Monday, January 9, 2017

Fatass 50K RR: Learning To Suffer Better

The bread and cheese stuck to the roof of my mouth. It was warm and gooey and a stark contrast to everything else about the day. I savored the few seconds of human interaction and heat. The moment was over too quickly. I choked down the last bites, finding it hard to swallow with my dry mouth. My cadence increased and everything that was comfortable slowly disappeared like June sunset.

The feeling in my mouth that morning was the same as it is every race morning. 35 mornings of anticipating at least 26.2 miles or more hasn't cured me of the feeling. I looked at the pile of running gear heaped on the carpet in front of the bed. Long socks, tights, shorts, sports bra, tech tee, long sleeved tech tee, half zip shirt, jacket, buff, hat, tech gloves, fleece gloves. The weather app said 11°F as I donned all my apparel. 

I climbed into my Jeep and it moaned slowly to life. Shivering, I navigated away from my sister's house and onto the highway towards the park. A parking attendant directed me into the last spot in the main lot and I sat in my car for a few minutes collecting my gear. The pavilion was warm and the volunteers chipper. I pinned on my race bib and searched the crowd for a familiar face. Announcements were made and despite the then balmy 16°F, it was decided we would all run start by just running through the double doors towards the start line.

My Garmin had naturally timed out from the start menu and I fumbled quickly to get it functioning again with two pairs of gloves. Approximately 20 runners were in front of me and I fell in line through the first section of single track. 6 loops of 5ish miles. A short section of single track up, a mile or so on flat and fast fire roads, a sharp descent down a fire road, single track along the river, the boulders, the stairs, the best part (flattish single track), the log stairs, and the steeper-with-each-loop climb to the start/finish.

The first lap was fantastic. I felt incredibly fresh despite the 35-36 miles I had raced the prior weekend. Everything was comfortable. Easy. No twinges from my legs, knees, or hips. No stomach conundrums. I ripped the buff from my face within the first half mile. Too hot. 

At the fire road, I listened to snippets of conversations around me and settled into a comfortable pace as my body warmed up. At the steep descent, I barrelled down the road, arms out like wings. I'd pay for my recklessness later, but there are few things better in life than pushing the pace hard on technical downhill. It is the ultimate feeling of being strong and free.

366 days had passed since I had last run this course. Everything seemed so much easier. The hills seemed flatter, the stairs seemed fewer, and I felt better. I clamored over the boulders and charged the steep ascent after the stairs. Everything in the last mile and a half of the first loop was full of trail magic. The frost on the ground, the icicles hanging from the benches, and the sun shining through the barren trees was stunning.

I came through the aid station, grabbed a slice of peanut butter & jelly, threw off my jacket, and continued onto the next loop. The second loop proved just as a easygoing and despite a small belly rumble, I felt ready to run loops all day. I had one bottle half filled with water and the other half filled with Tailwind. Both were starting to turn to slush and I could only laugh at this rare problem in my running life.

At the end of the second loop, I took a small piece of potato and popped it into my mouth. My hydration seemed to be okay so I headed back out for loop #3. There was a guy with a blue shirt and Superman tattoo on his calf that had passed me in the 2nd loop, but he was right in front of me at the aid station. The RD ran after him to get his bib number as he had crumpled it up and messed up his timing chip. He continued on behind me and we ran side by side on the fire road. 

"50K or 25K?" he asked.

"50K, you?" 


"Awesome. You're almost done!"

He pushed on ahead and I held back, knowing it was fruitless to push when I still had more than half the race to finish. A short time later, I passed him back as he picked up the pants he left behind on the first lap. I tried to hold steady to my pace, but as I neared the end of the 3rd lap, I felt my spirit starting to sink. A few 25K runners blew past me in the last half mile. One female decidedly looking to secure a 3rd place finish without likely realizing I was still 16 miles from being done.

At the aid station, the volunteer offered me a hot grilled cheese.

