Monday, September 4, 2017

Don't be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try.

I blinked and it was September. The malaise of August securely behind me now, I was greeted to the first month of fall with crisp mornings and that thing in the air. At the end of the month, I am attempting to tackle my biggest challenge yet. The base has been built, the miles have been run, and (most) of the hard work is done. 
Last summer, I just raced and raced and raced and tried to learn as much as I could about night running and ultras. This year, I've just been running. Luckily, the new job has been pretty conducive to having a schedule of sorts and I am finally able to say yes to every weekend trail run. Funny thing is, I don't actually need any trail runs in my training. Hinson is basically flat and scores 0 on the technicality difficulty.

But the trails have been good for my heart and my head. Running in the summer in Hotlanta is defeating. I typically do all of my running after work and paces in 90°+ are ugly. I try hard not to compare too much to winter paces, but I am human. Sometimes, I get on the treadmill just so that I can run in 75° and nail some faster times.

I have felt especially tired in the last 2 weeks, but I think that is probably the point of ultra-training? A few times I have started a run and it has been so hard to not just throw in the towel in the first half mile. Taking it to the next level by adding a 6th day and hitting 60+ miles each week has taught me a lot about myself. Mostly that I am hungry all the time. But a little bit about gritting it out when the mind and the body are totally against me.

Truth be told, I feel my running has been subpar lately. I am going into these last few weeks feeling like it's been more of an exception for me to have a good day. Part of me wants to believe it is because I have been putting my legs through the ringer - 600+ miles in the last 2 months and nearly 30,000 feet of ascent. 
But there is always the self-doubt that it feels harder because I'm not as strong. I think that any runner or athlete that has any sort of competitive nature in their blood understands this notion. There is that feeling that you don't want to leave anything on the table to give it your best shot.

This is the last big(ger) week. I am ready to start winding down and see if a little freshness makes me feel better. Last year, I had the goal of hitting 100 miles in 24 hours. I really didn't have any idea what to expect. I had never run beyond 12 hours and my peak distance was 68 miles. Honestly, I don't have that much more perspective this year other than the knowledge that I am capable of running 100 miles in 24 hours - 109.866 miles if you want to get technical about it and yes, I do, thankyouverymuch.

When I learned about the 24 hours US National Team qualifying distance (125 miles) earlier in the year, this seemed like an outlying goal to aim for. Another 15ish miles is only .62 more miles each hour. Seems reasonable in theory, pretty tough in reality. I found out a couple of weeks ago that they raised the bar to 130 miles for women. Those 5 miles are big. This is a whole new kind of runner math. 

So I'm sticking with my original goals in ascending order because it is far easier to tick up, than tick down (mental trick #45082348): 1) finish upright 2) 100K 3) 100 miles 4) PR 109.866 5) Course Record 114.6 6) 125 7) Seriously?

The thing about having a plan for one of these races is that there needs to be not much structure to said plan. You cannot just plug numbers into a spreadsheet or calculator and expect it to happen despite all the history and training. The human element is far too great, especially in longer distances and there is no telling what sort of shit will hit the fan. I cannot control the heat or the rain, the nausea in my stomach, the soreness in my legs, the chafing everywhere, or anything else causing me physical anguish. But I can control how I react to it. 

And much as in life, there is very little I can even begin to feel sorry for myself about. To get to do what I get to do, I'm one of the lucky ones.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

July is a Monster

The smell of honeysuckle was long gone and the blackberry branches were stripped of their fruit. My skin dripped with salty sweat and stung my eyes. The nights seemed to go on forever. The sky would darken, but not ever get jet black. My days felt unfilled. I was consumed with worry.

I didn't always hate summer, but it became the time to deal with change. Maybe it was making me stronger.

What once meant ice cream and staying up late now meant unrelenting heat and the stress of uncertainty. No matter the time of day, the mugginess encircled. There was no escaping the suffocation of warmth.

Runs continued to feel disappointing because my paces slowed. I felt all the work of winter and spring dissipate within just a few weeks. Never mind that I couldn't see the stack of miles. Never mind that this had been happening for the past 20 years.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat on the dirt next to the tire of my car in the shade. I let my heart rate slowly fall as a pool of sweat formed around me. The self-deprecation had slowed and had finally allowed myself to sleep, to eat, and to run without constant anxiety. It stayed with me like all of the other ones. Anguishing and heart-ripping in the midst of their darkness. But time heals some of the sting. And I slowly picked myself up and remember that nothing ever lasts.

