Race Report: Phoenix Rock And Roll Half Marathon

So I’ve been meaning to write a post about injury and inertia but in the meantime, I’ve been  gradually running more and hurting less for long enough that I felt ready to sign up for a January half marathon. Several of my running buddies had talked about training for Phoenix, and so I decided that would be my first race of 2013.

In fact, I was feeling so optimistic about my healing peroneal tendon/ankle/calf trio, that I thought maybe I should try for a PR in Phoenix, despite the reality that I was working more and running less than I had been when I ran my half marathon PR in December 2011. I’ll get to the flaws in this plan after the race report.

One of the highlights of the Phoenix trip was getting to meet some my fellow Oiselle team members at the race expo. Meghan and Ashley were also racing the half, and were both hoping for PRs on the course (which they achieved!).  I also got to meet speedster and coach Allison and Nuun hydration goddess Megan, who were not running due to injuries. Meeting this group confirmed what I had suspected: the women who are drawn to Oiselle tend to be badass, smart, and strong women.

Ashley, Allison, yours truly, Megan, and Meghan.

Ashley, Allison, yours truly, Megan, and Meghan.

After the expo, my friend Joyce and I secured the necessary ingredients for a paleo-friendly pre-race dinner. We got our race gear ready and then enjoyed a fine gourmet feast.

Giant yam, chicken breast, coconut water. Dinner of champions.

Giant yam, chicken breast, coconut water. Dinner of champions.

We didn’t have to leave for the race until 6:45, which gave me plenty of time to have coffee, a banana, and some almond butter. My ankle was Rocktaped together, and I was ready to go! I jazzed up my Oiselle singlet with violet Rogas because bright colors make me smile.

Featuring: Oiselle singlet & Oiselle violet Roga shorts.

Featuring: Oiselle singlet & Oiselle violet Roga shorts.

We met up with Nancy, who was also shooting for 1:59, at the corral. My friend Trisha had also agreed to run with me “just for fun” and she found us shortly before the race started. She knew I was hoping for a 1:59something and since she is a speedster, she was confident she could help me keep the pace. I had looked at the course elevation profile and figured that I would try for even splits from miles 1-7, allow for a slight pace increase miles 8-10, and then speed up for the last 3 miles.

Course elevation profile.

Course elevation profile.

I felt great for the first 6 miles, especially after we had gotten through the first mile of people piled up on top of each other, and tried to keep myself from focusing on all of the miles ahead and just work through one mile at a time. The first 6 miles were right on pace: 9:03, 9:02, 9:09, 8:58, 9:13, 9:00. We kept with the 30 second walk breaks every two miles that I had used through training, which seemed to help my tendon keep from coiling up into a angry tight ball of pain. By mile 7, I was starting to feel the slight incline and it felt harder to keep up the pace. The slight camber in the road was irritating my ankle, but I tried hard to focus on the mental aspects of running and push all doubts out of my mind about the strength of my ankle. My Garmin ominously started displaying a “battery low” warning at this point.

Mile 7: 9:30. As we started mile 8, Nancy pulled ahead, and I was sorting through my options in my head. Could I fall back for two miles and try to make up the time in the last three miles? The tightness through my foot, ankle, and calf was starting to flirt with pain the longer that I ran, and after checking in with my body, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to push for race pace without collateral damage. This was the point where I fell apart mentally: once I recognized my goal was out of reach, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I was terrified of finishing the race injured and having to take more time off: I’d barely survived my last running hiatus.

Mile 8: 10:04. When I saw this split, I felt demoralized. I won’t lie: I actually thought about dropping out at this point. I had to stop twice during this mile to stretch out my calf and ankle, and I could feel my shoulders creeping up towards my ears as I was trying to force my mind away from the discomfort. Mile 9: 10:11. We hit mile 10 at 1:34:56, and my Garmin died halfway through mile 10.  When that happened, I semi-jokingly said to Trisha, “I’m not sure if I’m going to finish.” Luckily, she didn’t entertain this idea for long, so we kept going, but I had to stop often to walk and stretch. The biggest injury at this point was my ego. I knew I couldn’t bust out a 5k at race pace, and in some ways I felt like it was the first half marathon I had ever run. My mind was a mess. I was obsessing over whether I’d pushed my ankle too far, whether this was the kind of pain I should just suck up and deal with (but what if I couldn’t run after), and wondering if I could conjure up an invisible helicopter that could swoop me off the course without anyone noticing. I was thankful for Trisha’s upbeat attitude and her encouragement to get this thing done.

