Monday, July 16, 2018

Regular blogging -- I can do this!

In my work as an educator, I see how people process their thinking in different ways.  For some, it's through quiet reflection, for others, it's through conversation, for some, sketching, and so forth.  I think for me, writing is how I best process my thinking.  That's why I started this blog a few years ago.

For a long while, I was using my blog mostly to process my thoughts about races.  For maybe five years, I was running about one ultra a month, so my blog posts were pretty frequent.  Now, however, since I haven't been racing, I haven't been blogging.  While I keep a daily journal, most of these entries are bullet points, and it's just not the same as typing out my thoughts in a slightly more formal way, with the possibility of a real-world audience.  (Even if it's just my mom, who I know subscribes to my blog posts.  Thanks, Mom!)

So I'll start with an update.  Over the past 7 weeks, I've averaged 52 miles a week.  The longest run was 26.9 miles.  I feel like I'm getting back the consistency that's key to ultrarunning.  However, I still am not at all confident that I could finish an ultra at this point.  When I do a 10-mile run, I slog and plod, wondering in disbelief how I was ever able to do 50- and 100-mile races.  Running is hard!  I can barely accomplish double digits right now.

I had seriously considered doing Muleshoe Bend 60k last weekend, just to gut it out and see if I could finish.  (That would have been my longest run since February.) . But Joe and I looked at our calendars last week and realized that that was the only weekend this whole summer where we could take the kids up to Houston to see their grandparents, so we did that instead.  I'm still hoping to do Colorado Bend and Reveille Peak Ranch 60ks and be abundantly humbled, but also get good training in for our Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim adventure at the end of September.

Joe (who has also been taking a break from serious training and racing) recently commented that he feels like he has good balance in his life now.  I think I feel that way, too.  In the past, running played such a huge role in my life -- in terms of time, energy, money, and also as the generator of and connection to many friendships.  Ultra running became a huge part of my identity, and played a big role in my self-worth, as well as helping me find a niche in my new community after moving to Texas.  Running definitely played too big a role in my life for me to say that my life was "balanced" -- and yet, I was pretty happy with that lack of balance.

Now, my identity has shifted so greatly.  Since December, I have taken on new roles as a wife and a stepmom to two girls.  Running has taken a backseat to family commitments.  And I gratefully accepted this shift, as I was really burned out, mentally and physically, after last year's ultras.  I think my recent uptick in mileage has been good for actually bringing running back into my life.  Not as the forefront, anymore, but as a complement to (and therapy for) the newer parts of my identity.

I do hope that I can have success in ultras again, but I can't say when that will realistically happen.  Probably not this year.  But I think keeping consistency in my running mileage will be key to coming back to ultrarunning at some point in my future.  (It could happen, right?!)

So here's to more frequent blogs, as Joe and I both try to become runners again.  Thanks for reading, Mom!  :)

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Mt Sneffles for Dummies

"Are you okay, Jules?"

"Um . . . yeah. [Long pause.]  I don't know what you mean by 'okay.'  If you mean, 'Am I certain I'm not going to die," then no.  If you're asking if I can keep going, then yes."

This exchange happened somewhere on the way up Mt. Sneffles last week.  I don't know what prompted Joe to ask me if I was okay -- whether it was just the incredibly slow speed with which I was crawling up the boulders, or whether my anxiety was showing that clearly in my face.  But he had asked me a few times before I finally tried to clarify what exactly he meant by the question.

You can't see the anxiety on my face, but it is there.

---The Prelude---

When we had decided that we were going to do the Blue Lakes trail to Mt. Sneffles the night before, I was only a tiny bit nervous.  We read in the guidebook at our Airbnb that there was one tricky part that was "pretty exposed," where you had to climb up a "chimney" of rock about 150 feet below the summit.  The guidebook author went to the trouble of even suggesting the placement of your feet at this part, to step with your left foot first, and then shimmy around to the right, et cetera.  He wrote that you may feel inclined to turn around at this point, before reaching the summit, but that if you just make it past this tricky obstacle, the rest of the climb wouldn't involve any technical climbing.  After reading that, I was a little nervous about that chimney, but other than that, I just imagined a steep hike up a mountain, not really a big deal.  I had no idea what the reality would be like.

---The Hike to the Base---

When we started our hike at 9,000+ ft elevation that morning, we had a glimpse of the mountain towering in the distance.  Joe tried to point it out to me, but I refused to look.  I have an anti-telling-me-how-far-we-have-left-in-our-hikes policy, and this seemed like borderline violation of the policy.  I did not want to contemplate getting up to that peak; it seemed impossible.  And I told Joe as much.

