Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Grindstone 100

The inaugural Grindstone 100 has been billed as the toughest 100 mile race east of the Rockies. It has over 23,000 feet of elevation gain and 90% of it is run on rocky, technical trails. It came with a 38 hour time limit and I was worried that I would spend most of the race chasing cutoffs and using all 38 hours to finish the run. Because this was the inaugural race, I had no data other than the very intimidating trail profile posted on the website. The other race with the claim to being the toughest, the Massanutten, was my first 100, five years ago and it was indeed tough. I finished with only a half hour to spare, 27 blisters and a black eye. I really hoped I would have a better experience at the Grindstone. This race was also unique in that it began at 6:00 p.m. on Friday evening. If you ran over 25 hours, you faced two nights and one day of running, compared to the usual two days and one night. The night running, combined with the rough trails, made for some very slow moving at times.

Thankfully, although the race was very tough, it turned out fine. I think the perfect weather, the exceptionally helpful and supportive volunteers, the well-marked course and the opportunity to have my husband pace me some all combined to make the race challenging, yet doable.

The course was beautiful- the lights of the cities down in the valley at night, the two sunsets, the spectacular sunrise at Reddish Knob.

Only one hallucination: As it started to get dark on night two, I stopped to dig my lights out of my pack and saw my husband up on the trail ahead waiting for me (he had been running out a couple miles from each aid station and running back in with me). He kept leaning out as if he was trying to see who it was. After I started back again, I found that my 6’, 225 lb husband was actually a fluorescent pink streamer blowing in the wind.

I finished in 31:29, but I had some asthma issues for a good part of the race, so I think if I had that under control I could have finished under 30:00. Just like in any race, I had some very good times and some pretty bad times (it’s amazing how a turkey sandwich can turn things around for you), but all in all, it was an enjoyable run.

As far as the toughest 100 in the east, I really don’t know. The Massanutten was certainly tougher for me, but it was my first 100. Old Dominion this year with the heat and humidity was tougher for me as well- it took everything I had to finish it. I’m just glad I was able to run the Grindstone in ideal conditions.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Note to Self: Bring light to Laurel Valley

Laurel Valley is a 35 mile unsupported trail run on the border of North and South Carolina. There is no aid and no way to drop out, unless you go back to the start. You carry your own food and first aid and refill your water at stream crossings. The course involves single-track trail and some old forest roads that have been converted to trail. The climbs are very steep and frequent, but not incredibly long. The race ends at Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, to get to the finish line, you start from the bottom of the falls and crawl to the top on a steep rocky trail. As race director Claude Sinclair has put it, this is a race that scares off some runners and attracts others. This is the fifth year I have run Laurel Valley and I just think of it as a long training run. I’m doing what I would be doing on the weekend anyway, running in the woods without any support.

This year, as I crawled out of bed at 3:30, I thought to myself that I didn’t remember getting up quite this early in the past. But I missed last year’s race because of my injury, so I didn’t trust my memory from two years ago. And then when we started the race at 6:00, it was very dark. It has never been dark before and I have never carried a light. I tried to follow people with lights, but that didn’t really help as the first part of the run is very rooty and rocky. So, in the dark, I tripped, “twanging” my hamstring. I learned later that the darkness was not nature gone awry, but the race started a half hour earlier than usual.

It got light enough to see around 20 minutes into the race, and despite the sore hamstring (and an inability to breathe at first) I felt pretty good. But about 45 minutes into the run on a nice downhill, I caught my toe on a rock and really pulled the hamstring. I stopped and stretched it, but could only limp down the hill. Lacking common sense when it comes to injuries, I continued on, thinking that maybe it would loosen up. It didn’t hurt on the uphills, but I was exceedingly slow on the flats and downhills. I was very frustrated as other runners passed me in areas where I should have been making good time. I knew that this year I could break my PR (7:53), but not now with my hop/limp/lope. After an hour or so of frustration, I decided that I might actually try to enjoy the run for once, since I was forced to do it at a slower pace. After awhile, my gait adapted, and although it was still very slow, I was able to “run” without pain. I finished the run in 8:50, an hour slower than I wanted, but I will take that with a grade 2 hamstring pull.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Boiling Hot at OD 100

As the days drew closer to race day, I watched the predicted temperature for race day continue to climb, from the high 80’s to the high 90’s. I haven’t had much heat to train in, so I tried to acclimate myself in various ways. I sat in the sauna at the gym, tried to run in the hottest part of the day and rode around in the car with the windows up and the heat on. On Friday, the weather service issued a heat warning and predicted a heat index of 110 degrees, in addition to a bad air quality warning. I knew that this would be a whole different challenge for me, as I looked back at past results from the OD in hot years and saw the low finishing rates. This was not the day for setting PR’s and buckling again. I just wanted to be one of the survivors.

