Monday, September 18, 2017

Hallucination 100 (Hallelujah, I Finished!)

I was starting to think I'd never finish another ultra. I got hurt sometime after last year's Via Marathon—too much, too soon after a hard (crash-and-burn) effort—and my 2016 season fizzled out with a DNF at Javelina Jundred and a slow-but-fun Philadelphia Marathon with Students Run in October and November, respectively.

But my heart lies with 100 mile races now, and not being able to finish Javelina was a real bummer. I had my sights set on Lake Martin 100, but still by mid-December I couldn't run without piercing pain going up my left lower leg. I wrote the race director, and he agreed to let me defer my entry to the 2018 race. (Bless him!) In the meantime, I was signed up for Dawn to Dusk to Dawn 12 Hour in May and I got myself in Vermont 100 in July. Surely I'd be healed by then... 

I wound up stopping at D3 after 8 hours (50k); pain started after two hours of blissful running, and it slowly got worse. I walked a lot so as not to break myself, but I called it quits before too much longer. By the time Vermont 100 came along, I was pretty confidently running 40+ miles a week and my injury was mostly at bay, but I just didn't have enough training under my belt to finish such a hilly course. 

So it'd been over a year since I finished a 100 mile, and the Western States lottery was nearing: To keep the lottery tickets I'd built up in previous years, I'd need to finish a qualifying 100-mile race before November. Time was ticking. I decided to do one in September, and settled on Hallucination 100 because it would be reasonably easy to get to and would hopefully be a doable course. It was a 16.66-mile loop course—my favorite format. It also started at 4pm on Friday, which meant I'd encounter nighttime much earlier in the race than normal—probably for the better.

Three of my siblings, a friend of theirs and I drove to Michigan on Friday morning. My sister Selena and I drove separately and got there first, so we set up camp. The others arrived and got situated before their 3–10pm aid station volunteer shift, and I went into my tent for a quick nap before the start. 

Suddenly, it was time to start. It was sunny and our shadows were harsh, and then I was running into the woods with 150 other people. My plan was to take it slow, to try to stay steady through the whole race, and not finish any loop faster than 4 hours (putting me at a 24-hour finish). I walked up all the hills, and I just generally enjoyed myself. Life is good, I remember thinking. I was wearing sandals from the start, but soon I realized that I couldn't make out all the rocks and roots enough to avoid them (chalk it up to my poor eye acuity and everything down there being the same shade of drab). I switched to shoes, which offered more protection at the front but much less on the bottom—a catc-22 if there ever was one. 

I saw my family at their aid station at mile 8—"So you have to go 92 more miles?" my brother said—and then again at mile 24. It's always such a fun "surprise" to see people you know after a long time in the woods. By then it was dark, and I settled in for another loop and a half of darkness. I put on some music. I was surprised how well everything was going. Maybe this would be an easy 100. At the same time, I wondered if everything would stay okay, or if I would have to DNF again. One hundred miles is a really long way to go, after all.

Still feeling good... well, only 8 miles in

Hey, 16+ miles later, and still smiling. I think that's the secret. Though this time it was just because I accidentally filled my water bottle with coffee (and possibly some Mountain Dew, though I think it was water)

My sister Christina helping at the aid station

Things stayed quite good until mile 83, around 2pm. I saw my family again when I stopped by my drop bag tent (positioned conveniently right along the course), and I perhaps inadvisably bragged that I wasn't feeling tired at all. After that, I got really drowsy and a little crabby, but I kept going. I drank coffee and had some caffeinated gel packets, and I started feeling better. I slowed down a lot. The bottoms of my feet screamed, and I thought about changing back to sandals but then remembered how much more it hurt stubbing my toes. Things were getting worse. 

Somehow I persevered. I don't know how. I never do. All you can do at the time is keep going. Focus on the next aid station, the next step. Focus on where you are, don't think in terms of miles. Things are never as bad as they tend to seem. I walked less in the sixth lap than I did in the fifth, and before I knew it I was done. I finished in 26-and-a-half hours, slower than the 24 or 25 I was hoping for, but still a comfortable finish.

