Wait, what are you doing this weekend?
In just four days I’ll be running the Riverlands 100 in Turner Maine, Saturday May 13-14th, 2017. It’s Maine’s first 100 mile trail race. No, I’ve never run a 100 miles before. And yes, people do this. Read on for answers to more FAQs.
I was never voted “most likely to run 100 miles”
I wasn’t the most physical kid, I had hip dysplasia so I couldn’t run, skip or jump without considerable pain and I also had the unsettling trait of turning bright red and sweating profusely with the least amount of exertion. Even my high school coaches would make me sit out rowing races with an ice pack on the back of my neck least I die of heat stroke.
In highschool and college I rock climbed, rowed crew and cross-country skied and though I ran to stay in shape, it wasn’t easy and I never loved it. Then in 1999, shortly after I had finished thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail my twin brother invited me to join him at the Honolulu Marathon.[Side note: My brother survived childhood Leukemia in the 1970’s and today’s incredibly successful childhood leukemia treatments are based in part on the success of his test group. Which is why he chose to train for his first marathon with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.]
So we ran Honolulu together. It was ridiculously hot and humid and I’m sure the two of us went through more frozen sponges than all of the other 20,000 runners combined. The following year we ran another Team in Training marathon in Dublin. And the year after that I ran the Burlington marathon and headed out a week later to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail. It was my third long-distance thru-hike and my body wasn’t holding up well. 2,000 into the CDT I had partially torn my ACL and worn down a lot of cartilage, plus had several stress fractures in my feet, nasty looking hammer toes and a very painful Morton’s neuroma. [A few years ago I made a short slide show about how I got into running, and more specifically barefoot running.]
What followed were some very dark years. Six years to be exact. I thrive on wilderness, solitude and movement and some days I couldn’t walk half a mile. Some days I could barely drag myself out of bed. The vicious cycle of injury and inactivity led to nearly debilitating depression and exhaustion. It was also during this time that I broke my wrist in such a way that I couldn’t climb or do much yoga (or cut bread, open a car door, carry fire wood, stir soup . . .) and the pain, as the broken bone slowly died and dissolved over the course of three years was often all-consuming.
Toward the end of this period I had two babies. I also worked as a Park Ranger at Acadia National Park so I got to be outside quite a lot. Getting out on the trails every day slowly started to work it’s magic. So so slowly. I walked back and forth to the end of my driveway, I bought a road bike. I taught myself to swim.
In 2010 I started competing in sprint and Olympic length triathlons. The only way I could comfortably run was barefoot and it took me a couple years to build up to running for an hour or more. By 2013 I was running strong (if not fast). My legs ached and my feet hurt but my knees and hips felt better than ever. That year I ran two 50k trail races, a marathon and my first 50 mile trail race. Running that far was a big deal for me. I felt like I had reclaimed by body, my confidence and my freedom. I’ve had a few set backs over the last few years, including a year of plantar fasciitis (well documented in early posts) and a resurgence of hip pain. But these set backs have also helped me hone-in what kind of strength training and cross training I need to do to support my running.
Once you’re in shape to run 50 miles it’s hard to want to ease up too much. I really love the freedom. Have I already mentioned that? I love being able to run up a mountain alone and I love the comforting view of the ocean and forest of Downeast, Maine. In the last four years I’ve run five 50 mile trail races, eight 50k trail races, seven official road marathons and an uncounted number of training runs between 25 – 32 miles. Of these races my fastest times are pretty slow relative to the running world and pretty fast relative to the world of me. Since I’m not competitive with my race times I’m not very good at keeping track of them, but I just looked them up and here are my best times over the last six years: Road marathon 4:22, 50k 5:32, 50 mile 10:51.
And this brings me to the FAQ section of this post
How long does it take to run 100 miles?
Somewhere between 12 and 32 hours. (Zac Bitter holds the world record at 11:47)
People actually run 100 miles?
Yes. There are dozens of 100 mile races in the U.S., and many more around the world. There will be about 50 people running the Riverlands 100 along with me, 13 of those are women.
Why are you running 100 miles?
I first started thinking about the possibility of running 100 miles when I was thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1999 and heard that there was this race called Western States taking place nearby. At that time I really enjoyed seeing how far I could hike in a day, and often hiked 30 miles and a few 40s too. The thought of a 100 seemed crazy but enticing. Then in 2002 when Jerome and I were hiking the Continental Divide Trail we hiked past Leadville, CO, home of the famous Leadville 100 bike and trail running race. Adding to the mystique locals told us about a nearby running cult that only eats red food the night before the race and their members always win it. (I’ve come to find out that some but not all parts of this story are true.)
So I’ve had a 100 miles in the back of my head for a while, occasionally testing the idea out against what my body, work life and home life could sustain. The big mountain races out west are the most enticing to me but I don’t see how I can effectively acclimate to the altitude of those races while living here at sea level. Plus, most of those races are in the summer which is my busiest work and family time. Then last spring while I was running the Pinelands 50K I overheard some runners talking about planning Maine’s first 100 mile trail race. Cool! I thought. I wouldn’t have to travel or acclimate or take time off from work . . .
Fast forward to this fall when I has just finished running the Vermont 50 miler. My twin brother was scheduled for brain surgery to remove a tumor that likely resulted from the huge amount of radiation he received during his experimental leukemia treatments nearly 40 years ago. He’s like a cat (or turtle) with nine lives. The dude has had more near-misses than anyone else I know. Has he ever told you about the time he fell out of the car while we were driving to school? Or when the canoe flipped over on a family canoe trip and he got caught under it and nearly drowned? And then there’s the knee replacement and heart arrhythmia. And being transgendered, which is a kind of near-miss and comes with its own assortment of medical risks.