The next lap was the best and worst thing about endurance racing. It was full of mental misery and physical pain. Some races skew towards one or the other. This was a healthy mix of leg bonk and the negative thought monster telling every cell in my body to STOP RUNNING. When I took a short tumble (on nothing), I yelled at myself. Eff Liebowitz. Get it together. I thought about dropping to the 25K, dropping to just a marathon distance, or hell, just dropping onto the side of the trail. I began making deals with the devil. If I finish this, I will never sign up....Oh shit, I am already signed up...Well, I will never do THIS RACE again.

I suffered through the lap. I scraped the back corner of the pain cave and overstayed my welcome. It was dark and defeating. And yet, I kept moving forward.

I wasn't out of the pain cave just yet, but I was determined to just get the last 2 laps over with by the time I arrived at the aid station. I sucked down a cup of Mountain Dew. I refilled my water bottle. I stopped at my car for aspirin. I slurped down a Huma gel packet.

When mile 22 clicked off, I gave myself 1 mile to snap out of my funk. Slowly, whatever cocktail of caffeine, sugar, and painkillers I mixed together took the edge off. I began to feel better. I opened a Roctane GU and squeezed the now-hardened packet of cherry lime into my mouth. My pace quickened and I knew that I only had to pass through each section just once more.

One more cup of Mountain Dew at the aid station. The volunteers asked if they could top off my water bottles and I joyfully exclaimed that I was headed out for my final loop. I was deliriously excited about being done in hopefully less than an hour.

A guy who had been leap-frogging with me all day stayed about 20 paces ahead of me for the first mile of the last loop. When we reached the fire road, he stopped briefly and bent over to stretch his legs. The monster was getting him. I shuffled passed him and said, "c'mon man, you've got this". 

Sidenote: I never know what to say when passing someone. Some people want to be left alone. Some want words of encouragement. 

He heeded the message and came shuffling up behind me. I played pacemaker for the next mile and he stayed within my shadow, our breathing and gravel crunching the only noises. It was the kind of moment that is shared only in events such as these. We didn't speak, we didn't look at each other, we just suffered together. I don't know his name and I wouldn't even know what his face looks like save for the fact I saw it after crossing the finish line. 

But I lost him on the descent. The last rumble down the hill was enough to give me a spark of energy and I bounced from side-to-side as I navigated the safest place I could quickly put my foot down. As I hit the boulders, the stairs, and climb the gnarly hill one last time, I allowed myself to briefly look at my watch. Gauging distance was a bit tough, but I was on track for a personal course PR

I struggled to run on the last ascents, but I didn't want to leave anything on the table. My legs were burning when I hit the gravel. I cringed as I touched the pavement and gave it one last push. 16 miles prior, I didn't want to take another step. But like some bullshit Cinderella story, I found a way to turn my race around. 


I leaned again the pavilion wall, breathing heavily. I was cold, but undecided where to go. So I stood for a few minutes and just absorbed the activity around me. The guy I had run with briefly came through shortly after I finished and the RD called out to him "hey, you are 3rd!"

Then he sees me standing against the wall. "Wait, is that 329?"

I look at my number, look at him. "Yeah, I'm 329"

"Oh okay. I think you are 3rd overall. Definitely 1st female."

It's a small race. It was 16°F at the start. It was a free race without any swag. Lots of people didn't even start and plenty dropped out or dropped down mid-race. But that day, I was the fastest girl to finish. I'd be lying if I said first place didn't feel good. But I'd also be lying if it felt easy. The feeling of personal accomplishment is there regardless of the time on the clock or the placement in the race. 

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt 

Edit 1.11.17: Results were posted and I was 4th OA, 1st Female! Oops.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016: The Year I Said Yes To Big Things

The true competitive runner, simmering in his own existential juices, endured his melancholia the only way he knew how: gently, together with those few others who also endured it; yet very much alone. He ran because it grounded him in the basics. There was both life and death in it; it was unadulterated by media hype, trivial cares, political meddling. He suspected it kept him from that most real variety of schizophrenia that the republic was then sprouting like mushrooms on a stump. Running to him was real, the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as a diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free. -John L. Parker, Jr.

