Monday, August 22, 2016

Habanero Hundred Highlights

Yesterday, at 12:54pm, I finished my second Habanero Hundred 100-miler.  This year, instead of being the only finisher, I was one of thirteen.  Walt Goodson, the first overall finisher, looked so strong!  He beat me by more than half an hour, putting me in 2nd place overall, and 1st (and only) female finisher.  I knew this year would bring a lot more finishers!  It was fun to see everyone out there on the course, all of us pushing ourselves mentally just as much as physically.

You know when you've been through something long and drawn-out and you're too exhausted and over it to rehash all the details?  :)  Instead of doing that, I would like to reminisce about some of the highlights:

Amazing race direction, volunteers, and spectators

Rob and Rachel Goyen like to put on tough races.  For Habanero, they mess with runners' minds by staging it in the heat of the Texas summer, making it 16 loops, and even putting 1/2 mile markers out there, so each mile seems to stretch out for eternity.  The noon start makes it so you're out there in the heat of day 1, and still out there as the sun starts to bake you again on day 2.  You also are more sleep-deprived than usual since you finish the race about 6 hours later on Sunday than you would with a normal 6am Saturday start time.  Finally, on this new Habanero course, you're not even running on a trail -- you're running through a somewhat mowed pasture, with cow shit and random stretches of so much sand you could set up a net and play beach volleyball.

Not kidding about the sand.  PC: Joe Schmal
Despite giving ultrarunners the challenges they so bizarrely seek, Rob and Rachel also do everything they can to help runners persevere through their suffering in order to reach their goals.  They stock the aid stations with everything you could need, they have a great team of medical staff to make sure everyone stays safe, and they think through all the details to make sure each runner has a really special experience.  They even made this sign and placed it at the 6.0 mile-marker.  That made me feel pretty special.

This quote came from a previous conversation, when Rob had asked me what advice I had for runners who wanted to finish Habanero this year.  Having the sign out there on the course was extra motivation for me to take my own advice.

The aid station volunteers were so amazing and helpful.  Becky, Jaime, and the other medical personnel took such good care of us.  Jeremy gave out just the right mix of heckling and encouragement.  And Myke Hermsmeyer, noted trail racing photographer, was seemingly at all points on the course, day and night, capturing moments of joy and (mostly) suffering.  The spectators were also great -- every time I ran into or out of the start/finish, people cheered encouragement.  I never got tired of hearing "Go #1!" and "Go Julie!" It almost made me forget, as I headed out for each new loop, that I still had 94 miles to go, 88 miles to go, 82 miles to go, etc.  (Almost.)

Gator-itas and ice

At the aid stations, the volunteers used a blender to churn out slushies made with Gatorade, which was amazing when we were suffering in the humidity.  At each A/S I'd fill one bottle with ice water, one with Gator-ita, and get ice in my hat and bra.

Foot care

This is the first time I've ever had anyone doctor my foot during a race.  It was just a case of trenchfoot, from the rain, creek crossings, and sweat keeping my feet wet for 24 hours.  I spent way too long at the start/finish A/S at mile 75 getting it taken care of, but my feet immediately felt better with the change of socks and shoes.  That feeling lasted a couple loops before my feet became quite sore again, and probably could have used some more attention.  But who has time for that?

PC: Myke Hermsmeyer
Weather

It rained off and on during the night and day, sometimes hard, sometimes light.  There was a little lightning and thunder, and for a few moments I worried they'd have to call the race.  (But then I remembered that we're trail runners, not pansies.)  Honestly, for a lot of the time it was raining, I guess I was a little out of it, because I barely noticed it.  Saturday afternoon started off incredibly humid, though the temperature was only in the 80s -- so it was cooler than last year's race, but I think more humid.  That meant chafing, overheating, and then feeling slightly chilly once we were soaked by the rain.  After I finished, I had to borrow a sweatshirt from Rob, because even though it was probably in the 80s, I had a little sunburn and was just exhausted from the ordeal.

Quality time with a quality person

I would describe this race as occurring in two parts: Before Joe and After Joe.  In case you don't know Joe Schmal, he's a super fast runner, and all-around good guy, who agreed to be my pacer for this race.

Before Joe was all right; it was 68 miles of running pretty well, managing my pace and nutrition, making sure I didn't overheat, saying a couple rosaries, and singing Starship to myself, followed by 6 miles of dragging ass and fantasizing about investing in a Hoveround.  Joe had told me to expect him between 5 and 6am, so from miles 69-75, I kept telling myself, "Just make it to Joe," confident that he'd help me carry on.

From the moment I saw Joe at the start/finish line, around 5:30am Sunday, he anticipated and took care of my every need.  He even took off the tops of my gels for me without my having to ask.  Need I say more?  He told me stories when I didn't feel like talking, he lied to me about how well I was running (Chris Russell's pacing strategy!), and he even backtracked to the start/finish line once when I had forgotten to ask what place I was in.  Occasionally I was good company, for short stretches when I was feeling all right and had the cognitive energy to make conversation, but for long stretches of time, he had to put up with a spaced-out zombie, when all I could muster was grunts and assenting noises as I forced him to walk more slowly than he's probably ever walked in his life.  Yet somehow he insisted that he was having fun and there was no place he'd rather be.  Have I mentioned that Joe is the best guy on the planet?  Even in the midst of the suffer-fest stretches, being with Joe made it fun.