As the race started at 4:00 a.m., it was already hot and dripping with humidity. Several people had a strategy to go out fast and try to bank miles before the hottest part of the day, but I opted for a moderate start. I would run fairly hard, but I didn’t want to already be tired when the heat did hit. Any strategy was a gamble. By mile 19, the sun was up and hot and much of the course between there and mile 32 was open, exposed country roads. A lot of it is flat and very runnable, but as soon as my heart rate started climbing, I walked. I had to keep reminding myself to run my own race as people passed me.

When I got to mile 32, I was about 20 minutes behind my usual time and the heat was hitting full force. The official temperature was 97 degrees in Woodstock, but I was told it hit 100. I was dripping wet from the humidity and sweat. Tony was there with iced washcloths, ice in a bandana, and a water bottle to spray me with. I don’t think I could have made it through the race without him. I changed shoes and socks and headed back out. The next section involved a long uphill climb on trail through an area that had been burned a couple of years ago. The trees were dead, so there was no shade, and the underbrush had grown up enough to hold in the heat and keep the slight breeze from hitting most of your body. The heat took a lot out of me on that section and I could feel blisters starting to form on the balls of my feet. I lost a lot of time, but began to pass people who were hurting pretty badly.

The heat stayed very bad until around mile 60 or so. But then a rainstorm had came through, which didn’t cool things off but raised the humidity back up again. By mile 64, a lot of people had dropped out with heat-related problems (stomach issues, blisters, fatigue). I continued on, way behind my past times, and saw no one else until mile 75. By then, my blisters were pretty bad and the downhills were getting hard to run. I made a big mistake at Elizabeth Furnace and didn’t pick up my drop bag before I left, so I ran short of food on the next four-hour section and my energy level dropped. Ralph had agreed to safety run through Sherman and Veach gaps with me, but I don’t think he knew it would be an almost five hour trip. I was crawling the uphills and the downhills hurt too bad to run hard. I saw Tony one last time at Veach at 4:00 a.m., and then tried hard to cover the last half-marathon in four hours. It sounds ridiculous to think that it could take four hours to run 13 miles, but I wasn’t sure I could do it as bad as my feet hurt. I still had to climb back up Woodstock Tower and then pound down the other side.

To end this story quickly, I finished in 27:42, walking much of the last four miles. I was 21st out of the 22 who did finish the race and the 2nd female out of only three who finished. A lot of very talented, strong runners were taken out of the race by the heat, so I feel fortunate I had the help I needed to get through the race. Tony was essential, having a safety runner kept me moving on the hardest section and I prayed a lot in the last 13 miles! This race this year was as tough for me as the Massanutten was and the aftermath of the run was not pretty. My feet looked awful, not only from the blisters and a couple of toenails ready to come off, but they had stayed wet for 28 hours, despite changing shoes and socks a couple of times. Every place on my body where a piece of clothing, a seam, or my pack touched me was rubbed raw. I look like I have been whipped and I feel like it too! My legs haven’t been this sore after a race in a very long time. The extra four hours of being out on the course probably didn't help either.

The race personnel, aid station workers, and everyone I came in contact with were so helpful and encouraging. I was glad to see more runners at the race than in the past couple of years.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Blue Planet 24 Hour Run

The Blue Planet 24 Hour Run (formerly the Run For Africa) was held this weekend at Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain, NC. The run raises money to provide clean drinking water worldwide. The format of the run is predominately a relay race, where teams run a 6, 12, or 24 hour race, taking turns running a five-mile loop. Runners, however, can opt to run solo, and there were more solo participants this year than last year.

The race started at 10:00 a.m., and the weather stayed mostly cloudy all day. The first time around the loop, all the solo runners and relay team members are pretty close together, but everyone gets more spread out by the second time around. The route starts on some steep single track trail and then heads down on a rough gravel/dirt road. It flattens out some on a regular gravel road and then heads around a lake on a grass trail. Then it's back uphill on gravel, then downhill and back to the festival/camping area, where you start the process again. It's not a flat, easy course, but since it is a five mile loop, the tougher parts don't last too long (but of course you get to repeat them 20 times). The atmosphere of the race is fun. The relay teams are camping out, there is live music and food (which unfortunately the solo runners can't enjoy much of) and even in the dead of night, there are relay runners passing you on the course. There were three aid stations set up, two with water and GU, and the other with a bit more food. It's very easy to be self-sufficient, as you pass by your vehicle/tent every five miles.

