wait, that isn't rain. It's hail! I started laughing at how ridiculous this last couple of miles was shaping up to be.

With one mile left, the pea-sized hail became heavier and stung my unprotected legs. The volunteer from the aid station that I'd chatted with earlier came driving down the hill from the finish. He opened the passenger door and told me that if I wanted a ride back I'd still be considered a finisher, but I was free to wait for the hail to stop if I wanted to make sure I ran the full course. I also had the option to continue running up the hill in the hail. I climbed into his car and decided to wait for the hail to slow, but then he started to drive down the hill, away from the finish line! He needed to check on the runners behind me. At that moment, I saw Trent driving back down the road and we signaled to him to stop. I jumped out of the volunteer's car and into Trent's.

As I sat in the passenger seat laughing, catching my breath, Trent handed me his thick Gore Tex fishing raincoat. "Take this," he said, "it's strong and will protect you. Finish the last mile!" Neither of us considered driving to the finish line to be an option. I jumped out of the car, we both laughed, and I continued up the hill into the hail. The whole situation seemed hilarious and ridiculous. Then the hail got bigger. A lot bigger. I watched the large pieces fall and shatter in front of me on the road. Then one hit me on the head. Another one hit me hard on the shoulder. For the first time, I looked around for shelter, and ended up crouching under a tree to protect myself from the larger pieces of hail.
Running in Trent's fishing jacket. Soon the road would be covered in white hailstones and looked like it had been snowing.
Moments later, Ken from Texas came driving down the hill in his rental. "Kris from Texas!" he yelled, "take shelter in my car!" I leaped gratefully into the car. The hail was coming down like crazy now. Ken found a little tree to protect the car and we chatted as the loud hail bounced off the windows. He said we could wait as long as necessary, but that with only a mile left, I couldn't not finish the race. I agreed. I texted Trent to tell him my plan.

After about 10 minutes passed, the hail lightened again and Ken drove me back up to the main road. He wished me well and I started my journey once again. At this point, the 7 hour mark was long gone. Although the hailstones were smaller, they still stung my bare legs as they fell, and I could see small welts starting to form. This is stupid. Not the kind of stupid where you wonder in a state of exhaustion why you picked endurance racing as your hobby. It's like stupid, stupid. 
"It's all fun and games until God starts throwing golf balls at you." - Trent Wunstel
The hail got bigger again and there were no trees to hide under. As another large hailstone hit me hard on the shoulder, for the first time ever in 10 years of endurance racing adventures I thought to myself that I could actually die from this. The next car that came along offered me a ride, and I unquestioningly dove into their back seat with a growling dog, grateful to escape the painful hail. They drove me to the finish line where Trent waited in the car.

Trent pulled up next to the car in which the race director waited, and I told him through a partially opened window that I was safe and off the course. He said, "oh you earned the belt buckle." He handed it through the window to me, along with a hailstone that he picked up off the ground. "A souvenir of Wyoming," he said, laughing.
Earned it!
Trent and I laughed all the way back to Denver in our car that is now coated in hail damage. What a ridiculous day! In my mind this was technically a DNF, but I'm listed as the last finisher in the results online. A last-place finish - that's a first. But I also ran as fast as I could up a hill at the end of an ultrarun to try to escape the hail, so now I know I can do that. That's a win!

The following day, I ran the Bolder Boulder 10k as my "second long run" of the weekend. I've been doing these back-to-back long runs for a couple of months now, and every time I do it, it feels better. I'm astonished that I ran 60k in one weekend. The way the body adapts to training is incredible! After this, I feel much more confident about the big races in Leadville that I have coming up in the next month and a half. Hopefully they'll be hail-free.

All joking aside, this was a really cool, well organized event. The volunteers were wonderful and the race is perfect for someone trying their first ultra at a little bit of altitude with terrain that isn't even a little bit technical. The drive to Laramie was gorgeous and the town itself was fun to visit. Hail or no hail, I don't think this will be my last time racing the Wyoming Marathon Races! A quick thank you to our wonderful friend Doug who recommended it, although we certainly gave him a hard time about the weather and the car for the couple of days after the race.

I want to say a big thank you to Doug, Whiting, and Maggie for providing cheers, inspiration, and encouragement through texts to Trent throughout the day; I could certainly feel the love. Thank you to everyone who followed and commented on Facebook. And thanks as always for reading! See you out on the trails.

