Thursday, July 21, 2016

The trails are intoxicating

It's dark when the alarm goes off. It is cool, quiet, and calm in the bedroom. I swing my feet over the side of the bed and touch the floor.

I sip cold black coffee from a plastic cup as I drive the now-familiar route north. The sky is cloudy and it seems as though the world is taking a little longer to wake up this morning. On The Road Again rumbles over the stereo speakers and I drum on the steering wheel.

As the road gets curvier and my ears pop, I feel antsy to begin. The mountain tops that seemed so far off in the distance are now close and steep. A canopy of trees line the road as I navigate the switchbacks up, up, up.

I drive slowly down the road leading to the parking lot. It is dense with tree cover and seems almost dark on this cloudy morning.

A few minutes of fumbling with my pack and shoes and I'm off. The first mile is a familiar climb and I hike hard and fast on the incline to the 3-way intersection. A pair of couples are stopped on the rock stairs halfway up and we greet each other with good mornings. The oldest man is wearing a dark green floppy hat and says something about my speed that makes the others laugh. I cannot discern exactly what it is, but I smile back nonetheless as I continue on.

I make a right onto the Appalachian Trail and take the short, downhill path down to Neels. The rustic building on the north side of the road is nothing to write about except when shelter and civilization suddenly become a beacon in the wilderness. I trot under the covered walkway and make the easy early climb up to the highest peak of the day.

My legs feel fresh, my stomach is cooperating, and the cloudy day makes the air temperature tolerable for a late July morning in Georgia. I can discern peaks through the trees on either side of me. The views from the sections are breathtaking. Green covers the ground, the trees, and everything in between. I see a bear approximately 50 feet from the trail scamper off into the woods as we come into sight of each other. My heart races wildly, but my actions are strangely calm. I continue on with a slight uptick in speed, but without calling attention to myself.

As I come down the peak, I head the distinctive noise of metal tapping. It sounds as though a camper is hammering in tent stakes. Within a few minutes, I cross paths with a day-hiker who had been tapping his trekking poles to scare off bears. We converse for a brief moment and he takes a moment to show me a photo of a snake on his phone. He warns me that he saw it about a quarter mile from where we were standing. I warn him about the bear I saw about a mile back.

The next section features a series of lookouts at various peaks and I take out my phone for a few pictures. The day is still considerably cloudy and I feel good about my water supply. The trail is rocky in the climbing sections, but easy moving on the flats.

I crest the last peak before Tesnatee Gap and careen down trail without realizing the full brunt of its' steepness. At the Gap, a mother and son are sitting on the side of trail awaiting a ride. I stop to eat a couple Oreos and wander around looking for the white blazes. I ask the mother and son if they know where the trail continues and the point around the corner just at the top of the curve in the road. They are just finished overnight camping and warn me that the next section is incredibly steep.

I shuffle off onto the trail and soon find every muscle burning as I climb. It is step, rocky, and full of tight switchbacks. I am drenched in sweat and my lungs are working to provide every ounce of oxygen I need to keep going. My pace has slowed to over 20:00 minute miles and I feel like my heart is beating hard enough to pop out of my chest.

Fortunately, the peak is reach within a mile. My breathing returns to normal. But the sun begins to peak out from behind the clouds and filters through the trees. There are a few open sections and I feel the heat slowly rising. As I reach Hogpen Gap, I discover I have just 2 miles to go before I turnaround.

I pass two men a few years older than me who walkie talkie to a group of adolescent boys that a runner is a approaching. 5-6 boys split themselves on either side of the trail and I thank them for stepping aside to let me pass. Another short climb up and another short ride down leads me to mile 10. I make a few extra steps and then start right back up. I plan to change out my water bottles at the top, but the hikers are congregated there and I continue along until I am without of earshot of them.

I pull out my water bottles to transfer and fumble a bit with the caps. As I start to put everything away, I hear the group getting closer to me and I keep my empty bottle in my hand as I trot along the trail. The mercury is rising and I start to get a bit concerned about the fact that I've burned through a little more than half of my water.

The mental funk sets in. My legs are growing weary, the rocks underfoot seem sharper with every mile, and I am uncomfortably warm. The climbs burn my lungs, the downhills burn my quads. Every so often, I enjoy a few minutes of flat before ascending or descending.

After passing Hogpen, I decide I will just run down the road at Neels and cutoff my run by 1.5 miles. I worry about running out of water. I am tired. I might have bit off more than I chew.

