Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Most Awesome Volunteering Gig EVAH

So a few months back, the San Francisco Marathon ambassadors, of which I'm one of them, talked about the possibility of volunteering at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run June 23-24. Most of them are local to San Francisco, so a drive to the Sacramento area is totally reasonable.

Don't know what Western States is? It's the Mecca of running for a lot of ultrarunners. You have to run SUPER fast in another 50 or 100 miler of adequate difficulty to get in automatically, and then you have to run one very fast to even qualify to gets into the lottery. And I think only like 10% of the lottery entries actually get a spot. Anyway, you have to be fast, you have to be lucky, and you have to be fast and lucky. Neither of which I am by the way.

From their website, 
"Western States if one of the oldest ultra trail events in the world and certainly one of the most challenging. The Run is conducted along the Western States Trail starting at Squaw Valley, California, and ending in Auburn, California, a total of 100 miles. The trail ascends from the Squaw Valley floor (elevation 6,200 feet) to Emigrant Pass (elevation 8,750 feet), a climb of 2,550 vertical feet in the first 4½ miles. From the pass, following the original trails used by the gold and silver miners of the 1850’s, runners travel west, climbing another 15,540 feet and descending 22,970 feet before reaching Auburn. Most of the trail passes through remote and rugged territory, accessible only to hikers, horses and helicopters.
The Run begins at 5:00 am on Saturday of the last full weekend in June at the west end of Squaw Valley. Runners must reach the finish line no later than 11:00 am the following day in order to be eligible for an award. Due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of the trail, the Western States Endurance Run differs substantially from other organized runs. Adequate mental and physical preparation are of utmost importance to each runner, for the mountains, although beautiful, are relentless in their challenge and unforgiving to the ill-prepared.
Approximately 1,500 dedicated volunteers help out at each Western States Endurance Run. They are truly the life-blood of the Run and will do everything possible to make your day a success. Many spend more hours out on the trail than do the runners themselves."
Well, Ambassador Peter helped coordinate the group and communicated with the race director to find out where the Ambassador group would volunteer.
The American River at the Cable Crossing location
And the location is freaking awesome. And I just had to do it. Yes, fly 1500 miles to volunteer at THE Western States at what the race director called the Apocalypse Now of Western States and what the race director thought was arguably the most exciting volunteer location - at the Cable Crossing, mile 80 of the course where runners cross the American River right below the Rucky Chucky Rapids.
I'll be at the Rucky Chuck location in the lower left.
From Greg Soderland, the Western States Race Director, describing the volunteer job:
"It's basically escorting the runners onto and off the cable on each side of the River. It's a night shift that runs from 4 p.m. on Sat. to 5 a.m. on Sunday. Would ask your volunteers to work either the whole shift or the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift. If they work the whole shift, they'll get nap breaks and a dinner break. Dinner is provided by the Cable Captain. We will make arrangements for everyone to rent a wetsuit if they don't have one since many will be standing in the river for a few hours (hip to knee deep at the most). There is no cost to rent the suit. Everyone receives a "Cable Guy" volunteer T-shirt when they arrive."
YES! I get to stand all night in a frigid river, in a wetsuit, to help tired runners at mile 80, across a river. Of course, it may also mean I'm making peanut butter sandwiches at that aid station for 13 hours instead, which will still be awesome because either way I'll be helping these demigod runners of ultrarunning.

Here's a video from the 2010 race of the Rucky Chuck location:

I'll get to swoon over the fastest runners - the gods of running. And my friend Josh who I ran with Saturday is running it, along with my coach Jeremy who is his pacer, so I will get to see both of them!

It'll be a hard weekend but so memorable. And that's why I can easily decide the plane ticket cost is worth it. Plus, helping through the night, I won't have to pay for a hotel room, LOL! I'll fly in midmorning Saturday, Peter's picking me up at the airport, off to Sacramento, work and laugh and help, then back to the airport for a Sunday afternoon flight. And I can NOT wait!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Fragile Psyche Repaired in a Single Run

After Jemez, I was slightly depressed but felt okay after a day or two. It's easy to beat yourself up about a DNF, even when I knew in my heart it was not due to any lack of training or preparation on my part. The further actually that I got away from that race day, the clearer it was. Call it just unlucky, call it genetically predisposed, I just don't handle altitude well. Because "10 steps then a 1 minute breathing break, and repeat" did not make any sense - I would have had to be terribly unprepared for this race. I've researched all this week, and there are lots of studies that show that fitness level has little bearing on how you'll handle altitude, and they've found links to genetic ability to handle it and other studies that they don't have a strong correlating factor yet on why some people are mildly affected or not affected, versus those like me who suffered at altitude and needed supplemental oxygen while up that high. I couldn't know until I tried.

The Run That I Needed So Badly - Me, Josh, Cruz, and Reece

Not A Good Week Mentally

Monday, I went in to have a cyst in the palm of my hand checked, and they used some enormous needle to drain it. It felt like they were trying to pull my middle finger off. I spent the next 7 hours with a useless hand, a stupid combo of numb and completely painful. I wasn't allowed to strength train for 48 hours, and I certainly was not in the mood to run with the pain.