Bolder Boulder was my friend Laura's first race and first time ever running 10k. Here we are at the start line. She crushed it and I was so proud to get to be a part of her first road-running experience!
Another Bolder Boulder pic - I loved running and celebrating with teammates in our gorgeous Big Sexy Racing Ownway Apparel kits!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Adventure! It's the 10 Trail Commandments


Based on our experience yesterday running in Golden Gate Canyon Park outside of Golden, CO, I present my 10 trail commandments:

1. Follow your training plan.
Whiting and I are both racing the Leadville Trail Marathon in June. After that, she'll continue training for Boulder 70.3, and I'll continue training for the Silver Rush 50 mile trail run in Leadville (wow that's a big and scary thing to put in writing). So, our training plans are different: she was instructed to run 2.5 hours and I needed to get in 4.5 hours yesterday.

Using the Trail Run Project app, we chose Golden Gate Canyon Park for its altitude and lack of rattlesnakes. I arrived at 7:15 to get as much running in as possible before Whiting arrived at 9.

Early morning solo hiking felt strangely empowering and I couldn't wipe the smile from my face the entire time.
I hiked to this beautiful meadow and then ran back down to meet Whiting.
2. Dress in layers. 
I think the rule is that the temperature drops 10 degrees for every 1000 feet of elevation gain? It was a balmy 50 degrees when I left Lakewood. When I arrived at the park at ~8000 feet, it was 35 degrees! So I started my hike in a jacket, which I immediately shed after half a mile because it gets hot hiking uphill in the sun.

Is that a white North Face jacket? (No, it's Patagonia.) It folds well to stuff into your pack when you don't need it anymore.
We hiked to 9500 feet and as we went up, so did the snow!
3. Plan to spend the majority of your day in a place that's out of service for phones. 
There was no way for me to know that Whiting was going to be a few minutes late, because I never received her text message. That wasn't a big deal. But when we got a little bit lost after a couple of hours, we couldn't access the internet to look at a map. Luckily Whiting had downloaded the trail map and was able to find us.

By noon we had hiked nearly 6 miles of a 13 mile loop and we were NOT going to make it to our strength class at 2! As we hiked higher up, we were able to get a little bit of reception, which allowed us to text folks to let them know we'd be waaaaaay later than expected.

4. Stop to enjoy the scenery. 
Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. But also, stop to enjoy it because if you look around while running, you'll likely trip and fall down.

Our reward 6 miles in was Panorama Point.

5. Keep a positive attitude. 
Those people who ran by looking fresh and happy just walked onto the trail from the parking lot that we passed. We hiked all the way here! Yes, our feet and legs and backs hurt, and we're out here hours longer than we expected. But we're hiking on a mountain, through snow and technical rocks and altitude, and we're crushing it! Look how awesome this is!!
But also there was some sitting down.
6. Bring food and water to last the whole day. 
Once we realized we had at least 2 extra hours to go to get back to the cars, we stopped and took inventory of our remaining food. Then we started rationing gels. In the future we'll bring solid food and a lot of it! And, I didn't realize until I was cleaning up my gear last night that I'd consumed every drop of water in my pack.

7. Save the hardest trail for last, when you're tired. 
We tried a shortcut to get back to the car a little faster. The Black Bear trail was marked as "most difficult" on the map. That's not the greatest idea when you're tired and having a hard time picking up your feet. It took us 30 minutes to hike each mile of the Black Bear trail. However, it was a great excuse to not run much for the last 3 miles!
"Curse you, Black Bear." - Whiting Leary
8. Sing! 
Always end a day of hiking that went 2-3 hours longer than it was supposed to singing showtunes from Hamilton. When Whiting's singing Alexander's part and I'm Aaron Burr, sir, it makes that last long mile so much easier. In our case, we were so tired, giggly, and delirious that we continued singing even when encountering other hikers at the bottom of the trailhead, without a care in the world except for getting to food!

9. Have recovery food in your car. 
Otherwise you'll end up speeding to the closest burger place and binging on gigantic food and milkshakes. We deserved the delicious meal from Bob's Atomic Burgers in Golden, though.

