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.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

How I lost my bear vault down a mountain

I think the first time I remember having my breath being taken away by nature was approaching the Grand Tetons from Yellowstone on a road trip my mom and I took in 2006. Every time I drive north towards the Appalachian Trail and see the peaks on horizon, I feel myself take a little gasp.

Anyone who knows me knows my obsession with endurance/survival stories. I love reading anything to do with conquering physical challenges and the bigger/longer, the better. I've read multiple books now about people hiking the AT and am fascinated by how many humans are drawn to this challenge on a yearly basis.

It's kind of surprising that while I done a number of trail runs and hikes on the AT, I had yet to do any proper camping. So being a complete newbie at anything beyond car camping, I thought I would take baby steps in this adventure. I decided on 2 days/1 night of running/hiking/camping. The "plan" slowly came together and I knew a lot of the adventure would just be deciding how I felt at the time. I borrowed a backpack from Megan and a sleeping bag from Dan and bought a bear vault to store my food.

I got up at 6 on Wednesday morning and had a quick breakfast before hitting the road to Unicoi Gap. My plan was to run south on the AT from Unicoi and aim for about 20 miles total. 10ish out and 10ish back. I knew the first climb would be tough and the elevation profile heading back would prove challenging on tired legs. But the purpose was to spend some time on the trails and get some ultra training under my belt.

The morning was unseasonably cool and I was super comfortable in a tank and shorts. I contemplated bringing a 3rd water bottle for my pack, but ultimately decided against it due to the weather and my water filter. 

From Unicoi, I began my adventure. The first mile was indeed a beast. Around 1000' of gain in a mile. I barely ran 10 steps and instead power-hiked for about 20 minutes. 
Fortunately, it leveled out a bit after a mile and then I enjoyed a nice little decline for a short while as I approached the Blue Mountain shelter. It was a bit rocky and technical so I just took my time as I traveled down the south side of Blue Mountain. Once I got to mile 3, I came upon a really beautiful descent full of ferns, greenery, and smooth single track. If you are a trail runner, you know this paradise is what we live for!

Though it was short-lived, I experienced a lovely little "up" on this section and had fun navigating the twists and turns as I descended the mountain. Soon, the trail returned to rocks and I was frustrated that I had to slow down and watch every step. Knowing that I wanted to keep the adventure going for another day made me a bit more cautious in my speed and step.
 Fortunately, I hit mile 5 and then cruised down a very low grade descent for the next 3 miles. There were a few hikers out and about, but it was really wonderful to just enjoy a bit of solitude. The temperature was holding out and while I wasn't feeling super fresh, I did feel like I had another few hours of good, hard running in me.
At Low Gap, I stopped and looked at my map and knew that another 1.5 miles was very doable (for a total of 20). I didn't have anywhere to be and I could spend all day running if I really wanted to. When I hit the 10 mile marker, I felt as though the terrain looked pretty familiar and so I pulled out my phone to look at some Strava data. Last summer, I ran south to north to a section very close to where I was. Comparing maps, I decided to close the gap and ran until I was sure I had passed the section. I was now at mile 11.3ish. I ate some jelly beans and took a selfie.
On the way back, I felt pretty decent through the rolling hills. But as soon as I started up the very gradual ascent, I started to hit my low point. I was still running, but it was very, very slow. And I had no energy. I had a Huma gel. I drank some water. I stopped at a teeny waterfall. I was really warm and looped my shirt up to get a little relief.
 I stopped to take a few pictures. 50% because the tree tunnel was beautiful. 50% because I needed to rest.
I knew I was nearing the rocky section, the climb back up Blue Mountain, and the terrifying descent of 1000' on dead legs. I'm not sure if it was the knowledge of completing the task at hand or if I just was riding the wave of a long run, but I did start to feel better towards the end. Though I wasn't really hungry, I was shoving gels and jelly beans down in order to give me any sort of boost I could get. I was getting pretty low on hydration, but there were plenty of water sources along the trail and I knew I could stop if I started to feel really bad toward the end.

Luckily, I hit those last 5 miles pretty smoothly and managed to do a short parking lot loop to hit 23 miles total on the day.
 I pulled out my camping chair and downed some icy water and a mandarin from my cooler. It was heavenly. Because it was mostly cloudy, I sat out for probably 30 minutes just relaxing after my run. There was no rush to get back to civilization. I was camping that night and it was only 3pm. I changed into a dry top very awkwardly in my car, ate half a bag of kettle chips, and fell asleep in my car seat.
When I woke up from my nap about 45 minutes later, I felt really good. I drank a bunch of water and then made my way to my next parking spot. A fire road with a river crossing and plenty of bumpy holes made for an interesting and beautiful drive to Indian Grave Gap.
I fumbled around in my car for a bit pulling all my stuff together to camp for the night. I planned to hike up to the top of Tray Mountain and find a spot to camp within a half mile or so of the summit. I could do a short run or hike that even if I had time and felt up to it. I shouldered my pack and headed up the trail. Though I had 23 miles under my legs, the walking actually felt good once I got into a groove. 
 There were a few scenic lookouts along the way up the mountain and it was really, really quiet as many hikers had likely stopped for the evening.

 I hit the summit and started to descend the other side after hiking nearly 3 miles. My pack must have started to bounce going down and my bear vault full of my dinner and snacks popped out of my pack. I had it wrapped with bungee cords around the top and it seemed to be okay in my short tests. Luckily, it fell towards the mountain and I retrieved it easily. I used my long-sleeved shirt to re-position the vault and then kept going. A short time after that, it popped out of the wrong side.