Then I tweaked my right knee Tuesday going down the stairs carrying a 26-lb toddler. Grrr. The problems of a runner mommy! My mileage for the week was not looking good. This is not the strong bounceback from Saturday's DNF that I mentally needed.

So here comes Thursday. I find out that a couple people, who I rarely saw in person but for whom I always had a cheer for them virtually when they had a good workout and a sympathetic comment when they had a bad one, weren't supportive of what happened at Jemez. They were downright nasty about it. And all behind my back. They didn't "buy" the altitude issues, the unluckiness, the genetic predisposition, they saw it all as an excuse for me trying to accomplish something I was not ready for. I had reached too far.

I was very truly hurt. I knew there would be a couple people who are just going to be like this. But this really made it clear who were my friends... and who weren't. And while I know what my training looked like, and I know what my trainer and coach believe, and I know what happened on that mountain, we all have a tiny bit of insecurity (hell, some have a TON of it), and those naysayers had taken a crack in my psyche and split it wide open.

I struggled through the rest of the week. I had bad dreams. I was still somewhat exhausted from 8 hours of running with no oxygen. I felt a little broken with my hurt hand, my tweaked knee, and my bruised psyche.

It's All About the Company You Keep

Today, I did what my coach wanted - he wanted me to do trail miles in the midday heat. Chattanooga in 3 weeks will be hot and humid, so let's get acclimated. Josh was preparing for the Western State 100 miler in June by doing a Fat Ass 100K - 3 loops of 21 miles each at Northshore Trail. I would be out there for at least some of one of the loops.

Me, Reece, Jeremy, and Josh
So 2 pm, I'm at Northshore waiting for them to come in. It's 90 degrees. They've now run 31 miles. Jeremy's drained, Reece is still rocking along, Josh looks strong. I run into friend Leana and make a new friend Scott who is friends with the guys. I'm asked how Jemez went and how I was feeling. My answer: "I'm good physically, but I'm not doing so hot mentally." I tear up and tell them what happened. They are NOT happy. They all recount stories of great runners who have had exactly what occurred for me befall them. Jeremy's my coach, and they all know him well so it's like, "Well, we know you were physically prepared. Jeremy wouldn't have it any other way." It's so reassuring.

Josh, Reece, and I head out. 6.25 miles to Rockledge Park, then 5.75 miles back. They have me lead. I do so well with a purpose. And these fellas are FAST by the way. So even with them being 31 miles in, my pace is slow for them. Isn't that funny?!?

I try to be a perfect pacer, try to accommodate whatever they need. Josh calls a walk, we walk. He wants to run, I run and set a consistent pace. Josh gets a little draggy, and I offer him anything in my pack - he ends up loving my Honey Stinger orange chews, and they perk him up. On the way back, his stomach is unsettled, and I'm ready again and give each of them a piece of candied ginger.

And I run my butt off. It's 90 degrees, and I'm running faster than my 25K PR pace in GOOD WEATHER! First 6.25 miles: 12:30 pace - this is almost my road pace! Next 3.25 miles: 13:30 pace. I run out of water at this point and I'm close to going anaerobic so I send them off so I can powerwalk the mile to the next water fountain. I fill up and pick up my run pace again for the next 1.5 miles. Those 3 miles are a 14:30 pace. I get back to the start with 12 miles under my belt, and just a few minutes behind the guys.

This was such a hard run, doing speedwork on rocky, rooty trails in 90 degree heat. But between that and trying to help Josh hit his goal, I was so proud of how I had run. I didn't need 15 or 20 miles this day. I needed to regain the confidence that I've become a strong runner. And I needed to run with some good people who I respect as ultrarunners. Interestingly enough, the three of us combined have 7 kids ages 5 and under. That's a balancing act of time on the roads and trails and family that some would not understand. And they were just so friendly, caring, and supportive, that the conversations were great, and I felt like I belonged. When you are slow, that can be hard. When you are an ultrarunner, but only a 50Ker, not a 50miler or 100 miler or bazillion miler, that can be hard too.

So my confidence is back. My only goal for the next 3 weeks is to stay smart, rest, get some miles, keep my mental game strong, and prepare for Chattanooga. What could I do with the 3 weeks? Get myself injured! It's all about being careful now - my friend Cathy would say "the hay is in the barn" - and she's right. Time to trust the training, start the taper, and glide into race day ready to tackle a race that'll have some hard time limits for this slow runner! Bring it on!!

A Final Request

Sometimes this blog produces weird reactions in my life. Website traffic statistics show me a lot of people "tune in" to read this. And I run into people I haven't seen in a while and when I try to catch up with them, "Oh, I read all about it on your blog" comes up a lot. My recent training, my recent racing, can feel very isolated. So do me a favor today, leave me a comment. I had such a good run today - how about you just chime in and tell me your best workout of the last couple weeks? Or post anything you want. Just let me know you're out there more than the heartfelt although can be mindless one-word comment that can happen on Facebook. 

