Chasing 42

Life, the Universe, & Running

Mark Twain 100 Race Report: Part II

I believe I last spoke to you as I was returning from my second loop. I had completed 50 miles, was smiling, and my crew of friends, along with the epicurean crew chief, were restocking my pack, bladder, and flasks. My legs could definitely tell that I had just covered 50 miles, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad bit jealous of the folks finishing their race at that moment, but I was feeling really good for the most part. I was ready to tackle the second half of the race, and excited by the prospect of having pacing company for the next 50 miles. I was going to treat these miles as just another great run through the woods with some amazing friends! I ate part of a bean and cheese burrito, along with some orange slices, and was ready to roll.

Loop 3- The Darkness Sets In 

The nature of the course and the number of pacers meant that each of the four folks would tackle either 9 or 16 miles with me. Nicole and I headed out back onto the trail, and we were ready to conquer the next nine miles. It was nice to have someone to chat with after 50 miles of relative silence, and our conversations bounced all over the place. As I’ve talked to my friends more and more about the race, I’ve come to realize that I don’t actually remember nearly as many of the conversations as I thought I did. I was still feeling good early on in the third loops, so my mind wasn’t straying all that much from reality. My stomach, however, began to stray from comfortable after about 3 miles. Almost without warning, I began to feel nauseous and acquired a throbbing headache. I shared my discomfort with Nicole, and we spent some time trying to think about where my nutrition and hydration plan had gone wrong at this point. Most ultrarunners know that the stomach is a finicky beast, and I’ve certainly had my share of G.I. issues in the past. However, I felt like I had been taking in solid foods, Tailwind, and water pretty consistently over the course of the day.

Heading out for Loop 3 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Heading out for Loop 3 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

After a bit of discussion, it occurred to both of us…the burrito! How could I have been so foolish?! I was perhaps more hungry than I realized when I returned after the second loop, and the burrito sounded great at the time. It even triggered memories from the race in Arizona and the fantastic overnight burritos they fed us. Those, however, didn’t have cheese in them. I should obviously know better since I’m lactose intolerant. The middle of a 100-mile race is probably the wrong time to add some dairy-induced distress into your system, but that’s exactly what I did. The sun was setting, and my body was diverting resources to deal with the nausea that was consuming me. This, coupled with the declining temperatures, meant that my body was no longer balancing the fatigue that was beginning to overtake it. Our pace dropped off significantly, and Nicole did her best to keep me moving. The first aid station was a bit of a blur but I drank some ginger ale and found a ginger chew to try and calm my stomach. Running became considerably harder as I was constantly holding back the urge to vomit, and I’m still not sure how I managed to not return my dietary acquisitions to the earth. I focused on her voice, feet, and the trail and just kept moving forward.

By the time we reached the small section of black top before the mile 9 aid station and crew access point, I was hurting. It was a struggle to keep moving, and I was at a loss for how to describe the battle my immune system was waging against me. I was convinced that I was being attacked from within, and all I could do was settle in for the overnight siege. I’m not entirely sure how Nicole dragged me up to the aid station, and I don’t entirely remember it happening, but I made it and everyone was waiting for me. I found a chair, sat down, and put my head between my legs. Everyone worked around me to fill my bottles and get me food, and the images in my mind are more like blurry photographs than clear thoughts. The warmth and blandness of a cup of mashed potatoes was the perfect medicine for what was ailing me, and I gladly accepted it. I sat in the chair for what seemed like an eternity while everyone assured me that I was doing great, and Carla readied herself to take me out on the next segment. This was my first moment of doubt. This was the first time thoughts of quitting entered my mind. Everyone lifted me out of the chair, and the epicurean shared her faith in my ability to finish, quietly in my ear, as I left. That small, whispered sentence may have been the only think that got me back out on the trail.

Coming in to Mile 59...who took away the light? (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Coming in to Mile 59…who took away the light? (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Carla and I made our way down the trail to the stream-crossing, and I slowly stepped across, trying not to topple over. She helped me across (I think), and we continued on our way. I had picked up my headlamp at the last aid station, and it was now entirely black in the woods, so our lamps were the only think lighting our way. The moon would make an appearance later in the evening, but only in those brief moments when the tree canopy parted long enough for the beams of light to float down to the forest floor. After about 30 minutes, my headlamp began to get much dimmer. This was considerably worrisome, because a) I had fully charged it before the trip, and b) we had many hours left to go in the dark! After a few minutes, my headlamp was completely dark. Fortunately, my intrepid crew had snuck my flashlight back into my pack after I had handed it off. Carla fished it out, and we carried on,

The next few hours proved to be the lowest point not only in the race, but in my entire running career. My energy never really bounced back, and each step became a battle with my body. We ran a little, walked a lot, and our conversations drifted from topic to topic, becoming more and more random and non-coherent as the miles passed by (from what I remember, and what I’ve been told, anyway!). I struggled from aid station to aid station, and my mind drifted to thoughts of quitting quite frequently. Luckily, Carla kept me talking, kept me moving, and didn’t acknowledge my self-doubt. She maintained such an amazing attitude throughout the entire 16 miles, and I’m fairly certain that I finished those miles with her energy more than my own. This part of the race was such a blur that I seem to be gaining new memories each time we talk about it. I do, however, remember that silent moment in the dark when we heard a rustling to our left. We both pointed our lights on the area, and ever so faintly, we spied the image of a small, spotted cat. At the time, it didn’t register as overly frightful to me, although I’m guessing Carla, who was far more coherent, had other thoughts. We would find out later that bobcats are pretty common in the Mark Twain National Forest, and the story only grew from there :)

Somehow, despite my body’s constant onslaught on my movement, I continued to make relentless forward progress and we finished those 16 miles. It took 6 hours, which if I had been asked earlier, would have seemed like a ridiculous figure. Carla had definitely gone above and beyond the call of duty as a pacer, and earned her MVP (most valuable pacer) status for the trip. There’s no question in my mind that I wouldn’t have finished that loop without her. I had plenty of time to plan my DNF speech, but she got me to the 75 mile mark. I walked into Jackson’s landing like a zombie, with a look in my eyes that no doubt gave everyone a bit of a scare.

