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.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Table Rock 50 Miler

Even though I am still working on recovering from my parasite issues, I had a little confidence boost after I finished NAR.  I haven't run a race all year because of those issues, so on a whim, I signed up for the Table Rock 50 miler two weeks before the race.  I decided that since I was pretty busy with work and coaching, I would just wing this run.  In other words, I set aside my obsessive compulsive behavior and limited my preparation to throwing  a bunch of stuff in my pack and quickly reading through the website.  I gathered that it was a brand new out and back course with a lot of technical single track and climb, which was fine by me.  I paid no attention to cutoffs, aid station distances, course descriptions and figured it would all work out in the end.

Tony and I drove up the night before and stayed in Morganton.  At 4:45 am, I remembered why I don't really like organized races.  They start so darned early!  Hellgate and Grindstone have start times much more to my liking.  Anyway, I wrote down the address of the start, plugged it into the GPS, which then guided us three miles past the start.  There was supposed to a sign at the entrance, but a small sign on the opposite side of the road in the dark was easily missed.  In fact, we missed it again when we turned around and I got to the start 5 minutes before the race began. (If I had been in my OCD mode, I would have had a meltdown.)  Now to be fair, there was a gigantic billboard pointing the way to the campground, but since I did a quick read through of the directions, I wasn't really sure if that was the right place or not.

I got my bib on, dropped my drop bag and went to the start, where a small group of people were gathered.  After a few words about the pink and black flagging we were supposed to see every 3-5 minutes, the RDs sent us off in the dark.  Wayne and I decided to start off together and see how it went.

The course leaves the campground, runs through an open field and then heads onto single track in the woods.  (Let me insert a pet peeve here.  Please do not wear a flashing red light on the back of your headlamp or hat.  While that is an excellent idea if you are by yourself, it just annoys all the people running behind you in an ultra.)  Everyone was in a tight pack, moving along, when all of a sudden people began shouting and turning around. Was there a bear?  Was someone hurt?  No, we had right off the bat missed a turn. We all backtracked, found the right trail and restarted.

The first half mile or so was muddy, eroded uphill single track which emptied out into a field.  After crossing the field, you followed rolling double track, with some tall grass for three or so miles to the first road crossing.  After that crossing, you ran on technical rocky single track to the first stream crossing, which was blocked by two gigantic logs. We clambered over the slippery logs into the creek (a foot deep or so), back onto single track to the first aid station.

The aid station workers weren't quite sure how far it was to the next one, but no matter.  I got two bottles of water and had plenty of calories in my pack, so I would just get to be aid station when I got there.   The route was on gravel road, first sharply downhill, then gradually up to the next road crossing. Somewhere in the middle of this section, we took a slight detour down the wrong path, but figured it out pretty quickly.

The gravel road ends at a busy paved road, which you follow for a quarter mile or so before getting on another gravel road. This road went sharply downhill before crossing a bridge, turning right and becoming level and then up again to the next aid attain.  Wayne and I were alternating walking and running and were making good progress but then saw a group quickly catching up with us.  I told Wayne they must have gotten off course, because they were moving much much faster than the people in my part of the pack normally move. Sure enough, they had missed the turn off the road and got three or so bonus miles in.

At the next aid station, I was the third female to come through which would have made me feel good, except I knew that people had missed turn and would be coming up behind us.  Anyway, Wayne and I continued our walk/run up the mountain, feeling good.  The road section eventually ends and you are back on rocky, technical single track and we moved well through that, until we got to the river crossing.  They call it a creek, but it was wide and fast moving and I don't have much confidence in my balance since the knee surgery.  I carefully picked my way across, which gave Wayne plenty of time to cool off in the water while he waited.  Back onto single track again, which started a relentlessly steep uphill climb, finally coming to a gravel road and the next aid station.  It was high up and pretty chilly, but the aid station worker assured us we would be dropping down into the woods where it would be warmer.  These were words we did not want to hear.  We knew we had to get to the top of Table Rock to the turnaround, so downhill meant even more uphill.  Not having paid too much attention to the course description, we assumed that the next aid station would be near the top of Table Rock.

We dropped down on double track, crossed a creek three times and then started down switchbacks to a gorge.  The trail became really technical and slow, but the waterfalls in the gorge were beautiful. Finally we started back up.  Really, really steeply up.  After we hit the top, we came upon an aid station, where we became really confused since we were not at the top of Table Rock.  Here we learned that the course was actually 54 miles and we still had a ways to go to the halfway point.  Four miles doesn't normally seem like a big deal, but when you are slowly crawling uphill, that's another hour added on.  We grabbed some food and ran off feeling pretty down, thinking we were almost there when in fact we weren't.  We started seeing retuning runners, mainly 50k runners.  Eventually we came out on a gravel road briefly and then started another long extremely steep climb  which thankfully ended on  Table Rock.  The views there were outstanding, but the fact that we were at 7 1/2 hours on a course with a 15 hour cutoff made for a quick look.  And we still had to make a side trip to the aid station to get to our drop bags.

