Thursday, August 13, 2015

Howl: Almost a Hero

Howl at the Moon 8-Hour Run was my 1st, 5th, most recently, 9th ultra.  I love this event.  It's an 8-hour run around a 3.29 mile smooth and easy trail.  The first time, it was my introduction to the ultra world (a place where I realized I wanted to belong); the second time it showed me what I was made of.  And the third time (last weekend), well, I was almost a hero.

We drove 1200 miles across the country for Howl, although a major selling point was that we got to see both of our families along the way and give Will a chance to celebrate his birthday with his grandparents. Also: childcare during the race.  Rob wasn't running it this year because he'd just finished the NS100K 2 weeks earlier and hadn't wanted to sign up for another race so close to that.

In a completely enexpected turn of events, I got a full 8 hours of sleep at my in-law's house the night before the race.  I don't know how that happened.  In over 20 years of running, I've never slept well before a race.  I hoped it was a good omen.

We drove to the start line and got there in plenty of time.  Immediately, I started seeing all the Buffalo runners and our old friends from Second Wind Running Club.  I chatted with @ElectronWoman and that helped take my mind off my stomach, which hurt.

Rob set up our canopy tent very neat and posh: camp chairs, a blanket on the ground, the cooler, and even a little table where he set the thermos and my drop bag.  It looked nice and orderly. It made me feel like maybe the run would go this way as well: like clockwork, just ticking off the miles.  I set Will's little toy bison on the table beside the thermos.  Maybe it would give some of the Buffalo runners a smile every time they passed.

Howl pre-start
The people who run Hardrock have their "Hardrock Families."  I've got my Howl Family, and that suits me just fine.  Buffalooooo!

I checked in with my scorer and saw that my name had something extra written beside it on the scoring sheet.  I briefly panicked because it looked like the word "canceled."  I asked the scorer what it said and he told me, "Colorado."  Right.  Because I'm from there now.  And I guess it was noteworthy to have someone come to run the race from so far away?  Maybe there was a prize at the end for the runner who traveled the farthest.  Who knew.

The start was was pretty congested, but it still felt easy, smooth, and slow.  I caught up with @chrism42k and ran most of the first lap with him.  

Rob was out running the Mingo trails, but Will's toy bison greeted me at the star/finish area.  I filled up with water (surprised I'd actually drank enough from my hand-held during the first lap to need more) and grabbed a Berry Pomegranate Clif Bar. This was my plan for fueling: Berry Pomegranate Clif Bars.  They had worked well for me during training, and I figured I could tolerate them for the full 8 hours of the race.  Because I am typically terrible about eating and drinking on the run, Rob had told me I had to start fueling as soon as I started out Loop 2.  So I did.

Yuck.  One bite in, and the Berry Pomegranate Clif Bar tasted terrible and felt terrible as it hit my stomach.  It was going to be a long 8 hours.  I scanned the aid stations to see what they might offer if I had to move to Plan B.

And Plan B it was.  I began taking boiled, salted potatoes from the aid stations and bananas I'd brought along in the cooler as pretty much my primary fuel from then on.  These were sometimes a little hard to get down, but I was determined to keep giving myself a constant source of energy and electrolytes.  Last time I ran Howl, I didn't eat, got messed up, and threw up 4 times.  This time, I wanted it to be zero.

My stomach felt like I'd just eaten the largest Thanksgiving dinner imaginable and was continuing to feed myself.  No matter.  If this kept me from puking, a little stomach discomfort was worth it.  For several laps, I made myself take a couple small pieces of potato every time they were available (at the start/finish aid station and at the 1.7 mile aid station), and then take half a banana when I passed our canopy tent.  I felt quick and efficient.  I didn't waste time at the aid stations, I just grabbed some potato, dipped it in salt, and kept on running.  This is important at Howl, because there are--no kidding--at least 5 opportunities for aid along the 3.29 mile loop.  (A water/coke stop, 2 "real" aid stations, the "Margaritaville" aid station at the top of the "hill," and your own drop bag).  If you stop at all of them for any amount of time, it adds up fast.

Around 19 miles in, I felt tired despite my good night's sleep the night before, and my quads hurt.  I didn't want to deal with this so early on.  I took a regular strength Ibuprofin from my dropbag.  It's been a while since I had to do that in a race.

By about my 5th or 6th lap my quads felt much better, but I was done with bananas.  NBD, by then they'd busted out the orange slices and watermelon at Margaritaville.  "This is my favorite aid station in an ultra.  Ever," I told them.  At least one of the volunteers there has worked that aid station all 3 times I've run Howl.

