Saturday, November 2, 2019

2019 24 Hour World Championships

“The women’s team is fucked.”  (Text message (source withheld) 12 hours in)

***

The 2019 USA women’s 24 hour team was dubbed by Joe Fejes as one of the most dominant sports teams ever, a “dream team” of fixed time runners. Indeed, my qualifying mark of 151.38 miles was the 17th best female mark in the world *ever* and I was the “bubble” girl in spot #6 (of 6) to make this team! On paper, even our nearest rival, the ever strong Polish team with prior world record holder Patricja Bereznowska, didn’t stand a chance. But paper and reality are two different things and half way through the race it looked as if those paper odds might crumble into dust. 
2019 24 Hour World Championship "Dream Team": Camille Herron, me, Katy Nagy, Gina Slaby, Megan Alvarado, and Courtney Dauwalter at the Albi Cathedral

***

24 hour racing is a weird sport. For an entire day you endlessly run around in circles, piling up mileage while going nowhere. Going faster doesn’t make it end sooner; it requires you to run more. You can train for months, be in the best shape of your life and still a million possible little things can go wrong. Some things you can work through or you can come back from, but some things only get worse as you keep running. When that happens, you’re fucked. 

***

This year’s race took place in Albi, France, a small riverside city in the South of France and the birth place of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, a brilliant artist who suffered from pycnodysostosis, a genetic disorder that caused his bones to fracture and left his legs short and mis-shaped. Here in Albi, 400 brilliant 24 hour athletes representing 45 countries would be running around a 1500 m wrench shaped loop which consisted of a lap on a (very hard) track and asphalt paths around a soccer field and the stadium. The surface was hard and a bit uneven, and several odd turns were included. My assessment ahead of time was that the course reminded me of the 100km World Championships in Doha which was on tile and had many U-turns: It would be good for the athletes that could endure it, but that it would take it’s toll and like Toulouse-Lautrec, many would be at risk for fractured races. This seemed to be exactly how things played out as injuries piled up and seemed to be the main reason for people’s races to fall apart. 

***

Last fall and this spring I was plagued with fatigue and the “blahs” but I seemed to be bouncing back nicely. Winning Mohican in June restored a bit of confidence and had me thinking maybe, just maybe, I could have another good race at worlds. Barely a week after that race I enlisted the help of former Badwater champion Zach Gingerich to get me there. I’ve never had a coach before because I’ve always felt like I knew what I needed to get me in shape and ready for races and that I wanted to be in control of my own destiny. I wanted to be the brains and the brawn of my racing, not just the vehicle for someone else’s plan. But the truth is, after some struggles and bad performances, I had developed some fear and anxiety about workouts and pushing myself hard. I was also suffering a bit from lack of motivation. I needed somebody to take over the reins because I started doubting myself and what I could do; I needed someone who believed in me more than I did at that time and a coach filled that role. One other major change for me was taking almost all of my hard workouts on to the treadmill. I can’t say I love the treadmill, or even like it, but this was also part of the process I needed to “get out of my own head.” No thinking required on the TM: just set you pace and run. And weekly, the improvements were quantifiable.

The first test of the new routine came at the end of August when I headed to Wisconsin for 6 Days at the Dome. With 24 Hour Worlds only two months later, this was only a “stepping stone” toward the ‘A’ goal, so I decided to run for a 100km qualifying time rather than do the full 24 hours. Sneaking in a hair under 8 hours (7:59:40) was another shot of confidence. (Turning 45 just a couple weeks later did negate that a bit!).I’ve always said sub-8 is world class for women, so hitting that mark made me feel like being “world class” at 24 hours was still possible, too. The rest of my training up to worlds went well and I felt as ready as I could be.

***

Camille went public before the race that she was shooting for another world record, so she was off the starting line like a shot, trailing only one guy in the first hours. The rest of the US women all had big goals, too, with pretty much everyone targeting above 150 miles. I spent a lot of time discussing pacing with Bob Hearn “The Prince of Pacing” prior to the race and had even done a few practice runs utilizing his run/walk strategy. He had finally convinced me (along with the performance of Nick Coury at Desert Solstice) that even pacing was the way to go. And then two days before the race, Bob messages me and tells me he’s got it all wrong! Even pacing is not the best way to hit your highest number and he had math models to prove it. When Bob Hearn has math models, you listen! So I formulated my own little hybrid plan for the race: Go out even for 100km with no walking at a pace slightly above 157 mile pace, then switch to a run/walk plan (14 min run/1 min walk) for the duration, with the idea that those 4 minutes of “rest” each hour would preserve my running pace and still land me with a final tally in the 154-157 mile range. 

Early on I was running with Gina and Micah but we gradually drifted apart and it was just me and my podcasts for the duration. I cleared 100km right around 9:10, on dead even pacing and came in for a planned pit stop: new  shoes, a bit of stretching with team Doc Greg Hon, and a quad rub down, and then set off again on the 14/1 plan. Next stop: 100 miles. 


Running with Micah. Micah crushed it with 148 miles!