Joe took a picture of Mt. Sneffles from the start of our hike.  I preferred to ignore the mountain in the distance, as it is clearly impossible to get to.

We passed by the Lower and Upper Blue Lakes, which were very pretty, and then headed up the switchbacks to Blue Lakes Pass, elevation ~12,900 ft.  The trail up to the pass scared me, because the singletrack was alongside a mountain, and very eroded, so with every step on the loose scree and dust, I worried that I would slip and tumble all the way down to the lake.  I asked for Joe's reassurance that I wouldn't die if I slipped here.  Poor Joe granted me reassurance for what would be the first of about 1,000 times that day.  Little did we know.

Pretty blue lakes!  I was already getting nervous at the top of the pass.

---The Ascent---

Once we got over the pass, we could see Mt. Sneffles in all its 14,150ft glory.  I still refused to look too hard at it; I figured if I just focused on one step at a time, I would get there, without freaking out too much about the danger.

Joe's trail map/GPS app told him that from the base of the mountain, there is only 0.6 miles to get to the summit.  Now, having summited, Joe and I both agreed that this is bull***t.  It's not just the fact that we had a 1:08:29 mile and a 2:31:01 mile (as in two hours and thirty-one minutes) while ascending and descending that make me say this; it also looked and felt like way more than 0.6 miles each way.

On the way up, we encountered many people on their way down.  They were spread out all over the side of the mountain facing us.  There is no trail; people were just choosing their line of boulders and scree.  Some parts of the mountainside were strewn with larger boulders, some with smaller scree, and some parts were just loose dust, due to weathering and erosion.  I don't know how many of these people made it all the way to the summit; perhaps many only made it to the ridgeline and then headed back down.  We passed a father with a child wearing a helmet pretty close to the base of the mountain; she already looked scared and probably didn't make it too much past that point.

After Joe and I had picked our way a little up the scree field, a lady gave us the advice to cross over to the left, because the line we had chosen would get worse and worse the higher we ascended.  To cross to the left meant leaving the larger rocks and scrambling over a loose, dusty section.  That was pretty scary for me, even wearing trail shoes -- I slipped a bit, and by this point, the side of the mountain was very steep.  Poor Joe was worse off, footwear wise -- his trail shoes had lost all their tread by this point in our vacation, to the point where he commented to another hiker, "I might as well be wearing loafers!"

Once we painstakingly made it to the ridgeline, Joe said that we had to turn left.  For the first time in the hike, I tilted my head up and to the left, in the direction of the summit.  And, holy sh*t, there was another ascent just as long and difficult-looking as the one we had just accomplished.  Once we proceeded up it, I realized it was actually more difficult, because it involved rock climbing.  We ran into some more folks on their way down.  One of the men we passed told us he planned to buttslide the entire way down.  "I don't even care," he added.  This comment alerted me to the very scary fact that I had to not only get to the top of this mountain, but that I would also have to GET BACK DOWN!  As soon as that terrifying thought crept into my head, I pushed it back out again, vowing not to think about that until the time came.  I kept my head down, looking only at the rocks directly in front of me, not down the mountain or up to the summit, and answered Joe's questions about whether I was okay as best as I could.

The view after we turned left.  Still not at the top!

Finally, after gingerly climbing up the rock face for what seemed like forever, we reached what seemed like the top.  We had a great view in front of us -- if you cared to look over the edge -- and steep rock face to the left and right of us.  Joe was wondering how to get up that rock face, and starting to climb up it, when a lady climbed up to where we were and commented that where Joe was heading didn't look do-able.  She had summited once before, years ago, and she didn't remember exactly where you were supposed to go up, but she was pretty sure it wasn't where Joe was.

After a minute of searching, she called out that she thought she had found the place.  It also looked impossible, but at least there was evidence that it had been trafficked by others.  We followed her to the place she pointed out, and Joe took the lead, followed by me, and eventually this lady and her two friends.  This was that "chimney" obstacle mentioned in the guidebook.  It did, indeed, appear impossible.  But impossible doesn't mean anything to Joe, so he shimmied right on up and then called to me to follow.  I asked, "Are you sure??" but followed, and it was, in fact, do-able.  From there to the top of the peak, though, felt very exposed, and I suddenly was very, persistently, aware that we were on top of a 14,000+ ft mountain, that we would die if we fell off, and that we would have to get back down somehow, which would be even scarier than the way up -- and that the entire way back down would carry the fear of falling off the mountain to a gruesome death.