The end of the month brings an about face. Paces are far from February and I am weeks from fully contributing to my new career. But I can see the top of the mountain and I am not afraid to keep working. The top isn't finite. It is just another part of this winding trail. I am sure to continue to stumble, to fall again, and to be challenged in ways I never expected.

I have run my biggest mileage month ever due in part to this setback.

I completed a good chunk of the Georgia Appalachian Trail on foot.

Friends from all pockets of my life reached out to me and showed their support. I felt vulnerable in my previous post because my pain was still very fresh, very real. I'm not healed, but I'm healing. My misfortune is so teeny in the grand scale of humankind that I sometimes feel silly for writing about it. But the kind words I received truly did lift my spirits and overwhelmed me that I am surrounded by so many good humans.


Monday, July 3, 2017

Life and Merrill's Mile RR: having the courage to be as raw and real as possible

July 1st, 1:30 p.m.

For the umpteenth time in my life, when things didn't go as planned, I have turned to running for a bit of therapy. Partially for the ability to feel in control of something, but partially to physically exhaust myself to the point that I am more patient, more kind, and more understanding. Sometimes I need those qualities to treat other humans better, but more likely, I need it to treat myself better.

Losing my job just over a week ago was a direct punch to the face. It was unexpected and certainly left me questioning everything I have done as a professional. I went through all the grief emotions. And though I felt enormously flawed, I also couldn't help but feel guilty. Guilt because of all the things I still was grateful to have. Tremendous people in my life that have lifted me up. A roof over my head and food in my belly. A healthy body. The ability to keep dreaming despite feeling pushed to the ground. But there is no denying that there were dark moments over the last 10 days. 

I told myself I would give myself a calendar week at the very least to consider my options. I updated my resume, made contacts on LinkedIn, reached out to former colleagues, and forced myself into becoming comfortable talking about it. I started with the most appealing positions first and slowly moved into things that I would consider or felt I met the qualifications. 

Radio silence until Wednesday.

In the first few days, I dreamed about the AT as an outlying possibility. It wavered from really possible to really financially irresponsible and I pecked at research. Because I wasn't hearing anything back immediately from any future employer, I allowed myself to fester on this dream. Advice trickled in and I even went so far as to compile a list of gear I would need to begin the journey.

But Wednesday came and I got my first bite of returning to work as a "normal" adult. It made me feel empty inside. I went through the motions of the interview and while I could picture myself in the position, it didn't make me feel any sort of joy. At the end of the day, I knew that if prolonged, I would have to accept whatever was offered to me. I could always look while I worked, but I feared that I would get stuck in something that I ultimately did not want to be doing. And I don't want to live to work. I want to work to live. 

Again, the guilt. I should be grateful for any opportunity. I should take whatever it offered. 

But Wednesday morning, I had found out about a former colleague passing away far too young and wrote a brief manifesto about my crossroads. I went for a run. I started out slowly as it was taper week and I had already used my rage energy to run a 5:57 mile the previous Friday. My mind was wandering and as I made the turn around, I started to get sad and angry again. Sad that the stupid adage of "only the good die young" was so poignant in the situation. And angry that it took someone's death to make me aware of my life.

It seems like a simple decision when put into that context.

But as the week came to an end, I had 5 interviews and the very millennial attitude of I only want something that enjoy. Am I sabotaging my own chances of being a viable employee? What if I turn something down and I don't get any more offers? Am I being too greedy and should I just be gracious with what I am offered?

I'll never know how the other way would turn out. That's the thing about decisions. You don't get a redo. My logical brain is weighing the pros and cons so hard on every situation that I feel like my brain is going to explode. And the few minutes I find in peace every day without the anxiety of the unknown are rare.

But when I run, I am at peace. It is all I have to do in the moment. It is all I have to concentrate on. No matter what else is going on, I cannot change the past and I cannot worry about the future.     

July 1st, 7:30 p.m.

Adam and Megan have traveled an hour to see me off. There is no trade-off for them as spectators and I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the fact I have such good people in my life. Dan raps on my car window in the rain and tells me that his wife and daughter are also staked out in the car. A short while later, the rain stops and Adam helps me pull out my gear. Jay has come down from Raleigh on a very last minute decision to cross Georgia off his list. Soon after, I see Sam out on the course, plugging away at his 100 miler. And look, Sarah and Sean are here too!

We chat a bit with everyone and bide the time until the 9:00 p.m. runners line up at the starting line. A few of us are called to check our timing chips and suddenly, it's go time.