On the way back, we were moving strong and passed some people.  However, when we came back to the aid station where it was so cold, we had missed the aid station cutoff.  Our options were to wait there until we got picked up or wait until the sweep caught us.  We kept going, but I have never been caught by a sweep and I while I might get pulled at the next aid station,  I was NOT going to be caught by a sweep.  (I envisioned a deep woods version of tag or hide and seek.) Again, we moved really well, passed a couple more people and hammered the downhill on the gravel road.  They didn't pull us at that aid station, nor at the next one. We finished in 15:30 and the RDs did count us as finishers.I got a great hoodie and 1st place award in my age group (because the top three women overall had been in my age group).

My overall impression of the race was good.  The RDs and volunteers were very helpful, the swag was the best I've had in a long time and I loved the course.  It was hard, technical and the creek crossings guaranteed wet feet the whole time.  But it was very pretty and had some gravel road thrown in for a bit of a break.  The aid station food was good and I wasn't left wanting anything.

The last half of the race was not as enjoyable because I was frustrated with the cutoffs and running from sweeps.  The only cutoff I have missed in 11 years has been at mile 42 at Hellgate (twice, due to snow and ice).  But at Hellgate, I knew I was moving slow.  Here I was moving well and felt really good.  I hope they will adjust the cutoffs a little or this will be a race for fast runners.  I didn't have trouble with the course markings, except at one place, but others did, so I am sure those tricky spots will be addressed.  One other thing I really needed was crew directions to the one place crew access was allowed.  Maybe they were somewhere on the website and I am sure that if I had asked, someone would have given me them, but it would have been nice to have a printout stuck in my packet. 

Speaking of packets, thank-you RDs for sticking my shirt (which is now my favorite running shirt) inside the packet.  I cannot tell you how many times I have showed up to a race for which I had preregistered and  they have run out of my size or out of shirts totally.  And thank-you for the women's cut. I like shirts I can actually wear!

Final thoughts.  I will be back next year, even if they do not adjust the cutoffs.  I would come back next month if they wanted to put it on again.

Photos are from the Table Rock Ultras Facebook page.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Nantahala Adventure Run 2014

I was going to start out this post with a long dissertation about how 2014 has sucked for me, running-wise, between injuries and parasites, but I since I finally get to write a post about running, rather than NOT running, that's where I am headed with this.

In the middle of all of my parasite/running drama this summer, several WNC runners came to run the loop that Alan, Brian and I had set out to run at midnight one December.  (I had concocted a "challenging" 100K in my backyard, consisting of what would become known as the Nantahala Adventure Run, plus an additional 6 miles to make sure it was 100K.  In this version, had we finished,  we would have finished with the long, steep climb from the Nantahala Outdoor Center up to Tellico. We instead stopped at the base of Cheoah in a cold drizzle, not having much fun at all.) Anyway, here in the summer of 2014, I was not yet able to join in on the run, but crewed instead up at Tellico.  Some of the runners opted out midway through in the July heat and humidity and two of those runners, Mohammad and Wayne agreed to come run a do-over with me when I was ready.

We set a date in September and as it grew closer I continued to have the same doubts I have had for the last year or so.  I am not ready.  I have only been training for six weeks.  I am not completely well. This is over double my longest long run.  I haven't run this far since November 2013. My knee hurts a lot.  I have DNS'ed three races.  There's no way I can do this.  I don't think I can do ultras anymore. And on and on.

While I was busy tearing myself down, I was trying to find an elevation profile of the loop online to figure out the easiest direction and starting point.  I clicked on a link and it was the article about the Bartram Trail in Blue Ridge Outdoors, which mentioned me as the first person to through-run the Bartram.  I thought, you know, I shouldn't have been able to accomplish that, either.  I had been sick for a couple of weeks, was still sick when I started and ended up hobbling the last 18 miles injured.  But I did it.  After thinking on that for a bit, I decided that my goal really had nothing to do with running around this 58 mile loop.  I wanted to be the same runner I used to be, who didn't overthink things and just went out and ran. Who didn't have a training plan or count miles. Who liked to do the hard things, simply because they were hard, rather than being afraid I couldn't do them. 

