Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Tarsal Tunnel Surgery

I see I've had a couple year hiatus on writing, which just so happens to correspond to my two year bout with Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome.

A couple years ago, the arch of my left foot started to hurt when I ran.  It would take four or five miles to develop and downhills would really aggravate it.  I assumed I had injured it and maybe scar tissue had developed, but I also assumed it would get better.  I looked for shoes that would not put pressure on my arch and I continued to run.  Eventually it got to the point where the pain would radiate out of my arch, into my ankle and through my whole foot. The pain continued when I was not running.

Running was not fun anymore, so I finally told my doctor, who referred me to a podiatrist, who gave me a couple cortisone shots, which did not fix anything.  In the meantime, I researched everything I could research, tried every "cure" for whatever it might be and even cut holes in my shoes so they wouldn't aggravate my arch. By this point, the muscle in my arch was visibly enlarged.

During these last two years, my running dwindled.  I withdrew from Mount Mitchell.  I downsized Zion 100K to Zion 50K.  I did a 50K and went home at Black Mountain Monster.  I ran my own 100 mile adventure run, which I quit at 100K.  I withdrew from Georgia Jewel 100. I took a bad fall in my modified shoes, which gave me a nice scar and a bursa on my ACL repaired knee.  My last race was the Naturalist 50K, which was pretty painful.

Finally, I asked for an MRI, which showed small tears deep inside the muscle and that the muscle was partially pulled away from the bone.  My podiatrist had not seen anything like that before and put me in a walking boot for six weeks, which I extended to eight because I could see that the muscle was shrinking some.

Optimistic, I started running back very slowly.  For a month, I did short walk-runs, and then for the next two months gradually built up to a long run of 12 miles.  But it still hurt. I went back to the doctor, who referred me to a foot and ankle surgeon.

On my first visit, after I explained my symptoms and the doctor examined my foot, he immediately suspected tarsal tunnel syndrome, which I had never heard of.  Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome is where the tibial nerve going into your foot is compressed as it goes through the tarsal tunnel, behind and below the ankle.  I was given a nerve study, which quickly confirmed the nerve was in fact compressed.  The only solution was surgery.  I could suck it up and keep running, but there was no telling at which point I would damage the nerve. 

I told the doctor that I had planned to run a 100 at the end of September.  Would I still be able to do that?  He did some math and told me that if four months was enough time to train, then yes, I could.  (One December, Sarah Lowell had called and asked if I wanted to run 100 in two weeks.  I figured that if I could get ready in two weeks, surely four months would be great. Of course, I haven't really run much in the last eight months, or two years, for that matter, so we will see).

As I awaited the surgery date, I did what everyone should not do, and googled pictures of the surgery. (I was going to put one here, but you can just google it if you want.)  Which, of course, made me a bit anxious about what was about to happen and the possibility of me actually running again.  Which was further reinforced by reading horror stories of bad surgery experiences in which the writers wished they had never had the surgery because they were in constant pain. They struggled to walk normally.

In the end, the surgery went well.  They found that the fascia was wrapped really tight in there, and the nerves and blood vessels had formed little balloons from where they could not get through the tunnel.  The surgeon cut open the fascia to release the pressure, moved some tissue around and sewed me back up.

Recovery involved two weeks off work (they had wanted me to miss 6-8 weeks), crutches for about three weeks, then weaning to one crutch and then off.  I could do some upper body work and stationary bike with no resistance (that was pretty exciting).

By my six week check up, I was walking around pretty normally and I was given the green light to start running. But use common sense. (The common sense part was delegated to my husband.)  They did say I wasn't going to mess up anything they did in surgery, so that was a bit of relief, and to expect to have pain for 6-9 months.

Progress pics:

That visit was four weeks ago.  Last weekend, I ran 15 miles (slow with walk breaks) at the Black Mountain Monster.  My foot started hurting around 9 miles, so I changed shoes and did two more laps.  My foot told me at that point it was done running.  Later, though,  I walked three more miles.  My ankle swelled, but after a short walk the next day and an icing in the Nantahala River, it improved. I did a couple short, easy runs and now, a week later, it's back to where it was.

At this point, I've got a  new nasty scar and that whole area feels tight.  I don't know if the pain I get running is from the surgery or if I still have some issue. I'm assuming it's from the surgery, since they did find an issue and fix it. I'm currently in a hunt to find shoes that do not aggravate the scar.(Actually, UPS just showed up with another pair to try. Sorry for all the returns, Running Warehouse and Amazon.)  

Mentally, I get really frustrated with my running, but I have to keep reminding myself that not only did I have the surgery, but I hadn't been running much since I was put in the boot eight months ago.  Patience.   