And my lesson of those couple people that weren't friends this week, if we're connected by Facebook or Twitter, it's because I want to interact with you. It may be small, but we share and learn from each other's experiences. Even if we disagree on a lot of things, or you can be rude sometimes, or kinda annoying at times, I still have you in my world because I want to be connected to you. Love you all!

Monday, May 21, 2012

10 Things About the Jemez 50K and My First DNF

DNF = Did Not Finish. That's what the Jemez 50K was for me when my body was genetically poorly wired to have my muscles metabolize oxygen efficiently at high altitude. I struggled for about 8 1/2 miles of the race until I was more being driven mad by the fact that it felt like I would never get my breath back. I completed 19.2 miles, almost 2/3 of the course. I did what most would consider the very hardest part of the course. It was a training run and while every DNF is sad, traveling on my own for this race and knowing my endgame race is 4 weeks away makes it an easy thing to reconcile not having my health further at risk if I had been stupid and bullheaded.

So here are 10 notes about Jemez 50K and my DNF... (with some of the best pictures sprinkled throughout)

1. My husband is absolutely amazing. I called him at Mile 14 with my voice choking up and telling him I couldn't breathe for the last 2 hours and thought I would have to DNF at mile 16.4. He reassured me that he loved me whatever my decision and knew I would make the right one. I knew he thought this, but it's so great to hear. And then when I texted him leaving the mile 16.4 aid station with a simple one-word "Continuing", he brought me to tears with his return text of "Awesome! You are the toughest person I know." Just what I needed to hear to fight through the disorientation and huffing and puffing for another 2.8 miles before the medic took my oxygen level and I learned I wasn't just being a sissy.
Mile 16, just got to the bottom of the monster ski slope
2. My friends are the best. I'm a firm believer in Team So-and-So. We all have an investment in our friend's trials and journeys and we want them to succeed and we cheer them on when our lives are so busy that being by their side is just unreasonable. If you count me then as a member of your "team", you better believe you can bet you'll be in mine. I had been very Team Suann through Suann's training for the Zion 100 and then during her race efforts, and Elaine and I are "teammates" for several years now. Suann and Elaine both got me through this race. Suann tweeted with me at mile 15 when I thought I was going to lose it. She calmed me down. Elaine cheered me on and passed along information once I had to drop in a place where data service sucked on my cell phone.
Forcing a smile as Suann tweets me down (like "talking me down") off the proverbial and very real cliffs!

3. This course was absolutely gorgeous. Even the parts where the fire had come through a couple years ago had a beauty to itself in its tiny bushes and aspen saplings as it tried to rebuild itself.
My view from the top of Pajarito Mountain

4. I spent 8 1/2 miles struggling to breathe and blaming myself. I kept looking at the clock and stopping for a breath and going, "What am I doing wrong?!?" Did I not run enough miles? Did I not powerhike enough? What had I done? The medic reassured me multiple times that it wasn't about my training or fitness level, it was just a genetic lottery. And now that the foggy brain and disorientation is gone, the next morning I laughed at this notion where I had blamed myself. Because all of sudden it was crystal clear how there was no reasonable way that this was any sort of product of undertraining.

  • 6 miles took me 3 1/2 hours. Yes, that's 35 minutes per mile. 
  • At my best moments for 8 1/2 of those miles, I would do about 30 steps before having to take a 20 second standing catch-my-breath break. But many times, I could muster only 10 steps and would then need a minute for that break.
  • I could not eat my honey stinger chews without standing completely still during the most uphill 6 miles. Because eating inhibited my already limited breathing and I thought I would pass out.
  • I chatted with Shama, Shifra, and Brandi at the bottom of the ski hill for a second and only the next day realized how out of it I think I sounded.
  • Sometimes I had to make my moves slow and extra deliberate because it was loose rocks with a long way to skid or roll down if I slipped and frankly I was extremely lightheaded and unsteady on my feet for a lot of very hard uphill miles.
We climbed that, and then we turned a corner and just kept climbing.

5. Runners will appreciate this. There were several points on the course that elicited an out loud "Are you serious?!?" reactionary yell from me. Slipping down a dusty slope, climbing over a boulder, hopping from big rock to big rock, playing "don't find the loose rock with your foot". And this 1000 foot sudden short drop down a black diamond ski slope which I slipped and slid the whole way down.
Yes, I came down ALL of that.

6. I took a big tumble trying to smile big for the photographer at the top of Pajarito Mountain. Put a big section of loose rocks in the grassy field between me and that guy, why don't ya! I was amazed I didn't get scraped up.

7. I now have something to point to that shows that, while many runners think this way, I am just not the type of runner who needs "vengeance on a course" or to "go back for a redemption race." I don't look at Jemez and scowl and want my revenge on it. I know a lot of runners like this. While the finisher pottery would be nice, I know Jemez may not work into my schedule next year. I know I already did the hardest part of that course, and I was blessed to experience 2/3 of that course. I don't feel like I HAVE to go back. 

8. I would like to do another race at altitude at some point. The medic said, between a combination of 1) enlarging my alveoli and strengthening my lung volume by inhibiting my inhale and exhale through different tools and techniques, 2) going up 2 weeks before a race to increase my red blood cells to carry more of that oxygen through my body by acclimatizing to the altitude, I could train myself to get through a high altitude race. 

