Sunday, April 27, 2014

Climb A Mountain, Get The Miles Done - Ouachita 50K Race Report

Ouachita 50K was a last minute race week decision as a way to get big weekend miles without the distractions of family and the comforts of home that draw me away from completing my biggest long training runs.

2 weekends before had been the hot, rocky, rolling hills of 11 hours and 34.8 miles at Endurance Buzz's Possum Kingdom 56K. And last weekend was a trip to Tyler State Park for 22 miles of hilly trails on Saturday and pushing through 2 1/2 hours and 11 miles on Sunday. Add big bad multi-hour treadmill hill climb workouts the last two weeks? I'm setting the stage here basically that this was the end of 3 tiring peak training weeks for me. This race was the culmination of a quest for miles and challenging miles and MORE miles.  (And yes, I need to go back and write race reports for Gorge Waterfalls and Possum Kingdom races. Some other day.)

My friend Cruz carpooled with me on the 5 hour drive to Little Rock, and we made it in such good time we went ahead and drove to the race site to get our packets.
Cruz, my running partner for this race

There are a lot of wonderful things about this race, but I have to say the women's shirt was particularly awful. It was a pale pink 100% cotton sleeveless top with this neon electric screenprint. The men's shirts were at least a technical running fabric, although the color scheme for them was very loud as well and not at all coordinated to the women's shirt (the men's was bright purple side panels and electric green chest/back).
Ouachita: the 80's called. They want their shirt back.

Race morning we picked up our race bib, which I wish they could have handed out the previous day with the packets but that's a nitpick. Cruz and I wondered if we would need a headlamp for the 6 am start - a pain to carry all day for only needing it for such a short time. But there was just enough pre-dawn light that no one needed a light at the start.

The first and last parts of the race were 2.9 miles each way on blacktop asphalt to access the trail. At a half mile in and at the back of the pack, we suddenly heard loud shouting and the big midpack spanning the road scattered and parted in the middle. As we arrived to the chaos, someone yelled to borrow a phone and another person volunteered theirs. A car was parked in the middle of the road and I thought someone had been hit.

It turns out a car came around a curve very fast and one of the front runners put out his arm waving to the guy to slow down and got hit by the sideview mirror, taking the mirror off the car entirely. But the runner kept going and sounds like he won 2nd overall?! The guy who had stopped to assist was yelling for a phone so he could call the police. The driver was standing outside his car looking annoyed. And I heard a couple guys who had rejoined the run saying one of them had jumped into the car when the driver got out and taken away the guy's keys! A scary start to the event. I'm glad no one was seriously hurt.
Seen on the way to the trailhead

Cruz and I chugged along at a casual pace. Cruz is much faster than me but he wanted to focus the day on time on feet, so what better plan than company for 31.1 miles with a back-of-the-pack edging-on-overtrained runner?! We knew there was a big climb up Pinnacle Mountain coming up at mile 5. We were eager to get on the other side of the 1000 foot ascent to run the marathon that came after it.
Ouachita 50M elevation profile (50K is first 16 miles and last 16 miles shown)

Headed to the mountain

And we had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. We started the ascent with lots of boulders and rocks here and there, and then some staircase type rocks and up and over that to see what was beyond...

...And it was bouldering. What?! That is not what I thought I signed up for.

Wait, what does the race website say about that section in the course description? "A picturesque climb over Pinnacle Mountain". Well, when I see climb, I'm thinking it's a staircase-like rocky hike up. Not actual down-on-all-fours clinging against rocks because of the steepness. My fault for making assumptions! At least I had done this before, at Volcanic 50 last year, but this had a lot more UP to it although the rocks were smoother, rounder, and much less abrasive than the lava rock.

But here there were spiderwebs often between the boulders, and sometimes I could see spiders. Ewwwww, don't step there; don't put my hand in that crevice!

Looking down on the boulders and also our awesome view

I looked at our pace a couple times during the uphill and it was 43 minutes per mile. Such slow progress. We had some fun with a couple runners behind us as we all joked and laughed our way up the mountain. At least keep up the good attitude!
Just keep climbing!

I managed to get my trail shoe at one point wedged between two rocks. That was interesting. I yelled to Cruz, but 10 seconds of yanking and trying to twist my foot and I managed to free myself. I laughed while it was happening because I really wanted to panic in that moment instead.

We reached the summit, the official photographer was taking pictures, there were a handful of spectators there, and we asked one with a cheering sign to take our picture. I said I would hold her sign while she took our picture, so we just used it to pose for the camera, ha!
"I'm getting OFF this mountain!"

View from the summit
I thought the downhill would be easier, but no. More boulders. And by then I was feeling a little shaky, more nerves than anything else and a lack of trust in my balance and ability to not catch a foot and fall. I kind of eased myself down, sometimes sitting and scooting my butt down to the next giant boulder.
Balancing act coming down from the summit

Slowly making progress

I was happy we were past that and could now just run. Except for all the rocks constantly strewn across the trail. Between not wanting to get injured (like a bruised arch from landing on a rock or a strained hamstring from catching yourself in a stumble) and wanting to avoid a fall before my next goal race, I admit I stayed very timid on the trails here. But throughout I mustered a decent run whenever we had a less rocky section. However, I also kept just having the feeling I wanted to take a nap the whole race. I was eating calories at the aid station and Honey Stinger chews inbetween, but I think I was so worn out from 3 weeks of hard training that nothing could get me over that hump.

