Monday, May 23, 2016

91% of the Perfect Race

People will tell you life is like an ultra - plenty of highs as lows as you make your journey. When it came to running, 2013 was the highest of highs, with wins at American River and Western States and a speedy 100 miler at Desert Solstice. But it was more than just wins and good race results, I felt great and the running all seemed to come so easy. But by Western States 2014 I was on a downward slide. I managed pretty good runs at WS, Angeles Crest and 100km Worlds, but everything felt a lot harder and they were all off my expectations. By 2015, things on the running front were hitting rock bottom. I limped though Lake Sonoma and Western States with sub-par finishes all while feeling terrible. I was dropped by Liza Howard at Leadville just a couple miles into my pacing gig and I gave up my US 100km spot because I didn't feel like I could represent my country well. And all the while, every medical test said I was perfectly normal and fit as a fiddle. 

Finally, finally I got diagnosed with asthma and things started looking up. I was getting treated and feeling so much better. I won 5 mile race, a half marathon, a 50k and a 6 hour. Things seemed to be going so well. Right up until I lined up for Gorge Waterfalls. Holy big bag of crap! I felt bad the whole week leading up to the race, but race day I just felt awful! I was hating every step starting about mile three. By mile 22, I called it a day. There was nothing that was so bad that I couldn't have finished if I had wanted, but I am not new to this rodeo and I knew just another finish wouldn't mean much to me. I quit but I didn't give a second thought to the DNF - I had bigger fish to fry. But first, I had to feel better again. During this time I was on some pretty heavy duty asthma medications - albuterol, steroid inhalers, oral anti-inflammatories and even a brief course of prednisone. I hate the meds - they make me feel like I am defective and weak. Taking them means I have to face that something with me isn't right and I don't like that. I'm an ultra-runner, I eat more veggies in a day than most people do in a week, and all my addictions revolve around exercise - I should be invincible!! But I wasn't; my lungs were failing me.  The good news is that the meds seem to work. It also seems that alder pollen is a huge allergic trigger for me and by the end of April their season was dying down. Everything seemed to be coming together as I headed off to Philadelphia for the Dawn to Dusk to Dawn  (D3) 24 hour race. But after everything I had gone through, my goal seemed a bit outlandish.

Ever since running 14:11 for 100 miles at Desert Solstice in 2013, I've wanted another shot, a shot to see how close I could come to Ann Trason's 13:47 World Record if that was my primary focus. I trained my butt off and did multiple long runs on the track, trying to pace exactly as I would need, but still, how can you tell how 30 miles will translate into 100?? And just to make sure I was in full panic mode, the RD let me know that the 100 mile mark had not been recertified after the track was resurfaced last year, so I'd have to run 267 meters extra to get an official time. 100 miles may not be that far, but 267 extra meters is really, really far. 

Race day was warm even at the start and I had ice in my bra and hat by 8 am. Still, I felt really good and I was right on pace. My quads started getting sore around mile 40, but lap after lap I was hitting the paces and it didn't seem to be a big deal. By mid afternoon the clouds rolled in, but so did the wind. And then it started to pour! I was fortunate to have Josh Finger and John Cash on the track with me and both of them were doing a few stretches at a similar pace so every now and then I'd get a bit of company and even a wind shield. I can't thank those two enough for letting me hang behind them for a mile or two at a time. I came through 100km in 8:24:51 (not 8:18 as reported) - perfect 8:08 pace. Everything was right on plan.

The pacing plan  :)

Cruising right along
Pacing with Josh in the wind

Checking the 100km split

Lap after lap, I was nailing it. My super crew was sticking right to the plan I had given them and if I needed anything else, I'd tell them on one lap and pick it up the next. I never broke stride. The bad news is that I didn't feel that I could predict what I would need more than nine hours in to the race so I only had a plan for that long. Let's just say the crew did NOT like that - lesson learned! But still I was cruising, passing through 12 hours with more than 88 miles, trailing only Ann Trason's marks for 12 hours. 355 laps perfectly paced at 8:08 and I was 7 minutes up on the 100M world record. 

Sticking to the plan ("1" = done)

Closing on 12 hours

My quads were burning now, but I knew I'd be sore after; it's a long way on a hard track, of course they were burning! But from a fatigue standpoint, I was golden. I didn't feel taxed at all. I knew I had a 100 more minutes in me, piece of cake! Going into this race, I thought my chances were exceedingly slim, but if you had asked me at 12 hours, I would've bet the house; I was so SURE I had it! But I didn't have 100 minutes left in me; I had 26 more minutes and then my quads shut down completely. It wasn't cramps, it wasn't bonking, it wasn't me feeling too tired, and it certainly wasn't my mind calling it quits. My quads were just dead and they had gone into full on rigor mortis. I took a gel, a salt tab, caffeine, 2 ibuprofen, a quad massage - nothing would revive the hunks of burning flesh on my legs. My cushion was so great, I only needed to hit 9 minute pace for the remaining 8.8 miles, but instead I pushed with everything I had only to achieve a disappointing 11+ minute pace. After 91.2 miles my perfect race went up in flames.

