Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Comrades 2014

I've recently gloated that I almost never get sick, so I guess I was due this. I’m currently en route from Atlanta to Portland after the 16-hour Jo-burg-Atlanta direct flight, which ranks as one of the worst flights in my life (and longest flight in the world), and I've had some doozies. A hacking cough and stuffiness has turned me into that person you glare at on airplanes—the one that you’re convinced is going to get you sick. I think I glared at a similar person en route to Durban on Thursday.

The day after a disappointing race is always a bit of a downer. Although I went into Comrades knowing some recent issues I've been having with my left hamstring/glutes/piriformis would either numb themselves into submission during the race which would serve as a last long run before Western States, or help me come to the decision that I'm injured and need some time off to get healthy again. My training the past few weeks has not been ideal, as tightness in my butt and hamstring has caused workouts to be painful, and easy runs to not be completely enjoyable either. So, I hoped that a good 2-week taper into Comrades would get me to the start line healthy, and a decent race would leave me confident about running Western States with time for a rest week before putting in a couple of weeks of final preparation for WS.

Niggles are common among runners, and I feel like I always have something floating around. But usually the niggle lasts a day or two and then moves on and a different niggle pops up. When an issue sticks around for more than a few days, I get worried, and this has had me worried for the last month, as it started as an issue back in early May and just hung on, getting progressively worse. It’s not a new niggle, but one in the past has floated around, and not been consistently an issue. One of the problems is I can't quite tell what the issue is--hamstring, glute, piriformis, It's painful in a few spots, and a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly. Some days in the pool seemed to help, but running hard would seemingly negate those recovery days, and have me back where I started. Training has not been ideal the past month, although I managed to stick sort of on schedule, with fewer hard sessions and long runs than I had hoped. I foam rolled a lot, stretched, did glute/hamstring exercises, saw my graston guy and massage guy, etc. I've had issues heading into other races, forcing rest and PT, hoping for a race miracle, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. 

Adding to my pre-race worries, I started getting a sore throat on Friday night. I woke up Saturday not feeling hot and needing to swallow constantly, but there was nothing I could do, besides suck on zinc lozenges. Race morning, Sunday, I woke up feeling not horrible, so was hopeful that maybe I'd still kick it. Now on my way home, I’m fully sick, and as sick as I’ve been in a few years. I feel badly for the dudes sitting next to me, who will be lucky to avoid this thing, as I’ve coughed, and sniffled the entire way home. The guy en route from Jo-burg was apologetic after I was apologetic, and the guy en route to Portland gifted me an entire bag of cough drops. I avoided colds all winter when my roommate or work colleagues were seemingly always sick, so the timing of my first cold in a couple of years is just another frustration on a frustrating day. Alas, this is a bit of a pity party so far. Time for some positives….

For those unfamiliar with Comrades, the race is a point to point that switches direction each year. The race from Durban to Pietermaritzburg is a net uphill so called an "up" run, and the other direction, which we ran this year, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban is a "down" run. The terms don't necessarily completely describe the course because either direction has a lot of up and down (down run has around 4700 feet of up and 6700 feet of down). Many folks say the down run is harder, as it leaves you battered after a good chunk of the downhill comes in the last third of the race.

Race morning was lovely. Often the start can be quite chilly, as Pietermaritzburg sits up at 2,000 feet, but with lows only around 60F the night prior, it was a warm start. The start of Comrades has an energy that must be experienced to truly appreciate it. Running for the Nedbank elite team, we got a position right up front on the start line, which was a little intimidating, as the sprint off the front is something to behold. Everyone slows down in a race from the initial pace, although I have to suspect the Comrades slow down for most is even more dramatic, as the lure of the TV cameras off the front, and energy in the air, make it look like some are racing the mile. The entire race is televised, up to the 12-hour cut-off.  Right before the gun they play Shosholoza, a South African folk song, and Chariots of Fire. The excitement builds, the start line grows more and more cramped as people push forward, and at 5:30 a.m. the gun goes off. Fearful of getting trampled, I braced myself for the push, and breathed a sigh of relief after the first block. Ian Sharmin came by and we chatted for a bit before he headed off. The first mile was 6:30, so knowing that the pace was a bit fast, I aimed to ease back into a more sustainable pace. Despite the quick start, I felt good, and my butt felt good and loose, and the next few miles clicked by under 7:00 pace.

It was dark the first few miles and when the sun finally did come up it was gorgeous. At this point, you're running through rolling farm country and the sun rises over large rolling hills to the east, off to the left hand side, showing off a landscape of big rolling green hills with brilliant pinks and oranges highlighting a few lone trees on the horizon line. I had a few Nedbank guys around me who seemed to be forming a little group around me, and at some point reminded them that they couldn't run near me, as pacing isn't allowed; it looks especially suspicious if a Nedbank woman is surrounded by a group of green Nedbank men. They disappeared, but when running with that many people (17,000 starters), you’re bound to be near someone.

There are steady ups and downs throughout the first 20K, and I felt good and was climbing well. The pace stayed comfortable and we averaged about 7:10 pace through about 18 miles. I was aiming for an overall average of around 7:30 pace, so while this was a bit quick, it felt good; 7:35 average pace was what I needed to go to get in under 7 hours, but I hoped to be a bit under that.  Somewhere after mile 10 I made the first of what turned into 6 bathroom stops in the first 40 miles. A sore throat, the poops, and my hammies/butt had quickly tightened up after the initial loose first few miles. Speed is what typically doesn't feel good on my butt, and it was tight. Tight asses are not always a good thing.

Even though it was just yesterday, the middle miles are all kind of a blur. I was frustrated in that I seemingly constantly needed to pull over, despite taking one Imodium before the start, and another about 15 miles in when things started to feel rough tummy-wise. I was eating and drinking, but doing so caused me to need to use the bathroom. We had handlers that were there to give us bottles roughly every 10K following the 20K mark, but there was also a ton of aid along the way. Comrades is one of the best-aided races I've run, with water/energy drink stops every 2 or 3K. The beverages are in little sachets which make drinking or holding them for later very easy.

I was in around 6th for the first 18 miles, but several bathroom stops in a row allowed for several women to pass, many of whom I must not have seen while in the port-a-potty right before half-way point, where I must have come in around 8th or 9th.  I never saw Jo pass me, but did spot a few others from the bushes. I passed half-way in about 3:25/6, but that was after my longest bathroom break, so in hindsight, was happy with my pace through the first half, which was on-target for my goal of sub-7 and a gold medal, which the top 10 receive.

Zola Budd passed me somewhere in this middle section, running for Hooters. It was pretty amazing to be running in a race around Zola Budd, but she motored on, while I struggled. We finally came to the start of the downhill section. Often in an ultra, pre-race niggles will just kind of melt away with the miles, I think related to endorphins, or some aspect of body chemistry, but the miles were only adding to the discomfort, and my upper hamstring/piriformis was pissed. The two women who finished in 9th and 10th were running just in front of me, and I had passed them back on the downhill, and felt like I was getting back into a groove and that the Imodium seemed to have stopped the frequent stops. I was averaging 7:27 pace overall at this point but getting faster as we started to descend, so with the upcoming net downhill and fewer stops, was hopeful to stay under 7:35 pace which was the pace to get in just under 7 hours. Right around 23K to go, I felt a sharp pain in my left hamstring which altered my step. I kind of jerked to a stop and tried to start running again, but was obviously limping. I started to walk, quickly deciding that my race was over and accepting the fact that it was going to be a long walk. But, I had several hours to get to the finish, and I could walk, so I might as well finish.

This was right after 23K to go, and I don’t think I fully comprehended what walking in would be like. While the entire Comrades course is spotted with people, there are a ton of people in the final 23K, most of whom were encouraging me to start running again. “Come on lady, you can do it!” “Run lady, run!” “Don’t give up, lady!” “Run Amy!” In addition to the crowds, several runners paused to encourage me along, and several walked with me for long bits, but all eventually powered on running. While I appreciated their enthusiasm, this was hard to hear, as I couldn't really run. I tried to start running a few steps several times, but gave up quickly, as I couldn't run without pain.

A common Comrades tradition is to party with a braai or barbecue along the side, often handing out aid in the form of water, fruit or candy, in addition to the official race aid stations. One guy offered me a cup of water, and I asked whether he could spare a beer, which he was happy to do. This made me quite popular with the fans, and tasted damn good. Plus, fewer people shouted at me to run with a beer in hand. A few miles later I scored a second, and probably would have looked for a third and fourth, but I had to pee and was stick of stopping to use the bathroom after so many stops in the first half. I was also hoping to see a friend who hoped to finish around 9 hours on course and didn’t want to miss her with a stop.