Out for a casual stroll with Joe, mile 99.8.  PC: Myke Hermsmeyer
With three miles remaining, Joe wanted to text our friend Chris Russell and ask for some words of inspiration.  (I was not moving well at this point.)  I asked Joe to call him instead.  It was so fun to talk to Chris -- I could listen to Chris talk forever; he's so fun, such a great storyteller, and has the best voice (which maybe sounds weird, but if you know Chris, you get it.)  While I didn't get the superhuman boost of energy from the conversation that I was hoping for, it was definitely a highlight of the race.

The finishing touches of Joe's pacing: he paced us home, by driving in front of us, because we were all worried that Edward and I would doze off on the drive back to San Antonio.  And then he helped me carry all my crap up 3 flights of stairs to my apartment.

Best joke

On the drive home, Edward told me a joke he'd heard during the race: Q: What did the socks say to the pants?  A: What's up, britches?

Post-race hangout

It was so fun hanging out with folks at the finish line.  I don't know how long we sat there, talking about the race, listening to Rob tell stories from our trip to Cruel Jewel, and cheering for other finishers.  It took awhile to gather the motivation to get up and head to the showers.  After we cleaned off the incredible stink that had settled on our bodies like a second skin, Edward, Joe, and I headed to the nearest Whataburger -- where Edward and I took a long nap in the parking lot after failing to finish our modest meals.  This does not bode well for our upcoming Whataburger Challenge.  Joe, on the other hand (who didn't stink after the race, just to clarify my earlier sentence), demolished a #2 meal, and probably could have put away a #3, but didn't want to cause us excessive shame by comparison.

Waiting for our meals at Whataburger.
Recovery . . .

. . . will entail lots of lying around, epsom salt baths, and no running this week, because Reveille Peak Ranch 60k is on Saturday.  I'm hoping 5 days will be enough to regain my love of running and total feeling in my feet.  At least there's one big thing to look forward to: instead of racing shirtless as he usually does, Joe will be sporting a shirt of my choosing, as the consequence of losing a bet earlier this summer.  It's a good one, and there will be pictures.  

---
Huge thank you to our Team TROT sponsors, whose kit I used throughout the race:

Nathan (I used the Fireball hydration vest and later switched to 2 SpeedDraw plus insulated handhelds.  I also went through 2 Halo Fire headlamps throughout the night.)

Julbo (I wore the Venturi shades)

Trail Toes (lube)

Victory Sportdesign (I used the Bear II and Cougar I gear bags)

Altra (I wore one pair of the Superior 2.0 for the first 75 miles, and then changed into a dry pair, straight out of the box.  I love those shoes.)

Bearded Brothers (Coconut Mango bars!)

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mental Toughness: Some Questions

During this morning's run, I was reflecting a bit on mental toughness as it pertains to running and racing.  I thought I'd post some of my questions here, to prompt further reflection and discussion.  I don't have any answers, but I'd love to hear the opinions of other runners, as well as other questions people might have on the topic.

Mental Toughness in Daily Training

  • Surely there is merit in making ourselves do hard things, when all we really want to do is lie on the couch and watch Game of Thrones.  But is it important to practice mental toughness on every run, in order to have it at key times (during races) when you need it?  Or is it more important, long-term, to skip or cut short a run when you're "not feeling it," to avoid burnout and keep your mental game fresh and ready for your next race?
Arya running the Kings Landing 100M (an old-school race with no chip timing or aid stations)
  • Do you have to keep proving to yourself that you have mental toughness?  Is it something you have to practice constantly?  Or once you've proved to yourself that you can push yourself beyond perceived limits, can you proceed with the confidence that you'll always have it, without having to practice it day in and day out?
Dependence of Mental Toughness on our Reason for Running
  • Is it possible to have the mental toughness required for ultrarunning without having a really good reason for being out there in the first place?  And what counts as a "really good reason"?  If your reason for suffering through an ultra is a selfless one, like running for those who can't, or offering up your suffering for an intention, does that give you greater mental fortitude than those who run for a more selfish reason, like personal pride?  Or can those self-centered reasons be just as powerful a driving force?  (Confession: my reasons are mostly self-centered.)
  • Does consciously exploring our personal reasons for competing in ultramarathons increase the strength of our mental toughness?  Or can unconscious, unexplored motivations be just as powerful?
  • If I enjoy racing, and I do it often, will I one day end up like Forrest Gump, with my passion for ultrarunning -- the lifeforce behind whatever mental toughness I have in races -- suddenly and inexplicably gone for good?  Or should I not worry about this, and continue sucking the marrow out of every race opportunity I have, as long as my passion outweighs the pain?

Thinking through these questions reminded me of the reason I started this blog, with the title "Running as Prayer."  My prayer for running has always been:

Let my every footstep be a prayer
of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Sometimes, it literally comes down to forcing myself to take one more footstep.  And then another.  And another.  Along with lots of prayer.  That has always gotten me to the finish line.  I guess prayer is part of my mental toughness equation, along with my pride and the feelings of positive reinforcement I've gotten from previous ultras.  What makes up your mental toughness equation?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fossil Valley 9-Hour Race: What does it mean to "finish" a timed race?