About 7 miles in, all of a sudden a beautiful big golden retriever with a bandanna came bounding along the trail towards us. Not another person in sight. We had another runner with us but I was leading our group of 3. As the dog approached I braced and YELLED "NO!" at the top of my lungs. You can never be too sure of what dogs will be aggressive even if they look like big cuddlebugs. The dog stopped, shocked, and headed off in another direction. No clue where his owner was.

A few miles after the mountain climb, we did a short spurt on a highway with a view back at Pinnacle Mountain
We crossed a beautiful old iron bridge along the way.

The course is out-and-back except for the mountain climb at the beginning. By mile 10 the temperature was starting to rise. At some undisclosed mileage after that, we discovered the "Double Secret" Aid Station hosted by the Little Rock Hash House Harriers!

This was awesome since this was going to be a 6.3 mile split between aid stations each way. It really helped break up the distance. Of course, as hashers, they had Pabst Blue Ribbon beer to offer everyone as they came by. I said, "Um, maybe on the way back." But nope, I never did try it.

By the time we got to the turnaround at mile 16.9 (not exactly halfway since the course differs out and back by the mountain climb we did on the way out), it was getting hot. Temperatures would hit mid 80s without a cloud in the sky and peak heat about an hour before our race finish. The Northshore aid station at the turnaround was wonderful and friendly. Those people were all smiles. I stuffed my sports bra full of ice and put a full cup into my buff which I put over my head. I would do that at all the aid stations into the finish after that one.

Small sections were in full sun and I was melting in it. And in the trees, the sun would peek through but it wasn't awful as long as the breeze was lightly blowing. Each time we went through some time with no breeze, I would finally say, "Ugh, where did that breeze go?", and the breeze would start back up! It happened 5-6 times, and Cruz joked I had curried favor with the gods.

6 miles from the finish I started getting pretty overheated and nauseous. I slowly sipped water and when we got to the aid station in the shady woods 4 miles out, I said I needed to take the time to lower my core body temperature. I get overheated so easily, even though my drinking was frequent and spot on all day. While a frequent cause of heat exhaustion is dehydration, it is not the only cause, contrary to popular belief. Some people are just susceptible to the rise in core body temp that results in heat exhaustion if left unchecked.

So at the aid station, we filled my sports bra and the buff on my head with ice, and I sat in a chair sipping icy Coca Cola. I untied my shoes, pulled up the socks a bit, and tightened and retied the laces while I sat. The tremor in my left foot while I did this was going crazy. This was my first race since being diagnosed with the essential tremor, which is exacerbated in fatiguing conditions. I teared up a little as I retied my shoes because the shake was so bad that it was terribly annoying and distracting, and I didn't really need another thing going on with me in that moment, along with the full realization that this will have to be managed at most ultras from now on.

I had already started adjusting my process at each aid station after I spilled water trying to refill my pack a few aid stations in when my hand was shaking as I tried to close the top of the hydration bladder. I started asking volunteers to help me with the hydration pack bladder and refilling process, or to pour the coke into a cup for me if they didn't jump to offer to do it for me. Everyone is so accommodating that no one questioned it. I was thankful for the help. Again, always manageable, but I have to think through those things more now.

The final 3 miles were back on the blacktop asphalt we went out on at the start of the race. It was unshaded and rolling hills with little to no shoulder. And unfortunately lots of two way resident and recreational park area traffic. Not everyone did the greatest job of handling runners hugging the white line of the edge of the road. Some were awesome; they slowed and put on their hazard lights and then moved into the other lane once opposing traffic passed. Some came within a foot or two and didn't slow. Or worse, they sped up.
Melting in the sun, moving along with our new friend Susan

I told Cruz I thought I was going to spontaneously combust. That I was boiling from the inside out. I was feeling so nauseous now and had slowed to a very slow-paced little run as my top priority was keeping my stomach contents where they belonged. Occasionally I would stop and turn to the side and dry heave for a second. The rest of the time I breathed through it to keep my stomach in check.

Cruz and I finally made it to that finish line in 10 hours and 2 minutes. We collected our nice handmade finisher medal from the race director, Chrissy Ferguson.

This race was a great learning experience with

  • doing the mountain climb early in a race, 
  • handling the rocky conditions when I have repeatedly said how much this tenderfoot hates rocks, 
  • practicing more with keeping heat exhaustion at bay, and 
  • gettingsome serious time on feet for another weekend in a row. 
One big positive too was feeling like my legs and feet held up well between the running, walking on rocks, and climbing. Although as usual, my feet felt pulverized. No blisters though!