It was a long walk, and while I tried to soak in and enjoy the energy around me, I was really ready to be done. The bathroom issues were over, but the sore throat and overall bleh were becoming more apparent. With about 10K to go I calculated that I could finish in under 9 hours if I kept my pace under 15 min/mile. Not that I cared about which finishers medal I got at this point, but with 8 miles walked, and 6 miles left to walk, I needed a goal. I picked up the pace and kept up a decent clip, feeling a weird bit of competitive walking come upon me, getting a few miles in around 13:40. The Km signs couldn't come fast enough, but I passed the 3 Km, 2 Km and 1 Km signs and finally entered the stadium, still walking and 2 hours later than hoped. By this time tears were streaming down my face. I was just so glad to be done and desperately wanted off of the course. It had been a long and disappointing day. I finished in 8:52 (?), 2 hours slower than my goal. While I felt deflated, at the same time, it was encouraging because while I’d worried before the race that top 10 was out of my reach, being there on that day, I realized that on a good day top 10 is well within my reach, and even top 5. Sometimes everything comes together on race day, and sometimes the cards just seem stacked against you. On race day, I didn't feel out of my league to reach my goal, I just felt like crap, both with some pre-race niggles that could have gone either way, and with a bug that has now taken over completely. At this point, I can’t wait for the plane to land and to make a bee-line for home and my bed and a long-overdue nap with my sweet kittens.

Once again, back to the positives….I feel fortunate to call Ellie both a teammate and friend, and I was thrilled to hear about her day once I’d finished. I was almost afraid to ask, as we’d both confessed our pre-race concerns to each other on Saturday afternoon, and she had some reasons for concern. But in true Ellie fighting spirit, she had what she called a bad race up to the point where she laid it all on the line and went for it. She reeled the twins (who have dominated the past several years) in in what (according to the Twitterverse) was the fastest closing split over the final 7 Km for either men or women. Incredible! Watching her finish replayed on the jumbo-tron afterwards with Ian following her in from behind, was awe-inspiring.

I do plan to be back at Comrades, if not next year, then at a minimum for the following year for the next down run. Seeing the race unfold, and feeling comfortable in the pace that it takes to run for gold, I’m confident that on a good day, or even a slightly less bad day, I can run in contention for a solid top 10 finish. Many thanks to Nedbank for allowing me to race for them and for providing logistical support in country—I know that they had high expectations for all of us, and I feel badly about the outcome.

Despite the race not going as planned, I had a great trip. I arrived in Cape Town on the Monday prior for a few days of rest and relaxation, and loved exploring the area around the Cape. I'll add some pictures once I'm back in the real non-airplane world.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sedona, Brazil and El Cruce Columbia 2014

As I write this I’m in the air traveling back to Patagonia for another race, and I like to finish up one race before starting the next. So, for those of you who responded to my last blog to keep writing, here goes. I need to be less wordy in order to write more frequently. I've failed on that front here.

January and February were filled with big adventures and a lot of air travel. A birthday trip to Sedona, a postponed work trip to Brazil, and a stage race in Patagonia, all managed to converge upon the same 3-week period, and required some tight scheduling and ridiculous amounts of air travel.

First up was a long weekend in Sedona, an early 40th birthday celebration, which was awesome. Good friends Katherine, Susan and I enjoyed a lovely weekend at a friend's condo in Sedona. Long runs in the red rocks, delicious meals, wine tasting, hot tub soaking, and a side trip to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon to see more friends for more fun times on trail, were all part of the 4-day relaxation before the South American tour began.

Running down into the Grand Canyon.
From Arizona I flew directly to Belem, Brazil for a work trip. Belem is in the north of Brazil at the mouth of the Amazon, but getting there (via a US carrier) means being routed through Brasilia or Sao Paolo, which are in located in southern Brazil. All that means is that any flight to Belem requires roughly an extra 10 hours of air time, because you have to fly an additional 5 hours south to turn around and fly 5 hours north. When you're a frequent flyer mileage whore, this isn't a problem. I used to be a mileage whore, but I’ve had enough problems at 10,000 feet, plus I fly sufficiently so as to not crave circuitous routings to rack up miles. Work in Brazil went well. Belem is not on the top of my list as a running destination (flat and hot), but it is an interesting place to visit. I managed to stay on my training schedule, although that did include many treadmill runs, including a 20+ mile hilly run, as Belem is pretty flat.  I enjoyed my time in Brazil, had a productive work trip with very nice hosts, but was happy to be heading home in order to begin the vacation part of my Sofuth American trip--a stage race in Chilean Patagonia, El Cruce Columbia.

El Cruce Columbia is a 3-day stage race set in Chilean Patagonia (some years crossing into Argentina, hence the name). The course and location change every year, and this year was staged near Puerto Varas, Chile, skirting some volcanoes, and ending up just at/over the Argentinian border. The planned distance was for just over a 100K of racing with the longest stage the first day (approximately 25 miles) followed by 2 shorter days (18-22 miles).

My only pre-race woes were my travel schedule. Unfortunately, because of the way that the tickets were purchased--the work trip was a Delta ticket purchased originally for a December date that was postponed, and the Chile trip was an American ticket, purchased for me by the race--there was no "easy" way to combine the two trips without me paying out of pocket significantly. I couldn't change the origin on the Chile trip to be anything other than a US city and couldn't jump on that ticket mid-way without forfeiting the ticket--you have to start a trip in order to finish it. Basically, I needed to be back in Portland on Saturday, January 31 to fly to Chile, or I would have to pay my way from Belem or Sao Paulo to Chile and all the way home, so in the end, just accepted the fact that I was going to depart Belem on a flight south to Sao Paulo, heading back north to connect through Atlanta, on to Portland, repack, and depart again less than 24 hours later, knowing that when I was in Sao Paolo, I was a 4-hour direct flight from Santiago, Chile. But instead of that 4-hour hop, I got to enjoy a 10-hour flight to Atlanta, 5-hour flight to Portland, and then the next day turn around and do another 4-hour leg to Dallas, followed by a 10-hour flight down to Santiago, and then 2 more hours to my final destination, Puerto Montt, Chile. The routing I got to experience earns you WAY more frequent flyer miles--I earned close to 50,000 for the entire journey, but it’s a bit more tiring. 

So, I arrived in Puerto Montt on Sunday, February 2 feeling sort of like I'd been hit by a bus, but less so than I expected, and very excited to be back in an area of the world that I love and one that I hadn't seen in over a decade. I’d celebrated my 29th birthday on Isla Chiloe, not far from Puerto Montt.

When I was invited to the race several months back, I accepted the invitation without hesitation. I spent 3+ years living in Paraguay and then a couple of months traveling through Argentina, Chile and Peru on my way home after my Peace Corps service ended, and then traveling to Latin America for work on a frequent basis for several years, so I feel very comfortable traveling in South America. It feels very familiar yet foreign at the same time. Plus, I was turning 40 a couple of days before the race. What better way to celebrate a milestone birthday than by running through Patagonia?

Because it was my birthday week, and leaving on Saturday meant little difference vacation-day-wise at work as leaving Tuesday, I had arranged to arrive a few days early to hang out in and around Puerto Varas, and enjoy a few days of true vacation. Emma Roca was scheduled to arrive the same day as I, and we ran into each other at lunch the first day, and would spend the better part of a week together, without much time apart. This was a good thing, because we hit it off. Luckily, we got along super well, because the race organization housed Emma and me together before the race, and then we had tents side-by-side in camp, and ended up racing within minutes of each other each day.