The day was fairly warm, somewhere in the mid 70’s, but I was using my Ice Bandana and the race had sponge buckets and the heat never really bothered me. But for some reason, miles 75-95 just kind of dragged on for me. I didn’t have any real issues, but I didn’t really feel great and of course, this is prime time for mental mind fuck: “12 more hours?? You can’t do this for 12 more hours!! Your legs already hurt and you had no business pacing for 157! Look at all the people who are already falling apart! You could be next!” It did not help that I was feeling pretty stressed about our team status.
International Field

Megan had to stop around 8 or 9 hours due to concerns for a stress fracture. Katy also had a serious injury she was dealing with and Gina was hampered by stomach issues. I saw Courtney a couple times at the side by side track entry/exit point, but we were on the same lap running pretty close to the same pace with me consistently 400-800 meters behind so I saw very little of her the first 10 hours. And then I passed her. 400 meters is nothing in a 24 hour race, a quick bathroom stop can equate to that distance so it wasn’t particularly noteworthy. But less than an hour later I passed her again and this time I could see she was visibly hurting, her bad hip from Western States back to haunt her from all the miles of repetitive motion. While Camille seemed to be holding on pretty well, it did not escape my thinking that she was running at a very high risk pace and could also have issues. “Oh my God, this is bad. The curse of Joe Fejes!! You have to keep running now.” I thought to myself. “And you don’t feel that great. You guys are screwed!” my brain added. I wasn’t the only one worried. Text messages were flying amongst the managers and handlers about the state of the team and the general feeling wasn’t good. In fact, to some it looked like we were fucked.
Just keep running!
I wasn’t feeling great but I didn’t have any real lows either. Just keep doing what you are doing until you can’t do it any more. Gradually, I moved from 18th place up to 3rd (unbeknownst to me, though I figured I had to be about 5th or 6th). 14 minutes run, 1 minute walk, unless you stop for any other reason, then you don’t get to walk. I had my podcasts on (Thank you, Armchair Experts!) and I was plugging along. Time wasn’t moving fast, but it was moving and so was I. As the time counted down, I was even able to suppress the negative brain banter. “Only 300 more minutes. I can do this!” (Never, ever think in hours!) In fact, everything was great until they told me what place I was in. And oh yeah, Spartathlon and Badwater course record holder Patrycja has recovered from her own stomach issues and is hunting you down and closing your 3k lead fast!

The adrenaline rush lasted about an hour. I picked up my pace, but so did Patrycja. I gave everything I had trying to hold her off but she was still closing. And the pace was taking its toll. My legs were screaming and I couldn’t keep the faster clip going. I stopped for a medical stretch right as Patrycja overtook me and the next lap I was in the bathroom emptying both my stomach and my bowels. Game over. The final two and a half hours were a struggle. I know that fight with Patrycja sapped me dearly and likely cost me a mile or two at the end. But with a medal on the line I had to go for it and I’d do it again. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. While it stings a little to be so close to an individual medal, I can’t be upset. I know I gave it my all and never gave up. Patrycja beat me straight up and was much stronger than me at the end. While on paper she beat me by less than a lap, she and the Polish team were watching my splits and she was just besting them by a couple seconds. Patrycja had no chance to catch second place and no chance for the Polish team to steal the gold from the US team so she was content to just mirror my splits to hold on to third. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had run a mile more that Patrycja would've been able to run 1.1 miles more.

***

As for the rest of the US ladies, they proved to be the goddamn strongest women around and I am so proud of all of them. This group rallied as a true TEAM! My highest respects to Courtney; she was in obvious pain and jeopardizing the next several months of running, but she kept plugging on like a serious trooper. She’d stop by the doctor, get some hip treatment, go flying by me, then gradually wear down until she needed another treatment. She told me she felt like she had a leaky tire that she could pump up and run on for a while but that it would eventually go flat and need to be pumped up again. With all that, the woman covered 143+ miles!! Tough As Nails! Camille is just out of this world when it comes to flat surface ultras. She not only held it together but set a new world record of 167 miles. Megan couldn’t come back in but crewed furiously the remainder of the race. And even though Katy couldn’t run either, she immediately jumped back in to the race in power walk mode when she saw Courtney hurting. Gina became my own personal pacer at the end of the race and was a godsend to me when I was hurting the most. Boom! We’re not fucked; we’re the WORLD CHAMPIONS with a new World Record Team Total to boot!

***

The award for such a great race is a trip to drug testing!! In theory, drug testing is a wonderful thing to have in our sport. In reality, drug testing after a race sucks. Somehow, Camille got to hang out on the track for an hour after the race was over, but I got dragged into a cold tile locker room about five minutes after finishing, with only enough time to grab my warm-up sweats off of the top my bag. If I had any doubts about leaving it all on the course, drug testing erased them once and for all as I was clearly in the worst shape there. Being the first to drug testing didn’t help because I was way too dehydrated to produce anything more than 20 cc of amber brown fluid, way short of the necessary 80. The other athletes waited patiently in chairs while I lay in the fetal position on the freezing floor wrapped in a mylar cocoon. When they passed out sick bags, I promptly used mine. And I had a very emergent need for a bathroom for other reasons as well and was tortured by the officials who told me in no way could I use a bathroom without the supervision of a female agent who was busy and wouldn’t be out for another 20 minutes!! I finally made it out with about 15 minutes to spare before awards. All of my other stuff had been kindly packed up and taken away by crew, so I was left wearing what I had on, ruining all the team podium 
pics!
Two gold medal teams! (Nice outfit, Pam)

***
Thank you to everyone who followed and cheered for the US squad. A big thanks especially to all of the wonderful people who were there supporting team USA on race day from all of the managers, the team doctor and everyone who helped crew and especially to my good friend Traci Falbo and Courtney’s husband Kevin Schmidt who took care of me personally all day long - I couldn’t have done it without you guys. I also should thank Injinji socks. Even though I tried to drop all my sponsors this year or completely failed to do any promotional gobbledygook, they kept me on the team and are still sending me the best socks there are for running. I raced all day in a pair of long Injinji compression socks and wore another pair in the days following the race. No skin blisters and no DVTs!!

Traci keeps me going!

I have now been on seven US Teams and have been fairly close to an individual medal three times with 5th, 5th, and 4th places finishes. But all three of those times I have gotten to stand on the top of the podium with my team and hear the national anthem play. I have also been 10th, 12th, and 16th (2013 race cancelled so no 7th result for me) with a team silver and two team bronzes. If my lot in life is only to experience glory as part of the team, well, I am ok with that because it is still a moment of pride and honor that I will cherish forever. Go Team USA!! I don’t know that I love 24 hour racing, but I love being part of this team so I am looking forward to Romania in May 2021!
Beaming with pride!







