Monday, January 30, 2012

Tired legs 50K

The alarm rang out at 5:15 a.m., which was of course about three and a half hours after I finally fell asleep. I glanced over at Beat, hoping he didn't hear it, or maybe he would decide sleep was worth skipping the race today. No such luck; he groaned and rolled out of bed, so I made a move to do the same. My legs hit the carpet with an audible thud that seemed to say, "Um, you're not really going to go through with this, are you?"

"Look, it's only thirty miles. It will be over before you know it."

"We hate you. You know that, right?"

"I think hate is a strong word, don't you?"

"No. No we don't. You already overworked us with fourteen hours of biking and running this week. And 18,000 feet of climbing. Why are you doing this to us?"

"Look, we're all going to feel so much worse during the Su100. This will be good practice for the real deal. I need this kind of practice to stay mentally strong when the going gets tough. You two, well, you can do what you want. But I'm going to the Steep Ravine 50K."

"We hate you."

We drove to Stinson Beach with our friends Harry and Martina, who were also running the 50K (Harry placed in the top ten and Martina finished strong even though she wanted to quit just as much as I did.) It was an absolutely beautiful morning. Sunrise washed the sky in pink light, ocean waves rolled gently along the beach, and a thick film of frost coated the ground — evidence of a pristine clear night that carried the promise of a warm day. The fifty-kilometer course featured four huge climbs and equally huge descents, utilizing a lot of rugged redwood forest singletrack, with about 7,000 feet of climbing total. Easy peasy, right legs? Right? But my legs were no longer on speaking terms with me. The silence was deafening as we started the slow plod up the Steep Ravine Trail toward.

My legs weren't the only thing that felt awful on Saturday morning. My stomach joined the protest and lurched through the first climb. Including one restroom break, it took me more than an hour to knock out the first four miles. I took a short break at the aid station near the top of Mount Tam, and I'm pretty sure I was one of the last runners to leave. By mile five, I had already fallen into "epic mode," which is what I call my mind's semi-subconscious coping mechanism for dealing with hard efforts. Epic mode is actually — initially at least — a rather pleasant feeling, a sort of out-of-body sensation with tinges of bliss. I floated down Mount Tam, happily absorbed in a stream of shallow observations: "The ocean is so blue. The sky is blue, too. Wow, I can see San Francisco! That hill is pretty."

If only epic mode could last forever. Unfortunately, it can not, and mile five of a 50K is not a good place to use it up. By aid station two, about mile eleven, I had descended all the way into grumpy mode, and a long, flat, runnable stretch that made my hamstrings burn did not help. My mood darkened even more during the climb, where, while working at what felt like near-maximum effort, other racers started to pass me. See, where I fall in with the pack, people almost never pass me during ascents. I get passed like I'm standing still on the downhills, and still I often catch and pass these same people on the climbs. Climbing is the one thing I can do. Now my stubborn legs were even botching that task. I tried to motivate the limbs, but they had no sympathy; they just burned with anger and refused to do anything but the bare minimum.

During the second descent, I started to feel a strange electric shock of pain behind my right knee. I thought it might be a pulled or torn muscle, and I stopped several times to massage it. The sharp pains became frequent enough that I had to walk nearly backwards down a long series of stairs. I contemplated the wisdom of quitting at the next aid station. After all, this was just a silly training race. Then I met Beat about mile from the thirty-kilometer turnaround. "This is really hard," I whined. "My legs hate me." He urged me to take Advil. I mumbled a wishy-washy "soon." He said, "no, now," and pulled a few pills out of his pack. I never give Advil credit for actually working, but sure enough, my tight hamstrings began to loosen up at the turnaround. As a general rule, any pain that Advil can kill is not that serious. So I really didn't have a good reason to quit at 30K. Shoot.

Then I started to perk up. The next four miles of climbing on the Steep Ravine Trail felt significantly easier than it had the first time. "See, legs, this is what we need to learn. A little fatigue and pain is not the end and the world. We can go far on fumes."