---The Summit---

Once at the summit, I took off my pack and sat tight near the metal box that held the summit logs.  I pretty much didn't move from that spot the entire time we were at the summit.  In the meantime, Joe walked all around, appreciating the view of the blue lakes in the distance, taking photos and video.  The only time I moved around was when the ladies offered to take our picture.  I tried to make my least-frightened face for the camera so we could get the traditional "Hold the cardboard sign" photo.  Joe gently admonished me for not looking at the view, so I gingerly crept toward the edge and gave it a quick glance.  I figured I'd wait to appreciate the view until we were safely back on the ground and I could appreciate it by looking at Joe's photos.  Joe ate lunch on the summit, but I was too scared to linger over my sandwich, so I gobbled down a banana and waited eagerly to leave.  The sooner off the summit, the sooner back on solid ground, I felt.

My view.  In the distance, Joe enjoying the actual view.
I joked with one of the ladies that I'd be happy to spring for a helicopter to take us back down.  She agreed, and Joe commented that if we split the cost a few ways, it would be relatively affordable.  I took comfort in the fact that this lady seemed as scared as I was.  It was with bitter reflection about 30 minutes later that I realized she must have been nowhere near as scared as I was, because she moved down the mountain much faster than I did, and seemed to have no trouble.  I, on the other hand . . . well, as I've stated earlier, we had a 2:31:01 mile on our way back down.

Requisite summit picture.  Joe looks so relaxed!
One more of Joe taking in the view.  "I can see our car from here!"
Joe takes the best panos.  See, I'm admiring the view now!

---The Descent---

The lady who had summited this peak before seemed like she knew what she was doing, so we were hoping to follow her back down.  However, as she and her friends started down -- a different way than we had come up -- a man asked Joe to "spot him" as he traversed down the chimney.  Except he kept calling Joe "Tom."  Joe got a weird vibe from him, and didn't want to get caught behind him, so Joe watched him start going down the chimney route, and then we set off to try to follow the girls.  I was creeping so slowly over the rocks, though, that we soon lost them, and Joe was having to do the route-finding himself.  The climbing got steeper and steeper, and I was already freaking out and feeling unsafe, when Joe told me to stay put and climbed up a rock to peer over the edge and find the route.  What he saw, I don't even want to picture, but basically he realized that there was no way down from the rock ledge we had gotten ourselves onto.  He says that at this point was when his stomach clenched and he got a little nervous.  He turned back to me and told me we had to retrace our steps and climb back up.  

Joe says I didn't really have a "panic attack" at this juncture, but it may be the closest I've come.  He climbed back up until he was above me, and when I tried to move to follow him, I found that I was frozen with fear.  I just kept repeating the same things over and over again: "I don't think I can do it, Joe.  I don't know where to put my foot.  I'm sorry, Joe, I shouldn't have come.  I can't do it."  Just those 3-4 sentences on repeat.  Joe reminded me later that I even apologized to God at this point, which I do remember doing -- it was a slip of the tongue, as I was saying "Oh, God" and apologizing to Joe at the same time.  When he saw that I really could not climb the steep rock face on my own, he held out his hand to pull me up.  I don't know how I can stress this enough, but we were on a sheer cliff with a few thousand feet of fresh air between us and the ground, and all I could think was that if Joe took my hand, we would both fall to our deaths.  But I couldn't pull myself up, so I had no option but to trust that Joe could lift me up safely.  I grabbed his hand, and he hoisted me up to his level.  He had to repeat this once more before we were able to cross over to the couloir that the other ladies had gone down.  

Once in the couloir, my terror did not really subside much.  We had to cross from one side of the gully to the other, over boulders which had about a 50% chance of moving and rolling downhill when you put your weight on them.  Whereas on our way up, we saw plenty of people, on our way down, there was no one else on the mountain, so we had no reference as to which lines were best to follow.  To say that I took it slowly would be the understatement of the year.  I practiced my forwards-crab-crawl the entire way back down to the ridge where we had to turn right . . . and then the entire way back down the mountainside.  Meanwhile, Joe was standing upright, choosing the best route for me to follow, and periodically reassuring me that we wouldn't die.  I remember one exchange:

"Joe, do you think we'll get down alive?"
"I think our chances are 100% at this point.  They might have slipped down to 99.5% at one point, when we were on the ledge. . ."

About mid-way down the mountain face, I asked Joe to give me a hug once we were back down.  When we reached the boulder field at the bottom, he turned to give me that hug, but I just looked at him, shook my head, and said that it didn't feel safe yet.  A little further down, I apologized for rejecting his hug, and claimed one from him.  But I didn't really feel safe until we were back at the juncture where the "0.6 miles" to the top had begun.  (Bulllllllsh******t!)