Thursday, June 2, 2016

If You Can't Stand the Heat, Don't Mess With the Dragon: 2016 Cruel Jewel 56 mle race

The Cruel Jewel got to my head in the month before the race.  I had signed up for the 100 sometime late last year, knowing it would push me to train harder.  Which it would have, had I not also signed up to run Monument Valley six weeks before Cruel Jewel.  Two totally different races required totally different training.  Monument Valley meant lots of relatively flat running and I did not spend much time climbing in the months preceding it.  That left me approximately four weeks of climbing training if I were to factor in recovery from MV and a taper before CJ.

In the meantime, Cruel Jewel psyched me out.  During the long, difficult training runs, I began to lose my desire to suffer for extended periods of time.  (Where else but in an ultra report would a sentence like that even make sense?) If my training runs were nine hours, would I really want to extend them by thirty-one more hours?  Thru-running the Bartram has been my only run over 35 hours, and I predicted CJ would take me more than 40.  I was okay with suffering so much for the Bartram, because I had a goal of being the first to do it, but I couldn't find the motivation to spend 40 plus hours on that terrain for the CJ. If I lacked motivation before the race, I knew a DNF would more than likely be in the cards.  So, I downsized to the 56 miler, still with a respectable 17,000 feet of elevation gain (about the same as the Massanutten, in half the distance).

The start

The race started 20 hours after the 100 milers, at their halfway point at 8 a.m., which I appreciated.  I hate getting up at 4 a.m. to drive to a race start.  (It was bad enough at 7 a.m. at 40 degrees in an open Jeep.) The check-in was very well organized and efficient and the start, like most ultras, very relaxed. (I also appreciate the fact that everything, including my shirt, was already in a bag with my number on it.  So many times I have shown up to check-in, only to find that they are out of my size of shirt.  "But we have women's extra smalls or men's extra larges left."  Really?  I signed up months ago and don't even get a shirt that fits?)

Hit the Road

The first section starts downhill out of Camp Morganton (I love downhill starts) and then follows paved roads to the first aid station.  It was during this section, that my right shoe began to feel not quite right.  I stopped and retied it but then at the aid station, discovered that my insole was not staying in place.  I actually had two in the shoe, a thin flat one under a regular one in an attempt to make the shoe fit better, but the top one kept creeping up and out the back of my shoe.  So I again stopped to deal with my shoe and took the thin insole out.  As a result, at the first aid station, I was already at the very back of the pack.  Well, I was ahead of three people.  I ran the next few miles with one insole in my hand in an attempt to cut down on time if I had to stop and make adjustments.  And I would.  I think I could have knocked another twenty minutes off my time if I didn't have to keep dealing with insoles!

The loop

The next section is a loop that had a lot of runnable terrain, which I ran (despite being advised by a fellow runner, whom I sure meant well, not to wear myself out early in the race. I must have looked like I hadn't done this sort of thing before.)  The trail was not very technical and the loop went by much faster than I expected.

Now the fun starts

After leaving the aid station, the first real climbing starts.  I broke out the trekking poles and headed up the mountain to an intersection with the Benton McKay Trail.  (A word on the trekking poles....I loved my trekking poles!  I used to use them as a hiker, but after putting them away for over a decade, it took awhile to get used to them again and I wondered if they would just end up aggravating me.  But not only were they great on uphills, but helped with balance on downhills and technical sections after I got tired.)  After making a right on the BMT, there was some nice downhill running.  And more downhill running.  And it just kept going.  And the race leaders were heading back up the hill, so I knew there was a lot more downhill left.  (And they looked so darn happy as they were running uphill). There was so much downhill, that I began to wish for uphill.  When I finally reached the aid station at the bottom and turned around, I dreaded the three mile climb back up the hill, but it turned out not to be as bad as I thought it would be.  Maybe that's why the leaders were happy. It felt a lot steeper coming down than it did going up.  When I reached the top, I ran on some nice rolling terrain down to the next aid station.

On the road again

This section started out nicely, on a dirt road, downhill, in the shade, which was a nice break from trail.  But soon, it turned to pavement, and while much of it was rolling and runnable, it was getting hot.  I took lots of walk breaks in the shaded areas and eventually reached Shackleford Bridge.  (It was across the street here that Tony and I worked an aid station the first year the race was held.    The race was MUCH smaller then, and I think we only saw two runners come through during our shift.)  The course then follows the river on a road and takes a sharp left, back onto trail, and back to steep climbing again.  My legs and body were not pleased with this turn of events, so I stopped for a minute to use my inhaler, take a 5-hour energy, adjust the darn insole and eat something. I continued climbing, which did not last for too long, and then descended into the next aid station.

