Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2014 Austin 3M Half Marathon-Where the Body and Mind Split

     Pretty much up until my legs touched down on the start line I was lying to myself about making this a competitive race.  Most of my races are run for fun but every now and then I like to see what I can do.  I can't do much.  I'm not a great runner and with the endometriosis and hypothyroidism how I feel is somewhat unpredictable.  That doesn't mean that I let myself off the hook or that my goal isn't important or just as hard won.

    It started out with an expo and a chiropractor there poking at the swelling in my hip that has been there for over a year and saying "Does it hurt?"
"No, it doesn't bother me much."
"Yeah, you probably have a high pain tolerance because that should hurt."
Super.  He both complimented me making me want to work harder and brought up an injury giving me a valid excuse to take it easy.  I like to take it easy.  It doesn't take much of an excuse to get me to kick back on a course and daisy-pick my way through the race, but it's been a long time since I'd run a half for time instead of enjoyment.  Maybe it was time.   Besides the Austin 3M had a reputation for being a mostly downhill course.  I'll take all the help I can get.

    Race day was chilly.  Jeremiah, Rich and myself arrived way too early so we didn't have to battle over parking.  Turns out there's pretty good parking around the race start but it's always nice to be there and relaxed instead of hurried and harassed.  The boys sat in the car while I did my typical pre-run mile and bathroom trip.  Everything was shaping up nicely.  I ran back to the car and soaked up some heat so I didn't waste unnecessary calories shivering in the cold.

     Finally it was time to line up in the start chute.  That whole process was pretty uneventful and easy.  The boys went to the smoking fast start line and I debated between the 2 hour and 1:55 pace group.  I've never run a sub 2 hour half.  I think the best I've ever run was a 2:05ish.  I know should know that but I don't.  I just know it was over 2 and that I've always wanted to break 2.  I settled for somewhere in-between the two, still not fully committed to pushing myself through this run.

    Bam!  We're off!  Somehow I found myself trailing the 2 hour pace group.  How did this happen?  My breathing is ragged and my heart is pounding!  Legs, are you still under me?  The course has changed from what I understand and I don't know all of the changes.  It continues to be a net effect of downhill but the course actually starts uphill.  Uphill? Okay, I can still do this.  I like uphill.  If the net effect is downhill how bad can it be? Bad.  It turns out that it's bad when your mind is not in agreement with what your body is willing to do.  The 2 hour pacer was suddenly well ahead of me and I was losing ground.  As much as I like to daisy-pick I do not like to lose ground.

    I started the self-assessment.  Do my legs hurt? No, no they're fine.  Am I working too hard?  Well my breathing is ragged and my heart rate is fast but it's not so fast I can't sustain the pace.   Are you standing tall like Scott Meyer told you to do?  Well he didn't actually tell me to do it.  He just said in passing conversation one day "I don't know how people can run when there all bent over and sitting down like that."
"Yeah, yeah me neither," looking around like I would never do that.  Well I would and sometimes I do.  Especially when I get tired and it actually just makes me more tired, but not this time.  I was standing up straight as an arrow.  Go me!  So what was the problem?  My mind.  My mind was the problem.  My mind hadn't accepting that was going to happen.  It was still hanging out back in that warm car thinking about pancakes.  Tough biscuits, mind.  We're doing this!

    I looked down at my watch and saw that I was 1.5 miles into the race.   Alright, no need to panic.  Sometimes it takes a good 2 miles for my body and brain to sync over this running thing.  Mile 2 found me gaining on the 2 hour pacer.  Are you really gaining on him?  Oh, he looks like a good runner.   You should slow down.  In that moment I reassessed, found out I was fine and decided to ignore my mind.  What does it know?  It still wanted pancakes and now a foot massage.  I caught the pacer and passed him.  Did I celebrate that I was running past someone that could clearly wipe the floor with me in a race?  Of course!  I may never have this chance to run past him again!

