Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Race Report Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile Race October 11, 2014 - Redemption

Redemption: “the act of saving something or somebody from a declined, dilapidated, or corrupted state and restoring it, him, or her to a better condition."
I have heard some ultrarunners use the word redemption to describe a race or run where they prove to themselves they have what it takes to get it done. It’s really a religious word, but given how profound and spiritual it is to finish an ultra… well, redemption doesn't seem to be too strong of a word to use.

Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile race was my redemption last weekend when my ego got saved and returned to a better condition after a DNF at my first attempt at 100 miles at the TRT (Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Runs) this year. That was a tough day for me, but the lessons learned were invaluable and I don’t regret a moment of those amazingly difficult 29 hours. And I never would have finished as well as I did at Firetrails without those lessons. Firetrails restored me to a better place after the misery of a DNF.

The Dick Collins Firetrails 50 Mile is one of the oldest around. I ran it last year and found it to be a true challenge with its long climbs and steep downhills. In the bay area, with the highest elevation around 1800 feet above sea level, Firetrails is a joy to run for someone who lives in Reno and trains above 5000 feet most days.
Firetrails elevation profile
The months of training leading up to this race were unusual and unlike anything I would normally do. I enjoyed a wonderful August, the two to six weeks after TRT, just enjoying myself with some challenging backpacking trips and running as usual, but not focused on big, long runs. September came and I got serious about mileage and long runs – a few 20’s and some big back to backs, but no more than 55 miles per week. The week before the week of Firetrails, I was very involved with the course marking and sweeping of a local Half marathon, 10K and 5K trail race (Kokannee Runs) that had me running at least 13 or 14 miles per day for 4 days in a row for a total of 65 miles for the week. High for me and a little unnerving the week before a 50 mile race. So much for a taper. I had to recover from the arduous days of course marking that had utterly depleted me due to the long hours, poor nutrition and stress of getting the job done with very few daylight hours and people to do it. Waking up on Monday before Saturday’s race day, I knew I needed major recovery time. As each day went by I felt I needed another day off. So, I took the 5 days before the race off completely. NO RUNNING for 5 days before a 50 miler. My intuition told me I was right to rest and, indeed I was. The shortest taper I had ever done for such a big race. But back to the story.

Saturday morning, October 11, was dark, windless and cool, but not freezing when I got up at 4:30 am – a perfect day for running, I thought. I dressed in my favorite pink flowered Patagonia shorts, blue TRT tech tank, Brooks PureGrit 3 trail shoes; and body glide in all the essential spots; then ate two packets of instant oatmeal with coconut oil and cranberries and a 20 ounce cup of coffee re-heated in the microwave of our cheap hotel in Castro Valley, CA. Won’t stay there again, but that’s another story.
The Brooks PureGrit 3's -
bathroom jitters, not runs
just jitters
Ron drove me to the starting line at Lake Chabot Regional Park in Castro Valley while Carol and Dave slept in for another hour before they would begin getting ready for the marathon start at 9 am. We arrived by 6 am, but the parking lot was already full so we parked on the street and walked the ¼ mile in. Picked up my bib and wrote down the cutoff times and AS mileages on it.

 I stretched and did my body looseners before the start using Ron for balance. Ron, my long time running partner, recovering from knee surgery and unable to run, kept me positive saying things I needed to hear, smiling and giving me last minute pieces of advice. Camera in hand always, he filmed and shot photos all day while he crewed me, Carol and Dave at a few of the aid stations - a logistical challenge for sure which had him driving all over the Berkeley Hills trying to find a gas station at one point!
About 250 of us lined up for the start and we all counted down the last seconds to “go”. And just like so many starts, we were off without fanfare, chatting nervously, laughing and making snide remarks about how we only had another 49.8 miles to go. Some wore headlamps, but I knew that daylight would come in about 10 minutes after the start, so just relied on those around me and the bike path to be clean enough that I wouldn't trip over anything.

