Monday, September 19, 2016

Free To Run Trail Marathon Race Report

I signed up for this race the week after I finished my 100 miler in August.   The goal of running this 26.2 was as my last “long” training run in between my 100 miler on August 13 and my CanLakes 50 miler on October 8.  Although generally I’m pretty comfortable doing long runs solo, I have found it adds interest and comraderie to throw in some races as training runs.  I picked this race because I saw it was going to be held in the Pittsfield state forest, where I had a really good experience running the Vegan Power 50K back in June, training for my 100.  (I’m not a vegan but they let me in anyway).  The venue for that race was stunningly beautiful and the terrain was all runnable – not much elevation and not horribly technical – though relatively rooty.  It wasn’t until after I signed up for “Free to Run” that I saw that, even though the race was in the same park (Pittsfield State Forest), it was NOT the same trail.  THIS race had 3000 feet of elevation per 12.5 mile loop and the race was billed as “very challenging”.  Furthermore, in order to race well, you need to train on the terrain you will be racing on.  And, unfortunately, I’ve not spent much time on trails since I ran the 50K in June.    I did manage to get in 2 5-mile training runs in the 3 weeks before Free To Run – but I had a spill on my first trail training run and suffered a nasty hamstring pull that had made sitting excruciating for the past several weeks and which was only just now recovering. 

My Ragnar buddy Ed Rudman had seen me thinking out this race online, so we signed up together.  After we signed up, he shared info about the race with some other Ragnar teammates including my cousin and best friend Rebecca Makas, and Rebecca and our friend Deb Ross decided to come up and do the half.  So – rather than a solo training run, I had an opportunity for a long training run with a friend, as well as a chance to run a chunk of it with other buddies too.  This for me is special as I spend lots and lots of time running alone.

Problem was, as the race was approaching, I was not looking forward to it.  Rather, I was facing it with dread and trepidation.  As in “what have I done?”  Primarily I think the issue was fear of injuring myself further, after my spill from 2 weeks ago.  I have been getting so much joy out of running big miles – almost all of them on roads, and I had this sick feeling in the back of my mind that I was putting that ability in jeopardy by throwing myself into a race I really wasn’t all that prepared for.  Distance?  Yes.  Terrain… not so much.

One of the nice things about the race was the start time – with a 9:00 start for the half and full marathoners, I was able to get out and back in the same day rather than drop money on lodging.  I woke up only about 5 minutes earlier than my usual 4:30 and was in the car by 5 to head out to the forest.   Unlike many previous drives to races where I start to enjoy a sense of anticipation, I continued to feel nervousness and a bit of dread.  The only bright spot in the drive was looking forward to seeing people I love and spending the day in a beautiful place with them.

Breakfast consisted of a bacon, egg and cheese bagel from the Dunkin’ Donuts next to a Love’s travel stop near Pittsfield.  I was wearing my Vegan Power 50K race shirt (which I love!  It’s bright red and totally badass), and the clerk at Dunkin’ looked startled as I gave her the order.  “Did you say… bacon?”. 

“Damn skippy.”

“But…  your shirt….”

“Oh.  It was a race – it was a Vegan support event but they let me in anyway.”

I got to the forest with plenty of time to spare, and before Ed, Rebecca and Deb arrived.  I picked up my bib and just drank coffee until they showed up a few minutes later. 
Rebecca and Ed - pre Race

Deb, Amy, Rebecca and Ed Pre race

The trail loops were each 12.5 miles, so in order for each respective race to hit the required distance, an extra stretch was added on to the beginning of the race.  The half marathoners added on .6 miles, while the marathoners added on 1.2.  This meant that Ed and I started out the race more than ½ mile before Rebecca and Deb – which sort of threw our plan to run together into disarray.  Becca and Deb said they’d “meet us at the top of the hill”, and I think we all assumed we’d see them shortly.
Rocky Terrain - new to me!