The descent down to Tesnatee is rough. I am going down, but I cannot go fast. The rocky stairs and uneven footing makes the trail nearly impossible to run and I hold onto trees as I try to keep both my ankles intact.

I spend the next few miles worried about my water. I wasn't going to die. But I was going to be really thirsty by the end. I stop looking at the lush greenery and the captivating lookouts. The light mist that threatened in the early miles would be a welcome relief. I come upon a hiker who was changing her shoes on top of the tallest peak. She asks me how my run was going, I ask her how her hike was going. I tell her I wish it would rain.

As I come carefully down the hill, thunder crackles loudly. I jump as it rumbles. Within minutes, fat raindrops fall on top of the trees. I am covered briefly for a short while, but as the rain intensifies, the water begins to drench me. The dry trail can't soak up the moisture quick enough and sheets of water run down the slope like miniature waterfalls. My shoes and socks are soaked instantly. I was indeed the fool who wished for rain.

The only saving grace is that the lower temperature buys me a bit more time and I careen down the last section to Neels at the fastest speed I can maintain without falling. I aim for the covered pathway at Neels. As I spot the building, I breathe a sigh of relief.

I stand under cover for a few minutes and put my water bottle out on a picnic table to collect rainwater. A woman steps out of white SUV and walks under the cover with me. She asks if it's okay if she smokes and though I clearly would prefer she didn't, I say yes. She talks to me for a few minutes about her family driving her crazy in the car and attempts to warn me about bears, snakes, and people on the trail.

After she finishes her cigarette and walks back to her car, the rain lightens up enough that I go in search of a water fountain. I see a spigot on top of a wooden box next to the building with a few dog bowls scattered about. Good enough for dogs, good enough for humans...

With a nearly full bottle, I decide to finish the last mile and a half as planned. It is far steeper to the intersection than I remember, but once I get beyond that, I know it is all downhill. Literally and figuratively.

As I cross over the 20 mile mark, I feel the familiar pangs of happy exhaustion. It is extraordinarily satisfying and yet so challenging. And despite feeling like it is so tough every time I am out there, I cannot wait to return.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Loonies Midnight Marathon RR: A Cartwheel PR

I don't even remember when the suggestion of Loonies Midnight Marathon came onto my radar screen. Likely a week or two before Merrill's Mile and my head was so wrapped around getting through a 12 hour race that I couldn't see beyond June 3rd.

I came out of Merrill's unscathed and despite a little bit of residual soreness, I was running again that Tuesday. Nothing was fast or long, but I felt good considering I had just obliterated a bunch of PRs on a hot Georgia night.

When the subject of this Midnight Marathon business came up again, I actually looked at my work schedule and discovered that I might be able to make it happen. Unfortunately, the deeper I get into this running thing, the harder it is to say no to an opportunity of random adventures. After a bit more finagling and a push by my co-workers, I had Friday off work to rest up before the travel and race.

I checked the weather forecast on Friday morning and discovered that Livingston, Tennessee is actually in Central Time. A quick text to my running buddies Dan and Hal and all of us were a little relieved we'd have more travel time. Only later would I realize the flip side of that was a 1am start and an extra long morning.

I putzed around most of the day and got absolutely zero adulting things accomplished. I painted my nails (the phases of the moon), obtained beer and coffee, and took a nap.
We met at Hal's house and piled up the car with runner gear around 5:30p.m. The drive was supposed to be about 4 hours, but we made a couple of pit stops. We had dinner at Crapplebee's in the bustling metropolis of Dalton, Georgia where I consumed a chicken wrap thing with potato chips. I was aiming for mild and anti-fiber. However, I couldn't resist the Starbucks across the street and proceeded to drink a large iced coffee which was likely a contributing factor to later issues.

There were rainstorms through Chattanooga and then we had a beautiful sunset drive just beyond the city as we headed north. Somewhere, in the middle of nowhere, we were blinded by dozens of police vehicles' flashing lights at a DUI checkpoint. Pretty sure the police officer was like, WTF? when we told him we were headed to run a Midnight Marathon, but he allowed us to continue on our journey. After one more quick stop at Wal-Mart, we pulled into the parking lot of the race start/finish.

Small races have their benefits and we were able to back in and create a little aid station right along the course. It proved useful for all of us. There was still plenty of time to get ready so we talked with other runners nearby until it was game time.