Once we'd hiked away from the base of the mountain, we looked up at it, and Joe asked me if I could see the path we'd taken.  I said, "We didn't go up that way, did we?  That's impossible!"  

We're alive!  Praise God!  Now let's never do that again.

---The Hike Back---

We had a long denoument -- it was almost 7 miles back to the Blue Lakes trailhead where we left our car.  Due to my SKT (slowest known time) down Mt. Sneffles, it was already dinnertime as we shuffled back over the pass, down past the blue lakes, and back through the treeline.  We were too exhausted to go out to eat, so we went to the grocery store instead and got a couple steaks -- which Joe grilled to perfection -- and some ice cream.  It was a perfect end to the day, just what my frazzled nerves needed.  And I vowed to never do something that adventurous again.  

---The End---

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Ice Cream Challenge 2018: Race Recap

Joe and Julie Schmal, RDs

A humid day dawned on Saturday, May 19.  Hungry competitors gathered for the annual spring food challenge.  Moments before the starting gun, a sound chimed through the starting corral: the ping of a text message.  Race directors checked their phones, and read the fateful text from favored competitor Chris Russell: “Going to be 5 minutes late.  Fat fingered address.” 

Back at her house, Sheila, watching Netflix, saw the same text, and thought . . . “Am I supposed to be somewhere?”  As she scrambled to change into running clothes and head to the race, her fellow competitors began their quest for greatness.

Runners gathered at the start, tackling the first ice cream treat. MJ on lead bike.
The Cactus Kid asked the rules committee a seemingly innocuous question after the race briefing – “Can we start running with our mouth full of ice cream, or do we have to fully swallow it all before leaving?”  Not seeing much of a difference either way, the committee responded that you just couldn’t leave carrying ice cream with you.

The gun went off and the Chipwich was the first treat.  In a matter of seconds, the Cactus Kid was running down the driveway with nearly the entire cookie-ice-cream combo in his mouth, along with MJ on the lead bike.  The remaining competitors stared in disbelief.  Things had gotten serious very quickly.

Joevonne “The Kid” took off after Russell, but made quick work of him.  This pattern would continue each loop: Joevonne would come in first; Tom would come in second, eat, and then leave before Joevonne.  The only person quicker than Tom in the aid stations was Sweet Chris.  Steffen, a race-day entry, was strong from the get-go, steadily plugging away through the eating and running, despite his feeling that “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Meanwhile, in the JV race, Patrick Hayes was kicking butt and taking names, flying up and down the hilly course with his son, Karl, in a jogging stroller.  Chris “The Sheriff” Porter speculated that the stroller must have been equipped with an engine, because it seemed like Hayes was being pulled up the hills, he was so smooth and strong.  Perhaps the trash-talking directed at Patrick before the race motivated his strong performance.  As was noted at the finish line, “Winners don’t need to trash talk.”

Sheila demolishing her Chipwich.

Despite Sheila’s late start (she arrived 5 minutes after the official start), she pulled off a 2nd place finish in the JV competition, somehow packing away those novelty ice cream treats in her small frame.  Had the race committee been a little stricter, she would have been awarded 1st place, as Patrick’s son was observed to be eating some of Patrick’s ice cream for him.  The Sheriff held steady at 3rd place in the JV race, and his son Joe and Joe’s girlfriend Lauren brought up the rear, having downgraded to the JV race so they didn’t feel too ill to attend prom later that evening.  Perhaps prom daydreams were the cause of their missed turn and off-course excursion.  And perhaps, as the Deputy himself commented, “I need to start training more.”  Or, as his dad said, “He needs to start training at all.”
The reason for the asterisk . . . to be fair, it was this or a tantrum.

 Both the varsity and JV racers endured the Chipwich, Klondike Bar, and Drumstick loops.  Varsity runners continued on to the Snickers, Popsicle, and finally, pint of ice cream loops.  Runners in the varsity competition pretty much held their positions through the first five loops – Joevonne in first, Tom in 2nd, Steffen in 3rd, Chris in 4th, Joe in 5th, Mike in 6th, and Jason in 7th.  Everyone knew the race would really come down to the pint.

