Wednesday, July 24, 2013

July 2012-July 2013: A Year in Review (Part I)

Or -- an escape to Orcas Island, a return to North Carolina, and another escape to Orcas Island...with some work, time with family and running thrown in, too.

I was fortunate to spend most of Summer 2012 in the San Juan Islands of Washington state. We rented a house near the lovely Moran State Park, and the wonderful teachers at the Orcas Island Children's House welcomed our girls to preschool there. We spent our days writing at the local coffee shop, with time to explore Orcas Island and the surrounding islands with the girls (favorite beach: Shaw Island County Park). Although we had rainy weather for our first couple of weeks, by early July, the skies had cleared, and it was a near-constant parade of blue skies, temperatures in the upper 60s/low 70s, and low humidity -- a great contrast to the heat and humidity of the NC Piedmont.

View from Mt. Constitution.

When we first arrived on the island, my running was pretty non-existent. Shortly after the 2012 Uwharrie 40 miler (and after a great training run for the Umstead Marathon), I slipped while walking down the hallway at work (in my defense, it was a rainy day), and my hamstring pain went from nagging (where it had been for about 18 months) to very pronounced. A visit to the ortho a couple weeks later confirmed that I had, in fact, managed a hamstring tear -- something, of course, that was more likely to happen after attempting to run through hamstring pain for far too long. So spring brought a couple rounds of PRP (platelet rich plasma) injections, more physical therapy, and very little running. I had my second PRP a couple of weeks before heading to Washington state, which meant that the first few weeks were only PT and walks on the trails. 
Cascade Lake, Moran State Park.

By July, I was able to begin to run again and, while the pain hadn't gone away entirely, it was great to hit the trails again. On 4th of July weekend, we ran the inaugural Funhouse 5k. It was a small race around the main village of the island, and I managed to come in as first woman (Andy was second overall). 

Back at home, post-race (yes, those ribbons were our prizes).

That was my only racing all summer, although I did go for quite a few runs in Moran State Park, including a couple to the top of Mt. Constitution (2409 feet; most importantly, great views to Mt. Baker and Mt. Constitution on clear days). Did I mention how much I loved the trails in Moran State Park -- as well as the post-run quick swims in Cascade Lake Lagoon? The longest I ran while on Orcas was 13 or so miles, but that included some good climbing, so I felt like the Bear 100 (a race I'd signed up for before the whole hamstring tear thing) might still be a possibility.

In late July, we set off on our drive back to North Carolina, made possible only by limiting our drive time to 7 hours maximum per day, and by two IPads. We saw friends in Eugune, OR; Bend, OR and St. Louis, MO; and we had some quick time exploring the Olympic Peninsula, as well as Burns, OR (the high desert of Eastern Oregon -- I had no idea!); Ogden, UT; Laramie, WY; Boulder, CO; Salina, KS; Nashville and Asheville. The trip provided several opportunities for runs exploring new places. I was thrilled to run a bit in Boulder again (this time, at Betasso Preserve), as well as to discover a few of the many trails in Ogden. Running in Laramie was a bit haunting, being close enough to town to see the main road, but also feeling very isolated in the rolling hills behind campus and the golf course, and not far from where Matthew Shephard was murdered. And running in Salina -- flat, dry and already hot at 7am -- was a reminder that we had left the ideal running conditions of the northwest.
Driving the McKenzie pass, toward Bend, Oregon.

Once back in Chapel Hill, I tried to increase my mileage a bit, while also not making my hamstring too unhappy. I decided that, if I could put in a couple of 50 mile+ weeks, I'd go ahead with attempting the Bear at the end of September. I was able to do this, although my long run maxed out at around 16 miles. In some ways, this was liberating: I knew I didn't really have any business going to Bear, and that anything I was able to do there would feel like an accomplishment. I decided that I'd start the race and I'd be ok with hamstring pain -- but if the pain got worse, I'd stop, and I'd also be ok with stopping. Training for the other three 100s I'd done had involved lots of miles, and lots of pressure from myself to run sub-24 (something I've yet to do). It was sort of nice to not have any expectations, beyond enjoying the scenery and the company, while in Utah.

A big group of TrailHeads converged on Logan, Utah for the Bear 100 -- runners who now live in southern California and in Bend, Oregon, as well as crew from Durango, CO and Salt Lake City...and the usual Chapel Hill/Carrboro suspects, including a TrailHead whose family lived very close to the race finish, and whose hospitality during race weekend was really wonderful. My mom came to Chapel Hill to watch the kids, so Andy was able to come along for crewing and pacing. 

Some of the gang, at the trout farm on Thursday afternoon.

