Monday, April 25, 2016

Ultra #4 - BPAC 6 hour Race Report

Ultra #4 - BPAC 6 Hour Endurance Challenge

So I completed my 4th Ultramarathon yesterday at the BPAC 6 Hour Endurance Challenge.  Rather than run a fixed distance, this race was about seeing how much mileage you could complete in a fixed 6 hour time period.  It was located in Buffalo – 4 hours away from Cooperstown.  I signed up on a whim just a couple of weeks ago, thinking it would be a good way to get in a long (30+) supported run as part of my 100 mile training, and also just interested to see what I could do in 6 hours.  Of course, I signed up just off of my last Ultra – NJ Ultrafest trail 50K, where I did really well – so was still riding that high as I pressed the registration button.

So – on 4/2 I ran 50K of trails.  Did a 22 mile road run the following Saturday, followed by a 23 mile trail run the following Saturday with Pat McHenry and Luana Pesco-Koplowitz.  Normally I’d do 3 hard weeks, 1 easy in terms of long runs – but because of race timing, I was looking at 4 long weeks in a row, culminating with the 30+ run at BPAC. 

Somewhere in the middle of last week my daughter informed me she was coming home on Saturday – the day I was supposed to head out for Buffalo.  Because of my race, I’d miss her.  I also started feeling self conscious about how many weekend days I’ve been spending time away, running or racing – and so found myself really waffling heavily about whether or not to go through with this race.  Even as late as Friday night, the night before I was supposed to head out, I still had thoughts of cancelling – and not just cancelling the race, but scaling back to maybe a 10-miler – just because it felt like mentally I was a little bit burnt out on long runs. 

Saturday morning came.  Because of my race on Sunday, instead of a “back to back” (long run Saturday, shorter long-ish run on Sunday), I decided to just get in 6 easy miles before I headed out to Buffalo.  I think that run clinched it that I was going to proceed – everything felt good and strong and I just wanted to keep running.  So – despite the fact that I’d miss Patty’s visit, and despite the fact that I was feeling kind of bad about abandoning Matthew for an overnight and all day Sunday, I headed out mid-day on Saturday to Buffalo. 

Have actually decided to go, I was in a good mood driving out to Buffalo.  The sun was bright, and I made good time – enjoying travelling, once it was in progress.  I checked into my Red Roof Inn (Plus) and headed out for some solo sightseeing at Niagara Falls – always impressive.

Of bad food choices...

Following my brief stop at one of America’s most visited tourist spots, I set my sights on dinner.  Checking out Trip Advisor, I saw that there was a highly ranked German Restaurant near my hotel.  Hmmm.  My brain said no – but my stomach said yes yes yes.  Now – anyone who knows me well at all knows that I am VERY food motivated.  And, although I like pretty much any kind of food, I really like to take advantage of foods I can’t get in Cooperstown.  Which is really – well, anything that’s not American, Chinese or Italian.

I had made this type of bad-food decision before my 50 mile race as well – my lunch the day before consisted of nachos and fried pickles.  One could see where that could go very bad – and it did – but fortunately it went bad for an hour in the bathroom BEFORE I started my 50 miler – so caused me no issues on that particular race.

So German food.  And I have to say, it was pretty much the best schnitzel and spaetzel I’ve ever had in my life.  I ate with gusto and, alas, cleaned my plate, knowing as I did so that it was probably a bad idea.

The rest of the night was smooth sailing – my bed and room were comfortable, and though I had some minor heartburn, by and large I got a good night’s sleep without too much fretting about the next day’s race.

Race Day

Set my alarm for 5:30 a.m, in order to be at the start line by 7-ish.  I didn’t really HAVE to get up that early – but given my experience with the CanLakes pre-race digestion,  I wanted to allow enough time for lots of coffee drinking, breakfast, and, please oh please, some quality bathroom time so I could approach the race start comfortably.  I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of eating my cold mini bagels, so I went out in search of a McDonalds for an Eggamuffin breakfast special (hash browns and OJ included – of course).  Breakfast was yummy – but I was pretty dismayed with just how sloshy and bloated my abdomen still was after the previous night’s dinner and that morning’s breakfast.  Clearly I had overdone it a bit at dinner – and the Potty Gods were not being good to me. 