     Still physically feeling good but mentally fighting every step, I stripped off my gloves at mile 4 or so and dropped my water bottle.  I run with a water bottle filled with Powerade because liquid calories and I agree in a race.  If I have them I can pace them out instead of gulping them at a water station.  Ah fudge!  I have to go back and get it because it's my favorite bottle but darn I may not have the willpower to make my mind run again.  Oh well, I'll do what I have to do.  I ran back and quickly scooped up my bottle.  Luckily, it hadn't caused any issue or been kicked around on the course.

     One mile led to another and the feeling that my mind and body were not in sync never changed.  I just kept running and reassessing.  There was quite a bit of uphill on that downhill course.  I enjoyed it though.  What's race without a challenge?  Around mile 6 it sunk in that I was more likely to PR than not PR.  I decided at that point I was sticking with it even if my body decided to join my mind for pancakes.

     I'll spare you the details about the course other than to say the longest climb came somewhere around mile 9 and it made me wonder what more was to come.  Around mile 10 I knew I was starting to fade.  I was ticking off small increments on a watch I had pretty much ignored most of the race.  10.2, 10.3, 10.4, alright, we're getting closer! That is never a good way to spend the last 5K of a race.  If you want to make a race seem infinitely longer start counting down tenth of a miles.  Still, I wasn't counting down hundredths so there was hope I could hang on to this PR.

     Around mile 11 I started ticking off hundredths.  Oh dear.  My body had decided to join my mind for pancakes.  I had only taken in my 12 ounces of Powerade and not a calorie more.  I knew it was hunger.  My body was caving but my soul wasn't giving in.  I was too close to a PR.  The finish line was creeping into sight. One more uphill, a left turn and a sprint home.   I can do it!  I did.  1:55   Good enough to break 2!

    Inside I was celebrating.  Years of struggle with physical health and I did it!  I couldn't even talk to anyone around me because I was completely inside of myself congratulating me for not crumbling to my mind and later my body.  I stumbled up for water and the photographer yelled out "Get your official picture here," to myself and a couple that had passed him.  No one was in line so we stood to his left.  They took their photo then I waited since a line had formed to his right by this time.  I waited through 7 people then stepped in feeling like it wouldn't be an issue since I had actually waited well beyond my time in line.  As I stepped in a man with a female hustled in, pushing me out with his words "The line is over there!" his face formed into an ugly scowl.  I was caught by surprise and stammered "I know but there was no one in line so I passed the photographer with another group and he yelled out so we stopped here and waited.  I waited for several people and it's well beyond my turn, sir."  Just like that my moment of victory was crushed under his hateful glare.  I said "Forget it," and turned away.  I was working hard to hold back my tears.  I couldn't stand the idea of letting him see me cry.  Rich touched my back as he spotted me and I shrugged him off not realizing it was him in my upset.  I despise crying, much less in front of others, but between the low blood sugar, the physical effort, the highest of highs then the lowest of lows I wasn't controlling the emotion very well.  I sat down and got my hurt feelings under control.  It's a small thing but I included it in this blog for a reason.  You never know what someone has gone through to race.  I spent years of my life sick.  I pushed through life because that's who I am but I struggled.  I've advocated for myself with physicians, even firing one that wouldn't listen and I've trained through times of extreme pain and low energy.  That doesn't make me special.  My point is you just don't know what someone has gone through and on race day we should be celebrating each other.  We should be saying "You first.  You're amazing.  I'm so proud of you, complete stranger."  Not shoving each other around with ugly words and selfishness.  He hasn't stolen my joy but he did mar it.  I'll always have that memory first instead of the one where my husband hugged me and told me he was proud of me.

We quickly loaded up on the bus and were driven back to the race start.  On the bus, someone recognized us as the organizers of the Exygon & Baptist Hospitals Gusher Marathon, SETMA Half Marathon and Kinsel Ford 5K and told us how much they loved the race.  They complimented us on the work we've done.  Once again I smiled inside knowing they were complimenting the whole community and everyone that's been behind this race.  It was almost enough to wipe out my finish line experience.  It felt like divine intervention.  What an emotional roller coaster!  One minute someone is yelling at me and the next, two complete strangers were saying some of the kindest things I've ever heard. I was reminded once again that I don't really do any of it for me.  I do it to be the things I want to see in this world-grit, courage, determination, strength, kindness, connection and pancakes.  Maybe my mind isn't so split from my body after all.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wild Azalea Trail Challenge-A Race Report and A Love Story