The first miles were quick and I knew I needed to hold the reins in tight so I wouldn't burn through fuel I would need later. I had run fast the first few miles last year and didn't want to make that mistake again.  My Garmin data showed that I ran an average of a 9:40 pace that first mile this year. Good compared to the 8 minute pace I ran last year. I ran a few minutes with Tony Nguyen – “Endorphin Dude”, also on a mission of redemption for a failed 100 miler this summer. An inspiration to so many, it was fun to run next to a famous local. We wished each other luck and a good day of running.

I climbed the first hills confidently sensing my body as it warmed up and getting it accustomed to the idea of running all day. All systems go. Nothing to be concerned about… especially, the short taper. I felt good. Darkness turned to grey early morning light and the potential of the day was all around us. The sun wouldn't show for a while with all the fog. I was grateful. It was going to get into the 80s later in the day and the cool morning was a blessing. Mile 3.2 and its aid station came quickly at the top of a hill. I stopped in briefly to fill my water bottle, grab some potato chips for salt, take an S-cap and be on my way quickly.

These first easy miles found us in big eucalyptus so typical of California’s coast; their fragrance seemed calming and peaceful. Gordy Ansleigh, the guy who started this crazy ultrarunning sport in 1974, caught up to me with his loping, and long pendulum stride. Bare chested already, he carried nothing in his hands or on his body. Our pace seemed nicely matched and we ran easily together chatting and reminding each other where we had last met which was up on Snow Valley Peak during the TRT 100 in July. He was easy to talk to and I enjoyed his company of those first long miles. My 180 cadence must have drove him nuts.

We ran through beautiful rolling terrain, some of it in Redwood forest with a soft carpet of pine needles amid the silence and dim light. Much of this first section was on firetrails and dirt roads in the scorched brown dryness of the California hills. Gordy and I would get into an aid station and he would be there for a few minutes eating and socializing and I would be on my way quickly. He would eventually catch me and we’d run on together until the next aid station. We repeated this until I finally left him at Sibley Preserve AS, around mile 18. He had taken his third fall for the day, the second one had been the hardest when he fell and hit his head on an exposed tree root. The gash bled badly for a few minutes and when he arrived at Sibley, the volunteers at the AS tried to tend to him.

By mile 18 I knew I was doing well. A glimmer of hope started to build inside my brain: had the changes I made as a result of my lessons learned at TRT100 going to work?

First there was my attention to fueling and electrolytes. I started using VFuel, a gel that uses dextrose instead of fructose, as well as MCT oil, a few months ago in training runs and was impressed with the results. My head would clear and my ability to focus improve dramatically. It was as if I got my youthful-start-of-a-run energy back three and four hours into a training run! Was that in my head or was my body re-energized??

For Firetrails, I could only carry 8 VFuel gel packets with me in my waist pack. Since I had never used that many before I decided to go conservative and do one per hour instead of the recommended one every 45 minutes. And I didn't start taking them until two hours in to the race (instead of one right before the race.) The difference was dramatic. My energy levels were stable and my motivation to push remained high throughout the race even when past experience said that I should be tired and wanting to stop. As my ultrarunning friend and Master ChiRunning Instructor David S. told me, “if the melon is not happy it will tighten you up and slow you down.” Keep the melon happy and the rest of the body will be too. So it really is true: ultrarunning is 90% mental and so is the other 10%. Yep, gotta feed the melon.
melon brain

I ate at each aid station – PB&J (at least 2 sandwiches worth throughout the day, but very hard to get even ¼ sandwich down in the last hours due to little saliva);  boiled potato rolled in salt at EVERY aid station. I was religious about this since it was lack of salt that helped to destroy me at TRT. I also had two grilled cheese sandwiches (rolled in salt) and a cup of chicken soup at mile 26, the turnaround. And 1-2 S-Caps every hour.