A word on nutrition...

Tailwind sponsored this event, and despite my recent reliance on GU liquid Roctane, I decided that it would be a whole lot easier not to have to carry all that powder and simply use the Tailwind.  I bought some prior to the race to test it out on my stomach and it was agreeable.  The orange flavor was good and that was what they had at the aid stations.  But by this point in the race, it was too much.  It seemed to work fine energy-wise and stomach-wise, but my mouth started wishing I had some plain water instead of that somewhat salty flavor.  I dumped it and drank plain water until the next aid station, where I had my drop bag and Roctane.  I used the liquid Roctane the rest of the way and felt great.  The flavor did not bother me and my energy level stayed steady.  I combined it with a shot of Roctane gel every hour and never felt hungry, so I didn't need anything at aid stations.  Both my tummy and my mouth were happy.  I think I would be good with Tailwind for shorter periods of time, but I am really, really happy with my Roctane combination for long runs.  It has taken years to figure out what works for me.  I used it at MV and it worked well, but here I went without solid food for over 19 hours and still was not hungry when I finished.

And that's the end of the rolling stuff

After that aid station, the terrain involved many more steep climbs and descents.  Some of the climbs were really unpleasant and I took several short breaks here and there.  But I felt okay on the downhills and continued  the same steady pattern for the rest of the race.  The last half of the race was difficult, but was not as difficult as I imagined it.  Of course, if I had already run 75 miles on it, it would have been extremely difficult, but after only 25, I still felt good. I was enjoying the ridge tops and the cool breeze from the incoming cold front.

Wilscot Gap Aid

All the aid stations were great.  They were not out of anything when I went through, as is sometimes the case in races.  The volunteers were encouraging and helpful and I left every aid station with everything I needed.  They filled my water for me and fought to get it back in my pack. Even though they were busy, I was never ignored.  Wilscot aid station was the only drop bag location (another difficulty of CJ), so I spent a little extra time there digging through my bag.  Throughout my time there, the volunteers were getting me things, mixing my Roctane with the water they got for me, offering me wet wipes (was that a hint?) and body glide, making suggestions and giving me the great advice to go ahead and change into the new shoes I had stuck in the bag even though they only had a few miles on them.  My feet were very happy the last half of the race, especially since I no longer had to deal with insole issue.

The Dragon

For much of the remainder of the race, you are on the Dragon's Spine, a series of sharp uphills and downhills (hence the name).   Okay, to be honest, I don't really know where it started since it seemed most of the course was up and down, but I am assuming it was somewhere around here.  The course was very pretty up on the ridges, with abundant, healthy poison ivy lining the trail, alternating with ferns and may apples. It was somewhere in this section that Ray from Ohio, who was finishing the 100 mile, joined me.  Unlike all the other 100 milers I passed at this point, Ray could still run downhill just fine and was good with my slow uphill pace.  He was good company and kept me from any whining or complaining or thinking that I was doing any suffering.  After all, he already had 50 miles and twenty hours on me.  He also gave his long-sleeved shirt to a runner who was dehydrated and shivering, which exemplifies what makes ultras so special.

The last climb

We finally came to the last manned aid station. (The workers joked that they had seen our lights approaching and moved it up the road another mile.  "Do you know how hard it is to move an aid station that far?").  I think there might have been some Horton miles involved in that section.   Anyway, I was dreading the next and last climb up Coosa Bald. My only experience with Coosa was from the other side during the Death Race and I remembered a long hard climb.  The elevation profile at the aid station looked a little scary so I headed out expecting a lot of vertical.  When we got on the trail, it was uphill, but not too steep.  Ray remarked that he was good with the grade, at which point, of course, the grade became significantly steeper.  But then it eased up and there were actually a couple of little flat sections.  By now, the wind was howling and I am sure the wind chill was below zero.  My hands were numb from the cold and I kept moving as fast as I could to get up and over the top. I know Ray was cold without that extra layer he gave away.  We started heading downhill pretty quickly and I kept waiting for the last hard climb, but apparently it was not as long or hard as I thought and we were actually on the last long three mile downhill.  Here on this section, we passed a lot of people who were suffering pretty badly, 100 milers, I assumed.  There was not a lot of downhill running going on and there was some crying.  I know that feeling well (it's hard to run and sob at the same time) and was very thankful I was still feeling great at this point.