Patagonia had been in a drought all summer, so the locals were thrilled with the rain that was present for most of the trip, and the pre-race weather was an indicator of what was to come during the race, especially for the team competition. The days leading up to the race were spent hanging out in Puerto Varas, going for short runs around town, and on my birthday, we rented a car and drove out to a hot spring outside of town, and invited Marco de Gasperi and Miguele along for the adventure. Miguele didn’t get the memo that we were going to a “rustic” hot spring, and was a bit shocked when he figured out we weren’t going to a fancy spa, but survived the trip, and it was fun to at least get out of Puerto Varas for the day. Meeting and spending time with Marco was another highlight of the trip; he’s a super nice guy, and super tranquilo. I knew he was famous in the sky running world, but his low key nature hardly even allowed me to be star struck.
The boat that delivered us to the hot springs. Looked like a great fly-fishing spot. Photo: my iPhone.
El Cruce has two separate races going on—the 2-person team race and the individual race. Both races utilize the same course and camps, the only difference being that the teams start a day earlier than the individuals. This year the individual race definitely got the long end of the stick, as the weather was kind of sucky the first day for us, but sounds like it was mainly sucky every day for the teams. This year’s field was around 750 teams and 1300 individual runners, for a total of 2800 runners. The logistics of pulling this all off were definitely complicated, and more so because of rain and cold temps that created some additional challenges. I’ve never been to TransRockies, but I would guess the tent village at El Cruce is on a different scale, with at least 750 matching blue Columbia tents set up in a field, a circus-sized dining tent, a long line of porta-potties and longer line of users, and a barbeque pit set up to grill enough beef, chick and chorizo to feed 1500 hungry runners twice a day. Suffice it to say, it’s the only race I’ve done where a “cuchillo para carne” (steak knife) was on the packing list. If I were a vegetarian or vegan going to the race, I’d definitely pack an alternative protein source.
No shortage of meat. The twice-a-day asado scene. Photo: my iPhone.
The first day we were bussed early in the morning to the shores of a lake, for the start. They start each day in mini waves, and the elite field started it off. The teams had had hard rain and wind for much of their first day the day prior, but we lucked into a cloudy day, with intermittent rain. The first couple of miles were along the shore of the lake, running in thick black sand/rocks. I didn’t love this part. It was pretty, but definitely not my favorite running surface. 
Day 1: The elite start. Photo: El Cruce.
We turned up off the beach to start climbing, and were still running through thick black volcanic sand which eventually became more solid and more to my liking. On the climb I could see Emma in front of me, and passed her somewhere near the pass. It was cold going over the pass, and I pulled on my ghost whisperer for that part, but otherwise, the weather wasn’t bad. The pass is where there would have been gorgeous views of surrounding volcanoes on a sunny day, but it was pretty socked in. If you took a moment and turned around during the climb, there were some very pretty views of the lake, with hints of sun shining through the clouds. Coming over the pass we ended up on a gravel road, which we would take downhill for about 10K. It was a relatively straight shot down a long gravel road. It was on this road where Emma passed me back, as I went slightly off course for a few meters when the course made a turn for a short detour onto a trail that I missed. She flew by me, and on the correct trail, and that would become a common theme throughout the three days; me trailing, not by much, but trailing. I kept her in view for the descent, until we got to a turn-off onto a trail around 20K.
Caked in mud coming into the finish. Photo: El Cruce.
This was about the half-way point, give or take a couple miles, and we had seen what the finishing times had been for the lead teams from the day before, so I was a little surprised how quickly we’d completed the first half of the course. Of course, I didn’t realize what was about to come.  We turned off the gravel road, and entered the mud zone, which would last for a good 12Km or so. 1500 runners had been through this section the day prior in pouring rain, and at times there was shin-deep mud that was several feet wide with no way around it. The most efficient way seemed to be to plow straight through the middle. It was almost comical, but also frustrating, as it was hard to stay upright, and slipping and sliding is fun to a point, but requires some coordination in order not to impale yourself on vegetation. The mud zone seemed never-ending, and it reminded me of what I expect a Tough Mudder to be like, except that I would never sign up for a Tough Mudder. I felt like I was crawling, but kept passing guys, I guess who were even more uncomfortable than me in the slop. At some point during this section we came to a creek which had a very steep drop-off down to it and that had volunteers posted with a fixed rope to “rappel” down to the creek. I came to this section alone, so quickly descended and ascended, but this section would become a bottleneck for most of the field, and there were stories of runners waiting upwards of 2 hours in the major conga line that formed waiting to descend the rope. It wasn’t cold for the front runners, but for those that stood around for hours on the trail it got a bit uncomfortable. This was one of many times that I thought that if I were not running as an invited runner and at the front, I’d likely be a much less happy camper.

Emma had quickly moved out of sight as soon as we got into the mud, and I have to say that her history as a world champion adventure racer was quickly evident and served her well here. She vanished the minute we hit the trail. I didn't get passed except for maybe early on once or twice, and passed several guys, especially as the mud section dragged on, but I definitely lost a competitive drive for long portions, as I concentrated on staying upright. At some point after what seemed like hours of slogging, I passed a guy (Martin Fiz) who reminded me there was one woman ahead of me and to go after her. It’s as if I had forgotten that I was racing and was just slogging to get out of the mud, but that sparked something and I started working hard again. I had no idea how far ahead Emma was, but it was a reminder that this was a stage race, and the less ground I could lose over the next 5 or so miles to the finish, the better. I’d had a few butt slides up to this point, but hadn't managed a good face plant, but in what was probably the last big stretch of a foot-deep “lake” of mud I did a full superman face plant into the slop. Covered head to toe, I could only laugh, and push on. The mud section had been generally rolling and then climbing, but it finally plateaued and I could see the lake off in the distance. The last 5 miles or so were fast and downhill, finishing just beside the lake at Camp 1. Happy to be running again, I pushed to the finish and finally got there in 4:11:01, trailing Emma by 5 minutes (4:05:45) with the third woman 49 minutes behind me.

Happy to be done. Wet, muddy, and ready for a soak. Photo: El Cruce.
Life at camp was fun: nice people, beer, mate (yerba mate not mating), soaking in the lake, lounging by the lake, massage, and lots of asado (grilled meat). With the sun, things were looking up for the next two days, and being able to complete the route as planned. We didn’t actually know what was going on, though, as the reality was that the teams were struggling through day 2 with some additional weather-related issues, including a bridge that was out, and a flooded camp 2 that awaited their arrival after another cold, wet and long stage for them (stage 2 involved a bus ride to the start, and while the sun shone upon us, it apparently wasn’t shining on them during their stage or on their arrival to Camp 2).
Drinking mate with some new Argentinian (and Spanish) friends. Photo: my iPhone.

Enjoying a post-run soak in the lake. Photo: El Cruce.
Day 2 started with some confusing messaging, which in the end was roughly, stay in bed, don’t pack our things, and to chill because we weren’t going anywhere. Our Camp 1 was to become our Camp 2, in part because stage 2 was impassable because of the bridge issues, and so we’d be doing a revised stage from camp. The organizers, planned a new stage for us on the fly, which would start at an undetermined time and the distance would be revealed to us. We sat around, not really knowing what was happening, and eventually they announced the stage, which would be an out-and back from camp: approximately 6 miles up a dirt road/trail, and then back down the same route, which would start sometime around mid-day. The communication of the start time was vague, and once the start looked probable, the lack of information made it such that no one wanted to be left behind, so a mob of runners gathered around the start/finish area where we then stood around in the sun for an hour or so before the start.

Once we finally started, the course wasn’t bad for what it was. It was a gradual to steady climb, through fields of grass and flowers, which consisted of mainly dirt road with some single track. I had to pee so badly by the time it started, and had been afraid to move far from the start line for fear of missing the start, that I made it only a couple of miles with Emma before I had to pull off and make a pit stop. I felt better, but I lost time and contact, and a bit of motivation. The turn-around came soon enough, and I estimated Emma was only a minute or so up on me, so it wasn’t so bad. I let it fly on the downhill, but never did see her. She can definitely descend. Emma finished in 1:26:29 and I finished in 1:28:16, another 1:47 behind, which put me just about 7 minutes behind heading into what would be a shortened stage 3.
Descending during the short stage. Short, but pretty stage. Photo: El Cruce.

Commiserating after the 12 mile sprint. Photo: El Cruce.
We spent a lot of time posing for group pictures. This one after the day 2 stage. Photo: El Cruce.
After the stage, more of the same…another bath in the lake, another beer, more asado, more hanging out with new friends, and lots of posing for pictures. The sunset on night 2 was photo-worthy and the volcano was out in full view. We weren’t sure what was happening the next day, except that it would be a shortened stage again, because of either weather or the fact that the late start time would require an earlier start to ensure that everyone finished before dark because we had to be bussed from Camp 1 to Camp 2 to start stage 3.
The tent village at dusk. Photo: my iPhone.
The volcano that looked over the Camp. We finally got a full view the end of day 2. Photo: my iPhone.

The final morning, we packed up and were bussed to Camp 2, where we would start stage 3. There was little information on the course, and all I remember is Mauri telling me right before we started, “It’s all downhill; they’ve taken out the big climb. Well, you’ll climb a little at the start, but then it’s all downhill.”  I’m still trying to figure this one out. We immediately started to climb gradually, and then more steeply and continued to grind upwards for what was at least 10 km. Mauri and I might have a very different definition of what “all downhill” means, as this course seemed to be pretty evenly half uphill, and then half downhill. Regardless, the third day was my favorite route, and the first section was beautiful, all on black volcanic soil/sand/rocks with views of volcanoes in all directions. I stayed with Emma for the first few miles, but then she continued to grind upwards as I took a walk break, and she quickly dropped me. We finally reached the "all downhill" section, which was steep and exposed at first, on black volcanic scree, but then we entered the forest onto a fun trail that involved a lot of log hopping and some patches of mud, that after the first day seemed didn’t seem so bad. I face planted once early on the downhill and hit my right knee pretty hard, which caused me to hobble for a couple of minutes, but no major damage besides another scar to add to the collection. For the rest of the downhill, I felt like I was pushing, but again, Emma was out of sight and finished just a few minutes out of reach, again about 5 minutes behind in 2:32:42. The three-day tally was Emma finishing 16th overall in 7:59:23 and I was 17th overall in 8:11:59. 
Descending on day 3. Views were not too shabby. Photo: El Cruce.
New friends (and old). Photo: my iPhone.
El podio femenino. Photo: my iPhone.
Overall, I had a great time. I was given the opportunity to spend a week in a beautiful spot, meet some great people who I'll stay in contact with, run on some beautiful trails and take in some beautiful vistas. The race had its difficulties, but overall, I was impressed with the logistics of it all--putting up and breaking down a tent city for two groups of 1500 tired, cold, wet, and hungry runners is not an easy feat, and some amount of waiting in lines is unavoidable. The weather was out of the control of the organization, but there were definitely some elements (like the bottleneck the first day that caused people to stand in one spot on the trail for up to 2 hours), that were unfortunate. Those of us towards the front didn't have any issues, but only heard the tales after the fact. The race has grown over the years, and with growth an event can lose a bit of a personal feel. Most impressive are those events that even with growth can maintain the same level of support and attention to detail to all runners. Overall, I loved the experience and am very thankful to Columbia, Mountain Hardwear and Montrail for giving me the opportunity to participate. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

