Sunday, June 17, 2012

2012 Chattanooga Stage Race - A Race Report

Update after posting - June 18: The doctor fit me in early. And I have answers now...

It was Day 2 of the Chattanooga Stage Race. I thought I was losing my mind. I wracked my brain and the mathematician in me truly went through my running by the numbers. So far this year, I had run 665 miles (compared to 1000 total in all of last year), had completed 4 marathons, 2 half marathons, 1 25K trail race, and 1 50K trail race… and 7 miles into this day’s race I was gasping for air like this was a full Everest summit! 7 miles?!? What was going on???

Flashback to the day before…

Day 1 of the Chattanooga Stage Race was 18 miles on Raccoon Mountain. I had trained hard for months for this race. Interestingly, I was not scared by 60 miles in 3 days over 3 mountains. I knew I could complete the distance. My biggest source of anxiety was that the time cutoffs each day meant that I might not finish it fast enough to be allowed to return for the next day’s race. This race had sold out early and had a very fast competitive field of runners. While I had gotten faster through the season, I didn’t know yet if pushing the pace for 60 miles was something I could do, and my pace meant I had no margin of error in making those cutoffs. Run strong for a full 60 miles or out of luck. I went in there planning to try my best but prepared for the very real possibility of not completing the 60 miles.

Super cute women's race shirt - purple with pink contrast stitching and print
Gorgeous morning for a run. 68 degrees at the start (it would be about 84 at the finish). 80% humidity which would decrease as the skies cleared to a perfect blue. We ran completely around the lake on the mountain that has a dam had huge electrical conduits. 211 of the originally signed up 250 runners were ready to run (normal attrition from injury and change of plans since it had an early sell out this year). I was able to meet Chip, Josh, Rebecca, and Keith all from San Antonio. Such nice, and fast, runners. I know ultimately Josh placed 4th overall in the final standings of the three days combined!

Happy runner!
The morning of Day 1 was perfect for me in terms of my own running. Everything was dead on – hydration, nutrition, no nervous tummy, muscles felt great, I could feel my heat/humidity training had paid off. I pushed the pace, but it wasn’t anything completely unreasonable, just a steady push to keep a strong aerobic pace. First aid station I check my pace, and I’m right where I need to be, like a little over a 14 minute per mile pace.

The electrical magnitude of what purpose this lake and dam serves
Sidebar: Let’s talk aid station food -- First aid station was a bit of a disappointment from what I’m used to at Joe Prusaitis’ Tejas Trails races or what James Varner at Rainshadow Running in Washington/Oregon produces. A couple pill cups with a trail mix of peanuts and raisins and maybe some banana (I don’t remember the banana so much but I wouldn’t because I hate banana). Second aid station was worse from the viewpoint that I was happy to see potatoes, but they were next to a Morton’s container at salt, and I personally prefer the bowl of salt that you dip the side of the potato in. But the potato was almost raw and shortly after getting on the trail I spit the majority of it out. They had also gotten unlucky in their oranges because my slice was sour – very blech. I wasn’t completely dependent on the aid station food and could shrug it off. But I’m a lover of chocolate cookies, peanut M&Ms, well-boiled potatoes, and orange slices with the peel still on (I want to keep my grubby trail hands off the orange “meat”!), and this race just didn’t satisfy those needs.

View from Aid Station 2 after emerging from the woods
About mile 9, things went wrong. Very wrong. I couldn’t catch my breath. At all. It’s not like I had been all out sprinting this race. But this difficulty breathing started to set in with each step. It was like someone had put my chest into a cage, this tightness around my torso, and I loosened my pack and heart rate monitor but nothing could make that feeling go away. By mile 14 I decided I needed to seek out medical at the finish and check my oxygen. It was feeling a little like I had felt at Jemez 50K, but I’d call it “Jemez Lite” – maybe only 20% as bad. I could still struggle through it and muster a normal run pace with only occasional stops for a minute or so to somewhat recover my breath. And I had this sleepiness descend on me where I just wanted to lay down SO bad. But this wasn’t hypoglycemia – no death march. Just this longing to sleep. And with every gasp this tunnel would get smaller as I felt like there was no end to this, and I would never ever get a full breath again. Hard to describe. The oxygen deprivation made me a little staggery on the trails at time, disoriented, and dizzy. When your footing is important, this is scary.

I crossed the finish line ahead of the 4:30 cutoff with a time of 4:18. This was actually great for me. For this pace, it meant my 25K time had been about 15 minutes better than my April 25K PR I had set (which was really 7 minutes better since I had gotten lost for 8 minutes at that race). By the way, while one person finished after me, I was the last person to cross in the time limit.