The other major changes were made for my feet. Morton's Foot is common and I've got it. Since August, I had started wearing a 6 mm lift under my first metatarsal heads. I also started running in the PureGrit 3's, a stiffer sole in the rear foot that I hoped would give me a flatter platform over uneven trail so my arches wouldn't be working as hard. I hoped that the forefoot soreness that I experienced at TRT could be solved with these corrections. More details about Morton's Foot here.

The long climb up to mile 21 was grueling through technical trail but with some downhills to relieve us. We began to see the marathoners (Golden Hills Marathon) coming towards us. They had started at 9:00 am. Dave (my husband) and Carol (Ron’s wife) ran up the hill towards me – their mile 6 and my mile 18. A quick hi, hugs and kisses, and best wishes (ha! That rhymed) and we continued on our opposite, but so very similar journeys.
The fast 50 milers were coming back towards us too on their return trips; flying down the hills at an unbelievable pace, their focus intense. Some relaxed and fresh looking, others spent and on the edge of the envelope. It always amazes and inspires me to see humans perform at max, to see what we are capable of doing. People like me are inspired to do our best even though we are not THE best.

Mile 21.7 aid station is the “top” and the start of a long 5 mile downhill to the turnaround. Steam Trains AS is aptly named for the real miniature steam trains cruising around the park. You can hear them from a distance away! Ron was there to greet me as I came up the hill. So glad to see him there and weird to have him crewing for me instead of running with me. He had his camera going as I helped myself to food and had my water bottle filled. I started the long hike up the hill before heading downhill to the turnaround and he joined me to chat, encourage me and check in with how I was doing. He promised to see me at the turnaround, mile 26, at the bottom of the hill. I looked forward to it.

Being watched at Steam Trains AS, Mile 21
The sun was really beating down on us as we began the long descent on this side of the mountain where the dirt road was exposed and open. I saw Chris Jones hiking hard up the hill – another inspiring runner out there giving a high 5 to all who know him. The first place woman was also climbing hard and looking strong.

I finally arrived at the bottom of the hill, mile 26, and there was Ron waiting for me with grilled cheese sandwiches. I told Ron I was doing well, hot, but good. I had finished the last of my ASEA before reaching this 26 mile mark, about 8 oz for the day, and decided not to take any more with me for the remainder of the race mainly because I didn’t have enough space in my pack. I thanked the AS volunteers profusely for their service and especially for the grilled cheese sandwiches. The VFuel was working and I was cautiously excited that my plan was going to get me the strong finish I so wanted. I walked out of the AS back up the hill with a wad of grilled cheese sandwiches rolled in salt in one hand and a cup of soup in the other. Ron joined me for a half mile or so.  As I left the turn around, I saw Gordy running hard into the AS. I thought he would catch me going up the hill, but I never saw him again. He still had blood on his forehead. He wouldn't let anyone clean it for concern about infection.

Gordy & I at Steam Trains AS
The blood from a gash on his head a few miles back
from a fall on an exposed root 

Extolling the benefits of grilled cheese at mile 26
Last year when I climbed this dreaded hill, Ron kept dropping me and I had a terrible time keeping up and staying motivated to push. This time, I almost felt like I could have run it, but knew it was too steep and too long and would be a waste of energy, so I hiked it pretty darn fast and the time flew by. It was hardly the hill I remembered it to be from last year.

As I got to the top, I began to realize that today was my day, my race that I had wanted all summer. I began to sing along with my iPod – Shakira’s “Empire”.  So here I am hiking up this ungodly long hill and singing. I felt great! Tired, but energized. And passing people who were walking slowly, people who had flown past me only 15 miles ago and now were staring at this woman, me, who was singing phrases of songs between breaths. It seemed that I arrived back at the Steam Trains AS really fast. 30 miles done. I was thrilled. Only 20 more miles! Stop singing, Cheryl, I said to myself. You're wasting energy. Focus now. This is where the race starts.