And so at 5:12 a.m., Wayne and I (and the yodeling pickle) set out from Appletree Campground, with Mohammed following about an hour later.  The trail was overgrown and my legs soon looked like I had run the Barkley from all the blackberry cuts on them.  The yodeling pickle provided comic relief whenever I ducked under a blowdown and my packed brushed up against the tree, setting him off.  It was foggy and humid and by the time we started up Cheoah my energy was draining.  Mohammed caught us near the top and we we shared a mile or so before parting ways, providing a nice distraction.  On the way down, I was still dragging but Wayne kept waiting for me and then Sarah showed up, keeping us company and mentally occupied.  Once at the NOC, she helped us get a hamburger and although I spent more time there than I intended, it turned everything around.  Thank-you, Sarah!

 I felt great heading up Tellico, where Tony was waiting, which of course cheered me up even more.  Wayne was having some overheating issues, but a little time at a creek turned him around too.  The climb out of Tellico felt okay and was not much slower than I usually climb it, even though it was about 30 miles into the run. The only downside was the song Drunk on a Plane continued to play in my head.  I wasn't feeling bad, but is wasn't exactly Mardi Gras in the clouds at that point either.

We hit Burningtown Gap right before dark and at the overlook just beyond it, stood for a bit watching a huge bank of clouds with bolts of lightening flashing through it .  It was one of the prettiest storms I have seen.  Of course, I had dropped my rainjacket with Tony, because the Weather Channel assured us there was zero percent chance of rain.

It was pitch black when we hit Wayah, where we were treated to a beautiful view of the lights of Franklin below and the stars and the Milky Way above.  We started painfully downhill to the lake ( I fell three or four times because it was so steep and I was no longer moving my feet as fast as I should have been).  We finally hit the lake and shuffled on towards Appletree, alternating walking and running.   20 hours 59 minutes and 15 seconds after we started, we arrived back at our cars. Mohammed had finished under 18 hours and the three of us joined the short list of runners to through run the NAR.

My knee didn't hurt.  I was still running at the end.  I was slow, but I did it.  And other than the trip up and over Cheoah, I actually felt okay. I wasn't trained and it doubled my longest run all year, but I did it.  And I am already thinking about going  back and doing it better. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Louis Zamperini (1917-2014): Unbroken

This post is a bit of a deviation from normal running posts, but today Louie Zamperini, Olympic distance runner turned  WWII POW passed away at the age of 97.  A few years ago, I read Laura Hillenbrand's book, Unbroken, which traces Louie's inspiring story, a true testament to the human ability to endure most anything.  Louis survives a plane crash, sharks and strafings and 47 days in a raft, only to end up being captured by the Japanese.  Things only keep getting worse for Louie, but somehow he perseveres and survives.

Shortly after I read the book, generous local veterans donated a class set of the book for my Military History students. We spend twenty minutes or so a day reading the book and his story never gets old. My students love the book and as a teacher,  I love to hear them ask if they can read more.  For some of them, this is the first book they have actually wanted to read and during the semester, Louie becomes part of our class.

After a test this year, I gave my students an impromptu extra credit assignment, to write a letter to Louie.  I happened to have kept the letters, so I wanted to share a few excerpts today in memory of Mr. Zamperini.  Excuse the grammar and organization as they were written spur of the moment with no opportunity to make corrections.  (And if you are reading this blog, you are probably a runner.  If you haven't read Unbroken, it's a great book and the author spends the first part talking about how running saved Louie, which many of us can relate to.  It also puts all our self-inflicted suffering in perspective and makes giving up a bit harder, too.)  Here are the excerpts:

Dear Louie Zamperini, 
      I was wanting to write you and let you know how incredibly stunning your story is...You are really an amazing person and I will always remember this story and keep to myself that the human mind is almost impossible to break and the resilience that you have shown will forever signify the true meaning of perseverance. Your strengths will influence a nation. As we stand united, you have shown us that that no matter who you are are where you're from, you can remain Unbroken.

Dear Louis Zamperini,

After reading the book about your life, I've realized the strength and endurance the human body can withstand. I have so much respect for you and your family. You have taught me a lot about what it means to keep faith and never give up. I am currently enlisted in the US Marine Corps and I plan on serving my country in whatever way I am needed. I know I will probably never have to go through the experiences that you did, but if anything ever goes bad, I will remember you and your story. You
were stronger than I could ever be and you are a great role model.

