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