Sunday, December 11, 2011

Recovery run: Coyote Ridge 50K

Racing the Planet Nepal finished two weeks ago Saturday. We spent the following week touristing around Pokhara, Chitwan National Park and Kathmandu (from which I will soon post pictures, along with a post-race gear wrap-up.) It was a fantastic week but not great for recovery. I continued to cope with digestive oversensitivity, dehydration (relying on bottled water makes it more of a chore to acquire and carry enough drinking water) and general fatigue. Just when my stomach was finally becoming accustomed to Nepal-specific bacteria, we returned to the United States, and I had to readjust to American food all over again. Jet lag also hit me hard, and I was unable to sleep at night even when I forced myself to stay awake all day.

Health-wise, November 2011 felt like an incredibly destructive month. I started with the 25-hour mountain bike race. No matter how much you love it, that much biking in a day just isn't healthy. Post-race snarfing, my sister's wedding festivities, travel food and tapering led to me packing on some pounds just before we left for Nepal. I usually weigh in the 133-135 range. I was 139 the day before we left the country. Then there was sickness, the resulting nutrition debacle amid a tough endurance race, and slowness to recover afterward. Several days after returning to California, my weight was still 129 ... meaning I likely lost ten to fifteen pounds during the race. That's a lot of big swings in one month, both gained and lost in the least healthy ways possible. The result left my body feeling more than a bit broken down.

Shortly after Racing the Planet Nepal wrapped up, amid the glow of finishing, Beat and I registered online for a 50-kilometer trail run. The Coyote Ridge 50K was scheduled less than a week after our return from Nepal. It's already mid-December (!!!) and I'm registered for the Susitna 100 in February (I may write a blog post about why I've decided to run the Susitna 100 again, but it basically boils down to a conviction that my life would not be complete without my annual winter slog in Alaska, and no I do not consider that normal or healthy.) But since Susitna is just a short nine weeks away, I decided I needed to kick off my "training." And somehow in my post-race fog, running a 50K seemed like a good idea.

My first days back in California felt like an exercise in futility, in every sense of the phrase. I started with short rides on my road bike, because I was back in the land of bikes so of course I was going to ride my bike. I enjoyed the riding immensely, but my legs felt like they had been soaked in a protein-dissolving acid solution. You know, like mush. The usual efforts suddenly became so much slower and more challenging. My regular route up Montebello Road felt like an Everest climb. I wanted to blame jet lag, but I suspected something deeper.

On Wednesday, I could no longer delay the inevitable. I had to see whether my body still knew how to run. It had been at least six weeks since the last time I attempted a real trail run without a 25-pound pack and trekking poles. But Wednesday's run was not an encouraging experiment. Basically, I spent ninety minutes trying to "run" six miles, pounding my mush legs, gasping for air at a paltry 1,200 feet elevation, and basically having The Fear driven firmly into my heart.

Understand that I was never trying to "train" for the 50K. I just had to prove to myself that my body still worked. I wasn't sure it did. I realize that these efforts didn't exactly aid in recovery, but I needed a mental boost. Any mental boost. I went back out on Thursday afternoon and ran eight miles. That too took ninety minutes, with more climbing, and I felt generally better. Not great, but better.

"I still think I'm broken," I told Beat. "I'm not really sure how I can turn eight tough miles over to 31 in two days. It's going to be like that time I tried to ride a hundred-mile mountain bike race three weeks after the Tour Divide. That was a huge disaster."

"It will be fine," Beat assured me. "Your body will remember how to run."

If I looked tired, it's because I was really tired.
The Coyote Ridge 50K began at 8 a.m. Saturday in Muir Beach. The course circled the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the Marin Headlands, a beautiful region of open (yes, deforested) rolling hills and seaside cliffs. It's both famous and infamous with Bay-area runners for its stunning scenery, steep terrain, concrete-like trails and almost-never-clear weather in December. When I saw the forecast for a high of 52 degrees and sunshine, I planned for 52 degrees with wind, salty moisture and dense fog. We left Los Altos in the almost-frosty darkness of 6 a.m., just in time to catch a glimpse of the lunar eclipse. I leaned toward the windshield and gaped at the full moon, eerily shrouded by a bronze shadow. "This is a bad omen," I said. "Or maybe it's a good one." Beat just shook his head. He doesn't believe in omens.

Coyote Ridge was not a "soft" 50K by any means, with an elevation gain of 7,130 feet and a course profile that looked like the electrocardiogram of a man about to have a heart attack. The race had a nine-hour cutoff that spanned dawn to dusk, and I planned to use all of those hours. I just wanted to finish, if that was even possible. I followed the paceline up the first steep climb just as the sun rose over the eastern ridges, promising a gorgeous day. Huge waves crashed on the rocks, turkey vultures soared over our heads and the bright blue Pacific stretched into an equally bright sky. I was stoked on the scenery, crisp 40-degree air and sunshine, and started marching faster. After passing a dozen or more people, I thought better of running a 180-bpm heart rate in the first mile of a 31-mile day. So I settled back in with the pack, wondering just how it could be that I felt so good.

I wrote a long preface to this race report to set up yet another grueling tale of hardship, but the truth is, there wasn't any. My training over the last six months means there's not an ounce of speed in my legs, and I was purposely conservative, so I didn't come close to setting a PR. But out of the seven 50K's that I've completed, the Coyote Ridge 50K felt like my strongest, most consistent run yet. I didn't have side-stitches. I didn't get hurty foot. I didn't experience the sensation of my stomach turning inside out and purging its contents all over a rice paddy. I just ... ran. Sometimes the climbs were head-spinningly steep; those I walked. And I shuffled as I usually do on the steep descents, because it's not like I magically figured out how to run downhill overnight. And I did move slowly up a couple of gradual inclines when my right knee was acting up. But then I stopped to pop a couple of Advil, massaged the knee cap for a minute, and felt strong once again.
I did experience disappointment when my small Sony point-and-shoot camera blew up about a half hour into the race. I continued to try to beat it back to life and did manage to extract one more photo — the one at the top of this post. But you'll have to take my word that it was a gorgeous day with stunning scenery throughout. I finished in six hours and 50 minutes, seven minutes after Beat finished. (We decided not to race together but ended up running similar times anyway.) I was the fourth woman, which according to Beat should secure my spot at the top of the 2011 Coastal Trail Run Ultra Blazers awards. Yay. :)

GPS stats here. The statistic I'm pleased with the heart-rate graph, whose consistency helps me believe that my endurance survived whatever nutritional horrors I put my body through in November. (The elevation graph is messed up after my GPS signal cut out several times. I did not fall off any cliffs.)

The pessimistic side of me is suspicious that maybe I only reason I felt so strong during the Coyote Ridge 50K was precisely because I felt so weak and sick in Nepal, and really anything would feel awesome in comparison. But the optimistic side of me likes to believe that my body isn't broken, that maybe it was never broken, and maybe it just knew how to run, all along. 


  1. Nice work! You will be awesomely ready for Susitna. Both of us will be I'm sure of it :-)

  2. Well done! It's been a lot of fun to read about your adventures. And I'm glad to hear that you're not "broken". I would however try really hard to stress some serious recovery time after all of this. I promise that you will not lose any of your base fitness if you take some time off (Like a week...) to let your body heal. A lot of the symptoms you've been talking about sound like over training to me (Take free advise for what it's worth ;)). Thank you for the wonderful reading and photos!

  3. You'd WAY out-hike me if we were to race! Ever hike any trail in the rocky mountains?

  4. Ya know you're in good shape when you do a 31 mile run for recovery.....


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