Monday, January 10, 2011

This race that I won

Even though it was only my second official ultramarathon, a mere three weeks after my first, I had ambitious goals for the Crystal Springs 50K. First, after figuring out that I could in fact travel 31 miles without coming down with "hurty foot" (which I will now regard as an official medical term for the condition of a cyclist's feet when they first take up running), I wanted to run a significantly higher percentage of the course than I did in the Rodeo Beach 50K and last half of the Bear 100. Even if it was a 4.5 mph jogging stride as opposed to a 4 mph speed hike, I wanted to emphasize consistency in running, as a test of my running endurance. Secondly, I wanted to improve my downhill stride, and try to relax so I could run with more fluidity and less pain. Thirdly, I wanted to finish with a time closer to the six-hour range — a big jump from my 6:58 in Rodeo Beach. Fourthly, I wanted some sunshine. No way was I traveling all the way to California and being shut out from badly needed vitamin D yet again. And lastly, I wanted to take pretty photos. That was most important. Even if it meant stopping occasionally so they didn't all come out blurry. The day I care more about a race result than the experience itself is the day that ... well ... let's face it, it's just not that likely.

The Crystal Springs 50K was held in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. I travel to California to visit Beat but the Bay area has the added bonus of ultramarathons nearly every weekend, even in the depth of winter. The weekend weather was extra chilly for the region, with overnight temperatures dropping into the mid-30s and frost forming on the higher hillsides. I dressed in what I thought was appropriate for those temps — tights and a long-sleeve thick polyester shirt, wool socks, hat and gloves, then carried a backpack with extra layers, food and water — because even in organized races I prefer to pretend I'm out for a self-supported training run, even if I end up solely eating peanut butter sandwich quarters and drinking Coke in tiny cups while my backpack dangles uselessly off my shoulders. And of course, the Californians all showed up wearing shorts and T-shirts and carrying a single bottle in their hands. It made me ashamed to call myself a hardy Montanan-former-Alaskan, but I figured it didn't matter. I was there to run my own race.

Things went great for the first 12 miles. I was running consistently, soaking in beams of sunlight where it broke through the fog, and making good time on my mile splits. I found my place in the pack but reeled in a couple of people, including the "girl in the cute plaid shorts ala Danni." Beat stuck with me and told me my pace was pretty hard, and said I should think about dialing it back. But I knew I felt good and I knew I could hold it. Even though I haven't been a runner for very long, I have enough experience in endurance efforts to sense when the bottom might drop out. However, I have a particular grating problem as a runner in the form of inexplicable midsection cramping on descents. Downhill grades cause a sensation that is best described as someone taking a dull knife and stabbing it deep under my rib cage. It's probably related to breathing and at least partly psychological, but when it flares up on long, steep downhills, I become both extremely slow and extremely irritable.

I groaned as I shuffled down the hill. Beat tried to offer suggestions and I got testy with him. He couldn't help but laugh at me. Angry race Jill is not unlike an angry toddler — too irrational and scrunchy-face cute to be taken all that seriously. Meanwhile, toddler gets more and more scrunchy faced and angry until finally she blurts out, "I just want to go into my pain cave. Why can't you leave me in my pain cave?" Beat laughed at loud. "No pain cave for you!" he said in his best "Soup Nazi" accent. I laughed back at the absurdity of the situation and accepted my role in it. I stopped and took four Advil, and over the next seven miles was able to recover my cramp from "searing agony" to "low-level ache" to "not much at all."

At mile 19, I finally perked up and started to breeze along the trail again. I reeled back in the women and a couple guys who had passed me during my sophomore slump. My feet felt light and fast against the strange sensation of running on actual dirt. The final 5-mile singletrack descent was truly fun. My cramp had abated and despite tired legs I picked up some speed, flying through the trees with feeling of effortless freedom, almost like being carried by wheels. The worst part about running is there's no coasting, and every difficult downhill reminds me of that. But if I can dial in a downhill run enough to move freely without pain or fear, it's one of the best feelings.