A couple folks I had run with earlier in the race cheered me by name into the finish. I crossed and tried to play it cool. There was this weird mix in me of a) I need to find medical and check this out, and b) I don’t want to alert the race crew that I might be struggling or they might forbid me from continuing . But when the runners who had cheered me in said, “How are you feeling?”, my immediate answer was “I can’t breathe.” I sat on a cooler and worked to recover my breath, chatted with another finisher after that for a couple minutes about the problem I was having, and then spotted the medical banner and headed over casually. It had been about 10 minutes from my finish. I told the nurse my concerns, and she dug out her pulse oximeter to check my oxygen saturation level but told me we had probably waited too long as every minute since my finish I had been recovering. Confirmed, my level was 97%. I was kicking myself – I shouldn’t have tried to be so casual, I should have just collapsed like I was feeling at the finish and had my oxygen checked right away.

Two of the San Antonio runners, Chip and Josh, came over to chat, but at that point, I was in a mood. I apologized later for my funk saying I just didn’t understand what was going on with my body and was frustrated at the time.

I called Lesley while leaving the race site and said, “This was freaking hard. Is this just what all out racing feels like? I can’t do that again.” We talked through the next day’s course. And as we talked, I started to forget what those last 9 miles felt like. Maybe it was a fluke, I thought. Lesley was happy that my muscles felt so good. Funny how I hadn’t thought about that until we talked, but yes, no hobbling. And into the next morning, especially with my usual recovery tricks of double ice baths, I had no physical soreness. I felt like all those miles and all those hours of strength training had made me durable on trails.

Fast forward to Day 2…

Day 2 was 22 miles on Lookout Mountain. For the second day, I had the best parking spot, having scouted the race site the day before and set out from the hotel nice and early. 20 feet from the start/finish!

Perfect parking!
Once again, everything with me at the start was right as rain. My body was cooperating. My planning had worked. I was prepared.

Ready to start Day 2
The race started, and I chatted with the back-of the-pack folks around me as we all warmed up and got moving.

Sidebar: Make friends with those around you -- Lynda from Day 1 who was so sweet in her concern but had strongly urged me to get an inhaler for day 2 from a Doc-in-the-box because of the possibility it was adult onset asthma, not knowing that I’m wary of drugs anyway for their possible side effects but especially so when traveling in a new town alone. Jack was an ex-Marine with a Semper Fi tattoo. Tom fiddled with his Walkman that had already broken a half mile into the race. And Buddy who I called Birmingham because that’s where he was from. I love the people I get to meet trail running!

We went down a gravel road for almost a mile. Then we hit the 9 minute bottleneck of a very tight climb up the cliff with ropes set into the walls and attached to trees! Like we stood around with our Garmin's showing a lap pace of nothing while everyone single-file climbed up this section.

Up a mountain ridge to mile 2.5, then turned and came back down to finish the first loop back at the start at mile 5.3. I was in a good pack, rocking along and having fun. We headed out on the out-and-back connector trail to another section of land. I got left behind by the pack at about mile 7 when the hint of problems started again. By 7.5, I was having the same struggle. And I thought I was losing my mind.

7.5 miles and I’m huffing and puffing like I just raced Usain Bolt. What is going on? My pace is on target. It’s not like I just pulled 2 minutes/mile faster than I normally run. The chest constriction, the gasping, it got worse and worse. I flashbacked to the day before, I flashbacked to the much worse version of this at Jemez. And I had this overwhelming desire to sleep forever, to lay down in the dirt and sleep. And those who know what a priss I am and how much I hate being dirty would tell you that was a big telltale sign that something was wrong.

The fastest runners were coming back around mile 13 at this point. Thankfully it was a wider track in some areas due to ATV use so I didn’t have to keep stepping off the trail. Funny that this was where I finally met Andrew, a Michigan runner who I had kept in touch through Facebook during the training cycle. “Hi, Libby, it’s Andrew!” as he ran by at breakneck speed. I think he had been like 5th after the first day. Wow.

Then I spent 3 miles sorting out my brain as I just tried to keep moving forward. In a world where runners continually bombard each other with images and wording that implies there is no room for failure, and better to die trying than quit, I was having to make a tough decision. Was I weak and just giving up? Or was something medically wrong? And in my heart I knew the answer. Something was wrong, and I needed to stop instead of risk being Careflite-d off the mountain in the 5 miles to the next aid station. I had found out the week before the race that my ferritin (iron) levels were very low, but I didn’t know what effects that could have. I had an appointment scheduled for the Wednesday after the race to find out if we would need injections or IV to supplement my iron and what the cause of the iron deficiency could be. So with that info and this suspicious activity, I just knew that this was not normal. This was not weak. This was sick.

