Monday, August 13, 2012

Deep fried

Given my cold-weather preference, I tend to wonder what type of climate is actually a more physically taxing environment — excessive heat, or extreme cold. Of course these descriptions are relative to what a person is accustomed to, but for my purposes I'll call excessive heat "over 90F" and extreme cold "below 10F." During my residency in Alaska, I would have cited excessive heat as the tougher environment, without hesitation. Sure, extreme cold requires quite a bit of energy just to breathe; you're consistently ravenous, your muscles feel sluggish, and you're so preoccupied with staying alive that it's surprisingly easy to push past your physical limits and do things you might regret later, like riding a bicycle a hundred miles with a severely inflamed knee. But heat — heat just sucks the life force right out of me. It makes me lose interest in biking, running, until eventually even moving becomes a chore. I tell people that I can't ever move back to the desert, because I'd become a complete slug during the summer months. At least the Bay Area, I say, is relatively mild in the summer. Except for when it's not.

This is my long way of saying that I wasn't thrilled that the heat wave coincided with my planned "peak training week." It's not like I need heat training for UTMB — that race seems to be perpetually plagued with cold, wet weather. No, the only thing the heat meant for me was more suffering. By Friday, I was well cooked. Beat and I went for a 6.5-mile run at Rancho San Antonio on nearly empty trails, a rarity in that popular preserve. It was 88 degrees and I commented about how "cool" it felt, because I'd been out for long hours in the 90s all week. But that misguided relief lasted about a mile, and then I was dizzy and grumpy again. I resolved to schedule no big goals in the summer ever again, so should I encounter another 90-degree week, I could just spend it sitting on the couch eating shaved ice. 

So, yeah, Beat and I were both fairly shattered after a measly 6.5 miles. The next morning was the Crystal Springs 50K. A low-lying fog clung to the valley, but the slightly elevated race start was brilliantly clear and already baking by 8 a.m. Beat brought his big pack so he could test it out for PTL; the thing must have weighed at least twenty pounds, and included a spare pair of shoes. I did not envy the prospect of running 31 miles with that thing.

Despite temperatures forecast in the nineties, there was still a decent turnout for Crystal Springs — 41 people for the 50K. The race begins with a long, gradual climb to Skyline Ridge, on a trail that is infuriatingly runnable. A high-pressure inversion seemed to increase the temperature as we climbed. Volunteers reported seeing 95-degree temperature readings on the ridge, and it easily felt hotter than 100 in some of the sun-exposed sections. My head was boiling and I could hardly keep my eyes open for all the sweat that was streaming into them, but the whole pack was running so I felt like I had to run. I probably would have shuffled along at about 1.5 miles per hour if I hadn't been part of a "race." This is the main reason why I believe racing is a beneficial activity, even when the race is nothing more than a "training run." Racing never fails to motivate me to venture outside of my comfort zone and try new things, and potentially find new strengths, whether it's riding a bike through the snow at ten below or forcing my slug-like body into something more intense than a slow walk at a hundred degrees.

Eventually, similar to my reaction to the extreme cold, my body's discomfort zones started to go numb and my head began to feel fuzzy — responses that make these baked-grass slopes appear "so beautiful" and weaving through the harsh shadows of partially shaded singletrack "so trippy." These kinds of responses are exactly what make hard efforts "fun." The one discomfort I couldn't shake was nausea, which shut down my stomach completely. It accepted water, mostly because I'm pretty sure all that water evaporated before it reached my stomach, but I was unable to eat. I figured, "Oh well, it's only 50K. Six or seven hours? I can run that long without bonking." I managed to get about two to four ounces of Coke down at the aid stations every five to nine miles, and figured that was good enough.

I caught up to Beat in Wunderlich Park, near mile eighteen. His big pack was bringing him down and he was drenched in sweat. I suggested dropping it at the next aid station, but he reminded me that he "can't do that in PTL." We ran together for ten or so minutes, but then he gave me the rest of his gummy bears, which added an extra snap to my step. Even though the heat was oppressive and twelve gummy bears don't have all that many calories, I realized I was only feeling better as the miles went by. Eventually I pulled ahead and once we were at the top of the long climb, I picked up my pace. 

Photo by Coastal Trail Runs
I passed more than a dozen people in the last eleven miles, because everyone seemed to be struggling with this above-normal heat. I was actually on a nice equilibrium, not feeling good enough to "crush it," but also not feeling any worse than I did at the beginning of the race. I hadn't been tracking the time that closely and was shocked when I rolled into the finish in 5:55, which is just four minutes slower than my 50K PR (on this same course, in January.) I was the third woman and eighth overall, out of 36 finishers. It was surprising because this was supposed to be my "tired legs 50K," the last big push at the end of a hard week, while consuming all of ten ounces of Coke and twelve gummy bears, and it was ninety-plus degrees. There was really no reason at all to have a good race, and I did anyway. Go figure. 

On Sunday for "recovery," Beat and I met up with friends for an afternoon of bikram mountain biking. The heat was still brutal, and because we rode to the trailhead to meet them, we ended up with a loop encompassing thirty miles and 3,700 feet of climbing. I was truly cooked by the end; I couldn't even pedal it up small hills before a deluge of lactic acid flooded my legs. But it's good to feel this way, sometimes. It means I really did work hard this week. It wasn't all just a heat-induced hallucination. 


  1. Do you guys use those smartphone apps to track your runs or bike rides?

  2. Bikram mountain biking, bwahahahaha.

  3. I'll take the cold over extreme heat anytime. At least you can layer up. When it's that hot you can only take off so much before getting yourself into trouble.

  4. Aahaha, Bikram mountain biking! I'm going to steal that.

  5. When I read your blog I'm often envious of the amazing places you bike, run or hike, but I'm also often so happy to live in Scotland - It only goes below 20F for a week or two in deep winter and never goes above 80F - ever :)

  6. I live in Wisconsin. Long, cold winters (which I LOVE) and long, HOT, HUMID (disgusting) summers. If it gets to 90, I'm indoors. The end.

    You rock! Nice job!


  7. "Bikram biking" sounds pretty neat:) Great time at 50k!

  8. I have that same thing happen with really tough weeks too. My 50K PR was six days after my marathon PR and a week of dragging myself through Yosemite in between. Highest mileage ever and two new PRs. And a 5K PR just a week after a tough 50K. Weird.

    Maybe it has something to do with being beat up? Like we are just used to feeling trashed so we lock into a single speed and keep moving? It is pretty cool though.

    Love the Bikram biking part, too :)

  9. Nice work on the 50k! Glad to see the Hammer kit getting use.

  10. Congrats on the 50K! Yeah, I'm not a big fan of the heat myself... I try hard to deal with it, and after four years of living in the South I guess I've acclimated to some extent, but the heat just makes me wilt. It totally saps my energy. The one exception was a 10K I did on July 4: it was 95 degrees and I actually felt okay... The whole time, I was thinking that I'd crash and burn at any moment. Those enjoyable hot weather runs are really rare, though!

  11. If you can finish that high only half trying, you're training must be going well. Don't overcook it in these last weeks, and have confidence of your fitness for the UTMB.


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