We strode across the finish line with 6:12 on the clock — not quite as close to six hours as I had hoped, but still a fair improvement on Rodeo Beach. Beat chatted with his friends (he seems to know most everyone in the Greater Bay Area trail running community) and I found my way over to the finisher's food table to make myself a massive turkey sandwich. The sandwich was almost the size of my head and nearly muffled out the race director's announcements from the other side of the pavilion. Then suddenly I heard him say, "Jill ... Horner." That sounded suspiciously like my name. Perhaps I finished third in my age group or something like that. I set down my sandwich and sheepishly walked to the front to see if Jill Horner was in fact me.

The director doled out medals to age group finishers, and then handed me a mug. The mug said, "First Place Finisher." I looked back at the race director, confused. First in what? He must have sensed my confusion because he said, "You're the first woman. Congratulations."

The girl in the cute shorts ... the woman in the black shirt ... there were several females that finished just a few minutes after me. But they were all behind me.


Beat, who officially finished one second behind me, jokingly pouted. "I never win anything."

I held the mug in my hands and reasoned with it. It was a small race ... just a few dozen people ... and it was winter when not many people besides Susitna freaks are training with all that much gusto. But I was a Montanan in California, running dirt when I'm used to running on snow, running when I'm used to hiking and cycling, at a distance most people spend months specifically training for. And I won the race.

Maybe I'm not so terrible at running after all. I'll take it.
Thursday, January 06, 2011

The art of go slow

Things are starting to come together for the Susitna 100. Beat and I bought our tickets to Anchorage, and shortly after that pressured friends Danni and Steve (who were both on the fence about even starting the race, and still may be) into buying their tickets as well. In my daydreams, we’re a motley foursome of Outsiders banded together, dragging our sleds across the frozen Susitna Valley. In more likelihood, we won’t be able or want to stick together. But either way, the Susitna 100 will be an interesting reunion since I already know a fair number of Alaskan cyclists on the roster. They’ll all have a chance to laugh at me as we cross paths at a pitiably distant point, since the new route is mostly an out-and-back.

I also am finally attempting to put my sled together. I hoped to do it sooner for training purposes, but as usual reality falls short of intentions. The sled I am using belongs to Geoff Roes, and is full of heavy reinforcements intended for use in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, where conditions are much colder and burlier than a typical Susitna race. But since I seem to have a talent for breaking gear, the burly sled should work well for me. I spent more than an hour on the phone with Geoff last night as he described the attachments and explained the different pieces. I failed to string both ropes all the way through the poles, so I didn’t get it completely put together last night, but did manage to squeeze all my Susitna gear inside the cover, and hope to be running with it by next week.

I am also beginning to feel more comfortable as a runner, if only just. I had a few good runs recently that boosted my confidence in both my footing and ability to maintain a more consistent speed over longer periods of time. But when Geoff asked me how my training was going, I instantly felt the need to apologize for my abilities, which are indeed still quite limited for a person aspiring to a 100-mile ultramarathon.

“I’m still low on the learning curve, but I’m improving,” I said. “My biggest issue is confidence. Also I sometimes feel really lousy for no real reason. I have stomach and cramping issues that I haven’t been able to pinpoint yet.”

“Do you ever go out and try to run fast, the kind of runs most people think of when they think of running — on the road?” he asked.

“Actually, no,” I said. “I started out with that yesterday, running 9- and 10-minute miles with the intention of upping the speed, but found myself veering off into the hills, and that turned to 12- and 14-minute miles on the fluffy snow climbs. I find I enjoy that kind of running so much more. It was still good intensity though. 80 to 90 percent for 90 minutes.”

“That’s good,” he said. “You really don’t need any speed for what you’re training for. All that matters is you get out there and put in time on your feet. It’s something I think most runners, even those who run ultras, don’t realize. By speed training, you might get your 9-minute miles up to 8:40. Twenty seconds is almost nothing over 100 miles. But everyone moves slowly when they feel like crap. If you can boost those slow-moving 20-minute miles up to, say, 15 minutes, that’s five minutes a mile. It’s huge, and easier to do. I used to emphasize speed work and all that, but now I just go into the mountains and spend more time running at slower speeds. It’s made the difference between being a pretty good ultrarunner, and being a great ultrarunner.”