The last 5k was a sad combination of walking and running. The high point was when Trisha pointed out where we would finish and told me that we only had .25 miles to go. Since my Garmin had died, I didn’t believe her, but once I realized that there was only a 400 between me and the end of this ego-bruising race, we “sprinted” to the finish. I was so demoralized that I didn’t even look at the clock as we crossed the finish line.

The damage? 2:11:01. Which was about 11 minutes and three seconds slower than what I had hoped to run. We found Joyce and Nancy at the finish, and found out that they had both set PRs on the course, both by several minutes.

Turning that frown upside down with the lovely Trisha.

Finishers! Turning that frown upside down with the lovely Trisha.

Finding out that several of my friends and teammates had set PRs on the course helped brighten my mood, as did the realization that my ankle was not swollen to the size of a baseball and that I could still walk on it without limping. Though I was not at all impressed with my time, I took a moment to remember that when I ran it in January 2010, my second half marathon, I was pretty pleased with my 2:24. Perspective, lady, perspective.

Looking back on this race plan, I think my biggest mistake was making a goal too ambitious for where I was with running this fall. I was coming back from an injury, prioritizing my new job over running, and had not built up a strong enough base to justify my expectations for this race. When I ran a 2:00:34 in Tucson, I had been running about 30-35 miles a week, with several long runs over 15 miles in the two months prior to the race. In contrast, I have been averaging 20-25 miles a week, with only 1 12 mile run and 1 10 mile run in the 6 weeks prior to the race. My goal for this race should have been to run a consistent pace and finish feeling strong, not to set a PR.

I’m glad that I finished with an ankle that is ready to resume running (and start PT!) and that the greatest injuries I sustained were to my pride. I am resolved to focus on strengthening in the next month so that I have the foundation for more ambitious goals later in 2013, which hopefully includes another go-around with the Jemez 50k.

 

Running Buddy Alchemy

This past Saturday, I went out for my longest run since my Great Ankle Injury of 2012 that had me sidelined for the better part of the summer…a whopping 10 miles! It was one of those magical early autumn mornings that only New Mexico can deliver; a handful of hot air balloons lazily drifting in the vivid blue sky, a certain crispness to the warm sunshine, and sunflowers everywhere.

My friend Teresa and I had decided to attempt this great athletic feat on one of our favorite routes, a meandering mostly shaded dirt path by the river. One of my favorite things about running is how it invites me to fully experience fleeting moments of time with all of my senses. We came upon this clearing about 10 minutes into our run, and both stopped to marvel at the beauty of the moment.

A field of sunflowers greeted us as we started our run

We had a wonderful 2 hour adventure (yes, both the path and the runners meandered) filled with that delicious kind of free-flow conversation that is stitched together by footfalls and punctuated by wildlife sounds and sightings. We got to talking about the delicate alchemy of a running buddy friendship. Running buddies can make training exponentially more enjoyable. The Yasso 800 workout you once dreaded turns out to be freakishly fun when alongside some entertaining fellow runners. That 22 mile run that ended up taking almost 5 hours because of unscheduled pit stops, a tight ITB, and/or wardrobe malfunctions ends in laughter instead of tears, and you process your frustrations over a 2,000 calorie brunch afterward. The right running buddy can take any run and charge it with an energy of connection and companionship that makes the whole experience more satisfying. But much like dating, there are trials and tribulations that must be endured as you search for your running buddy soulmates. I feel lucky to have found a handful of awesome running buddies over the past couple of years; they inspire me to try new things and to keep running!