And my watch was at a little over 6 and a half hours total time for these first 30. Could I do the last 20 in 5 hours???? Hell yes was my thought. And then a tiny whisper in the back of my head, “what if I could do it in 4 and a half hours?” Could I run that fast this far into an ultra?

I ran hard on the downhills. The uphills were an exercise in patience and focus on good ChiWalking technique – relaxed ankles, short strides, pelvic rotation and driving arms. My obliques were getting sore. I thought of George Ruiz, TRT RD, advice he gave me at TRT – “let it come to you and it will.” This race was coming to me and I let the thrill of success begin to roll over me in enjoyment and appreciation for being given the gift to run like this.

The beautiful section of Redwood forest found me running 9 to 10 minute miles and once again catching and passing many people who had passed me much earlier. I was on fire with energy. I couldn't believe myself. When I put the pedal down, my body responded. When it hurt, I just observed the pain, mostly in my quads, then relaxed some more. “Good” pain would not kill me. This was a good pain, the kind that comes from pushing hard, not the kind that says there’s something wrong. That was the kind of pain I had at TRT and it was devastating.

I think it was at mile 37 and the Skyline Gate AS where I first saw Helen Pelster, an amazing ultrarunner and ChiRunner who finished her first 100 miler at TRT this year with an astounding 10th place for women, finish. She was crewing for her husband Javier who I taught ChiRunning to several summers ago. She greeted me with a big smile and of course told me I looked great. I was so happy to see her because I did feel great and here was a person that knew me.

I saw her again at the next AS, mile 41.5, the Big Bear Staging Area, and again she greeted me with a big hug and tons of cheers as I ran through. My heart soared. A quick stop for more salted potatoes and a refill on the water bottle and I was headed out for the last 10 miles. The voice in my head was getting louder. “You could break 11 hours. You can do this. You are strong. You will not tire. You got this.” What if? What if I really could?

Ron called on the phone again. “Don’t give up.” “Keep pushing.”

It might have been at Bort Meadows, mile 44.5, where I was greeted by AS volunteers dressed for the Oktoberfest theme. They were quick to serve me a shot of beer! It tasted soooo good!!!!! How cool is that??

It was hot and my skin was wet with sweat. A climb at about 42 miles that seemed to last forever, but was only a mile and half and less than 500 feet of elevation gain, almost took the wind out of my sails, but I continued to pass people and realized that I was strong and had only 7 or 8 miles to go. I had one VFuel left when I got to mile 45.5 and Clyde AS. My watch said about 10 hours total time. What if I could do 4.5 miles in one hour and do sub 11 hours? I had no idea what the terrain was like for these last miles. I knew it would be rolling trail back to the finish, but how hard would it be and especially how hard with 45 miles on my legs?

I left that AS with a mission. I called Ron and told him how much I had left to run. I don’t think he expected me to beat 11:15 and I didn’t tell him I was after an 11 hour finish. I hung up quickly, knowing I had to conserve energy and focus. It would take everything I had to go after my goal and I didn’t want to regret anything.

I continued to drop and pass people again. I ran the flats and downhills strong. I even ran the few slight uphills. My quads hurt especially when I started to run after hiking uphill, but the pain was just that, pain. Nothing to get upset over and especially no reason to walk or slow down. I just went faster and focused. My respiratory rate was increasing and I knew my heart rate was up there. My focus was narrow and intense. Y’chi.

There was the dam for Lake Chabot, less than 2 miles out from the finish. And the rolling bike path around the lake as it headed back to the finish line in the distance. That sure looked like a very long way! My watch said 10:45. What if I could run less than a mile and a half in 15 minutes? Ha! Going to try, I thought. Tried to call Ron to let him know I was gonna be early, but my phone died. I knew they would not be expecting me this soon. Well, they were going to be surprised. I was not going to give up. I could push hard now. It would be over soon and I wanted no regrets.