2016 began with a few races on the calendar, all with the intention of preparing for the BIG RACE in September. I knew I needed to get used to living in the pain cave and make friends with every demon that wanted to stop me in my tracks. That meant a lot of miles, a lot of time on my feet, and a lot of bibs to keep me accountable. 

Though I follow no formal training plan and prefer to live and run as free from a schedule as possible, I do love looking at data. 

Running cumulative data:
 Fitbit data (because I average 10,000 steps/5 miles at work on top of running!):

But, as much as I adore data, I like photos even better! I will always have the memories swirling around somewhere in my head, but the pictures help conjure up the stories associated with each race.

My 2016 running recap:

In January, I started the year with the GUTS Fatass 50K. 6 loops of 5ish miles in Sweetwater Creek Park. There usually aren't any photographers for fatass races (re: free) so here's a pic of me drinking a beer right after the race:

5:22:34, 2nd female, 7th OA

A couple of weeks later, Adam and I flew to Miami to visit his family. We walked the 5K with his brother and dad while my sister-in-law ran ahead in preparation for an upcoming half-marathon.

The next day, I met up with JJ, my sister-from-another-mister-internet-BFF for a little runpartying along the streets of downtown Miami. I was a couple of weeks out from my 50K and she had been sidelined by injury. So we took shots of beer, danced with bands, and basically caused a ruckus for 26.2 miles:
3:55:12, 137th female, 798th OA

In February, Adam and I headed west to watch the Olympic Marathon Trials (!!!!!) in Los Angeles. Sitting on the curb within range of touching my sheroes and heroes was the ultimate in runner geekdom.
Galen Rupp
Shalane and Amy

Hanging out with some of my favorites at Bangle's house was on par with watching the trials. We ran hard and partied harder.

Caitlin was aiming for a sub-4 marathon and/or PR. JJ and I agreed to be the pace team. Despite the heat, hills, and shots of Fireball, we somehow managed to get her across the finish line with her second fastest marathon time ever. I consider it a win:
4:07:01, 823rd female, 3339th OA

In March, Adam and I headed to Myrtle Beach for a short overnight trip. I had won an entry to the Myrtle Beach Marathon and squeezed it into my calendar. It was the first time I was running a road marathon by myself in 2016 and I decided to see what the body could handle.
3:22:14, 10th female, 120th OA

April is BOSTON MONTH and I was raring to go with 6 more weeks of training under my belt. I actually did a bit of speed work and marathon paced workouts. It was a warm day and I held close to my goal until the Newton Hills chewed me up. But people, it is Boston. A course PR and crossing the finish line of the most prestigious road marathon is about as good as it gets.

3:20:59, 780th female, 5182nd OA

In May, Steve mentioned to me a gnarly little race in Indiana that he was running. I managed to coordinate the weekend off and found myself toeing the line of my second 50 miler. It was rainy, muddy, and almost 10,000 feet of elevation gain. But I had so much fun running, camping, and road-tripping that it was easily one of my favorites of the year!

10:53:35, 3rd female, 12th OA

In June, I found a race that I could get a little night running practice in before my overnight attempt in July. The Midsummer's Night Dream Ultra was a 6 hour race that started at 9pm. Unfortunately, it was terribly humid, in the mid-80's all night, and I couldn't get my nutrition/hydration correct. I felt miserable the entire race. Which sucks because I won. I'm only smiling in the picture because I was done: 

37.2 miles, 1st female, 1st OA

In July, I was nervous and excited to tackle 12 hours at Merrill's Mile. The longest time I had ever run before was at Gnaw Bone and I didn't want to assume anything about how it would feel; especially during an overnight race. Steve drove to Atlanta to hang out for a few days and run this crazy race with me. My goal was to hit 100K (62 miles). I ended up with a 50 mile PR (8:07:23), an instant 100K PR (10:29:45), and finished with 68.67 miles in 12 hours.
68.67 miles, 1st female, 1st OA

A couple of weeks later in July, someone had this crazy idea to run a midnight marathon in Tennessee. On race day, Hal, Dan, and I all discovered the race was actually at 1 a.m. EST. And starting temps were in the 80's. It was basically a repeat of June's race. I did a cartwheel over the finish line. My stomach was a wreck for 24 hours. 