10. Plan the next one in advance. 
We can't wait for next weekend. Trail running is literally the best!

*Of course I borrowed the entire theme of this post from Lin-Manuel Miranda's "10 Duel Commandments" from Hamilton. It only seemed right based on the amount of singing from that musical that we did in the mountains yesterday!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

SwimRun Lake James Race Report 2018: “Adventure!”


SwimRun Lake James was my first swimrun event and I've been looking giddily forward to it since Whiting and I registered for the race in November. The experience was all that I expected and more.

The concept is pretty simple – you race with a partner across the natural terrain of a location. When there’s water, you swim across it, and when there’s land, you run. You’re required to stay within 10 meters of your partner at all times and you can use whatever equipment you want as long as you cross the finish line carrying all the gear you started with. This means that if you want to use fins to swim, you can (we saw one team that did). If you want to bring a rolling suitcase containing various changes of clothing and meals, which Whiting and I joked about many times leading up to race day, I guess you can do that too. The only mandatory equipment for this race was a wetsuit, a whistle, a compression bandage, and a course map.

Equipment 


Wetsuit: Whiting and I both raced in the Zone 3 Evolution wetsuit. This swimrun-specific wetsuit has long neoprene sleeves but the legs are made of thinner material than a normal swimming wetsuit and only go to the knee. This allows for comfortable running. Because you’ll likely be pulling the top of the wetsuit down throughout the day for the longer run segments, there’s a zipper on the front of the suit instead of the back. The suit has pockets inside and out to carry the things you need (gels, etc.). Whiting and I each wore a sleeveless two-piece tri kit under the wetsuit. Shameless Big Sexy Racing sponsor plug: You guys. We spent nearly five and a half hours in these wetsuits and both of us exclaimed after the race about how we had ZERO chafing and none of the normal wetsuit-induced shoulder fatigue.

Trail shoes and wool socks: I raced in Inov-8 Terraclaw 250 trail shoes and mid-length CEP wool socks. The shoes were grippy and perfect on the terrain of the day: slippery wet clay, gravel jeep trails, and soft pine-needle coated forest floor. The wool socks kept my feet warm and the taller sock length kept sand and grit out of my socks. A generous pre-race coating of Ruby’s Lube on my feet kept them free of hot spots and blisters.

Paddles and buoy: Most swimrun competitors choose to use this equipment because swimming with paddles and a buoy offsets the drag of swimming with your shoes on. You strap a buoy to your leg with a bungee cord. You spin it around to the front to use while swimming, then spin it off to the side of your leg to keep it out of the way while running. We used size 1 Strokemaker paddles with wrist straps that made them easy to spin to the outside of the wrist and keep out of the way while running.
The paddles were also handy for writing the lengths of the course segments and the location of the aid stations to keep track of the day. 
Neoprene cap and gloves: Whiting opted to use these wonderful warm items, but I did not. I chose instead to use two regular swim caps “just in case” and no gloves because I “never get cold.” I’m sure you can already guess what happened.

Nutrition: We each carried a soft 17 oz. body bottle (the kind that you carry in a hydration pack for a trail run) that we refilled with water at aid stations and stuffed into the front of our wetsuits for swimming. Although there was nutrition available along the course, we opted to bring our own Gu.

Course


Lake James State Park in Nebo, North Carolina, is beautiful, lush, and green and smells of pine. The lake is clear and cold with little islands scattered about. The race consisted of 3.5 miles of swimming and 13 miles of running inside the state park, broken into 13 swims and 14 runs. The shortest swim was 50 yards and the longest was 1600. The shortest run was across a tiny island, less than a tenth of a mile, and the longest was about 7.5 miles. On race day, the air temperature was about 50 degrees and the water temperature was 56, which turned out to be almost ideal temperatures for alternating swimming and running. Each swim exit was marked with a large American flag and the longer swims were also marked with a small strobe light that you could see from the far shore. The run course was marked with fluttering pieces of pink and orange tape tied to trees, plus the occasional signage.
Course map with swim and run segments 
We swam and ran all over this picture!
Enchanted forest

Participants 


There were about 50 teams taking part in the race, with the men's division and the mixed division containing most of the competitors. I expected most participants to be long-course triathletes like me, but that wasn’t the case at all. We met former ITU racers, former college swimmers, ultrarunners, and ironman triathletes. The one thing all the participants shared was a sense of adventure, because nearly everyone was new to this sport.