Starting is the hardest part

I meant to start this blog back in Spring 2012, when I was training for my first 50k race. I realized as I kept putting off the moment where I sat down and created actual content for my blog though, there are so many parallels between writing and running. The one that is salient here, of course:

Starting is the hardest part.

I returned to running in 2006 after a 6 year hiatus, and the day that I was going to start that Couch to 5k program was always on the horizon. And the horizon kept on moving. It turns out, there is never a morning when you wake up and say to yourself, “Today, I’m going to get up before dawn, drive to the gym, and have a borderline asthma attack on the treadmill while feeling my fat jiggle up and down and almost die trying to run a tenth of a mile.” It’s just never going to sound like more fun than, say, sleeping in. But, eventually, I did it. 

I can’t misrepresent the experience here; it did in fact suck every bit as much as I had anticipated. In fact, I had not added to my anticipatory dread the indignity of athletic apparel. However, after that first 20 minute interval session of very slow running and even slower walking that was excruciating and embarrassing and very sweaty, I did feel some sense of accomplishment. I had done something that I had been dreading, and I survived. 

The synopsis of that 6 year journey since then is that I fell completely and totally in love with running. This despite having no athletic aptitude whatsoever, having exercise-induced asthma, and a vocal cord dysfunction issue that makes both breathing while running and talking while running quite challenging. I never would have guessed when I got up at 4:45 a.m. on that fateful fall morning for my first jiggly, sweaty, uncomfortable run that I would eventually go on to run a marathon and beyond. But I stuck with it, and I did. And along the way, I made some unlikely and truly wonderful friends, and learned a thing or two about myself.

I’ve often been struck by how running can serve as a form of insight-oriented therapy, and I suppose the purpose of this blog is to examine how my running serves as a metaphor for other parts of my life. I don’t know if this blog will ever have an audience, but I’m taking the first step and starting it anyway. 

Jemez 50k Race Report

Burn

We considered staking ourselves if we couldn’t finish the run.

Here is my extremely belated race report.

My first ultramarathon is in the books!

The Jemez Mountain Trail Runs 50k is reportedly one of the tougher 50k races in the country, what with the 7200+ elevation gain over the course and the fact that much of the course is run at or above 9,000 feet, meaning that there is very little air in the air.

I chose Jemez as my first 50k because it was close to home and because the course looked beautiful and challenging. I knew I wouldn’t be trying to break any land speed records with the terrain, and since I’m a pretty strong hiker, I felt confident I could finish the race in some fashion no matter what.

On the morning of the race, the alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. Ouch! I was out the door and on my way to the race by 5:15, accompanied by 1-time Jemez survivor Brenda, who was going back for a faster time and more suffering. It looked like we would have perfect race weather- low 50s at the start and getting up to the low to mid 70s by the afternoon. It was my first time officially racing for Oiselle’s team of badass women runners and wearing the team racing singlet- what a cool feeling! I was nervous and excited when we got started at 6 a.m., but the sight of the sun rising over the mountains filled me with joy and I just felt content to be out and running in such a beautiful place.

The first 4-5 miles went by quickly- they were mostly runnable on clear trails. I’d miraculously managed to avoid any kind of overuse injuries throughout my training until a 20 mile run 2 weeks out from the race- during this run, I tweaked my peroneal tendon rock hopping on a down hill trail, and it had been a bit cranky and creaky ever since. I was assuming it might complain some during the 50k, but the discomfort had been tolerable during runs, so I wasn’t too worried about it. Around mile 4, I met a woman who had broken three of her ribs earlier in the week. I ran with her for long enough to realize she was a complete badass, and I never would have seen her in this race save a glimpse of her receding pigtails had it not been for her injury. We parted ways at the first aid station because her boyfriend was waiting there to tell her he was going to drop out of the half marathon. I was cruising along at a good clip on rocky trails, feeling happy, when I landed strangely on my ankle, leading to a funny crunch sound, a searing pain, and instant swelling. This was just after I’d passed two veteran ultrarunners who commented that they were using me as a pacer since I was running/hiking so consistently.