The sweeper caught me about a mile from the aid station at mile 10.7. I told him I had settled it in my head and I was done when we got to the aid station. He was nice and patient and made what could have been an awkward mile instead a calm shadow behind me. He helped me pick out the trail two times when I know it should have been obvious but my head was getting increasing swimmy. Yeah, I look back and think, that is so not a good sign.

DNFing at mile 10.7? It still sounds odd to me, and that’s how I know I’m sick and that iron deficiency is wrecking my racing right now. 10.7 mile trail run should not be an issue for me. That’s not even long in my book anymore. Struggling with that distance was not in MY norm.

The nurse at the aid station didn’t have an oximeter but they could see I was struggling, and she commented on me being “out of it” and clammy. They immediately set me down in a camp chair for a long time. After the aid station was cleaned up and packed up, a nice volunteer named Mark took me back to the start/finish line.

My last view of the course from where the Mile 10.7 Aid Station stood.
I remembered to take this right before I climbed in the volunteer's truck to go back. :-(
On the drive down the mountain, I called my husband first, just like on the first day. And on this second day, I called my friend Elaine. She was a blessing when I needed a quick cry and to sort out and start processing the two days.

Final Verdict

I may not have done Day 3. I may not have finished Day 2. But I am SO glad I went and experienced this race. It was beautiful and a fantastic way to feel like I really saw a piece of a region of the US I had never been too! I made new friends. I had a lot of fun. I got the opportunity to push myself some and be really proud of the results. I reached out of my comfort zone. And I have discovered there’s something going on at higher exertion with longer duration that needs to be remedied, so I’m glad to know about this!

Is It the Iron Deficiency?

After the DNF, late that night, I googled around and found an article from Running Times Magazine that really opened my eyes. The elite female marathoner with iron deficiency in the article had just described me to a T: “When my levels are low, I notice that my breathing gets really hard and I labor up the smallest hills,” says Russell. “In general I just feel lethargic and don’t have much energy.”

Another article I found was able to quantify even what ferritin level counts as low. “Dr. Martin says that in his experience with runners, training and racing performances are usually affected when ferritin levels drop below 20 ng/ml, and that when those athletes increase their ferritin levels above 25 ng/ml they experience a rapid turnaround in performance.” To put this in perspective, my ferritin level tested at 11 ng/ml. Well below the 20 number referenced.

Update: Right after posting this race report, a friend sent me this eye-opening post by elite marathoner Camille Herron. A good read as I'm educating myself. So I wanted to add it here.

So is iron deficiency the cause? I don’t know. I know I want an answer. I know I want a solution. I would love to know how long this has been a problem. I definitely want to know that these symptoms and the low iron isn’t just a sign of something more serious – it’s awful when your head goes there. The first article I referenced implies I may have always had a low iron problem that doesn’t show up on a lot of standard occasional bloodwork and that I had just learned to live with low iron. So maybe it’s just showing up with the intensity of these recent races. Or the iron levels have dipped much lower in the last couple months with the training intensity.

Next Steps

That’s easy – get fixed up. That’s my only goal right now. Figure out exactly what’s wrong with this new doctor and my recent bloodwork lab results, decide treatment, find out how long until I’m healthy again, make a plan to retest then, test myself physically at that point to see that I’m better. Training schedules are all on hold. At this exact second, ALL races are on hold. My chat yesterday with my coach Jeremy, who knows my training so well and could validate for me that I was not going crazy, ended with “Right now, focus on small HAPPY runs.” Some nice easy running with friends while I sort all this out. 


  1. I am so sorry this happened. You still did an amazing job in a situation that was way out of your control.

    And - you may have answered some questions for me. I've been having spells where I'm as exhausted as you describe, mostly from something simple like walking up stairs. When I go in for my next check up, I'll be asking them to run checks on my thyroid and anemia levels.

    You are officially one tough cookie.

    1. Libby you are a champion! First, I don't know how you made it as far as you did feeling the way you were. I can't imagine running a short distance without breath, much less Day 1 and part of 2. Second, I'm so proud of you that you listened to your body. As hard as you have trained and as ready as you were, I can imagine it took a lot of courage and discipline to listen to what your body was telling you. I'm sending well wishes your way and hoping you get the answers you need very soon... I know you will.

  2. Sick vs weak is so hard to tell in the heat of the moment! Pushing through pain is something we train for, so it's hard to stop trying to do that until it's just incapacitating. I hope you get your answers and you're back to kicking butt soon. I'm sorry your goal race went like this, but think about it - if your training went this well with low iron, just THINK about how you'll feel once you correct it! :)

  3. You are so hardcore and determined. I love reading about your running because you have so much drive! You are also sensible (which can be hard for us runners sometimes). I'm glad you were smart and didn't keep pushing beyond the safe point. I'm crossing my fingers that you get things sorted out so that you can keep pounding the pavement.*