Training and Race Plan 


Whiting and I had trained together every Sunday for several weeks before the race, blowing up our friends’ Strava feeds with millions of alternating swims and runs. Our longest workout was 5x (1600 pull/30 minutes of running). These training sessions were invaluable: we learned what kind of encouragement works (shouting “Wheeeee!” when feeling tired was a good one), what paces work for both of us, and what fueling strategy works for a 5-hour day (a gel every 30 minutes with intermittent sips of sports drink). We made a small spectacle of ourselves when we practiced once with full gear in the pool at the Colorado Athletic Center in Boulder and on the Boulder Creek Path. Whiting and I went into the race feeling fully prepared for everything…except swimming in open water! Race day would be our first open water swim of the season, which is definitely a first for me. 

Whiting’s coach, Matt Smith, had generously coached me “as part of the team” for the weekend training sessions with Whiting. He gave us a race plan: Stay comfortable until you get through the long run (7.5 miles, which was right in the middle of the race), then push the pace on all the shorter segments after that. What I say next may surprise you, because you’re reading a blog filled mostly with stories of race plans that were, at best, half-executed. My entire ironman experience has been about making the best out of a situation that has gone wrong, which is great for life lessons, but also, I’m fully aware of how hard it is to actually execute a race plan. It could only be more difficult to execute with a partner – right? Wrong. This was possibly the best executed race of my life, and it was because I had a partner.

And Finally, The Report 


We started 100% dead last, at the very back of the pack. The first segment was a two mile run in which we kept our pace consistent with Whiting’s zone 2 heart rate or below (I chose not to wear a strap, which will not be the case next time). We told ourselves that it would be a long day, that anything could happen, and that we didn’t need to blow up right out of the gate. Follow the plan. I expected this would allow us to make our way through the pack over the course of the day. In the first two miles of running, we slowly passed a couple of teams and then arrived at the first swim entrance.
We're probably behind the photographer in this photo.
The water was a very cold 56 degrees and it felt crazy that we were going to swim it in with wetsuits that had no legs. Whiting was especially concerned about panicking in the cold water, so we took it really easy getting in and getting started. As always it was hard to put my face into cold water and we both paddled heads-up for several strokes – it takes your breath away! Once we were rolling, swimming with paddles and a buoy with a wetsuit and shoes became instantly natural, and we passed another couple of teams in the first 800 yard swim. Then, after a couple of short segments, we came to a swim exit with an American flag and...my parents! Mom and Dad cheered for us as we went on our way. It was really awesome to have them there to pop out and surprise us with support throughout the day.

Pre-race pic with Mom and Dad who just happened to be in the area after attending the Masters golf tournament in Augusta a few days before the race.
We had contact with a couple of teams after that. The general rule was that if there were people in the water when we arrived at a swim start, they’d probably be behind us at the exit. Swimming is a strength for both of us and our confidence certainly allowed our team to shine in the swim segments. However, once we reached the long run segment, we didn’t see another team again for at least 90 minutes. I guess we’re not working our way through the field. We’re on track for our goal time of 5 hours, so who cares if we're out here all alone at the back of the pack? 

Whiting and I moved relentlessly forward but at a comfortable pace, following the fluttering ribbons that marked the way, climbing over fallen trees (and sometimes attempting to crawl under them), squealing when we stepped on "baby Christmas trees" as we made our way through the pine forest. We chattered incessantly, feeling like we were solving all the problems of the world with happy girl talk. We've both been obsessed with reading race reports of the Barkley Marathons, and taking a tip from one of them, we began randomly shouting “Adventure!” when we reached terrain that was slightly more technical.

After the long run came the longest swim of the event: 1600 yards. We saw another team for the first time in almost 2 hours ahead of us in the water. We pulled up the tops of our wetsuits and put our caps and goggles back on, and plunged into the icy water. It. Was. Cold. After running for 90 minutes, we were warm and had gotten over the initial shock of the cold water at the beginning of the race. Now we had to accustom ourselves to it all over again. I felt the icy coldness moving up my feet and legs into my core.