The End

The last 3.7 miles are mainly uphill, another cruelty of the CJ.  But a good bit of it was gradual and runnable and I was surprised that I and especially Ray were actually still running.  We finally hit Vogel State Park, still running and crossed the finish line sometime after 3 a.m...  Ray got his huge buckle and I got a very cool coffee mug.  Inside the warm cabin next to the finish, there was a lot of food being served by Leigh Saint and a lot of people enjoying it.  I was not at all hungry and was in a bit of hurry to get into our doorless Jeep for the 45 degree ride back to the hotel.  And instead of going to sleep at the hotel and waiting for my call, Tony had been waiting at the finish for me for a very long time and we were both exhausted.


For the last couple years, I haven't done many races and the ones I have done, I have been at the back of the pack.  In this race, it was hard to tell where I was, but I assumed with my slow but steady start, I was again at the back of the pack from the first aid station on.  I passed a lot of people in the last half of the race and assumed they were mainly 100 milers.  But to my surprise, I ended up finishing in the middle of the pack and fifth in the women's race. I felt good all day and the race restored a bit of confidence in myself as a runner.  I was a little afraid I would be disappointed that I did not do the 100, but no, I'm good. Well, for a couple of days I felt like I had been hit by a truck, but other than that I was good.

A week later, I was applying IvaRest liberally on my legs, stomach, hip, jaw and nose.  No, I did not roll around in the poison ivy at any point.  But I know it was on my poles and shoes and I guess I got the oil on my hands and then transferred it everywhere else.  Lesson learned:  be careful blowing snot rockets and using the restroom after exposure to poison ivy!

I ran three days later, fully expecting to feel horrible, but I actually felt great.  Granted, it was only a three mile trail run, but it felt really good. 

I would highly recommend any race directed by the Saints (  They are great people and their events are so well-organized and thought out.  If you aren't up for a lot of climbing, but like running in circles, try Merrill's Mile.  If you are okay with a little climbing and and little circles, try 12 or 24 hours of Hostelity. And if you just aren't quite right, the Cruel Jewel is for you, either the 56 or 106 mile options, depending on just how not right you are.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Into the Sandbox: Monument Valley 50 mile

In the past couple of years, I have stopped racing for the sake of racing. Instead of doing several races a year, I have done only a couple, preferring to spend the money on races that allow me to see new and interesting places. Running lets you experience a place in a way far more intimate than simply visiting an area. Races let you access areas you might never have gone on your own, use trails you didn’t know existed and see sights that you would never see from the car. After I run a long race in an area, I feel like I know the “place” and have a connection with it. 

This year’s first installment in my ultra-tourism was Monument Valley 50 miler. Ultra Adventures, the same people who put on Zion 100, hosted this race and had worked with the Navajo people to let runners into areas that are normally off limit to the public or accessible only with a Navajo accompanying you. As the date of the race grew near, I debated making the trip, but in the end, of course, I was glad I did.

We ended up flying into Denver so we could spend a couple days in Moab before the race. I am not sure long runs on slickrock on Thursday and Friday, while Tony biked, was all that great of an idea. But then again, I only wanted to be well ahead of cutoffs so I could actually enjoy the race.

We managed to get a last minute-cancellation at The View Hotel, the only hotel on the reservation, and “The View” was spectacular. In addition, the race started and ended at the hotel and since there was nothing within 20 miles or so of the reservation, this was a luxury. When we arrived, I picked up my shirt, hat and bib, bought another shirt and a piece of jewelry from Zion 100, that I ran last year.  The packet pick-up was inside a traditional Navajo hogan and we were treated to Navajo dancing and flute playing.

The race started at sunrise and after a very brief run on a dirt road, entered the sandbox. I knew there would be a lot of sand, but I did not expect so much of the race to be in the soft sand. In the first few miles, I began to get very concerned. If that was what I would contend with all day, I would be hard pressed to make the cutoffs and I really didn’t want to have to drop down to the 50K. But still, I remained positive and thankful that I was allowed to be running where I was. That was reinforced when I passed an older Navajo man who was taking pictures of the runners passing through. The sun was peaking around one of the formations, and I remarked to him that it was a beautiful day. Yes, it was, he said, because you (referring to the runners) have blessed it.

Shortly after, there was a fairly short steep downhill in deep sand. It reminded me of running downhill in the snow, except at the bottom I had to make what would be the first of several stops to dump sand out of my shoes. Gaiters did not help much, as the sand was so fine that it permeated the fabric of my shoes. (The next couple times I wore those shoes, despite having dumped the sand out, I still ended up leaving little piles of sand on the floor). 

Thankfully, I had a brief respite from the deep sand as the course began to follow a ledge overlooking the valley below. The views in all directions were beautiful, but too soon, we dropped down into the valley, into the deep sand and to the first aid station. 