Aid station
     You never know what you are going to get when you sign up for a race you've never done which is one of the reasons I was excited to register for the Wild Azalea Trail Challenge.  I opted for the 27 mile distance over the 50 knowing I'd be one of the slow rollers on the trail.  I didn't want to hold anyone up while they waited for me to daisy pick my way through the darkness.  Part of me was hoping it would be rustic and barely supported but the other part of me, the part that likes reclining on a couch and digs a well-stocked pantry was less sure.  Lucky for me this trail would have both



     The pre-race meeting was the night before the race.  We learned 10 people were registered for the 50 miler, 40 for the 27 miler and an additional 50 for the 27 mile mountain bike.  This was an increase from the 20 mountain bikers that did the race last year, always good to see a race grow. They offered to put anything out on the trail that we wanted.  We were encouraged to think about it and let them know.  Quite a bit of the meeting was spent going over the trail.  We were told to look for yellow diamonds.  "Always look for yellow diamonds.  You should see one every 50 feet or so."  Alright, that sounds easy enough.  As the meeting went on we learned that some areas would be marked with green tape. "Oh and you may want to look for brown paint on the trees.  In places where they changed the markings to the updated diamonds they painted over the old areas with brown paint, so if you see brown paint you're good!"   Oh dear, this was starting to sound scary.  In Southeast Texas you know pretty quickly when you are off trail because you have to push through thicket to get there.  You pretty much have to deliberately go off trail to get off trail.  In all my trail naivety it honestly hadn't ever occurred to me that in other parts of the world you could wander off trail because the rest of the woods didn't contain a natural Brillo pad barrier.   At this point in the meeting I raised my hand and asked for rum. 
Sofa that marks a turn.  See the yellow diamond?

     Back at the hotel that night I continued to check the Accuweather forecast trying to convince myself that it wouldn't be that a real feel of 29 degrees wouldn't be all that cold.  Two weeks ago when I signed up for this race I thought the hills and terrain would be the big challenge.  I'm a flat lander with a serious lack of training trail.  That was part of the appeal of this race for me.  I wanted this challenge.  I knew we would suffer going into it and I was okay with that.  I was starting to feel a little less okay.  By the time I was 2 hours into the race it would be 20 degrees warmer.  How does one dress for that?  Like a trooper, I real set my alarm instead of faking it.  Since Rich set his there was no use in pretending it didn't go off in the morning causing us to miss the race. 

        In the morning, I opted for my warmer Under Armour tights, a lightweight short sleeve shirt, a long sleeve shirt over the short sleeved shirt, gloves, a neck buff and a baseball hat (a hat with a brim is very useful when you go from shade to light in the woods) with an ear band over it.  I can go a long way if my ears, neck and hands are warm.  I also wore Gore X running gaiters.  Even though they promised to have supplies every 4-5 miles I opted to run with my Nathan four bottle hydration belt as well as my Amphipod belt.  In my Nathan belt I carried emergency Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, bandaids, Amino Acids, four gels, a packet of lady wipes, (trust me, always carry lady wipes) and two ginger chews.  In my Amphipod I carried my trusty iPhone.  I like having it in a separate pack so I can pull it out without worrying about losing anything.  On my feet I wore my favorite pair of Asics socks.  They're made of nylon and function like anti-blister superheroes! (You can get them at On The Run locally.)  I also wore my brand spanking new Nike Wildhorse trail shoes that I bought from Running Warehouse.  Never, never, never, never, never, never wear brand new shoes on a long trail run.  Sure it worked out okay for me but you don't want to be miles away from civilization with jacked up feet.  This happened to me at Rocky Raccoon last year and for a searing moment I had a vivid idea of how hard it would be to crawl three miles.  

     A van transported us to Woodworth where our trail run would start and the race was off.
The first mile and half or so of the race is on the road.  We ran to the trail to make up some distance since the trail is 25 or so miles long.  In the meeting we tried to nail down the specifics.  Even the official sites seem to vary in their information.  This is no big deal.  If you understand small ultra races you'll understand that distance precision isn't a big deal.  Maybe 27, maybe 29.  We knew it would be under 30.  It's an unspoken, universal ultra run rule.  If you ever sign up for an ultra, carry extra supplies for this reason.  Maybe your distance will be right on target, maybe you won't get lost, chances are it won't and you will.  You'll be glad to pull out that extra gel at some point.  