Monday, June 17, 2019

Mohican 100: A Return of the M0jo

My Western States/Badwater double last year was a big ask for my body, especially as a hamstring injury limited any major hill training. But I snagged a silver buckle at States and four weeks later pushed myself hard through the 127 degree temps to cross 135 miles of Death Valley in less than 29 hours. Afterwards, I knew I needed some unstructed run time and some very structured hamstring rehab time. Coupled with kids out of school, family vacations, and nothing on my calendar to train for, I did almost no running over the summer and was very happy to have the time off. But in the fall, when I decided to start back up again, things just didn't seem to click.

Of course, you first tell yourself you are out of shape, but it soon became clear that wasn't it. It wasn't just huffing and puffing. My legs ached when I ran, I was exhausted after even the shortest runs and there was no joy. I took two more weeks off for a full two month's of recovery, but if anything, it was worse two weeks later. I didn't have any desire to run or really do much of anything physical. People kept telling me I sounded depressed. The only thing I felt depressed about was not feeling good, but having no experience in this, I saw a doc and went on anti-depressants. A month later I was still my usual cynical self with no desire to run, so the meds didn't seem to correct my personality flaws or my physical issues. I just needed to get excited about running, I told myself. I needed to switch up my routine. I started doing short fast runs instead of long distance training and I signed up for a bunch of events to "race myself into shape."

So I raced 6 times in six weeks in the fall and the thing was, most of the races went pretty well. I broke my own master's CR at the Autumn Leaves 50k; I set the overall CR at the Silver Falls 50k a week later; I won a trail 30k in Las Vegas outright with a new CR. I got second at a local 5.5 mile trail run but my time was only two second off my time from a couple years prior. I also got third at a local half marathon and was the first person to do the 52 Mile Civil War relay as a solo runner. But the thing was, each event left me exhausted and I did almost no running during the week between the events. And even when the times and results seemed ok, I just felt "off." I had Bandera on my calendar and while I knew a Golden ticket would be a long shot, I thought I would at least get my lottery qualifier.

Race day at Bandera, things went downhill fast. My slowest pace felt so exhausting but I still planned to finish. But by mile 20 I was beyond spent - just absolutely nothing in the tank. I started tripping and falling because I could not find the energy to lift my legs high enough to clear all the rocks. I took three major falls, but so many more stumbles and toe catches. By mile 23 I was sitting on a log under a tree because I needed to rest. It wasn't the usual "gee I'm tired because I am running an ultra"; it was more like "I would like to hibernate in a cave for a week but I don't even have enough energy to move a few steps so I'll just lay on this log." It wasn't an ego thing to DNF; I felt too physically unwell to keep going. I took anther two weeks off to rest, thinking I had over done it on the racing in the fall. The plan was to start back with an easy five miler. But I didn't make it two miles before I once again felt completely drained. I walked back to my car and had to sit there with my eyes closed for ten minutes before I felt like I could safely drive home. Obviously, something was way off. I stopped even trying after that. The worst part of it all was that it was very isolating because runners understand injury, but how do you tell people you just aren't running now because you don't feel good and it isn't fun? People who love running can't register that idea and non-runners have never thought it was fun to run in the first place, so what's the issue? And how do you explain to ultra runners you DNF'd because you were tired? Who doesn't get tired running an ultra?? Also, it made me question who I was as a runner and what I was running for. After nine years with La Sportiva, I wrote what I thought was a very heartfelt letter explaining why I was turning down my contract renewal. While I wasn't expecting them to beg me to stay, I didn't even get a response. It was just one more thing that had me dismayed about running.

My first round of lab testing showed me to be the picture of health - even the things like D3 and ferritin which some people differentiate into "adequate" and "optimum" results were superb. This original panel included a TSH to screen for thyroid problems and mine was right smack in the middle of normal. But being told you are fine when in your mind you are clearly not fine, is actually not reassuring. In fact, it is quite frustrating. I did a lot of doctor "shopping". I saw my asthma doc to see if things had gotten worse; they hadn't. I saw a new allergist to see if he had any different opinions about my asthma; he didn't. Along the way, I ended up getting a full thyroid panel and not just a TSH. And my T3, the active form of thyroid hormone, was practically nonexistent. Both family practice docs I saw dismissed it as T3 being variable throughout the day and not significant unless it affects your TSH (which means your brain now senses that your thyroid level is too low). An endocrinologist friend was also nonplussed. A non medical friend recommended a naturopath; she prescribed T3 replacement within 2 seconds of seeing my results. All of this took time, so it was the last week of March by the time I started Cytomel, a T3 replacement. Three days later, we were in Vegas and it was like a light switch had been flipped. I was rallying the family to go hike or walk the strip. We spent to days in Zion and I once again was leading the charges in our family to get out and do more activities. It was night and day. Despite being an MD myself, I really felt annoyed with the allopathic medical system and feel like they missed the boat on this.

Being inquisitive, I felt like I needed to know more about isolated low T3. I tried read as much REAL literature as I could (no WebMD!!!) and as far as I could come up with, isolated T3 has three main causes: selenium deficiency (because selenium is necessary to convert inactive thyroid hormone to active hormone), gut infections and underlying chronic metabolic conditions like cancer or connective tissue disorders, which I felt fairly confident (hopeful??) that I could exclude. I never got tested for selenium levels because it is a specialty send out test (expensive) and you can get a bottle at the supermarket for under $5 so I just started taking it. But I did get a screen for GI infections and I had protozoan levels 100 times normal. The first two days of a course of Flagyl were awful, but by day 5, I felt amazing. And GI symptoms I didn't even recognize as symptoms (reactions to FODMAP foods, bloating, gas, etc.) went away. And while I was still a bit skeptical of all this "soft" medicine, I felt better than I had in six months. Heck, I didn't care if it was placebo or coincidence, I'd happily take my $5 selenium and generic (so also about $5) thyroid meds. In fact, I added 3 or 4 more "gut health" agents to my morning pill popping routine (probiotic, allium extract, berberine). And then I saw an article Sarah Lavender Smith wrote about Kami Semick and her struggles with low T3 and gut infections. I reached out to Kami and just talking to one other person with a (remarkably) similar experience made me feel like I wasn't crazy, so I guess that's a lot of my motivation for writing all this here: maybe someone else can relate and then doesn't have to feel so isolated or crazy. Or maybe it encourages people to keep fighting for themselves when they just don't feel right. Interestingly (at least me) is that two months later and after the antibiotics, all of my thyroid hormones normalized and I was able to stop taking any meds. I've been off for over a month and still feeling good, so at this point I am a believer in gut health!

