Monday, August 19, 2013

Howl, take 2

Last weekend, Rob and I returned to Kennekuk Cove County Park to run Howl at the Moon (an 8 hour timed ultra) again.  In 2012, this race was my first ultra, where I ran 40.48 miles.  Since then I have fallen farther and farther down the ultra marathon rabbit hole, and the 2013 edition of Howl would be my 5th ultra.

I didn't set a whole lot of expectations for the race-- last year we had unseasonably cool conditions, and the weather was a major factor in my being able to cover ~40 miles.  While I wanted to go farther than last year, I knew that if we had temperatures in the upper 90s (or higher) all bets might be off.

Aside from the ever-present nausea that seems to accompany me on runs of greater than 20 miles, my training was pretty solid.  I joined up with a group of Wednesday night runners from Little Shark Running Store, and in addition to making me feel a little more at home in St. Louis, running with the group enabled me to put in about 12 miles on Wednesdays (5 in the morning, 6-7 in the evening).  I hoped that this strategy would help make me stronger.

I also did some really challenging (both physically and mentally) runs on the weekends.  This wasn't necessarily on purpose, but mainly because it is really freaking hard for both of us (Rob and me) to carve out the time to train, especially considering that Rob also bikes, swims, does triathlons, obstacle course races, and shorter distance running races.  We can't train/race at the same time, obviously, because one of us needs to be with Will.  We always make time for each other to train, but sometimes it involves feasting on scraps.  Such as: heading out on an 18-mile run at 5pm on a Sunday after I did not sleep the night before (Will was grumpy) and had spent the entire day (8 hours) on my feet (often carrying Will) in the blazing sun at the zoo with my BFF and 3 of her children.  Did I mention? All this happened on our 12th wedding anniversary.  That was rough, but I did it.  You have to run when you can.

I was feeling pretty tough when I lined up at the start of Howl this year, and while I didn't want to jinx things, it seemed like I was going to have a good day.

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 Pre-race, in my lucky plaid shirt.


I started way too far at the back (or else, people who intended on walking the race started way too far at the front), and it took a mile before I felt like I was on my own pace.  I caught up with Eric and ran with him for a little while, and I chatted with a lot of other people from my old running club in Urbana.

Everything felt good.

After kind of a slow start on the first loop (the course is a 3.29 mile trail that you run around as many times as you can during 8 hours), I settled into an easy rhythm of about 31-32 minute loops.  I thought this put me into a better position that I'd been in last year, when I ran 12 loops, plus a mile out-and-back at the end (40.48 miles total).  I decided it would be a perfectly reasonable goal to do 13 loops this year (42.77 miles).  Mainly, I wanted to avoid the out-and-back section at the end.  After 7 hours and 30 minutes of racing, they let you start doing 1/2 mile out-and-backs (so you don't end up starting another 3.29 mile loop that you won't finish before the 8 hour cut off).  Last year, I hated that part of the race because the out-and-back course was rutty, uneven, and very narrow, with hundreds of people all trying to be in the same place at the same time.  I decided if I could finish a 12th loop by 7 hours 15 minutes into the race, I should have no problem going out for loop 13-- that would give me 45 minutes to finish it before the 8 hour cut off.

Things were good, good, good.  I was eating well.  I grabbed handfuls of grapes and slices of watermelon at the aid stations along the loop.  Instead of electrolyte pills, I ate boiled, salted potatoes.  I ate Fig-Newmans and sunflower seeds (salty and in the shell) that I had brought in my drop bag.  I carried my own water bottle and stayed well-hydrated.  This is was the best I've ever done in terms of nutrition and hydration during a race.

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 23 miles and feeling radiant.


My ankles and calves started to hurt really bad during the 6th and 7th loop.  I'm not proud of this, but I popped an ibuprofen.  I finally decided to change out of my trail racing flats (4mm drop) and into my regular old Mizunos (12mm drop) and the relief was instantaneous.  Not my day for "minimalist" running, I guess.

Despite the shoe change and pain relief, I struggled during loop 8.

By loop 9, a friend from my former running club who had been volunteering at the aid station decided to jump in and pace me for a while.  This was an enormous help.  It took my mind off how awful I was feeling, but still, during loop 10, I encountered my most difficult moments of the race.  I walked up the big hill, as usual, but I just could not get started running again.  I did not think I was going to be able to start running again at all, and my friend would be going back to work the aid station at the end of the loop.  I would be on my own, with no energy, and the rising nausea in my throat.

Thirteen loops seemed out of the question at this point.  I was beginning to wonder if I would even make 12.  I finally managed to shuffle to a run again, and at the end of loop 10 (which had taken me 42 minutes and 52 seconds), I took stock of the situation.  If I kept going in this direction (slower and slower with each loop), I might be able to get 12.  But if I could somehow regain my former pace of 32 or even 35 minutes per loop, 13 was still within my reach.

I knew that loop 11 would be my deciding factor.  If I could speed up, put some time in the bank, I might just make it.  If I kept slowing down, then it just wasn't my day.

Knowing that 13 was still hovering at the realm of possibility energized me somehow.  I grabbed my phone so I could listen to music, downed some Coke, and took off like a bat out of hell for loop 11.  I finished the 3.29 miles in 35:12-- more than 7 minutes faster than loop 10 had been.

It took a lot out of me, though.  To put in 13 loops, I'd have to keep this pace, roughly.  As I filled my water bottle at our canopy tent, I went a little crazy.  I started crying and sank down on my knees, then put myself into the child's pose yoga position in an effort to calm down.  13 loops was in my grasp, but I would have to turn myself inside out to make it.  Knowing the kind of effort it would take, the place I would have to go to to make it happen, made a heavy doom pulse through my veins.

