Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Howl 2016: You might love the ultra, but the ultra doesn’t love you back

I had a lot riding on Howl At The Moon this year. It would be my fourth time running the race, and quite honestly, I was already thinking it might be the last.  It keeps getting harder and harder to get into Howl. You have to be sitting at your computer the instant registration goes live (usually sometime around Earth Day) and then click like mad to get the page to load and enter your information before all 300 slots are gone within a matter of minutes. 

I managed to do this for both Rob and me this year, I’m not sure that I’ll be so lucky in the future.  All I knew was that if I wanted to go back “home” to sea level and run a race on my kind of terrain (non-technical loop course) while Will was being cared for by his grandparents (the race takes place in Rob’s hometown), this was my chance.

Howl is an 8-hour timed ultra, meaning you run the same 3.29 mile loop (of mainly grass, dirt, and gravel) as many times as you can within 8 hours.  Or rather, within 7 and a half hours.  When there is a half an hour left on the clock, you are diverted to the ½ mile out and backs for the remainder of the race.  When the 8 hours are up, the person with the most mileage wins.  This person is never me.  But.  I have done progressively better each time I’ve participated in Howl . Last year my super secret goal was to complete 14 loops (46.06 miles), but I’d fallen short of that and ended up with 13 loops plus 4 out and backs—44.77 miles.

This year, this year, I was determined.  This was going to be my year. This was the year I would run 14 loops.

The mere thought of that was terrifying.  I knew what it had taken out of me to run 13 loops the previous years, and 14 was so at the absolute edge of my capability. Nothing could go wrong if I was going to make that happen. Nothing.  All I could think about was this Jenn Shelton quote from the documentary Outside Voices, when she’s talking about ultras (maybe it is 100 milers specifically), and she says something like, “You have to care about it more than anything in the world, but you also have to not give a shit.”

This is so true.  There are a million, billion things that could go wrong while you’re running an ultra.  Some of them you can control, some of them you cannot.  You absolutely have to be able to let it go, cut it off, jump ship, if the situation changes and what was once marginally possible becomes truly and legitimately impossible.  Otherwise, the ultra will destroy you.

This ultra really did seem like it was planning on destroying me when all week the weather forecast was calling for severe thunderstorms and heavy rain on race day.  I knew I had to mentally prepare myself to let go of 14 loops if the conditions were bad, and I had to be okay with that.  But when I woke up on race morning, the forecast had changed to: “light scattered rain.”  I stood there at the start line, trying to summon the wherewithal to switch my brain back to “GAME ON” mode.

You'll have to wait for Rob to write a blog post about his race, or maybe do a podcast about it.  This was going to be his year, too.

Pre-race. Photo by Rob.

During the first couple of loops, I relaxed at the way the terrain felt smooth and effortless under my feet.  My legs decided for me—I was going for 14 loops today.  I started ticking off the miles at around 9:45 pace, and although this was a bit faster than I needed to be going, I told myself this was wise and calculated rather than stupid.  The current situation was that the weather was cloudy and cool. These were the best conditions I could hope for all day.  Within a few hours, the heat and humidity would be suffocating, and I had no idea just how “light and scattered” this rain would be, and whether or not it would turn the trail into mud soup.  It was now or never.  If I wanted even a slim chance of 14 loops, I needed to give it to glory from my very first step.

The only problem I had during the early miles was when my scorer did not to mark me down for Loop 3, and I briefly panicked that I had just run 3.29 miles that wouldn’t count towards my total.  Howl is still old school—it is not chip timed. They have volunteers who are assigned to a certain number of runners.  These scorers put an X by their runners’ names every time one of them comes through.  When I started out on Loop 3, the volunteer sitting next to my scorer nodded and pointed to me (I thought) and said, “He’s got you, you’re good to go,” as my scorer was marking an X on the page (I assumed, next to my name).  I said “Thanks” and carried on, but when I got back, I found that my scorer had not seen me and had not marked me down as starting out Loop 3. 

The one rule of Howl is “Never argue with your scorer.”  Without arguing, I showed my scorer my GPS, and tried not to black out from sheer panic.  Luckily, he saw the mileage shown on my GPS and assumed he must have made a mistake.  (This is actually not the first time I’ve had a scorer make a mistake at Howl).  Everything was fine after that, but I made for damn sure that I shouted, waved, and heard him say my name and loop number every time I passed through.