Everything else was in order, though, and the temperature was warmer than expected.  I headed over to the race start and got settled.  Was happy to see Katherine, a runner acquaintance I had met at Winter BOB, and one whom I had connected with a little bit on Facebook.  And the race began…

The starting pack was relatively large – and, I was relieved to see, mostly starting out at what I felt was a comfortable pace.  I wasn’t feeling like I had to bolt like a rabbit in order to not be at the back of the pack.  My goal pace for the race itself was about 10:30 – but if I could exceed that, I would.  My first couple of miles I was pretty much in the 10 minute mile range.  It felt good and comfortable, so I tried to push the pace a bit on mile 4.  Bumped it up to a 9:25 minute mile for that one mile – and paid for it.  My next mile after that pushed out to 10:15 – as did the next couple.  Which just goes to show I really should NEVER push the pace early on. 

I was still pretty happy with 10:15’s, though, and was absolutely amazed at how the first 8 or so miles just flew by.  It really felt like I had just started.  I’d say this fresh feeling continued pretty much until almost hour 3.  Which was really a gift.

The course was a 3.25 mile paved loop in a park.  It was really easy running, and pretty scenic – the sun was shining, and the air felt like spring.  Things were just starting to green up a bit – and there was just nothing to complain about with regard to this venue. 

So – probably about 11 miles in, when I was just about as far away from the aid station as you could be on the 3.25 mile loop, my gut suddenly complained.  Sharply and insistently.  “Now”, it said.  “Find a bathroom RIGHT NOW.” 

Damn it.  So the next 1.5 miles were going to be THOSE kind of miles.

Although for most of my running life I could run for hours without needing a restroom, this had changed suddenly and, I expect, forever, after a bout of travel induced IBS after a trip to Belize a year and a half ago.  Since that time, I have, on more occasions than I’d prefer to report, had some pretty uncomfortable moments on my runs – until I stagger into the nearest bathroom.   I’m a firm believer that there out to be a whole lot more porto-potties out there regularly spaced out on country roads, just for me.  But I digress…

So.  1.5 miles.  There was a thread on the Trail and Ultra Running facebook page about this very issue, which spoke of finding your perfect pace at moments like these – which is, fast enough to get to the bathroom as quickly as possible without going so fast that your gut just completely rebels on you.  I slowed down.  And prayed.  And found myself in the altogether too familiar position of checking out the scrubby trees on either side, wondering just how much cover they would grant in the case of a true emergency. 

The most excellent news is that I made it to the aid station without embarrassing myself, although it was an incredibly uncomfortable 15 minutes.  Jogged over the timing mat and right into the blessed blue box.  Where I only lost about 2 ½ minutes.  This time. 

Had one more emergency trip to the blue phone booth a bit later in the race – although I’m happy to report that there was considerably less distress involved.  Lost another 2 minutes. 

So, I figure that had I made better food choices and not gorged the night before, there is a good chance I would have gotten in close to another .5 miles in my total distance.  But, if that’s the worst thing that came out of my bad food choices, I suppose I got off lucky.  It could have been a LOT worse.  As we all know, from that horrible race picture that keeps floating around Facebook.

OK – well that was probably TMI for most non-runners.  Most runners, I think, will understand. 

So the thing that was pretty cool for me about this race was – I kept running.  And running.  And running.  With the exception of my two bathroom breaks, and my brief stops to swill down some Coca Cola and refill my water bottles, I really didn’t do any walking at all on the course.  And my pace stayed pretty consistent almost the whole way. 