It was an interesting insight into Geoff’s training that I never heard before. When we lived together, he spent lots of time running quarter-mile intervals around a high school track, lifting weights at the gym and suffering through all of his long runs on the road, because Juneau trails in the winter are nearly always covered in unconsolidated snow, requiring snowshoes and a walking-speed shuffle. While training for the 2008 ITI, he ran 25 laps around a flat, three-kilometer groomed cross-country ski loop while towing his sled. It was the same day I set out for an incredibly scenic 90-mile Pugsley ride, touring all the beautiful corners of Juneau. From my point of view, Geoff’s training habits required not only a fair dose of talent, but also a serious tolerance for tedious efforts. Which is why I never had any interest in running. It seemed completely unfun.

When I first met Beat, he introduced me to the strategy of (quotes mine) “moving slowly with haste” during an ultrarun. Consistent movement has always been my approach to endurance cycling — it’s achievable, adaptable, offers its own set of challenges, doesn’t demand tedious training blocks, and becomes more and more effective as events get longer. Beat helped me see how I could do the same in an endurance run. That by keeping a steady pace through all of the highs and lows and downright despair of an effort, I could achieve distances that before seemed to me to be all but impossible. And I was intrigued, because in my view running long distances is the purest form of physical activity, and allows for the greatest access to mountain and backcountry terrain (the less gear you rely on, the less restricted you are in your movement. Skis are limited to what skis can do. Bikes are limited to what bikes can do. But feet can go nearly everywhere.) And yet I had always viewed my own abilities as woefully inadequate in this regard.

Beat’s “just keep moving” (quotes mine) philosophy really made a lot of sense, and he had the experience and success to back it up. Meeting him was the turning point to switch my views from “running sucks and is hard,” to “running is a great mode of travel (but still hard.)” Which is why it was interesting to hear that Geoff holds a similar philosophy. After all, Geoff is considered an elite in the sport of ultrarunning these days. And he does have speed in his background (I believe he has a 15:10 5K PR, and 4:29-minute mile.) But these days, he chooses to leave that background behind to slog around in the mountains for hours on end — which is also what I really love to do.

And of course, it’s all relative. I probably couldn’t hold Geoff’s “slow” pace for five miles. But his is yet another example I was able to draw on when I went out for a late-evening run shortly after our conversation. I felt great for the first three miles, running “hard” but consistently to lay down some 9-minute miles. Then the wheels fell off, so to speak. I don’t know what happened yesterday — I speculate possible cumulative dehydration, or some food that didn’t agree with me, or possibly a stomach bug — but I became quite ill. I had to stop in the woods twice and decided to cut my run short. I was shuffling back toward home, wracked with painful stomach cramps, when I looked down at my Garmin and saw I was logging an 18-minute-mile pace. “I can do better than this,” I thought. I stopped shuffling and started speed hiking. The stomach cramps began to abate. My digestive system felt more settled. And I upped my pace to 14-minute miles at a much less stressful, more solid and sustainable effort. No, I wasn’t running. But I was moving slowly with purpose. And it worked.
Monday, January 03, 2011

Across the years

I was tired on New Year's Eve. There was no one reason for it, but many excuses. It had been a long week of training, running, travel, work, reduced sleep and cold, gray, otherwise completely erratic weather. By Friday morning the sun burned so bright that I had to close my eyes when I first gazed outside. Bill came stomping into my front doorway wearing his goggles and heavy boots in the late morning. "The radio said it was negative 10 when I left my house earlier today," he said, half-playfully, half-ominously.

"Ah, doesn't matter," I said with a tinge of resentment, because it doesn't really matter what gear I have or how fit I think I am - that kind of cold makes me work hard, extra hard, every time. But the world was drenched in glistening white light and enveloped by a perfect bluebird sky. To the car-bound commuters who watched us pedal through our own billowing vapor clouds probably saw our bicycle riding as excessive — excessive because it was too cold outside, and there were parties to plan, real miles to travel and hours to count. But to us, the opposite seemed excessive — excessive deprivation of fun, like going to bed before midnight on New Year's Eve.

When I was young, I loved New Year's Eve. I loved to whisper the dying seconds in my head as the crowd counted them out loud, letting beautiful and nostalgia-tinged memories slip backward like credits on a movie screen. Then, after the screams and cheers died out, I loved to take deep breaths of the crisp, cold air and believe it tasted different. I loved the sensation of everything becoming new and different within the span of two seconds, with the stars sparkling in the winter sky and the pages wiped clean, just waiting to be filled with new chapters.