The loops kept going by so quickly.  It was like I was eating them up.  It felt like nothing at all.  I was staying on top of hydration and nutrition with Trail Butter and Nuun from my drop bag, and then I would grab boiled, salted potatoes and water at the halfway point aid station.  By 3 or 4 hours into the race, the clouds had lifted and the sun was sweltering. I dealt with the heat by refusing to acknowledge it.  I had a system.  I would hand off my empty water bottle to a volunteer at hilltop aid station, and while he filled it, I would eat as much watermelon as I could.  As soon as he handed my bottle back, I would take off running again, now less than a mile to the start/finish area, where I would stuff my hat and sports bra with ice from the cooler we had brought.

I still felt reasonably good so long as I ignored the heat and the way I was disgusting and soaking wet from so much sweat.  It was not raining.  Rain would have been nice.  By around 20 miles, I grabbed my phone and Flip Belt so I could listen to music.  I had to do whatever was necessary to get this done.  I listened to Lady Gaga Poker Face and ran an 8:47 mile.  Good, that would help counter the occasional 11 minute miles I was putting in while walking the hill and stopping at the watermelon aid station.  I could do this.

But I could no longer ignore the deafening pain in my quads.  Dammit.  Were these muscle cramps?  I’ve never suffered from muscle cramping in the heat like some runners do.  I often have quad pain during long races, but never anything quite like this.  I refused to let go of 14 loops.  I took an ibuprofen back at our tent and loaded up on more caffeine. I was going to get this done.

The miles kept flying by.  I finished a marathon and then a 50K.  There was still enough time on the clock.  Things were going well.  I was practically the only person still running, rather than walking, on the course. But by mile 35, I wondered if maybe things were not going so well.  I decided to ignore this and keep moving forward.

Then at mile 37, the wheels dramatically and suddenly fell off.  One minute I was running, tired but resolute, and the next minute, I was at a complete stop on the trail, sobbing out loud.  Nausea clogged my ears and throat.  All the heat I’d been refusing to acknowledge for the entire day suddenly hit me, tenfold.

Eventually, I put one foot in front of the other.  I sobbed through a 15 minute mile.  Just like that, any chance of 14 loops was now gone.  I thought, you might love the ultra, but the ultra does not love you back.

When I made it to the halfway aid station, there were cups of what looked like fruit smoothies sitting on the table.  I asked the volunteers what these were and they told me strawberry margaritas. I took one and drank it.  It was cold. I moved a tiny bit faster for the next mile.  I made it into the start/finish area after Loop 12 with an hour and 10 minutes still left on the clock.  I kept going.  Slow this time.  I would finish Loop 13, but nothing more.  It would be the first Howl where I did worse than the year before.  I couldn’t think about that, not because I was being stoic, but because I simply couldn’t think.  I just kept moving.  Walking felt as awful as running, so I ran.  I made it to the halfway aid station and had coke and water. By the time I turned onto the trail that led back to the start finish area, I was moving at a pretty good pace again. 

I didn’t stop at our tent but headed straight to the out and back area.  There was still around 25 minutes on the clock.  If I ran 2 more miles, I would tie my distance from last year, and that would at least be something. 

The out and backs are my most dreaded part of Howl.  The terrain is super rutted and it’s crowded with people and everybody is completely shot by that point. I’m always worried I’ll get trampled.  But this year, I was the one doing the trampling.  I didn’t notice any ruts or roots.  I flew, dropping to sub 10 minute pace for the first time in 7 miles. There was pain and exhaustion and nausea, but I was stronger than it.  I was pure grit and guts.  I felt nothing.  I just ran.  I knew could have taken my time, but I didn’t want to.  I wanted to finish this running.

And so I did.  With 7 minutes left on the clock, I hit 44.77 miles and called it a day. 

My hands were turning inside out and all I could see in front of my face was wavy lines.  Everything that I had been holding back or pushing aside for the last 8 hours came crashing down on me.  My mother in law was standing there and asked if I wanted to go back to the tent.  Yes, yes I did.  We made it there and I face-planted in the grass and closed my eyes so that I could forget for a minute about not being able to see right and try to stave off the post-race nausea.

This coconut water will replenish those electrolytes and keep me from throwing up! (It didn't).

Our friend Eric came to the van to talk as the awards ceremony was winding down.  I was lying on the bed clutching a bowl I thought I might puke into, and I told him I didn’t know if it was worth it.  What was the point?  Rob and I, we’ve structured our entire lives around running ultras. We moved to Colorado, we bought this van.  I gave up or didn’t even try to hold together a real career.  Running comes first, in all things.  And for what? Would it mean something if I was good at it? Would it all be worth it if I were out there winning these races instead of falling apart and finishing last or in the middle of the pack?  Shouldn’t I find a new hobby or something?  This was insane.  Ultra life chews you up, ultra life spits you out.  You might love the ultra, but the ultra doesn’t love you back.

