Monday, March 2, 2015

Black Mountain Marathon 2015

Initially, I didn’t want to sign up for the 2015 Black Mountain Marathon. I wanted to put some distance between my January and March 50k races and thought a marathon in the middle (plus a smattering of other races) might be pushing my luck. Of course, as race day got closer and closer and I saw how excited everyone around me was to run the race, I started to regret my opt out. So, I did what anyone in my situation would do. I emailed the race director multiple times and begged my way in the Thursday before race day.

I hadn’t completely expected to get into the race, but I had planned out my week before the race as though I would get to run (e.g., I bought a pair of Yaktrax Run , washed the outfit I wanted to wear, and bought all my favorite race foods). It wasn’t until we starting moving after the race director yelled “Go!” that it truly hit me: I’m running a MOUNTAIN trail marathon today. And not just any mountain, but the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. Oh, and thanks to an arctic blast the temps on race day were in the twenties and the course was covered in multiple inches of snow. Gulp.

After a three mile warm-up on the roads of Black Mountain - which were lined with cheering fans/neighbors - we weaved our way through the gorgeous Montreat College campus up to the trailhead. There, dozens of runners were spread out along the road snapping on their chosen brand of crampon. As I took my tentative first step onto the snow-packed trail and didn’t slide even an inch I thought “This is going to be cake!” Famous last words, indeed.

Even though Yaktrax Run stick like velcro to ice and packed down snow, NOTHING can keep a foot from losing traction in piles of dry, powdery, freshly fallen snow during an uphill climb. Imagine running up a sand dune in the desert, only this sand dune is 11 miles long with a relentless elevation gain of 3,000ft and is so cold that the any water you’re carrying freezes. That’s the first half of the Black Mountain Marathon in a nutshell.

I climbed/slid/cursed my way up and up, my calves and hamstrings on fire. I sucked down my Coke since my water had frozen solid in my reservoir tube by mile 4. I jogged when I could, but was intensely frustrated at my inability to run stretches of trail that I could run on a normal day, but didn’t bother with the effort on this day because the snow made it feel like trying to run with two toddlers clinging to my ankles. Having your first experience running in snow being during a marathon up a mountain is a serious reality check.

I was so thankful to all of the volunteers who came out to cheer us on, keep us safe, give us food and water, and assure me that I was not, in fact, dying. To be clear, I was nowhere near dying; that’s one of my well known exaggerations. I was in a lot of pain. The atrocious body angle I had to keep to maintain my relentless forward progress up the mountain taxed my back and I started to experience some serious and disturbing pain; pain that would last the duration of the race. Once I let the fear of the pain seep into my psyche, I was done. I let my negative thoughts and emotions snowball (no pun intended) until I was eventually crying frozen tears around mile 12. Oh, woe was me. It makes me angry to think of that weakness now that i’m warm and dry, but I guess we feel what we feel in a race, and at that point I had let myself become mentally defeated.

The second most beautiful thing I saw at the race (the first being the finish line) was the Blue Ridge Parkway aid station that marked the turnaround point and the second, downhill, half of the marathon. I ate a small cup of hot Ramen noodles, filled my empty Coke bottle with water, and stretched out my back before heading out to start my way back down the mountain. As cranky, in pain, wet, and cold as I was, just knowing that there were no more real hills to climb lit a fire under me.

I careened down that mountain, passing a dozen people who had passed me on the way up. I ran really hard, scared of making my back hurt more, but determined to get the race over with so I could assess my damage. Snow is a lot less of a pain in the ass when you’re running downhill, and I slowly began to forgive this course of its first 14 miles.

With less than four miles to go, the course spit us out onto a paved road again, so the Yaktrax came off. But then, a half mile or so later, I hit snowy icy trail again. I didn’t want to waste time putting my trax back on, so I slipped and slid my way along at half the speed I would have preferred. There went my original time goal.

What seemed like an eternity later, I finally entered the grounds of Lake Tomahawk park to begin the final half mile loop to the finish line. For all of you who say that I always run with a smile on my face, I can assure you that had there been a photo of my finish, there wouldn’t have even been a trace of a smile on my face...though there was one on my heart. I stumbled across the finish, let the woman take my timing strip, then collapsed into a pain ball at the feet of my beloved Posse members. But I had done it! I had made it through one of my longest dark periods in a race, completed my first trail marathon, and my fourth marathon overall. Orah!