For most of the race I was pretty sure I’d have a choice to make at the end.  The course was advertised as “as much mileage as you can do in 6 hours” – (person with the most miles wins).  The kicker is this.  It is a 3.25 mile loop – and in order to get any credit for partial mileage, you have to complete the WHOLE loop.  That is, I was predicting I’d finish 32.5 miles (10 loops) in less than 6 hours – and I was equally sure there was no way I’d finish 11 loops in less than 6 hours.  So – did I go out for that last loop, knowing I’d be coming in a bit after the 6 hour mark? 

The answer is…  yes I did.  I hit 32.5 at the 5:44 mark.  My goal mileage was 34 miles in 6 hours, so the only way to achieve that was to go out and do that last loop.  Which amazingly, still felt just fine. 

According to my Garmin, I hit the 34 mark at just prior to 6 hours, earning me the 2nd place female and the 10th runner in the race.   And I came heading down the home stretch with my Garmin reading 36 miles, at 6 hours and 20 minutes.  The advantage of being one of the only runners left on the course is that there were a bunch of runners who had already ended their races who cheered me in.  It felt really great. 


So – 4 ultras under my belt.  And I’m doing some reflecting.  My “training plan” (those that know me know I’m a plan gal…) has me continuing to build my mileage from 25/13, to 28/15, to 30/15, to a couple of 30/20’s.  Do-able – but daunting.  More from the overall mental perspective – it’s just a lot of long mileage to look forward to.  And the thing is, I did this 36 miles – and I have a sneaking suspicion that in fact, if I aimed for 100 now, I’m pretty much there in terms of base and long runs.  Which means…  maybe I can get away with only doing a bunch of 20-22 mile long runs with a just a couple of 28-30 thrown in maybe once a month?  Must give this some thought.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ultra running and the Power of Slow

So – I’ve been doing some reflecting on lessons learned since I started ultra training almost a year ago.  Prior to starting to train for my first ultra-marathon, I’d say that I probably ran anywhere from 18-30 hours a week, and that includes times when I was training for either a marathon or an Ironman.  Generally I was doing about 3 runs a week.   I almost NEVER ran 2 days in a row, and I certainly never ran the day after a “long run”.  Long runs were generally not more than 1 every 2 weeks, and they maxed out at 18 miles, with the exception of Ironman training year, where I had 3 weeks in a row with runs going from 18 to 19 to 20.  Most importantly in terms of where I was mentally, I had this idea in my head that every run I did really had to be as fast as I could do it.  Not necessarily race fast, but zippy nonetheless.  I judged the quality of my runs based on how fast I was able to do them.  Even the long runs, I tried to maintain an aggressive pace that was certainly slower than my 10K pace, but was something like I’d hope to achieve in a marathon. 

Enter ultra training and “back to backs”. 

For my first 50-miler ultra, I followed a plan I found in Runner’s World online which essentially called for back to back long runs pretty much every weekend.  There would be usually a 3 week build period, and then a weekend where I would back off on the distance but still go longer than the weekday runs.  My first back to back of any significance (mentally) was the one where I was slated to run 20 miles on Saturday followed by 12 on Sunday.  The thought of this was pretty mind boggling to me.

At that point in time, 20 was a LONG run.  And long runs required (in my mind) a subsequent day of rest.  I really couldn’t fathom of how I was going to do 12 miles the day after 20. 

I woke up that Sunday morning feeling apprehensive, and still a bit stiff and achy from the run the day before.  Perhaps the only thing that made this run possible in my head was that I was going to be doing half of it with company.  I’m used to almost all of my runs being solo, so company is a huge motivator.  I was scheduled to meet my cousin Rebecca at the halfway point of my 12-miler – so pick her up after 6.

With a “this is impossible” clanging around in my head, I set out from my house.  I started shuffling along at what felt like a snail’s pace.  I got about a half mile in and realized that 1) I wasn’t (really) hurting, and 2) I was running.  Slow – but I was running.  Kept shuffling along and hit a hill.  Slowed down.  Got to a mile.  Looked at my Garmin and realized that at least for this first post-20 miler mile, my “slow” pace was less than a minute per mile slower than my aggressive pace.  And it sure as hell felt a whole lot more do-able.  Attacked mile 2.  And actually sped up a little.  And mile 3.  And, well, it felt fine.  I couldn’t go fast – I knew that wasn’t in me.  But I didn’t have to.  I just had to go.  And I did.