We climbed up onto the shore and started the island-hopping section of short swims and runs. At one point, we ran out of the water onto an island where another team had stopped. One of the men was running in circles on the tiny island. “He’s trying to warm up,” said a race volunteer, “the course is that way.” Okay, so I'm not the only one struggling with the cold. We ran across the island, plunged into the water and swam a short distance to the next exit. This one had a steep, slippery bank with a rope hanging down for us to use to climb up. I tried first and immediately fell back down as a tree branch snapped beneath my feet. As Whiting and I searched for a solution, looking for another way up, the cold team that we had passed came by us and effortlessly leaped up, barely using the rope. One of them turned to grab our hands and help pull us up, and I’m certain that if he hadn’t done that, we’d still be in the lake right now! (Note: Upper body strength is needed for this sport.)

Even with the course segments listed on our paddles, Whiting and I both became a little disoriented and couldn't figure out what segment of the race we were on, or when to expect to be finished. At this point I was really feeling the cold and dreading the last long swim that I knew was coming – 1300 yards. I didn’t want to get back into the cold water for that long (we learned later that 4 teams had been pulled from the race due to the cold).

Eventually as we picked our way through the woods and around a corner, we saw, for the first time that day, a swim course that resembled a triathlon. There were teams of swimmers everywhere. Whiting and I had worked our way into the middle of the pack! My competitive nature perked up and I turned to her and excitedly said, "Okay Whiting, now we do what we do." I was confident that I'd lead and we’d swim well. But as soon as we entered the water, the cold hit me, and I felt like I could barely move my arms. I saw Whiting swim around me and I scrambled to get behind her and draft. Just stay on her feet. It felt impossible at times and I worked as hard as I could to stay with her. That was the fastest swim of our day. Whiting led us past every team that was in the water as I held on for dear life. Teamwork! Execution!

When we arrived at the shore, I screamed with excitement at our progress. Happy to be out of the water, I raced up the hill through the trees. It was Whiting’s turn to hold on, but she wasn’t complaining. We raced past two more teams, giggling and shrieking “Wheeee!” and then we finally approached the last swim of the day. It was a 50 yard swim across to a boat ramp where all the spectators, including Mom and Dad, were waiting and cheering. It was impossible to prevent ourselves from laughing and smiling as we swam side by side across the water. We ran up the boat ramp to the finish line,  where a spectator yelled to us, "those are the best smiles we've seen all day!" We congratulated each other and hugged and exclaimed practically in unison, “This sport was made for us!” Our final time was 5:23 – just 23 minutes longer than our goal time. Our time even ended up being good enough for third place in the female division! What an incredible day, and truly a team effort. I can’t wait for the next one.

The last 50 yards.

Women's division podium pic (photo found online by our amazing friend Maggie who we felt cheering along with us in spirit every step of the way!)
The next one is SwimRun San Juan Islands in Washington in September. Finishing that race qualifies a team to enter the lottery for Otillo, so we’re crossing our fingers to see what happens when that lottery opens later this year. There is no doubt that Whiting and I will do whatever we can to get a spot at the original swimrun race at Otillo in Sweden. Until September, we’ll both be spending more time on the trails to improve our trail running so that our running confidence can match the confidence that we both have in the water. We’ve made a list of things to do differently next time, but I couldn’t be happier with this first experience.

We celebrated with ice cream as we usually do. This photo is proof that Whiting went from "Otillo is scary, I'm not sure" to gleefully googling "How to get into Otillo" after the race.

Takeaways 


The team aspect of this sport is a major part of the appeal for me. I loved racing with Whiting. It was so much fun to share a racing experience with a partner who was experiencing the whole thing right along with me. Endurance racing is often so much about pushing yourself through setbacks to accomplish a personal goal for personal reasons, but racing as a team brings a whole new wonderful dynamic to it. To steal a phrase, it's not triathlon without a bike. It's not a relay. It's a team effort and it's amazing.

Swimming and running across the natural terrain instead of a precisely measured urban course makes it feel like an adventure, and as I've made my way off the roads over the past year in both running and biking, this fits right in. I would never have guessed that I'd love so much the feeling of being a part of the natural environment. This race allowed us to see parts of the state park that you can't get to easily from the roads. It felt untouched and wild.

Although this sport has been growing in Europe for 10+ years, it's new to the US. The race at Lake James was relatively small and there was a feeling of community around it. After the race, Dad commented that "this is what running used to be like." It's really cool to feel like I'm part of something new and a little bit fringey.

A feeling of community at the pre-race meeting.