Tumbled down the mountain.

Like Plinko, it knocked into trees as it rolled easily down.

I threw my pack off and tried to listen for it as I awkwardly "chased" after it. The side of the trail was very vertical, very covered in thorny underbrush, and very hard to navigate. I went down about 1/10th of a mile and the very vertical trail dropped straight down. The only hope I had was that it might have landed in front of a tree. Except I couldn't even see my own feet because the underbrush was so thick.

Well, shit.

I stood for a moment. No food. 26 miles on my legs. 3 miles from my car.
The good news is that I was able to climb back up to the trail and easily find my backpack. I was hungry, but I knew that another hour of walking was not going to be horrible. I wasn't hurt. I had water. I was just really annoyed that I lost my $70 bear vault that I didn't even get to really use. And I really wanted that rice I had cooked the day before.

I hiked back down the mountain. I went through the stages of grief about the stupid vault. By the time I made it to my car, I was laughing at the stupidity of my situation. Though I wasn't smart enough to pack food in various places in my pack, I was smart enough to have a bunch of stuff in my car. So I opened up my camping chair and used potato chips as a spoon for a tuna pouch. Because my damn spoon was in the bear vault.

As I was sitting in my chair, a thru hiker who set up camp a feet away came over. His trail name was Pudge and he had just graduated college. We ended up have our weird dinners together. He had a Lipton rice/noodle thing and I had my tuna pouch/potato chip dinner. I was covered in mud up to my knees and I am fairly certain he probably hadn't showered since he left the prior Saturday. But somehow we don't even notice these things. We talk about our significant others, hiking, running, food, life, etc. I tell him about my bear vault (and he offers me food!) and how I am going to need to go back up the mountain at least partially so I am not car camping. He tells me that bear vaults are not really needed after June 1st. Or at least that's what he'd read. Doh!

After about an hour, I start to pack up my stuff again and offer him a mandarin from my cooler. I remember reading that many hikers crave fresh fruit because it is so hard to carry on the trail. He was thrilled at the offer.

As I shoulder my pack again, I tell him that I will leave my spare key in the gas cap for him in case he wants/needs anything from my cooler or the myriad of weird stuff I keep in my car. I tell him to use my camping chair as long as he'd like and just toss it in the car either that night or when he breaks camp in the morning. He seems shocked that I am trusting him with my 12 year old car after our brief encounter, but I think how the value of human experience is worth more than any junk in my car/including my car.

I head back on the trail and am comfortable hiking in my long sleeve. Oh wow. June. Georgia. And I am wearing a long sleeve. I make it to a clearing on saw on my initial ascent/descent and decide to set up camp.
 This is the view from my camping spot.
The sunset is very, very orange and though it is partially covered by trees to the west, I take a few minutes to just sit and watch the sky change colors.
As I climb into the tent, I realize I am still caked in mud from the day. I take my time using baby wipes to clean off the grit. Over 30 miles on my feet and 7.5 hours is certainly far from any distance or time PR for me in a day, but it definitely was a unique experience doing all of it solo.

 The wind was really strong throughout the night and I woke up a few times as it whipped through. However, I felt reasonably refreshed when I got up and started piling in the calories as soon as I could.
 The scenic view spot was a bust. It was incredibly foggy in the morning and the mountains were completely covered.
But it was also blissfully chilly and I got dressed and packed half in the sleeping bag. Once I got going, I was really comfy in a long sleeve and shorts.

I got back to my car around 8:00 a.m. and decided to go for a run along the fire roads because I was literally surrounded by mountains on the trails. With 5000' of gain in running the day before, I was happy to run just 1000' of gain. I ran a few miles in once direction and came back to my car before heading a couple in the other direction. I finished at 9:45 and my friend had arrived to hike a bit with me. I decided to run one more mile for an OCD and even 31 miles (50K) of running between the 2 days. Afterwards, my friend treated me with Starbucks and a yogurt smoothie. I downed both and we headed up Rocky Mountain. 
We hiked 1.2 miles to the top, had a little rest at the summit, and then turned around to head back. He needed to get back to Atlanta, but I was happy to share a little bit of my adventure with my running buddy.

I drove back to Unicoi Gap and then refilled my pack. I planned to hike the mile section of trail I had missed between Unicoi and Indian Grave and then play the rest of the day by ear. I saw an adjunct trail on my way up and remembered seeing the same trail name on my run earlier in the day. I used my map to find where it might intersect and headed that way. It was starting to get hot and I was glad when I finally found the the tree-covered trail again.
When I got back to my car, I was at 47.6 total miles between hiking and running. I didn't have anything else I had to do the rest of the day, so I decided to make that crazy climb back up Blue Mountain in lieu of going to another trail.

This was about a mile from the finish. I had to get back to my car so getting to 50 miles was inevitable.
 This picture of all the greenery was in the final descent. Like most nature photos, it doesn't do it justice. The sounds, the smells, the feel of the air. But don't worry, I can take you there!
50 miles total. 31 running. 19 hiking. 12,058' of gain. 160 ounces of water. A bunch of candy bars. 5 Huma Gels. 3 clothing changes. 1 bag of jelly beans. 1 bag of kettle chips. 1 bag of granola. A lot of dirt. A lot of character building moments. A lot of fun. Ready for my next adventure!