My breathing felt limited during my hikes in Utah, and fully strained while running in California on Thursday. I thought about taking two weeks off from any cardio exercise. Taking a long break at this time would probably be my last gasp, so to speak, for any hope of participating in even a short-distance Iditarod this year, but I was starting to feel desperate. Meanwhile, I had signed up for this 50-kilometer trail run that started in Stinson Beach on Saturday. There was much quiet yo-yoing about the thing before my thought pattern ended on an upswing: Why don't I just go out there and see what happens? If it goes south and I'm still gasping, that will be the answer I need. That will mean I don't have the lung capacity for a long effort, at least anytime soon.
My strategy for the run was to focus entirely on controlling my breathing: take deep, steady breaths, keep my heart rate in Zone 3 or lower, and slow down — or stop if necessary — the second I felt that "sharp edge" pressure in my chest that seems to precede an attack. I also brought my trekking poles because I realized that the steep, rooty, muddy trails would put me on my face more than once if I focused too heavily on my internal affairs, unless I had crutches to prop myself up. I've run three or four local 50Ks with trekking poles, and yes, I'm always the only one, and yes, the people I'm around usually express envy later in the race. Running crutches are awesome. I'm still waiting for them to catch on in the U.S.
So it went from the start — breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, which such focus that I almost forgot I was running. My Zone 3 — which is what I consider 145-160 beats per minute — doesn't afford a satisfyingly speedy pace, but it does make for a relaxing, meditative experience. Breathe in, breathe out, up Steep Ravine, over Cardiac Hill, down the endless switchbacks, slip-slide on the horse trail along Redwood Creek, up the Dipsea roots, down the Dipsea stairs. Repeat.
Breathe in, breathe out, along the socked-in return to Stinson Beach, then once more along the raging creek in Steep Ravine. After I successfully descended the infuriatingly endless hairpin switchbacks and the shoe-sucking horse trail a second time, it occurred to me that I was something like 24 miles into this run, and felt no negative effects. Not only was I breathing normally, but I didn't have any foot or muscle pain, no tightness in my IT band or ache in my quads, not even chafing. I hadn't even tumbled or slipped onto my butt, not even once! I was actually having pretty much the perfect race.
"Thank you," I beamed, even though I wasn't sure they meant it as a complement. (I think trekking poles are to the ultrarunning scene today what Hokas were five years ago: For the frail and Europeans only.) But I felt unstoppable, clickity-clacking down the slimy wooden stairs, down the gray-washed trail to Stinson Beach where there's normally a spectacular ocean view, and across the finish line. After hanging out with friends, eating chili from a tiny paper cup, and gradually becoming wracked with shivering, I noticed a chart indicating I was the first woman to finish the race. Clearly this was a result of attrition, as a few women probably dropped down to the 25K after the first loop, and there weren't many to begin with (I was first out of eight to finish the 50K.) Still ... winning a coffee mug is a nice cherry on top of a perfect race.
I'm really not sure how to make sense of this experience, since this is probably the easiest finish I've ever had in a 50K, just one week after the exhausting aftermath of a failed snow bike race. I can't gauge my health on this, because conditions were dramatically different — sea level, warm, humid — compared to the cold, dry, and high-altitude air I struggled with last week. I'm seeing my doctor on Wednesday, and I now have another confusing variable to add to the equation. But I think there's something to be said about mindful breathing, as well as the power of positive thinking when there's an entire passion at stake.