Join Us!


There were two swimrun races in the US last year. This year there are at least 18 on the schedule. I invite everyone reading to grab a partner and sign up for one of these things and be a part of this growing sport. Adventure!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

You Are In! - The SwimRun Adventure Begins

Nearly four years ago, I returned from Norseman with my eyes opened to a world of endurance racing and multisport challenges that I'd never heard about before. The most appealing event that I learned about from fellow competitors in Norway was Otillo - a SwimRun event in Sweden. "Otillo" translates to "island to island." In this challenging endurance race, you swim to an island and then run across it, and then repeat, repeatedly: 10K of swimming and 40 miles of trail running makes it a beast of an event.

In the past few years, SwimRun has become an increasingly popular sport in Europe. Then, it hopped across the pond - the first SwimRun event in the US was held in 2016 in Maine. The original Otillo event in Sweden is now a world championship race that you have to qualify to participate in. You can also get in by participating in regional SwimRun events and entering a lottery. The wheels in my head started turning as soon as the first US race was announced.

The thing that makes SwimRun different from triathlon (besides the absence of a bike) is that you do the race with a partner. The rules state that you have to stay within 10 meters of your partner at all times while swimming and running, and many teams have opted to accomplish this by tethering themselves together. The team aspect of the event appealed strongly to me, I think because in the early days of running with Shelly, we always behaved like a team, even when racing, and it was difficult to give that up and race "alone" in triathlon.

The appealing team aspect of SwimRun is also a challenge - how do you find a partner who swims and runs at about your same pace, and is willing to train for and participate in this adventure with you? Many have taken to Facebook groups and online forums to look for partners.

Luckily for me, I have a friend who's just as excited about this new sport as I am! Whiting and I met at a Smash triathlon camp three years ago in Arizona. We were placed in the same lane for the 100x100 swim at camp, and became friends that week. Whiting lives in Boulder and encouraged my move to Colorado. A couple of years later, here we are, signed up for not one, but TWO SwimRun adventures: SwimRun Lake James in April in North Carolina, and SwimRun San Juan Islands in Washington in September. The one in September is an Otillo qualifier. We immediately purchased new cool SwimRun specific wetsuits from our Big Sexy Racing team sponsor, Zone 3, which also sponsors SwimRun Lake James.
Another appealing thing about SwimRun - you get to use paddles to offset the drag of swimming with running shoes on.
Whiting and I had our first real SwimRun practice today. We swam/ran/swam/ran in the pool and on the treadmill at her gym in Boulder, and blew up our friends' Strava feeds with 4 workouts. We learned that the second swim was much more difficult than the first, and are both looking forward to our next practice set.
All smiles after our second treadmill run of the day today.
I'm thrilled to be back smashing myself on the weekend, training with a friend. It's exhausting and leaves you starving with jello legs, but there is nothing like it. I came home and emailed the race director of the San Juan Islands event; there had been some confusion over whether the acceptance email we received upon registration was acceptance into the event, or confirmation that our application had been received. He replied within minutes, "You are In!!"

Indeed, we aren't just in - we are ALL IN! I'm so excited for this adventure. I believe 100% that we are both going to love it and will be racing in Sweden one day. I'm really looking forward to our first race in April.

For an interesting and inspiring read about SwimRun, take a look at this article: Why a Swimrun Race Is the Crazy New Fitness Challenge You need to Try. Maybe we'll see you at the start line. :)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

What Matters Most

In early December, at the same time as the "race prep/speed" portion of my Houston Marathon training was getting started, another appealing challenge began. My masters group, the Lakewood Dawgs, started their annual Dawg Days of Winter challenge: 12 days of swimming over a 2-week period. There was no question about whether I would take part in it. This was my biggest year of swimming so far, and I was up for the challenge!
I just love swimming, swimming's my favorite! Awesome silly selfie taken by Whiting. 
The swim challenge was fun. Each day had a different theme, sort of like the 12 days of Christmas. For example, day one was "an endless set of 50s, free" (yes, sing along to the tune of "a Partridge in a Pear Tree"). I learned immediately that the actual challenge of Dawg Days was to get up and swim at 5:30 a.m. masters for 6 days a week for 2 weeks. 

