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!

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.