Rob got back from his run on the nearby Mingo trails and quadrupled my efficiency.  Every time I passed, he'd hand me a cold hand-held water bottle, and I'd leave my nearly empty one behind for him to refill.  At least once, he met me a little ways out on the course and asked me what I needed.  "Cherry Lime-aid Caffeinated Nuun and orange slices," I told him.  He sprinted ahead and had it ready as soon as I got there.  I told him I wanted to listen to music, and he snapped the tiny iPod (already positioned to my Emergency Ultra Playlist) to my hat as I ate orange slices from the cooler.  I felt like a well oiled machine.

OMG, the caffeinated Cherry Lime-aid.  It was 4 hours into the race and I'd run nearly a marathon, but move over Katniss, I  was the girl on fire.  Everybody around me was walking, shuffling, struggling in the heat.  I suddenly came alive.  I had more energy than I'd ever had in my life.  I zipped and flitted around them.  I laughed as I flew down a tiny Illinois hill.  I didn't know how long this wave would last, so I decided just to ride it, and to ride it fast.

My main discomfort at this point was that I was soaking wet.  Soaking! I could squeeze puddles of sweat out of my shorts and shirt.  It felt awful.  I winced at my own grossness when I saw @esmithrunner on the course and we gave each other a running hug.  We were all that gross, it didn't matter.  I wondered if it had always been like this when I'd lived in Illinois and I'd just forgotten.  Here in Colorado, it gets very hot and you sweat, but the air is so dry it evaporates off of you instantaneously.  I think I like that a lot better.

By Lap 9, I told Rob I wanted to try his ice bandana.  Some people swear by these to keep cool, and I knew I needed to prioritize that.  As Rob tied the bandana around my neck, I realized this was the last trick I had in my bag.  I had pulled out all the stops.  Caffeinated Nuun, an Ibuprofin, music, and the ice bandana.  That was it.  If I started feeling bad as the race wore on, I wouldn't have anything else left to try.  I thought of my doula client in St. Louis and the bag I had taken with me (ironically, the same one I was using as a drop bag now) while she was giving birth.  It was filled with all sorts of things to help her manage the pain, and I kept offering them to her as her labor wore on.  "Stop," she said after a while. "You will run out of things to offer.  And then there will just be the pain.  So just stop for a while.  I need to know that there are still some tricks left in the bag."

The watermelon at Margaritaville was my lifeline.  It was the only thing I could manage to eat.  I kept up a decent pace and knew that every lap, all I had to do was get up the "hill" and there would be watermelon, ice water, and smiling volunteers.  Maybe it was Lap 10, I ran with another guy for a while who said to me, "Nice Cubs hat!"  I was wearing a Colorado state flag trucker hat.  It occurred to me that before I moved to Colorado, I'd had no idea what the Colorado state flag looked like, and that here in Illinois, maybe everybody thought it was the Cubs logo.  No matter.  I was doing fine.  I'd run almost 36 miles and hadn't slowed down yet.  I was still on fire.

Near the first aid station on that loop, another woman caught up to me, and I could tell she was moving quickly.  She looked good, which was rare for anyone at this point in the race.  I just had this feeling about her, so I said, "Are you the first place woman?"  She smiled humbly and said, "Well, yeah, right now I am."  I gave her a cheer.  "Great job!" I said.  "Thanks, you too," she said before she went on.

I caught up to another woman just after the "hill," and we chatted for a bit.  She asked me what lap I was on.  I told her it was my 10th, and she took off running.  Fast.  She called back that she was the 5th place woman, and then said something like, "I need to be running faster than this."  Maybe I gave her a cheer as she took off, or maybe I didn't, I can't remember, but it wasn't long before she was way out of sight.  

It kind of shook me a little.  Up until this moment, it hadn't occurred to me to wonder what "place" I was in.  I was running the best that I could, and I felt good.  Every time I passed my scorer, he had what seemed like a look of pride on his face.  The scorer next to him (somebody I used to know from the running club, but whose name I've forgotten) cheered for me too, and once I heard her remark, "She's speeding up!"  I knew I wasn't setting a world record here, but I'd been pretty darn pleased with myself.

Now, as I watched the fifth place woman disappear like a gazelle along the horizon, and I spat out watermelon I could no longer swallow, I began to feel like maybe I wasn't really All That.

When I got back to the tent, Rob asked me what I needed.  The ice bandana was as annoying as hell, so I asked him to take it off me.  I told him I couldn't eat anymore, I couldn't think anymore, but I needed him to do some math.  For the first time, I admitted aloud, that my Super Secret Goal for Howl this year had been 14 laps.  I needed to know if that was at all in the realm of possibility.  Unlike previous years, I was wearing a GPS watch.  It was giving me my mile splits, which still seemed to be around 10 minutes (and slightly longer for the third mile of each loop, the one with the hill), but what I really wished I had was the splits for each loop.  Surely I was keeping it to around 33 minutes.  And within the time left on the clock, it seemed like maybe, just maybe, this could happen.

