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.