I threw up twice and will eventually lose one blackened toenail.  I still don’t know if it was worth it.  I’m not upset with myself for falling short of 14 loops.  I’m more amazed that I held it together as well as I did, that I managed to ride the fucking wave and come back to life after a massive bonk during loop 12.  I have no idea how I am going to do Javelia Jundred in 2 months.  And I don’t know whether I’ll be sitting at my computer one morning next April, waiting for Howl At The Moon registration to go live, so I can try one more year to make it 14 loops.

Thanks for reading.

Howl At The Moon, I'm not sure I have anything left to give or take.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Dear William (84 months)

Dear William,
Today you are 84 months old!  Happy 7th birthday!

Just a short note today to tell you how proud I am of you for being so brave and strong.  You are an orchid in a dandelion world.

Now, back to your party.

Love always,

Monday, August 1, 2016

222 miles in July 2016

For the past two Julys, I've hit new mileage highs.  And for the past two Augusts, I've been injured.  Go figure.

History has repeated itself this year, at least in terms of the July mileage high.  I am hoping to avoid injury in August though. (What do they call it, when you keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?)  We'll see.

I started off the month with a 20-mile run at Lory and Horsetooth.  In many ways, this run was great.  I'd been planning on keeping things relatively smooth and easy, but then I made a completely spur-of-the-moment decision to divert onto Mill Creek trail (which I'd never taken before). Mill Creek was rocky, technical, and a steep uphill in the direction I was going. It wasn't easy, but it was oh-so-beautiful. I had to walk a lot.  In spite of my expression in the photo below, I was happy.

A mountain biker bombing the downhill saw me and shouted back to his buddies: "WALKER UP!" Come on. It's like he didn't even see my crop top and backwards trucker hat.

Keeping on with the theme of impulsive decisions, I also jaunted down Spring Creek trail when I came to that intersection.  I had not revisited this trail since last August, when I skidded on a sandy rock while I was descending and had one of the worst trail falls of my life. On this particular instance, however, everything was fine. The trail didn't even seem that hard. I couldn't believe it.

Achievement unlocked: Descending Spring Creek Trail without falling so hard I thought I might have fractured my tailbone.  I guess the Altra Lone Peak 2.5's make all the difference.

Oh, in other news, I couldn't stand my hair anymore, so I got a pixie cut.

Thanks to Lisa at Great Clips.

Sometimes it is quite challenging for both Rob and me to work in the time for our runs (what with childcare, etc), so we have to get creative.  In order to free up time for the family over the weekend, I got this great idea to go for my long run on Friday after Rob got done with work. I had decided I wanted to run around Horsetooth Reservoir, which would end up being about 23 miles and involve some lite trail running in the dark (good practice for things to come).  I was kind of scared of this run, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.  Unfortunately the weather had other plans.

If Colorado were writing a memoir about this summer, it would be called Thunder and Lightning with Only Five Drops of Rain.

It was bright and sunny around 5pm when I left, but the thunderheads rolled in about 6 miles into my run.  I could see lightning flashing over Lory State Park, where I was headed.  I wasn't exactly sure what to do.  Would this blow over by the time I got there? Or was this the kind of lightning that could kill you?

I bided my time by trying out some new fuel. It was delicious, but tasted kind of like frosting, and I liked it even though I normally do not like sweet things when I run.

Suddenly, there was this flash of light that seemed like it was in a bubble all around me. Was that some weird type of lighting? Was it one of those flashing-light migraines I sometimes get?  I didn't know, but I decided I needed to get the hell out of there.  It wasn't even raining.  There was just the thunder and lightning.  But off to the east, it was still sunny.  I thought, Horsetooth Reservoir will still be there some other day.  I should run in the direction that is away from the electrical storm.

The sky cleared up in about 20 minutes, and I felt bad, like I had wimped out on a run that scared me.  But wimp or not, it turned out to be a good decision.  One of those lightning flashes I had seen over Lory State Park struck a tree and caused a fire near Howards Trail and Arthur's Rock.

Running on safer trails and not feeling good about it until I read the news about the fire late that night.

I also did some heat training this month.

Time to run! (That 90% humidity in the midwest is going to crush me when we go back next month for Howl)

Rob and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary (we don't actually celebrate these things, but we did make note of it).
This heart-shaped brick thing somebody gave us for our wedding.  I added a partial snake skeleton I found while weeding the landscaping in the front yard. The head was there (but not the tail), you could see the fangs. It was cool.