All during this time, I only ran 210 miles in 15 weeks or 14 miles a week on average, mostly out of "obligation" and often more walk than jog. But I had a free entry into the Eugene Half Marathon on April 28th and I was feeling good enough that I decided to go. I ran a personal worst by several minutes but I came away quite encouraged. I felt good the whole time, I had fun being out there and I was actually pretty impressed with my time given the circumstances. I decided that was Day 1 of my new training cycle. That was 48 days before the start of the Mohican 100 race. And people pay coaches for six months to get them in shape for 100 miles! Haha. Actually, Mohican was not a part of my plan when I started training again. In fact no 100 miler was, I just knew if I was going  to feel good about taking my spot on the US 24 hour team, I needed to put full effort into my preparation. April 28th was about six months out (see, I plan to train for big events for six moths, too!) and I felt like physically I was ready to put in the work.

But here's the thing, I wasn't just physically ready, I was excited about running again. Soon after resuming training, I was pouring over the list of Western States qualifiers, trying to figure out how to keep the ten finish dream alive. The list of qualifier races is quite restricted. You see, you can run 135 miles across Death Valley in 127 degree heat in 28 hours, but WS does't accept that as good enough. You can run 150+ miles in 24 hours, but Western States doesn't care. Heck, you can have seven finishes and a win at Western States, but the only way to get qualified for the lottery is to run a race every year on the restrictive list of approved races, a decent percentage of which are international. So lining up the calendars of approved races, the two races I already had on my calendar for the fall, kids activities  and our vacations, there were actually only three or four good options and two of the races were already full! Mohican rose to the top of the list despite it's rapidly approaching date. In the weekends that followed, I did a 26 mile run and a 22 mile run, both on roads, the only two runs longer than 15 miles. But I had been doing more mid week "adventures" in the spirit of making running run so I did have some good trail runs of 10-15 miles on my legs. And all I needed was a finish. Feeling good and being in good spirits would be enough to get me to the finish line even if I had to hike all night and I was prepared to do that. In fact, I reasoned if I could get through 40 miles feeling good, I could probably hike my way to something close to 24 hours, and Mohican offers a generous 32.  Neither my cautious running partner nor my pessimistic husband had anything bad to say about this plan. Game on!

The beauty of low expectations and minimal investment is that you can keep everything really simple since you don't have a lot riding on the outcome. I had no pacer, no crew, no split cards and only the most rudimentary knowledge of the course. So little in fact that when the course skipped the protected waterfall area on the second loop, I spent ten miles worrying that I was going to be DQ'd for cutting till I finally broke down and asked someone. It would've been helpful to go over the race day check in and parking areas ahead of time to make sure everything was situated with more than 5 minutes to spare, but that all fell into place, too, and honestly kept me from even thinking about the race until we actually started.

Mohican is a great local race but most people are there for their own personal goals and not for the competition. As such the front pack went out nice and slow and I was very content to just tuck in around 30th place. Most of the course is pretty runnable with frequent short ups and downs rather than prolonged climbs and descents. Still it packs in nearly 13,000 feet of climb and I knew I'd be feeling it at the end so I told myself I had to walk everything on lap 1 that I thought I'd walk on lap 4. Usually my mantra is "check yourself before you wreck yourself" when starting an ultra, but on this day my good friend Bob Hearn's voice was in my head and I must've told myself "Fatigue isn't linear" at least 1,000 times, meaning to me when you start to fatigue you can fall off the cliff pretty fast and that how you feel now doesn't necessarily predict how you will be feeling later on so do everything you can now to keep the fatigue from starting. It wasn't perfect, there were still a few places I probably ran a bit too hard, especially the road sections which are just too tempting to open up, but overall I was feeling remarkably good after the first 53 miles, completing lap 1 in 4:35 and lap 2 in 4:40. The first two laps were listed as 26.8 miles and the final two laps have a short cut that was supposed to cut off almost 4 miles, so I thought it might be reasonable to try to hit a similar split time, but the cut off only took off three miles and it was pretty rough terrain. I also had one episode of puking that I walked for about two miles afterwards to settle my stomach and slowly replenish lost calories since I knew that'd be super important to keep from diving off the fatigue cliff. While I knew I was slowing a bit, I still steadily moved up the field and finishing lap 3 in 4:49. I busted through the aid statin at the start of lap 4 trying to squeeze out the last of the light but I could tell the legs were feeling the miles and the lack of training. Still I was in good spirits, my stomach had settled, and there were no major issues...until the weather gods decided to make some issues!

