Monday, December 16, 2013

Going long

This week is my third anniversary of ultrarunning; my first long run was the Rodeo Beach 50K on Dec. 18, 2010. Three years ... time does fly. I think back to what running was like for me then; I can say with confidence that it hurts a whole lot less than it used to. I never got much faster, but then again speed is never something I've sought. Naturally awkward non-runners forcing their bodies into loping movements can only lope faster with lots of focus and specific work. And the risks of speed are — in my opinion — too high. In cycling, there's a popular mantra for choosing a bicycle: Light, Strong, and Cheap — Pick Two. When deciding what kind of runner to be, I'm pretty sure it's: Fast, Long, and Forever — Pick Two. Fast, of course, meaning fast relative to your individual ability. It must be obvious that I'd choose long and forever. My ultimate goal would be to develop an efficient "forever" pace, a pace that maximized distance and minimized body breakdown, and was still challenging and enjoyable. I'll probably search for this ability as long as I'm a runner without finding it, but the process itself is fun. 

On Saturday, Ann invited me to join her and a few of her friends on an adventure run from Point Reyes to the Golden Gate Bridge, essentially traversing the length of the Marin Headlands in one 30-ish-mile, point-to-point run. I was signed up for a 50K trail race on Sunday, but thought, "Two back-to-back ultras — every single day of the Iditarod is going to be harder than any 50K, so I could use the training."

It was a beautifully frosty morning as we started out in the lowlands along Olema Creek. Ann has all of these memories from these trails that are a decade or more old; she hasn't run since then, pretty much at all, and it's so interesting to watch her slide back into it so naturally. She commented that these pastures are usually a huge mud bog. We lucked out with that ice.

We started out with two guys who form the core of her Wednesday Night Run group, which has been meeting every week nonstop since 1983. Old-school trail runners. They have plenty of fun stories for a new-school interloper such as myself.

Near the Bolinas Ridge we met up with three others to become a group of seven, and even though they all wanted a mellow-paced run, I was starting to feel outnumbered by fast people. I was having real performance anxiety.

Ann complains about being out of shape and slow (she's not), but she does have an amazing forever pace. She holds it on the downhills, she holds it on the climbs, she just holds it unceasingly until someone else in the group decides it's time for a snack break. I brought a big pack full of snacks and supplies ("It's a hold-over from my Alaska days," I explained. "Up there if you get hurt on a trail, no one is going to find you for hours, so you have to be prepared for all contingencies." They laughed at me, but after several hours of eating Gu, my Sweet and Salty M&Ms trail mix was a big hit with the fast runners.

Overlook into Stinson Beach from the Coastal Trail on Mount Tam.

There were still plenty of climbs and valleys before we reached our final ridge on the SCA Trail, dropping toward the Golden Gate Bridge. A bit of competitive drive sparked toward the end, and the group started running all of the long climbs. Runnable they were, but after thirty miles my legs were begging for a different gear, a slower one. I practiced that mantra I'm going to have to get much better at using, which is "Shut up, legs."

We ended at the bridge right at sunset with 35 miles and 6,448 feet of climbing. Big day. I felt relatively good with only a small amount of lingering stiffness in my hamstrings, but arrived at home somewhat late and didn't eat much for dinner, then didn't sleep well overnight, which had more of an effect on the following day than the run itself.

 The Woodside Ramble 50K — a fun jaunt through the redwoods along Skyline Ridge. Beat is still in Germany, and it occurred to me that this is the first 50K event I've run without him. I didn't know anyone at the start, so this felt like a lonely outing despite the large turnout. One guy asked me, "Is this your first 50K?" "No," I answered. "When was you're last one?" he asked. I wanted to say "Yesterday," but that seemed braggy or stupid, so instead I said, "Oh, about two months ago."