I'm in the middle, standing to the right of the tallest guy in the photo, with a black sports bra and yellow visor.

3:49:32, 5th female, 17th OA

The road trip to the middle of Livingston (??!), Tennessee in the middle of the night was worth the insanity.

In August, I hadn't really been looking or planning anything. It was the last big month of buildup before BIG ONE. I decided on the last weekend of the month to bring my gear to work and beg off a bib number for the Yeti Snakebite 50K. I honestly didn't think I was going to get to run because the thing was sold out. But the RD is super cool and handed me a bib. Uh...guess I'm running a 50K. I had zero taper, was coming off a 65 mile week, and had worked all day.

Whatever. I made an awesome new friend, forded a river 3 times, and played in the woods all night.

6:36:57, 4th female, 23rd OA

September, September, September. All the miles and races had been leading up to the BIG ONE. The good news was the I felt extremely prepared and extraordinarily excited. Jenster, Steve, and Angie were going to be there experiencing the same ups and downs. The bad news was the summer was not quite over come race day and temperatures soared near 90. But I stuck with a generalized game plan of super easy pacing all day. My patience paid off and I hit the tracker with 100.7 miles at 4:33 a.m., an instant 100 mile PR of 20:33:00.
109.866 miles, 1st female, 2nd OA

In October, once I recovered from the immense brain fog, I decided it would be cool to have a marathon or longer distance each month of the year. I ran a couple of easy weeks and felt actually pretty normal considering the physical toll it took running 100+ miles. Then my Achilles started to feel swollen and painful. I backed off a few days at a time, but the window to run 26.2 in October started to close. It wasn't a very smart decision at the time, but my friend Matt (who I met at the Yeti Snakebite) helped procure a bib for me at the Greenville Marathon about a week before the race. I decided to do it in a donut costume. 50% because I knew I would have an excuse to run slower, 50% because I had to run a race in costume before (just a tutu, not the same). Somehow, the marathon cured me? It's so not recommended, but seriously, I haven't had any Achilles pain since...
3:55:30, 14th female, 94th OA

24 hours passed after the October race and I decided to sign up for Savannah the following weekend. I signed up so late that there weren't really many viable hotel options so I decided to just camp on Tybee Island. Hal decided to do the half and we made a road trip of it. I truly was just going to see where the morning took me. The 100 miler, the Achilles thing, the donut marathon the weekend before.... my expectation was just to finish in one piece. But as the miles clicked off, I started to feel ah-mazing. The momentum kept up all the way to the finish line and I found myself with a 2018 BQ!
3:28:04, 13th female, 79th OA

In December, there is Rehoboth. It has been so good to me. I was hungry for a marathon PR--after all, it had been since the last Rehoboth that I had earned a 26.2 PR. I took it out hard and fast and bonked so hard in the end that I lost my 3rd female position in the last half mile. But, I earned a new PR and am proudly under 3:20!
3:19:22, 4th female, 52nd OA

I normally work over Thanksgiving and Christmas and like to take the few days surrounding New Year's off. So I started checking out options and decided to race this past weekend. It was the first year of the Resolution Run, a timed fatass race in Greenville. Matt met up with me at the exact moment the race began and we trudged through about 22ish miles together. It was hillier than any timed race I've ever done (totaled 2500' in elevation) I wasn't feeling it for the first 22 miles. I sat around in funkytown for about 3.5 hours. Finally, something snapped (I give kudos to the magical Sprite) and I pounded out the last 14 miles feeling remarkably well. 
 36 miles, 1st female, 2nd OA

As I sit here and type up the summary of my version of a monster year, I am most aware of the people that have made these snippets of my life possible. Without these friendships and positive peer pressure, I would never have attempted 90% of this craziness. The more I adventure and break out of my comfort zone, the more I want to keep going. To those who have encouraged me along the way, thank you, thank you, thank you.

As for 2017, I am leaving this as a little reminder for myself (and maybe you too?). I wrote it the week of Hinson Lake and surprisingly, it makes sense.
Let's go do bigger things!