I remember sitting down in that chair, exhausted, and barely able to coherently utter the words I had been mentally rehearsing for the last two hours. My entire crew could sense my mood, and I whispered hints of dropping, which they expertly ignored as they checked my gear, filled my water, and sought out food to nourish me. My hands were almost numb after forgetting to pick my gloves up off the ground following a pit stop hours earlier, and I needed gloves. My fingers couldn’t function properly, so they slid the gloves onto my fingers comically as the race director watched on with a smile. He made a comment about getting me back out on the course, and was quick to help me remember I’d feel worse if I stopped than if I jumped back on the trail for the final 25 miles. He was right. I knew it, and I fought my body every step of the way so I could get back out there. Ultimately, I was simply too tired to quit. The words didn’t come out, and deep down, I didn’t want them to leave my mouth. They lifted me up, and Lani assumed her role as the next pacer as we slowly made our way to the trailhead.

Loop 4- Let There Be Light! 

The first nine miles of this loop were more of a blur than perhaps any other section of the course. I was unreasonably tired for some reason, and could have curled up on the ground at any point to take a brief nap. Lani’s amazingly positive attitude kept me moving as she announced each and every rock and tree root that my reflexes were too slow to adequately avoid. At certain points, stopping to take a drink of water meant teetering on the brink of sleep, and I spent most of those nine miles on the verge of falling asleep right on the course. My legs were heavy, and she helped lift them over the fallen trees that looked like the walls of Alcatraz, trying their best to hold me in the gloriously open prison of my own making. I’m always thankful for Lani’s positive attitude and energy, but was no more so than during those nine miles. I followed her voice, stared at her feet, and kept moving. The darkness seemed to encompass us completely, and the tunnel vision I experienced was perhaps a blessing in disguise.

I don’t remember making it to the first aid station, but I’m sure I took in some nutrition, drank as much as I could stomach, and kept moving. The nausea was gone, replaced by fatigue as pure as freshly fallen snow, and it took all of my energy reserves to keep moving. These hours represented a very dark point in my journey, and tested me in a way that no previous endurance event had. We were passed by a few folks in the couple of hours it took us to navigate the darkness, but for the most part, we were alone and left to our own thoughts. I recalled later hearing strange noises, but Lani brushed them off as kicked brush at the time, although I would learn later that she felt a shiver of fear at what might be lurking in the darkness. Our saving grace was truly the rising sun, which began to cut through the darkness slowly and gave me hope. I recognized the trail more towards the end of our 9-mile journey as I caught a subtle 8th or 9th wind. However, each time I thought we were close to turning the corner, I’d realize that I had miscalculated. I was running from tree to tree, from Switchback to Switchback, and eagerly anticipating our emergence onto the short stretch of black top. We finally hit that section as the light emerged with enough strength to allow us to turn off our lights, and it was a wondrous moment. Lani looked over at me and said “we did this”, and “you’re going to do this!”, and she was right. I could feel the sunlight coursing into my veins and reinvigorating me as we strolled into the Huck’s Watering Hole and Eric was there to meet us. Lani had pulled me through the darkness and I was eternally grateful!

On the final leg- this was going to happen! (photo credit: Eric Esser)

On the final leg- this was going to happen! (photo credit: Eric Esser)

I stopped to refuel, enjoy another cup of mashed potatoes, and visit a restroom that didn’t involve nature’s toilet paper. Many ultrarunners talk about the importance of getting through the night, and reaching the dawn. If you can reach the dawn, you can do it. I’d always thought this was a nice sentiment, and great for motivation. However, it wasn’t until this moment that I realized just how true it really was. Almost instantly, I felt my energy return, my mood improve, and excitement fill my body. I had just woken up from a walking slumber, and I felt as well rested as when the race had begun 25 or 26 hours earlier. My crew was admittedly surprised, especially considering how I looked the last time they saw me, and I assured them that it wasn’t a fluke. I took a final drink of water, and Eric and I headed out for the final 16 miles.

I was now awake and aware enough to appreciate passing each portion of the trail for the last time. We joked, talked about the previous lap, and discussed my new-found energy as we pushed forward at a much more brisk pace than I had seen in quite some time. I was able to run and power hike the whole rest of the route, and felt like I had extra energy to burn. Eric began joking about how easy his pacing duties were compared to the others, and I laughed with him. It was true, and I knew at that point that I would indeed be finishing this race, and my excitement only grew with each passing mile. In some ways, this segment became like any other early morning run with a wonderful friend. Eric and I have spent many early mornings ticking off the miles before meeting others, and I could think of no better person to finish out the race. We stopped at the final two aid stations and joked with the volunteers, ate pancakes, and I thanked them profusely for their support. Many folks seemed a bit surprised at my energy, but they were ultrarunners so they understood. Heck, we even passed a few people on the way into the finish.

Crossing the finish line...I promise I was very awake, despite my closed eyes!

Crossing the finish line…I promise I was very awake, despite my closed eyes!