     Onto the trail!  Oh boy.  Rich told me a story about his dad taking a rural road in Louisiana and corn brushing both sides of the car.  This was something similar, only it was grass against my legs  and not corn against a car.  The first 3-4 miles was extremely narrow.  This side of the trail seems less utilized.  In a way that was quite lovely.  I managed to evert my ankle in the first half mile and cramp my calf so I was alone.  The last lonely soul on the trail.  I wasn't lonely though.  I was absolutely delighted to be there.  I was all by myself, relying on me and it was perfect, minus the rebel calf.  I stopped about four times trying to find the perfect tightness to the laces of my new shoes.  I stopped and stretched the calf.  I took a natural break.  Race nerves.  

     Around mile 5-6 things were looking up and my calf finally let go.  The yellow diamonds were easy to spot and the trail was well-marked.  I had to pay attention at this point as I no longer had the tall grass to keep things tight.  I encountered a lovely couple, Keith and Carol.  Keith rolled his ankle and the damage was slowing his progress.  He was still handling it like a champ but cautious.  
Keith and Carol-31 years of love!  

      I ran the rest of the race with these two wonderful people.  They were celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary. I inquired over the long hours and many miles about their lives and shared stories of mine.  I wish I had paid more attention the exact mile but somewhere in here were the most difficult miles of the race.  Hills so steep I could have climbed them on all fours, boggy creek crossings, paying constant attention to stay on trail and not tripping over roots.  The roots aren't bad. Compared to Rocky Raccoon it's smooth as glass but they're there.  It's a twisty piece of work but once you get past it the trail opens up to some nice terrain.  Scenic, serene.  At each road crossing we found bottles of water, gatorade and other items.  See the picture above.  Twice they were completely out of fluids.  We all carried fluids so we were okay but we were running low.  A guy rode up on a mountain bike checking on us and we informed him of the low fluid issue. He promised to take care of it for the runners behind us.  Eventually got what we needed and everything was fine.  The race staff worked hard.  This is the reason I pack my own fluids and food on the course.  Anything can happen and it's just smart to be prepared                                                        

Keith stumbles into a nap
     Little creeks crossed all over the trail. They were crystal clear and cold but we had been warned not to drink from them.  All creek crossings had either some sort of concrete, branches or they were narrow enough to cross.  Our feet stayed dry but if I did this run after a good rain I'd think about the potential for wet feet.  We got lost once or twice.  Nothing major but we did have to pay attention.  One crossing involves going across a road to what looks like the trail and has a shelter with a trail map but isn't the trail.  We had to cross the two lane highway to pick up the trail.  Always look for those yellow diamonds.  We were able to navigate back to the trail quickly because we were looking.  The second sneaky section was down a deep ravine that didn't look like the right path.  It was.  The rest of the trail is pretty normal trail.  The end of the race looks like an old asphalt path that has been allowed to decay.  The hardest part of this race was the leaf coverage.  It was thick! The leaf coverage made the roots tough to see and the trail slightly slick under my shoes.  Keith took a couple more stumbles because of this.  He ran that race on all heart.  Carol was the steady determination behind him.  It was truly a pleasure to run with them.  
  Love birds at the finish
     I kept going back to one question though "Why do you think you've been successful in your marriage?"  The answer was much like running the trail.  "Perseverance," they answered, "We are committed.  We've had our hard times but we don't give up.  We believe in each other.  That is the reason we love to do things like this together.  Trust has been invaluable.  Trust has been the guide during the rocky parts of our marriage."  They were a team.  Trail running is hard.  It zaps your strength.  It leaves you hungry, dirty, tired, lost and doubting.  They crossed the finish line holding hands and smiling.   It was a lesson on the trail within a lesson on the trail.   

After losing his way and running an additional three miles Rich was still there at the end smiling and taking my picture.