There is a pack of us that starts out running mid-9's very comfortably. Jay and I are super chatty the first mile and I almost forgot that we had spectators as we came around the first lap. Hi Megan! Hi Adam! It is surprisingly comfortable for an evening in July in Georgia and after a long week of limiting my runtherapy due to the taper, I am ready for some miles.

On the second lap, I high-fived Megan and gave Adam a kiss before they took off for the evening. Our pack continued to go around and around for the first hour with steady conversation and introductions. I had been outed as the overall winner from the prior year which put pressure on me in both good and bad ways.

At the 45 minute mark, I stopped to grab a gel and my handheld. 12 hours is a long time to stay on top of calories and hydration and I was hoping that I could be as successful as last year. The pack thinned a bit in the next hour and then it was just Jay and I. Every time I saw someone on the course, it was a boost and though I didn't run with Hal, he did leave me a bag of popcorn in my camping chair.

I had another gel at about an hour and 30 minutes in and that marked the end of any strategy for nutrition. Jay and I separated at some point and I started just clicking off the miles in the low 9's. At first, I was a little concerned to lose company so early on. However, it did make it much easier to just run by feel and not be as concerned with staying in stride. I continued to reevaluate my effort and backed off when I felt like I was pushing the needle a little too far.

By the end of the 3rd hour, I was feeling good about my overall pace and pretty much on track to repeat the prior year's performance. It rained for about 15 minutes or so and I was happily cooled off. My guts were rebelling a bit and I felt instant relief after a porta-potty jaunt. My miles in the 3rd-4th hour were some of the best, but I was digging myself into a hole by avoiding calories and hydration. I ignorantly clipped off some sub 9's and would later pay the price.

After hitting the marathon mark just past the 4th hour, I picked up my iPod as a treat. The rain caused one of the earbuds to be full of static and so I just had one in my ear. Coupled with my inability to be comfortable at time, the music situation was hurting more than helping. I think I ended up tossing it onto my chair after about 3 laps.

Hitting 50K was the next milestone and I was plunging hard and fast into the pain cave. I stopped talking to people as I went by. The next 2 hours were completely and utterly miserable. I knew I needed to eat, but I kept passing the aid station because my stomach was a wreck. As the 6 hour mark loomed, I desperately wanted to throw in the towel. Everything hurt. My stomach, my legs, and worst of all, my mind. I couldn't wrap my head around running for 6 more hours.

I went to the darkest crevices of my mind. The self-loathing was cutting me deeper with each mile. I screwed up at life. And now I am screwing up running too. Mentally, I was 99% certain that there was no way I was going to find a happy place again in the race.

At 6 hours and 28 minutes, I stopped to do damage control at the aid station after emptying my guts at the porta-potty. I knew even if I was going to spend the next 5+ hours walking, I needed to get my stomach under control. I ate a slice of orange and drank a cup of ginger ale. I walked about 50 feet beyond the start/stop line and started making noises like a dog about to puke.

And then I puked everything I had just consumed. 6 violent and painful pukes.

I brushed my mouth with the back of my arm and stood still for a moment. And then I moved tentatively forward. Into a walk. Into a jog. Into a run.

Though I knew I was basically running on empty, I felt better than I had for about 15 miles. I gave myself a few more miles and then decided to try some broth. I'm not a soup person. And I was shoving ice in my sports bra half the night to stay cool even though it was in the 60's. But Sarah's love broth was a magical experience. I drank a cup of it and within minutes, felt like someone had injected me with a power boost. As I came around with my empty cup in hand, I asked for a refill.

At 8:14, I passed the 50 mile mark. 7 minutes slower than last year. I felt a little defeated and couldn't do the runner math to figure out that I still had a shot at a repeat performance. But the broth definitely got my body going in the right direction and though the miles were wearing on me, I was in a much better spot than the 2 hours prior.

My strategy dropped into the run/walk category over the next 12 miles. I would start walking at the start/finish line and pick up at the D2 sign. It was maybe about 1/8th of a mile. It would allow me a minute or so to digest the few things I could manage at the aid station. And mentally, it gave me something to look forward to every lap.

As the sky started to lighten, I felt a sense of relief knowing that I could get rid of my headlamp and visor. Plus, being able to see the other runners was huge. We could yell out to each other across the loop because we could finally see each other!

Nearing 7 a.m., I realized that I actually had a 100K PR that I was about to beat. This gave me a huge mental boost towards the end. And last year, I was trying to just hit 100K so I stopped and did a lot of walking after reaching my goal. This year, I had a shot at cracking 70 if I stuck with it the last 2 hours. I allowed myself a little bit longer walk as reward for the 100K and then kept on plugging away.