Your heroism and leadership has been a great influence on me and I hope I could have been half as brave as you were in that situation. You put others before yourself, risking your life in the process. You defied the Japanese rules and guards, proving to everyone that it could be done. You endured beatings that were so severe that I really can't even begin to understand. Through it all, you kept your dignity and faith. You never stopped believing that you could make it through the war, which is more than many others could say. There are plenty of other stories of delinquent children overcoming the odds and doing great things, but your story has had the greatest impact on my life. I think everyone needs to hear your story.

You are a great hero, Mr. Zamperini. I will carry what you have taught me throughout my life and be the best that I can be. I hope your story has influenced others in the same way it has me. Thank you for your service to our country and for sharing your story.

Hello Louie,

 I've read your book with one of my classes at school and I can honestly say it's the most inspiring story of perseverance and hope I've honestly ever read. You were pushed well beyond the breaking
point but somehow your inner resilience was unleashed and your hatred for The Bird pushed you to survive and provide hope for all of the POWs around you. I never knew how terrible the conditions were in foreign POW camps until I read this story. I knew things would be unpleasant but this was far worse than unpleasant, it was some of the most unimaginable things to put a human through yet you rose above all the challenges. Your story has inspired so many and shows us how far mental strength can get you in bad situations...

Hello Louie,

We just finished reading your biography "Unbroken" in my history class and it has got to be one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read.  From start to finish there was not a second I wanted to
stop reading it... Reading this book made our class feel like we sort of know you in a way.  I could not come close to imagining how hard it was to go through what you did...

After everything you had been through and dealt with, you turned to God and found a way to forgive them and I believe not many people would be able to do a thing like that.  Your story has made me realize that there is always someone who has it worse than you so don't take what you have for granted and cherish every moment you have with friends and family, you never know when you will see them again.  I just want to thank you for having the courage to share your story with the world, thank you Louie.

Dear  Louis Zamperini,

Your story is incredible. The determination, fight, and calmness that you showed during your difficult times in World War Two is truly inspiring. I always knew that POW camps were rough, but is never realized how horrific it actually was. Hearing about the atrocities that you and your comrades had to endure has given me a new level of respect and gratification for veterans and current members of the armed services. It even hits home even more because most soldiers were not much older than I currently am. I connected more with your story because I am also a runner... (At) the Berlin Olympic race where you were falling behind, but still had a huge kick really showed how giving up is not in your personality and that you had perseverance. Just from seeing a few of your personality traits that were portrayed in the book, make me believe that you were built to make it through the war alive and that you weren't going to let the enemy "beat" you, just like you didn't let competitors beat you in competitions. Once again, I am truly grateful for what you and your comrades went through and I can only hope that no one will have to see what you saw or go through what you went through again. Also, they way that God spoke to you and caused you to change your life is very inspiring. Thank you for your service to our Country. If it wasn't for you and other members of the armed services, I would not be where I am today. To me, all members of the armed services are heroes.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Adventures with Giardia and Other Cautionary Tales

As Wayne and I were headed towards Tellico Gap during the Nantahala Adventure Run, he told me a story about almost passing out while running one day. It turned out that he had not eaten for 24 hours and opted to go for a run before he did so.  In retrospect, of course, that was a bad decision, but at the time he didn't think too much about it.

I had a couple of those moments in April and as Willy Natureboy says, bad decisions make for good stories.  I'm not sure how good of a story this is, but it is a cautionary tale....

There's a forest road near my house that I run fairly often.  I've only seen four people on this road in years, two hunters and a couple out for a walk.  One day after school, I headed there to run, but was surprised by a man coming down the hill as I was getting out of my car.  Not only was this person number five, but he was a runner, too.  So, we talked for a couple of minutes (he is a deputy that lives nearby) and then I headed up the hill.  I was distracted by the conversation and didn't realize until a few hundred yards up the hill that I had forgotten to take my earrings out.  Not just any earrings, but ones with blue diamonds in them that Tony had given me.

In retrospect, I should have turned around and headed back to the car and put them in a safe place.  But I was wearing a little waist belt that I stick my phone and keys in, so I stuck them in there.  It zips up securely and I didn't think about them again until the next morning, when I took my phone out of the belt and an earring fell out.  An, as in one, earring.

I searched the house, car, driveway, gym bag, every place I thought it could be.  Then I remembered that I had taken pictures at three places during my run, which meant I had opened that waist belt three times.  After school, I went back to the road and searched there.  Nothing.  I dragged Tony there with a metal detector the next evening.  Nothing.  I ran there a couple more times and again, nothing. This is a fairly big earring that would be hard to miss, especially in the sunlight and I finally assumed that someone saw it and took it home.  I spent a long time kicking myself for being stupid.