With about a half mile to go, we came across a volunteer standing on the side of the trail and she began cheering us on. It was a testament to the dedication of all of the race staff that she had hiked that far down to cheer runners as they entered the home stretch. No matter how hard I push myself and for how long, I always seem to find a little bit of extra energy at the end of a race, and this one was no different. Eric and I rounded the final turn up the hill and into the clearing near the finish line, and I picked up the pace and began running with all the energy I had left. I crossed the finish line in 29 hours 46 minutes, wearing the biggest smile I’d had all day. The immensity of what I had accomplished took much longer to set in, but my joy was immediate. I felt a surge of endorphins rush through me instead of the expected final wave of fatigue, and I knew it had been an amazing race, and an incredible experience. There were plenty of hugs and handshakes, and I took a bit of time to rest and eat before we packed up the car. Our exit was quick due to the 9 hour drive we had ahead of us, but that just meant I had plenty of time to process what had just happened. I’ve never been more thankful for such amazing friends and an incredible partner than during this race, and there is no question in my mind that I couldn’t have done it without them. I’ve no doubt forgotten many moments in this recap, despite it’s length, but that’s the beauty of a 100-mile race. The memories will keep floating in for months to come, and they’ll bring a little smile to my face every time!

Hard-earned hardware!

Hard-earned hardware!

 

Mark Twain 100 Race Report: Part I

There are some experiences that you know from the beginning will stick with you for a lifetime, and that thought creates equal parts pressure and excitement. The Mark Twain 100 was just such an experience, and I couldn’t have been happier with how the trip turned out. The lead-up to the weekend seemed like an eternity. I’ve been preparing for this race all summer, targeting it, and planning all of my training around this weekend. Some folks say it’s never good to put all your eggs in one basket, but this was my “A” race. No matter what happened, my hard work this year was leading up to that starting line.

This race was a series of “firsts” for me. I spent the previous two weeks working out the logistics for the trip, which was far more time than I ever remember spending on that side of race preparation. The beautiful epicurean and I would be camping near the starting line (you can’t argue with free camping!), so not only was I thinking about packing for the race itself, but also our camping needs. We also decided to bring Looper along for some outdoor time, which added another level of preparation. On top of that, I was going to have pacers, in the form of 4 amazing friends, for the first time in a race. I figured I should probably decide how to work with them as well. Even though this was my second time tackling the 100 mile distance, my previous adventure in Arizona was quite different. This would be my first true 100 mile trail race. Needless to say, I had a lot on my mind leading up to our departure.

Rustic camping in Berryman, MO (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Rustic camping in Berryman, MO (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

We got everything loaded into the car (it just barely fit), and headed south for Berryman, MO around 8:00AM on Friday. The all-knowing Google told us it would be about a 7 hour drive, which didn’t seem that daunting, although I wasn’t crazy about spending that long cramped up in a car before running the next day. The drive ended up taking closer to 9 hours, and we arrived at the campground with rain falling on our heads. This was not a good sign! We set up camp in the rain, and then hopped back in the car to head to packet pick-up. Check-in was incredibly smooth, I collected my materials, along with a really nice hooded sweatshirt, and we stuck around for the pasta dinner. There was a brief race meeting at 7:00PM, and then a raffle for some great Salomon (one of the sponsors) swag. I ended up winning a pair of Salomon gaiters, which was a nice perk. By the time we got back to the campsite, it was dark and still drizzling. Crawling into the tent in the dark, with temps in the 40s and rain, didn’t exactly make for the comfortable evening I was hoping for but we made it work. Our 4 intrepid friends were still on the road, and would end up rolling into camp around midnight, by which time the epicurean and I were long asleep, albeit restlessly.

I woke up around 4:30AM to give myself time to eat a light breakfast (Cliff bar, banana, water) and get dressed. There was quite a chill in the air, but I knew I’d warm up pretty quickly once I started running. The darkness was still consuming the everything around us for the beginning of this 25-mile loop through the Mark Twain National Forrest, so I mounted a headlamp, slipped on arm warmers and a long-sleeve shirt, and waited for the 6AM start. This was a small race, with perhaps 60 people starting the 100-miler (4 loops), and another 100 beginning the 50-miler (2 loops). I anxiously awaited the start, sure that I forgot something, and then the clock ticked down to zero, and we were off. The course itself is a counter-clockwise loop and is 99% single track, so I fell in line with some other runners near the middle of the pack, and we made our way in the dark. Everyone was in really good spirits, and I was content to push forward and listen to the conversations around me. Many of the runners appeared to be from the St. Louis area (the race is put on by a St. Louis running group, the Slugs), and folks were talking about previous experiences on this particular trail. I knew going into the race that the course was single track, but it became clear pretty early that I had under-estimated the technical nature of the trail. It was certainly not as rocky as Flatrock, but I was not going to escape the constant bombardment of rocks and tree roots, combined with endless rolling hills and switchbacks. There was only one larger than average climb early in the race, but the route still managed 2,500 feet of elevation gain per loop.

Shivering by the light of the headlamp at the start! (Photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Shivering by the light of the headlamp at the start! (Photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Loop 1: Miles 0-25- feeling the adrenaline

In some ways, the first loop went by in a bit of a blur. We spent the first hour in the dark, so all of my concentration was focused on keeping my footing. We made it to the first aid station, around mile 5, as the sun was coming up, and I was able to briefly stop and take in my surroundings. It felt good to take the headlamp off, and my core had warmed up nicely, although my hands were still a bit cold. Aid stations are perfect for breaking up large groups a bit too, and I found myself with a bit more elbow room for the next segment, which was nice. I was feeling really good, easily running the downhills and flats, and tackling the hills with plenty of energy. I told myself I was not going to go out too fast, as I am oft prone to do, and at the time, I thought I was doing a really good job of holding back and remembering I needed to do this 4 times. The first 9 miles were definitely a technical challenge, and it became clear by the end of the loop that these miles were the most difficult on the course. Just before the aid station, there was a 3/10 mile section of asphalt which felt incredibly strange on my feet after they had taken a rocky beating for so long. This strange sensation only became more pronounced as the race went on.  Luckily, the epicurean and the rest of my crew were waiting for me at the mile 9 aid station (Huck’s Watering Hole). It was great to see them, and they gave me the once over to see if I needed anything, and I headed back out to tackle the remaining 16 miles. This was the only crew access point, other than the start/finish area (Jackson’s Island), so I knew I was on my own for a few hours.