Now that I am older, I realize that time is more circular than linear, and this calendar day has always only been as meaningful as the events we ascribe to it. That's why we got out for a bike ride - not for auld lang syne, but for free passage into yet another new day, memorable in its simplicity, a clear cold day with the quiet squeak of snow on Miller Creek Road and the grumbling of my heart-rate monitor that seemed to openly declare me "overtired." We rode 32 miles in four hours. I slowed so much on the frosty descent that Beat stopped often to ask what was wrong. "Nothing's wrong," I said. "I'm tired." Couldn't he hear my raspy breath or the pounding of my heart? I glanced at my HRM: 145 beats per minute, which isn't exactly extreme intensity. I put my head down and pedaled. The Rattlesnake mountains loomed in the distance, with a barrage of tiny details as sharp as icicles in the clear air.

The evening came with a three-and-a-half-hour icy car trip to Kalispell and New Year's festivities that passed in a bit of a daze. We toasted New Year's Day at 11 p.m. for Danni's friends from Chicago, then had a more subdued celebration at midnight. Somehow two more hours passed; we toasted New Year's in Juneau, and then moved upstairs at 2:30 a.m. to collapse in a stupor. I forgot to whisper the seconds as they passed or breathe the clean air of the new year. I was just too tired.

Saturday brought more cold weather, with temperatures in the single digits and decidedly more gray. We had a long slow breakfast and then Danni and her friends geared up to go resort skiing. Beat and I longed for something quieter but weren't willing to drive my Geo more than 10 miles on the icy roads, so we took his prototype sled up to nearby Patrick Canyon and set out to run a random forest service road that we had almost completely to ourselves.

Beat had a great minimalist idea for his gear sled, using a typical storage box and racing sled skis - waterproof, light, and utilizing easy-to-replace parts. Unfortunately I had forgotten how brittle plastic becomes in the bitter cold and subsequently forgot to warn him. Every single one of his zip ties eventually snapped, forcing several in-field repairs using pieces of cord he cut off one of his mittens.

During the descent, the plastic legs holding the sled runners to the box snapped clean off. Beat worked to remove all the shards from the bottom of his sled as the setting sun shot a column of light into the sky. I can't be sure but I think this was part of a "sundog," which is the term used to describe pillars or halos of bright light caused when crystals of ice in the air diffract light from the sun. It really was a beautiful moment to stand and reflect as the deep chill crept into my meager running layers.

After the sled had been converted to a plastic box dragged by two PVC pipes, I playfully dodged the swinging obstacle as we ran down the road. We rounded the corner to an open view of an incredible phosphorescent strip of deep crimson light unlike any I had ever seen. The alpenglow shimmered radioactively on the expansive crest of the Swan Mountains, far in the distance but close enough to induce involuntary yells from both Beat and me. It was one of those moments were you gasp at the beauty, take two or three woefully inadequate photographs and stare wistfully, straining to hold onto the dying light as the magic fades as quickly as it erupted. But you feel unbelievably lucky to have been there, to have slept in, eaten a long breakfast, refused to drive farther to more exciting destinations, and had your sled break a half dozen times so you could end up in that spot, at that moment, for the most perfect end to the first day of the year. It was as though we had planned it that way all along.

The rest of the run felt fantastic. I have been a woeful downhill runner but on Saturday I hit a rare stride. My micro-spikes dug into the hard-packed snow and every step felt as confident as it did light. Beat had to manage his sliding dragging box and for once I actually surged ahead of him, wrapping up six effortless miles before the light completely faded from the sky.

By Monday, my tiredness had burned through and faded, and I felt like my old perky self again. We accompanied Danni and her Chicago friends Cheryl and Chris on a snowshoe hike in Glacier National Park.

We climbed the steep Mount Brown Lookout Trail even though we knew we didn't have nearly enough daylight to reach the top of the mountain. There was ongoing debate about whether it was easier to walk with snowshoes or without, although Danni was the only one willing to give it a try.

As we made our way back toward Lake McDonald, a shimmer of yellow light in the far distance or flakes of frost on a tree branch would jog my realization - "Wow, it's 2011 already. The new year." But most of the steps were just another day in paradise, close to the things I love and moving joyfully along an endless circle of possibilities.