Monday, July 12, 2010

The SOB 50k chewed me up and spat me out.....

....but it didn't defeat me!

The stats: I had a decent first half, but struggled the second half, especially on the loooong, killer hill starting at mile 23. I was able to pull it together and finished strong(er), but I still logged my personal worst time for the 50k distance by over 30 minutes: 7:44:12.

Pre-race photo op

This sure is a beautiful course! And exceptionally organized by fun, committed people to boot. I've wanted to run it for years now, but aside from not being able to run two summers in a row, it always seemed like a hassle to travel down to Ashland. It's a 5 hour drive from Portland, lodging is expensive, and camping options are limited. I'm so glad we decided to do it. The night before, we slept in our van at race central up on Mt. Ashland and that's definitely the way to go. What a high to wake up to the sun rising with views of Ashland below to one side and views of glowing Mt. Shasta to the other. I can't imagine a better way to start a race!

The early starters are off!

It's funny to me the twists and turns my mind takes during a race. Often I zone out but I distinctly remember all my brain chatter and self talk during this one. I was feeling okay when I got to the "halfway" point aid station at Jackson Gap, which is really 16.4. I had done a lot of walking and hiking but I made it in 3:35, which put me in a good spot to meet my loose goal of finishing between 7 and 7-1/2 hours. I was feeling the elevation but I was still able to move when my mind told my body to move and more or less eat and drink. Knowing that I was more than halfway done gave me a little boost. Combine that with the awesome aid station volunteers and the magnificent views and I was riding a little high. Plus we next got to head downhill.

But after a long downhill on dirt roads we jumped back on the PCT for some progressively steep uphill. By this time the high was gone and I was starting to really feel the distance, elevation and heat. The doubts crept in and the mind chatter reached new heights:

I love the mountains and the trails, but why do I think its a good idea to try to go as fast as possible on them?

Why can't I just hike and meander?

Maybe I should stick to road races and easy flat trails?

In August, I have two marathons and a 12 hour race, three weeks in a row. I should just switch to the half marathon options and focus on the (flat) timed race. Yes, that's what I'll do. Forget these mountain races. They just aren't my thing.

What am I doing here?

All the regular starters are passing me like I'm standing still. I'm so out of my league.

On and on it went. Doubts were creeping in for sure, but I wasn't necessarily feeling totally down at this point. I was still marveling at the gorgeous views and the interesting trail, trying to take it all in and enjoy the moment as much as I could. The trails on this race are incredible. While some of the course travels along dusty fire roads, most is on single track that winds and climbs through pine forest, wide open meadows and exposed ridges and peaks. It's a loopy out and back so only the first and last eight miles or so are repeated.

After climbing a short, but steep ridge we descended down the most technical, exposed part of the course. I was feeling okay, but slowing. I had to stop and rest a few times on the climb and worked on recovering on the descent. That was key for me in this race. There was never really a point where I was able to push the pace. I had to use the "easy" sections simply for recovery. At the bottom of this hill was the last full service aid station (approx mile 22) before the final long climb. I knew my fueling was likely low. I had nuun in my hydration pack and had drank probably 2 liters to the halfway point (plus some water at aid stations) and had eaten a lara bar, some fig bars, a few potatoes and some watermelon. But it wasn't enough. By now, I wasn't even liking the nuun that much although I forced myself to take sips. At the aid stations I tried not to linger, but after resting a moment I was able to drink some water and eat watermelon. And since I wasn't drinking as much nuun I started taking in some electrolyte caps too.

Climbing that last long hill - two miles of it especially long and steep, but overall lasting from mile 23 to mile 28 - just killed me. I felt strong leaving the aid station, but as soon as the grade started I was slowed to a crawl. I have never gone that slow in a race. I would not be surprised if I was only doing about 30 minute miles. At first I walked steadily, but slowly. Eventually I had to stop every 10 steps. My body didn't hurt and my breathing wasn't particularly labored, but I could feel my heart beating hard. I had zero energy in my legs, not pain or soreness, just nothing there. I leap frogged with a few other slow movers like me, but even they eventually all passed me. The mid-pack regular starters were now passing me and I envied how strong and with intent they seemed to move up the trail.

I've had some rough times in marathons and ultras. It's to be expected. But this was the lowest I've ever felt in a race. I just wanted to be done. I doubted I could even finish. That hill seemed endless. I thought the only reason childbirth was harder was because it lasted longer. At least I knew I'd have to finish or be pulled at 8-1/2 hours. I started to wonder if I was worse off than I realized. Had I lost touch with reality? Was I in serious need of help but not aware of it. When I stopped I'd often put a hand up to a tree to rest. Most passers would ask if I were okay, and I always responded yes, that I was just taking it slowly. So I tried to keep that meager positive attitude. I knew that I still had plenty of time to walk it in if I had to, but I really just wanted to be done. Done, done, done!

As we reached a false top of the hill where the forest opened up, the fire road paralleled the trail and a SUV passed about 50 yards away. I imagined flagging it down for a ride to the finish. But I also imagined what it would feel like to DNF and that kept me going. Finally, I reached the next aid station which was effectively the end of the long climb. I tanked up on water and watermelon and tried to eat a few potato chunks. I soaked up the good vibes from the aid station volunteers and tried not to feel too bad when one volunteer commented to another that there were only about 30 runners (out of 175) behind me. I knew quite a few of them were regular starters, so that meant I was flirting with DFL. Not my finest moment, but I would have been okay with that. Maybe I was last in the race, but I was still ahead of all the people who wouldn't or couldn't even attempt a 50k.