My race started off great. I rode to the race with our friend Alan Buckner, who was going to attempt his first hundred mile run. Tony was following later (and would set up a world class aid station for us). We discussed different strategies for running hundreds on the way up. Some people advocate a slow start to conserve energy for later. Others say it is good to bank some time early in the race for the inevitable slow-down later. And then there is my strategy: run whatever feels right at the time. Alan leaned toward banking time, I decided to try a slow start if I could.

Apparently my slow start wasn't so slow. I managed to set a 50K PR in the middle of the race (5:53), a 50 mile PR (about a 9:50), and a 100K PR (not sure, but it was somewhere around 13:30). Running felt great, which I attribute to actually being able to breathe for the first time (I was prescribed an inhaler for exercise-induced asthma) and my new and improved stride (as a result of my hamstring injury). Everything felt so easy and natural, until around mile 65.

Then I was hit with nausea like I've never had before. I usually get sick after a race, and some times have a bit of nausea during a race, but it always passes. This hit hard and didn't go away for the rest of the race (and is still with me 2 days later). I was able to get some GU down, but none of the good food that Tony had brought. At the worst point, I wasn't even able to run downhill. Earlier, I had passed Alan around mile 50, and then got about an hour in front of him when he started feeling sick. Luckily for Alan, he started feeling better, and then ended up finishing over an hour in front of me. I was able to keep the forward motion going (barely) and ended up finished 100 in 23:39 (one minute slower than my PR), 2nd overall behind Alan and 1st female.

I'm still not a big fan of the loop format, but I was more mentally prepared this time. My goal was to do 100 miles, so I focused on how much distance I had left to cover, not the hours. The nice thing about the loop is you get a chance to see and talk to a lot of different people that you might never see on a point-to-point. On my 18th loop, though, I made a deal with Brian Beduhn that we would email each other next year when registration opened and remind each other how grueling the pounding downhill on gravel becomes and the monotony of all those loops. However, I'm sure ultra-amnesia will set in by then and I'll be back running around in circles.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Crowder's Mountain 50K 2008

In 2003, I ran my first ultra, Crowder's Mountain 50K. You would have thought I would have learned something in five years. More on that later in the blog, but for those of you who are interested in running Crowder's sometime, I'll start with a race and course description.

Crowder's is one of my favorite races, although I wonder why on my third trip up those stairs. The race is small and low key, usually 20-30 people, and the race directors, at first Claude Sinclair and now Ray K and Sam Baucom do a great job anticipating everyone's needs and even offered to go out and buy something if they didn't have what you wanted at the aid stations.

The course is three out and backs, or should I say ups and downs? The race starts on an ascending gravel road for about two miles where it tops out on the cliffs of Crowder's Mountain. Then you start DOWN the infamous stairs. How many are there? I lose count every time, but I know it's A LOT. And they are the typical forest service 8"x8" steps, mostly unevenly spaced so you can't get a good rhythm running down them. After the stairs, it's down a steep gravel road for about a quarter mile and to the first aid station. Then you turn on nice rocky, rooty single-track trail that is rolling, but with more down than up and it continues to the turnaround at around mile 5. And then, well, you turn around. Everything that was downhill is now uphill, including that really steep gravel road that leads to those darn stairs. And to make it more difficult, as the day goes on there are more and more hikers to dodge on the way up. Then it's two more miles of pounding downhill on gravel. Repeat this two more times and you're done.

This year I came into the race thinking I could finish in the five's. My last time there in 2006 was 6:05. Surely I could make up six minutes somewhere. Surely I'm in better shape. I've started using an inhaler for exercise-induced asthma (I didn't know until now that it it not SUPPOSED to hurt to breathe when you run). I've hit PRs in all my training runs lately. My hamstrings are better, not great but better. I've changed my running stride to a supposedly more efficient stride. Six minutes is all I wanted. I ended up running my slowest time of my three races there. Why? It was sooooo hot! I haven't trained at all in the heat, never mind run a tough race. But I should have been smarter and backed off some, but I wanted those six minutes badly. And even though I'm not a front of the pack runner, I just hate to get passed. In a three time out and backer, you know exactly where everyone is, so that pushed me even harder. The result was bad cramping halfway through. Shins, calves, hamstrings, some other leg muscles I didn't know I had and even my abs. I walked a lot more than I wanted to. After some Gatorade and a banana at the turnaround, I felt much better and went on to finish the third leg, but at a much reduced pace.