What happens to feet who are not prepared to wear shoes...

Teenage siblings camping... 

I had some lasagna, hung out with my siblings a bit more, and then I took a hot shower (!) and changed. It got dark. Selena brought me some Chipotle, and I took a few bites before falling asleep. I finished the rest in the morning. 

Still smiling at mile 67


And now to eat! I had to put on a sweatshirt because I quickly got very very cold.

These things I got for finishing. The bus is because I placed (5th) in my age group!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Vermont 100 - The DNF Streak Continues

Vermont 100 has been on my mind since I first started running ultras. It's one of the nation's oldest hundreds, and in my (long and slow) quest to do a race in every state it was the first one to come to mind for Vermont. I signed up in 2016 but couldn't run because a friend's wedding fell on the same day, so I aimed for 2017 instead.

For all the mythos of Vermont 100 I'd built up in my imagination, I knew nothing about the course, as it turned out. I expected it to be a bit hilly, I guess, and green. I knew it was more or less entirely on dirt roads. Understatements.

I approached Vermont 100 on a long DNF streak. The last ultras I finished were Zion 100 in April 2016, the 12-hour at Dawn 2 Dusk 2 Dawn in May, and then a small, New Jersey 50k in June. The next month, I DNFed at Big Butts 100k (in Mississippi, due to the heat). Then in September I got a major injury that I think was a stress fracture in my left fibula, and I couldn't run for most of September and October. At the end of October I attempted Javelina Jundred, notwithstanding that I hadn't run since my marathon six weeks prior. I DNFed at mile 40 from what I described as heat exhaustion. It was in the 90s and pure sun, sure, but perhaps part of my problem was not having run sufficiently in training. I took off for a while then (except for running the Philadelphia marathon-and-a-half weekend in November), and didn't run at all in December. Starting in January I eased back into the elliptical, and then in March I started running. My next ultra was the 12-hour at Dawn 2 Dusk 2 Dawn in mid-May, where I had to call it quits after 8 hours (and I stopped running after 2 or so) because my injury was flaring up again.

Finally, starting in June, my running became consistent enough for me to go longer, and by the end of the month I was up to 50-mile weeks and I'd done two 20-mile runs. I had been focusing on building volume, and I only dedicated a very little bit of attention to hill training. I felt a bit undertrained for a 100-mile, but I thought it might be enough for a finish. To my credit, though, I'd been doing weightlifting three times a week and making consistent gains there: my one-rep max for squat is about 208 pounds; for deadlift 370; and for bench press 163.

In the last pre-race email, the race director warned of mud. It's been a wet spring in Vermont, she said. Since I run in sandals, mud is a big worry for me. If there's just a little, it's fine, but if there are long stretches of wet and unavoidable mud, all bets are off. I brought my pair of shoes just in case, but it wasn't until after I'd left all my drop bags at the pre-race meeting that I decided to actually run in them. Consequently, I didn't pack extra socks.

Anyway, I set out wearing shoes and compression socks—when I was packing, I didn't seriously expect to be running in shoes, so I didn't bring any normal socks.

Immediately, it was a lot of fun. The race begins with a long, encouraging downhill. And the fun continued for a while. I was making great time, marching with gusto up the hills and cruising like the Batmobile down.

I first started to get worried around mile 15 when my muscles were tighter and tireder than they ought to have been. But part of ultrarunning is keeping going even when your muscles are tight and tired. For a long time, things didn't get much worse.

Soon the horses were around. One thing I learned just prior to the race was that Vermont 100 is also a horse race, and it was a fun experience running alongside horses. The aid stations were great, with some of them having homemade baked goods along with the usual fare, and the volunteers were helpful, always offering to fill my bottles, etc. The countryside was gorgeous—everything deep green, tall trees, sprawling mountainside farmland.