9. For 8 hours I endured the hardest training run I had ever done. Fine, fasties, focus on my abysmal pace and how "few" miles I completed in that time. I see that it was an amazing workout and my goodness if each day of Chattanooga doesn't feel easier and better than this!
Top of the ski slope - blue is the fast 50 mile runners who passed me, red are the cheer squad girls at the bottom

10. You put in the training. You put in the work. You make the race plan. You put in the prep for your gear and your pack. And then something out of your control takes away the race. That is an unsettling thing for any runner that there is always something out there that can ruin your race day.

And Most Importantly that it receives no bulleted number... I am still glad I did this race. It was a lot of fun, even through it all. It was also well-organized, and hats off to the race director Bill Geist and his crew!

FOR THOSE WHO WANT MORE DETAILS... I blog all my notes so I can learn from them if I need to reflect later and so I can relive these moments in the future more vividly. Enjoy the longer race report, with more pictures, here...

A Mountain's Journey - Jemez 50K and My First DNF

Jemez 50K was a training run. I know, it still sounds ridiculous to me. But it was intended to be a kick-butt take-no-prisoners training run. With the awesome combo of 1) 7,000 feet elevation gain and descent, 2) altitude, 3) rough rocky technical trail, 4) unshaded sunny desert terrain, 5) 31.1 miles long, it was to possibly be a bigger task than the Chattanooga 3 Day Stage Race that is my "end game" 4 weeks from now.
The Posse Shack - our start/finish location

This is the long version of the report, with all the pictures. I write my blog much more as my own Dear Diary than for an audience. I revisit runs and races to evaluate upcoming decisions and remind me self of details, or simply to relive moments. If another person out there benefits from my detailed notes, then I'm happy for that. But if all the details bore you, don't worry about reading - just skim it for the pretty pictures. I'm going to put together a much more concise "10 things about my Jemez race and DNF" post in a minute for those folks. ;-)

I was already nervous about the altitude. It was the wild card to me. It was the part that could not be trained. I'd never spent any time at that kind of elevation, let alone get my heart pumping.
All smiles right before starting the 50K
In the end, the altitude would get the better of me, my anxieties coming true, but not in the mild altitude sickness I knew to be a more common culprit of nausea and a headache. Instead, I would DNF 19.2 miles in from hypoxia, basically meaning that my muscles couldn't metabolize the oxygen effectively, a genetic mishap and unrelated to my training or level of fitness.

Race Eve

Friday morning I flew in to Albuquerque, just 20 hours before the race start. Get my rental car, lunch in Santa Fe, and I was headed north to Los Alamos - to the Jemez Mountains. On my way, I stopped at a scenic point with the mountains behind me to get a picture with my excited stupid grin on my face.
With the mountains at my back

I scouted the race start/finish location and the 2nd aid station. Then, I picked up my packet and attended the well-done pasta dinner and very informative trail briefing. Early bedtime!

Race Preparation, Start, and the Race Plan

Race morning, I. WAS. READY. My sometimes nervous tummy was cooperating. My pack had all the exact things I would need for this mission. I even had my strategy sheet pinned to my shorts to refer to, which I did use and even used it to help another runner puzzle out the next part of the course at one point. My timing race morning was perfect. I was up at 3:45 am, at the race start at 4:45 to get great parking, and was able to see the 50 mile race start, including seeing friends Edgar, Shaheen, Nick, and Jayna.
50 Milers start!

I was calm as a cucumber and even hung out in my car for a half hour reading the second Hunger Games book. Being that calm race day morning is usually a good sign for me.

The 50K race started at 6 am, and I'm feeling good. I've run into a guy named Paul from the pasta dinner the night before in the start corral, and we're about the same pace so I end up seeing him as we end up close to each other for the first 5 miles. We run through the horse stable area and onto the trail.
Horses and stables

Then, through a short tunnel 1.9 miles into the race!
Such unexpected and pretty decorations!

Beautiful rocky cliffs on the other side of the canyon. We wind around on our side of the canyon.
I tried to get some pictures with people in them so you have an idea of scale.

And then we got to jump from boulder to boulder!
See the little person at the top - those are some big boulders!

And that's all in the first 5 miles. I run into Nikki, another Dallas runner, who has had a cold and is having trouble breathing and tight calf muscles. I have a little wheeze at the end of each exhale, but I'm doing okay.

I'm keeping my goal paces, not running hard, and watching my heart rate. I make it the second aid station at mile 10.4, but not before an annoying area of wide open space with sparse trees and giant rocks instead of forest floor. There's no one in front of me for a big part of this mile or 2 section, so I keep having to stop and look for the next flag because there's no obvious trail for me to follow. And then I run to that flag and look for the next. Ugh. I'm sure a savvy, well-traveled trailrunner would have just run straight ahead as we were heading down obviously one way or another, I just figured the flags would have the easiest, well-worn path. This slowed me up a little.
Let's play "Spot the Flag". Not my favorite game. Give me another 10 50Ks under my belt and I'd feel experienced enough to just careen down this hill and know the flags would find ME!