There was one stream crossing on the route, and I came up on it almost immediately after leaving Huck’s Watering Hole. Luckily, the water levels were pretty low, so I was able to mostly step across on rocks although I still got a bit wet. My Altra Lone Peak 1.5s drained and dried pretty quickly, however, and I knew I had made the right choice with these more protective shoes. It was clear early on that my Dirty Girl gaiters were a good choice as well! I made my way to the Tom’s Canteen aid station at mile 15, still feeling good, and restocked on water. Each and every one of the aid stations was incredibly well stocked, and the volunteers were amazing! As soon as I arrived, they were asking what I needed, filling my soft flasks, and offering me a wide array of sweet and salty foods to keep my energy up. The last 10 miles, with another aid station in between, went really well. The trail in this section was quite runnable, and I was able to make good time on flatter and more open terrain, although the switchbacks continued. In all, the final 16 miles of the loop was somewhat easier to tackle, and much more open than the first 9 miles. Soon, of course, it would all blend together pretty thoroughly. I emerged from the forest and ran comfortably into Jackson’s Island, and everyone was waiting for me. I had covered the 25 miles in about 5 hours, and my legs were feeling really good. I shed my long sleeve shirt  and arm warmers, and my amazing crew restocked me with Tailwind, Honey stinger chews, and bodyglide. The sun was out, the air was warming, and it was an absolutely perfect day to be out on the trails. I couldn’t have asked for a better day as I waved goodbye to everyone and headed back out for loop 2.

Finishing up loop 1 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Finishing up loop 1 (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Loop 2: Miles 26-50- Oh right, I have to keep running! 

My momentum continued to carry me into the next loop, and my legs were holding up nicely. I began to feel some fatigue as the miles ticked away, but that was to be expected regardless. I knew that the 5 hour mark was not sustainable for 25 miles, so I began making a more intentional effort to slow down even further. This became easier as I had more of the trail to myself, although I was still happily crossing paths with plenty of other folks. Slowing down meant I needed to be even more careful of my footing, as I wasn’t going at a normal pace. I managed to kick a few rocks and tree roots, but nothing too substantial. However, I was happy for the more structured Lone Peaks to protect my feet a bit. I knew the rocks and roots would be having plenty of other conversations with my toes as the day wore on, and although I’d never lost a toe on a run, I figured I stood the strongest chance yet in the Mark Twain National Forrest.

Ok, time to go again! (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Ok, time to go again! (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

I rolled into Huck’s Watering Hole still feeling good and excited about passing the 50K mark. The trails were certainly beginning to make their mark on my feet but my legs were feeling good. Everyone was waiting for me, and filled up my bottles and nutrition. At this point, they had everything down to a science and it was fun to watch! They knew exactly what they were doing and all the right questions to ask. I drank some ginger ale and ate some pretzels and M & Ms, and was back out on the course in about 5 minutes. I hopped from rock to rock over the stream again, although I did manage to submerge one foot in the water before making it to the other side. The following 16 miles were all about patience, attention, and consistency. I had a much firmer grasp on the trail itself, and was comfortable being out there. However, I did manage to catch my right foot on a rock and in falling forward and catching myself, hyperextended my right hamstring. This definitely caused some pain and would end up giving me problems the rest of the race. I pushed through it though, and it didn’t slow me down all that much. I made my way back and forth on the constant switchbacks yet again, and by this time, they seemed to all bur together in the woods. I found myself thinking I knew where I was on many occasions, only to realize I was wrong. In the last few miles, I fell in step with another guy running the 100-miler and we had some nice conversations, which helped the time roll by that much quicker. He had gone out faster than he had wanted as well, so we were both in the same boat and focusing on slowing things down a bit. The added walking breaks felt good on my legs, and I was happy for the company.

Part of an amazing, attentive crew! (photo credit: Carla Danielson)

Part of an amazing, attentive crew! (photo credit: Carla Danielson)

I arrived at Jackson’s Landing around 5:00PM, which meant the second loop had taken me about 6 hours. This was a much more manageable time and I was still really happy with the progress I was making. Additionally, I was excited about being able to pick up my first pacer, and to have someone to run with and push me for the next 50 miles. I took a few more minutes at the aid station this time, ate and drank a bit more,  and chatted with everyone about how I was feeling. The first 50 miles were tough, but I was in good spirits. I restocked on nutrition, water in my bladder, and Tailwind in my soft flasks, and headed out for the third loop, accompanied by my first amazing pacer. Little did I know that those 9 miles would be the start of a battle with myself, and prove just how amazing my friends are…that, of course, is a story for the next post! Stay tuned :)

Finishing the second loop strong! It's a tad blurry because I'm clearly moving so fast ;) (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

Finishing the second loop strong! (photo credit: Lani McKinney)

A CyclONE City Running Tour(s)

I’ve always loved living in college communities. There’s a unique atmosphere of spirit and support that truly can’t be replicated in any other environment, and working for the university allows me to feel like a part of that community in a very special way. I moved to Ames, IA from Blacksburg, VA (Virginia Tech), and in doing so, traded one enthusiastic college town for another. My undergraduate experience at the University of Minnesota offered a very different sense of community connection due to the size of the Minneapolis area, but even in a city as large as Minneapolis, the Gopher spirit was and still is amazingly strong. My experiences in Blacksburg were incredible, and taught me what it is to be a part of a university community with unrivaled passion and energy. Now that I’ve been in Ames for almost 10 years, it’s clear to me that smaller towns simply make the town-gown relationship that much more intimate, and Ames continues to prove over and over why it is consistently rated as one of the best small towns in the country for a wide variety of economic, social, recreational, and educational reasons.