The advantage to finishing the 5th loop the fastest was in getting the first pick of pint flavors.  Joevonne, coming in first, chose vanilla, thinking the bland taste might be easier to swallow.  Unfortunately, his 14-year-old stomach just didn’t have the same capacity as the bigger guys’, and he admitted defeat partway through, despite his strong showing up to that point.  However, both Joevonne and his mom Yvonne continued the run, taking off for their 6th loop after DNFing the ice cream.  One must wonder at their opinion of the Rockhoppers, this being their first impression of us . . .
Joevonne, still looking strong with his pint . . .

. . . and then things took a turn.

Bowling came in second from loop 5, and chose strawberry, as a change for his palate.  Third in was Steffen, who settled on mint chocolate chip.  Sweet Chris, surrounded by a harem of 3, came in fourth.  This is where things took a turn.  With all competitors seated and working on their pints, Bowling was the first to spring out of his chair, looking as strong as he did on lap 1.  A hushed silence followed, and as the awe-inspiring Bowling took off on his final loop, the collective goose bumps of the crowd indicated something truly special was occurring.  The race was over at that point; Bowling had established himself as the winner.

Tom, with victory in the bag.

Back at the aid station, Russell steadily shoveled in his ice cream.  Despite coming in after Steffen, he took off next.  Russell ran scared the entire loop, pushing hard to each turn so Steffen wouldn’t be able to see his 6’8” frame.  The tactic paid off, as Steffen figured Chris had an insurmountable lead, and gave in to a walk.

 It was no surprise to the gathered spectators and recovering JV racers to see Bowling smash the tape at the finish line.  (Tom’s finish line comment was, “All right!  I lapped Jason!”) There was still speculation about who would be seen next.  Lo and behold, it was Sweet Chris, with Steffen following three minutes later.  There was some heckling from bystanders that Chris was phoning in his finish – had he “dug deeper,” he would surely have broken 1:40.

Ruhlin, who has dominated every Rockhopper eat and run challenge in which he has participated until now, might have finally met his match in the ice cream challenge.  He finished in a strong 4th place, and was awarded an honorary Rockhopper t-shirt by Rockhopper swag entrepreneur, Tom Bowling.  Perhaps there weren’t enough calories in the race for Ruhlin, who it is rumored, stopped off at Dairy Queen on his way back to Austin, to satiate his appetite. 

Schmal, who looked like death from the beginning and talked about dropping after loop 2, found a second wind and finished the race in 5th place.  Jason, who chose banana nut for his pint flavor, because “I always eat bananas at aid stations,” finished DFL in his first eat and run competition.  (We hope it’s the first of many.)

Bowling, in interviews after his big win, commented that this food challenge was easier for him than others have been.  He credited the ice cream with his strong running performance, saying, “The sugar fuels your run!”  Strava data confirms the strength of his running; he had a sub-8-minute-mile in the second lap.  As Sheila commented, the big guys – Tom and Chris – dominated this race; maybe something to do with their proportionally larger stomachs?  Russell’s summation of the race included the comment that “At least we finally beat Ruhlin.  We brought the title home.”

The podium.

Varsity (10 miles, 1900 calories)
1st place – Tom “Wrong Way” Bowling 1:37:12
2nd place – Chris “Cactus Kid” Russell 1:40:00
3rd place – “The” Steffen Andersland 1:43:00
4th place – Mike “The Ringer” Ruhlin 1:44:30
5th place – Joe “Schmo” Schmal 1:46:02
6th place – Jason “Spleen” Espalin 1:54:53 DFL
DNF – Joevonne “The Kid” Juarez (DNF’d the pint; ran all 10 miles) 1:53:34
DNF – Yvonne “The Shrouded One” Juarez (DNF’d the pint; ran all 10 miles) 1:53:34

JV (5 miles)
1st place* -- Patrick “Manpris” Hayes 44:13
2nd place – Sheila “Cowgirl” Pinkson 50:48
3rd place – Chris “The Sheriff” Porter 53:33
4th place – Lauren “Prom Queen” Love 1:26:24
5th place – Joe “The Deputy” Porter 1:26:29

Monday, April 9, 2018

Open doors

In my last blog post, I talked about the joys of taking a break.  But now it's been a full two months of not training for anything and not running every day.  That includes five weeks of running 20 miles or less per week, and I'm starting to get restless.  I think there are a few key reasons for this restlessness.

One: Although I have enjoyed getting to do other activities, like yoga and the gym, they are harder to fit in the schedule than running.  If I find an extra hour in my day, I can much more easily shove my feet into sneakers and go for a run than look up the yoga class schedule and get myself there, or schedule a session at the gym and drive there.  So the last couple weeks I haven't made yoga happen, although I have stuck to my gym routine.  But on the whole, I'm doing less activity now than when I was running more consistently.  Which leads me to #2 . . .