On race morning (a Friday -- because this was Utah, and finishing a race on Sunday morning wouldn't fly), we converged on a small park on the edge of Logan. We ran through the neighborhood in darkness, and then began a long, steep climb. I did most of this climb with Icarus, and it was nice to have company, and to be forced to mostly hike to start the race. By the time we reached the top of the climb, dawn was breaking, and we had a wonderful view down into Logan. The scenery during the race was incredible. It didn't hurt that the maples were red, the aspens were yellow and the skies were clear blue. We had great views across the canyons from the tops of various climbs, as well as wonderful stretches of trail along streams and creeks. As the day wore on, the heat definitely became noticeable, but it was never unbearable. 

Somewhere in the mile 30s.
When one sees a camera, it's good to pretend that everything is wonderful!

I first saw our crew at the aid station around mile 20, and then again near mile 45. By mile 45, I was definitely feeling the effects of a day of running -- and the effects of not being trained for a day of running. Cari, the very able and sweet crew chief that she is, said I'd never looked better at that point of a 100 (she's seen me at all four 100s I've done), but I'm still not sure if she was lying -- or if not running hard early in the race really did make for a runner who wasn't thrashed halfway through. After mile 45, there was a big climb (what felt like an endless climb) up. I tried to remember that, at Bear, the bulk of the climbing occurs in the first half of the that, if I could make it up that climb, I'd have less climbing in the second half. I came into the 52 mile aid station to see a lake with the moon coming into the sky above it -- a beautiful view, and a great excuse to sit down. I joined Wackus, who had arrived just before me, and Gumbi, who arrived just after. I announced to them that my running was coming to an end -- that I was definitely staying in the race, but that my legs were just too exhausted to have much running left in them, and that I was ok with hiking for most of the second half.

Around mile 43.

With that, we left the aid station together. Darkness had begun to fall, and it was then that I realized I'd made a mistake at mile 45: I'd left wearing only shorts and a short sleeved shirt. This was great for the hot, dusty afternoon; but when the sun went down, I was cold. We didn't have crew at 52, so my next chance to get warm clothes would be around mile 61. The guys soon left me behind, as I'd expected, and I spent the next 8 miles trying to focus on finding the trail markers (I only missed a couple of times) and, eventually, giving myself pep talks about what not to do when really cold -- e.g. "it really wouldn't be a good idea to lie down next to the trail for a little rest." I realized, maybe for the first time, how being cold can really cloud one's judgment. 

I was very happy, then, to arrive at the next aid station and find our crew. I whined about being cold, and they put me in a chair next to a fire, held a blanket around me, and helped me change into tights, long sleeves, a jacket, gloves, and a hat. I was dressed for the dead of winter and -- once I managed to actually put on all of this stuff, which isn't easy when one's muscles are fried -- I was thrilled. I was also happy because this stretch of the race -- 61ish to 75ish -- was the one time when I'd have a pacer. Andy was going to pace me, something he'd also done for 62-78 at Western States. He wasn't feeling great himself, fighting off a respiratory infection, but he led me out of the aid station and back onto the trail.

The next five or so miles were a real low point for me. Every time the trail turned up, at even the slightest climb, I wanted to cry. Actually, I did cry. I would just stop in the middle of the trail, announce that I simply couldn't do it and start sniffling. Then Andy would encourage me along, and I'd start moving, and we'd go until I did the same at the next incline. I wasn't very good company, to say the least. But, around mile 69, there was a funny shift in the dynamic: for some reason, after that aid station, I began to feel much better; meanwhile, the dust on the trails had irritated Andy's lungs, and he was hacking and coughing like mad. I recall announcing to him, as I left him behind on a climb, that he could either catch up with me, or he could return to the mile 69 aid station and get a ride; but that I was again able to move and not going to wait for him. I may even have said things along the lines of "you're tired?!? I've been out here for nearly 70 miles! Don't tell me that this hurts you!" (In his further defense, he'd had knee surgery the previous fall, and had only been able to start running again himself during our time on Orcas Island. So 14 miles was definitely his longest outing in a long time).

The pinnacle of our cranky runner-pacer interactions came somewhere around mile 72, when I began to worry that we had got off trail. This part of the course wasn't terribly well marked, something we realized a bit later, when we found other groups of runners lost in the woods and searching for the markers. In our case, my concerns about being off trail hit at the bottom of a long descent. I think I actually argued that we needed to retrace our steps back up this hill, so that we could confirm that we were indeed on the right trail. Andy didn't really see this as a very good idea -- to put it lightly. We did decide to carry on, and we found others who were lost, and then we all found our way back onto the course, and eventually to the mile 75 aid station.