Aid Station 2 - Well That's Demoralizing

I'm doing okay coming into aid station 2 at mile 10.4. There's a runner already there, and she's talking about DNFing. Nothing's really wrong with her at that point - it's just hard. It's her second attempt at her first 50K on the same course. Wow, hard first 50K to do! The volunteers and I convince her to soldier on. That if she can just make it 6 miles, it will get better.

The gal behind me in the race had told me just before this aid station that she lives at 6,000 feet above sea level but has some trouble breathing so she counts 20 steps and then stops and breathes. She comes into the aid station behind me and has decided to DNF because it's just too hard to breathe for her, she's slightly asthmatic anyway, and she has double marathons next weekend.

I leave the aid station with the girl who has reluctantly decided to continue but then quickly leave her behind after a short chat. I also know Jeremy won't be thrilled. One of my jobs at this race was to practice getting through the aid stations quickly and instead I hung out and chitchatted a bit too much at this one (although aid station 1 I was in and out in 10 seconds with 2 orange slices in my hand and a quick hi).

Up The Mountain

My trouble starts about a mile after the aid station. I checked the elevation profile afterward and that's when we got to about 8,000 feet. All of a sudden I've started having a harder time catching my breath. I go at the climb for a couple minutes and then rest for 15 seconds. And this is the hard climb for a couple miles up an unshaded section where the Las Conchas Fire had ravaged the side of the mountain.

There's an old jeep road for a split second but most of the time it's pebbles and boulders and lots of dust.

Some pictures for perspective of how high we climb.

This the longest 2 miles of my life towards the top of this ridge where I'm taking my 30 steps on the advice of the gal I met at the second aid station and then a breathing break. And then it got worse. We go downhill for a short half mile section, and I feel so much better physically, but then it's back uphill through alternating forests and rocky/grassy ski slopes.
An old chairlift on our only flat section of this 6 mile stretch.

I would be climbing this via the woods on the right side, not the nice easy
straight up the mountain I almost would have preferred!

And the lack of oxygen as I climb makes me feel worse and worse. And the next person in front of me must be miles ahead in my brain. And my average pace is just abysmal. But I assess and I know I'm okay - my heart is okay, my legs are okay, mentally I'm okay - I just can not breathe. I see a huge black crow-like bird. Absolutely huge. So big I let out a yell to get him to fly away. I'm assuming he's a scavenger, but think it's best to scare him before I find out he's a predator, HA! One area of forest is full of moths, tons of them everywhere.

However, as I approach mile 14, my "take 20-30 steps and then you can take a breathing break" has turned into sometimes 10 steps, and sometimes 8 steps. And it's not just on the "ups" anymore, it's on the horizontals, the flats also, which I will also admit are rare. I look back at this and I think, "I was in much more trouble than I thought." I'm really struggling and I see my shoddy cell service here is cooperating a little, and I call my husband Steve. I tell him what a hard time I'm having. He knows I'm having a problem because I'm huffing and puffing trying to talk to him, and I'm not even moving. I'm just standing there. I tell him I think I might have to DNF. That even if I can get to mile 16, I am looking at a 12-13 hour finish, which is well beyond what I was expecting to put my body through for a training run. But I want to finish. And I also wonder if I'll be able to breath better when I start coming back down, since I'm at about 9000 ft elevation at this point. He reassures me that he'll support whatever my decision is and knows whatever I decide, it was the right thing to do. I struggle along for another mile to the summit, another huge 1000 ft in 1 mile climb. My breathing is making me lightheaded, and I'm constantly having to steady myself and feel wobbly in my footing, which is bad when you are climbing a steep grade rocky slope.

How bad was my breathing? I would have to stop and stand to eat my honey stinger chews, because I couldn't breathe, eat, and walk at the same time. I look back and think, "Wow, that was not good."

At mile 15, I'm at the top. I tweet that I'm really thinking I have to drop. Suann tells me I can do this. She's great support in this moment. I keep wanting to cry from the huffing and puffing and the start-and-stop 10-paces-and-breathe, but I tweet Suann that I'm fighting for breath so bad that if I cry I'll hyperventilate. She tells me to stop, rest, and just breathe. I tweet back a simple "ok". I stop and take a couple pictures there at the top.
What a view!

I'm So High Right Now!!!

Look how high it is! And I even force a big smile for a self-portrait.
Better to smile than cry. Besides, I'd hyperventilate and
pass out at this point if I cried.

Smile and Fall

The trail starts going back downhill through wooded areas and ski slopes. The ski slopes though have dusty, rocky dropoffs, and I slide on my booty a few times.

And then I come up on the race photographer in a grassy field which unfortunately also has a big loose rock section. I try to smile big and look up, and I tumble and roll 2 seconds before he's going to snap the pictures. He freaks out and comes running, yelling, "Are you okay?!?"

Me: "I've been better... you know, like 10 seconds before this."
He offers me a hand and helps me up.
Him: "Do you still want me to take your picture?"
Me: "No, I really don't."