"I'll have to think about it," Rob said.

When I passed the scorers they told me, "Two women just headed out, on the same lap as you."  They weren't far ahead.  I could catch them.  I wondered if one of them was the 5th place woman, or if maybe she was several laps ahead of me by this point.  It didn't matter.  By loop 12, I slowed, but only slightly.  I never saw either of them.

I didn't feel sick.  I wasn't in a dark place.  I just felt tired and done.  And my stomach hurt, but not in a way that seemed like I was going to throw up.  Screw 14, I thought.  I will run 13 loops, and then I'll run some out and backs.  It will still be a better result than I've ever had at Howl.  It will still be something to be proud of, even if I'm not a hero.  I can manage 13, but I will go insane if I have to run any more of these loops.

"Your last loop was 35 minutes," Rob said when I got back from lap 12.  "You have time for two 40 minute loops.  You can make 14."

I shook my head. My mind wasn't in it anymore.  I can do 13.  But it will take me more than 40 minutes.  And then I won't have time for 14.

I shuffled along.  I didn't know why I was shuffling.  My legs didn't hurt.  My arms felt weird and my hands were all tingly and wouldn't work right.  This was so different than the last time I'd run Howl. Then, I'd been trying to make my goal of 13 laps, and I'd hit a bad patch.  I'd gone to a very, very dark place and dug myself out of it on sheer guts.  I'd had no idea I was even capable of pushing myself that hard, and more than the mileage I'd achieved that day, what I was proud of was the way I'd fought so hard.  They say that ultras show you what you're really made if, and if this was what I was made of, I liked that.  But this time, I couldn't go there.  I guess I was scared to go back, scared that maybe one of these days I wouldn't be able to find my way out.

So I could have moved faster on lap 13, left myself with enough time for a 14th lap, but I didn't.  I was throwing the race.  What I didn't want was to arrive back at the start/finish area with something like 7 hours and 15 minutes on the clock.  Then I'd be faced with the difficult decision: did I have it in me to do lap 14 in the remaining 45 minutes?  Or would I start out and falter on the trail, not making it back by the 8 hour cut-off and having that effort not count?  It needed to be unambiguous.  Either I needed to get back by 7:10 (ensuring 50 minutes to complete the final lap), or not until 7:30, when I'd no longer be allowed on the course and the out-and-backs would start.

At Margaritaville, they were out of watermelon, and that sealed the deal.  No more fuel, no way could I even try this.  I walked.  I caught up with a woman I used to know from Second Wind Running Club, and we walked and talked together.  I knew I was giving up, and it felt better to have company as my Super Secret Goal disintegrated.  There was no point in running back to the start/finish area if I wasn't going to attempt another lap.  We couldn't start the out-and-backs until 7 hours 30 minutes.  I didn't want to get stuck there, waiting for the clock to wind down as my legs became sore and stiff.

I got back to our tent at 7 hours 22 minutes.  I'd been afraid Rob would encourage me to go out again, telling that I could do lap 14 in 38 minutes.  But he didn't.  He told me to rest for 8 minutes, then do 5 out-and-backs, which would add up to 2-1/2 miles.  I sank into a camp chair, held up 4 fingers.  2 miles was all I had left in me.

The out-and-backs are my least favorite part about Howl.  The trail is narrow and super rutted in places, and you've got massive congestion as some people just want to walk gently and others are hell-bent on 6 minute miles.  Everybody is wobbly after 7 and a half hours of running in the heat.  Last time I'd refused to do any out and backs--content with my result of 13 loops.  This time, I needed to run a few if I wanted to better my mileage.

It wasn't as bad as I'd remembered.  My legs mostly felt okay (except for my toes, which I suspected might be bleeding), and I wasn't terribly nauseous.  I lumbered forward.  Andrea, a woman from the running club, caught up to me and we ran together for a while.  She knew everybody on the course, all 200-some, and she cheered for all of them (including me) by name as we encountered them.  It made me feel happier to run near her and hear her enthusiasm.  

After I'd run about a mile, I saw the 5th place woman enter the out-and-back course.  She was still moving fast.  I got a little pang of regret.  If I'd tried harder, if I hadn't been afraid of going to that Dark Place, maybe I could have caught her.  I'd almost been a hero, but instead I'd given up.

I plodded on.  I was thirsty but threw down my water bottle (warm and sticky with watermelon juice and remnants of Nuun) when I passed Rob again.  Then I walked.  There were 9 minutes left on the clock.  I could have made 2-1/2 miles if I'd kept running, but only one word went through my mind:  Why?  Going just 2 miles would be fine, and I'd get there without pushing myself over the edge.  I walked next to a woman with a long gray ponytail who told me that once she'd landed in the hospital for 3 days after Howl.  "It wasn't worth it," she said, and we walked to the finish line together.