Ed posting on the trail

The add-on stretch was pavement, but shortly thereafter we hit the trails and started climbing.  As the elevation map had indicated it would be, the first stretch of the first loop was pretty much all climb.  Although the “hiking” portion of ultra running had surprised me on my first trail “run”, after seeing the elevation map I had pretty much been mentally prepared that I’d be doing a bit of hiking early on.  Still – running is my thing.  So whenever we hit portions of the trail that appeared more runnable, we started trotting.  I have to say I felt pretty good about the first 3-4 miles of the race.  I was pleased with our pace, and pleased with the sections of trail that I found “runnable” – especially given the rocky terrain, which I was not at all familiar with.  Ed and I kept thinking we’d run into Deb and Rebecca any minute – but in fact we didn’t see them until we hit the first aid station which I believe was somewhere between 3 and 4 miles into the course.  Rebecca was easily identifiable by her bright orange compression socks.

We took advantage of the aid station goodies and soda, and then started on our way as a group of 4.  One of the other racers informed us that the hill right out of the aid station was known as the “Thrasher”.  There are some writings on the race website about where that name came from, but all we knew is that it was STEEP. 

I was actually OK with this – I’m a pretty strong climber when it comes to hiking, and I can power my way up most hills without too much huffing and puffing.  That is to say, the non-technical uphills are the piece of trail running I do well.  I was a bit ahead of my buddies on this part of the trail. 

One of the best and most delightful parts of this race were the stream of obscenities pouring from Deb’s mouth.  Deb is, simply, amazing.  She is witty, crass, astoundingly funny and shockingly obscene when she chooses to be – and she was choosing to be.  She kept us in stitches for the rest of the half marathon.  Going up the hill:  “Whose F@#ING idea was this anyway.  F@*ING AMY.  DAMN her! “  Funnier still was when we got to the aid station where I got stung by a wasp and without even thinking, I swore loudly.  Deb said gently “Amy – don’t swear.  Swearing offends me.”  She then apologized on my behalf to the aid station worker for my mouth.   It was Deb’s birthday and she was waiting for the exact moment when she turned 48 (1:00) so we could take a birthday selfie.

After we conquered the Thrasher we hid a much more level and rolling section of trail – and even though Deb swore every time we hit another “up” (there were plenty), in fact this section was pretty enjoyable.  It kept looking like we would break through and be on the top of the mountain soon, and every few minutes, Rebecca would state “Where’s my lookout?  They promised us a lookout damnit!”    I was thoroughly enjoying this and feeling pretty happy that I hadn’t fallen. 

And then.  Running along in a nice stretch of woods – and my left foot gets caught on a sneaky root and stays hooked there while my butt separates just a little bit from my leg and I can feel my hamstring pull EXACTLY where it had on my fall a few weeks ago.  And then I swore just like Deb, “F@#K!!”,  terrified that I had ruined myself for my upcoming 50 miler.

That pretty much blew my confidence for the rest of the race.  I gingerly started running again, the hammie yelling at me for my clumsiness.  Forutnately after a mile or 2, the hamstring pain started to subside significantly. 

We finally hit the overlook and it was as incredible as promised.  We spent WAY more time there than I would normally spend at an aid station at a race – which was fine, because this was all about running in a beautiful place with friends.  There were other runners up there, including Ana Wolf – who I had met briefly as the Race Director extraordinaire of the (much more runnable!) Vegan Power 50K, and with whom I have been Facebook Friends ever since.  It is always great to spend time with my runner friends in person.
Deb, Rebecca, Amy and Ed

Meeting my friend Ana on top of the world

It was also up on the ridge where I got stung by the wasp.  Didn’t even see it coming but all of a sudden my arm was on fire.  Made sense that it was a yellow jacket – the aid station workers said they were hanging all around the food table all day.  I swore loudly (chastised gently by Deb), and hoped that today wouldn’t be the day I’d develop any sort of sting allergy.

Fortunately there was no need for epi-pens as we progressed down along our way.  After our highly enjoyable vista stop, we headed back into the woods for the last 5 miles for Deb and Rebecca, and that last 18 for Ed and I.  The next 3 miles was unremarkable.  There was one more aid station after the vista, where the aid station volunteers said “the rest is easy!  There is just one more little up hill, and then no more single track – just downhill the rest of the way.”