Being the masochist I am, sometimes I enjoy doing things that are so difficult and at the time rather uncomfortable because so far, I always come out the other end a better and stronger person. And that’s what this marathon was for me, an experience of personal growth. It was a time where I desperately wanted to quit but would not let myself. After all, it isn’t a true test unless there is the real possibility of failure. One day I will fail, but until then, I plan to fight on and on. So, here’s to those races that are perfectly brutal!

Happy Running!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Expedition Paris Mountain

The exceptional team over at Go Run Trails put on another great event this past Saturday with the 2015 running of Expedition Paris Mountain in Greenville, SC. By offering a 5 mile, 10 mile, and 15 mile distance this race provides the opportunity for anyone interested in single-track trail running to experience what the sport is all about.

Speaking of “experiencing” trail running, Paris Mountain was my tenth trail race! In honor of all those experiences, I have decided to couch my review of Expedition Paris Mountain within the context of the lessons I have learned running these ten trail races. Whether you’ve never run a trail race and are considering your first one, or if you’re a veteran, I’m sure you’ll find something of use from “this girl” who likes to learn things the hard way.

Lesson: Read into the race name
Road race names use alliteration, rhyme, and plays on words to be cute and catch your eye in ads. Trail race names, on the other hand, are carefully chosen to give runners a heads up as to whether they need to just upgrade their health insurance (Quest for the Crest 10k: The WORLD'S HARDEST 10k; The Scream!: 13.1 miles of pure hill) or update their living will (Georgia Death Race; The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young) before competing.

“Paris Mountain” is obviously a place, so the emphasis for this race name is on “Expedition,” which is defined as an excursion, journey, or voyage made for some specific purpose, as of war or exploration. Can you think of a movie involving an excursion, journey, or voyage where everything was smooth sailing and easy peasy? But did this movie also have lots of fun, adventure, breathtaking views, the protagonist overcoming all odds to achieve glory, and a romantic ending? Exactly! So the real question is, will you accept your mission to explore Paris Mountain? For $35, you’d be crazy not to!

Lesson: Bring your favorite fuel
On the morning of the race, as I waited in line for my turn to check-in and pick up my bib number at Shelter #3, I couldn’t help but notice the boxes and boxes of bagels, cream cheese, oranges, coffee, bananas, water, and gatorade neatly set up along four long rows of picnic tables. What a spread! I had spent a week agonizing over what fuel I wanted to pack for this race and had decided on Tailwind in my water bladder and a backup GU. Seeing all that food reassured me that if my energy began to flag during the race I would have plenty of options to choose from to pep myself back up.
We learned before the race started that the 5 mile racers would have no aid station. The 10 and 15 mile racers would have one aid station that we would pass by two and three times respectively as we completed various trail loops that went away from the aid station like the spokes on a bike. Boy, was I surprised when I arrived at our one and only race station and realized that my fuel options were water, gatorade, and Skittles candy. Not that those are bad choices, but based on the motherload at the start/finish, I expected something a little different.

I will say that those Skittles saved my ass! The Paris Mountain 15 mile course was not for the faint of heart. There was plenty of flat and downhill to power through, but there was also a good bit of challenging rock climbs, rooty sections, and of course insane elevation changes. I lived in the moment the whole race, throwing myself downhill at an 8 min/mile pace when I could, then burning up my hamstrings and calves up steep, slow, arduous climbs. I needed that candy to keep me going!

Had the race been even a mile longer though, I would have wished I had had one of my handy rice cakes or pieces of jerky. I ended up downing a salt packet around mile 13 just to get that gross sugary taste out of my mouth and to keep my jaw from locking up. Lesson learned! Always bring back-up fuel with you to a race because you never know what might happen. Better to have it and not need it.

Lesson: Quality gear is key
This was also my first race in my new Hoka Kailua shoes. I had only run in the shoes two times prior, and my opinion of them was mixed. I like the cushioning, but the stiff upper, narrower toe box, lacing issues, and the fact that they’re uglier than sin left me less than thrilled. I had gotten a great deal on them though, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to try a pair out.