I remember reading an Ultrarunning Magazine article where Gary Cantrell discussed his race, Big Backyard Ultra.  Here's the description of the race from ultrasignup.com:

The concept is simple. 
At 0700 hours on Saturday, October 15, we will start a race around the 4.166667 mile Big Trail. 
The time limit will be one hour.
At 0800 hours, we will begin another race around the trail.
We will do the same at 0900, 1000, and so on, 
every hour, on the hour,
until only one runner can complete a race within the time limit.
Any runner not in the starting corral for any race, is not eligible to continue.
No late starts!
If no single runner can complete a race at the end, 
there will be no winner.

As I recall the article, it lamented the fact that runners tend to quit before they absolutely cannot go any further.  Some quit because they are just tired or sore and want to be done.  Some quit because they have a preconceived goal of how many miles they want to hit, and once they hit that, they feel like they've accomplished what they came for.  But almost no one quits because they literally can't take one more step.  In fact, I think Cantrell said that letting yourself slow down to the point where you're "timed out" is basically the same as quitting.  

I thought about this idea a lot during my race this weekend: what counts as "quitting" or "giving up" in a timed race?  Is not giving your absolute hardest effort essentially the same as DNFing when it's a timed race?  

I started off the Fossil Valley 9-hour race pushing pretty hard, especially given the heat, humidity, tough nature of the course, and length of time we'd be out there.  Eventually I let up a bit, still running everything but the hardest inclines, but not pushing the pace, in an effort to keep my heart rate down and save something for later.  

As I ran, I kept doing the math in my head: Was I on track to finish 17 loops, like Anabel did last year for the win?  I thought so, but only if I kept my pace consistent and didn't have positive splits.  Looking at my Strava, I was very consistent; each loop was between 31 and 36 minutes (the 36-minute loop included a porta potty stop).  

When I finally got to loop 16, as the sun rose and I ditched my headlamp, I knew the timing would be very tight.  It was about 6:25am, so I'd only have 34 minutes to finish the loop if I wanted to go for a 17th loop.  (You cannot start a new loop after 7am.)  I figured the 16th loop would take me 35 minutes; after all, I was exhausted, hot, and really over running 2.67-mile loops all night.  Honestly, I very much hoped I wouldn't make it back to the start/finish before 7am; the last thing I wanted to do was go out for one more loop -- especially since I was in 2nd place by a ways and wouldn't have any affect on my place by doing extra work out there.  

But then I thought again about what Cantrell's point.  Was I a quitter?  Have I ever quit in a race?  Why would I start now, even when there is not chance of winning?  Is that really the only reason I race: to win?  Or is it that in racing, in pushing myself and testing my limits, I learn more about myself, I become a stronger person, and I define my character?

I ran loop 16 in 31:33, as hard as I could at that point, after 8.5 hours of running through the night.  When I got to the final straightaway at the end of loop 16, I ran as fast as I could, still secretly hoping I wouldn't make it before 7am, but leaving it up to God.  As I approached the start/finish area, David Hanenburg, the race director, yelled at me, "You've got 45 seconds!  Are you going?"  I hurriedly asked if I was still in 2nd place -- I was clearly still undecided whether it was worth it to go.  But David repeated, "45 seconds if you want to go!"  So without filling my water bottle or grabbing any nutrition, I took off, yelling, "I'm going!" as I punched my fist in the air.  The runners and spectators sitting all around the start/finish cheered, and off I went.

As soon as I turned the corner and was in the woods by myself again, I popped what felt like the 20th Montana Huckleberry Hammer gel I'd eaten that night.   Since I had thought loop 16 would be my last, I had stopped eating awhile ago.  I was also out of water, and maybe a bit dehydrated; after eating about 2/3 of the gel packet, I started retching.  My utterance at that time, "F--- this sh-t!"  reveals that despite my heroics in taking off for a lost-cause 17th loop that wouldn't affect my podium standings, I was still not happy to be out there.  But I did still have some Tailwind, and I had my friend Joe waiting for me to finish, so I carried on as fast as I could.  Loop 17 took me 34 minutes, meaning I still ran all of it except those two killer hills.  

When I finished, I did feel a contentment that I gave it my all; I fought to the finish.  I think I feel happier now than I would have felt if I'd just quit after loop 16, before the full 9 hours had expired.  But what does this teach me about myself?  Maybe that I'm very prideful when it comes to risking labeling myself as a quitter.  Maybe that I get a weird pleasure out of pushing myself as far as I can go, and I get positive reinforcement from not giving up.  Maybe that I like to be the underdog and fight for a lost cause.  I'm not really sure.

One thing I do know, is that I need a break from running.  I've raced 3 ultras in 5 weeks, and I've pushed hard at all of them.  That also means that I've pulled 3 all-nighters in 5 weeks, because they were all night races.  I'm feeling a bit burned out and unmotivated.  I told myself during the race that my reward for pushing so hard could be not running all this week.  Isn't that sad, that a runner's reward to herself would be not having to run?  That's definitely a sign that I need a few days off.  Maybe it's a good time to learn how to play Pokemon Go?  

Me and Katie pre-race (Katie ran the 6-hour race and won!)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Muleshoe Bend Recap in Verse

Muleshoe Bend was super fun, as are all the Captn Karl's races. I decided to record my memories of this year's race in verse:

My goals for the race were simple and few
To have fun and smile, sub-7:30 would do.
Wearing my TROT gear, just back from 10k feet,
Hoping I hadn't lost acclimation to heat.