With 4 days left in the challenge, I felt smug about being disciplined enough to get up so early in the morning every day to swim. But I was also feeling a little tickle in the back of my throat. As the day progressed, a cough developed, and I called Dawn to ask for her advice about whether to do my scheduled run that day or to skip it.

Dawn asked me, "well, what matters most to you? The swim challenge or the marathon?" I answered without hesitation: the swim challenge, of course! And I skipped the run. I felt worse the next day, but still showed up to swim, commiserating with other swimmers who confessed that they weren't feeling great either. I showed up to swim the next day, and skipped that day's run as well.

Eventually I couldn't argue that I was "getting sick" anymore. I had a really bad cold that was moving into my chest. I finished the swim challenge and earned my Dawg Days T-shirt, slept for 3 days, and skipped a total of 9 days of running. It took more than 3 weeks to completely get rid of the cold.

Marathon weekend rolled around a few weeks later. I wasn't feeling confident about the race, but I figured I would see what I could do. Houston is a special race for me, especially this year living far away from my family. I was so excited to get to meet up with them in Texas and run this race for a third year.

The Expo displayed shirts from every year of the race's long history.
Here's Dad with the shirt from his race 1989: he still has his shirts from both of his Houston marathons at home.
My awesome nephews and niece - these kids actually enjoy spectating marathons. I'm assuming one (or more) of them will keep up the family tradition and run this race someday. 
On race day, I tried to hold a "moderate" pace at the beginning of the race, but even that felt too hard. I backed off the pace, and as the wheels fell off around mile 14, I thought about that conversation with Dawn. I had picked swimming over running; I had made my bed and now I was lying in it! If I had quit the swim challenge and given myself a chance to rest, I probably wouldn't have gotten so sick, and my performance at the marathon would have been much better. As I plodded along, my pace slowing, I grimly remembered my answer to Dawn's question.

I ended up with one of my slowest marathon times in recent years, a 4:32, and although my legs were hating it, I enjoyed the day. I loved seeing my family on the course and all the volunteers and spectators who had come out to experience the day. After Houston's difficult year, the city was displaying strength and resilience in celebrating their marathon, and I was grateful to be a part of it.

Faking happiness for the sake of Mom's camera.
That being said, until today, I've been feeling uncomfortable about my fitness based on that marathon time. Am I just getting old? Am I slow now? Do I just need to make peace with that? Today, I went for a swim with Whiting and Maggie, my two super-swimmer Boulder friends, and I was so happy to hit my paces on a challenging 4000 meter set. I beamed when Maggie and Whiting complimented me afterwards about how much my swimming has improved. The weeks and months of high volume swimming that I've been doing since September and the 12-day challenge in December have paid off. I gained a little bit of confidence today.

My amazing swimmy friends Maggie and Whiting at our New Year's Eve 100x100 swim.
Happy swim today with matchy matchy paddles, Whiting and I are training for our first SwimRun race.
I'm always excited to see what the lesson is, even if I don't like how it feels at the time. This year's marathon provided a lesson in making decisions and living with the consequences. My goal wasn't really to have a fast marathon, it was to keep up my swim and run volume through the winter to get ready for the next season of swim/run races and trail runs. Even though it would have been really cool to have a fast marathon too, I couldn't have it both ways. I'm grateful to have a mentor who asked me the right question and forced me to be honest. What matters most? Answer that question honestly and you're halfway there.

On the schedule for 2018 (so far):

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ultra Baby! Bear Chase 50k Race Report 2017


After pacing our friend Doug at the Leadville 100 in August, it was inevitable that I'd be inspired to try an ultramarathon. Of course my first wouldn't be a 100 mile race, but I wanted to know what it felt like to run more than 26.2 miles at one time, on trails. Following Doug's advice, I signed up for the Bear Chase 50K, which would take place approximately 6 weeks after inspiration struck at Leadville.

I was concerned that there wouldn't be enough time for a real build for this 31-mile trail race. I haven't been doing that much running this year anyway; I was barely trained to run the 13.1 miles at the end of Boulder 70.3 in August. But a trail race is very different from a road race, and I'd learned in Leadville that there would be a fair amount of hiking instead of running. Without allowing myself to think too carefully about it, I signed up for the race, and the wave of fear-induced nausea that came over me when I pressed the "submit" button was wonderful.