Somewhere around mile 82 it started to rain. And then rain harder and harder till we hit Biblical level downfall. I'm not kidding: the course to the finish had to be rerouted onto the highway because the pedestrian highway underpass filled with water and a creek bridge was completely under water! The rest of the trails fared no better. Sloped trails turned to rivers. Flat areas were ankle deep water that disguised all the roots and rocks. Everything was either slick or sticky with mud. And the rain and the fog really cut into the effectiveness of headlights. I kept thinking to myself "it has to let up soon" but it would only rain harder. I have seen bouts of hard rain like that in Oregon and Hawaii but for brief spells only. This went on for pretty much my final five hours and a few more for the people who were still out there. I actually felt better on this lap then on the previous one and was ready to push to the finish, but I had to work hard just to do 17 minute miles. I didn't feel like I was in death march mode at all but it would sure seem like it if you just looked at my final split (5:40). Still 19:44 is not too shabby for just wanting to finish (Only the great Connie Gardner has gone faster on this course and I don't think she had to fight a monsoon!)! Plus somewhere along the day I passed all but three guys. But honestly, the time and the win really aren't as meaningful to me as just being able to get out and feel good doing it.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Pringles to the Rescue: Combat Vomiting With Salty Snacks

When I first started ultras, my stomach wasn't ever an issue. Sure, I'd lose my desire to eat but I rarely got nauseous and I couldn't puke even if I tried (and I did try on a rare off day, but the attempts were always "unproductive"). The first time I puked was at the 2013 Western States and it was actually quite beneficial. Chugging a warm Ensure left my stomach bloated and upset to the point that I was uncomfortable running and I didn't want to eat anything else. And then I threw it all up in one big heave and was instantly relieved. I felt light and easy running, and my stomach was re-set and ready to take in more calories. I felt so good for the rest of the day, I was able to put 45 minutes on my nearest female competitor and finish 9th overall. I really couldn't see why people made race puking out to be such a bad thing!

But the vomiting started showing up at other races and it wasn't such a good thing. I had my head in a trash bag a Sam Merrill at mile 90 of the AC100, an issue that likely cost me the sub 21 finish I had as my 'A' goal. And at Spartathlon a few bouts of vomiting sent me into a 30 mile tailspin with low energy and the mental "blues" from not having enough sugar in the brain. And then there was this year's Western States, where the final 20 miles my stomach was tied in knots and even the tiniest sip of fluid would start a violent bout of retching. This not only ruined what had been a very good race for me, but it was horribly unpleasant and probably the most uncomfortable I have ever been at a race (the only thing that rivals is the last three hours of the 24 hour world championship running on a very sore and inflamed knee). But the worst part was that I had Badwater just four weeks later and these new stomach issues caused a lot of consternation and additional anxiety.

Of course, I did my homework. I had several discussions with sports nutritionist Meredith Terranova. Her advice to avoid nausea:
- Use simple sugar solutions (glucose/dextrose, sucrose, fructose) not the complex starches and limit protein and fat.
- Incorporate sugar into the pre-race diet. Woohoo- I just got permission to eat candy from a nutritionist!! (She did say "a little" but I figured: like miles, more is always better, right?)

I also spoke to Robert Kunz, head of First Endurance with an M.S. in sports nutrition. Not only did he have a lot of great input, but at no point did he promote his own product or suggest that I buy it, which made a huge positive impression on me especially in this day and age of "hash-tag [sponsor]" everything. He had multiple suggestions:
- For people with nausea and vomiting troubles, he suggests NO protein or fat, relying solely on carbs. While protein consumption may spare muscle breakdown, amino acids provide similar protection but are easier on the stomach. Also, liquids and gels absorb faster than solids and increase gastric emptying.
- Avoid "gummy" products (blocks, chews, gummy worms, etc.). These delay gastric emptying.
- Specific to my run at Western States, Robert thought I needed to drink a bit more fluid per hour given the heat and then take more electrolytes, particularly sodium. (After becoming hypernatremic at Western States in 2012, I have been quite conservative with my sodium consumption; Wins at Western States and Angeles Crest with no sodium tabs and less than 200mg/hr convinced me this was the correct strategy (even though I was puking at AC). But the recent puke-fest was the wake-up call that I needed to try something different).

Despite the lack of a sales pitch, I bought some EFS drink mix (300 mg sodium/bottle) and aimed to drink closer to 1.5 bottles/hour in the intense heat of Badwater instead of 1 bottle/hr + a bit extra at aid stations as I did at Western States. This seemed to be going fine for the first few hours but by mile 26 I was puking! This was horrible - I had more than 100 miles to go!! I knew I was drinking plenty of fluid so I was concerned I still needed more sodium (Tailwind, which many people swear fixed their GI issues, has 600mg sodium; Gatorade  Endurance has 500mg/20 oz and and S-cap is 341 mg so EFS is middle of the road in terms of sodium content). I grabbed a can of Pringles...and promptly spit them out because they tasted way too salty - disgustingly salty -  and since I was already queasy, there was no way I was getting any down. Obviously, my body didn't want more sodium! Unfortunately, I floundered the next 30 miles, sipping mostly on water and a few swigs of Gatorade while walking pretty much every step of the Towne Pass 16 mile climb. 

At the top, I decided to try some Pringles again; this time they tasted great. My stomach was still touch and go so I only ate a few, but the saltiness was no longer repulsive. On the downhill, I started taking more water and drinking soda, my energy returned, I started running and running well! My stomach recovered and by Panamint at mile 72, I was wolfing down pizza! At mile 85, I pulled out the Pringles . They tasted so good, I ate half a can. My stomach was solid and I had great energy, I was passing all kinds of people and moved into second place for the women. But ten miles later I was starting to feel a little low again and the stomach was just starting to feel a little wonky. Well, bring out the Pringles! This time I had to spit them out again but not because they were too salty. Instead they tasted like paste; there was no flavor at all and I couldn't detect any salt. I took a salt pill and was feeling better in short order. At the next Pringles taste test, they once again were delicious and I left with a handful. I had given up on the EFS as soon as the puking started and instead was using mostly soda (very low sodium compared to sports drinks) and a bit of Gatorade, so I was definitely on the low side for sodium consumption. For the next 30 miles, I was sampling a Pringle every 2-4 miles. When they tasted good, I continued on. When they tasted like paste, I took a salt pill. Using this system, my stomach was better than it has ever been at the end of an ultra and I was able to keep my energy up till the very end to the point that I ran the final 45 miles faster than ANY other competitor in the field (granted, I hadn't taxed my legs all that much early on). 