Easy my ass.  (My sore, pulled, ACHING ass!)  The one thing they were right about was the downhill part.  Oh boy was it downhill.  Leaf slippery, rock slidingly, impossible footingly downhill.  Not too far from where we started our descent, I went down.  My goal going into this race was to stay upright and not get injured.  This fall was pretty disheartening – again because I had gone into this as a training run for a 50-mile road race – and what good is a training run if you come out of it unable to run?  After I got up from my tumble, I was much more cautious on the remaining downhill.  Deb and Rebecca hopped down it like billy goats, while Ed was a bit more cautious.  I brought up the rear.   Some minutes later, we saw a clearing up ahead, and there we were – Deb and Rebecca done with their race, and Ed and I at the halfway mark.  It was also pretty cool that our friend Sharon – another Ragnar teammate, had come to watch Deb and Becca finish and to cheer Ed and I on!

Again we spent a bit more time at the aid station than I would normally do – and we headed out on lap 2 – with Ana and Marie right behind us.

It was pretty clear on lap 2 that most of our productive “running” was done.  The uphill seemed “uppier”, and EVERYTHING seemed rockier and rootier again.  At this point I had 2 remaining goals – not to fall again, and not to DNF – and a not very strong but still present goal of trying to finish in less than 8 hours. 

Whereas on our first loop we had plenty of miles that were anywhere from 13-17 minute miles, on the second loop we were happy with anything under 20.  And believe it or not, in those sections where we were hitting 18 – we were actually doing a bit of running.

So here is the thing that gets me about trails.  Deb said it just right as we were hiking up the Thrasher.  She said “I like to RUN trails.  I don’t like to hike to get to my run.  If running is your drug, then this part doesn’t do it”.  Yes – that.  I’m into this thing for the run.  So on the parts where, for whatever reason, I can’t comfortably run – it feels like I’m either cheating, or failing.  Despite the fact that I KNOW that except for the top runners in these races, pretty much everyone is doing a bit of hiking.  Some more than others.

But running is my drug – and, well, I was not doing that much of it on loop 2.  But neither was I falling.  What WAS happening was my quads were getting more and more angry. 

Although it had seemed like a second loop would be take forever, in fact the time flew by – as it often does on these things.  Ed and I talked about anything and everything – and he jazzed things up a bit by singing a bit of Bruce (he’d just been to a concert).  At one point we were merrily belting out the song they sing in the Stripes marching scene – “There she was just a walkin’ down the street, singing Doowa Diddie Diddie Dum Diddie Do…”

I channeled my inner Deb when we got to the last aid station – my recollection had been that it was just a bit over a mile to the finish from there (which was what my GPS was telling me), but when the aid station volunteers indicted it was 2 hours – F#@K came flying out.  I just wanted to be done and go home and lick my wounds.

Down the rocky, leafy descent we went.  On this last section, there was pretty much no running this time around.  Well, until we were maybe a half a mile before the end, when a couple that had been a ways behind us appeared to be catching up.  I knew I wasn’t doing well in this race, but I wanted to at least keep any lead I had.  So – rocks be damned – I was running the rest, with Ed right along beside me.  We managed to run in approximately 30 seconds to a minute in front of the 2 folks behind us – which put me 22 out of 30 finishers with a finish time of 8:03.  Almost twice as long as my best marathon, and only 7 minutes faster than my first 50K trail – which was ALSO a tough course, with about as much elevation as this one, where I was the 2nd woman in.

Well damn.  What just happened?

And here is where the Monday morning quarterbacking comes in.  My buddy Rich tells me “ya gotta learn to not be so hard on yourself”.  But still – I’ve worked pretty hard at this ultra-running thing in the past year – and so a finish time of 8:03 at the very least makes me think “how could I have done better”?

So number 1:  Train for the terrain, dumbass. 