I was done.  13 loops plus 4 out and backs equaled 44.77 miles.  2 miles farther than I'd ever run at Howl.  And the farthest I'd ever run in 8 hours.

I went back to the tent and peeled off my shoes.  Six black toenails.  Blood blisters underneath the nail that I'd have to drain later or else face big problems.  No wonder my toes had hurt so bad.  I was thirsty, but our water was now lukewarm and I couldn't drink it.  I lay facedown on the blanket and fell asleep.

That's not a Cub's hat.

After 20 or 30 or maybe just 5 minutes I woke back up.  I was a little nauseated, but mainly my stomach just hurt.  I got up.  I went over to the awards ceremony with Rob--the first time I have ever attended after Howl.  The other two times I was too sick.

I got a finisher medal (awarded to all participants).  Then they started announcing the top male and female finishers.  The guy who always wins it (or at least, he has for the last 8-10 years) won again, but his total mileage was well within Rob's grasp.  I saw a spark in Rob's eye.  Look out for next year.

The first-place woman I'd seen and cheered on the course had held her position and was the female champion.  Then they announced second place.  For third place female, they had a 3-way tie.  This is frequent for a timed event, with standardized loops.  "Three women ran 44.77 miles," the RD said.  My jaw dropped.  One of those women was me.

When they called my name, I walked up with the other two 3rd place finishers.  "Buffalooooo!" our running buddy Bill called as I passed.  A chorus of other friends chimed in.  It was the war cry of the Buffalo runners.  These were the people I'd cut my teeth with, running through the heat, wind, rain, and snow of east-central Illinois, during the best years of my life.

One of the other women who ran 44.77 miles was the 5th place woman, the one I'd seen on loop 10 of the course.  I guess she wasn't so far ahead of me after all, and we ended up tying.  We gave each other a high five.  The RD presented each of us with a giant medal and a belt buckle.  I clutched these tight as I walked back over to Rob, thinking about narrowly I'd gotten this.  What if there had been just one other woman who'd run one more out and back than me?  If I'd heard that number called, I would have been so disappointed with myself--knowing I could have done that, but just hadn't pushed myself enough.  I felt very, very lucky.

The RD said that Howl is likely going to be even harder to get into next year (and it wasn't easy this year).  But I have a feeling that both Rob and I will try.  He knows he's got a crack at a top finishing place, and I know that 14 loops is tantalizingly close, as long as I can keep my mind in the race.

Thanks for reading.


Here are my laps.  The third mile of each lap includes "the big hill" (which everybody walks) and the Margaritaville aid station.  The time in parentheses is for the 0.29 miles after that (back to the start/finish area).  I forgot to record this for a couple of the laps, but it somehow all worked out.

  • Lap 1 (3.29 miles)
    • 10:04, 9:28, 10.19 (2:29)
  • Lap 2 (6.58 miles)
    • 9:50, 9:36, 10:26 (2:54)
  • Lap 3 (9.87 miles)
    • 10:01, 9:42, 10:08
  • Lap 4 (13.16 miles)
    • 10:06, 9:40, 10:24 (5:23)
  • Lap 5 (16.45 miles)
    • 9:50, 9:43, 10:22 (2:28)
  • Lap 6 (19.74 miles)
    • 10:07, 9:59, 11:07 (3:43)
  • Lap 7 (23.32 miles)
    • 9:50, 9:49, 10:21 (4:01)
  • Lap 8 (26.32 miles) Hello, caffeinated Nuun. Pretty much the reason why I didn't throw up in this race.
    • 9:15, 8:57, 10:24 (3:24)
  • Lap 9 (29.61 miles)
    • 8:51, 8:52, 10:16 (2:52)
  • Lap 10 (32.9 miles)
    • 10:19, 9:19, 10:22 (3:28)
  • Lap 11 (36.19 miles)
    • 9:59, 10:14, 10:41 (3:37)
  • Lap 12 (39.48 miles)
    • 10:25, 10:37, 12:23
  • Lap 13 (42.77 miles)
    • 11:27, 11:10, 14:40
  • Waiting for out and backs, plus 2 miles
    • 21:13 (~8 minutes waiting for out and backs, plus 1st 1/2 mile?), 11:32, 9:13 (1/2 mile)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

CONGRATULATIONS dearie!! you did IT! yeaaaaa!! after reading this KNOWING the ending. i still held my breath as I read it!!!AND!! Now i know why I don't run!! !!!! I can't do the math ! too, many numbers to,keep track of! πŸ˜€πŸ˜€πŸ˜€ proud of you,and really happy your trip back to IL included your visit!! Glad you survived the HUMIDITY of cental IL! take it,easy for awhile!! miss you all ! luv mama