I started to sweat when I shut the car door.
Once the sun sets, humidity will rise more.
To Rockhopper Central I strolled with all of my gear,
And also took photos with TROT mates, who were near.

When the race started, I shuffled in mid-pack,
Struggling with my Achilles, the heat, and calf cramps.
As people ran past, I reminded myself, Be patient:
This isn't a race to the first aid station.

I kept on, no bladder but two bottles instead,
Half to throw down my throat, half to squirt on my head.
Eating every half hour, waffles and gels in the woods,
Taking winding turns and picking up my pace as I could.

Excitement abounded between my music and other features:
Though my iPod buds failed me, I saw many creatures.
A scorpion, a fox, and many small spiders;
A rattlesnake crossed my path, didn't hide there.

Coming into each station, the volunteers were so kind,
But I rejected their sponge bath offers so fine.
One thing I did take up at the suggestion
Was Stefan's to pace me the last 9-mile section.

Running with him, and Ed Brown at times,
Was so fun and made the miles fly by.
Through the one starry section and the many in the trees,
His encouraging words and tips set me at ease.

And when we finally arrived at the finish line,
Chatting with Chris and Brad about mullets at 2am felt just fine.
To chill and chat in the tent as the generator seemed to break,
And watch Joe and Stefan hold up the inflatable was great.

And then, alas, it was time to head --
A three-plus hour drive to Fort Worth before bed.
At 4 in the morning, I left Muleshoe Bend;
Fortunately, 2 more Capn Karl's before this summer ends!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Short Memory

A while back, my Airrosti doc, Nick, said something that gave me pause.  It was during a conversation that went something like this:

Nick: That was pretty stupid to go for a second run when you didn't feel great on your first run of the day.

Julie: Yeah, well, I've learned my lesson now.

Nick: Hmm.  You seem to have a pretty short memory for lessons.

Ever since that conversation, I keep thinking about what lessons about ultrarunning I've learned over the years, that I maybe need reminding about.  Since March 2013, when I ran my first ultra, I've run 40 ultras, with no DNFs.  A few of those races went really poorly, some went pretty good, and a few went great.

You'd think in that time I would have gained enough experience to not make stupid mistakes anymore.  Maybe if I spend a little time reflecting, it will help me avoid making the same mistakes in the future.  So here goes:

What lessons have I learned from running 40 ultramarathons in 3 years? (in no particular order)

1. Eat often -- trickle in the calories.  If you're really feeling low, start eating 1 gel every 20 minutes.
2. Drink to thirst.  Drink something with electrolytes, or eat something salty when you crave it.
3. Carry just as much as you need.  Ditch unnecessary items; run lighter if possible.
4. Pack an extra headlamp just in case.
5. Start conservatively.
6. As you approach an aid station, think through what you'll do there.  Come up with an easy mnemonic device to remember it (e.g., Water, Ice, Sunscreen - WIS), and then do just that.  Don't waste time at aid stations.
7. Wear two thin layers of socks to prevent blisters.
8. Preventatively tape and lube any likely chafing areas.
9. Get lots of sleep.
10. Take your resting heart rate every morning before getting out of bed.  If it's unusually high, consider taking a rest day.
11. Don't overdo it with new ideas (e.g., Yeah, running barefoot sounds great!  I'm going to go run 6 miles barefoot, even though I never usually run barefoot! -- actually happened, 1 week before a race)
12. Take time to reflect on your goals for your race, and how you feel, before the race.  (I use a journal.)
13. Music is a great energizer when you're racing through the middle of the night -- but only keep 1 earbud in, for safety.
14. During hot races, put ice everywhere.
15. More isn't always more. (Okay, still working on learning this one.)
16. Strength training and core work is great.
17. Caffeine pills are super helpful during long races.
18. Foam roll every day.
19. Massages can be really helpful, if you go to the right person.
20. Don't eat guacamole right before a hot night race.
21. You can carry a to-go cup of food in your sports bra for on-the-run nutrition.
22. You usually don't need to change shoes in an ultra, even in a 100.
23. Ultras are amazing and wonderful, and we're so blessed to be able to do them, but really, it's a pretty silly activity, running around in circles in the woods. So smile!
24. Being injured is terrible, but there are always ways to cross-train, and everyone's been there.  You'll get through it, too.  Look to positively-minded injury-role-models, like Emilie Forsberg, for inspiration.
25. Keep your car keys in your drop bag . . . or in a zippered pocket.
26. If things aren't going your way (even if it's just that someone is using you as a pace rabbit and it's annoying), just try to find the good in it, and trust that it will work out for the best in the end.
27. Driving home from a race, pull over and take a nap if you get sleepy.
28. In ultras, the race doesn't begin until the half-way point, at the earliest.
29. If you relax and just have fun, you'll be able to run longer and race harder at the end.
30. Don't drink two cups of black tea before a race.
31. At least 80% of your running should be "easy."  20% should be "hard" -- and races count for this.
32. Maffetone training helps with ensuring your easy runs are easy.
33. When you're running a multi-loop race, you need to be  your own sports psychologist in order to not go bat-sh!t crazy.
34. Plan ahead to find a church near the race, with a Mass time that works before or after the race so you don't miss church.
35. Don't eat gas station pizza, ice cream, and chicken salad sandwich all at once after a 100-mile race, no matter how hungry you think you are.  (Eat the pizza and ice cream; skip the sandwich.)
36. Rotate your running shoes.
37. Keep sunscreen in your drop bag, and keep reapplying.
38. For a 100k or 100-miler, put a Wisp in your hydration pack so you can brush your teeth in the middle of the night.  You'll feel like a new person.
39. Keep a cheat-sheet of the aid stations in your pocket, in a ziploc bag, so you always know how far to the next aid station.
40. You are capable of so much more than you'll ever know.