After the crunching noise, I rapidly cycled through several or Kübler-Ross’s stages of grieving: denial (I said, “Maybe it’s fine” and tried to run on it, while trying not to scream each time my foot hit the ground), anger (once I realized running was not going to happen, I kicked a rock at the side of the trail…with my good foot. Oops.), bargaining (I beseeched some unknown Higher Power…if you just let me make it through this race, I promise I’ll rest, and see a PT, and stretch and use my foam roller every day…), depression (in which I contemplated dropping out of the race, as I couldn’t imagine surviving 25 more miles on what felt like a broken ankle, and also concluded I would probably never ever run again), and finally…acceptance.

About that acceptance. I’m pretty sure I would have limped to the next aid station and dropped out had I not encountered, once again, Badass Pigtail Girl With Broken Ribs (her actual name was Jody). I was limping along, sniffling and feeling incredibly sorry for myself, when she caught up to me. She noted that I didn’t look so hot. I affirmed the correctness of this observation. I remembered that she had 3 broken ribs, and was also from Texas, which has oxygen in the air. It put things in perspective a bit. In this moment, the Gimp Squad was born. Jody and I decided we were going to finish the race together, even if it meant we were the last ones in at the finish. This turned out to be what saved my race. Being a super type-A personality in some ways, I was obsessing over how slow I was going to go and how all of my training was wasted because I was going to be the last one to finish the race. This line of thinking would obviously get somewhat tiresome over the course of 25 more miles. Luckily, I stopped dwelling on the alternate searing pain and numbness originating from my ankle as Jody and I started talking about life, the universe, and everything else.

It was one of those funny moments in running where even as all this was happening, I was thinking to myself, “I’m learning something about how to deal with life right now.” Life is nothing if not full of unexpected and often unwanted curveballs thrown at you that, in an instant, change your trajectory. As Jody and I limped/jogged/hiked along the course, talking and laughing, I found myself thinking, “Just let yourself be here, now.” I’m pretty sure that I read that in a self-help book somewhere, or maybe it’s some great platitude of wisdom I handed to a client without actually thinking it would apply to me at some point in the near future. Strangely enough, there is actually some truth to this clichéd phrase. I felt the pull of self-pity and anger let up as I allowed myself to open up mentally to the experience that I was actually having- not the one I had imagined or hoped for, to be sure, but the one that was happening in the present.

Jody and I definitely had significantly more fun that the runners around us, probably because we had abandoned the idea of trying to be fast and had relaxed into the idea that we were going to be hiking uphill for a really long time, and it was probably going to hurt. A lot. At one point as we picked our way up a steep ascent that wound through a burn area littered with sharp stakes (we took care to avoid these), another runner said in an awed and slightly belligerent tone of voice, “are you guys actually enjoying this?” And we actually were. We stopped to revel in the incredible scenery often, and chatted with the runners that passed us. We offered encouragement to a Venezuelan runner we found sitting at the side of the trail at 10,000 feet, and got him running again. We coined a phrase for the strange type of movement that propelled us forward: “ultra slogging.”

The steep climbs were actually the least painful part of the course for me, because my ankle didn’t complain as much. I had done a lot of fast hiking in training and so I could keep a decent pace as we hiked up the steepest parts  of the course (in one mile, we climbed 1200+ feet, according to my Garmin!). But the altitude and the climbing was hard for Jody since her broken ribs made breathing painful and difficult to begin with, and even more so when she was out of breath. And, since she was from Texas, the altitude didn’t help matters much. At this point, I’d decided to stay with her for as long as I could, because I was having fun and we were distracting each other from our injuries. So I waited with her when she needed to stop seeing stars and eventually we made it to the Ski Lodge aid station, where I had two trusty running friends waiting to boost my spirits. I told them what had happened with my ankle, and told them that I was running with a woman who had three broken ribs. They looked at me like they suspected I had altitude sickness, but smiled and nodded. I think my friend Ron was prepared to pace me in if I needed it, but he told me I was looking good and making good time, so after Jody and I stuffed our faces with aid station goodies, we were off again, with “only” a half marathon or so to go.