Tony, being Tony, went and got me a similar pair and we planned to make necklace out of the lone earring.  Then two or three weeks later, I was running on the road again and my shoelace came untied. I crouched down to tie it, and there was my earring, in the gravel and intact.

Now I have two pairs of nice blue diamond earrings and a secure case to put them in when I take them off to go run.  Lesson learned. Unfortunately, the weekend before, I had unknowingly made another bad, bad decision.

April is thru-hiker season here on the Appalachain Trail.  I go all winter, rarely seeing anyone, to suddenly seeing dozens of people on a short run.  The hikers hit the 100 mile mark here and many are still unversed in wilderness etiquette and procedures.  Which brings me to my bad decision.

I decided to run a 20 mile loop, a majority of which was on the AT.  On a long run, where there are several water sources, I carry a handheld bottle instead of a bladder, scoop water as I go and treat it with a Steripen, which uses UV light to zap any bad critters that might be in it.

Several months prior, I had dropped my Steripen, but it appeared to be working fine. The flashing light that indicates the steripen is making proper contact with the water was working, along with the green indicator light that tells me the water has been zapped for the appropriate 45 seconds.  I use gray bottles and never thought to look down inside the bottle to see if the most important light,the UV light was actually working.

All winter went by without incident.  Then the weekend of the 20 mile loop, I scooped water from couple of places right next to the trail.  In retrospect, of course they were not the best options.  Somewhere along the way, I, for some reason, thought to look to see if the UV light was working. It was not.  I was not too concerned because I know a lot of people do not treat their water and I realized I has been drinking untreated water for several months. But it was now thru-hiker season, when you smell all sorts of bad smells along the trail and find toilet paper in all sorts of places.

Warning:   TMI coming, but I wanted to write this down, because my symptoms were a little different than most of the internet info.  You'll be safe if you skip the next paragraph.

So, a couple weekends later, I had stomach/bathroom issues.  A couple nights later, I was awakened by an urgent need to, umm, use the restroom.  That never happens.  Then I was nauseous.  I lost my appetitie and could not eat anything but crackers and toast. I alternated between not going at all for days to explosive incidents.  I sat in the recliner and stared into space.  I could not focus enough to read or watch T.V.  I felt fuzzy-headed and dizzy.  I did not throw up.  The doctor and I assumed it was the stomach flu, but I have never had the stomach flu.  A couple weeks went by.  I missed a lot of work. I would feel a bit better and head back to work, only to have to leave early. One morning, I was on my way out the door when I had to make a run for the bathroom. I was shaky and weak and as a teacher, I had to find a sub and come up with a lesson plan in a half hour.  I cried for awhile, then our secretary helped me find a sub and I came up with a lesson plan.  They ran tests, blood tests and a regular stool test.  Low blood sugar, nothing in the stool.  By this point, over three weeks had gone by.  I lost eight pounds sitting in the recliner.  I was apparently very pale because people kept remarking on that. I spent a lot of time being angry that I could not do the things I wanted to do and not understanding what was wrong. The fourth week, the doctor and I discussed the possibility of giardia.  First she gave me a round of antibiotics in case it was animal e coli. That didn't work. The stool test for giardia came back negative, but apparently they only pass every so often, so you usually have to do multiple tests.  Instead of that, she just went ahead and gave me the antibiotic from hell, flagyll.

I could not tell if the flagyll was working, because it gives you the exact same side-effects as the symptoms of giardia.  Only I felt worse. Finally, when I was finished with it, after five weeks of hanging with Little G and eight days of antibiotics, I began to feel better.  I had some energy and was hungry.  Then I had a bad couple days.  Then several good ones.  Then a bad one.  According to Dr. Google, it can take a few months for the intestines to heal, especially since I went so long before we figured it out.  Also, that doc says a lot of people become lactose intolerant for a while, and I think that has given me a couple bad days before I realized it.

So, eight weeks later, I feel more normal; I just get tired quicker. I still have some nausea and days when I just feel "off."  I am running, but not very far yet.  Today a group was running the Nantahala Adventure Run, which I was supposed to do, but instead I provided some aid and hiked/ran out four miles to see people as they came through.  My plan was to head all the way to the NOC and back, but my body thought differently.  I enjoyed hanging out on a rock in a quiet place in the sunshine and although I wished I could run the loop, was okay with doing what I did. 

Another very hard lesson learned.  If you do not treat your water, consider it.  And according to some sources, options such as bleach may not kill giardia unless it is used in fairly high concentration.  If you use bleach, you may want to do some research.  This person did a lot of research on the different ways of purifying water.  Apparently the Steripen is very effective....but only if you are sure it is working.  And I may trade in my gray bottles for some clear ones.