The majority of July, however, was taken up by an epic trip through Colorado and New Mexico and ended up with Rob pacing his friend at Hardrock 100 for like 10 hours. I wrote extensively about this, starting here.

But some Melissa Running Highlights from that trip include running at the Great Sand Dunes:

Running up (and down) Mosca Pass in the Sangre de Cristo wilderness:

Funny side note: Rob pointed out that I actually took the women's Strava course record for running up Mosca Pass.  I should note that only 3 women have run this (at least, using Strava). And I should also note that I am in last place for the descent.

Running, and getting lost, in the Jemez Mountains:

Smiling here because it is early in the run and I still know where I am.
 Running in the desert at high noon outside Chaco Canyon:
Photo by Rob.
Smiling because what else can you do when you are running and it is like 110 degrees.

Running at 10,500 feet elevation in Telluride, while wearing cargo shorts because I had not been planning to run:

We'd only been home a matter of days before it was time to meet up with Angela and go run the 12-hour overnight relay Chase the Moon (which I wrote about here).

Dream team! Thanks Angela and Rob for making this happen! 

For me, this race was not a "race," but instead just a chance to practice running in the dark on trails. Which I will have to do about 12 hours of at Javelina 100.  Angela and Rob graciously allowed me to have a good chunk of running that started a little before midnight, and ended a little after 4am.

It was trial by fire, I suppose, for nighttime trail running.  I hated it.

I'll always remember
vomiting off the side
of the Karen Maria.
The trail was tortuously sinuous and winding, so much that there was rarely a time when I could see more than 5 feet in front of my face, the hills were tiny but constant (which ended up resulting in a not insignificant beating of your legs, at least after 21 miles of it), and yes, there were rocks.  I think these factors, combined with the bobbing bubble of the headlamp, made me feel like that time I threw up in Lake Nicaragua during the windy season.

Seriously.  I didn't stop seeing flashing lights for days after the event was over, and although I managed not to throw up, the nausea and throbbing pain behind my left eye persisted for just as long.  

21 miles in the dark, done.  I may be smiling in this picture, but I feel like I am about to have some sort of seizure.
I am definitely worried about how I will manage Javelina 100.  I have the best headlamp there is-- a Petzl light designed specifically so it won't bob around and make you motion sick.  And yet, it made me motion sick.  I've run in the dark before with it and been okay, just not for that long.  And Javelina 100 will be for even longer.  Has anybody out there ever run a 100 miler who suffers from severe (and I'm talking severe) motion sickness? What did you do?

I can only hope that it was the super twisty turny course that was bothering me, and the wave like undulation of the 5-feet up, 5-feet down hills.  The Javelina 100 course isn't like that. Well, I think it is a little undulating, but it is nowhere near as twisty turny. That will save me, right?
In the morning light. I didn't choose ultra life, ultra life chose me. I will find a way.
On the Thursday after Chase the Moon, Will and I went with Rob to the Towers trail run.  Will and I hiked while the rest of the group ran, and then when that was over, I ran the almost 11 miles home.  I started around 7:45pm, so it got dark a little more than an hour into my run.

I tried using Rob's waist lamp (a suggestion someone had offered to deal with headlamp nausea), but it worse, much worse.  I gave up on that and just switched to the Petzl headlamp, which was fine for the short time I was using it.  At any rate, I had not been feeling well all day, but it was really nice to see the sunset at Horsetooth Reservoir.

That weekend I decided to finish out the reservoir run I had cut short earlier in the month, due to lightning.

For most of the run, I felt terrible, except for a 6 mile section along the valley trails when I intermittently hallucinated myself back in Nicaragua.

I figure it is okay to semi-hallucinate myself back in Nicaragua, just so long as I don't see howler monkeys in the trees.

Stout was the name of the town they flooded in 1949, to build the reservoir.

And I did it. 23 miles. Reservoir run complete.

By tacking on another run the next day, I ended up with just over 71 miles for the week.  I've run this kind of mileage before, but it has generally taken quite a toll on me. This time, I feel remarkably good.  Well, my legs are okay.  My mind is just trying to hang on, and my stomach doesn't know what to do.  It is such a fine line between nausea and hunger anyway.

So when I totaled everything up, I finished July with 222 miles (and 1101.1 year to date).  I'm feeling pretty good about this, in particular, about the 71 mile week.  I think this puts me in about as good of shape I can be, going into Howl, and I think it is also a decent place to be for Javelina 100 at this point.

The trick, moving forward, is going to be keeping this up, while staying injury free.  Wish me luck.

Thanks for reading.