After this aid station there were a few more ups and downs but the course leveled off quite a bit. However, I just didn't have it in me to run. I'd go a few steps but then have to walk anything but the most obvious downhill. I just kept plugging along and as I descended some switchbacks I was surprised to see Gail. She had completed the 15k and was back on the trail to meet and run in with Bret. I stopped and chatted with her for a moment. What a boost! She was truly my trail angel. Seeing a friendly, familiar face and hearing her encouraging words really recharged me. After we parted, I definitely had my second wind. At the next and final aid station I tanked up on some more water, an electrolyte cap and watermelon and let the volunteer blast me with the super soaker. He apologized for spraying me smack in the face but I didn't care. It was getting pretty hot at this point and the soak and snow I found on the trail to put in my buff really helped.

Only two and half miles to go and gosh darn it but I was actually recovering and getting my second wind. I was still walking the hills, but that's normal for me and I was able to run the flats and downhills without issue. I've read so many race reports, especially for longer races of 50-100 miles, that describe low points and recovering. But I've never had it happen to me! Whenever I've had bad patches, they never really improved and I usually just had to hang on and hope I didn't get worse. But I truly feel like if this had been a 50 miler, I would have continued to get stronger and would have been able to really turn it around. What a revelation!

Within a half mile of the finish, the course went off the PCT and back onto the fire road for a short uphill to the pavement and then the finish. I was able to power hike up the fire road and caught a few of the early starters who had left me on the big hill. Nearing the finish I saw Marc, and gave him a big smile for the camera. But as I crossed the finish line I allowed myself one single quick sob of relief to be done. (And I wasn't DFL. I came in 23 out of 30 in my age group and 140 out of 161 overall.)

Marc (who won a second place age group award in the 15k!!) guided me to the seat he had saved for me and I joined the other revelers who were cheering in the final finishers. I felt pretty good and was able to eat and drink almost normally. I would have liked to stay longer but we had other commitments and needed to start the long drive north.

During the race, I had sworn off mountain ultras in general and this race in particular. But as you can imagine, I'm now thinking of when I can give this course another go. With better training I have a lot of room for improvement. My result in this race really shouldn't be and is not a surprise to me. My overall mileage is still pretty low, topping out at 43 miles/week and I've done virtually no training on mountain trails or serious hills. I need to keep working on pushing the calories early and often. It's easy to coast in a road marathon on limited fueling, but the margin for error is much smaller on the trails.

In many ways this was my worst ultra experience. Worst time, worst bonk, worst self esteem, worst suffering. There's definitely disappointment involved. But truly it was one of the best experiences of my running life (and maybe even life, in general). No way would I have thought this while out on the sufferfest that was miles 23-28. But this race was a revelation. It's what ultra running is all about for me. Beautiful trails, magnificent nature, challenge, camaraderie, new friends, old friends, suffering (yes, suffering), introspection, perseverance and (hopefully) triumph . Coming back from the depths, feeling the challenge and wanting to try again. That's living!

The little guy living it up with some new friends


olga said...

yesterday I saw a video of a friend of mine who just finished Hardrock. He shouldn't have even started. What he was saying as he was documenting himself on this path was hilarious - yet so true. This is what I felt reading your head-games. We all go through them. Every single one of us. The important part is - whether or not we make it to the finish line. And what we say 5 minutes after crossing it:) Congratulations.

Bret said...

Sarah, I could have taken part of your post and it would have exactly how I have felt on this course in years past. That hill is so frickin tough! I have done much more difficult courses than this one but I do not know what it is about that hill but it destroys me every year. Most every trail Ultra I say that this is not fun. I am stupid to do this. Even if others feel the same we always think its worse for us. You did great by getting your second wind. I am glad my Trail Angel Gail helped you out. When I saw her I screamed out "Detour!" with my hands in the air. She is such a positive force and I am glad she rubbed some off on you! Congrats for sure on your finish. You did awesome!

Susan Kokesh said...

Way to stay strong Sarah! Those tough days are what they are. Those amazing days, where we feel like we can fly with the wings of eagles, remind us why we do what we do. We all have good days, and less than good days. What matters is that you were a stud muffin and you FINISHED. You stuck it out and pulled thru. Finishing is awesome and you have to be so proud of yourself for staying strong. That elevation is a kick in the butt! Proud of you.

Backofpack said...

You are amazing! I know exactly what you mean - I have similar conversations with myself in every single marathon and ultra I run. I always hit a point of regretting the future races I'm signed up for, thinking this should be my last race, and wondering why I do it. And when I'm done, I'm ready to head out to the next one!

Joe said...

Sarah, I'm way late catching up on blogging stuff.


Thanks for your openness about the difficulty here. You pulled through it and learned much in the process. And, yes, that's such a big part of these races.

Hope you are getting set for the August sequence.

And, think, how far you've come in the past two years!!!

Carrie said...

Wow -- what a day you certainly had. It's amazing to me how the same mountain can leave people in such different states. DK was ecstatic because he RAN the 15K with no pain at all. You had an amazing, soul wrenching journey. I've felt that way on a shorter race (the Seattle half) once before -- I give you huge kudos for thinking of taking it on again -- I am scared to run my race again. (maybe that's why I switched sports, LOL).

I am so amazed and proud of you. To go from running, to not running, to an experience like this! Wow.