2014 Plans: Masters Running

I keep thinking about ditching this blog, while alternating with plans to continue writing more frequently. Maybe the key is to just write shorter posts. Because lately I've been too distracted to write in entire sentences, let alone paragraphs or stories. But there are a couple loyal blog followers (mom and Vicki) that keep requesting that I update this, so I'm hoping to catch up the last 6 months in the next few blog posts. A lot has happened since UTMB. There was a super fun trip to Japan in October for a kinda crazy and tough 71 Km MHW-sponsored race called the Hasetsune Cup. I still plan to write up a little something on that one. It was awesomely tough. January and February involved a hectic travel schedule, for a combination of pleasure (Sedona), work (Brazil), and more pleasure (Chile), including a race (El Cruce Columbia), and during which I turned 40--more to come on the race in Chile in a future post. The 3-week non-stop trip was both fun, and exhausting, and I scored almost 50,000 airline miles in the process. Funny how when you fly a lot, you get a lot of miles, but then don't really either need or want to use them. 

Every day a little closer to becoming a crazy cat lady. Here's Ella, a post-run recovery nap specialist. 
Turning 40 has stressed me out since I was about 12, but it was relatively painless, and I never have to worry about it again. And life does indeed seem to be getting better and better, so all of those 40+ folks who say it gets better after 40 aren't just making crap up. Funny how daunting a number can seem and passing it just feels like a relief. Much of my anxiety revolved around the fact that if you boil it all down, I am an unmarried 40-year-old female living in Portland with 2 adorable cats (and the desire for a few more). Crazy-cat-lady-dom is staring at me in the face, and I want to both embrace it and run screaming. Some anxiety also comes from the fact that I'm about to get really old and really slow. I realize it's not going to happen overnight, but it's inevitable for all of us. And while I plan to age gracefully, I plan to do a little kicking and screaming on the way, as I've got some goals to achieve before I really slow down. And many women have proven that you can actually get faster at 40 and beyond. In the spirit of keeping this short...on to 2014 races and goals.

Hanging out on my 40th birthday with mountain running superstars Marco de Gasperi and Emma Roca in a rustic local hot spring in Chile. Not a bad way to spend the day.
Feb 7-9: El Cruce Columbia 2014. A 3-day stage race through Chilean Patagonia, starting near Puerto Varas, Chile (blog post coming soon). 

The scenery from the final day of El Cruce. Not a bad way to celebrate the big 4-0. 
Feb 22: Buck Mountain Mudslinger 6.5 mile Trail Race. Not something I was planning to do; I decided to join friends who were going. Shortest race I've done in 20 years. A fun course at Silver Falls State Park, with a nice combo of big hills and mud. 1st Female in 52:18, which is not a fast time for the course, but a good winter workout and fun to get out of my comfort zone and run something short without getting angst-ridden about it. Fun to run a race where you spend more time drinking beer than you do running. 

April 12: Patagonia Run 100K, San Martin de los Andes, Argentina. I had originally signed up for Lake Sonoma, but I could not pass up the opportunity for another trip to Patagonia, this time for a longer race in another spot I've visited years ago, and would love to see again, this time on foot. I lived in Paraguay for 3+ years back in the day and have traveled extensively in South America, but not in the past 6 years or so, and really loved being back down there in February. I appreciate that there is a very short window in my life where I will be invited to run in beautiful places, so plan to take full advantage of opportunities when they arise. I'm really excited about this one.

June 1: Comrades Marathon (89K), from Peitermaritzburg to Durban, South Africa. Comrades is the largest ultramarathon in the world, with close to 18,000 entrants. I'm excited for a down year this year. I ran the up year a few years back while in Africa for work, and struggled a bit with multiple bathroom stops for a 7:34 21st place (F) finish. It's always a hugely competitive field, as the prize money attracts a lot of top runners. I am going for a top 10 finish, which historically, would mean a sub-7 hour race. In a down year, roughly, the first 50K is big rolling hills, and then it's more or less downhill the last 40K. It'll either thoroughly trash my quads in preparation for WS or get them primed and ready to go.

June 28: Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. This will be my 4th year running Western States. I've been 8th, 8th, and 3rd, last year, and my times from the past 3 years have been within a 25 minute window. Last year was arguably my best year, but I'd like to improve upon my 19:11 PR there, and hope to get in around 18:30. 

August 9: Angels Staircase 60K. The course looks beautiful and tough and Rainshadow Running events are always a ton of fun. This will be good preparation for whatever mountain adventures I plan for late August through October.

(PACING) August 16: Leadville 100. I had a great time hanging out with Emma Roca all week at El Cruce Columbia, and my current plan is to pace her for at least part of her race. I've never been to Leadville, so am curious to watch it all go down. Hopefully they'll resolve some recent race management issues, and it will return to its former glory. 

November 28: IAU World 100K Championships in Doha, Qatar. The race location was just announced this week, after the original plan for an August 31 race in Latvia fell through last month. I would have loved to have gone back to UTMB this year, but did not sign up because of the timing of the World 100K (initially on the same day). The November date frees up my summer schedule, and so July-October are still a bit up in the air. I won't know if I make the 100K team until early June, and that will then shape the rest of my year. If I make the team, I plan to spend Thanksgiving in Doha. 

Memories from the 2012 World Championship in Italy. Here's hoping the race happens (and that I get to run it), and that we create a similar outcome. 
On the sponsor front, I'm happy to be continuing on with Montrail, Mountain Hardwear, Clif Bar, Injinji, and Nuun. All great products and ones that I both love and use, to keep me running, clothed, shod, energized and hydrated. And I'm really happy to be joining the Flora team this year, as they make great products and ones that I use on a daily basis to keep me healthy and running. 

So as not to play favorites...the other half of Sam and Ella. Sam, ball fetcher extraordinaire, hanging out in one of her many favorite boxes. Sam would also like to thank my sponsors for keeping her life filled with boxes. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

3/4 of the UTMB....