At mile 75, we were again met by the crew. There was hot chocolate and soup and a chance to hang out inside (this was at a ski resort, as I recall). Leaving the aid station, I took Andy's Nano with me, thinking that being alone in the dark, in the pre-dawn hours, might be a good time to have music -- something I never have on training runs or in races. As it turned out, this was I set out alone in the darkness -- which was a little creepy -- it was good to blast the music. And it was a bit of a mystery what the playlist was, so I had that to distract me (and, by the end of the race, I had decided that Adele was the best running music ever). At some point not long after, I came to the sign that we were crossing into Idaho -- "how cool is that?," I thought. 

Sometime around first light, it began to sleet/snow up high, near the next aid station, which was a bit strange. I spent some time during this section with a couple of other women (a runner and her pacer), and it was nice to at least see others on the trail. When I reached mile 85, I had one last chance to see our crew. Andy was asleep in one of the cars, and I got an update on how the other runners were doing. Cari was again there to send me on my way (as she always does). I knew it was going to be a slog to the end, but I also knew that I would finish. As I left the aid station, one of the women from the previous section called out to me, and asked if we could run/hike together. Her pacer was done, and she was doing her first 100. It was great to have some company for this section, which included what felt like another long climb up. By the time we reached the mile 92 aid station, I sent her on her way, because I could feel that I had really slowed down, and because she had family/another pacer meeting her there. We promised to see each other at the finish. 

Leaving the mile 92 aid station, it's a steep climb up...and then basically a long descent (with some small rolling stuff thrown in) to the finish. It was heating up again, and I realized that I was still wearing tights, long sleeves and a windbreaker. I tied the windbreaker around my waist, looked up at the trail -- and burst into tears again. It's funny what an ultra does to one's brain: I could look at this last steep climb (and at the elevation profile I carried with me) and tell that this was a little climb. Maybe 500 feet of gain. "The first mile at Uwharrie" I kept saying to myself. And yet, this seemed like it was going to be impossible. One foot in front of the other, counting to see if I could manage 30 steps before stopping for a rest.

Of course, I made it up. And I mostly hiked down for the next 8 miles, despite the fact that there were some long descents that would have made for great running for a better-trained person. But it didn't really matter -- I knew I was going to make it, despite the hamstring and the lack of training. I could see Bear Lake (which is amazing -- I had no idea!) in the distance, and while I had failed to notice in the course description that there's a significant distance between seeing the lake and being at the finish, I knew it was nearly done. Andy came out and met me on the last part of the course, the road from the trail to the park at the lakeshore. I think I tried to run it in once we hit the park, but I also know that I was very tired! Still, writing this in July 2013, I smile thinking about the fact that I really had no business doing this race -- I wasn't nearly trained enough. And my time (31:14) reflects not only the challenging terrain of Bear, but also that lack of training. 

And yet, I got to spend 100 miles running in a new place, meeting some great people along the way (including Luis Escobar, with whom I ran from 37ish to 42ish, and who entertained me with stories of Caballo Blanco and with photographing various ultrarunners and races for Montrail), and having Andy along for the crewing and racing experience. My trail shoes have never been more caked in mud and dust, and I'm fairly confident that the bag I checked at the SLC airport on Sunday morning was the smelliest piece of luggage ever encountered by TSA screeners. I once again benefited from having a great crew -- the Ringo family as well as Dorph, Zephyr and Cruz -- and from doing the race with other TH friends.
The TrailHeads runners and crew, post-race.

Bear 100 is a great race. It has that old-school, nothing-fancy feel that reminded me of Cascade Crest. Pre-race briefing in a little town park somewhere, drop bag collection and t shirts for sale at a trout farm down the road. Post race burgers on the grill in another little park, with everyone hanging out to cheer runners to the finish. The most wonderful post-race blueberry milkshakes from the place down the road (and, in our case, a crew who stayed on duty by fetching these milkshakes while we all sat, dazed, on the grass in the park). And wonderful scenery, too. (And, as a bonus for the NC folk, the winner of the men's race, who said a new course record, had run at NC State).

Of course, this long entry still leaves a lot of time, late September 2012 to now...but that's for another day!


  1. Oh, this is a great report! I love the grit and determination. And I can so relate to the spousal-pacer bickering!

  2. Your comment reminds me, Shannon, that I failed to include a key part of what kept me sane at Bear - taking along my camera. I'd never done that in a race, and that was your suggestion. It was so great to have the distraction, and to be able to record some of the beautiful spots along the course. (At mile 45, I accidentally left the camera in the aid station. Someone retrieved it and I eventually got it back...but I really missed having it for the second half!).

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