In the next section, the course cut across that valley floor back to the “mittens”. Starting here, I would have many times where I would not see the people in front of me or behind me and had the feeling of running alone in the desert. I never used my iPod during the race and instead listened to the wind and sounds around me. I came upon two Navajo on horses, who, before I left, made sure I was carrying enough water with me.

The section after aid station two was the “worst” section of the race. Worst is relative, because despite the difficulty, the scenery made up for the struggle. In this section, you followed a wide, flat, sandy wash. The sun was high and there was no shade. The wind helped some, but also stirred up the dust. Running was difficult, but I tried to alternate running and walking. It was on this section I was finally in the desert with a horse with no name…

The wash ended and a trek up the main dirt (sand) road through the valley led to the Hogan aid station, which would serve as the aid station for the remainder of the race. There was quite a bit of traffic and other runners from the other races on the road, but the dusty running did not last too long.
Three loops started and ended at the aid station, each going through different terrain. These loops were much better than the Zion loops, which just seemed to meander through the same area. Here, the first loop took you took a beautiful view and then at the base of some formations and then back to the aid station. The second loop was the most difficult to run, but the most interesting. You ran through a lot of soft, deep sand, but passed by big sand dunes and several arches.

The third and final loop takes you up onto Mitchell Mesa. After leaving the desert floor, you follow a little narrow trail zig zagging through a scree field to the top of the mesa. The views into the canyon below were beautiful, particularly in the late afternoon sun. At the top of the mesa, you run along the edge to the end and all along the way are beautiful views down into the valley. You look down on the Mittens and mesas, which became even more beautiful as the sun sank lower. I kind of wished I had gotten there later to see them at sunset, but I also didn’t want to run back down that steep rocky trail at night. So back down I went.

It was getting dark when I got back to the valley floor, but before long I found Tony on the trail waiting for me. He ran back with me to the aid station for the final pass, right at dark. I grabbed a cookie and headed to the finish. The aid station had had a variety of food earlier in the day, but I did something a bit different for nutrition. Instead of using gels and whatever the aid stations had, I used liquid GU Roctane for my main source of calories. The only thing to this point I had eaten at the aid stations was some avocado and orange slices.

 The last segment of the race followed the valley road back to the hotel. I was glad I was slow enough to run this at night. I didn’t need a light for the most part because the moon lit up the road and the surrounding desert. The mesas were illuminated and it was quiet, except for the occasional vehicle and the faint voices of the people running ahead of and behind me. 

I finished right around 9pm, and Tony, luckily was able to get me a to-go order from the restaurant that was closing. (If I had finished later, it would have been a long hungry night, since the food stations at the finish had been broken down earlier in the evening.) The finish itself was rather anti-climactic, but as I wandered back to the hotel room, I appreciated the fact that they didn’t hold the 100 miler this year and I was able to take a shower and sleep, rather than running around all night. I had thoroughly enjoyed the race, but was glad to be done. 

And an update on my parasite:  It is roughly the two year anniversary of me adopting my parasite on the AT and I haven't written about it, so here's an update in a nutshell.  The first year I had frequent nausea, lack of appetite, and low energy.  My doctor sent me to a specialist, who didn't really believe I had picked something up in the water.  So, he ordered a series of tests (all unrelated to parasites), all of which came back negative.  I was still sick and when, after the completion of the tests, he scheduled me for a  4-6 week follow-up with no further addressing of my issue, I said good-bye to conventional medicine. I did intensive research for everything giardia related and came up with a mixture of  alternative medicines, which appeared to work.  I felt better for a couple of months, but when the symptoms came back, I went back to regiment and stayed on it for two months.  Since then I have sporadic episodes, but they are farther and farther apart and last for shorter periods of time. So, I haven't raced much and I certainly haven't written much.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

If I Only Had Twenty More Miles. The Naturalist 50K

Welcome back, said the Bartram this past weekend. It had been awhile since I had run any on the trail; sometime last winter. I usually avoid it during the summer because it gets overgrown, especially
with blackberries and poison ivy. During Cross Country season, my team will go there from time to time, but ironically, we had only been there once, the day before I was to run a race on it. I gave them a choice of which trail to run that afternoon and they chose the Bartram. So much for any sort of rest or tapering.

Not that I had anything to taper from. After Zion 100, I once again dealt with my parasite troubles off and on and I chose to kind of do a reset during the summer. I started running very slowly, at my MAF heart rate, and since I was so slow, I didn’t get very far on any long runs. When I did try to run long, for some reason the air quality really kicked in my asthma this year and I would just feel very out of shape (when in reality I wasn’t getting oxygen). And then once school started, between teaching and coaching, I hadn’t had much time for my own running and certainly hadn’t considered signing up for any races.