Two: I can feel the "freshman (-year-of-marriage) fifteen" creeping up, yet I refuse to sacrifice our marital commitment to Ben & Jerry's pint night (which is every Sunday at our house).  So I feel the need to raise my activity level to balance out my Half Baked consumption.

Sweet, sweet Half Baked.  I never knew it was possible to eat an entire pint by myself, until I met Joe.  Bad Joe.

Three: It's kind of a stressful time now, with transitions.  Last week I defended my dissertation.  This week I'm putting the final touches on formatting and submitting it to the world (via ProQuest).  I submitted a letter of resignation to my beloved employer today, and accepted a position elsewhere, which I'm incredibly nervous about.  I feel like committing to a training plan might give me some direction and a bit of stress release at this time.

I had never put a min. or max. on how long my rest break from running would be.  I figured I would just know when I was ready to fully commit again.  I hoped that I'd start to itch for running every day, and that would be my sign.  I think I'm there now. . . . but if I start again and realize otherwise, I give myself permission to change my mind -- especially since the rest of adult life is decidedly anti-mind-changing, which makes things difficult.  (Did I mention my stress over leaving my job??)

In sketching out my training plan for the rest of the month, I decided to start small.  Like, really small.  I haven't been the same runner who could run a 50k on any given weekend, no problem, for a long time -- like September of last year.  I figure it'll take a while to get back there.  I haven't chosen a goal race or anything; I just plan to regain consistency and see how it feels.  

Here's my goal for this week:
Monday    Tuesday    Wednesday    Thursday    Friday    Saturday    Sunday     Week
4                5                4                    4                3             3*               3*             26

*We'll be traveling to Rhode Island to stay with Joe's aunt; he'll be running the Boston Marathon!

And the rest of the month's weekly totals:
April 16-22: 30 miles
April 23-29: 30 miles

I'll see how it goes and adjust accordingly.  So far, 4 miles done today on trails made me very happy.  I'm actually already looking forward to tomorrow's run, especially since it's become my weekly trail run with Joe.   And because it's always followed by socializing at Freetail Brewery.  Yeah, that might have something to do with it.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The evolution of a break

In February, I decided to put the brakes on racing ultras for the time being (despite the fact that I was already registered for two 100k races in March).  It was too stressful trying to race at suboptimal fitness and worrying about how these races might affect trying to conceive.  And did I mention the suboptimal fitness?  My last few races (Cactus, Bandera, Tarawera) had not gone well. I hadn’t felt good during them, and I hate the feeling of not doing well at races.  

So although I wouldn’t say I used the family planning as an excuse to cover my real reason for taking a break from ultras — I don’t think that was the case — I will say that the timing worked out for the best. It’s the right time for a break from racing.  It’s a decision I should have made after I DNF’d at Cactus. Or after not feeling great at Bandera. But I might never have made that decision if not for the other excuse. 

At the end of October, after I took a DNF at a race I’ve always said was my favorite ultra of the year, Joe told me he thought I was burned out. He suggested that doing Tahoe 200 and J&J 100k so close together may have resulted in me just being plain tired, and said maybe I needed a break. So I took one, not racing in November or December, but I refused to believe I was burned out, and I continued to train as usual (which is to say, not well, but consistently).

During this time, I ran into my friend Edward on a run, and he said the same thing as Joe — that maybe I was burned out and needed to take a break. But like, a real break. Once again, I refused to listen to someone who knew me better than I knew myself. 

Ultimately, I couldn’t make the decision to take a full-stop break from racing until it was no longer just about my running performance, but about someone — the possibility of a someone — besides myself. 

When I made that decision in February, I was planning to continue running as usual. That next week, Strava shows I did 61 miles. The following two weeks I ran 35-40 miles a week. Definitely not up to my usual weekly mileage, but still decent.  I went in and changed my “weekly goal” in Strava to 45 miles. And my intention was to continue in that manner. 

But the week after that, I finally realized that this is the perfect time to take a break from the stress of meeting any weekly mileage goals. Now would be the time to do those yoga classes I’ve been wanting to do, enjoy hiking and biking, and go to the gym more often. All those things I’d never have time for when all my free exercise time goes toward trying to hit a weekly mileage goal. 

So that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s been great, and somehow I’m already in my fourth week of this running break. My running mileage these last three weeks has only been in the teens. I’m not sure how long I’ll continue the break. Maybe until I start to miss running every day.  Maybe that’s the best signal that I’ve turned the corner from burnout and I’m renewed and ready to begin training again.  