Besides the lack of time to prepare, I had another potential complication going into this first ultra: I would be self-coached for the first time in 7 years. I could write an entire post about the agony of that decision, but the short story is that I couldn't justify the financial cost of having a coach against what I was willing to put into training. I loved having a coach, and it was a fairly large sacrifice to go off on my own. Two months later, I do ultimately feel like it was the best decision for me at the time.

After some online research and some great tips and advice from my lovely friend and original coach(ie) Dawn Elder, I put together a plan for this trail race. It wasn't particularly sophisticated: training consisted of running and swimming a lot, and putting my bike away for a few weeks (our relationship needed a break anyway).

I felt super cool buying all the important necessary gear: a new pair of trail shoes, a hydration backpack, and a hat with a picture of a runner on it. Trent joked that I was wasting no time "rebranding" myself as an ultrarunner. I have to say that it felt very cool to be doing something different.
Super cool, super necessary gear.
The great thing about the race that I picked is that it was right next our apartment. That meant that I got to practice on the course nearly every weekend. Whiting and I had signed up for the race together, and we ran one unlucky training run on the course where she literally broke her foot. I felt terrible for her having to end her season that way, and I wasn't thrilled about continuing to train by myself, but I was committed.

Whiting standing in one of the water crossings on one of our training runs.
It takes a lot longer to run on trails with elevation gain than it does to run on pavement. My 17, 19, and 20-mile training runs were taking upwards of 4 hours. But, in a very short amount of time, I developed an intense love for running on trails. It's the kind of running where you don't have to be distracted by music. You somehow get connected with the air and sky and the ground beneath you and although it hurts to run for several hours at a time, it feels completely different from training to run a particular pace for a road race. It's somehow just completely freeing. Maybe because as a beginner, there are no expectations (from myself or others) of time or pace. I loved training for this race.

Race day itself was a total celebration. The course was 1 small loop and 2 big loops around the Bear Creek Lake park. It was marked by little ribbons tied to trees. There were 7 knee-deep water crossings and 3 hikes up a hill labeled Mt. Carbon, so I am going to say that I ran up a mountain 3 times during this race. It was such a small event with barely any fanfare and just over 100 participants. Basically, it was totally the opposite of an Ironman. I loved it.

I spent the first 20 miles smiling and giggling and apparently breaking into song and dance and jazz hands every time I saw someone with a camera. After I began the 3rd loop, with 11 miles left, the wheels began to come off, and there was plenty of walking from that point on. At the 26 mile mark, I marveled to myself that every step after this would be further than I'd ever ran before. And then the guy in front of me yelled "rattlesnake" and 3 of us had to jump over a terrifying snake, which at that point in the day, took quite a great deal of energy!

Jazz hands

More jazz hands
Doug was volunteering to direct traffic about halfway through the big loop. Seeing him was amazing and I cheerfully thanked him for the inspiration. Doug and Whiting's kids were volunteering at an aid station just down the hill, and it was so fun to see familiar happy faces three times on the course. I finished the race with a cheering section led by Trent, Whiting, and Annette, whose husband had also raced.

My race took seven hours. I have never run for such a long time in my life. After talking with friends post-race, I realized that starting my triathlon journey as a fairly slow participant actually gave me a huge mental advantage as a beginner at this event. There was a ton of suffering out there on the last loop of the run, but mine was minimal compared to that of other participants. I know what it's like to suffer through a 7 hour half ironman, and a 16 hour ironman race. Other folks making the leap to "ultramarathon" likely do it after a few successful marathons, and running 26.2 fast miles on a road is very different from running 31 miles on trails.

I wasn't even close to fast; in fact, of 133 entrants, I finished in 100th place, near the bottom of my age group. None of that mattered. I was so excited to finish my first ultra and to be able to say with pride, "I am an ultrarunner!"

Although I know my true love is triathlon, running is always like coming home. Trail running is quickly becoming one of my favorite things to do. I think back to some camp experiences where I described trail running as "the seventh circle of hell," and it makes me laugh to think about how different my mindset is now.

As always there is a common denominator in endurance racing of any kind. I love that all of it has the same kind of lesson for me - what can I do? How far can I push myself out of my comfort zone? I think the answer is "pretty far," and I'm fairly certain I haven't even scratched the surface yet. I say it every year around this time, and I'm saying it again: I can't wait to see what's next.