I would have been the last person, then, to guess how amazing these shoes would work out on the trail. I put them through the gamut: slick leaves, gravel, pavement, water crossings, rock climbs, steep inclines and declines, switchbacks, logs, mud, everything. Not only did I not roll my ankle or fall, I had the most secure feeling footing that I think I’ve ever had in a shoe on a trail! I still prefer Altras for their overall comfort and style, but I’m super impressed with my very first pair of Hokas and what they did for me on this trail.

If I hadn’t had such great gear with my Hokas and AltraAspire race vest (which allowed for super short pit stops at aid stations) I don’t know if I would have gotten such a stellar race finish time. There’s no denying raw talent, but if you’re a normal gal like me, quality gear can make up for a fair share of genetic shortcomings.

Lesson: No two trail races are created equal
I’m a nerd who loves graphs, so I like to add all of my races to a scatterplot showing my race distances against finish times. When I was doing road races, the chart looked pretty boring and linear with very small differences between my finish times over similar distances. Now that I have all of this trail data, my chart looks crazy! That’s because with trail races, even if the distances are the same, total elevation gains are similar, and even if the weather is the same, I can guarantee that the experiences will be totally different!

I tried to find elevation maps, blog posts, youtube videos, and pictures of Paris Mountain prior to the race to give myself an idea of what the day might bring. Actually, I do this before all of my races because it gets me really pumped up and excited. But I’ve found that no amount of research ever prepares me for the actual event. The reality of Paris Mountain was eons better than I could have dreamt. My friends like to joke and point out that I’m always smiling in my running pictures, and it’s because I’m truly enjoying myself. I was actually laughing out loud at points along the trail because I was having so much fun! I’m not exaggerating. As adults we sometimes forget that it’s okay to act silly and be free, and I find that freedom on the trails. If nothing else, Expedition Paris Mountain is a race where you can reconnect with your inner you. Plus, you get one of their awesome hand made medals!

What’s next on my race docket? So much! A race at the end of February (I’m still choosing between two good ones) followed by the Bear Blaster 50k in March, then a crossfit competition in April, the Quest for the Crest 10k in May, and a brand new half marathon in Haywood County in that same month. So, stay tuned for more recaps and shenanigans!

Happy Running!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Misty's Frosty Foot 30k Race Recap

Yep, I knew you all  hadn’t yet had your fill of the thrilling adventure that was the 2015 Tsali Frosty Foot 30k, so here to top off your craving is guest blogger Misty! And don’t forget, you can read my recap here.

This past Saturday I ran my first 30K trail race, the Tsali Frosty Foot. I've never considered myself a runner, or even much of an athlete, which probably surprises those who know me, as I do have a competitive spirit.  Not competitive in the sense that I have to win, but competitive in the sense that I usually don't back down from a challenge, I always give everything I have, and I am always looking to beat that voice in my head that keeps telling me I'm not very athletic. Don't get me wrong, I love to win, but I also know what's realistic, and for me winning isn't always about coming in first.  

So on Saturday I woke up at 4:45AM, met the girls giving me a ride at 6:15AM, and off to Robbinsville we went. The race started at 9am so we had plenty of time to get there, but we still ended up having over an hour wait which will do all sorts of things to your nerves. By the time the race started my feet were numb. The first 3 miles were painful as it felt like I was running on glass. Finally my toes thawed and it was smooth running for a while.

The views of Lake Fontana were amazing. I loved how the trail wound around the lake and the way the sun made the water glisten. Overall the trail was pleasant to run--not too many rocks or roots. There were places where you could run a super fast pace mixed with areas where even the most skilled runner would want to slow a little. The day started just above freezing and steadily warmed to the low 50s. Unusual for January but perfect for racing. We did encounter quite a bit of mud later in the day as frozen trail  puddles warmed to muddy obstacles that I chose to skillfully navigate around or over instead of through.

I started to hit a wall as we were heading to the second (and last) aid station. It was more of a mental wall as the group I was running with began collectively wondering aloud when we would come to the next station. It seemed as though the trail would go on forever and I got it in my head that I needed the next aid station soon! I was getting hot and wanted to shed my hat and gloves, and those annoyances were all I could focus on. Finally, we made it to the aid station where the kind volunteer stuffed my gloves in my vest for me. I adjusted my ponytail, ate orange slices, and grabbed a mandarin orange flavored GU to go.