I don't check until a few minutes later but I'm not scuffed up in the slightest - lucky. Then the giant double black diamond steep ski slope so we can drop 1,000 feet faster than you imagine possible. I slip and slide, and freak out, and throw down my arms, and land on my booty, and freak out. Repeat often. And 2 50-milers pass me looking so light and airy. And it's so steeply downhill making it so difficult of a traverse that I am still struggling to breathe.
Blue arrow is the fast 50 mile runners and the red arrow is the
cheer squad of Brandi, Shama, and Shifra waiting at the bottom.

And another perspective of how much we dropped so quickly is this great picture - yeah, I came down all of that, slipping and sliding!

I make it to the bottom to see Brandi (Edgar's wife) and Shama and Shifra (Shaheen's sisters). I realize now how out of it I think I sounded, and now I know it was the oxygen deprivation at work.

Round a corner and there's the aid station. It had taken me 3 1/2 hours to go 6 miles.

Convince Me The Worst Is Over

The aid station folks were awesome. A teenage volunteer asked what I needed.

Me: "Could you refill my pack with water while I decide if I'm going to continue this race? ... Like just in case?"
He was like, "Ooooh-kay." Veteran runner volunteers jumped in - "What's wrong?" "The worst is over." "You did the hardest part." "You'll still finish before dark." They found me a chair as I huffed and puffed. I sat there and ate and worked to catch my breath.

I decided to keep going. The shot of coke I had drunk kicked in and my recovery break had helped that I jogged along for half a mile until the next smaller uphill. Ack, back to breaks every 30 steps. But with some straights and downhills I was able to at least muster a steady walk while I'm huffing and puffing.

Aid Station 19.2

I talk to the volunteers here. I tell them what's wrong. I ask them, "If I just work on getting from aid station to aid station, can I DNF later in the race and be driven out?" The answer is that this is the decision point. All future aid stations have a hike out. Turns out one of the couple volunteers I've been talking to is the medic there. He comes over while I think it all over and eat and drink and wants to take my oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter. I test at 91-92%. I ask, "Is that good?" The answer is no.

The medic says I could continue, but it's getting a little dangerous if my levels continue to drop, plus I've already told him I'm lightheaded and unsteady on my feet. He's not comfortable with me going it alone. Right then a guy who I'd leapfrogged with the previous two miles is in the aid station. He says he's getting over a cold so he's walking the whole rest and he will stay with me. The medic feels better with this answer. I'm having a soul-crushing hard time because I'm so tired of not being able to breathe but otherwise I physically feel great. The medic asks me a bunch of questions and confirms I'm well-hydrated, nourished, and my electrolyte levels are good when he sees I don't have fat sausage fingers. He checks my legs and I don't have edema (unusual swelling) there either.

I decide to go on with Lee, my new walking friend. There's a 1/2 mile out (uphill!) then back so I figure this will be my check. And within 500 steps of this first simple uphill, I'm huffing and puffing and need a catch-my-breath break. I'm done I think. I call my husband and cry.

Back To The Aid Station... And More Bad News

I ran or walked for 8 hours. About 4 1/2 of which I spent huffing and puffing. I go back to the aid station and tell the volunteers I'm done. They take my pulltag off my bib and sit me in a chair to catch my breath. I'm chatting with a volunteer, trying not to dwell on what's happened, and I'm starting to have a nasty raspy cough.

The medic comes over and wants to retest my oxygen. The cough isn't a good sign. After having sat and recovered for 10 minutes, he's alarmed that my oxygen level's dropped to 88%. He says it's time to put me on oxygen, I wasn't going back out on the course even if I wanted to, and he's glad I decided not to since it could have gotten very dangerous. I tear up and cry a little off and on and no one cares or minds, which is so sweet and wonderful of them all.

I'm put on an oxygen tank and told to relax. I cheer the 50M runners. They can't drive me out of the aid station until 7:30 that night, and it's 2:00 pm. Luckily, a volunteer will be walking the 2.8 miles back to the last aid station I'd come from, at the bottom of the ski hill, at 4 pm. The medic thinks we can get my levels high enough by then that he'll release me to slow walk back there. Everyone agrees if we can get me back to my hotel, it would be best so I can rest and recover instead of staying part of the way up the mountain.

A Long 3 Miles

At 4:00, after a boost of extra oxygen, I'm cleared to go. About 96% oxygen level, and my heart rate has finally come down to resting rate. The volunteer and I take it slowly. The couple small uphills still require a small rest. We cheer a lot of the 50M runners we pass. I take off my bib after the first one we encounter gets confused about why I'm backtracking on the course!

The End

And that's it. My First DNF. I don't have much else to say. I told some friends it feels worse that I'm doing well physically after it. One friend said that should make me feel better. It was a medical issue not just giving in when it got tough. And my response is that it feels worse because it's an unsettling reminder for all of us that we can train and prep and have our race plans and there can be something just completely out of left field out of our control to ruin our race day.