OK – yeah.  So why in hell would I expect to do at all well when this wasn’t what I trained for?  Isn’t what I AM CURRENTLY training for?  Is, in fact, an almost entirely new thing for me?  This was my 4th trail “race”, and even for my other ones I didn’t have THAT much more trail running under my belt – but at the very least, before my 50K, I’d gotten in 3 or 4 solid 8-10 mile trail runs.  This one – next to nothing.  And, although I’d gotten some root practice on both training runs and previous races, really NOTHING in my past running career prepared me for the kind of rocky terrain that was everpresent on this course. 

Number 2.  I was overly cautious. 

On previous races – despite trips and falls (I’ve had at least 1 on every trail race – hell, almost every trail RUN I’ve done..), I managed to get back up and get in the groove again.  But because of my fall weeks earlier that had ended up giving me pain for weeks, I was so worried about injuring myself that I didn’t allow myself to get back going again.

Number 3 – This wasn’t “THE” race.

So yeah – it definitely makes a difference in motivation level if you are deliberately going into a race as a training run rather than to “race” it. 

Number 4- Probably 10-15 minutes lost at aid stations.

I guess those are mostly the things that could have been opportunities for improvement. 

Still – it was humbling.  When I finished that second loop, my legs were literally shaking.  They were jelly.  And that was after HIKING most of the second loop – not much running in that go-round at all.  I was used to being able to finish 26 miles before breakfast and then spending the rest of the day cleaning my house.  This 8 hour jelly-leg crap was a whole new humbling gig for me.  I couldn’t fathom how anyone had done 4 loops on that course.  (And the lead person only took an hour more for the 50 that I took for my marathon!!   HE wasn’t hiking up those hills, for sure.  He was running them!).

Clearly, IF I want to improve at this particular type of race, there needs to be some lots of trail specific training thrown in.

Although I spent my drive home and most of the rest of the afternoon and evening growling at the whole concept of trails, by the next day I was feeling a bit more like I might consider getting back out there and trying to conquer them.  There were plenty of moments in the race that were in fact pure perfection.  Particularly in the first loop, before pulling my hamstring,  running smoothly and comfortably over the gentle hill portion of the course, my buddies behind me on an incredibly beautiful day in a stunning venue – well, it just can’t get any better than that.  And the view from the top?  Priceless.

But I think I’ll wait for after my 50….

Friday, September 16, 2016

After the Race… my post 100-mile journey

Immediate Post Race

I finished my race at 11:23 am on Sunday morning.  My biggest (and only real) race injury was chafing – the worst was something that really isn’t fit for print – which I became acutely aware of at a pee-break around mile 83.  (Sen may have heard my agonized cry from the porto-potty)  Dear lord it was so bad I almost passed out.  Second worst chafing was belly button (I get this a lot – the drawstrings from my shorts rub across my tummy and apparently are really irritating), and some spots on my back rubbed pretty raw from my hydration pack.  And, I had this super weird nasty and painful raised bright red welt on my right wrist that I had felt forming for the first 16 hours of the race when I wore Maria’s loaned GPS as a spare on my RIGHT wrist (not used to wearing a GPS watch), while waiting for my primary GPS on my left wrist to run out of battery.  The watch kept kind of banging around and rubbing against the bone, and at the end of the race it was this huge angry big red welt. 

Most of these injuries were alleviated pretty quickly by post-race shower and application of Aquaphor.  The drive home was manageable –  it was so amazing that my parents and Patty had come to support me – and an added benefit was that I got to just melt into the front seat, nibble tiredly at my Pop Tart (thanks Patty!), and just keep stretching.  Sitting after a race is, ironically, hugely uncomfortable as I get this awful sciatica sort of like a toothache in my ass.  We stopped for food at an Arby’s about an hour into the ride.  As is often the case, and also ironically, I still wasn’t even very hungry at that point and not much sounded good.  I ended up with a vanilla milkshake and 4 mozzarella sticks.  Which was pretty much perfect. 

