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 
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.