I've been meaning to write something about my UTMB race, but haven't really been feeling up to it. In summary, I developed what felt like a urinary tract infection, and the pain caused me to make a couple of medical stops around the mid-way point and hang out in the med tent at Arnuva (km 94) for an hour or so. Once I was freed to go, I continued on to Champex-Lac (122 K), where I eventually dropped. It was vomiting inside the aid station at Champex-Lac that caused a third medical tent visit there, but it was a combo of the UTI-like issue and vomiting that caused me to drop. I dug myself into a hydartion/nutrition hole, and while I could have just hung out for several hours and gotten myself into a place to move forward, at the time, the issues seemed such that I didn't believe pushing on for another 8+ hours was in my best interest. I guess I'm not one to push through the types of issues that many do in a hundred mile race. I'd like to continue doing this for a long time. So, when basic body functions become painful and stop working altogether, I may be somewhat quick to throw in the towel.
A street scene in Chamonix. A fun town, but I enjoyed hanging out in a quiet valley the days leading up to the race. All pics are mine.
In hindsight, there were any number of solutions to the problems I faced during UTMB and ways I could have turned things around in order to finish UTMB, but at the time, the solutions were not apparent and my failure to figure them out forced me further into a hole. I would love to go back and restart the race with the knowledge of what would go wrong, and thus preemptively fix the issues as they came up, as I made a number of stupid mistakes that led to some health issues that it felt wise not to push through. I'm disappointed that I did not finish, but given the circumstances, I don't necessarily regret pulling the plug. I just regret getting myself into a place where I felt like I needed to pull the plug.
The trail heading down into Arnuva.
The night start at UTMB means that you start out and run hard through the night, and thus, need to be taking in calories and fluids, even though the temps drop and fluids might seem less critical. At least this is my guess for why I didn't hydrate/eat like I should have. And this led to what appears to have been a urinary tract infection or what one would feel like, feeling like I had to pee constantly, without being able to, except when I could, which was really painful, and just painful, in general. I've never had a UTI before, and the obvious solution to try to clear something like this up would be to down lots and lots of fluids, but when it feels like you need to pee, but can't, and then when you do pee it is excruciating, then drinking lots of fluids to lead to peeing (and thus, pain) sounds intuitive, but in the moment didn't happen because at some subconscious level, I avoided drinking to avoid peeing (again, it hurt). I started having issues with this about 50K in, and then stopped at Courmayeur (80K) to consult medical, who advised me to drink lots of fluids, and then stopped again in Arnuva (95K) to consult again, and the medical tent there kept me for an hour to get me to drink fluids and do a couple of urine tests in addition to getting my blood pressure back up. It was 90/60, which is in the low range and low for me; I'm not sure what that even means or if that's normal mid-race to be low--it doesn't seem like it should be after running down a long descent to the aid station. 
Meghan and I at the start of the race. Stupidly, I didn't drink much in the hour or so leading up to the start, because last year I'd almost peed my pants waiting for the start. 
After an hour at Arnuva, they told me to go on my merry way, and I did go, and was fairly merry. My mindset had changed from racing to just finishing it.  I made the climb up to Gran Col Ferret feeling stronger than I'd been climbing all day, and quickly passed back the two women that had gotten ahead of me during my hour on the cot, along with another couple of dozen of runners before I reached La Fouly. I felt like I had a new lease on life. Had I been smart here, I should have worked to get back into a good place from both a hydration and calorie standpoint. I also should have spent the hour in Arnuva focusing on getting food and water in, but I was in short sleeves laying on a cot alone in the medical tent, wrapped in an emergency blanket, and was too cold to think intelligently about getting up and spending that time in Arnuva working on eating and drinking. I was more concerned with staying warm wrapped in that piece of foil. Of course I had 2 more layers in my bag, which I also failed to put on. So, I consumed the 2 cups of tea with a sugar cube that the med team brought me, but nothing else, and while I felt great leaving Arnuva, those 2 sugar cubes wore off eventually--shocking, I know.  Again, in hindsight, there were so many simple ways to get myself back into a better place, but I got myself further into a hydration defecit, and an empty stomach.  
The trail heading up the Gran Col Ferret.
After Arnuva, I felt relatively great for most of the entire stretch to La Fouly, and continued to pick off runners, and came into La Fouly re-energized, but again, didn't grab as much as I should have in La Fouly. A banana and some protein drink, along with a glass of coke, which had been going down well all night.  I had survived most of the race on coke up until this point, with some protein drink thrown in and a couple of gels early, but I'd stopped eating gels a few hours into the race, and opted to go on liquid calories. I think this plan would have been fine, but I wasn't actually taking in enough liquid calories, as my hydration bladder was filled with water, and the liquid calories I was only grabbing in glasses of coke at aid stations, and my protein drink, which tasted good and went down well, but which I could only grab in small quantities when at the infrequent crew points. 

On a positive note, my legs felt pretty good and it wasn't the climbs and descents that caused me issues. While training locally is definitely beneficial, I felt like I knew what I needed to do going in to get ready, and my quads were relatively prepared for what they would face. It wasn't my legs that were the issue. It was a failure to have a good hydration/fueling plan and being fairly nonchalant about fueling/hydration and the issues that caused me.
The trail heading down into Arnuva, where I hung out in the med tent for an hour. Not a bad place to be, as I had enjoyed a few days in Arnuva before the race. 
In the end, we all need to make our own decisions. I did that at UTMB and made what seemed to be the smartest decision at the time. After suffering with UTI pain and infrequent and painful attempts to go the bathroom for 45 miles, followed by a nausea bout that had me, again, in a prone position in a medical tent, pushing on in the heat of the day over another 3 tough mountain passes just didn't seem the wisest choice. I'm guessing it was hydration-related, but for whatever reason from my neck down, things had just been "off" for most of the race. Could I have done it? Yes. Did I fear that my internal systems weren't processing things well, and that another 8 hours of intense exercise could potentially damage them? Yes, but I guess that's always a fear in long-distance events. I guess the difference being that it's always a risk, but you either continue to fight through or throw in the towel once you can tell that there are problems. Some people are of the opinion that you should never throw in the towel. I'm definitely not of that mindset, and feel that not throwing in the towel when your body tells you to, can be a bit short-sighted. Dropping is a personal decision, and in the end, each of us has to make the decision that is in our own best interest.

I felt pretty down after the race, and still do to some degree. While at some level I realize I'm not a complete loser, I definitely don't feel good about my UTMB race. It was one of my goal races for the year, and dropping out of a "destination" race always leaves a bad taste on what was, otherwise, a great trip. I was having a bit of a pity party for several weeks, but am starting to feel excited to jump into some races again, and reminding myself that I don't completely suck. Sometimes it's good to have a melt-down race to rattle the confidence and force some reflection on what's been a solid several years of racing.
Flowers on the UTMB course near Arnuva. 
It's a strange sport in some regards. In some ways, it's a seemingly cohesive community out there who support other runners and build people up, but there seem to be also a growing number of people within the community ready to criticize--look at how much shit Anton got for dropping. Sometimes there's a damned if you do or damned if you don't feeling. I've heard athletes criticized for dropping, especially the "elites", but have also heard folks criticize other athletes for putting themselves into the hospital. I'd guess that many people that drop can probably get to the finish line, but at some point you've got to decide at what cost. There's sometimes no way to win, both figuratively and literally, so when having one of those days when normal bodily functions become painful, and the body is clearly unhappy, I made a decision to pull the plug. There's a difference between certain types of "unhappy" and while sore quads is one thing, kidneys that are unable to properly process waste, or the body struggling to excrete said waste is a different type of unhappy, and a type of unhappy I'm less willing to run through. I'd like to continue processing waste well into my 80s.

I continued to have some issues for a couple of days following the race, but everything did clear up and I felt fine within a few days and like I probably wasn't anywhere near to the point of causing damage, but at the time it sure felt like it. So, of course I doubt my decision, and kick myself for dropping now, although I didn't immediately following. Pain, in hindsight, always seems less severe.  I guess that's why we keep signing up for these things.
A day relaxing in Annecy after the race. Annecy is a place I could spend some time.
I do want to go back to UTMB, and I'm anxious to race another 100 miler, and may try to jump into one soon, but maybe not. Sadly next year UTMB falls on the same date as the IAU World 100K, and assuming I'm on the team (Meghan and I have qualifying times from the Japan Shibamata 100K, so assuming no more than 4 people run faster 100Ks at MadCity or another road 100K I'll be on the team), I'll likely be in Latvia next year instead of Chamonix. It's a tough call, because while I'm more drawn to mountain running than road, I would have a hard time passing up the opportunity to represent the USA at the World 100K championships. If my Shibamata time does not get me on the team, then I will try to get into UTMB again.
While the race didn't go as planned, it's really hard to complain. I lead a fortunate existence and get to travel the world and visit places like Chamonix, with window displays such as these. I enjoyed more than my fair share of treats on this trip.
In the meantime, I'm super grateful to my sponsors Montrail and Mountain Hardwear and the amazing opportunity to travel to Japan in a couple of weeks for the Hasetsune Cup, a 71K race in the mountains near Tokyo with an estimated 15,000 feet of uphill (and the same in descent) over many short and steep ups and downs. I'm not sure I've done anything previously that I can compare it to, and I'm hoping to stay upright on what is said to be a very technical and tough run, and one of the oldest and most popular trail races in Japan. Starting at 1 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon with a field of 2000 runners with only one aid station half-way that gives each runner just 1.5 L of water, and run at least half in the dark, it should be an interesting and unique experience. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The joys of USADA and drug tests....

July was a frustrating month on the drug-testing front. First, they keep coming back. What I thought would be a yearly or at-most quarterly check has been monthly. I failed to update my schedule last week, and got my first missed test violation when they showed up at 6 a.m. Sunday morning at my Portland house (I was in DC). The missed test was completely my fault--I meant to go online last week and check my submitted schedule, but I figured since they had tested me at work a few days before I left for DC there was no chance they'd come back the following week and didn't bother checking whether I'd included my DC trip and lodging information/testing windows while in DC. While the tests are ordered by 2 different agencies (USADA or IAAF), they've still been spaced fairly evenly, or at least not more frequently than monthly. Wrong. This time would have been 10 days between tests. I mean seriously, me, doping? Although that brings me around to the next drug-testing drama.