Great, now if I could just remember to do all those things.



Monday, June 6, 2016

North Fork 50 Mile Race

The Trail Sisters recently posted an article about the value of race reports.  I agree with them that the value lies both in sharing potentially helpful information about racing, as well as in providing a means of self-reflection for the race report author.  Writing a race recap helps me process what went well, what I could have done better, and how I feel about my performance.  It might sound silly, but I really don't immediately know how I feel about a race.  For instance, right now, three weeks after Cruel Jewel, I'm still not sure whether I should feel happy, disappointed, proud, etc. about that race.  So here's my brief attempt to capture the highlights of last weekend's race in Pine, Colorado and do some of that mental processing.

Me and Don, at packet pick-up on Friday


The Course

The race begins with a nearly 1,000-foot climb.  From there, it's a lot of up and down, taking the 50-milers to a high of about 8,400 feet at the turnaround.  50-milers start with the 50k-ers and don't separate until around mile 16, at which time we did an 18-mile section before rejoining the 50k course.  The trails were occasionally single-track mountain bike trails, sometimes double-track, and sometimes jeep road.  There were some rocks and roots to watch for, and a few trees blocking the path, but mostly the surface was sandy and gravelly, so not technical.  Some areas were through pine forests, with little to no underbrush, alongside cold, babbling streams.  Other sections took us through burned-out areas, where you could see all the way to snow-capped peaks in the distance.  It was just a gorgeous course.

Positive Self-Talk

I've been watching the TV show Boundless, which follows a group of endurance athletes as they test their mettle at races around the globe.  I've been impressed by Rory Bosio's use of positive self-talk to get her through low points in races and turn things around.  I tried to focus on that during the race. For example, I've been having some Achilles issues, so during the race, when it was hurting badly, I said to myself, "Well, at least it's still attached."  That, plus four ibuprofin, really helped the situation.

Uphill Battles

I took the first big climb very conservatively, because I was worried about how the altitude would affect me; I've never done a race that went over 3,000 feet above sea level before, much less 8,000 feet.  But after that, I quickly realized that a strategy of hiking every uphill was not going to cut it in this race; I'd be walking half the time.  So I began a strategy of counting my steps.  I told myself I'd count 120 steps of running up the hill, and then I could walk for 60 steps before starting to run again.  I followed this general strategy throughout the race, although oftentimes I would keep running past the 120-step mark, because I'd feel good enough to go a few more steps, or because I had already made it to the top.

Elevation (Non)Issues

I don't know how much the elevation affected me during this race.  It's true that I was a bit more breathless and felt like I had a higher heart rate, especially on inclines, than I normally would.  However, there are other factors that could have contributed to this, including the heat, the fact that I just ran Cruel Jewel 100 three weeks ago and might not be fully recovered, and the fact that I've been running really inconsistently for the past month or so, due to some SI joint issues, tapering, and recovery time.  I didn't have any headache or stomach issues, and I had a pretty decent race time, so all in all I'd say my fears about the altitude were unfounded.  This makes me eager to try a higher-elevation race sometime soon.

Aid Stations

The aid stations had ample gels, in as many flavors as you'd like, as long as you only like 3 flavors.  I made use of those, as well as plenty of cut-up Paydays, Chips Ahoy cookies, Coke, water, and a purple drink that Edward later told me was Gu Brew.  Whenever I came to an aid station, I'd just ask them to fill one bottle with water and one with purple drank.  [Don't do drugs, kids.]  One time when I came into an aid station, I was a little foggy, so my request came out like this: "One purple and one [Think, brain. White? Clear? Oh, yeah --] water, please."  

Weather

Race day was picture-perfect: warm (70s), dry,with  sunny skies.  During our entire trip, Edward and I commented on how it felt hotter than the temperature would lead us to believe.  Maybe it's due to the elevation.  Anyway, it felt really warm during the race.  I was carrying two 12-oz bottles in my vest, as well as an empty bladder, "just in case."  The only time I needed more than what was in my bottles was during the stretch from mile 22 to mile 27, which I ran with Edward.  I realized I was getting low on fluids, so I started rationing.  Then I ran out, with about a mile and a half left to the aid station.  When I got there, I noticed they didn't have any cups out with soda -- they had cold, full cans set out.  I think my eyes got really wide with excitement as I greedily grabbed a cold Coke.  I chugged an entire can and then ran out of the aid station.  Miraculously, it didn't cause any stomach issues.  It was the best Coke I've had in my life.  I felt much better after that, and bonus: it made me stop and pee, at which point Edward caught up to me.  Hey Coca-Cola execs: How about this for a new slogan?  "Coke: Reuniting running buddies through diuretic properties since 1892."  Okay, it needs finessing, but that's why they have a marketing department.  

Unnecessary Signs

Between miles 22-27 and miles 27-32, the trail winds near a gun range.  It sounded like people were firing canons or Howitzers.  Signs read, "Gun range nearby.  Stay on trail."  No need to tell me twice!  It was during this stretch, on the way to the mile-32 aid station, that I lost Edward to the lure of a cold stream.  