And now, I get to taper. 3 weeks of tapering to be exact. Lower mileage, clean eating, lots of resting, mental prep, and packing. I have been looking forward to this all week. That's how I know I worked hard recently!

* Several of these pictures were contributed by Cruz Pitre. Happy to have a fast runner to hang out with because he could take stop and take a bunch of pictures and then easily catch up to me! *

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Best of the Worst Possible Diagnoses

So for a little while, I've been having hand and foot/leg tremors. But when "the shakes" started getting worse and worse, I finally headed to the doctor. The waiting game was scarier than I had expected the last couple weeks. But I finally have answers and was given the best of the worst possible diagnoses, and I'm actually celebrating that. I'll have to deal with this my whole life, but it will be able to be managed. The story was longer than a reasonable Facebook status so I thought I'd just share the journey out here.


At first I thought maybe this started after the 80 miles I ran at Rocky Raccoon 100 a couple months ago. But I can think back to an instance of a leg tremor a year ago. And then the day before Rocky Raccoon 100 in early February, my friend Tony asked if I was nervous when my hand shook trying to take a race site picture. "No, it just does that sometimes."

After Rocky Raccoon 100, I was exhausted, and then a lot of things happened that all added to stress and lack of sleep. The one most notable item being producing the Fairview Half Marathon - that requires a lot of work and attention.

The hand and leg tremors would come and go, but they were getting to be bigger and more frequent. During the family's spring break vacation, I expressed to Steve some serious concern and wondered if I should get it checked out.

The next weekend I was in Portland for a race with friends and was able to show Lesley, Jeremy, and Sara what was happening when we went to dinner and my hand that held the fork shook very noticeably. They all agreed it was time to call a doctor.

Labs, Appointments, and Tests

My family doctor said we would first see if it was thyroid or B12 deficiency, both of which could cause tremors. 6 vials of blood and 24 hours later, nope. All that looked clear, so it was time to see a neurologist.

By the time I got to the neurologist, living with this apparent tremor had become really interesting. One morning, I struggled to put in one of my contacts because of the shaking. The neurologist took me through about 35 minutes of different neurological and motor skill tests. It was draining. Interestingly, after a long series of hand and finger movements and actions and tests, my left leg that was hanging off the exam table started trembling. Fatigue brings on the tremor quickly and forcefully.

In the end, the fact that my tremor was highly asymmetric (mostly my left side) concerned him. Time for a brain MRI. He was looking for the possibility of Parkinson's Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, or the option that I had an issue with my brain structure that was actually dampening the tremor on the right side and creating asymmetry. If that was all negative, I was left with what's called a benign essential tremor - the progressive shakes without other debilitating symptoms.

While the doctor wasn't an ultrarunner and thought running long distances was crazy with or without my symptoms, he gave me the go-ahead to run the Endurance Buzz Adventures Possum Kingdom 56K trail race the next day (April 12) and to keep planning for my next 100 mile race in May.

I did the brain MRI on Monday which was uncomfortable with my claustrophobia as I spent 30 minutes in a tiny tube with the loudest sounds ever blasting all around me, closing in on my tiny world. But the waiting game after was worse.

Imagine waiting for something but with the on and off again noticeable symptoms of the problem. Constant reminder. And every possibility except for the essential tremor was very scary. A rough couple days since the MRI!


The doctor's office called this afternoon, and my MRI scan didn't show the anomalies he was watching for so he has ruled my condition an essential tremor. As the doc explained it, an essential tremor is still an incurable progressive neurological disease. Not much is known about why the brain might send overcharged electric signals to some of the muscles. It is also not known how quickly it will progress or how far it will progress.

All they can do is manage the symptoms as it gets worse. When the symptoms are more than I want to deal with in my daily life, there are two kinds of medicine they use to try to manage the symptoms. One is blood pressure medicines, which the doctor expressed hesitancy with since I have a great low pulse as a runner and really awesomely perfect blood pressure. And personally, messing with the heart and blood flow is not something that sounds great. Then, the doctor said the other option was anti-seizure meds but he wasn't crazy about that plan either.

If it progresses at some point that medicine can't contain the symptoms, there are brain surgery options to try to dull or eliminate the symptoms.

Where Do I Go From Here?

So for now, I'll just deal. I had gone back on caffeine for a few weeks leading up to Fairview Half and since that can make it worse, I'm cutting that back out. I was also told to really work to manage my stress level and get sleep when I can. While awaiting the diagnosis, Steve, Jeremy, and I were all proceeding with making plans for my next 100 mile race since I was given the okay by the neurologist. The tremors might be worse late in the race with the combo of cold, adrenaline, caffeine, fatigue, and lack of sleep, but there's nothing to indicate it's unhealthy or unsafe, just that it may be a bigger annoyance or very uncomfortable.

In the meantime, don't ask me to pour drinks, carry your very full beverage glass, or ask me to take our group selfie (at least if you don't want it to be blurry). And the rest we'll figure out as we go!

After the scary possibilities and grieving my circumstances off and on the last couple weeks, I'm in a good attitude about this diagnosis and glad I did a good job of not putting my life on hold.