It was amazing to me how the perception of one food could change so drastically over the course of the race. But the body is amazing and it knows what it wants, you just have to learn to listen. I do believe my puking at Western States (and my other races) were due to not taking in enough sodium. However, I do think I am fairly well adjusted to low sodium running and 400mg/hr was just too much for me. Exact sodium needs are difficult to calculate precisely but Pringles* proved to be the perfect litmus test for my electrolyte needs while I was running at Badwater and I will most definitely be bringing Pringles** to all of my big races in the future.

"Once you pop, you can't stop...running!"
*Other salty snacks would likely work as well but they have not undergone the same rigorous scientific testing. ;)
**No personal affiliation with Pringles

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Cost of Badwater

Every big ultra has its critics these days, and Badwater is no different. However, if you pay attention, almost all of the Badwater criticism comes from those outside the event; those who have participated are full of appreciation and praise. I am a cynic by nature and I admit there was plenty to make me skeptical as well. However, after participating in the race, I, too am a convert and you will only hear me say good things. That being said, the indisputable fact is that Badwater is a VERY expensive race and if this race is on your bucket list you might need to start saving a few years in advance!

Here is a breakdown of my costs. I believe I spent significantly less than the average person, but there are a few places which I noted below where you could shave off a few more dollars.

Badwater entry fee - $1500. This is probably the most criticized thing about Badwater - a $1500 entry  fee and they don't even have aid stations! This starts to make a little more sense when you are there when it finally dawns on you that Death Valley is really the middle of NOWHERE and there are no locals to help out, meaning many people have to be put up in hotels. There are a few niceties offered to runners, such as a cottage room in Panamint and a post race dinner for everyone. I will say the race had more officials for monitoring and safety on course than any race I have ever been at. Race officials found me three times to try to help me with my tracker (not entirely successful, but still appreciated) and I used the cottage room and footcare available at Panamint. Yes, the race is for profit and I am sure the RD gets a decent wage from the race, but this is now fairly commonplace in ultra running. The price is steep, but the only way around this is to pledge to raise $7500 for charity.

Crew Travel: $1200. Standard practice at Badwater is for the runner to pay entirely for the crew. This includes travel, lodging and hotels. My pacer Dennis and I drove from Oregon and crew chief Jimmy drove from L.A, significantly cutting travel costs. I paid $660 for my sister's flight and $515 for my other pacers flight. It was worth every penny to have them there with me, but if you want to keep crew costs down, stick with three crew members instead of four and find crew that doesn't have to fly to get to Death Valley. (Update: Others have noted "standard practice" is to pay for crew once they get to Death Valley but for crew to pay their own travel. That would certainly mitigate expenses.)

Van: $750. I rented a van for a week for $525. I was a little taken aback when the person picking up the van added the $30/day insurance; however, this ended up being a good thing as we spilled dirty water in the van and it stunk to high heaven when we were done with it. The crew also reported there were a lot of places that it was easy to open doors into rocks. Anyway, we probably could've gotten by without the insurance, but it was nice to know we didn't have to worry about anything we did to it while racing.

Hotels: $1900. I had two hotel rooms for two nights in Furnace Creek and two rooms for two nights in Lone Pine, plus one extra night while traveling. Both places outside of Furnace Creek, we stayed at Best Western, which has air-conditioning (about half the hotels in Lone Pine don't - your crew will thank you for the AC!) and a free breakfast (decreased food costs!). I got 10% off with my Costco card. I paid $127 in Fallon, NV and $141 x 4 in Lone Pine, both of which seemed reasonable. Furnace Creek  is where you will pay an arm and a leg - nearly $300 per night per room - and anyone looking to save money should think about staying elsewhere and driving to the Sunday race briefing and the Monday night time start.  I had my crew come in Sunday, which worked out fine in the end, but most people arrived Saturday which made for a bit more leisure time and less stressful race prep, but certainly adds to the costs, especially if that means more nights in Furnace Creek.

Gas- $500. This was 6 tanks of gas to and from Oregon, plus three tanks of gas for the van to and from LA and during the race.

Food - $500; Groceries -$150. A huge chunk of this was a $190 crew dinner on Sunday at the nicest place in Furnace Creek. On the bright side my crew didn't do much drinking and they weren't into dessert. ;) I brought a lot of groceries from Oregon and several crew members traveled with food, which meant we had snacks and race food covered.

Ice- $138. That's 200 pounds of cube ice plus two frozen water jugs. Be prepared to be gouged on the ice pricing in Panamint (and severely limited) but every place else was reasonable and plentiful.

Race Items and Supplies - $120. This is where I spent nearly nothing but you could easily rack up big bills here. Driving from Oregon meant I could bring things like coolers, sunscreen, towels, chairs, and spray bottles from home instead of buying when I got there. Critical gear includes: calf sleeves, arm sleeves, a high coverage hat, ice bandanas, and full protection sunglasses but I already owned all those things (and actually didn't pay for any of them originally either!). I also wore clear glasses for most of the second night but I used a free pair of protective eye goggles I got from the hospital where I work. I did not buy any of the "add-ons" offered by the race, such as signs or crew shirts, nor did I have any matching team shirts for my crew (they have to be in OSHA gear anyway, so not like anyone really sees them on race day!). Next time (yes, I said that!) I will buy better OSHA gear because I borrowed and skimped and we should've had a little higher quality stuff. I did buy 8 red blinky lights ($28) and 10 "Biffy bags" ($25) (cheaper online than through the race) as required, plus one OSHA vest ($8), and an umbrella ($14). I was able to borrow coolers and water jugs from a local race as well as a crew member and only bought one extra large cooler at Walmart for $60.