It was pretty funny – there were 2 different people – one on line at Arby’s and another walking into the rest area, that I IMMEDIATELY could tell they had just finished the 100 miler – because the way they were walking looked just like the way I was walking.  We exchanged tired and happy hello’s as we hobbled around Arby’s.  The lunch stop was a great stretching opportunity which kept me from getting too locked up on the drive home – and even when I got home I was moving around moderately comfortably.    The second major recovery aid was the Epsom Salts bath I had before dinner.  Only just recently have I discovered the miraculous healing powers of Epsom Salts.  With regard to post-race recovery, it 1) immediately reduced inflammation and irritation from chafing, 2) allowed my tired muscles to re-absorb magnesium, easing the sort of neuropathic pain that had previously come after long races, and 3) also likely due to magnesium absorption, drastically improved my ability to sleep after a long race (you’d think that would be easy, but after my first 50 miler I couldn’t sleep for 2 days).

Post Race Phase 2 – Recovery

OK – well, I have to admit, I just kind of skipped this phase all together.    On Monday I felt…  fine.  Really almost absolutely fine.  No huge residual stiffness – went on a long walk with Matthew at lunchtime.  No issues going up and down stairs.  I just threw in gentle stretching any time the opportunity presented itself.  Monday is normally a rest day anyway on my training schedule.

Tuesday is not.  Tuesday is a running day.  So I ran.  I wasn’t sure if I SHOULD run – but I knew I was going to give it a try.  I pulled on my beautiful and shockingly pink shoes and I set out.  And oh my god it felt like I was FLYING.  In fact – I was not flying – I was running 12 minute miles – which is 1.5 to 2 minutes slower than my normal training pace.  But it FELT like flying.  (My last miles on my hundred had been 16-17 minutes).  More importantly – everything felt good.  No aches, no pains, no stiffness.  I was just running and feeling great.  I stopped at 6 miles.  On Wednesday I went for 9.  Thursday I got in 8.  Friday was a rest day, and then I did a 15/12 back to back between Saturday and Sunday, topping out my first post-100 mile race week with 50 miles of training.  Post race week 2 I got in 60 miles, and post race week 3 I hit 80. 

Huh.  How about that.  I had googled “post-100 mile recovery”, and found some suggestions like taking the first week entirely off, and then not running any more than an hour for something like 6 weeks.  Of course, I didn’t look this up until my 2nd or 3rd recovery week, so clearly that ship had sailed.  And was not going to be happening in any case.

Which is not to say I was not respecting my body’s needs…  The big thing about my post race early weeks – up to and including now – is that for almost every run except my weekly tempo run, I ran at whatever pace my body wanted to go.  That, essentially was my recovery.  Letting myself run 11’s or 11:30’s that first couple of weeks, because that was what was comfortable.  Letting myself run how my body wanted to run, rather than how my head wanted to run.

How very freeing, and intoxicating!  Running, in a way that just felt joyful and amazing – with no competitive pressure from my brain. 

I had held off on signing up for any more races until after I finished my 100 – mostly because I wasn’t sure how I’d like that distance and I figured completing it would affect what I wanted to do next.  It was probably only 1 or 2 days after the race that I knew I needed an immediate new goal, and I pressed the button to do CanLakes 50 miler again in October. 

With a 50 miler on the horizon (about 7 weeks out from my 100), I essentially wanted to be able to ramp back up to get in a couple of heavier mileage weeks in before having to taper again 2-3 weeks out.    I also ended up signing up for a trail marathon (tomorrow! – 9/17) as a training run.  Which meant I needed to get in some trail miles.  (The cool thing about tomorrow is that I will have running friends there - my Ragnar teammate Ed will be running the full with me, and teammate Deb and cousin Rebecca are running the half.  I almost NEVER have anyone to run (hike) with!

A short note on trails

So me and trails.  Still an evolving relationship.  On my first evening trail run, I was jogging along having a fabulous time when at mile 4 (out of 5), I caught my foot on a root and went sprawling.  Prior to hitting the ground, I felt something  bad happen where my left hamstring connected to my left glute.  Bad enough that I cried out as I went down.  Well – unless something is broken, when you go down, the only thing to do is to get back up and run.  On all previous falls (I’ve had a few on trails by now), I’ve been able to run out any residual soreness pretty quickly.  Although the intensity of the pain went away and I could finish my run, it was clear by the end of the run that something had been pulled.   This was verified when I went to bed that night and just could not, for the life of me, find a position that was comfortable for my hip.