The crew version of what happened

But don't let my Gorge Waterfalls DNF fool you: I am not a quitter when I have my mind set on something. And one thing I said I knew I could do no matter how the 100 mile attempt went was stay on the track for 24 hours. I hobbled to 100 miles in 14:08ish and got my official 100M (100.16 M) time at 14:09:43. I then took a short break to change out of garments still wet from the rain and into warmer clothes and I set off with my iPod ready to walk the next ten hours and see the race to the conclusion. My legs didn't seem to work, but I was in good spirits and was doing well on fuel after a couple of puddings. I should apologize to my fellow competitors for singing so loudly when I most certainly do not have a good singing voice! Afterwards, someone asked me if I was singing gospel music, which I most certainly was not (teeny-bopper pop rock all the way!) so maybe I owe God an apology too for my bad singing! But as I walked, I realized the master's 200km American Record (20:20) was a done deal even if I didn't run at all. But what if I tried to run?? I was stiff and sore and couldn't do anything faster than a 10:30 pace, but I could run a tiny bit. And then I fell in with Connie Gardner, the Queen of tough, and was able to keep going. It hurt and it was hard but I could keep that 10:30-11:00 pace going. It was so far from those 8:08 miles I was cranking off earlier, yet it was so much more effort to move my nearly lifeless legs and somewhere along the line, I lost my stomach. But I was still moving better than I expected. Forget the master's record, let's get the overall record! My Frankenstein legs got me to the mark in 18:48:28, more than 30 minutes better than the current American best of 19:19:05.  I promised my husband I would get this record in 2013 and then didn't so I felt like I had redeemed myself.

I just need a tiny rest!! I was up three minutes later!

That was officially the end of all running. I took a brief rest in a chair to regroup, but three and a half minutes later, I was up and ready to finish even though I knew I'd be walking every step for the next five hours. Bob Hearn was still chugging away, pushing toward his own 200km record (50+ age group) and I told him he would catch me if he kept it up. "That's my plan!" he told me in a very matter-of-fact tone (he has a different version of the story, but that is what I heard at the time). My brain had a brief flash of competitiveness, but my legs wouldn't have any of it - it was very certain at that point that walking was the best I had! By dawn I had covered 143.6 miles, and while I could not best Ann Trason's 100M time, it was a small point of pride that I eclipsed her best 24 hour mark.

Earlier this year a friend of mine confided to me that the Fuji Mountain Race is her dream race. As a Japanese American, the race not only represents a physical challenge but it has significant cultural meaning. The race course is challenging: nearly 10,000 feet of climbing in 13 miles and my friend is not a trail runner. But she is a tough and tenacious woman with a sub 3:00 marathon to her credit. "You should do it," I told her. 
"More than 50% of the runners don't make it in the time limit," she countered.
"You can do it," I told her. "I know you can." I meant it but she still had doubts.
"What if I fail?" she wondered.
"So what? So what if you do fail?"
"Oh, I'd be so embarrassed!" She told me.

I had a BIG goal going into D3 and I knew it was a long shot. I didn't hit that goal, but I am not embarrassed one bit. How will you ever know what you can do if you don't set the bar high?? There are plenty of things I will second guess: Should I have done longer runs on the track? Would my quads be stronger if I hadn't stopped lifting? Could I have made it if the weather were better? Should I have aimed for 2:03's instead of 2:02'? But I do not doubt for one minute that I gave everything I had on that track. And for that, there are no regrets. I am not giving up on this dream. I may be old and have a defective set of lungs, but I am not ready to wave the white flag just yet!

While I didn't hit my main goal, there were plenty of things I did accomplish:
8:24 100km split - qualifying for US 100km team
88.23M in 12 hours - Age group world record and third best female 12 hour mark ever
14:09:43 100M time(officially) - New US track 100M American Record and 100M Age group WR, 4th fastest female 100M time ever
18:48:29 200km - New American Record 
143.6M in 24 hours - 8th best North American 24 hour run and qualified for US 24 hr team (Team USA liaison Howard Nippert says he thinks it is the first time someone qualified for both teams in one race)

All in all it was a pretty successful failure! ;) But the best part might be the sense of optimism I got from the race, the idea that I can not only find joy in running, but maybe, just maybe I can be good at it again, too. That being said, I do not know how optimistic I am for Bighorn in four weeks! Woowee - it took me a week just to walk again! And with essentially no trail training on my legs, it's going to be an adventure! But that's what ultra running and life are all about!
 So happy to be sitting down!
 Girls rule, boys drool! The ladies go 1,2,3 overall!