A while back, I had met with Cory and Rob from Outdoor 76, who had dreamt up a race that would start at their shop on Main Street, Franklin and end at the top of Wayah Bald, which you can see from their shop, at an elevation of 5.342 feet. The race would be a 25K and involve, with all the ups and downs on the route, an elevation gain of 7,000 feet. I thought it was a great idea, but imagined a lot of carnage. That stretch of the Bartram is one brutal climb after another and it plays mental games with you as the climbs and descents seem never-ending. But of course, the question that came immediately to my mind is, “What about those of us who would want to turn around and run back down for a 50K?” I am not sure they really thought anyone would want to turn around and do that again, but they took a gamble and sure enough, there are enough crazy people around who would want to do that.

Several months later, The NaturalistEpic 25K/50K inaugural race was held. I was supposed to be out of town for the race and wasn’t too upset over not being able to run it (see paragraph 2), but I wanted to be around to see how it went. It was going to be the first large-scale ultra in Franklin and it was going to be, as the name said, epic. Then a week before the race, I learned that I was actually going to be in town and could run it. I hesitated before signing up (see paragraph 2), but then figured I could probably hit the cutoffs and it would be fun to be involved, even if I ended up curled into a ball beside the trail.

I picked up my race packet the night before at the shop and got a really nice North Face race shirt, a Salomon hat and shoe bag, a ticket for a free beer and other assorted sundries. The race director gave me drop bags to use, which he labeled for me. A full-service ultra. 

Race swag plus some other cool stuff that came in the mail
The next morning, unfortunately, it was raining and would rain all day long. It was great weather to run in, but the beautiful views from Wayah would disappear in the fog and all those volunteers would be out in the nasty weather. And there were a lot of volunteers, not only at aid stations, but at all trail intersections and even some out roaming the trail, making sure everyone was okay.

But back to the race. Sixty-some people showed up to run both races and gathered on Main Street for the typically low-key ultra-start. Now, I haven’t run a 50K in a few years. I forgot that the start of a 25K/50K is nothing like a 100 miler. When Cory said go, all the runners were off, running, what seemed to me, a 5K race pace on the initial 3.5 mile road run. I don’t think I could have hung with them, even if I wanted to, so I hung out with the bikers in the back who were acting as sweeps, until I finally started passing some people who had figured out that they started out too fast. 

Blood Log
The first aid station marks the start of the single-track and was fully loaded with food, drink, volunteers, and people cheering runners on. I was glad to be off the road and as soon as I stepped onto the trail, I felt the “welcome back.” This is what I knew. This is the section that I run in the winter at least once a week and when I was rehabbing my ACL, before I was allowed to run, I would come here every day, working on strength and speed.

After an initial, “Hello, look at this beautiful waterfall,” the trail climbs steadily for a mile or so, then becomes more runnable for another mile before it starts an extremely steep uphill section, which ends at Blood Log. Okay, I am the only one who knows it as Blood Log. Others probably have a legit name, like Wilkes Knob. But one winter day, I was running to Wayah, experimenting with a set of brand-new trekking poles I had won at Merrill’s Mile. When I hit the top of the climb, I collapsed them so I could run downhill. But I cut my finger pretty deeply in the process and bled profusely all over that log as I fumbled for a band aid in of my pack. The band-aid didn’t do much of anything, but right around the corner I found two hunters sitting on a log, one of whom gave me a handkerchief to wrap around it so I could continue on with my run.

But back to the trail. The trail gives you a bit of a break with a nice downhill, but then heads steeply back uphill, then steeply back downhill, then steeply back uphill… you get the picture. This is abnormal steepness, hand pushing on quads type of steepness, no switchback steepness. The downhills, at least for me, are not much faster than the uphills, because they tend to be more of a controlled slide. And it was raining. All day long. Normally this section is also overgrown, turkeys make huge piles of leaves in the trail from scratching the banks and there are jumbles of tree limbs to crawl through. But this time, the trail was immaculate. The brush was cut way back away from the trail and the race directors had even installed nice mile markers all along the way. I joked with them that I wanted my money back because I actually had to step over a little log at one point.