I ran hard, pushed and focused in a way that I never thought I could after running for so long and with so many miles on my legs. The highlight of that section was seeing a group of about twenty kids ages 8 to 15 maybe, on the trail with a few adults. They excitedly shouted, “here comes a runner”! They moved to the side as I ran towards them. All I could do was smile and breathe. One by one they lined up and stuck their arms out with open hands so that I could high-five each of them as I ran by. One of the adults said, “wow, she’s really moving, I hope she can keep up that pace!”  Too tired and focused to respond, I said to myself, “yeah, me too!” I felt like a rock star! My adrenalin surged and I felt invincible. A couple of hills slowed me to a walk, but I kept pressing hard determined to never give up. I was almost there and then it would be over.

Katra, in her famous pink hair in pigtails and multiple facial piercings and body tats was out there sweeping in the last marathoner and I waved at her to say hi. “Redemption for TRT” I yelled back at her. She smiled and offered her understanding and congratulations. She would know.

And then it was there. The finish line. The most extraordinary feeling on the planet, in my opinion, is crossing the finish line of a race, any race, and especially one where you gave everything and know that it was the best you could give. A platitude for many an ultrarunning race report, but incredibly true and moving for anyone who has ever experienced it.

Carol and Dave and a volunteer greet me at the finish
A big smile on my face, I ran through the finish line strong and happy to the core of my being; fully present in the exhilaration and the moment. I had finished in 11:02. A negative split for the second half. A full 30 minutes faster than last year and good enough for third in my age group. A solid middle of the pack performance - 122 out of 247 finishers and 27th out of 80 women. Ron and Carol and Dave were surprised to see me so soon. Ron said at the finish, “now you can start fast and then run faster.” Yes, that may be possible now.
Carol ran a PR, nearly 35 minutes faster than she did this marathon last year. Dave ran 20 seconds faster in his second ever marathon. Ron crewed us all and kept a smile on his face with the perfect words of encouragement and congratulations even though I know in his heart of hearts he wanted nothing more than to be racing himself. Next year, buddy, next year. Thanks for all the photos!

Thank you to my core running family – Dave and Ron and Carol, and my running friends who thought of me and posted on FB. Thanks to my dad who taught me to love the outdoors and adventure and will always be proud of me. He tracked me the whole way as he always does via “Find My Friends” app on iPhone, and anxiously awaited the report of my finish from Dave. Thanks to Helen Pelster for her cheering and rubbing magic lotion on my aching quads at mile 41. Thanks to the volunteers at the aid stations - quick to assist and costumed brilliantly! I am forever thankful to my ChiRunning family especially Danny Dreyer who created this ChiRunning thing so average people can do extraordinary running. And to my dear friends, Master Instructor David Stretanski who turned me on to VFuel and ASEA, and Master Instructor Mary Lindahl who always listens to me, encourages me and coaches me.
Redemption is Sweet and Life is Good
at the finish line with Dave
photo - Chris Jones

Lessons learned:
1) VFuel works!!! When the melon is happy, the body can perform. Do more frequently, every 45 minutes, and pre-race.

2) The shoes worked. My feet were tired, but not sore.

3) I need lots of calories. At least 200 per hour. My best races have always been when I eat a lot. The VFuel, 100 calories per, aided absorption significantly.

4) Can’t do too much salt. S-Caps, food with salt frequently.

5) I can push hard when fueled well. I am much stronger mentally than I thought. Imagine success. Imagine outside of who I think I am. Pain is just pain. There is a difference between good and bad. Knowing which is which is the key. I get it now.

6) "Start fast, then you can go faster. "  Yes, this might be possible in the future, but always with the goal of running a negative split. I'll stick to start slow and taper when needed.

7) Strength work – air squats and lunges will be high on the agenda during the off season

  “Fear and negativity is imagination undisciplined… Faith is imagination directed.” – Tony Robbins.