Total: ~$6,800. That's a hefty price tag for a single race! (Now think about the ten time finishers or Marshall Ulrich and his 23 Badwater starts - yikes!). As one friend and excellent Badwater candidate told me, "I'd much rather vacation in Europe for that kind of money." It's hard to argue with that, and as such, a lot of top runners will never be on the starting line of this race. However, there's a reason this is an iconic race and it was definitely a unique and special experience.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Fruit Leather and Fried Eggs: Record Temps at Badwater 135

When I my enthusiasm for ultras first started, there were two things I swore I would never do: eat a plain potato dipped in salt and run Badwater. Those things just sounded highly unpleasant. I made it all the way to my second ultra before I was chowing sodium crusted tubers mid-race. Well, ok, salty potatoes aren’t really that crazy (and can actually be delicious), but Badwater...That was still a very hard NO. Only a fucking idiot would run 135 miles through DEATH Valley in July, and I am not a fucking idiot. Or at least I wasn’t for 16 years of ultra-running. But here’s the thing, ultra-runners tell you they do these races to push boundaries, to test their limits and to get out of their comfort zones, but how many of them really mean it?? Within our ranks we see so many runners gravitate toward the same kind of races; they find a preferred distance, a preferred surface, even a preferred race that they go back to over and over. I still have plenty I can improve on at 100 miles and they still challenge me tremendously, but honestly, they don’t scare me anymore; it’s a mythical beast I have already slayed. I’ve had a few battle wounds along the way, but there’s been enough success to make me feel like I know what I am doing. And so in the last couple years I’ve found ways to find new challenges - running a 100 miles at my fastest, the 153 mile Spartathlon, 24 hour racing- and gradually I came around to the idea that I needed to run Badwater, too. It’s iconic, steeped in history, and rightly deserving of the title, “World’s Toughest Foot Race.” Also, it scared the crap out of me! But on paper it should be right in my wheelhouse: net uphill, >100 miles, runnable climbs, and a lot of heat. How could I not sign up?? :D


Check in with Crew Chief Jimmy at a mild 123 degrees

Western States four weeks ago was supposed to be my confidence builder, but it was the exact opposite. Due to a spring hamstring injury, training hadn’t gone the way I hoped and on race day I puked relentlessly for 20 miles. And then we got to Death Valley and it was 123 degrees!! Oh yeah, and it was going to be hotter on race day! I spent the two days before the race telling myself I was definitely a fucking idiot for getting myself into this! Fortunately, I had four super amazing people with me to keep me calm and tell me that it was going to be fine. We even had a little fun in the park on race day to keep things light.  

 
Recreating a 1984 family photo with my sister! 
The Badwater Basin
Taking in the Death Valley Landscape
Monday, July 23rd, 11 pm: Badwater 135, Wave 3 begins. The sun has set and it is still 112 degrees. The pavement and the rock cliffs are still radiating heat. 30 runners set off running through this barren and desolate land partially illuminated by a nearly full moon. A light headwind increases the difficulty and desiccates the mouth and lips quickly. The other 69 runners in wave 1 (8pm) and wave 2 (9:30) are already on course several miles ahead. The race is unique in that your crew can meet you almost anywhere on course with a few exceptions due to parking availability/safety. We’ve barely gone a mile before we pass the first sidelined van with the hazard lights on. Soon the road resembles an airport landing strip with red lights blinking down the side as far as the eye can see. In fact, the best way to see where the course is headed is to follow the van lights while trying to find your own van every couple of miles for some brief aid before they leap-frog you and rejoin the line of vans someplace up ahead. Though a bit chaotic at times, I rather enjoyed the action and the energy of the whole scene.

Early on I tucked in behind eventual second place finisher Jared Fetterolf trying to keep my pace under control and to get a little protection from the wind. But I was especially glad to have company when a coyote was standing not more than three feet off the road. We both veered wide, but the coyote just stood there staring at us, probably thinking to himself “what a bunch of fucking idiots!” ;)
Day break in Death Valley
You can't even tell these two have already been up all night!
Despite what seemed like an easy pace, I wasn’t even at the marathon point in the race when I first started puking! That is quite disheartening! Miles 26-58 were a huge struggle for me. Even though it wasn’t even the hottest part of the day, I felt so drained from the temperatures, my stomach wouldn’t cooperate and the 5,000’ climb from mile 42-58 was mentally defeating. This section was a huge low for me and I fell way behind the leaders in the women’s field. And then at the top the incline shifted and so did my whole race. I took a few minutes with my crew in a chair to get a leg massage, chew a few Pringles and some “quinoa granola” (???) that my crew chief Jimmy forced on me. I washed it all down with a shot of anti-nausea liquid and it all stayed down! Running downhill was so much easier and I think the lower effort really helped me recover as well. By the time we were passing the dry lake into Panamint I was rolling, despite the mercury nearly busting out of the thermometers at that point. (The day had a record high of 127 degrees and ground temps of 158. Just for reference, the medium setting on my fruit dehydrator is 125, and you can *literally* cook an egg at 158.) However, I was in my cotton shirt with a lot of sun protection and ice, such that I felt like I was really managing the heat well.