I felt so nauseated.  I hadn't eaten anything during the last two loops.  Still crying, I got up and ran.  

I couldn't keep up the pace of my last loop, but I went as fast as I could manage.  I wouldn't let myself walk, it would be too difficult to start running again.  The wheels were going to fall off at some point, all I had to do was make sure I had banked enough time to get myself to the end when that happened.  Between now and then, I needed to cover as many miles as I could.

I finished loop 12 in 39.18.  When I started out on this loop, I had told myself that if I made it back by 7 hours and 10 minutes into the race (meaning that there were 50 minutes left) I would start out for loop 13.  Anything less than 50 minutes remaining, and I would be too afraid to start loop 13--if I didn't make it back by the 8 hour cutoff, the loop would not be counted.

It was 7:08 when I pulled into the start/finish area after loop 12.  Close.  So close.  I might not make it.  Could I make it?  What I didn't want was to be stuck here, waiting until 7:30 when I could start the out and backs.  That's what happened to me last year, and it had been too hard to make myself move again.

I shuffled through my drop bag.  Couldn't stomach anything.  I opened the cooler and got out my baggie of orange slices.  I was feeling very weak from having not eaten in a long time, and orange slices had brought me back to life during Frisco.  I forced myself to eat 5 of them, as quickly as I could.

It was 7:10.  Go time.

I ran past the scorer and announced I was going out for another loop.  He reminded me that if I didn't finish by the cut off time, he couldn't count it towards my results.  In a tone that was far more calm than I actually felt, I told him, "I'm going to try for it.  If I don't finish, it will be okay."  Volunteers cheered as I went into the unknown.  There were very few runners left out on the course.  Most of those who were finishing a lap now were opting not to go back out for another.  

As soon as I edged away from the excitement of the start/finish area, I was all alone.  I've made a huge mistake, I thought.

But still.  My slowest lap of the day had been just shy of 43 minutes.  I had 50 whole minutes left now.  Even if I fell apart, I could make it.  Right?

Just keep running.  Don't let yourself walk because you won't start up again.  Keep going as long as you can.  I was crying a little.  I thought about Eduardo.  I thought about William.  I dug deep, deeper than I thought possible.  I felt terrible, but this wasn't as bad as giving birth, not by a long shot.

There was ice and cold water at the top of the hill, 2.75 miles into the loop.  So close to the end.  Close enough that I knew I would make it even if I walked from here on out.  I was so thirsty.  I drank and drank.

I shuffled back out onto the road, feeling worse than before.  I turned onto the last stretch, forced myself to keep moving until my stomach wouldn't let me any more.  I threw up once.  Twice.  Then three and four times.  I felt a little better.  I turned up my music and ran.  There was just a little bit of trail left, and then the finish line.  If I could have felt anything, I would have been weeping for joy.

There were footsteps behind me and then beside me.  It was Rob!

He cheered for me, and I said, "We can cross the finish line together."  I could see the clock ahead.  Still 9 minutes to spare.

"I'm not finished," he told me.  Of course.  With 9 minutes left, he could easily run over to the out-and-back section and put in another mile.  

Not me.  I was done.  Getting to that finish line with 13 laps had taken every ounce of everything inside me.  The scorer marked down my finish and I headed back to the tent to try to make myself eat or drink.

I actually managed to stay upright for a while afterwards and talk to people.  But I couldn't get any fluid or food in me, and eventually, Rob spread out a towel and I sort of collapsed on it, face down, for about 3 hours.  Not kidding.  People kept trying to get me to eat or drink or sit up, but I couldn't.  I wasn't exactly unconscious, but definitely not lucid either.

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 It's not an ultra until Melissa pukes at least 4 times.

Finally, Rob got me to drink little sips of Coke, and I started sucking the salt off of shelled sunflower seeds.  I also had the bright idea to put on my anti-nausea wrist bands.  They seem to help me with carsickness, and I wondered if they might help get rid of the nausea now. 


Within about 10 minutes of putting on the wrist bands, it was like a fog lifted.  I was able to sit up.  I could talk. I drank water, and I felt hungry.  I was able to look at the medal Rob had picked up for me.  I was something like 4th place in my age division, 9th place female, 22nd place overall.  How that added up to an award, I wasn't quite sure, but I was going to take this and cherish it forever.

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Rob ended up with 53.64 miles, 3rd place finisher.  I was proud of him for doing so well, but not surprised at all that he'd managed it.

We packed up our stuff and went back to Rob's parents', who had been watching Will for us all day.  I stayed awake long enough to shower, eat a vegan sausage we'd brought from home, and read Will a bedtime story.  Then I went to sleep, feeling like I'd accomplished everything I'd hoped to at Howl.

What I learned from this race:  There is something very powerful inside me that can just snap and make me do what seems impossible.  That deciding moment, at the end of lap 11 when I was crying face-down in the tent, is a feeling I will not forget for a long time, or ever.  I am still kind of in awe of the way my body took over, shutting out the doubt in my brain, and got me to the finish.

Another thing I learned: Maybe sea bands could help with the nausea I feel during long runs?  Guess I'll have to do another ultra to find out.

Will I do this race again?  Hell yes.  When does registration open for next year?


Loop 1 - 33.36

Loop 2 - 31.04

Loop 3 - 32.01

Loop 4 - 31.51

Loop 5 - 32.11

Loop 6 - 36.55 (pee break)

Loop 7 - 37.37 (change shoes)

Loop 8 - 39.25

Loop 9 - 37.22

Loop 10 - 42.52 (feeling awful)

Loop 11 - 35.12 (ride the wave)

Loop 12 - 39.18

Loop 13 - 41.22

Total: 7.50.53, 42.77 miles

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