We were done with most of the major climbs, but the rock-strewn downhills were excruciating on my ankle. Every time it wobbled, it would hurt so badly that I would get dizzy. I started to think I had actually torn a tendon or something, because I’d never had such intense pain save when I had stress fractures in my ankle. Jody showed me a way to go down the steep descents that helped minimize the wobbling, and so I slowly crab-walked down the descents I normally would have loved just bombing down as fast as possible. At this point, I told Jody she should leave me behind, because she could have gone much faster without waiting for me with my crab-walking moves. But she insisted that she was going to stay with me since I had stayed with her through the climbs, and besides, it seemed fitting that after so many hours of suffering together, the Gimp Squad was going to finish as a team. I was secretly relieved that she decided to stay with me, because between running through a severe burn area that looked like a desolate wasteland and the incessant downhills, I was struggling to keep it together mentally and knew if I was on my own, I might spiral into a dark cloud of doom.

We kept ultra-slogging along, and the tone of our conversation got more serious. We talked about overcoming adversity in our life, the losses we had suffered, the strength we had gained from the bumps in the road. When we saw on our Garmins that we had completed a marathon, we briefly cheered for ourselves for being stubborn (and stupid?) enough to keep going despite our bruised bodies. About 4 miles from the end, my friend Allison met us in the middle of another burn area to bring us in. Allison took our semi-delirious conversation and addled mental state in stride and kept us moving along. We were happy to have an addition to our deleterious duo and Allison was at least somewhat entertained by how loopy we were.

There was a funny moment at the last aid station- aptly named the Last Chance Saloon- where we for some reason decided to run up the hill as fast as we could (which was not very fast at all), laughing as we ran at the arbitrary decision. The people at the aid station told us, “We don’t see many people running up this hill looking as good as you do.” We just looked at each other and laughed some more. What they didn’t know was that was some of the only running we had managed to do over the last 25 miles! From this aid station, we supposedly had only 2 more miles to go. Jody and I decided to celebrate with a shot of tequila. At this point, we figured it couldn’t possibly hurt, and in the best possible scenario, the alcohol would numb the pain. Right?

We kept slogging, and got passed by some young shirtless guys who were actually running. Kinda fast.  This inspired a rare string of curses from me, which made Jody laugh. Her broken ribs weren’t too psyched about this. We hit 31.1 miles, but strangely were not at the finish line. At this point, I think I might have thrown a miniature tantrum and threatened to park myself on a rock until they moved the finish line to the appropriate spot. Somehow, we kept moving, until we hit the celebratory “you’re almost at the end” rock climbing chute. Yes, at the end of a hellaciously difficult ultra, there is an almost straight up rock chute that you must ascend, single file, before you can run to the finish. Hilarious. Amazingly, my running crew had congregated at the top. With cowbell. They used a combination of praise, affirmations, and threats to get us up to the top. I stopped here to talk to my buddies and process the experience, until my friend Steve reminded me that the race was not actually over, and if I shut my mouth and started moving, we would finish in under 10 hours. This inspired Jody and I to suddenly bust a move and start running. My ankle hurt like hell, but I didn’t care. I was almost done. about 50 meters from the finish line, we grabbed hands and skipped in to the finish line, 9 hours and 57 minutes later.

This 50k taught me so much about myself. Even though I fell far short of my original time goal of 9 hours, I managed to enjoy what could have been a truly awful day, made a new friend, and finished my first ultramarathon despite an ankle that pretty much had stopped functioning as an actual ankle. Steve had promised that when I finished, I’d probably be cursing and saying “never again,” and by the next day I’d be wondering when I could sign up for the next year. Surprisingly, I never had the “never again” moment. Almost immediately after I crossed the finish line, I thought to myself, “setting a PR on the course next year should be easy- if all my body parts are working correctly!”

Jemez 50k 2013, here I come!