There was a Marathon Maniacs picture, a speech by the town's mayor, a briefing by the police chief, and the National Anthem. I decided to shed my tank last minute as it was 82°F at the start and shoved a few ice cubes in my sports bra from the cooler.

With the gun, Dan took off and I maintained the middle spot while Hal stayed within sight for the first few miles. My primary goal was to get another night training run and knock out some more mileage. I was far from PR shape after 100K 2 weeks' prior so I aimed to stay in the 8:00s from the beginning and let my body dictate the pace as the night wore on. I could negative split if I felt good or just finish another marathon if things went awry.

The first 1.2 miles took us back to the start/finish and then the course consisted of 5, 5 mile loops. A lot of it was out-and-back so it was a good thing this was in the middle of the night (re: boring). Actually, the loops didn't really bother me much and it was the perfect amount of elevation change. Mostly flat with a few teeny rollers. Garmin and Strava say 702' of elevation gain.

I felt good the first hour or so and though my legs were not super fresh feeling, nothing hurt. I grabbed my handheld that I stuffed full of ice from the cooler when I came around for the first lap and immediately felt so much better with something cold on my hand.

By the end of the second lap, I started to feel the familiar pangs of nausea combined with stomach cramps. My mental state was not as funky as Midsummer's Night Dream, but I had also already relegated this race to a training run with a medal at the end. I knew there was a porta-potty at the 1st hydration stop so I decided to wait until then to go.

It was not a moment too soon. Phew! But I felt immediately better for a couple of miles and was in a much happier place mentally.

As I neared the end of the 3rd lap, I grabbed an icy towel that they were handing out. Unfortunately, the one I got was about washcloth sized and I couldn't wrap it around my neck like I had seen other runners do. I squeezed the water all over myself and picked off a few ice cubes to suck on. Writing this reminds me how funny it is that gross stuff like eating ice off a towel from a bucket is such a non-issue in the world of running.

At our car aid station, Dan was finishing up changing shoes and I tossed the towel down on the cooler. We ran together for about a quarter mile and then I stopped to walk a few steps as I was certain that I was about to have a porta-potty accident outside of the porta-potty. I scanned the nearby area thankful that it was dark and then magically, the feeling disappeared and I started running again. I caught up with Dan and we grunted at each other for about 3/4 of a mile before he trickled behind me into the night.

I was trying to not get too wet while pouring water over my head as the wet, soggy shorts experience was kind of a downer at Merrill's. I would fill up my handheld with water when it got low and I was trying to sip regularly. The thought of Gatorade made me incredibly nauseous and I could stomach any more GU after miles 5 and 10. My hydration levels and electrolytes were definitely off, but I couldn't really figure out what I needed other than to stop running a marathon in the middle of the 80° night.

I stopped at the porta-potty again before finishing the 4th lap and fortunately never had to revisit it again. Things started to level out after that and though I wasn't moving quickly (relatively of course), I knew that I was going to finish it in under 4 hours. I grabbed a big icy towel (yay!) and headed out for my final lap. I saw Hal at the car and he was already in a different shirt. Ugh! 

His DNF weighed on my mind a bit as I went back out, but it made me determined to gut out what I started. When I saw Dan headed in the other direction, he told me that he was finished too. Double ugh! Now I really have to finish to make our trip worth it.

The idea of being on my last lap and feeling much better was a complete turnaround for me. I was shuffling along with a grin on my face and thanking all the volunteers one last time as I passed by the various intersections and hydration stations. As I made it to the back half of the course, I felt relieved that the only thing separating me from the finish line was the journey back.

I high-fived a few of the intersection volunteers as I exclaimed, "thank you for being out here! This is my final lap!" The song Salute by Little Mix had shuffled into my iPod mix and I played it about 5 times on repeat over the last few miles. I was far from my PR, but I was proud of myself in a different way.

Hal and Dan were standing right before the finish line as I came in and I tossed my icy towel at them so it wouldn't get in the way of my cartwheel. New fastest marathon with a cartwheel at the end? Sounds like a good enough PR to me!

Final time: 3:49:32. 1st in my age group. 5th female. 17th overall. Cartwheel PR.
I really wanted to sit in the parking lot and drink celebratory beers after the race. But my stomach was revolting still and it was 5am Eastern Time. It was enough to put on dry clothes and stay awake as official navigator. Both Dan and Hal took naps, but I was the only one who didn't drive so I think that was fair?