My mind was settled, my stomach was tolerable, and now I just had to overcome overuse soreness. The upper outer portion of where the hip meets the glutes meets the thighs on both sides were aching. Of the three pains, I can handle the body soreness easiest so I was relieved that this was the devil I was dancing with late in the race.

I really wasn't paying much mind to the overall standings until the last couple of hours when Jay checked on them. Loop races are weird because you never really know who is in first. Even the fastest runners will stop for aid and walk at some points. I was a lap ahead of the field and unless I experienced a breakdown and/or someone found a second wind, it was likely I could pull off an overall win.

Sean was pushing me to go for 71, 72, but I was definitely content to hit 70.X. As soon as I realized that hitting 70 was a possibility, I really just stayed in the moment. There was no outside noise. No dwelling in the past. No dreaming about the future. Just one foot in front of the other. Breathe steady. Stay moving.

The best part of the race usually is the last mile. But this one was especially great because I got to finish with Joseph and Cary who had been part of our pack at the beginning of the race. Both had hit the 100K mark and we all walked the last mile together with less than 20 minutes left on the clock. I don't even remember what we talked about, but that kind of camaraderie in ultras is easily the best part of doing them. It was so distracting that the finish and finish line experience was kind of a blur.

We all stood around and talked for a bit before collecting our medals and going about the rest of the morning. Jay and I had breakfast beers and sat soaking in the sun before we parted ways. I bid Sam good luck as he continued his 100 mile journey and high-fived John on my way out.

As I drove down the winding roads heading home, I honestly couldn't believe how dark things got around 3:30 a.m. and how I somehow managed to keep going. The body is an extraordinary thing--I am grateful for the one that allows me to do what I love. These experiences prove that things don't always go as planned. And maybe it's a bunch of idealistic hogwash, but I like to think that getting roughened up makes me appreciate all the things I am still so fortunate to have.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Midsummer's Dream Year 2: Sweet Revenge

I wanted revenge on this race. The 2016 version was by far the worst I have ever felt in a race. In my life. I've run longer and harder before, but last June, I took a serious trip to Funkytown and was physically uncomfortable for about 80% of the race.

I was so afraid that I was going to have a repeat of last year that I hesitated to sign up until the week of the race. I had a miserable training run on Monday night. My legs felt like concrete and I had no energy. I never cut runs short, but this was exceptionally bad.

So of course I went home and signed up for revenge on the worst race being held that Saturday.

I hadn't pinned a bib on since Boston and it seemed weird that I had gone 2 months without racing. But I had been running a lot--over 200 miles in May despite traveling 16 days in Europe. And before last night, I had racked up 100 miles in June.

There was a teeny bit of a taper in the days leading up to the race, but I had logged 58 miles the week prior and over 6,000' of ascent with my crazy run/hike/camp trip. I was a little worried that I wasn't going to feel fresh at the race, but I also knew that it was really important that I push myself now for my long term goals.

Luckily, I felt really good on my shakeout run on Friday afternoon and I was able to spend all day Saturday off my feet. I stuck with low fiber carbs, hydrated through the mid afternoon, and took a midday nap.

Dark clouds started to form as I drove the hour west towards the race site. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot, the sky opened up and it began raining sideways. Thunder. Lightening. Ugh. I texted John and decided to stay dry as long as possible. Around 8:15, I grabbed my umbrella and decided to pick up my bib so that I was ready even if the rain didn't quit by 9:00.

Fortunately, it started to slow down and I lugged my cooler and gear through the muddy gravel towards John's set up on the course. By the time I laid out my stuff and changed into my shoes, it was pretty much time to line up. I spotted Nikki and Pete and we made our introductions. Luckily, I was geared to go because without any warning, the start gun sounded and we all kind of looked around in disbelief.

A couple of kids took off first and beelined down the course. I tucked into the pack behind Nikki, Pete, and Nicole. Our group had a couple of other guys and the 6-7 of us stayed pretty tight through the first 4 loops. The course was a mess for the first hour. Huge puddles of water extended over the entire path and the single track section was muddy and slippery. There was one really bad section where mud and water was up to your ankles and there really wasn't any good way to avoid it. Being a 1.2 mile course, everyone knew that we would be dealing with the water and mud all night.