Although I would never had said this about three hours into the run, this is a great race. I get to see a lot of familiar faces and everyone (including all the hikers) is friendly and encouraging. I had to choose between Promise Land and this race this year, and was happy with my decision to stay closer to home.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Nantahala Fria 100

About three weeks ago Sarah Lowell, the Arctic Queen, the only female finisher of the Arrowhead 135, emailed me with her idea for an Arctic Grand Slam. She is planning on running two Arctic 100s in February and then another in March (the Arrowhead, one in Alaska and one in the Yukon). In order to do a grand slam, you have to do four 100s in four months, so she needed one more to run. Travelling to races is pricey, and especially so for us public school teachers, so Sarah created her own winter 100 here in the mountains of Western North Carolina and invited me to run it.

The run was scheduled for last Friday, but Mother Nature cooperated with Sarah's "arctic" plans and dropped some snow and record low temperatures on Wednesday. So Sarah did her run early while the temperatures were around zero at night and in the low 20s during the day. She ran solo with no aid, except for what she brought in her vehicle (which was accessible once every 25 mile loop) and finished under 30 hours!

I, however, am not a big fan of the arctic, so I waited until Friday afternoon when the nighttime temperatures were supposed to at least be in the teens. Tony drove me to Standing Indian in the Nantahala National Forest, where we met Sarah, who had finished her run the day before and Alan Buckner, who was going to run with me.

Sarah's course is probably 80% single track. It starts out on a rocky, rooty side trail that takes you up to the AT. Once on the AT, you head towards Albert Mountain on a gradual uphill, then you get on forest roads for a few miles until you hook back up with the AT. The next several miles is pretty runnable, but there were a lot of springs seeping into the trail that were frozen and a couple of creek crossings that were tricky in the winter. (One included balancing on a snow-covered log that eventually became ice-covered after subsequent laps. Once you became a little light-headed, the log also appeared to be moving.) You got off the AT onto a side trail for a few miles, which took you to a forest road. That forest road, which was very runnable, took you back to the start (after you did an interesting balancing act on rhododendron limbs trying to get over a creek crossing). We did that loop 3 times (Sarah measured it as over 25 miles) and then a shorter one to finish at 100.

The first loop went well. A lot of the trail seemed very runnable and we made good time despite me carrying a heavier-than-normal pack. It was a big decision about what to carry. I get cold easily and knew that I would only have access to aid every 25 miles, so I packed more than I thought I would need. I also carried a full Camelback of water since I didn't know if there would be water available or just ice. We started at 3:15 p.m. and stopped to don headlamps and more layers at around 5:30. Most of the trail was snow-covered and the temperature was in the teens. I had put hex-headed screws in my Cascadias to help with traction and that seemed to work well, although the frozen springs were tricky. We finished the first loop in a little under 6 hours, but then spent a lot of time at the vehicle. Tony brought hamburgers and then we had to decide what to pack for the middle of the night with no aid available. We took off again and once we hit Albert Mountain, the wind began to pick up. I put another layer on and was fine for the rest of the night. Alan, who had only slept a few hours in the past few days, became nauseated and light-headed and by the time we were close to the end of the loop, he was violently ill.

We had to make a decision at that point. Alan did not feel like he could do another entire loop and I didn't want to head out into the night again solo. We stayed at the vehicle for awhile while Alan regrouped and tried to get some food in. We headed out again, with Alan going with me to Albert Mountain, where the sun began to come up. He headed back down and I continued on solo.

Every loop was different. There was a lot of snow on loops one and two, and the ground was frozen hard where there was no snow, but after the sun came up, the temperature warmed up quickly. By the fourth loop, there was little snow left and more mud to contend with. After loop three, I had a nice aid station waiting for me. Sarah came back out and cooked me breakfast and Larry and Alan were there for support. The last loop started off as the hardest. I had a two-hour period where I didn't think I was going to finish. But after a few adjustments, I got my energy back and ran the next five hours hard. It was the first time since my injury that I just ran all out and felt great. Sarah met me at the bottom of the last side trail and I walked in with her to the finish line, at around 28 hours. I was very glad to see Tony, who had been gone most of the time working.

Although I felt good during the run for the most part, when I got home I was sicker than usual. I had the usual stomach complaints, but I also had a fever and alternated between burning up and freezing. Once I slept, however, everything leveled out. I had been awake for over 40 hours, and as of today (a week later), I am still sleepy! On a positive note, I have very little muscle soreness and am planning on running a "fun run" trail marathon tomorrow. I think the change in my running style since my injury and the cushioning of the snow may have contributed to that.