I had a rough go in the early miles with glute cramping and low energy. Not enough glycogen in my system, I think. At the first aid station I ate six shot blocks and three Oreos and started to feel better, but there still wasn't much oomph to the legs. Since I was under no self-obligation to run "fast" in any sense of the term, I just kicked back and enjoyed the mellow pace on a beautiful day. But I was tired, and the way I was feeling brought back reminiscences from PTL. I had a new revelation about that experience today. In the months before the race, I had a reoccurring dream about PTL involving a raging thunderstorm, lightning and rain, and a scenario where my two teammates and I were all crouched in different places on a jagged ridge, shouting things that the others couldn't hear. I remembered this dream, and then realized that it effectively came true, on the second night of the race when we climbed a mudslide during a heavy rainstorm.

There wasn't any lightning, but there was sleet and ice. We scrambled up this steep slope while the ground oozed out from underneath us, only to arrive at a shale headwall near the top of the pass. We split off to search for a viable way to climb the cliffs. At one point Ana was near the bottom of a small sub-ridge, Giorgio was at the top, and I was clinging to a wall off to the side screaming that there was no way to climb up to the pass from there, but my teammates couldn't hear me and kept looking for a way to climb toward me. Finally I gestured enough that they continued climbing the ridge, and I ended up leaping a veritable slide of smooth, wet shale, and then tried to scramble up the grassy side of the gully. The gully steepened and narrowed until I was back on rock, and I was nearly to a ledge on the ridge when I realized that my feet were balancing on tiny pebbles atop wet shale — like wearing roller skates while climbing a slide. My handholds were not secure; if I moved at all I would probably slip and who knows how far I'd go careening down that chute before I stopped? I was filled with such a deep, impenetrable dread that my vision went black for a moment. Just then, a guy from another team came scooting along the ledge, and I reached out my right hand toward his feet and said, "Please, please help me."

I don't think he understood English, but he reached down and grabbed my wrist, and as soon as he did my shoes slipped and all of my weight shifted to the arm he held as my body lurched backward. He kept the grip; he didn't let me fall. I'm still not sure what would have happened if he did lose his grip or if he wasn't there. After he pulled me up, I had a strong sense that this guy saved me from grave injury. I placed my hands on his shoulders and said "Thank you. Thank you so much." I wanted to hug him and start bawling, but I did not want to be revealed as the hysterical chick in the PTL, and it was still early enough in the race that I was capable of controlling my emotions. I never found out who he was, never properly thanked him. I'm not sure I've told this part of the Col de l'Oulettaz story yet, because I was very traumatized by that particular moment in a way that I actively tried to shut it out of my mind. But it all came flooding back in vivid detail today. Damn, I hated the PTL. But at least, because of it, nothing else seems so hard anymore. Except, of course, the Iditarod.

Ah ... where was I? Oh yes, Woodside. Easy peasy. I had some minor but sharp knee pain, so I opted to run all the downhills slowly. I don't want to do anything to risk injury right now, and refuse to run through any pain. Slowing the downhills made the knee pain go away, and I was still able to run many of the climbs at what felt like a strong pace. Another runner late in the race even told me I looked "fresh" when I passed him on a climb. Still, I finished the event in 6:40, which is about a half hour slower than any of my prior Woodside/Crystal Springs times. Despite this, I still got third place in my age group. This is, of course, a fluke of there not being that many 30-something women on the course that day despite a sold-out field. Still, I actually collected my medal this time, so I had to take the obligatory tired-eyes selfie.

But it was a fun weekend, and not too depleting. A little too fast for any "forever pace" approximations, but close enough to to feel a bit more confidence for the ITI. 


  1. I love reading about the things you do; you're a big inspiration to me and have been ever since I first found your blog several years ago.

    That's a big earned those tired eyes.

  2. I've chosen fast and long. There's probably someone out there that is all three, but most of us aren't. I may also have to steal your mantra. :)

    There's a really good picture of you from the Woodside race on Scott D.'s blog.

  3. "Shut up legs"! So Jens Voight's mantra has percolated from cycling over to running. Love it!


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