The latest demonstration of CyclONE spirit has come in the form of 30 individually painted Cy statues scattered throughout the campus and community. Not only are the statues themselves quite beautiful and impressive works of art, but they serve as a fundraising source for various charitable organizations, on top of fostering Iowa State and Ames pride throughout the area. The statues were unveiled just a few weeks ago, and became instant magnets for photo opportunities and scavenger hunts. It obviously made sense to see them all, and running around town was the clear transportation choice. The Ames Chamber of Commerce made the map available, and it didn’t take long for a friend to turn the map into a running route! Over the course of a week, I embarked on two separate running tours of CyclONE City. Throughout each adventure, I was once again reminded of how lucky I am to live where I do, and to have such amazing friends!

 

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Tim Rasmussen

Photo Credit: Troy Thompson

Photo Credit: Troy Thompson

Interestingly enough, I shouldn’t be surprised that two of my previous homes have also embraced similar public art projects. Feel free to find the Hokie birds next time you are in Blacksburg, or the Peanuts gang statues next time you are in the Minneapolis area! Do you have any fun public art in your community? Have you organized a public art run before?

An Ultrarunner’s (Almost) First Triathlon Adventure

I’ve been to race expos before. I’ve picked up race materials, perused the vendors’ various sales and enjoyed samples of nutrition products I’d most likely never actually purchase. I’m still a bit uncertain as to why companies seem so intent on pouring in as much sugar as possible onto their products, seemingly covering up the nutritional benefit of the other ingredients and making our bodies work for it like a polar bear clawing at the arctic ice in the dead of winter. I’d much rather the fish swim to me, upstream, flying out of the water and into my mouth like a grizzly bear catching salmon. In fact, maybe I’m on to something there. Perhaps the ideal aid station is full of volunteers with bladders full of water, ready to run alongside you while you pull the water from the flexible straw. Nah, there’s something to be said for actually resting for a few minutes in the middle of a 100 mile race, eh? Perhaps I’ll make that suggestion for my next marathon, though. Ok, I seem to have gotten off track a bit. What was I talking about, again? Oh, right, race expos.

I drove down to Des Moines last Friday to pick up my race materials for the HyVee Triathlon. Although many of my friends are fantastic triathletes, I’ve never ventured into the sport. I’ve always said I’d much rather run the full distance than break it up into other activities. Heck, I’m pretty sure I’ll run 140.6 miles straight through before I finish an Ironman. More than anything, though, I’ve avoided them because I’m allergic to water. Well, perhaps I’m not allergic in the “break out in hives and go into anaphylactic shock” sense,  but more in the “this asthmatic kid never really learned how to swim all that well and now associates water with fears of drowning, sharks, jellyfish, and other biting creatures I can’t see” way. This may be an irrational fear but it’s my irrational fear and I’m quite comfortable holding onto it. Thus, when a couple (both in the “two” and “married” sense) of friends suggested we compete in the HyVee Triathlon as a relay team, I was interested. All I’d need to do is run a 10K, and I’d get to experience the race-day spectacle that is a triathlon. This was just the sort of adventure I needed to break up the race season, and satisfy my curiosity. Step 1 was then to pick up my bib before the Sunday race. Well, I guess if you want to be picky, then this was step 2 after we registered our little group, “The Team of Earthly Delights”.

logo-hy-vee-tri

Before picking anything up, I had to attend a race briefing. The amounted to a 15 minute presentation with a representative from the race telling us about the route, transitions, parking, and other logistics. All of this information was clearly posted on the website for anyone to read, but, alas, we live in a culture that doesn’t pay nearly enough attention and certainly doesn’t read what they are given. Can you tell that the academic year just began as well? It’s in the syllabus! The expo itself was very well-organized, and I breezed through packet pick-up. I found it humorous that included in the packet were numbered tattoos to apply to my body. It certainly makes sense if you are going to be swimming because you can’t exactly pin a bib to a spandex swimsuit. However, I was amused at the thought of applying them to myself, along with my bib, just for the run. There would be no question that I was #3646! I was most surprised by the amount of swag I received. It began with a very nice backpack. Interestingly enough, I’ve been searching for a suitable dedicated race bag, and this pack just happens to fit the bill nicely. The bag was even stocked with other samples, including chocolate almond milk, a full bottle of vitamin D (random, right?), a pair of Ironman brand sunglasses, a micro-hand towel, and various other coupons. I was then directed further down to pick up a high quality cycling jersey, as well as a mesh running hat. This haul was a far cry from a single tech shirt, and I certainly wasn’t complaining. I’m pretty sure this is the first race I’ve entered where I received enough swag to balance the full cost of registration!

Since I was completing the running leg, I didn’t need to worry about the logistics of a bike. My friends would venture down the next day, however, to drop the bike off. In the meantime, the logistical nightmare that is an urban triathlon with a closed cycling course was spiraling into emergency road. Recent rains in the area had created some flooding on a portion of the bike course. The HyVee Triathlon also serves as the 5150 U.S. Championships, so they attract elite athletes from all over the world and hand out a rather considerable prize purse as well. Thus, the pressure on the organizers to make sure things go smoothly is that much greater. Unfortunately, these rains meant that they would need to reroute the bike course. More importantly for us, the decision was made to switch from an Olympic distance triathlon (1500 m swim, 40K bike, 10K run) to a sprint distance triathlon (750 m swim, 20K bike, 5K run). The elite athletes would still compete in the full distance, but our race experience would be shortened considerably. Well, I should say that our actual physical activity would be shortened considerably.