Tweet put out by Death Valley National Park
Stopping for crew
The umbrella hat was quite a hit with the onlookers!
Jimmy told me I’d need solid food at Panamint and I would’ve bet him money beforehand that there was no way that would happen, but then I got there and downed a piece of pizza and a full rootbeer. So that’s why they tell you to have someone with experience on your crew! I also got some attention to my feet. All in all we spent 24 minutes there - almost the exact amount of time I finished behind Brenda at the end - but I think that time was critical to regroup and replenish the early deficits. Leaving Panamint, I was in beastmode and moved up about 8 places in just as many miles. Near the top we started playing leap-frog with fellow Oregonian Yassine Diboun as well as then second place female Micah Morgan, both of whom were super friendly along with their crews and it made for some good natured and light-hearted competitiveness. I also crossed paths with good friend Bob Hearn at the Father Crowley parking lot where he was taking some extra crew time so we had lots of friendly company and my spirits were high. A few clouds rolled in and we were treated to several fighter jet flybys and their sonic booms. All in all, I was loving this section right up until I was hit with a massive calf cramp that stopped me in my tracks! We hid behind a rock to do a little massage and then I stopped to change my shoes, use the roller stick, get some arnica and Tylenol to try to the fix the problem. I was totally panicking, yet smiled and acted as casual as possible as Micah went cruising by. After a few minutes of stretching, I was back on the road able to run and passing Micah just before the mile 90 check point at Darwin where we heard I was in 12th with Brenda ahead by 67 minutes. I knew it was a huge lead, but there was only one possible option: fight like hell to the finish! Plus, I wasn’t giving second female back now!
Powerhiking in the Power Sun
The next 32 miles to Lone Pine is known as the crux of the race. If you can run here, you will do well. Micah’s crew started playing their own little mind games here as they would make every crew stop almost exactly 20 yards in front of me to remind me that Micah was still hot on my heels and I am certain to time the gap. As weird as this sounds, I actually enjoyed this and kind of looked forward to seeing their van. Their crew was super nice, so it was like I saw friendly faces twice as often on the course, plus, don’t think I can’t play my own games! I was making sure to smile and never walk in front of them to let them know I wasn’t backing down. And I figured out I could use their van stops to gather info on Micah behind me by timing how long it would take before the van would pass us again. At first it held pretty steady, but then the numbers started to grow and I knew we were gaining ground. I was euphorically delusional in here and was so amused by what I kept calling “our reverse spying” (mind you, I was going into my second night without sleep, I was more than 100 miles into the race, and I had fried my brain in 125+ weather all day). Anyway, all of these antics helped this long boring section go by faster and I actually missed Micah’s van and Michael Jimenez’s van (which was also leap-frogging us) when we finally left them for good and there was nothing else out on the roads with us. Thank goodness for my pacers or this would have been incredibly lonely! We rolled into Lone Pine in 8th place overall with a 5:56 split for those 32 miles, faster than everyone else in the race including overall winner Michele Graglia, who posted 6:00 flat and Brenda who went 6:36.

Unfortunately, the deficit was just too big from my early low to catch her. But we did have two “carrots” on the climb that kept me motivated to keep the pedal to the metal, but more than anything I was just ready to be done. We passed the two guys early and there was little fanfare after that. We didn’t have enough real estate left to catch Brenda, there was no one else on the course near us and we were definitely going to break 29 hours. My entire crew joined me for the finish as we trotted across the line together: Official Badwater finisher, 6th place, 2nd female, 28:48, with lots of hugs all around.



Team "Boot and Rally" at the finish! We did it!
I owe a mountain of thanks to my crew, Megan Alvarado, my sister Sarah, Jimmy Dean Freeman, and Dennis Gamroth. These people were instrumental to my success in this race and they deserve every bit as much credit because this was a team effort! They basically had to participate in their own feat of endurance and put up with the same temps all while catering to my every need. Love and gratitude; I am forever in your debt!

My finish allowed us to hang out with RD Chris Kostman and his crew for a bit, drive down the mountain, shower and hit the hotel hot breakfast right as it opened at 5 am - how’s that for good timing! I was too wired to sleep, but the crew crashed for several hours for some well deserved rest. Later that afternoon we went back up to the finish to honk and cheer for those still climbing the hill (then 38-41 hours into the race depending start times). We passed more than 20 runners making the climb after two full nights on the course. We enjoyed lovely weather with ice cream and beers at the top watching people finish until it started to pour with HAIL. That’s right, the mid packers had two days of scorching temps and sleep deprivation, only to be pelted by ice and flash floods at the finish! These guys and gals are serious tough-as-nails rock stars!! 

After doing this race, I understand why it is so special and why people want to put themselves through this challenge. It really was the most difficult race I have ever done, but the location and the people were amazing. In fact, I would go so far to say that anyone who has finished Badwater is a Badass in my book, and not, in fact, a fucking idiot. ;)
Flash floods on Day 2
Hanging at the finish with my crew to cheer on other racers
Nothing like an efficiency engineer (and Mom of three) to keep your team organized and act as "Team Mom!"





Monday, January 8, 2018

Belize It Or Not, I'm Blogging

If you want to write more, you have to sit down and write more. Seems fairly obvious but in the hustle and bustle of daily life, the activity of blogging didn't just get put on the back burner, it got packaged in foil and stuck into the far reaches of the freezer! Of course, I have been contributing to iRunFar with Gina and Liza for the past two plus years in our monthly column, Trail Sisters. I also recently joined the Ultrarunning Magazine staff as a monthly columnist for 2018 (look for my first article in February!). But those aren't the same as just rambling to your heart's content about whatever you want. And so I am dusting off the blog!

This year, I am headed back to Western States after a two year hiatus, thanks to a sponsorship spot from Active Joe (be sure to check out their races!). But before jumping into training for 2018, we headed down to Belize for a little post-holiday sunshine ("Belize Navidad!") and to celebrate my mother in law's 70th birthday! I only ran twice down there and enjoyed true vacation life, so now I am 8 days behind on the New Year, training, and resolutions (not to mention a bit overweight - thank you Belizean cuisine!). The days will go fast, but right now it feels like June is still a long way off with plenty of time to get in shape.

So for the time being, here are a few shots from Belize.

 Mayan ruins at Altun Ha
 A trip to the Belize zoo
 Hammock time
Our cabin at Monkey Bay Wildlife Preserve
 Exploring St. Herman's Cave
 A dip in the blue hole at Blue Hole National Park (not so blue after a night of hard rain)
 Our house on the beach
 A wildlife cruise on Monkey River

 Relics at Nim Li Punit



A trip to Laughing Bird Caye for an afternoon of snorkeling