A couple of days after returning from Western States I got a very official and legal sounding letter from USADA letting me know that I was being investigated for a potential anti-doping rules violation. Huh? To back-pedal a bit, whenever they come to test, I have to declare what I've taken in terms of vitamins/medications in the 72 hours prior. That usually equates to me declaring my daily Vit D supplement. When I was drug tested in April or May I had indicated that I'd had a Venofer infusion via a 200 mL drip. Venofer is an iron sucrose solution used to treat anemia. It's administered via an IV drip, wherein lies the problem. While iron is not a banned substance, getting an IV infusion of more than 50 mL that's not administered in a hospital setting is not allowed without a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE). However, in my case, I didn't need a TUE because it was administered in an out-patient clinic at OHSU which qualifies as a hospital setting. I know this because I checked into all of this BEFORE I got the infusions. That's part of the reason I found the notification so annoying--I went through the proper steps, contacted USADA, asked for clarification prior to treatment, and went ahead, and then got a letter saying that I'd done something wrong. Screw you. I freaked out more than a little when I got the letter even though I knew I'd done nothing wrong. And I wasn't sure how to respond. It was all very official sounding. Did I need a lawyer? Luckily, my primary care physician is great, and works with athletes, and I sent him off the letter from USADA, which he wrote a response to immediately, such that I responded to USADA the same day they sent me the notification. I was cleared of the violation within a week or two, but the whole thing caused me angst and a few tears.

To me it's just ridiculous to think that I'm probably the only ultra runner in the US currently being tested on an out-of-competition basis. Sabrina and Jon will most likely get put into the pool, but maybe not until next year (I won worlds in April 2012, and wasn't in the pool until February 2013). No one else in the sport needs to worry about getting a violation for using cold medication or an epi-pen should I have an allergic reaction to a bee sting (you can get a post-usage emergency TUE for this, but again, it's the process that's a pain).  It's one thing when you're a professional athlete and have nothing to do but lounge around between workouts and wait for USADA folks to show up and worry about applying for TUEs. Running is not my job. I have a regular job and it's already hard to squeeze it all in without worrying about whether going for a run is going to make me miss my testing window. I can also be an irresponsible flake, and simply forget to do things, like pay bills on time or update my whereabouts filing. It would really suck to get 3 missed tests and get a suspension because I'm a flake.

And then there's the awkwardness around getting tested at work. I'm required to declare a 60-minute window every day of the week. Logistically, it would be difficult to declare my 60 minute window before work (I'm out running many days and the window can't start until 6 a.m. which would mean I couldn't run in the mornings), and after work would mean that I'd have to go home and wait for them every night (I'm often out running, or at the gym or doing something).  On the weekends my window is 6-7 a.m. at home, but more often than not, they've come at work during the week ( although they've now come twice on weekend mornings at 6 a.m.). So, work seemed the best option during the week, being that I assumed it would be a once-every-6-months kind of thing, and not something that could actually disrupt my work day.

The "awkwardness around getting tested at work" comes in few ways. This last test I had just used the bathroom before she arrived, so couldn't produce a sample right away. I tried, and then had to carry my partial sample around with me, and back up to my desk, while I continued to work with my USADA friend in my cube with me until I could finish (I can't leave her sight once she's contacted me). Then there's the "watching you pee" aspect to the test, which at home is no biggie, but when you're in a work bathroom with multiple stalls, and the two of you enter the stall together with others in the bathroom, and are then pouring urine samples into fancy little bottles on the counter...it's got to look a bit strange.

In the meantime, I'm expecting them today or tomorrow to make up the test I missed Sunday, but maybe it doesn't work that way. Regardless, I now need to be a lot more anal about letting them know my every move because I don't want a second missed test. Three strikes (within 18 months) and you're out. Although in the low-key trail ultra racing world, what does that even mean? Is a non-USATF trail 50 miler going to tell me I can't race?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

WS 2013: F(th)ree from Fate (F8)

A nightmare woke me up a few minutes before my alarm was set to go off. The details are fuzzy at this point, but it involved racing a tough mountain 100 miler; Dave Mackey, Hal Koerner and I had all dropped out, and we were huddling next to a rock in the middle of nowhere. I am only superstitious in the days leading up to races, and this didn't seem a good omen, but what was I to do at this point? Explain to my crew that my demise has been portended and that starting could be a pointless endeavor? I also didn't think it wise to share with Dave or Hal at the starting line (sorry, guys!).

I went into WS with a very loosely defined plan; planning, which requires thinking about the race, makes me nervous, and I try to avoid feeling nervous. I only panicked when I heard reference to others' nutrition plans or crew instructions. I didn't look at splits, and I didn't have a concrete nutrition/hydration plan, except to carry calories and fluid and consume them, enough so to keep running. I told my crew on Friday a few things that they could offer me at aid stations, but not to be surprised if I never touched them. Loosely, I hoped to consume gels every hour until I gagged on a gel, and then figure it out from there.  I hoped it would all work itself out, and I never seem to stick to a plan anyhow. I guess my plan was to do what I always do--gels and water/sports drink--until it stops working, because it generally stops working.  I hoped that if my legs stayed in it, that my stomach would to.

Based on last year's rocky second half, I knew what some potential issues might be--dead quads, and/or an the inability to get down enough calories, in part because of renal protest from the dead quads (overworked kidneys from too much metabolic waste coming from tissue damage--or at least that's my hypothesis). The other big factor would be heat, but that would be a factor for everyone, and I'd done a solid 3 weeks of sauna training, and in recent past lives I have lived in sauna-like places, liked heat and liked running in hot weather. I added a mantra to my list, "Soy chaqueña" (in reference to my sometimes oppressively hot Peace Corps home in the Paraguayan Chaco).  Most importantly, I wanted to enjoy it--to not have it turn into a slog in those last 40 miles, and especially those last 20, as it had the past 2 years. I really wanted to run around the track, because last year I barely managed to limp around it.

Lisa and I at check-in on Friday. Photo by Amy AL-khalisi. 
Western States has become what my sister and I refer to as "Sister Camp." I have just one OLDER sister (I can't believe people ask us this question!), and for the past 3 years, WS has become the one week each year when the two of us get to spend some quality time together. I'm uncertain if given the option between a week in Hawaii or a week at WS, Lisa would choose WS, but she sure fakes it enough such that I'd guess that she enjoys WS even more than I do and would choose it over other more exotic destinations. Maybe in a few years we'll move Sister Camp to a beach location, but in the meantime, Squaw Valley to Auburn it is.  Lisa crews and then paces me from Hwy 49 to the finish each year, and we both hoped that this year I would be running strong enough to drop her finally.  The last 2 years it's been such a trudge to the finish, and Lisa has had no problem hanging with me.

Lisa and I hanging out Statesmas-Eve at the Montrail house.  Photo by Jason Leman.
So, Lisa flew in to Portland on Tuesday night, and we took off late Wednesday afternoon on the road down to Auburn, stopping in Klamath Falls along the way, and arriving in Squaw Valley Thursday afternoon in time to jet over to the panel discussion. I would normally avoid settings such as these before a race, but Ann Trason was talking, and who doesn't want to hear a little something from the woman who dominated the sport (and since disappeared from it) for so long?  It was a good mix of advice from seasoned WS veterans, and I was happy to hear, "throw your pace chart out the window," because I hadn't yet created one. Although in my opinion, pace charts are more useful for crews, if only for them to know if they have time to grab a burger and a beer en route to the next stop. I'm usually moving as fast as I think I can/should be, and knowing how that compares to my goal time isn't always a good thing. In general, I had hoped to be sub-19 after 2 years in the 19s.

Another reason I wasn't stressing about the race was because I was stressing about my calf. About 7 miles into our weekly Tuesday night trail run (10 days before the race) I took a step and felt a twinge in my calf, which was reminiscent of the calf strain I experienced 2 years ago in Marin, but less severe.  If 100 rubber bands were released in the calf strain 2 years ago, this one was more like 10 rubber bands letting go.  Regardless, I freaked out, and while I could still run home, the calf wasn't great, and kept pinging at me. As luck would have it, I had a previously scheduled chiro/graston appointment scheduled for Wednesday and Dr. Forcum confirmed it was a minor calf strain, but thought I should be OK if I treated it aggressively and took a couple of days off, followed by some light running, with no fast/hard efforts that might re-tweak it during the healing process. I was nervous because while he seemed unconcerned, he still wanted to see me 5 times before the race. I had been feeling like I needed a more severe taper than what my schedule called for, so this forced me to take it. I threw the final workouts out the window--no track work on Thursday (or running), and waited until Friday morning to run gently again. Over the next 7 days, I had 4 sessions (graston, e-stim, ultrasound) at Back in Motion with Dr. Forcum and his team , and 2 massages from my favorite guy, Michael Bilyeu. By Friday it felt normal, although the start up the Escarpment worried me more than a little.