We had breakfast at Cracker Barrel in Chattanooga and likely looked as though we were incredibly hungover in our stinky, exhausted state. I ate a few pieces of french toast and felt slightly better. Finally, back at Hal's house, the start of the trip, the 3 of us dug into the cooler for a 10:30am breakfast brew and raised our cans to end of an adventure.


Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Merrill's Mile 12 Hour RR: Don't Wake Me Up From This Dream

"How many more do you have?" blue shirt runner guy shouted from across the track.

"2!" I exclaimed.

"Are you going to keep going?"

"Of course!"

With an hour and a half left on the clock, I made my goal of 100K. 62 miles in 10:29:45. But the race wasn't to reach a mileage mark and finish. This was a 12 hour race. It was to see how far I could go in 720 minutes.

I had to go on. Despite everything in my body telling my mind to stop, I knew I still was capable of more.

1 year prior, I was in the exact same location, running my very first distance longer than a marathon. I loved it. In the 366 days since, I've pushed the envelope further than I could have imagined. 5 marathons (3 of them in 3:20-3:22 range) and 4 more ultras.

I'm still learning. I'm still making mistakes. But distance running is often an exercise in taking advantage of the really great seconds/minutes/hours and not letting the really terrible times define you. Because there will be terrible times. Even in the best of races, there will be low moments. But that's what makes getting to the finish so much sweeter.

My last race was a hot mess. I had four one too many beers the night before (shocker...), consumed too much fat/dairy in the hours before the race, and continued to dehydrate myself by not drinking early and often. Plus, it was about 15° warmer.

I didn't want to make the same mistakes. The misery was too fresh.

Steve and I did take a very slow hike at Amicalola Falls and up Blood Mountain on Thursday. My calves were a bit sore, but I don't think it had much ill-effect on my race. Plus, I think the mental nourishment outweighed any tightness. We are brewing up some plans to section hike the Appalachian Trail next year and this reignited my desire for adventure.

I hadn't run since Tuesday so we did a short shakeout run at the Greenway on Friday morning. It was a typical Hotlanta morning full of stifling humidity and oppressive heat. A nice reminder to be thankful that we were going to be racing in the dark.
We headed to Midtown after getting cleaned up to eat burgers and drink one last beer together at the Vortex before switching to water and Gatorade. While we were in the area, we took a short walk to and around Piedmont Park before returning to suburbia.
The next 24 hours were pretty uneventful. We ate, hydrated, slept, ate, hydrated, napped, and I made a sign to place with our personal aid station.
Adam drove us up to Camp Frank D. Merrill and Megan was already there when we arrived. She caught a few before snapshots of us while we were counting down to 9pm.

Soon, Steve and I had our bibs, timing chip ankle cuffs, and were standing around receiving "instructions" for the race. Run around the circle. Switch directions when told every 6 hours. Watch out for water moccasins. Have fun.

There were 48 hour (!!!!) and 24 hour (!!!) runners that we were joining on the track. They had started at 9am and looked hot and tired. Our starting group contained 6 hour and 12 hour runners and approximately 25-30 people lined up with us.
My goals were to run 100K and to keep moving for 12 hours. I knew I would feel better earlier and that my pace would naturally wane, but I really wanted to avoid the crash and burn. So I repeated 10 minute miles, 10 minute miles, 10 minute miles over and over knowing that as long as I was within 30 seconds of that, I wouldn't be setting myself up for a complete bonkfest.

Steve explained his strategy of running and then run/walking to me. I got lost in the runner math and decided to just try to run together until one of us felt particularly good or bad. The great thing about a 1 mile loop is that we knew we'd catch up with one another all night even if we separated.

We cruised easy for the first few miles trying to get in sync with a pace. Jeff and his parents arrived right at the start and we were able to wave our hellos to them. Our spectator group decided to take off as we rounded the 3rd lap and around the same time, we switched on our lights for a long night of running.

Steve and I talked back and forth and the first hour went by relatively quickly. We settled into a strategy of stopping every other lap for hydration/nutrition either from the official aid station or our own stash. I was making every attempt at staying hydrated and cool early on. At the sweltering L.A. Marathon earlier this year, I learned that sticking ice in your sports bra is heavenly. So I repeated this genius behavior and attribute much of my success to keeping my core body temperature lowered.

I ate an Uncrustable (grape, duh) early on when I realized I was pretty hungry. I knew that I needed to keep calories in so I was trying to eat something every other time I stopped for liquid even though I was getting some calories from the Mountain Dew and Gatorade.