Next Up: On to the Chattanooga Stage Race June 15-17. A couple weeks to cement my fitness level and do a little more speedwork and then taper time!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Body Fat Check, and Strategy Sheet for Jemez 50K Trail Race

A quick check-in to my blog before I leave tomorrow for the Jemez 50K race. Two things are going on:

1) I had my body fat analysis redone last night. I thought I had packed on a couple pounds after New Jersey Marathon with some junk food post-marathon "runger"-based eating. I wanted to see what the damage was. Well, my last test was April 4 where I was 19.3%. That equated to 29 pounds of fat.

So this time, while my weight was up a few pounds, my body fat came in almost a full percent lower at 18.5% of my body weight! How? Because I had actually gained some lean muscle mass in the last 50 days, a full 3 pounds of it.

This is a great mental boost going into race day on Saturday!

2) Jemez preparations have come along nicely. I'm a planner, and I took my experiences from my trail races so far and said, "What would I want to know out in the middle of a race?" And from this I made my strategy sheet.

I've learned through racing to turn off my auto-lap because the miles the GPS records aren't the most accurate, especially on a course with elevation. Then I hit the lap button at each aid station where I know from the race manual / website how far I've gone and can try to figure out what pace that represents with the limited carb-depleted math skills I have remaining.

And I hate trying to remember, "How far to the next aid station?" and "What's the elevation like coming up?" I'm out there on the course a LONG TIME so "go with the flow" just doesn't help me manage my energy level that well.

So here's my strategy sheet. I didn't make it into a strategy wristband as I have for other races (and PRed at other races with my band). I hole punched and will pin it to the front of my shorts so I can just angle it up and read it. Important notes to myself are in red.

Yes, it even has the elevation graph for a couple between aid station spots.
In the box, it shows how long that jaunt from aid station to aid station should have taken at different paces. So I should be able to lap my Garmin, see 1:48 at Mile 16.4 and say, "okay, that section took me 18 min/mi".

Here's the backside of the same card. Notice here that the last big aid station is 11 miles from the finish. The remaining two aid stations will have water and very limited food, and when your slow, limited food may mean no food by the time you get there. So I have a big note to not leave the aid station at mile 20.2 without filling the pockets of my pack with potato chips and cookies, HA!

So we'll see how well the strategy sheet works, but for a planner/analyzer/data junkie like me, it's never steered me wrong before!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Puking in my VO2 Mask

It was time to redo my VO2 testing (more info on VO2Max testing from Runner's World) at the gym. I actually had thought we'd last tested 3 months ago, but when we did the test and pulled up the old data we saw that it was 68 days ago. I tried to push myself during the test as close to my max heart rate as I could get and yet not throw up. And yes, I managed to avoid puking in my VO2 mask, but I got close enough that my trainer and I were both googling for videos of people puking into VO2 masks to include in my blog entry. Sadly, or fortunately for all of you, depending on your perspective, I scoured the internet and could find no such videos. Boo.

Here's what happened at my last test. And what did we hope to see this time?

  • We didn't expect my aerobic base to really move, because I'm pretty efficient at my base so it would take a lot of work to move that, and it hasn't been long enough.
  • We didn't expect my anaerobic threshold to move either, because I haven't been doing extremely high intensity speedwork at a very very high heart rate.
  • We did hope to see that the big negative slope in efficiency that we saw between the aerobic base and anaerobic threshold last time would have leveled off some. This would be because of spending a lot more time training at Zone 2 and Zone 3, those uncomfortable zones. This would allow me to race at higher heart rates and faster paces without burning through my glycogen (carb) reserves as quickly.


I'm not an exercise physiologist, kinesiologist, or any other -ologist expertly trained in VO2 testing and its results. I'm an average runner, who passed the test to be an RRCA-certified running coach, and understands a lot of the rudimentary things about VO2. But I may misstate things here, so always do your own research and consult with someone smarter than me!

The Actual Testing

So the test works like this. You wear a super sexy blue mask. And you wear this mask for 10-11 minutes in the middle of the gym in my case in front of the whole world. 
This is what the testing looks like. P.S. This is not a self-portrait.
Then, my trainer Donnie, who is trained and certified within his gym to analyze the raw data, starts the treadmill at 3 mph. So word of warning, get the test done with someone who is actually trained in it. Not someone who owns the equipment and runs the machine and makes the computer do all the work. Because you really want a professional reading the test data and helping you interpret so that you know what it means!

The wires hooked up my mask read the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to figure out when and how I use the oxygen in my body efficiently. 1-2 minutes at a time we move up to 3.5 mph. 4.0 mph. 4.5 mph. 5 mph. Then we start raising the incline, 2%, 4%, 6%. At 8%, it's starting to hurt, but I'm trying to keep that heart rate in check. Unlike the last test, we actually reach 10%. And I hold on, at 12 minute per mile pace and 10% incline, for about 20 seconds. Until I have to jump off and cling to the sides as I almost spew into my very tight mask.


One easy way to sum it all up is comparing my VO2Max number.

  • Before: 36.5
  • After: 42.1

That's a huge jump! 17% increase in only 68 days! I had a VO2Max that was expected for a normal female, or in my case a female marathoner with bad genetics. Boo. And now I have a VO2Max that sounds a lot more like a standard athlete. Yippee!