The introduction of the top returnees from 2012 and MUC qualifiers. The only place all year (and in my lifetime) I get to practice my pageant wave.  Photo by Shahid Ali.
The Friday pre-race festivities and visiting came and went too quickly, and it was soon time to sleep and get this thing started. Besides the DNF dream, I slept well and didn't feel overly nervous at the start in part because the heat gave me something to worry about other than just racing. Quick hugs to friends and crews and we were off under what was a very different feel from 2012--no gloves, jackets or blowing sleet. The climb up to the Escarpment felt good; I didn't feel like I was working too hard, and was keeping pace with the fast chicks around me. The trail up top, once you pop up and over the Escarpment, is one of my favorite parts of the race. It was also the most pleasant section temperature-wise all day, as being up above 8000 feet it was relatively cool. The sunrise over Lake Tahoe was gorgeous, and I noticed it for the first time in 3 years (last year was too cloudy to be able to see it, but the first year I didn't even realize there was a view of the lake from the top--what can I say, I rarely stop to look behind me during a race). I didn't notice the elevation much--not sure why, as I seem to be one of the few that hasn't jumped on the Hypoxico wagon or doesn't live in a mountain state. I passed Topher at about the same time I passed him last year--a rutty gravely section of road about 8 miles in, and we joked about deja vu. Shortly after passing Toph, and right after Lyon Ridge, I face planted going downhill, and scraped up my left knee. I was bleeding, but oddly, was more concerned about the fact that I chipped a nail. I know. So, while I ran and stewed about some chipped polish, Topher caught back up, some more women came from behind, we caught up to some others, and once things settled out, I ended up running in the vicinity of Kerrie, Aliza, Topher, and Pam, and we all headed into Duncan Canyon together at mile 23.

Hiking up the Escarpment in the early morning light. After 3 years, I finally saw Lake Tahoe from the top. Photo by Bob MacGillivray. 
After a few mishaps at Duncan Canyon, including a not-properly-closed bladder, and poor communication by me to my crew on my ice needs, I lost most of the group, but caught back up to Kerrie after leaving the aid station, passed her and within 10 seconds managed to face plant again, this time scraping up the right knee and elbow, but popping back up with no bruised bones (and no further chipped nails). I worked on getting Pam and Aliza, who were a few minutes up at this point, back into view. I felt OK through here, but took it easy and walked more than I should have, perhaps. I caught up to Aliza and Rory just as we were entering the aid station at Robinson Flat, again had a slower stop than either of them, and left the aid station a minute or two behind. I felt like I wasn't pushing too hard, and was running controlled.

An early pack of Kerrie, Aliza, Topher, Pam and I heading into Duncan Canyon (mile 24). Photo by Dominic Grossman 
Robinson is always a big lift, as it's a major crew spot, and this year I wasn't quite so antsy about getting through, but rather about getting everything I needed. In general, I was slow through aid stations all day. The heat was such that leaving without a fully filled and iced bladder, or without sunscreen (which I'd forgotten up to this point), could make for a long day. I made a list between aid stations in my head, and tried to recite it as I was coming into each one. Rory and Aliza were out of view when I left, and it took me a few miles to catch them, but I caught them on the road before Miller's Defeat and we entered the next aid station roughly together, and I passed them here or shortly after.  I expected to see both of them again in the canyons, if not before. Pam and Joelle were now in front of me, putting me in third. The stretch from Robinson to Dusty and on to Last Chance is one of my favorites (heck, it's all downhill), and I'd put in music after Robinson, which really seemed to provide a boost. My boss at work made me a mix for the race, "Amy's Alt-ered States" and it was super fun.  Some favorites mixed in with several things I hadn't heard, along with a couple songs that caused me to laugh out loud.

Smiling heading into Robinson Flat. Photo by Gary Wang. 
I felt strong coming into Dusty, and heard that Pam and Joelle had switched spots, and that Joelle was just a couple of minutes up. I soon passed Joelle and then stopped to make a somewhat lengthy pit stop, where she caught up to me, but then faded back again. I was a little crushed because I really hoped she'd continue to crush it off the front; she's simply a faster runner than I am, and I'd love to see her have a great day at WS and knock it out of the park. Although I was also excited to think about what a great story Pam's race would be, comparing 2012 to this year. Maybe I should have focused more on trying to catch Pam, but I was just starting to have stomach issues at this point, and was more worried about keeping food down.

Running down into the canyons. Photo by Michigan Bluff Photography. 
I left Last Chance with who I thought was John Burton who I'd met on the initial climb, and couldn't figure out why he wasn't as friendly as he had been earlier when I exclaimed, "You, again!" His accent had changed, but his clothes hadn't. Turns out there were more than a few dudes with completely matching Salomon kits. I would run the rest of the race within a few hundred meters of this new dude (Adrian Lazar), without actually ever running a step with him. We went back and forth throughout the day (and he warmed up to me), and he'd eventually finish seconds in front of me.

On the dirt road leaving Devil's Thumb. Great shot by Luis Escobar, but this one frightens me a little bit. Looking slightly possessed.
I can usually survive on gels until about mile 80 and then start to gag on them. This year that only lasted about 50 miles, and climbing up out of the canyon en route to Michigan Bluff I knew that I needed to take a gel. It'd been a good hour since my last gel, which was probably only #5 or 6 of the day, but I also knew that there was a distinct possibility I'd gag on it. I did, and proceeded to get rid of some really weird looking things from my stomach. I'm guessing it was a combination of 16 oz. of beet juice from the day before, which had dyed everything coming out of every body orifice a brilliant shade of fuschia, and that gummy bear shards were the "things" but I tried to look away. It also resembled organ bits. Suffice it to say, that I was done with gels, officially nauseous and was only half way through.

I complained to my crew at Michigan Bluff that I'd puked (I generally am strongly against puking and try to avoid it at all costs and am really never a puker except recently in 100 milers). From here on out, I opted out of gels, and switched to gummy bears, coconut water and sprite/coke/ginger ale all in small quantities.

High-fiving John Medinger as I pass through Foresthill. Photo by Bob MacGillivray.
Despite not feeling great and lacking a bit of energy because I couldn't get calories in, my legs felt great, and I arrived in Foresthill looking a little crappy, but generally feeling pretty good. I tend to look a bit intense when I race, and I'd guess this race wasn't much different. I swear, for the most part, I'm having fun. My face just shows it differently than others and some of the race photos scare even me. Foresthill was festive, as always and I was happy to pick up my pacer, Robyn. Robyn, one of my early morning running buddies in Portland, was a WS/ultra newbie, and the absolute perfect choice for a pacer. I'd warned her beforehand that I don't like to be motivated/lied to ("You look great," etc.) and she kept up her end of the bargain, keeping up a fun, light conversation on a variety of topics. At the same time, I could sense from the excitement in the way that she talked about the weekend, her impression of the race thus far, hanging out with the crew, etc. that she was really enjoying the whole experience, and was witnessing a special event. It's really hard to grasp all that goes into a 100 mile trail race without experiencing one for yourself, and Robyn seemed to be soaking it all in, and seemed genuinely happy to be there and be a part of my race.

This is where one of us should have explained to Robyn that her pacing duties were done.  Restocking before heading across the river at Rucky Chucky. Alas, it all worked out for the best in the end.
My crew this year doubled in size from past years, with my sister, Jason, Dylan, and Jill, with Robyn joining until she jumped in to pace me from Foresthill to the river. I had the option of having Jason jump in at Rucky Chucky, but in years past, this section, from Rucky to the finish, has been the one where I've struggled most, and I felt that not having a pacer might actually allow me to push a little harder if I was hurting. I tend to want to put my music on and grunt--not something I like to do in front of a pacer (and to be honest, I'm not sure that I've ever grunted while running, but I thought this year might be the year).  As Robyn and I were approaching the river, she asked if I needed her to continue on, and I considered it. She was great company, but I had already planned to tell Jason that I didn't need him to jump in, and decided I wanted to go it alone.

I guess I assumed, wrongly, that when we got to the river, Robyn would know to stay with the crew, and I guess the crew thought Robyn and I had discussed this, which we had, indirectly, but without specific guidance. Robyn and I had also mentioned several times about getting to the river and how good it would feel, so I'd never actually told Robyn that she didn't actually get to cross the river. So, my crew handed me my headlamp on the nearside, and I crossed the river on foot, which was a joy as I was one of the first to walk across, which had sounded so appealing for so many miles. The river is actually kind of difficult to cross, as there are big rocks that you have to skirt around and over, while trying to hold things like music devices up and out of the chest-high water. There's a reason for that rope there and all of those folks helping to guide the way. I got out of the river on the far side, and low-and-behold, Robyn is behind me. My first thought was "Jason is going to think I intentionally deceived him." My second thought was, "Robyn doesn't have a headlamp and she's in it for the long haul," as the logistics of getting her back to my crew, now on the other side of the river, were more than I wanted to ponder. I shouted out for a spare headlamp, and a very nice guy not only gave us one to borrow, but then chased us up the road to swap it out for something brighter. I also asked if they could somehow let my crew know that my pacer had accidentally crossed the river, although I'm guessing they had no idea what I was talking about. Robyn was smiling, and seemed happy to have crossed the river, and happy to continue the journey, so we were off. And I was happy to have her along for the company. Being that I hadn't noticed Robyn in the water, I also hadn't noticed that Nikki was right behind Robyn, so we soon had even more company, and it was nice to chat with Nikki for a few minutes before she powered off in front of us on the climb up to Green Gate. Nikki helped light a spark under my butt, and I pleaded with myself not to let Nikki put 40 minutes on me like Krissy did when she passed me in the same spot last year. I didn't have a whole lot of fight in me to battle it out for second, but didn't necessarily want to give up any more spots.