I heard a lot of interesting conversations. Everything from, "That's not a frog, you idiot, that's a flower," to "I think Billy died last night. I got a call from Margaret and it didn't sound good, she just said there was an emergency. I don't think she wanted to say it in a text, and she couldn't get a call to go through."

The course quickly caught up to me. It was endless hills. Virtually no flat stretches along the entire course. Several climbs that took 15 minutes or more to hike up. And I kept hearing, "It's like this to the very end." As usual I wondered often if I could make it. But I could keep going, so I did.

My muscles got tighter and tireder, and by mile 50 I was in poor shape. I had to walk more, and slower. I sure wish I'd packed some Wintercrest in my mile 47 drop bag. I hoped that if I just kept going, things would loosen up.

Long story short, the next 10 miles were the same, and after mile 60 things got really bad. I could only shuffle along, my quads stabbing with each step, and the hills had me out of breath. I had to stop and take breaks. By mile 62 I was exasperated and my legs were rock solid. I had been thinking about dropping out at that aid station for the past 4 miles, but for some reason I just kept going. Shortly after tha aid station I realized that was a bad idea. I didn't think I could even make it to the next aid station. By this point even going downhill was slow and painful.

The ultrarunning ethos says to keep going until you simply can't take another step. So long as you can take at least one more step, then you should take it. Part of me wondered if I should slog onward through the night, for the next 14 hours, at this pace and in this pain. But some quick math showed me that around midnight I'd no longer be making the cutoffs at the pace I was going (which was, moreover, slowing).

But first I had to make it to somewhere I could drop out. By this time I was a mile and a half from the next aid station and the same distance from the prior. So I sat on a rock to gather the gumption to carry on. That's when a patrol van pulled up and asked if I was okay, and the rest is history.

Dropping out doesn't feel good. The student in me frets over the grand "waste" of money—if I paid for the registration, car rental, hotel and supplies and spent all this time coming up here, shouldn't I finish? Who have I let down? My friends and family, all the people on Facebook... myself? There's always the question: Mightn't it have gotten better? Couldn't I have finished? I'm not sure. It doesn't seem all that productive to think about that right now, because all it does is show that I already forgot how bad things really were out there at that time.

I'm also worried that I have preserved my long DNF streak. That is not encouraging. Will I ever finish another 100 miler?

For now, I'm going to resume training and do another one this fall. I'd like to keep myself in the Western States lottery (though that will be a whole nother horror if I get selected), so I signed up for Hallucination 100 in September. By then I will have time to bring up my mileage sufficiently. One good outcome from VT100 is that I think I can pronounce myself no longer injured, if I could make it 60 miles with no sign of a flare-up.

I did have a few successes at VT100, which are worth mentioning: It was hot and humid, but that didn't bother me. I think Philly acclimated me well, and I had a solid strategy of using ice (eating it, filling bandanas with it) to stay cool. I also didn't have any chafing, even though my Orange Mud quiver usually chafes my underarms (don't ask me why I was wearing it...). I never ran out of water (partly because the aid stations were quite plentiful!). I didn't have any stomach issues (more-than-usual bathroom breaks notwithstanding). And the shoes didn't bother me at all.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The world of ultrarunning

I have a new essay on running and the experience of flow out in Sinkhole, an online culture magazine. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Little moments in ultrarunning

I'm a PhD student in information science, and some of my research deals with the information behavior of ultrarunners—what information we use and how we use it as part of our running. Sometimes it's a matter of solving a problem (for instance, an injury), sometimes it's about improving our performance or enjoyment, sometimes it's about planning out seasons or finding new races, and sometimes it's just about entertainment. Everything we do involves information of one kind of another.

I conducted some research at a 100 mile race last year, and one of the questions I asked the runners in a pre-race survey was: Tell me about a recent time in training or a race when a specific piece of information came in handy. What I got was a smattering of little moments in ultrarunning. As one participant observed, "Little tips are usually HUGE. Like having a small towel at drop points."