Mountain Bikes

Being that it was a gorgeous weekend -- it sounded like it was the best weather they've had yet this year -- there were tons of mountain bikers out on the trails.  They were very considerate and even encouraging to the runners.  They were also a good source of entertainment.  Here was the best mountain biker conversation I overheard:

Dad to kid, during a descent: "Look where you want to go!"
Kid to dad: "I'm looking.  I don't like my options!"

High Point
Coming towards the mile 38 aid station, I was running well and passed 3 ladies and a guy or two in quick succession.  I sped through the aid station and enjoyed a stretch of about 3 miles of downhill running.  That felt great.  Then the trail flattened out, and the last mile seemed to take forever.  I kept expecting the aid station around every bend, but no dice.  The thing that kept pulling me along was Light-Blue Shirt Guy (LBSG), who I could see half a mile ahead of me.  When I pulled into the 42-mile aid station, he was there, getting ragged on by his friends, the volunteers, who had been at a bottle of whisky all day.  They were encouraging me to drop him "like a bad habit," and telling him to "Stop f---ing around with your vest and go already."  LBSG didn't seem too amused.

Low Point
Those aid station workers told me what I already knew from studying the course info online: the next stretch, miles 42-46, included a 3-mile climb.  I dreaded it, and headed out prepared to powerhike most of it.  Maybe due to that expectation, I felt very low in energy, and let myself hike a lot, chatting it up with LBSG until I did eventually drop him.  This was the only stretch where, looking back on the race, I feel like I didn't push myself as hard as I could have and should have.  I could have gained time here and maybe gotten 4th place instead of 5th.  (4th beat me by about 5 minutes).  I kept taking gels every 20 minutes, as is now my habit when I'm feeling low in energy, and also sucking on Gu Brew, but to no avail.  Fortunately, the aid station came more quickly than I thought it would -- I'm not sure that it was really 4 miles, or that the climb was actually 3 miles long.  But I'm not complaining! 

Home Stretch

Man, was I happy to see that last aid station!  Only 4 miles to the finish, and it was almost entirely downhill.  I left with a male runner -- we never exchanged names -- and we chatted about races for a bit.  He had done UTMB last year, and sat next to Zach Miller on the plane ride home.  The funny thing is, all he registered at the time was Zach's mustache and head-to-toe Nike gear; he didn't realize who it was -- the winner of CCC -- until he later watched Billy Yang's film of the race.  

After a while, the jeep road gave way to singletrack, and it was harder to hear one another and continue conversing.  From that point on, we silently pushed one another, not letting ourselves back off until the finish.  I'm so glad we were together; if not for him being there, I would almost certainly have let up and not pushed myself that hard.

Alligators?

The last 1/2 mile of the race is along a pretty lake.  I had pushed past my running buddy and was trying to kick all-out to the finish.  I was pretty gassed, and not thinking clearly.  So when I passed a sign that read "No swimming," I wondered for a fraction of a second: Do they have alligators here?  Wait, where am I?  It honestly took me a second to remember I was in Colorado, and no, they don't have alligators here.

Finish

I finished in 10:48, one minute faster than I ran Mesquite Canyon 50 and Monument Valley 50 earlier this spring.  That makes me feel good, knowing that this was at a higher elevation than both the others, with substantially more climbing than Monument Valley.  

Instead of medals, which I never keep, we got unique finisher bowls, which the artist signed on the bottom.  I also got a nice pint glass etched with 2nd place in the 30-39 age group.

The After Party

Hanging out after the race was so fun.  Don (who killed the 50k, as I expected), Helena, Edward, and I enjoyed playing around with Hudson, drinking free Avery beers (okay, I nursed mine and then tossed it), and eating free food.  The race organizers prepare food and drinks for everyone in attendance -- not just the runners.  It was great, and it stayed light out until well after 8:00, when my college buddy Caroline came to pick me up and spend the rest of the weekend with her.  It was sad to say goodbye to Don and Helena; I really enjoyed staying with them and Edward at the "Hauk Family B&B."  (I haven't decided on my Yelp rating yet.  On the positive side, Don makes a mean breakfast burrito.  On the negative side, the room service is terrible.)

I don't have to do much processing to come to the conclusion that this was a great race experience and that I'd recommend it to anyone.  I am already looking forward to the next time I can visit Colorado and explore another race there!  

Post-race selfie: The whole crew

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Cruel Jewel "100": Race Recap

Pre-race

I met Rob Goyen and Steven Monte at the Atlanta airport, and we drove to Blairsville, with a stop for amazing pizza along the way.  When we checked into our hotel, I received an envelope from the front desk clerk; inside was a handmade card from my amazing Trail Racing Over Texas teammate Katie, with motivational quotes on little slips of paper!  I carried them with me all 37 hours of the race.
Katie's inspirational surprise!
Race Day: The Start

The race start was Friday at noon, which was kind of nice, because we got to sleep in.  I don't think I've ever gotten nine hours of sleep the night before a race until this experience!

The pre-race briefing was basically: "If you DNF, do it at an aid station.  Follow the pink ribbons.  Red is dead.  Your SPOT tracker might not work; don't come bitching to me if it doesn't."