This is some quality swag!

This is some quality swag!

In order to get everything ready for a triathlon experience, you need to set out your gear in a transition area before the race begins. Typically this area closes prior to the start of the race so there is no risk of people running into each other. Originally, the transition area was scheduled to be open from 4:30am to 6:30am, with our race beginning at 7:45am. They decided to keep the transition area open during the same hours, but move back the start of our race to 9:00am so that all of the elite athletes (who would start earlier) would be further along and off of the bike course. This meant that we still needed to wake up at 3:00am, leave by 4:00am, drop everything off in transition, and then wait for around 3 hours before our race would begin. This schedule meant I would most likely be beginning my 5K run around 10:30, after standing around waiting to run for 5 hours or so. Although this was far from ideal, I was committed and ready to do what needed to be done. We we racing for fun and not time, so I even considered squeezing in a marathon through downtown Des Moines before my turn came around. It would have certainly made for an interesting story, but also that I wouldn’t be on site to take in the full spectacle of the triathlon experience either.

Unfortunately, an event like this also creates logistical challenges for participants. As a team, we had our schedule figured out perfectly, and my teammates had made arrangements for childcare during the race. The timing of these plans, however, were based on a schedule that had now changed. So, the combination of a changing schedule, a shortened course (and presumably more chaotic, especially on the bike), and at least one rational mind amongst the three of us, meant that we decided not to compete. I was disappointed to have not had my first triathlon experience, but still quite happy with the opportunity to share the whole experience with two great friends (and come away with some great swag!). Although I didn’t actually race, I still got a much better sense of the logistics and chaos that goes into a triathlon. It was all a far-cry from the laid-back attitude of most ultras and ultrarunners I’ve encountered. When it rains the week before an ultra, it just means you’ll be getting muddy! If you aren’t comfortable with the full distance, then just go out there and run until you can’t. Then stop, head back to the start, and we’ll pour you a beer :) Many folks in the ultra community have also tackled Ironman races, and vice-versa, and they are most certainly two distinctly different sports. There is nothing inherently good or bad about the highly organized, logistics-heavy, gear intensive nature of triathlons or the go-with-the-flow, laid-back, just run nature of ultras. They both encourage people to push their limits, and hopefully find joy in what they are doing along the way. I’ll get my triathlon experience in the future. In the meantime, I think I’ll go run 100 miles in a few weeks :)

Tailwind Nutrition Review

For most of the summer, I’ve been using Tailwind nutrition as my go-to nutrition source during most runs over 10 miles, and I thought I’d share some thoughts. Tailwind kept popping up on various ultrarunning blogs and websites that I follow, and I’m always on the lookout for the most efficient nutrition solution for what I can only describe as a finicky stomach. I’ve mentioned before that I have given up on all sports drinks, and most GUs and Gels don’t sit well in my stomach either. The sugar just seems to be too much for me, and I always end up with a few unplanned pit stops. So, I was excited by the idea of an all-in-one nutrition product that I could dissolve in water and drink throughout my entire run.

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I typically carry some sort of portable hydration solution, whether it be the incredibly comfortable and economical Simple Hydration Bottle (love this bottle!)  that frees up my hands during shorter, faster runs, or my Salomon pack, which sustains me for most of my long-distance training. Tailwind offers a pretty exciting product that has the potential to eliminate the need to carry around additional GUs, chomps, bars, and electrolyte pills or tabs. Since I’m already carrying water, this seems like a no brainer…on paper. However, did Tailwind come through and lighten my load without lightening my stomach?

It has absolutely come through! I’ve been nothing but impressed with this product. It truly does offer the complete calorie + electrolyte + hydration solution. The taste, portability, ease of mixing, and easily digestible nature make this product my new go-to nutrition solution for training runs and races.

My order even came personalized with a hand-written thank you note!

My order even came personalized with a hand-written thank you note!

Taste: I ordered the berry flavor, as this is usually my first choice with any new product. I was initially skeptical after tasting so many different artificial berry-flavored sports drinks and flavored waters. However, the berry flavor was light, smooth, and refreshing. It was not overpowering, and it mixed with the water so completely that I would have never guessed it had been a powder. They recommend approximately 1 scoop per 12 oz. of water, but I’ve added even more for some added calories and it still mixed cleanly like a champ! They sent me a small package of the lemon flavor as a thank you for my first order, and I had the exact same reaction. I usually hate lemon and lemon-lime flavored drinks (why is it ALWAYS lemon lime at aid stations?!), but the Tailwind lemon was just as smooth, light, and refreshing. I’m looking forward to tasting the mandarin orange as well.

Portability: I’ve been able to carry it around with me in several different formats. When I want to pack extra on self-supported runs, I simply portion it out into ziplock bags and carry them in my Ultraspire Quantum waist belt. It’s really easy to empty the powder into my empty water bottle and fill it up at a water fountain around town. I’ve also simply brought along the entire bag and left it in my car so I can circle back at various points, very much like you would do with a drop bag during a race. I plan to drop empty water bottles with the Tailwind already in them as well, which should make for a quick transition. Tailwind even sells individual pouches for ultimate portability!

Ease of Mixing: What can I say? It takes minimal effort and dissolves quickly and completely. You’ll never have a gritty aftertaste or see it settle at the bottom of your bottle. Cleaning your bottle out is as simple as if you were only using water.