It was extremely humid after the rain. I looked around at the other runners and by the end of the first lap, everyone was coated in moisture. Shorts were sopping wet. Skin glistened. Temperatures hovered in the 80's. I knew I was in for a long night of staying on top of keeping my core cool and staying hydrated.

On the 4th lap, Nikki, Pete, and Nicole peeled off to their gear and I stuck with a guy who had been with our pack. I decided to grab my handheld that was half frozen from my cooler on the next lap and a gel. The guy was keeping a solid pace and holding just below 9s which was where I wanted to be.  I stuck with him another 2 laps or so and then stopped for a bit longer as we crossed lap 7.

I had been hungry since the start, but my digestive nightmare from the year prior had me fearing putting too much on my stomach. So I decided to just try to get calories every 45 minutes during the race. The first 2 gels went great. By the time I was at 2:15, I was feeling sloshy and not interested in eating. The next 45 minutes went really downhill, really fast. My mind was struggling big time. The only reason I was still moving ok was 100% muscle memory. I really, really wanted to quit at 3 hours.

The strange thing was that nothing inherently hurt. My stomach was sloshy, but it wasn't painful. It was warm still, but I wasn't overheated. My legs were tired, but I still had something to give. My mind drifted to the insanity that I was going to run twice as long in 2 weeks in nearly similar conditions.

I started making deals with myself. Make it to 3 hours. (Later: Make it to a marathon. Make it to 50K. Make it to mid-30s (re: 35). Make it to my course PR.)

Luckily, Dan, Casey, and Alyssa showed up around midnight. I have never been relieved for course support in my life. They came at my race low. I ran a half lap with Dan and while it didn't push me out of the funk immediately, it did help to reset my race. As I headed past the 3 hour mark (and didn't quit with the 3 hour racers so I had to keep going), I started aiming towards the marathon mark.

Dan and Casey ran with John for a bit and it was awesome to hear their cheers as we passed each other on the course. I was starting to alternate hydration every other lap. Sometimes I would stick ice cubes in my sports bra. Sometimes I would suck on ice cubes in my mouth. Sometimes I would annoy myself for a half mile as the ice rattled in my bottle. I guzzled Powerade at one point and felt better for a few minutes, but then had a bit of sloshy stomach.

I grabbed half of an Uncrustable just before the marathon mark, knowing it was critical I start getting calories in my system. Just before 4 hours, I crossed the 26.2 and kept right on going. I ran a couple more laps until I stopped at the aid station and promised myself a 5 minute walk break. A cup of jelly beans looked good and I grabbed a few pieces of watermelon. I threw this odd combination in my mouth and used the walk break to digest the calories.


I walked about 4 minutes or so total, but the break and the calories had me feeling human again. My legs were now the only source of ill as they were feeling tired at 4 hours, 20 minutes into the race. 50K was the next benchmark and Dan picked up a few miles with me.

Once I crossed the 50K mark at 4:44, I felt like I was going to be able to gut out the last hour. I wasn't quite sure if I was going to be running 9s or 11s, but either way, I'd end up in the mid-30s at least.

Dan ran a bunch of miles towards the end when I was far less talkative and far more focused. Luckily, he pushed the pace just enough. It was hard to hold on at times, but I just tried to keep up as much as possible. I grabbed some pretzels at one point towards the end and they were dry and hard to chew. I spit out half of them on the side of the track and kept running.

Doing some quick runner math, I knew I could do one more lap if I came in at 5:47 or faster. I told Dan I wanted to run in with a beer and that he was essentially relieved of his pacing duties when we got to the second to last lap. Fortunately, the knowledge that I could stop at the end of the final lap was enough to push me to run it sub-9.

Dan met me at the aid station with the beer and I ran down the final 100 meters with the cold can in my hand. Casey got a bunch of photos of me finishing and I was so relieved to just finally stop. I cracked open the cold beer and drank about a 1/4 of it as we stood around watching people come in to finish.

We got some more pictures with John and then we walked to our setup so I could change out of my shoes.

I started feeling queasy and hobbled over a few feet out of the way to puke a few times.

Oh running. Such a glamour sport.

Puking made me feel better fortunately. Casey walked down with me to pick up my finisher's medal, t-shirt, a few snacks, and hang out for the awards.

First place! 39.6 miles. A new PR!

We walked back to the setup and I worked on my beer while we cheered John on for a few more laps. As it neared 4 am, we all decided to call it a night. We all mourned a little that he still had many more hours to cover alone. It was a long, slow ride home, but I was happy to be in warmish, dryish clothes headed for bed. And happy to have (mostly) gotten revenge on this race!
Strava data here.