Crossing the river. Photo evidence that Robyn (in white behind me) did enter the water and none of us noticed. And Nikki in orange is closing quickly. 
I've heard several comments about what an exciting race it was to "watch" from home, via the webcast or twitter feed, but as is often the case, it's hard to know what's going on behind you, so while there were a number of women in close proximity, I never had any idea how close behind they were until the finish. Once I passed Joelle around mile 40, I only saw one other woman all day, and that was Nikki when she passed me on the way up to Green Gate (mile 78). I guess I saw her twice, because she passed me climbing up, but I caught her again briefly at some point between Green Gate and Alt, but then never saw her again. I would hear that she was 2 or 3 minutes up, but I never closed the gap. I had no idea that Meghan was 5 minutes behind at the river, which is about the difference at the finish. So, while it might have been an exciting race to watch from the aid stations or from an armchair, from the WS trail it was kind of lonely. There was scant male carnage to be passed along the way, although again, some of that male carnage wasn't so much fun to pass (Jorge at mile 90'ish as an example), because they were friends who were not having the days for which they'd hoped and not people I should be passing unless they were suffering.  I was 20th at Foresthill, and 16th at the end, so in general, there wasn't much company along the way.

Robyn, knowing that I wanted to run from the river alone, took it upon herself to become my silent shadow so we plugged along, almost catching Nikki once, and going back and forth with our buddy Adrian, who I'd seen probably 10 times at this point. Somewhere along here Adrian asked if I was Amy, and I asked his name so we officially met around mile 85. Robyn was replaced by Lisa at Hwy 49 (mile 93.5), so recorded her longest run to date (31 miles) both time-wise and distance-wise, and her first experience running trails in the dark. Later reports confirmed that she loved the entire experience, even got a bit choked up when describing it to the rest of the crew, and plans to try a trail race or two in the coming year. My plan worked!

Lisa jumped in at Hwy 49 and we were off, as I'd seen AJW enter the aid station right behind me, and this lit a little spark. I'd finished ahead of AJW at both Ray Miller and Sonoma earlier in the year, but WS is his race, and I really didn't want to be one of the many that AJW was able to hunt down after Foresthill, so got out of the AS quickly and tried to pick up the pace. Plus, my goal was to drop my sister, so I had some work to do. She hung on until we got to the climb to Robie where I finally succeeded in dropping her. I thought that maybe she let me, but also know that she didn't really want to miss the finish, so I think I officially did it.

The finish. Happy to be done.
Jason was waiting for me at Robie, and Dylan met us en route, as well, and we made it to the track, which I was able to run around, sandwiched in between Adrian who sprinted by me after Robie, and AJW who entered the track as I finished. I finished third in 19:25, so did not meet my time goal of sub-19, and was 14 minutes slower than last year, but 5 places higher.  I was thrilled to finish top 3 in that field, and feel like I finally had a good race at Western States on a really tough day. Maybe not a great race, but it was a solid day, considering the conditions, and I'm definitely happy with my race. Temps in Auburn reached 102 on Saturday making it the second hottest WS in history. It was also exciting to be part of the heat-savvy Oregon contingent, bringing home 4 of the top 10 women's spots and 2 of the top 10 men's spots.  Pam had an amazing day and got revenge on 2012, Meghan continues to defy the aging process and gives us all hope for running well into our 40s and beyond, and Denise rocked out a great race to take over my favorite number, F8.  On the men's side, Yassine had a super solid day, breaking into the top 10 and of course everyone knows how Timmy faired. There are loads of other stories out there, as well, and friends that finished strong and others who didn't finish, but this is already a bit wordy. One of my favorite tales is that told by Sarah and her pacer, Desiree.

Western States is one of those races that feels like you've been away for weeks when in fact it's only been a few days, and it takes some time to adjust after getting back to the real world. Luckily Sister Camp continued on through Monday with a relaxing day on the Oregon coast, but as always, I was sad to send Lisa off on a plane the next day, and am already looking forward to Sister Camp 2014, most likely held once again from Squaw Valley to Auburn.

Lisa, Anpanman and I at the finish. Happy to have made her work a little harder in the final miles, and thrilled to have dropped her.
Many many thanks to my awesome crew. I had a great crew and pacers, who did an awesome job with the minimal instruction I provided. If anything, it reminded me that they are there to help me, and are making a huge sacrifice to do so, but can only do so much if I don't tell them what I need. My fear of planning is not always 100% helpful. It was also great to see my Uncle Dennis and Aunt Maria who came out to watch the finish and spend Sunday morning in the scorching heat at awards, only hours after a trans-Pacific flight home from Japan.  It meant a lot to have them there. And of course hats off to Craig, who knocked it out of the park in his first year as WS RD, and all of the merry volunteers.

The positives..
My Quads: Rocked it.
Last year my quads were starting to hurt really early, during the earliest descents--and were fairly dead by Michigan Bluff. This year, my quads didn't start to go until after Highway 49, and I only really felt them on the last descent to No Hands Bridge and from Robie Point to the finish. So, I'm not sure what I did differently, except that I backed off in the canyons a bit to not push it in the heat, and also paid attention to how I was landing to baby the calf. Sadly, I can't point to something and say "this worked!" but it does give me hope that I can endure the downs and still run late in a 100 miler, which will become key as UTMB rolls around (and there are more, and steeper downs). My quads were sore on Sunday/Monday, but not horrible, and feeling almost normal by Wednesday or so.

The Heat: I haven't lost my roots.
The few days leading into the race I kept trying to remind myself that I've lived in hot places 36 of my 39 years on this planet, hopeful that 3 years in the land of cool, green sogginess know as Oregon hadn't permanently damaged my hot weather skills. The heat wasn't horrid, and I felt as prepared for it as I could have been. Sauna training seems to work, or at least fooled me into not feeling miserable. To stay cool I used an ice-filled bandana tied around my neck, which really did help make it feel cooler. I also drenched myself in every water opportunity that arose (creeks, aid stations). My feet survived surprisingly well considering that they were wet all day.

I may not have been smiley all day, but I was definitely smiling here. Only minutes after this photo was taken, a wave of nausea returned and I was curled in the grass yacking up nothing and my face went a bit gray, but that was short-lived and I was eating pizza an hour later. Definitely the best I've felt after WS.
The negatives...
Nutrition: What 16 oz. of beet juice looks like the next day.
I'd guess I'm not exaggerating much to say I ran the last 50 miles on well under 1000 calories (and probably closer to 500), and likely consumed not more than 1000 in the first 50, too. First half diet: many oz. of water, 5-6 gels, 70 oz very watered down sports drink (weak, then added in ice), 1 popsicle, 10 gummy bears (minus several that were rejected after El Dorado Creek), sprite/coke at aid stations. Second half: max 20 gummy bears (minus a few that were rejected after Cal 1), a couple slices of watermelon, 2 potato chips (didn't end well), a glass of sprite/coke at every aid station (except Cal 1 where I tried to drink 2 and they were rejected), a cup of chicken noodle soup at 89, a water bottle's worth of coconut water that took me from Foresthill to Alt to finish, and starting at Brown's Bar, about 20 oz of diluted sports drink. I drank water in addition, more in the first half than the second. So, I'd guess I consumed somewhere less than 2000, maybe closer to 1500. Not ideal, but it was enough to get me to the end, although I'd count that as my one major area of failure on race day. I knew that nutrition could be a problem, and didn't really seek to change anything up, and proceeded with what I know doesn't really work for me. For me, I think I need to try some real food sooner (because once I start gagging I just can't do anything I have to chew and swallow), and/or switch to drinking more of my calories, and starting to drink them earlier.

The 2013 top 10. An awesome group of women there, and 40% from Oregon. The 2012 IAU women's 100K gold medal team also represented taking F1, F3 and F4. Go Team USA. Hoping we get to show our stuff in South Africa later this fall.
Montrail Masochists (lucky red ones from Japan)
Mountain Hardwear W's Ultrapacer Short II
Mountain Hardwear W's Way2Cool Tank
Mountain Hardwear Fluid Race Vest
Injinji Run 2.0 Midweight Mini-crew
Ice-filled Bandana--homemade 

Thanks to my sponsors, Montrail, Mountain Hardwear, Injinji and Clif for the awesome support!