Digestion: This was the biggest test for me. How would it sit in my stomach? My sugar intake overall is now so low that I can barely stomach the taste of sports drinks because they are so sweet. Tailwind has such a light taste that it’s more like drinking water with a hint of berry to make things interesting in your mouth. I’ve used it exclusively for up to 6 hours thus far, and am happy to report that I have not once had any GI issues! I feel full, hydrated, and energized, and my calorie consumption seems to be more consistent as well. It’s easy to forget to eat at times, but you are always drinking.

nutrition information

nutrition information

Of note is the decision by Tailwind not to include protein in their mix. They reviewed quite a bit of research, and determined that most of it indicates no benefit to a carb + protein mix, and that furthermore, protein can hinder the absorption of carbohydrates, as well as being hard to digest. They now offer a version with caffeine, which I haven’t tried yet but will probably give a chance as well. The cost per serving comes out to be less than you would spend on other solid nutritional products as well, so you will end up saving money in the long run, which is always nice! Tailwind is also naturally Gluten Free, which makes the epicurean happy. Overall, I’ve been completely won over but how well Tailwind works for me. I’ll be putting it to the ultimate test during the Mark Twain 100 in a few weeks as well, so stay tuned. We’ll see if it’s still keeping my hunger at bay after 16 hours on the trail :)

Reflections on My First 90+ mile Training Week

When we left for the North Shore, I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to hike as much as I wanted, let alone trail run. I was delighted to be able to dispel my doubts with some wonderful trail time. When we returned, I knew I needed to refocus my training in a sustainable way as I ramped up for the final few weeks of intense training before a two-week taper. The time off left me questioning how my body would handle the longer distances, but I knew I needed to find out before getting to Missouri and toeing the line for the Mark Twain 100. Thus, I dedicated the last week to a “slow, steady, and long” mantra and put my legs to the test. I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

As I’ve gotten more and more tuned in to the trail and ultra-running community, I’ve become more aware of the training schedules of many of the elite athletes that I admire. It seems as though I’m constantly reading about 100-120 mile training weeks being rattled off as though it was a normal part of life. For them, I suppose it is a normal part of life, eh? Those numbers still seem amazing to me, especially considering I still only have one 100-mile finish to my name, and my training weeks still hover more consistently in the 50-70 mile vicinity. Obviously, everyone’s body performs differently and is able to handle different amounts of stress and distance. I know how important it is to listen to your body and get a feel for when you’ve pushed yourself too far. This is something I’ve been working on rather consistently for the last several years, but I know I still have plenty to learn about what my body can accomplish.

We arrived back in Iowa on Sunday afternoon, and I began to give my upcoming training week some thought. Pacing, or more specifically, slowing down, has not been my strong suit in longer ultras, and it has predictably come back to bite me in the ass. Thus, I wanted a chance to force myself to slow down and put on some slower than comfortable miles. This week was my chance to work on pacing and endurance, and see just what my legs had in them at this point in my training regime.

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My weekly runs typically involve some speed work and hill work, with more repeated shorter runs. This time, I decided to push further during the week, and I committed to running four consecutive half marathons during the week. These four runs would force me to aim for around a 10:00 min/mile pace, and think more intentionally about form and nutrition. The weather fluctuated throughout the week but my legs held up beautifully. After each run, I still had plenty of gas left in the tank (as I should), and I didn’t feel the need for any recovery time. More importantly, I nailed my pacing goals, with overall paces within one second (or dead on) each time. What was even more exciting for me was I would be heading into my weekend long run(s) with 52 miles already in the books. This was by far the most miles I had ever tallied during the week, and it was exciting to know I didn’t feel any worse for the wear.

Although I was feeling good, I continued to be realistic about my weekend goals. I headed out to a groomed trail to meet some friends for a comfortable early Saturday morning run. The temps were comfortable, but the humidity was out in full force, and I was soaked fairly quickly. Humidity seems to sap my energy and weigh down my legs more than just about any other uncontrollable factor. I clocked in 20 miles on the trail, had a wonderful time chatting with friends about life, the universe, and running, and decided to break for a shower and some nutrition. It was a good opportunity to dry out, change socks, and squeeze in a little rest.

The most important aspect of ultra-training seems to be learning how to run on tired legs, which is why back-to-back runs are so important. Thus, I was delighted to meet up with some friends in the afternoon to join them for a run. This was their last large training brick in preparation for Ironman Wisconsin, so they entered the run after 115 miles on the bike. I love chatting with them about the similarities and differences between triathlon and ultra-running as sports, both in terms of the training and culture. It’s also a joy to have friends to understand the demands of ultra-endurance activities on a personal level. Our runs are always comfortable, and fly by no matter how tired we are from already running, cycling, or swimming. Well, they might have just gotten out of the water, but the only water I’m interested in incorporating into my workouts is the cold water I pour into my hydration pack!

Check!

Check!

The sun came out and cooked us a bit more than the early morning haze, but I still made it back home feeling energized and excited to have logged another 12+ miles. My shorter run on Sunday was a relaxing way to end the week, and the 7.5 miles I logged felt great, although the heat and humidity was beginning to wear me down. I had thought about the possibility of breaking 90 miles earlier in the weekend, but had put it out of my mind. My goal was simply to push myself and log some quality training miles. However, when I uploaded my data and realized I had hit 92.3 miles, I was ecstatic! Now, my goal is to once again run even further than this in a 24 hour period, so I am fully willing to celebrate in moderation. However, this week still seemed like a milestone to me. I proved to myself that I could log the big training week, and that my legs and body were at a level of fitness that could sustain those distances.  I may never log repeated 120 mile weeks, but I’ll keep tackling my goals and setting new goals along the way!

On Reconnecting with the Run: North Shore Adventures

“What’s true for us as individual humans is true for the civilization we create:
a sprint culture, seeking ever greater speed and power in all things cannot endure.”