When I do start training again, I’m thinking about doing something Joe Prusaitis recommended to me a few years ago, at the lodge in Bandera.  To choose a goal race, and legitimately train for it. What a concept.  I’m excited to try that out, as opposed to just racing an ultra every month and running during the week with no specific plan or intentionality in mind. 

My other motivation will be to prepare for a R2R2R trip with the Rockhoppers in late September. It will be my second time, and Joe’s first.  I figure, if we aren’t able to have a kid, at least I’ll have adventures like this to look forward to.  A consolation prize, of sorts. Our last R2R2R trip was a blast, and it would be exciting to do it again with Joe.  

Life is good. 

R2R2R 2014

Ribbon Falls, R2R2R detour

Rest break on the North Rim

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Tarawera 62k (Alternate title: Bighorn 2: Bighorn’s Revenge)

We came to New Zealand as our “engagement trip” (i.e., the trip we paid for using the money we saved by not getting an engagement ring), and we decided to do a race as long as we were here. Joe had never heard of the Tarawera Ultra before, but I had, and was eager to check it out. 

Joe at packet pick-up, before his weigh-in 

We had both registered for the 102k distance, but as the race approached, I was really nervous about doing it. As Katie Grossman put it so well in her recent article (I don’t know how to insert a link using this app, so here it is:, I’m trying lately to make my body a friendly, hospitable environment in case someone else would like to take up residence there for nine months. Running 102k in the pouring rain, in the mountains, with 10,000ft vertical gain, didn’t seem conducive to that. 

The day before the race, as I stressed about it and Joe and I talked about it, he encouraged me to try to separate it into two decisions: decide first whether you don’t want to do the race because it’s going to be a miserable suffer-fest in the rain, separately from whether you don’t want to do it because it might impact conceiving this month. But I couldn’t separate the two; it was BECAUSE it was going to be a strenuous muddy suffer-fest, in the chilly rain all day, that I was especially worried. I decided to ask at the expo whether I could drop down to the 62k, and then I’d feel better about it. Happily, they did let me, no hassle at all, and I felt so relieved.  

Come race day, however, it was impressed upon me how prideful and silly it was to think that running 62k (40 miles, according to my Garmin) with about 6,000ft of vertical gain, in the rain and slippery mud (AHH! Bighorn flashbacks!) would be comfortable. I had thought, going into it, that I’d just keep a conversational pace, and manage my food and drink intake, and my body wouldn’t be too stressed. But it seems I’m just not able to keep control well enough in an ultra. Over the course of the race, I ran out of calories between aid stations that were 10 miles apart, became light-headed, got my heart rate up really high on the long climbs where I kept sliding backwards in the mud, and just generally felt exhausted. I also suffered through anterior tib pain whenever I dorsiflexed or plantar-flexed, as well as a sting or bite from some exotic New Zealand insect that stung like a mother****** for a few hours—but I can deal with those things; it’s the general exhaustion and stress on my body that caused me even more stress during the race, as I thought about the consequences for our chances of conception this month. 

Despite this psychological stress, however, the race certainly had its bright spots. It was really well-organized. Joe and I easily stepped into a bus that took us to his starting line, and I was able to cheer for him when he started. Then I easily stepped into another his that took me to my starting line.  (Both races were point-to-point and ended back in Rotorua.) I also got to see an impressive Maori war dance before my start.

 Maori war dance we saw the day before the race

Passing by the roaring Tarawera Falls and several beautiful lakes were other highlights, as were the enormous redwood trees and lush ferns all around. The scenery throughout the race was spectacular.  (The only drawback to the nice scenery was in the last 3-4 kilometers, when we ran through beautiful thermal areas, with smoke billowing from the ground. The smell seemed beyond the usual sulfuric nastiness you’d expect near a geyser. It smelled like sulfur mixed with rotten garbage and diarrhea. Maybe it was just because I was already a bit queasy, but I had to stop running and plug my nose. I felt like I could barely breathe and my gag reflex started up. The finish line couldn’t come soon enough!)

The scenic (and smelly) thermal areas in Rotorua. 

I had been looking forward to observing any differences between the races I’ve done in the U.S. and this, my first international race. One observation was that there was very little in the way of portable food at the aid stations. There were no gels or chews or anything packaged, and the sandwiches and brownies they had got soggy in between aid stations. (The brownies were delicious, though.) Joe accidentally took a Marmite sandwich at one aid station — a costly mistake.  

(I tried some at breakfast the other day. Blech!)