I met Rebecca at the halfway point where it had started to rain.  I didn’t care – I was having an epiphany.  The key to back-to-back day 2 was to go slow. 

Rebecca and I ran 3 miles out from town, and 3 miles back in what turned into pouring rain.  When we hit mile 11, I said “let’s try to do the last mile just a little bit faster”.  So we picked it up probably by about 30 seconds per mile, and pulled off a 10 minute mile for the last one.  We met the rest of our family at Stagecoach Coffee in town to get on with our family weekend and enjoy a post run breakfast.   My overall pace for that run was about 45 seconds slower per mile than my aggressive pace – which essentially meant a 12 mile run completed in 2 hours and 6 minutes rather than 1 hour and 57 minutes.  And – after the 12 mile slow run, my body felt BETTER than it had before the run.  And continued to feel better for the rest of the day. 

During the remainder of my 50-miler training, I saw my pace get what seemed to be slower and slower.  In retrospect I guess it didn’t slow down THAT much more as my slowest pace I believe was only ever 10:45, but it felt like it.  And the lesson for me was, getting to be ok with that mentally.  Because that 12 mile run wasn’t my only epiphany.  The back to backs got longer and longer – from 20/12 to 20/18 to 23/20 to (OMG!)  23/28.  And on so many weeks, I’d find myself hitting mile 18, 19, 20 of the second day – and still feeling OK – as long as I hadn’t tried to push the pace.  On the other hand, any runs where I started feeling bad about “going slow” where I tried to get more aggressive about my pace early into the run ended up with me feeling more tired and burned out by the end.  There’s a lesson in here somewhere.

So – I did the training, did my 50.  Had accepted the fact that I was slower.

And then, discovered something.

I was getting faster again. 


So after my 50 miler, I started throwing back in a little bit of speed work.  I only did it once a week and generally only on my short run.  And the rest of the runs I just ran to build my base.  And I discovered that with a really solid base of about 50 miles a week behind me, when I WANTED to go fast, I could push the pace stronger than I could before my 50.  I pulled off a marathon 6 weeks after CanLakes 50 that was not a PR, but was my second best time ever.  And that was coming off of an injury 2 weeks after my 50.

So now – out of my 5 runs a week, 4 of them I try to do at whatever pace my body is comfortable with that day.  1 day a week I push it.  Sometimes I just push a little bit – sometimes I push a lot.   And the end result?  I did a 22 miler last Saturday and for the rest of the day pretty much felt like I used to feel after running 6.  I’m a stronger, steadier runner with fewer  issues than I used to have with plantar fasciitis, IT Band issue, hip imbalances and other problems I used to experience when every run had to be as fast as I could do it.  And, I think I’m a bit faster too…


Thursday, April 7, 2016

NJ Ultrafest Race Report

So I ran my first 50K trail race on Saturday.  This was pretty new territory for me.  I have been a road runner for most of my running career, and even my first 50 miler last October was run on roads.  Counting the training runs I did for NJ Ultrafest plus my mini-trail-ultra at Mendon Ponds last November, I had run trails a total of 8 times prior to last Saturday, with the longest mileage run being 13 miles. 

I know there are loads of trail runners out there who are in love with trails and just don't understand why anyone would run on roads.  But for me, making the transition from road to trail has been rough.  My first trail run I spent just aghast looking at my Garmin and focusing on JUST HOW SLOW I was running, combined with dodging roots and rocks.  After a bit, I found a little bit of stride, however, and there was just a little bit of amazement in this entirely new kind of slow running, where I was focused on the terrain rather than my speed.  And there was something pretty cool about being in the middle of the woods, with no people, cars, or bikes.  (Well, eventually there were people and dogs, but that's another story). 

It's not that I don't enjoy the outdoors - I do, very much.  It's just that as a former triathlete and marathoner, my focus has often been on how fast I can do whatever I'm doing.  It has only been in my ultra journey, which started last June, where I started to learn the power of slow.