- Ed Ayres, The Longest Race

There is no finish line. Our fast-paced society has certainly taught us to be goal-oriented, always striving to be better, faster, stronger, smarter, and a host of other qualities that our individualist, Western culture values. When we cross that finish line, whether at a race or in the board room, we immediately turn our attention to the next finish line. All of this is to say that we create artificial targets for ourselves because we think we need them to feel happy, satisfied, and successful. I’m certainly guilty of this, and I”m sure many of you are as well. I am continually setting goals for myself, whether they be running or academic-related. I’ve convinced myself that my identity is shaped by whether or not I achieve those goals. In some ways, I suppose these beliefs have become a series of self-fulfilling prophecies. This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to be better than ourselves, or that we shouldn’t derive a sense of satisfaction in achieving something new, exciting, or extreme. We should always take pleasure in those moments. However, I’m realizing, more and more, that we need not define ourselves by those moments. Doing so robs us of the enjoyment that the journey brings, the benefit of the physical and mental growth we receive along the way, and the relationships we build in the process. Who would have thought that a brief injury and a yearly camping trip would have produced such insight, eh?

As you may recall, I managed to injure my back rather successfully a little over a week ago. A subsequent trip to the physical therapist revealed that my issue was in the pelvis, which has apparently decided not to twist forward when I bent over. Not surprisingly, this is quite painful. My pelvis was out of alignment, in part from the injury, but also from extreme tightness in my lower back, and persistent leg issues related to a small length differential. This injury caused the epicurean and I to worry about not being able to embark on our yearly, rejuvenating adventure to the north shore of Lake Superior for some camping, hiking, and disconnecting. Fortunately, my mobility improved in the days following the injury, and we hit the road for Split Rock State Park as soon as I finished my PT appointment. My back was still a bit tender, but I could walk, and was confident that I could get around in the woods with limited difficulty. We had stumbled upon a backpack site in the park last year and immediately fell in love with it. We reserved it as soon as we got home last year, and were excited to revisit this peaceful, secluded oasis nestled on the shore of Lake Superior. There’s really nothing quite like feeling as though you have the whole lake to yourself! It was a short hike (less than a mile) from the parking lot and camp office, yet far enough away from everyone else that we felt as though we had the forest to ourselves.

Not a bad sight first thing in the morning!

Not a bad sight first thing in the morning!

Although I felt up to traveling, I was still uncertain as to whether I’d be able to enjoy the hiking and trail running that I had been so excited to experience. We arrived late on Wednesday and quickly set up camp before nestling into our tent for the night as the northern sun gave way to the full moon glistening on the glassy waters of Lake Superior. There’s really no substitute for the white noise of the lake as the waves break on the shore. We awoke the next morning and decided on a comfortable hike on the nearby trails to get our bodies moving. This first test of my mobility proved to be a success, and a lovely morning hike was just what we both needed to feel the stress leave us in waves. After lunch, I decided to test my body and head out for my first trail run. I hadn’t run in 5 days, which was the most time I’ve taken off all year, so I was equal parts anxious and excited to lace up my Altra Lone Peaks and tackle the beautiful single-track of the Superior Hiking Trail. It wasn’t long before my legs remembered why I loved trail running and this particular spot in the world so much. There’s truly nothing that compares to finding yourself in the fortunate position of choosing between beautiful wild views and technical single-track that forces you to keep your mind and body focused on the task at hand. This was just the run I needed. Although it had only been 5 days since my last run, it has been a full year since our last trip to Lake Superior, and I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend. The trail greeted my with all of its rocky, rooty excitement and joy. Interestingly, I forgot to pack my Garmin, and although I had my phone stowed away in my pack, I was still running solo. This made the reconnection with my footfalls, balance, and breathing all the more enjoyable. I had a general idea of where I was going, and knew I had to be back for dinner. Other than that, however, it was just me and the trail. There was no finish line.

The hike is always worth it for the view at the top :)

The hike is always worth it for the view at the top :)

That 12-mile trail run propelled me into subsequent adventures. The epicurean and I tackled some challenging hikes, and I was able to follow them up with more running and exploring. The elevation I tallied, relative to my everyday miles, was a not-so-subtle reminder of just how flat Iowa is, and now much more intentional I need to be about seeking out the vertical. I was able to explore some new sections of the Superior Hiking Trail this time around as well. I think I fall more and more in love with the trail and area each time I lace up my shoes. Following the coverage of some of the major ultra-running events throughout the summer (Western States, Hardrock, Speedgoat, etc.) has left we dreaming about the mountain trails in the Western U.S. This trip North reminded me of what I still have available in my own “backyard” and left me grateful for the opportunity to explore it with my best friend.

So many options!

So many options!

I’m not going to go into great detail on my specific hikes/runs, but will instead let the pictures speak for themselves. At some point during each outing, I had to make the arbitrary decision as to when to turn back towards camp. It was simultaneously tempting and encouraging to know that the trail kept going, even if I didn’t. There was no turn-around point, no cone marking the half-way point, and not signs counting down to the finish. There was just the trail. It’s important to remember that running can be one of the most amazing life-long activities, and I truly hope it is just that for me. I’ll always set goals for myself, and I know there will be more setbacks in the future. However, as long as I can, I’ll continue to lace up my shoes. I’ll continue to force myself to hold back in those opening miles, to focus on my endurance, and to remember…there is no finish line.

Exploring Temperance River State Park...

Exploring Temperance River State Park…

The top of Carleton Peak.

The top of Carleton Peak.

There aren't too many climbs like this in Ames!

There aren’t too many climbs like this in Ames!

NorthShore2014-7

Goodnight, Lake Superior...We'll see you again next year!

Goodnight, Lake Superior…We’ll see you again next year!

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