The good news is, the pull didn’t impact me at all on my run the next day – or really any subsequent runs.  The bad news is that it pretty much bothered me almost all of the time when I WASN’T running – most specifically when I was sitting.  Which really just felt like I had a constant awful toothache in my ass.    Driving was excruciating.  I was nervous the following week to get back out on the trail and do it again – but that second run went fine (if VERY slow because I was being so cautious), and in fact everything felt better after hopping over roots for 5 miles.

Gradually over the last couple of weeks the injury has improved, just in time for my trail marathon tomorrow.  I had chosen to do that as a training run, but now am really just keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t fall and hurt myself before my true running love – my road ultra in October.

So…  what’s next?

So this journey is all about pushing limits.  I finished my 100 miler which was a huge goal for me, and I finished it strong.  After the initial glow, there is always that post race depression/quandary – OK – so I did this.  What’s next?

I’ve seen someone on Trail and Ultra Running post about continuing to push limits, waiting to be transformed or pushed to the edge - and each time they hit a new goal they found 1) they could do it, and 2) it didn’t transform them in the way they had envisioned.  In some ways the post race depression/adjustment is like that.  You work so long and so hard toward a specific goal – it becomes this great big life changing event in your head.  At least, the new goals and the Epic goals do… (first marathon, first triathlon, first half ironman, first full IM, first 50 miler, first 100).  Each of these was huge for me in terms of working toward something that felt really big.  The problem with completing something big is, if you want a new stretch goal, it has to be…  bigger.

New Goals – BIG mileage, multi-days?

Early on in the calendar year, I had hoped to get in 2000 miles of running this year.  I hit that mark just before the end of August.  It became apparent that 3000 was within the realm of possibility.  I started re-thinking my training.

For pretty much the entire year, I’ve been running 5 days a week.  This was all based on the original training plan I had used for my first 50 miler and then the one I used for my 100 – both plans called for runs Tues, Wed and Thurs, with back to back long runs on Saturday and Sunday, taking Monday and Friday off.  My normal schedule had been to throw in an evening bike ride on my trainer on Tuesday nights (making that the only “double”  workout day), and to swim on Friday mornings, so that only Monday was a true “rest” day where I wasn’t doing anything.  When 3000 became a possibility, I started thinking about ways to get in a little bit more mileage – like swapping out my Tuesday evening bike and my Saturday swims for a run.  This very easily added 10-15 miles per week.  And for the first couple of Tuesdays, I used that to get in a short trail run.

So – here I am, 3 ½ months left in the year, hopefully about to pull off an 85 mile week.  It has come as an astounding discovery to me that I can add on 2 more runs per week and that by doing so, I actually feel stronger.  In the last couple of days, my pace for my morning 10 miler has inched back closer from my 11 minute miles just post 100 to 10 minute miles for many of my training runs.  And these are easy runs – running at the pace my body wants to run – not pushing it all.  This is speaking to me of the benefit of the low heart rate training (i.e., almost all of my training is in zone 2).  Also, I’m throwing in almost a weekly tempo run where I run 3 miles (out of a 5 mile workout) at a pretty aggressive speed for me.  I’ve been really happy with what I’ve been able to achieve with those.  This week’s speed run was actually new territory in that I used my mid-week evening run (where I had already run 10 miles in the morning) as a speed workout.  Both that evening run as well as the 10 miles I threw in the next morning were great.  I’m generally also aiming to get in at least 1 aggressive hill workout per week. 

In terms of other races on the horizon, I’m aiming for a 24 hour in November, possibly a return to Beast of Burden 100 for the winter version in January, and then hopefully take a stab at my first multi-day at 3 Days at the Fair in the spring.

I’m going to have to taper soon because I really do want to go into CanLakes rested.  I know I have the base…  so now I just have to get into the race without hurting myself. 

Tapering, though, that’s going to be routh.