The trail I've been practicing on is about 3 miles from my house and is a relatively small loop - I figured out a way to do this figure 8 that gets me about 3 miles, some of which I am running on the same terrain.  In each loop, there is kind of a nasty hill at the beginning that leaves me huffing and puffing, a moderate one in the middle, and 2 iterations of the same really short steep section that is pretty much like going up stairs.  Although I know the trail ultra mantra is "walk the hills", in my training runs I've been trying to run them all, when possible, just to see if I can. 

The first long training trail was rough - both mentally and physically.  The day after the run, my left ankle was so stiff I could barely go down my stairs.  I still managed to get out for a recovery run, which to my great surprise and relief eased up the ankle issue.  Each week in March got easier until I found all of the hill training really improving my road speed and endurance. 

The week before NJ Ultrafest I started receiving e-mails from the race directors that were getting me nervous.  I learned that 1/3 of the course had been cut off due to the property not being available - this was going to result in more, shorter loops - but the loops were the ones with all of the major elevation, so overall the race elevation was going to increase.  I also learned that there were 5 stream crossings per 5.75 mile loop, and so because I was going to have to cover about 5.5 loops, this meant over 25 stream crossings.  The race director indicated it was "possible" to try to keep your feet dry, but noted that it would probably be easier to just plow through the streams.  This thought did not make me happy.  I reached out to my running friends desperate for advice - and got it.  Wool socks.  Phew.  OK - ready.

The race was scheduled to start at 9:45 and was in Hardwick NJ.  One of the decisions I needed to make was whether to go down the night ahead of time and stay overnight in a cabin, or head down morning of.  I ultimately decided that heading down that morning would serve me best by allowing me to sleep in my own bed and get the best night's sleep, and only have to get up about 30 minutes earlier than I'm used to getting up anyway.  I was in my car and on my way by 4:45 and drove through hours of pouring rain to arrive with plenty of time to spare. 

Met some great people even before the race began starting with Mike, who drove the shuttle from the assigned parking lot to the race start, Jeff - first time 50K trail, Andrew and Kevin who all shared my ride over.   Big deliberations about how much to wear...  it was cool (mid 40's) and rainy, and I HATE to be cold - so opted for running pants over my shorts, along with long compression wool socks, short sleeve tech top, arm warmers, and windbreaker.

And the race began...

Not sure if this really happened or if it's just my perception, but it seemed to me that pretty early on I was pretty much toward the rear of the pack.  Eager runners went bounding off ahead of me while I set out at a pace that felt comfortable and that allowed me to not trip over obstacles.   Of which there were many.  There were a couple of other runners in my pack space - I spent a bit of time chatting with Andrew who seemed to have a pretty similar pace as mine, and I'm afraid I don't remember the other runners at that point.  Finding my comfortable pace on a trail is new to me and it took a while to get in a groove where I wasn't out of breath.  I tried to follow other runners' lead in terms of what hills to walk - I knew I should do that regularly and early in order to ensure I had enough gas in the tank for the rest of the race.

Modified course loops
The 5.75 mile loop was really made up of 2 mini-loops:  the first (Woods Loop) was about 3+ miles and was where the lions share of the elevation lay.  On paper it looked significantly more difficult than the second mini-loop (Lake Loop).  And, from an elevation perspective, it was.  Right before the end of the Woods loop there was an incredibly rooty, rocky, streamy section that only the most fleet footed were making any attempt to run.  I was just attempting not to fall down.  We were to hit that section 11 times in the whole race.  At the end of the root mass was the steepest elevation of that loop - essentially a set of steep stairs built into the hillside, with a rope handrail with which you could help pull yourself up.  The handrail was key.  That loop ended in a very short runnable section culminating in another short steep climb before getting to the Aid station right before hitting mini-loop 2 (Lake loop). 

Rooty section.  You don't really see the full depth of the roots and rocks here.