From a Runner's World article about improving VO2Max:
"If you want a high VO2 max, choose your parents carefully. One group of scientists concluded that heredity determines up to 50 percent of your endurance ability. Still, that leaves 50 percent that can be influenced by training. While an outrageous VO2 max isn't the only ticket to running greatness--Frank Shorter's and Alberto Salazar's maxes were in the low 70s--increasing it can boost your race times. A five-point jump, for example, can translate into a seven percent improvement, or 90 seconds for a 20-minute 5-K. And a moderately fit runner can increase VO2 max by as much as 25 percent."

Further, the % of calories that come from fat at higher heart rates has gone up. That means I'm more efficient at higher heart rates in Zones 2 and 3. So I can go longer pushing at those heart rates, burning fat calories. See the numbers in Zone 2 - before I burned 37% of calories as fat calories, whereas now I burn 42%. Even better is that strong negative slope of declining efficiency in Zone 2 has almost completely leveled out! And my efficiency in Zone 3 went up quite a bit too. I knew this from anecdotal evidence because I had spent about the last 6 miles of the NJ Marathon, when I was working to finish with a PR, at Zone 3 thanks to cardiac drift. But with increased fat-burning efficiency, I could do that where I could not have before!

More data for those who like data like I do...

Final Conclusions

What does this all mean for upcoming races? So where do I go from here?

  • It means that I can hang out anywhere in Zone 2 for quite a while and still have a very high fat-burning efficiency. Before, I knew to hang out no higher than low Zone 2.
  • I can race for about an hour at low- to mid-Zone 3 where before I would have sputtered out of energy.
  • I can use the calories per minute burned calculation to verify that I'm taking in enough nutrition during ultramarathons. I need about 200-250 calories per hour in a race to keep the engine fueled well it appears.
  • Do not ever hit Zone 4! Look at how many calories I burn per minute there! 13. And it's all carbs. So a half hour of that burn equals more than an hour of happy fat-burning effort. I'd burn through my energy reserves quick. And even if the heart rate zings up and hits Zone 4 briefly, you can keep burning pure carbs for a while after it pops back down. In an ultra, this would get me to a quick DNF. So no Zone 4!

So Friday it's time for a trip, and Saturday I'll be running Jemez 50K with all this new data loaded into my Garmin Forerunner 910, and all this knowledge driving my efforts and my paces! Jemez, here I come!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Is Jemez 50K a Bad Idea?

I was having a bit of a freakout the past couple days about going to Jemez 50K race this weekend. Was signing up a bad idea?
Very very rocky in some sections - I don't see a path, do you?
I knew one good thing about having it on my radar was that it was distracting me from the freakout of the eventual end goal of running the Chattanooga 3 Day Stage Race on June 15. Jemez was a good plan because it was a countdown to Chattanooga without being a constant reminder of Chattanooga; running the race would signal basically the start of my multi-week taper for Chattanooga.
One of the monster downhill grades
But I'm an anxious, high-strung person naturally. I work on it, but it's who I am at my core. So now I'd added an event on my calendar with Jemez that would be both incredibly rewarding and yet very stressful all at the same time. Add to it that two runners I know had recently had hard races tied to elements I would deal with at Jemez (one with altitude and another with technical terrain and difficult elevation).

So steep, they are stairs!
Why does Jemez 50K as a training run give me anxiety?
  • I will be finding out how my body reacts in altitude conditions (7000 ft minimum at this race). 
  • I will be doing some enormous climbs, up to the top of Pajarito Mountain at 10,440 ft and back down. 
  • I will be running on my feet for probably 10 1/2 to 11 hours. Funny how 8 hours doesn't phase me too much anymore (I've run over 8 hours 4 times before), but 11 hours feels very different in my head from 8.
Watch out for loose rocks!
So I did what anyone else with a running coach should do: I sent him a note about where my mind was at right now.

He had a great response that reaffirmed why I am doing this. It will be an excellent amazing training run for Chattanooga BECAUSE...
  • Jemez will be further and longer than any day in Chattanooga
  • The elevation gains and grades will be much harder at Jemez than Chattanooga
  • Jemez is supposed to be pretty technical, maybe more so than Chattanooga, plus I'll be exposed in unshaded terrain on sunny days more than the woods of Chattanooga.
  • I'll deal with all this on top of altitude, and I won't have altitude at Chattanooga.
  • Good chance Jemez could be as warm as or warmer than Chattanooga.
So I keep my wits about me, stay calm, keep moving forward, and Jemez will be such a great training race!
One of the views I'll be rewarded with!
My goals with Jemez from my coach are simple, well, as simple as they can be completing 31 miles in hard terrain... :-)
  1. Get in and out of the aid stations quickly. Something he's worked on with me and I showed I can do when I set my mind to it at Hells Hills 25K this year.
  2. Powerwalk those uphills. Be smart about running and walking at the right time. Run when I can, powerwalk when running isn't the most efficient.
  3. Keep on top of my food and hydration. I've worked on that this spring and this is another chance to show that, especially when dehydration is easier at altitude and makes altitude sickness worse.
Note all pictures were courtesy of Bill Geist, the race director, from the race website