From the gun, Gia and Steven and pretty much ALL the other runners left me in their dust. I hadn't run for two weeks, and my back was so stiff and sore that my running gait was more of a shuffle.  I didn't want to take tons of ibuprofen during the race, because I know it can lead to rhabdomyolysis, and I had already taken four that morning.  However, I made it only fourteen minutes into the race before I concluded that the risk was worth it; I couldn't make it 108 miles with this SI joint as bad as it was.  I decided I would be sure to stay well hydrated and take pills as sparingly as possible.  By the race's end, I had taken a total of 12 ibuprofen, mixed with probably 7 caffeine pills.  Towards the end of the race, I didn't do great at hydration, but I did say a little apology to my kidneys when I took my final dose of ibuprofen, so I felt like that made up for it.

Warming Up

My doc, the best in the world, told me he thought it might take maybe 10 miles for my SI joint to loosen up.  It actually took about 40 miles, but then it did really feel better.  At the mile 20.6* aid station, Rob told me there were only 8 runners behind me.  Eight.  I spent the rest of the race, once I felt better, trying to move up in the field.

*All distances provided for this race were short, by all accounts.  If it was supposed to be 5.5 miles from one point to the next, it was liable to actually be 6.  If it was supposed to be 7.6, it would actually be 8.1.  Some information about the race online says it's a 106-mile race; some says it's 108 miles.  I'm guessing it's at least 110.

The early miles are all a blur to me, but my biggest impression was regarding the landscape.  I'd never been to Georgia before, and didn't know what to expect.  What we got, in the Chattahoochie National Forest, was what Gia described as a green tunnel: the tall trees provided a shady canopy that kept us cool in the 75-degree heat, while obscuring any and all views of the beautiful, smoky mountains in every direction.  Literally, there was not a single nice vista in the entire race course; all you could see were teases of the views that might have been.


Some of the beautiful views we did not get to see
I had a lot of time to reflect on the landscape, because as soon as we hit the trails, I was almost immediately alone.  The only times during the race when there were people around me were the Deep Gap loops, the stretch to the turnaround at Camp Morganton and back, and the Weaver Creek spur.  The rest of the time, I was left to my lonesome, alternately cursing aloud and silently: "F this f-ing course!"  (More on that later.)

This was the first race where I've used trekking poles.  They were a lifesaver on the climbs, although carrying them for that long posed some challenges.  Miraculously, I never tripped myself or poked anyone with them; however, I did accidentally throat-punch myself once when the end of my left pole rammed into a tree while I was running.  Could've done without that.

A Moveable Feast
Some people like to stand at aid stations, like they're at a buffet without plates.  Since time equals time, I like to grab some food and go.  I relied heavily on the aid station food at this race, rather than eating packaged food I brought with me.  I ate their potato chips, PBJs, grilled cheese, ramen, orzo, pickles, frosted cookies, and an oatmeal cream pie.  The most delicious food was a rice bar made with avocado and sweet potato.  I came up with this great system where I'd grab, say a dixie cup of orzo and a PBJ sandwich, stick the sandwich in the cup, and stick the cup in my bra.  Then I'd take off down the trail, and whenever I felt like I needed calories, I'd reach in and grab something.  It was so perfect! 

Rob ran something like 11 miles with me during the race, which was so much fun.  Once, as we were running, I reached into my bra and pulled out a quesadilla and started eating it.  Rob got this look of wonder/disgust.  Here was the conversation:

Rob: It was all fun and games until Julie pulled a quesadilla out of her boobs.
Me: Shit's getting real, Rob.
Rob: Shit's getting real real.

And then there was this conversation, at an aid station:

Me to Rob: Remind me to throw away my bra garbage.
Aid station volunteer to Rob: I'll take that cup.
Rob to Aid station volunteer: Lady, you do not want this cup.  Trust me, it's nasty.  Boob garbage.
Aid station volunteer: ???

(After the race, at 2:00am Sunday, back at the hotel, when I undressed to take a shower, multiple bread crusts fell out of my bra onto the floor.  Yikes.)

High Times, Low Times
I felt really good during the first night.  I passed a ton of people during the first Deep Gap loop, especially.  I guess I reluctantly embraced Chris's nickname, for me, "Mistress of the Night," even though it does make me sound like a hooker.  But coming back from the turnaround point (not quite halfway through the race), I had a low point.  The turnaround is in a shelter, with lights, flushing toilets, warmth, and humanity.  Leaving it at 11:45pm for the 50-degree darkness, knowing I still had 56 or so miles left to run, was not fun.  Especially since at the aid station I stupidly grabbed a potato and put enough salt on it to kill a million slugs.  My stomach immediately started cramping, and I spent the next couple hours alternating between stomach cramps, dives into the woods to take care of business, and not wanting to eat for fear of more problems.

The Devil's Buttcrack
When the sun came up, two guys from Ohio caught up to me.  I thought they'd want to pass, but they stayed behind me for the next 9.5 miles, for which I was so grateful.  Not only because the guy immediately behind me, Pacer John, was funny and entertaining and playing Beatles music, but also because Runner Steve sounded just as miserable as I felt.  That section, which took us on a spur trail to Weaver Creek Road, was basically a 2,000 foot descent into the seventh ring of hell.  With every steep step we took down the mountain, all I could think was, "No! Not more down!  We're just gonna have to come back up!"  I thought the descent would never end.  But then it did, and there was nothing for it but to turn around and head back up.  Again, thank goodness for John and Steve; suffering through that misery would have been much worse without them.  I was so grateful, in fact, that while John was telling me about Ohio, I actually said out loud, "Go Buckeyes!"  Don't worry; I immediately felt regret and secretly took it back.  I plead temporary insanity. 