Photo by Mark Zemmin

The next aid station, at 9 miles, is at Harrison Gap. There I was greeted by running buddies working the aid station along with my husband, Tony. The aid station was fully stocked with lots of goodies, but I just grabbed part of a banana and continued onto the next section, which would end at Wayah, at mile 15. For a description of the next couple of miles, just refer to the previous paragraph. Eventually the trail just heads up, with no more of the downhill nonsense, until it intersects with a forest road leading to Wayah Bald. You spend a little time on the road, then hit the turn-around aid station and retrace your steps. Up to this point, I had felt okay but was getting pretty cold from the rain and my quads felt almost dead. I had a dry shirt in my drop bag, which improved the cold issue and headed back down, hoping the dead quad issue would resolve itself somehow. Again, it was raining (I may have mentioned that), so no one knew that there was a beautiful view from that aid station.

What the view from Wayah normally looks like

The downhills on the way back were a little more tricky. Because it had rained all day there were numerous slick spots, but I managed to stay upright. That was my goal for the long downhill section- to not break, pull or tear anything. Once we got back to the uphill/downhill miles, my legs seemed to remember what it is they are good at. Steady climbing. I had lots of energy and moved a lot better than I had on the way out. I figured out when I got back to the Harrison Gap aid station, that I was the last 50K’er, that the people I had passed on the way out were running the 25K. I was okay with that. (See paragraph. 2.) Okay, so I wasn’t really okay with that.

After Harrison Gap, more uphills were ahead. But I had a lot of energy and continued to move really well. I was enjoying the trail, even in the rain, and the fall leaves on the ground were beautiful. As I continued to push hard, I passed one person, then two, then three. (Sigh. If I only had twenty more miles left in the race, I think I could have passed several more.) I flew down the final section of trail, which I know like the back of my hand, trying to stay out of last place.

But here I was at the last aid station with the road section ahead. The first part of the road section is very rural, with little traffic. Then you hit a very busy section, on a blind hill and curve with no place to run besides in the road. In the morning, there had been a law enforcement escort, but with runners so spread out, it wasn’t an option on the way back. I had been pretty worried about this section, but the race directors had thought this through, along with every other aspect of the race. As I hit the main road, they had vehicles waiting to follow you with hazard lights until you got safely onto the sidewalk on the other side of the hill. I am not sure how local townsfolk felt about the hold-up, but all runners got back safe and sound.

As an added bonus, one of my senior cross country runners had left her soccer game to come run this final section with me, which was a very nice distraction and a fun way to finish the race. I figured I would be passed again before I hit the finish, but there was no on in sight. I guess those last two miles of the trail I could fly down were my home-field advantage.

Photo from Macon County News, Brittney Raby
The finish was downtown, where we started, and waiting was Tony and the winner of the race, my former student, runner, and adventure race partner, Daniel Hamilton, who finished the race about the time I turned around on Wayah. He’s that fast, and I was that slow! One of my former runners, Allison Jameson finished 4th in the 25K, one of my runner’s moms, Carolyn Tait, finished 3rd in the 50K, RD Cory McCall was a former Franklin runner, so there was a nice XC theme going on. Out on the course, I saw former students and current students, both volunteering and running the race.

And there was great after-party going on. A band was playing under a tent (it was still raining), people were everywhere enjoying the afternoon (and the beer). There was lasagna for the runners and volunteers and a chili cook off had been held earlier. I think all of Franklin’s outdoor community had been involved in one way or another and most of them had gathered here as the race winded down.
I was really glad I was able to run the race and despite some prejudice for my hometown course, I think it was truly one of the best organized races I have run. I felt very taken care of, from start to finish. Register early for this beautiful and challenging race, because it will sell out next year!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Return to the Hundred: Zion

After running the North Fork 50K in Colorado a couple years ago, I discovered that my asthma
and altitude did not mix. I didn’t look at any other races in the west, because most of the ones I wanted to run were at higher altitudes. But after a trip to Moab in November, I began looking for a desert race and found the Grand Circle series directed by Matt Gunn. It's a pretty amazing series, where you run in places such as Bryce Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Grand Canyon and the place that fit my schedule, Zion.

I really didn’t have any business signing up for a hundred, after hosting giardia for almost a year and only running one race because of it in 2014. And I hadn’t run a hundred since Vermont in 2013. But the draw of ultra-tourism is strong. Where else could I get a 34 hour tour of the desert, complete with snacks and drinks along the way? So one little click on ultrasignup and I was in.

Training did not go particularly well, with a hamstring pull eight weeks out from the race. On the bright side, if you are down with an injury for three weeks at that point, you don’t have to worry about that annoying taper when you have nothing to taper from. And I threw that whole idea of resting before the race out the window, too. We might only be in the area once and I spent the days before the race running, hiking and exploring.

So on race day, I was the least prepared for a race that I have ever been. But I really wanted that pretty buckle and would keep moving until they made me quit. 