The deceptive elevation map (Woods Loop left, Lake Loop right)
On my first go-round I was relieved at getting to the Lake Loop knowing the elevation was significantly less.  My relief was short lived.  The early part of the lake loop was relatively flat - yes, but just chock full of ground obstacles just waiting to kill me.  Rocks and roots, mostly, and downed trees you had to hop over or climb under.  It was pretty highly technical terrain - with which I have pretty much zero experience.  I experimented with tentative jog hopping around the rocks and roots until I got to sections that were more runnable.  Which, it turned out, were uphill.  On that first loop I was still with Andrew who rejoiced over how runnable that section was and he just dodged forward while I huffed and puffed thinking that I was now going a bit faster than my comfortable pace.

Somehow I lost Andrew at the aid station and started on my own around loop 2.  I had to keep a closer eye on the trail because during loop 1 I had relied on my companions to keep me on the trail.  I almost made a wrong turn once but quickly found my way back to the trail.  I followed advice I've heard from other ultra runners - run when you can - walk when you have to.  And, I'd say, on each loop I'd try to experiment a little bit more with what I "could" run. 

Killer rocks

The Dreaded Stream Crossings. 

So anyone who was following my Facebook posts knew I was pretty nervous about how to handle the stream crossings.  Lots of suggestions for Wool socks, Drymax, etc... - and my online buddy Joseph commented "enjoy it - it will be just like an ice bath".  Have to say Joseph was right.  On the first stream crossing I made I very minor attempt to keep my feet dry by using rocks - realized pretty much immediately that it would be WAY easier to just wade right through, and voila - my feet and shoes were soaked.  Got onto dry ground moments later, shoes sloshed for about a minute, and then feet were just mildly damp and not at all uncomfortable.  One of the stream crossings that was described as ankle deep really wasn't - it was up to my knees at least.  I discovered on later loops that in order to get the ankle deep crossing, you had to aim further over to the right.  But my buddy Joseph was right - there was at least one loop where I actually aimed for the deep part to get all of the benefit of the cool water on my legs that, by that time, were a little bit achey!  End result of stream crossings?  Socks that were pretty awful from a scent perspective (had to wash them twice and still not quite right), but no blisters and no discomfort. 

Shin deep water.  I did see someone trying to use the rope ladder...

 My new friend Amy and some other friends

So - one thing I am learning about ultras, and this is now my third, is that the best part of them are the people you meet on the journey - either online while training, or at the race itself.  Somewhere between mile 10 and mile 13 or so, I met Amy.  Amy is a runner from Staten Island - unlike me, she was signed up for the 50 miler - (her first).  Just like me, she was finding the terrain tougher than anything she had trained on - and she was at the same point in the race in terms of total loops completed as I was.  Amy and I stuck together for close to 10 miles, I think.  It was wonderful.  We ran together, walked together, slogged through streams together, and compared running stories and history.  I briefly got to meet Amy's husband and son who had accompanied her to the race, and thanks to them got the only pictures that actually exist of me out on the course.  I also got to run a bit with Scott, and ran into the finish line with Rudy, who I also shared a ride with back to the car. 

Hiking up the hill right before the aid station

Trails in the woods

Pretty much the only flat runnable section of the course

The End

So - somewhere around mile 22, I left Amy sipping her chicken soup at the aid station while I headed out for my last loop and a half.  I felt strong - and I felt like I was getting a bit more of a handle on how to tackle the different sections of the course.  I became a bit more aggressive in terms of attempt to run on sections I might have been more tentative about earlier with the end result being that I think my fastest Lake Loop was actually the last one.  I climbed up that last hill knowing I was close to the end and still was feeling just find. 

At the finish line I learned to my great delight that I was the 3rd woman in.  Felt pretty good for my first trail 50K.  The race swag is shown below - the jacket is just amazing, and has reflective piping in a couple of spots. 

I'm pretty sure this will not be my last NJ Trail series event.  Many thanks to Rick and Jennifer McNulty for making this happen, and for all of the amazing volunteers.

The amazing race swag - FABULOUS jacket