My legs felt sluggish for the first 15 miles, but everything else was pretty much perfect. I was energized, in a good place mentally, and was relatively comfortable. I stopped to pee which was a good sign that I was hydrating early and often.

Somewhere around mile 17 or 18, Steve pushed me to go on while he walked a bit. We got in a solid 3 hours and though it was early, I knew we'd be able to run more later given the style of the course.

Soon after that, I saw Dan who had come out to set up his stuff for the 12 hour on Sunday as well as support a few other friends running. He ran a 1/2 mile lap with me and it was a nice transition into my loner hours. 

I was feeling so much different than the race I had 3 weeks prior. Everything started to fall in place and I tried to stay on top of anything that might sway me from a great night. Without Steve to talk to, I decided I would wait until somewhere between the marathon mark and 50K to grab my music. It seemed to pay off because some of my fastest miles were between 26-39.

I allowed myself to remember the awesome feeling I had when I finished the lap after the marathon mark last year. I was hoping that I would have a similar feeling as I cruised beyond mile 50 this year.

I did actually start to feel sleepy around 2am so I popped a caffeine pill and drank a few sips of coffee that I cooled off with ice. My feet were sore from all the miles on pavement and I was hoping that I would suffer no long-term effects from repeated doses of OTC painkillers.

Food was getting harder and harder to figure out. I was hungry, but nothing stood out so I just tried a bunch of everything. I ate a couple of mini chocolate donuts (those kind that almost taste like they are coated in wax?) and a fair number of boiled potatoes dipped in salt. I ate another half of an Uncrustable at some point and a bunch of Pringles. I ate some baby pickles, a few peanut M&M's, some orange slices, a couple of hunks of watermelon, and spent the last couple of hours eating a lemon sandwich cookie every other mile.

My Garmin died at mile 39.99 (really?, really.) and so I relied on the time clock and lap counter for the rest of the evening. As I headed into the 7th hour, I realized that I was about to slay my 50 mile PR. I've only run 50 twice and both were on trails, but I figured that this was still pretty awesome considering I still was going to run for nearly 4 more hours afterwards. I finished my 50th lap in 8:07:23!

I was thrilled going into mile 51 and I almost forgot that I was entering new territory mileage-wise. But then again it was 5am and now I was counting down the moments until I could get rid of my head lamp and hat. I caught up with Steve and we ran for a bit together. The sky slowly started to get lighter and though I knew the sun would bring heat, it would also signal that we were nearing the finish.

The light brought the race back to life for many runners. Now that we could properly see each other, there were all kinds of words of encouragement being tossed around. I ran with blue shirt runner guy for a bit and he told me he was aiming for 50 miles. We were both on track to hit our goals and it was exciting that we had an extra time cushion.

I was waving to him and Steve as we went 'round and 'round the circle. When I knew that 100K was locked in barring some act of God, I allowed myself to relax a bit. It seemed unreal that I had run that many miles.

And yet, when I crossed the mat at mile 62, I just kept right on going. I still had an hour and a half left. I ran a few more miles and then I sought companionship. The boredom and fatigue were beginning to consume me and I needed a distraction. When I reached Steve again, we walked and talked. Erin and her niece came just after 8am and they joined us for 2 miles. I grabbed a beer from the cooler as we walked what I thought was going to be my final mile. A victory lap of sorts. 68 laps was more than I hoped for so I was pleased as punch to just enjoy the moment.

But as we neared the last mile, we saw there were still 15 minutes left on the clock. Runnable, but questionably walkable in our zombie state. Erin gave me the challenging push and that was all I needed. I handed Steve my beer and took off hoping to squeak out another mile.

It hurt so good. Knowing that it was just icing on the cake took all the pressure off. I felt as though I was running a 6 minute mile. It was the perfect mix of silly and determined which pretty much sums up my running. With a few minutes still left before the cutoff, I crossed the line for my 69th lap.

Results are still pending so I'm not sure where I placed in the weekend. But no matter what, I am thrilled with my race and even happier that I got to spend the race weekend with my RB.
Steve knocked out an impressive 58+ miles and kept moving and smiling throughout the night. There aren't that many weirdos out there that want to run around in circles in the middle of July in Georgia overnight. I'm lucky to share breakfast beers and cookies with this swell dude from Michigan. Better yet? He and Adam can watch 58590380285 innings of baseball together all weekend while I take naps.

If this is a dream, please don't ever wake me up.