Friday, May 17, 2013

Race Report: 04.27.2013 Leona Divide 50 Mile Trail Race

Perhaps the biggest news to emerge from my first ultramarathon apart from finishing it (yay! 11:46:30) was that there was no big news. None. And for someone who firmly believes that no news is good news this is a good thing. I suppose it pays to expect the worst. It sets a low standard that is easy to surpass and makes you feel as if the race went tremendously well. I expected the race to provide a lot of pain, agony, and misery that my race plan boiled down to this: delay the pain. I expected it to hurt very bad, and the best I could hope for would be for the misery to start as late as possible, preferably after mile 30. But then the most wonderful thing happened when nothing happened. No cramping, no broken spirit, no massive meltdown. None. I managed to run 50 miles and felt pretty good doing so. And did I mention that the weather could be best described as furnace-like? I went into the race feeling very anxious, an anxiety I hadn't experienced since I ran my first marathon eight years ago. But now that it's done I still can't believe that I ran fifty miles and it turned out as well as I could have hoped.

Looking back at the race, granted this is with three weeks of hindsight, I think I just got lucky and made the right choices for that day. I'd go as far to say that the hot weather was instrumental in getting me through the race no worse for wear. The heat made me more conservative, cautious and attentive to my body and its needs. I hydrated like crazy that day so much so that I was worried about hyponatremia. I must have refilled my hydration pack, which holds two liters, at least six times. In fact, in the four miles between aid station #9 and #10 I managed to empty the entire bladder. Surprisingly I didn't have to pee the entire race, which worried me and made me drink more. But in the end I came out alright so I must have been hydrating correctly for the day.

Achieving my goal of delaying the pain meant that I had to listen to my body and stay within myself as I ran, especially in the early miles. "Relax" was the operative word of the day. To ensure that I focused on how I felt, I decided to run without my Garmin. Instead I wore a pretty basic Timex watch I bought  from Target the night before. My Garmin's battery would not have lasted the whole race anyway, but I also thought that by not wearing the Garmin I could focus on how I felt rather than what pace I was running at any particular moment. I focused on my breathing and made sure I wasn't getting out of breath as I ran. I also focused on my stride and cadence. I tend to tense up when I run too fast, so I made sure I didn't do that in those early miles. I didn't even try to pass runners too much. On the Pacific Crest Trail I fell into line with a group of three runners who were moving at a nice, steady clip. I thought about passing them but I worried that it would require me to run too fast and have to navigate the narrow single track trail. Instead I got in line and ran with them down the trail. The gentleman in front of me kept asking if I wanted to pass, but I kept telling him, "No, thanks, I'm fine at this pace." I think he just didn't like having a runner on his heels, which I can relate to.

I still wound up at Aid Station #3 a half hour earlier than planned even with the relaxing I thought I was doing. I panicked for a moment thinking that I had gone out too fast, but I assessed my physical state and I really felt good. The early arrival, though, turned out to be a happy accident. It meant that I had 30 minutes to spare, so instead of running some of the uphill to the next aid station, which I had factored into my race plan, I could just walk. Looking back now, had I tried to run that uphill I probably would have burned out quickly since it was getting hotter. Instead I spared myself the misery. It was still pretty miserable going up that climb, but at least I could take my time.

One smart thing I did at Aid Station #3 was to get an empty water bottle from my drop bag and filled it with water. I actually debated about doing so because I thought the bottle might feel heavy and become too much of a hassle. But knowing that it was only going to get hotter I decided it was better to be safe than sorry. I'm so glad I did. That water bottle saved the day. I didn't really use that bottle to drink, but instead I used it to pour water on my head and neck. I also had a sponge under my cap that I would soak in cold water at the aid stations and when it was starting to feel a little too hot, I would just lightly tap the top of my head and feel that refreshing cool water run down my scalp. The aid stations were really great. Having someone pour cold water over my head revived me over and over again. At Aid Station #5 Kate Martini Freeman was nice enough to put a bunch of ice in my cap. Man, that felt great. If I ever run another hot race again I am going to take every opportunity to pour water on my head and neck. It's a lifesaver.

After Aid Station #4 I implemented my planned intervals on the uphill. I set my watch to beep every 1.5 minutes. I would run for 1.5 minutes and then walk for another 1.5 minutes and so on. I think it worked well. I was able to cover ground faster without exhausting myself too much. That section, even with the incline, is totally runnable, but without the intervals I may have wound up walking more of it than I should. I probably should have done intervals on the last uphill too at mile 43 but by then I was tired and didn't feel like it.

When I got to Aid Station #6 I was very surprised. I felt too good. I usually have a problem with cramping in my calves that I was sure was going to start up around mile 25, but at that point I had no problems. I really expected to be feel like crap, but instead I felt fairly upbeat. This was the point I thought I would consider cutting my leg off so that I would never be tempted to run another race again. I never feel upbeat that far into a run. I usually start becoming pessimistic and negative. I realized during training that it probably had to do with nutrition. Normally I just take Gu and Gatorade, but I noticed on the long training runs that I got really hungry, like I-could-use-a-burger kind of hunger. Unfortunately I hadn't experimented with eating substantial food items during training, but I prided myself in having an iron stomach so I wasn't really worried about any gastrointestinal issues. The boiled potatoes from the Mt. Wilson run were effective I remember, so I ate that at the aid stations in Leona. I also ate bananas, strawberries, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Had someone handed me a burger I would have happily eaten that. What didn't work, though, was my plan to eat Chicken McNuggets. I packed them in my drop bag to eat after mile 16. I tried to eat one as I was hiking up, but I found that it dried up my mouth and I couldn't swallow it. The strenuous hike didn't help. I barely ate one and gave up the plan. I also had packed some leftover fried rice that I had for breakfast in a water bottle. That actually worked, but packing it in a water bottle was too cumbersome. I should contact Nathan about designing a carrier for rice, one with a funnel to pour the rice into your mouth.