Here are some highlights:

The course:  Is mainly flatish roads and trails that connect mesas.  You climb up the mesa, run a loop on the top over slickrock, run back down and head towards the next mesa.  The last 24 miles is a series of loops in the desert.

The ups and downs. Although the race only has 10,000 feet of elevation gain, a lot of it is concentrated in a few very steep climbs (and descents). The initial climb and descent of the Flying Monkey mesa (1200 feet per mile) involved a segment in which a rope was necessary. The climb up Gooseberry was exceptionally steep, (1500 feet in a mile) on loose sand and gravel. One segment was pretty scary, where a misplaced foot would send you tumbling down into the valley. And the descent back down Gooseberry was a semi-controlled slide in the dark on tired legs. 

Dust. Lots of long dusty roads and trails. My lungs hurt and two days later, I am still coughing up the desert.

Slickrock. Despite it being a hard, clean surface, it is anything but flat and smooth. Constant speed bumps, humps, hills, holes, ridges, sharp dips make it very difficult to run with any rhythm. I thought it would really pound me and annoy me, but I liked it. You stick to almost vertical surfaces and certainly don't get bored.

Running on top of mesas. There were long sections run along the very edge of cliffs which drop down into the valley floor a couple thousand feet below. If you got distracted and didn't watch where you were going, you wouldn't have to worry about doing it again. Beautiful views, though, which leads to…

Lots of time eaten up with picture taking. If a good chunk of the race hadn't been in the dark, I might have missed the cutoff. The desert is pretty fascinating when you live in a rainforest. Of course, everything was beautiful the first day. The next day, not so much.

Weather. In the seventies with a breeze. Sounds nice, but full sun, no shade, no haze makes it pretty hot. Then the night got very cold (especially with sunburn) and I was shivering with four shirts on right before sunrise. Then very hot again, to the point where I crossed the finish line with heat exhaustion.

Favorite parts of race. The steep climb up Gooseberry (despite the difficulty, the view continued to get better and better) and the running on the slickrock and cliffs of Gooseberry and Guacamole mesas. Grafton was probably pretty, too, but it was dark when I ran it. 

Least favorite. The Virgin desert loops. If they hadn't been the last 24 miles of the race, they may have been fine, but three different loops through the desert when I was ready to be finished were monotonous. On each loop, I could see the aid station where I was trying to get to, but the trails kept leading me farther away.

Most challenging for me. A lot of relatively flat terrain, which I am not good at. I like climbing and descents, but the majority of the race was little tiny ups and downs, very runnable, but hard to get a rhythm on.

My race. At the beginning, it seemed like I was passed by everyone, and it has been so long since I have run a hundred, I forget that I catch back up with a lot of them later. (See squirrel story below). It was pretty demoralizing, but when we finally got to Gooseberry and more technical sections, I started passing a lot of people. I passed even more on the technical downhill on Grafton Mesa. At the third Gooseberry aid station, there were seventy some people still out there behind me. I would end up getting passed off and on during the death march segment on the loops, but by that point, I knew I would finish and it didn’t bother me. I ended up finishing 107 out of 185ish starters in 31:45. Which proves that stubbornness and persistence can overcome many physical shortcomings.

Squirrel! When I was coming down off Guacamole, I was feeling pretty low, thinking I was I at the very back of the pack (and I well may have been), when a rather large squirrel started to cross the road in front of me. He changed his mind when a vehicle came up behind me and he turned around and waddled back over the edge. The driver stopped next to me and told me that that was my spirit animal. Great, I said. This means I am going to be running back and forth across the road all day. No, he said, it means you will finish because the squirrel saves up everything for later. At first, I was even more demoralized. I must be somewhere near DFL and this was meant to encourage me. But then I took it as he meant it and carried on with my slow but steady forward progress.

My crew. Since we didn't know the area, I tried not to rely on Tony coming to aid stations. We rented a mountain bike for a couple of days and I hoped he would spend his time riding. He did ride some, but he also surprised me by coming to see me a few times. Best of all he did the last long, hot Virgin desert loop with me and it was very nice to have a distraction at that point.

Swag.  A shirt and a hat, a custom-made wood-fired pizza, and a buckle made from items found along the course.  

Verdict. This was one of the better organized races I have been to and I am glad to support a race director who gives back to the community. The course was beautiful and well-marked, the time of year perfect, and everyone I met was cheerful and helpful. Everything seemed to run smoothly and my only "complaint" was the aid stations ran out of soda by the time I got there (and I really hoped for a hamburger along the way). In the end, despite my swearing in the middle of the night I would never run it again, nor another hundred and in fact 5Ks were starting to sound good, I would go back and do it again.