In that spirit, I present here a list of times where runners used information on the run. It gives a nice, kaleidoscopic view into what's involved in running an ultra. Give it a read or a skim, and you might even discover a "little tip" for yourself.
  • I read a blog where a guy ran a 100 mile, and he used Ensure. I tried it and it works great!
  • In training, experimenting with nutrition used information about fructose and glucose absorbsion pathways
  • Pre-running the course or part of the course, practice with the gear I will use and make tweaks
  • Dealing with fueling issues based on symptoms that I addressed quickly and moved beyond
  • Music is helpful when I'm tired or bored
  • Take care of blisters immediately—check! 
  • Tailwind can replace GU and save you in the heat—that has worked for the most part
  • The personal stories I have heard actually help me through many moments. It's going to be hard.
  • I recently was pacing my husband during his 100 miler. It had rained all day and the trail conditions were muddy and washed out, meaning really horrible footing. I recalled an article I read about driving from our hips so I just focused on propelling through the mud using my glutes and hip flexors rather than small muscles in my lower leg. It really seemed to help by just switching my focus on where the effort was coming from.
  • Not taking sports drink at aid stations (stomach problems).
  • I bought Pop Tarts instead of honey stinger waffles.  They're basically the same thing, but a fraction of the price and they work great!
  • Changed hydration system to a vest instead of a belt.
  • As I've started doing longer training runs, information about nutrition (especially calories per hour) has come in handy, especially that coming from online interviews with other ultra runners.
  • Eat often and intake something sweet and something salty at each aid station. Even when I'm not hungry, every ultra I run I will eat sweet/salty combo at every aid station, and I that keeps me eating and my electrolyte balance in check.
  • Listening to your body during a training plan and knowing when to dial back to avoid burnout or injury. Training plans are great, but not tailored to your lifestyle, so modification is necessary, and often.
  • Adding layers for the night leg of my last 100, based on the weather forecast.
  • I train mostly by heart rate so it's handy to know what it feels like when I'm in certain HR zones and whether or not to push hills, push downhills, etc. During a race, constant weather evaluation, coupled with body signals and time of day, is always good for determining clothing changes to ward off potential disasters, like hypothermia or heat stroke.
  • My training plan came in handy because it helped me make sure I was getting the miles I needed and staying on track.
  • Usually I find some inspiring ultrarunner's story and use it as motivation!
  • My first hundred miler, I sensed that I was chafed and experiencing hot spots around the 25th mile. I adjusted my pace accordingly until I had gotten to the next aid station at mile 30 to thoroughly assess. I found I had blistered up quite intensely, so I modified my strategy with the goal of completing the race hours after my targeted time of sub-24 hours. Understanding the true severity of my challenge and the risk I faced of not completing the remaining 70 miles on blisters with limited resources in the race was very useful.
  • Distance to next aid station so I knew how much water and nutrition I need to carry with me.
  • I carefully count calories to make sure I do not go over what my stomach has tolerated in the past.
  • Lost on a training run, had to refer to map and align with altimeter on watch and GPS track back location to get my bearings.
  • I almost never use bug spray, but everyone else was putting it on before a run last weekend, and I had some "hippie" (ie non-chemical, plant based, organic) spray in my bag. I'm glad I used it because I got a few bites, but there were clouds of mosquitoes.
  • You can throw up midrace to reset the stomach and continue on in the race.
  • During Three Days of Syllamo I was very aware of looking for course markers since I had read in several race reports that previous runners had said it was easy to get lost.
  • Self assessment, minor cramping, how to address, selectrolytes, water and slow down some.  
  • In my last 50k I know how long each section should take to know if I'm on pace for a PR.
  • Getting drenched & becoming hyperthermic.  I realized I needed better rain gear
  • Knowing the course helped me be able to plan my race.
  • I plan to use an article on heat training from UltraRunning Magazine for a 100 mile event I am doing in July.