So aid station food, Gu and salt tablet every hour, and Gatorade made up my nutrition for the day. Oh, and a couple of PayDay bars. I wasn't starving and my attitude remained positive, so I guess it worked. The fact that I stayed upbeat the entire race was what surprised me the most. Even after mile 42 when we were climbing again in the middle of the day I recall just feeling positive. I suppose it helped that in my mind I knew I was going to finish before 13 hours even if I walked the rest of the way. The climb wasn't easy and it was very hot, but I didn't get down on myself nor even considered stopping for a bit. I just kept telling myself to keep calm and carry on. La la la. About a half mile into the climb I noticed a trio of runners ahead of me walking very slowly. They just looked defeated as if they were on some forced march. I recognized them early on in the run as looking like hardcore runners, almost intimidating to be around, but here they were struggling. And I thought, I could pass them just by walking the pace I was keeping. Now it's probably bad karma to be motivated by the misfortune of others, but whatever gets you through, I say, at that point. So I poured water over my head and trudged ahead. When I looked up I was startled by a runner walking towards me. I was puzzled but in my exhausted haze all I could say was, "Hey!" Only later when I thought about it that I realized that he was walking back to the aid station to drop out. Imagine that, six miles away and he decides to call it a day and walk back. He must have been feeling really awful to drop out when the end was practically in sight and plenty of time left to complete the race. It put into perspective how lucky I was that day. I was sore and tired and my legs felt heavy for sure, but I never thought once about quitting. I kept looking at my bib with Marisela's picture during the race. Before the race I thought I would turn to it throughout the day to motivate me to keep going when things got rough, but instead that day I kept looking at it and saying in surprise, "We're doing it, Marisela!" It was just a great feeling to do this race in honor of Marisela, and to top it off I was also having fun.

Eventually I started passing the runners I had seen earlier. One of them, as I was approaching, decided to sit down on the trail and rest for a while. I offered to pour water on his neck and he gladly accepted. "That feels good," he said. It had been a while since someone has said that to me. I offered to pour more but he said he didn't want to use up my water, so I just walked on ahead. I blame my exhausted haze again, but thinking back now, he could have used that water more than I did at that point. I had plenty of water in that bottle, so I should have poured more over his head. He was probably just being nice. I'm so oblivious at times.

In any event, apart from the hike up feeling really long, the rest of the way was uneventful. I saw a couple more runners taking breaks in the shade. I was startled by one lying under some bushes. I thought for a moment that he had collapsed but he assured me that he was just resting. Eventually I got to a flatter part of the trail with plenty of shade. I ran a little of this portion, but looking back now I probably should and could have run more of it. At that point, though, I just didn't want to do anything stupid, and I kept thinking that the aid station wasn't that far away anyway.

On the way to the finish I bumped into Roxana and Carlos. They were doing great. I was really inspired by Carlos. To think that he had never done a marathon or even a half marathon, and here he was about to finish a 50K race? That's just amazing resolve right there and emblematic of the other great people on the team who made the whole experience just unforgettable.

I don't really remember much from the finish. I knew it was coming up and I wanted to look strong, but then it came up suddenly that it was all a blur. I heard cheering and saw faces but before I knew it I was crossing the finish line. I remember feeling a big sense of relief that I could stop running. I must have had a big smile on my face, and I saw Keira, the race director, and she put the medal on my neck. That feeling of accomplishment never gets old.

The question I get asked often is whether I would do another ultramarathon. Most likely I will. A 50K sooner rather than later is likely but another 50 miler might be another year or so. But who knows? I want to keep running ultras but I also don't want to get carried away. I do know that I have no intention of running a 100 miler, though. Then again just a year ago I was adamant that I would never run 50 miles. Things can change.

I honestly can't believe that I ran 50 miles. It didn't feel like 50 miles. I thought I would be counting down the miles but instead I forgot about mileage during the run and just thought about getting to the next aid station. I think that perspective helped too. Amazingly, for a race that took me almost 12 hours to complete, I was never bored and it never felt like I had been running all that long. I was disappointed that I wasn't more sore after the race. I always love that soreness after a race because it reminds you of what you had done. That slow walk the day after a race is a badge of honor and I didn't want to miss out. I guess next time I just need to run harder, but running a race like this and not bonking is a great experience. Hopefully I can have the best of both worlds: faster time and no bonking.

Anyway, I'll end this long recap with the song that I was singing to myself during the run. I often sing quietly to myself when I run, and I find that it helps me stay relaxed and calm. Usually it's the last song I had heard and that morning it was Lord Huron's "She Lit a Fire,"which was just ideal. It had a nice, easy tempo, which resembled the running momentum I wanted to maintain, and the imagery the song evoked of traversing over mountains and deserts searching for the girl that got away just seemed to fit the occasion.