I also got to see Joe twice—because the 62k cuts off a bit of a loop, Joe was able to pass me twice. He looked so good. Honestly, the first time he passed me, I was a little upset that he didn’t have the decency to look as miserable as I felt. He seemed quite chipper, in fact. By the time I saw him the second time, his attitude was slightly more appropriate for a difficult 102k. Still, despite running 40k (24 or so miles) more than me, with only an hour head start, he still beat me to the finish line. 

Joe ran me in to the finish, and I’m sure we made a funny pair—me with my limp from anterior tib pain, and him barely recovered from finishing his race strong. They announced something about each person as they finished, and ours was that we were on our honeymoon—or runningmoon, as they put it. Both race directors gave us a big hug. It was a great finish atmosphere.  We walked over to a bench away from the crowds and shared our race stories with one another. I love that we can relate so well to what the other experienced, since we’re both out there in the same terrain and conditions. 

This experience really changed my mind, from thinking that I can keep running 50ks while we’re trying to conceive, to realizing that I want to be more in control of what I’m experiencing, and I want to minimize the stress to my body at this time. So Tarawera will be the last race I do for a while.  After we’re done trying, or after we have kids, then, of course, I’ll go back to destroying my body with this silly sport.  (Habanero, anyone?)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tarawera Countdown: T Minus 3.5 Weeks (and a bonus story about peeing)

So, four weeks out from the Tarawera 100k, Joe and I finally decided to check out the course profile.

I wouldn't have thought of it myself, but Joe started asking questions like, "Do you think it's really hilly?" and when I realized I had no clue, I relented and opened the course website.  My web browser informed me that I had "Last visited" the race website on July 29 -- probably the day we bought our plane tickets, when we visited the page to check the date of the race.  Yeah, we are pretty bad at preparation.

It turns out the race has about 10,000 feet of elevation gain.  And I think I mentioned in my last post that it was all I could do to finish 50k at Bandera a couple weeks ago.  I took some comfort in the FAQ page of the Tarawera race website.

Here's an excerpt:
Q: I am not sure if I can do this ..
A: That’s the whole point. This is not designed to be an event that you know with certainly you can finish. It is designed to be an adventure that will push many of you to run further than you have before. If you have completed a marathon previously, you are well on track to finish any distance of the Tarawera Ultra. 

"Oh good!  I've completed a marathon!  I'm 'well on track,' Joe!"

If you have successfully completed an event like the Kepler Challenge, a half Ironman or Coast to Coast, the 102km ultra-distance is well within your grasp. You’ll still have to train diligently though.  

"Oh, wait.  They say I have to train diligently."

If you have a history of tramping in the hills and have strong legs and endurance, you should be able to complete any of the ultra distances, even with little running background.

"'Little running background!'  Maybe I can do this!"

My hopes and doubts about finishing keep roller-coastering just like that, even when I'm not reading the helpful race website.  Joe assures me I'll definitely be able to finish in under the 24-hour cutoff -- which brings on a whole new wave of fear.  Being out there for 24 hours?  That sounds terrible!  This is our vacation.  Death marches don't belong on vacations!  But then again, I think I could stand not having any more DNFs in this lifetime.  So there's that for motivation.

I'll leave you with a terrible story:

When we were car camping in the field at Bandera a couple weeks ago, Joe and I both had to pee before going to sleep, and we were both unwilling to walk all the way to the port-a-potties.  Joe decided to wait until it was dark enough outside and then pee outside.  I didn't feel like waiting, so naturally, I peed in a bag, and then put the bag outside the car where it wouldn't stink it up all night.

Of course, I was planning to throw it away the next day; I emptied it out the next morning before the race but hadn't gotten around to throwing it away . . . and then when I went to move the car later that day, to move it closer to the finish line so Joe wouldn't have to walk so far, I approached the car from the driver's side and so didn't see or think about the bag on the ground at the passenger side.  I realized the next day the horror of what I had done -- I littered Hill Country State Natural Area with a pee-bag -- and someone else had to throw away my pee bag!  I've been trying to restore karma ever since, by picking up any litter that I see.  And I'll obviously need to keep doing this until the end of time in order to atone for my misdeed.

To make matters even worse, I had said to Joe when I realized that I left it there, "I can never tell anyone this story, because the person I tell it to might be the very person who had to pick it up and throw it away!"  But then a week later, it dawned on me that the bag I used was the one Rob Goyen had given me, full of TROT swag . . . and he had written my name on the outside of the bag.  So, whoever had to pick up and throw away my pee-bag knew exactly whose pee-bag they were handling!  And that, my friends, is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life.