My legs remained unconvinced. After a slow descent, the fourth and final climb brought extreme sleepiness. I had to shift the mental battle from the lead legs to my heavy eyelids. With fewer reinforcements, my feet succumbed to the fatigue and I shuffled my way into the wrong side of a tree root, tossing my whole body to the ground. Luckily no serious injuries, but afterward my shoulder ached and my right shin was smeared with blood. This was really not my day. But that's one of the purposes of training, isn't it — to go out and occasionally endure bad days just to remind yourself that not everything about your hobby is sunshine and rainbows. This is the only way to continually grow stronger in our hobbies, and subsequently in our lives.

Photo by Coastal Trail Runs
Since my chosen games are mostly mental, I need the hard days to build mental strength. My legs didn't care. Legs don't have mental strength. They only knew they hurt and really needed rest, and why couldn't I just stop and rest? I finally stumbled into the finish after seven hours and sixteen minutes. My face and posture in this photo effectively tell the story, I think. I was one tired puppy. (GPS track here)

It was all just part of the plan for "peak training week." From Sunday to Saturday, I ran 70 miles with 16,500 of climbing, and biked 66 miles with 8,600 feet of climbing, for a total of 25,100 feet of climbing and 21.5 hours of time wasted completely wearing myself out. And I finished two ultramarathons. It was a good week.

I planned to take a rest day today, I really did. But it was a Sunday and a beautiful Sunday at that, and it didn't take much for Beat to coax his friend Liehann and I out for an afternoon mountain bike ride. My legs were still plenty angry, although not really hurting anymore, so I again had no excuse to stay indoors. I planned to whine and dawdle the whole way through the ride. But as luck would have it, we bumped into a couple at a stoplight who were interested in the Fatback, which Beat was riding. "My girlfriend rides it in crazy snow races in Alaska," Beat explained to them. The man looked at me and said, "Are you Jill?" Turns out we were chatting with Forest Baker, another fellow Tour Divide finisher (Forest raced in 2010.) Since only a few hundred people in the world have attempted this race, it was quite random to bump into one of them "just riding along." We all rode up Montebello Road together at a nice chatty pace, which was still close to my personal max. But it was fun to run into another endurance bike nut. He lives nearby in Sunnyvale and is planning to race the Arizona Trail 350 in April, so hopefully we will plan some long training rides together this spring.

Monday = rest day. I promise, legs. No really, I mean it this time. 


  1. Sunshine and rainbows. I used that in a post just yesterday, describing a run that was the exact opposite of yours.

    Nice week! But aren't your legs going to ache with inactivity if you rest on Monday? haha. :)

  2. I just don't know how you possibly find the time to train like that.

  3. Vito, having the ability to make my own schedule helps. But I used to put in 20-hour peak weeks back when I was working at the Juneau Empire. When you think about it, all it takes is two long weekend days with 1- to 3-hour efforts thrown in mid-week. That's exactly what I did this week.

  4. Whenever my legs start talking to me, I literally throw cold water on them. It shuts them up pretty quick! ;)

  5. The weather in these pictures looks so so so amazing. Although I've been stoked about all the snow here in AK this winter, this southern girl is definitely aching for some sunshine and warmth.

    Good luck on the Susitna this year. I had planned to do it but after this and that came up I decided to hold off until next year. I did it last year and had to drop because of hypothermia. I was super disappointed. Do you have any advice for how to stay warm, particularly at night when you've been going for a while and the temps are dropping? When did you start your training for this year's race? Do you have any other advice you could give me for being successful in the race next year?

    Have a great time! If the trend continues, you'll have some decent temps this year. Hope you're ready for all the snow though!

  6. Thanks, Morgan. I was at Susitna last year as well — finished on foot in 41 hours. It was really a long, long time to be out there, especially with those -48 wind chills on the Yentna River. The second night, which was calm but probably about 20 below, I felt chilled even though I was wearing every clothing layer I brought with me. I think it's a combination of fatigue and calorie deficits that make it a lot harder for your body to make heat. The most effective strategy I've found is to eat sugar. Seriously. A few times during my trek to Shell Lake last month, I would feel chilled, eat a candy bar, and instantly feel better. Warm clothing is of course important, but I think not enough credit is given to the simple act of stoking the fire. Fast-burning fuel (sugar) works best for me.

    I'm impressed with the winter Southcentral is enjoying this year. I got a little taste of it when I was visiting last month and of course am planning to come prepared for anything. It could definitely be anything, and just my luck it will be 36 degrees and raining by the time the Su starts.


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