The Road
We got to run on the road between Old Dial Rd and Wilscot Gap.  It was a really nice change of pace after all the up/down trails.  Despite the fact that it was a cloudless, bright sunny day, and I had neglected to carry a hat or sunglasses in my pack, I really enjoyed that 5.5-mile* section.  I was feeling good, Rob was with me, and he said later we were running 8-something-minute miles, which was great considering I'd run 80 miles already.  This was also where I moved into 5th place, which I held til the end.

The Dragon's Spine
There's a 4.9-mile* section (read: closer to 6) called the Dragon's Spine.  It's after the last dropbag location, about 82 miles into the race.  The entire race course travels up and down mountains constantly, and there's no such thing as a switchback.  But this particular section is a bitch and a half.  I thought it was never going to end.  Rob ran it on his own, and told me later that parts were literally 30% grade.  Long before this point, the front of my ankle/lower leg had swollen up and become very painful on the uphills, due to the angle my foot had to take on the ups.  This made it all the worse.  With each new uphill stretch, I'd look around, fully expecting to see other runners lying in a heap on the side of the trail, sobbing and begging for deliverance.  I was really proud of all of us, that we didn't; I can't be the only one who had a desire to do just that.  When I finally finished that section and dragged my @ss into the aid station, there were several runners sitting around in camp chairs, with dead eyes, looking broken.  I looked around at them, pointed behind me at the trail we'd just come from, and said, "What the hell was that?!"  The ones who had energy gave me a pity laugh.

Towards the Finish
Coming out of the Fish Gap aid station, I could not find my mojo.  Fifty-milers (who had started Saturday morning from the 100-mile turnaround) were passing me, and disappearing so quickly ahead of me on the downhills.  I just couldn't seem to go faster.  My head seemed to be floating above my body; I was really out of it.  Fortunately, I've been there before, and I remembered what Stefan told me at Cactus last year: "Maybe it's calories.  Take a gel every 20 minutes until you feel better."  I happened to have 3 gels on me, so I followed that strategy, and after the third one, I seemed to get a little mojo back.  I was able to run much more quickly down the hills, and with a couple miles left before the last manned aid station, I re-passed almost all the 50-milers who had passed me when I was feeling low.  Unfortunately, the next aid station didn't have any gels, so I took some cookies instead.  In the last 7.4 miles* (more like 9 miles), I didn't even care about eating or drinking.  I barely took a sip of water.  I downed ibruprofen #11 and #12, another caffeine pill, and emitted a cloud of profanity so large that it's probably still looming over the Georgia mountains.  

When it got dark, before I got to the last aid station, the wind picked up a ton, and it must've been around 40 degrees.  I pulled my arm warmers and light jacket out of my pack, and pulled my buff over my ears, but my poor legs were still freezing.  Part of that strectch in the dark followed a ridge line, where the trail was right next to a big drop-off.  This was the second night in a row of running on zero sleep, and I kept thinking, "What if I took one bad step and fell off the cliff? I could really benefit from a buddy system!"

There was one long stretch in the last 4 miles of the race where there were absolutely no course markings.  When I passed a guy in this section, he asked me if we were going the right way, and I said yeah, but after another 5 minutes of running, with no confidence markers in sight, I started to wonder.  Eventually I got worried enough to turn around and backtrack to the last marker.  Fortunately, before I had gone half a mile, I ran into someone who said he knew the trail, and we were on it.  But there was 1 extra mile that I didn't need when I'd already done over a hundred.  And then when we came to a road, I took it, thinking that, mercifully, this was the road we had started on, that led back to the start/finish.  Unfortunately, after a few minutes of running down the hill, I realized this was not the right road, so I had to turn around and go back up the bleeping hill.  Another half a mile or so that I didn't need to do.  

Back on the correct trail, again there was a distinct absence of trail markings.  And it seemed to last forever.  I'm not an angry person; I get mad maybe once per year.  But this was it for me.  I started angry-muttering.  Things like, "Great!  I hope this trail NEVER f---ing ends!"  Fortunately, the trail gods didn't hold it against me, and the race did end.  I crossed the finish line, received my enormous buckle, and found my friends waiting in the warm shelter.  Here's me forcing a smile for Rob:



At some point on the Dragon's Spine, I said to myself, "F--- running.  I need to reexamine my life choices.  What the hell am I doing here?"  Steven said that something similar crossed his mind, that during the race he thought about retiring from running.  Of course, by Sunday he was already thinking about coming back for his 3rd Cruel Jewel.  (I told him he's out of his f---ing mind.)  As for me, I'm not eager to do this particular race again, but I am thinking about other mountain hundreds.  After all, if I could accomplish this, which seemed impossible, injured or not, it would be cool to see what else is possible.  It's kind of fun (albeit in a sick and twisted way) to test yourself with a challenge you've never experienced, where there's an actual risk of failure, and feel that accomplishment of coming out on the other side, scraped and swollen and sore, but alive.  

One lingering effect of this race, in case you haven't noticed, is that I'm still cursing like a sailor-turned-truck-driver who also works part time on an oil rig.  It's coming out in my writing, for which I apologize.  Hopefully that will wear off soon, at least until the next mountain race.  (Oh, which is in 3 weeks.)