With 4 miles left to go I was feeling a little better. But then, I hit this big ass hill, or what looked like a big ass hill, and I was ready to be done. Our group slowed to a walk, but Katie went around and kept on running. My hamstrings and glutes were killing me and the walk/run thing just wasn't working for me. The pain seemed to intensify each time I changed pace. I decided to “pull a Katie” and go around the group. I could hear the others say, "Keep going Misty." So I did. By the tme I got to the top of the first hill and began attacking the second, Katie had slowed down. But as I approached she said, "Keep running!" The thing about me is that when I decide I'm done and want something to end I tend to get a final wind that propels me to the finish. With 2ish miles left I was able to harness that energy and just kept on going.

Soon, I saw a guy, Adam, that I recognized from Summit CrossFit ahead of me, and he became my target. I would catch him or die trying. I finally caught up to Adam and went for the pass, but right then we spotted a downed runner. Fortunately Adam and a couple of other people stopped to help the woman out. With three of them standing around her, what was I gonna do? She was clearly breathing, and there were no open fractures, so I decided to keep going. I started to slow a bit with no runners in sight to target and overtake. I pulled out the GU I took at the previous aid station and sucked in a mouthful. YUCK! There was nothing in it that pouch that remotely tasted of mandarin orange! Still, I felt the caffeine hitting my system and picked up my speed.

Soon, I spotted another runner up ahead and thought, He's getting passed! I'm gonna pass you, I'm gonna pass you. I flew right by him. Around the next turn I saw a new man and a woman to target. It always makes me laugh when people don't wear ear buds and play their music aloud for all to hear. I'm not saying it bothers me necessarily but again, its kind of funny to hear what some people listen to. So I politely announced I was passing and bolted around the lady who was blasting, "Girl I'm gonna make you sweat. Sweat til you can't sweat no more..."

I could see Katie behind me winding her way along the path and yelled for her to keep going. I knew I must be getting close to the end, and I strained my ears to try to hear people or music from the DJ at the finish line. Nothing. Where are we? Then I meet another girl who was walking around like she was lost. She tried to get me to stop by asking what mile we were at and how much further we had to go. I kept running slowly and said, “I don't know, but it can't be much further.” She started running after me to try to keep up and asked, "But how much do you think?" I tried to keep the annoyance out of my voice as I said, “I don't have a GPS watch.” To which she replied with an astonished tone, "You don't?" Why the hell is that so surprising? Obviously she didn't either. I ignored that question, which isn't what I really wanted to do (if you know what I mean) and began running a little faster.  

As we round another corner on the trail we saw a runner who had already finished the race standing on the sideline shouting to us, “The finish is just around the this next bend. You’re almost done!”  “Really?” I said. “Thank you so much!” It was all I needed to hear. I took off. The woman was right! I got nervous running through the finish; I'm always afraid I will trip on the mats. But I ran it in with a smile on my face before stopping to let the kind volunteer remove the timing chip from my shoe. Katie emerged from the woods shortly after followed by Latisha and Carrie.  

I finished the race, 18.6 miles of trail, in 4:11:33. I thought my time was probably decent, but the next day I saw the final, official result online. Overall I came in 116th out of 147.  I finished 21st of 31 in my age group. When I saw this I felt a little disappointed because I thought I had done better. Then I started thinking and realized, seven months ago the longest distance I had run was 5 miles. But then my dear friend Katie kept asking me to run with her to help her get through her first 50k. She's pushed me ever since and I am so proud of the progress I've made. I'm enjoying running. It gives me another outlet besides CrossFit for ridding my body of stress. It's an opportunity to enjoy the company of some really fun women and to appreciate the beauty of nature surrounding me. I've lived here in WNC all my life and until recently hadn’t really taken the time to experience the beautiful mountains I call home. So could I have run faster? Could I have gotten a better finish? Absolutely! But are those goals important to me?  No. I want to soak up every minute I'm out there. I want to take it all in. I want to pause to appreciate the scenery. I want to take a picture. I'm never going to win first place and that's okay. I've already won so much more!