So there he was, getting the top of his skull sawed off and I decided, fine, if he can survive this I can survive running 100 miles. I hit the race registration button and here I am. Jerome jumped in too – putting together a 5-person relay team (Team Turtle Tracks because my brother’s Appalachian Trail name is Turtle Tracks). As I write this my brother is thru-hiking north on the AT somewhere in New Jersey, and if he doesn’t get eaten by black bears he’s planning to hike his first 20 mile day the same day as the race.
Ok, now back to the FAQs
How do you train for a 100 miler?
My intention was to run the bare minimum weekly mileage that would still give me a good chance at finishing this race. Many ultra runners run between 50-100 miles a week but my biggest goal this season was to not get injured. My average weekly mileage is typically around 35 miles and during the training for this race I only had seven weeks where I ran between 45-60 miles. Everyone seems to agree that the key to training for long-distance runs is to run “back to back long runs”. So for most of the weekends this year I’ve run something like 15 miles one day and 15 the next, or 20 and 10, or 20 and 20 or my favorite, 20 and 30 (ouch!). Also this winter I really upped my weight lifting, mostly to keep me occupied so I wouldn’t run too much (and thus get injured) but also because it’s fun to learn new things. I’m hoping all those squats and lunges will pay off in the wee hours of Sunday morning as I get tired and my form starts to fall apart.
What’s the course like?
How fast you can run 100 miles depends a ton on the trail conditions. How “runable” the trail is depends on if it is broad and flat or stoney, sandy, muddy or root-filled, how steep and long the hills are and what the total elevation gain is over the course. In this case the course is fairly runnable, with about 20 miles of rooty single-track trail, some deeper sandy sections, some mud and a total elevation gain of about 10,000 feet.
Where can you find 100 miles to run in Turner, Maine?
This race is at Riverlands State Park along the Androscoggin River. It’s an out and back course consisting of five 20 mile laps. That means 10 miles out, 10 miles back, five times. I like this format for my first 100 miler because it keeps the clothing/food/gear logistics simple.
Will anyone run with you?
Often people have a crew – people who get your gear organized and help you at the aid stations. Or a pacer – people who are allowed to run with you during the last 40 miles. I don’t have either. But Team Turtle Tracks will be out there running their relay laps and if I’m lucky they will run a few miles with me.
Do you really run the whole time?
No. The secret of ultra running is that most ultra runners walk a lot. Ok yes, there are in fact people who can run non-stop for 14 hours, but the rest of us mortals walk, power-hike and slow jog up most if not all the hills, and after 50 miles anything that isn’t downhill is uphill.
How do you stay awake?
I’m not sure. The longest I’ve ever run was 12 ½ hours. I’ve only been awake for more than 24 hours twice in my life. The first time was at a Grateful Dead concert in 1993 and the second time was when I was in labor with my first kid. Most people do run through the night though I’ve also heard of people lying down on the side of the trail for a quick cat-nap. I have some caffeinated Tailwind drink mix that I plan to use for the first time during this race.
Do you stop to eat?
Sort of. This particular race will have aid stations every five miles. Runners can stash a personal bag with drink mixes and food at the aid stations so in addition to the snacks the race provides I will also have the stuff I am used to, which is primarily Tailwind drink mix. I really try to minimize the time I spend at aid stations. I open up my water bladder, pour in Tailwind and water, shake and go.
I’ve tried many different food (fueling) strategies over the last few years and finally settled on Tailwind almost exclusively. The trick is to keep your digestion working even while you’re body would like to shut it down completely. This means sticking to easily digested starches. I typically start to feel pretty nauseous around the 12 hour mark, but on my most recent 50 mile run in Spain I still felt really good at the end of the race despite the fact that I was recovering from the stomach flu. I’m hoping that if I start to feel sick during this race I can simply puke and keep going. (Who knew that puking throughout my pregnancies would be great training for running ultra marathons?)
On slower training runs I have found that I can eat some very specific solid foods such as certain flavors of Cliff bars and certain brands of ginger snaps. Gu is no longer an option for me while running (though curiously I can still digest it when I’m biking). I often long for hot soup or bone broth but can’t quite stomach the instant broth they serve at races. I also find myself fantasizing about cheeseless vegetable pizza. Both of these cravings are telling me that I need more salt. I sweat a ridiculous amount my sweat is really, really salty so I try to take a couple of salt pills every hour.
Do you take painkillers?
I often take one Aleve about eight hours into a run which is when my hip pain gets bad enough to alter my running form. I also find I sleep better after a race if I’ve taken painkillers during the race. There are millions of very good reasons not to take NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflamatory drugs) so I really try to minimize my use. That said, I’m expecting to be a very sorry mess for a few days – maybe even a week – after this race and I might have to up my use just to get to work.
Do you go to the bathroom?
In my experience porta potties are never located where you need them. But the woods always are. When it comes to peeing I am an expert side-of-the-trail speed peer. When it comes to #2 I carry two small ziplock bags, one with clean toilet paper and one for dirty toilet paper. I put some effort into reducing my need to poop while running by taking a larger than usual amount of magnesium citrate the day before, thereby helping to ensure a complete evacuation the morning of the race. Runners are notorious for their poop-horror stories so I’ll spare you any more details and let you google Runners Poop by yourself.
What about getting your period during a long race?
Yeah, that totally sucks. I’m always pretty frickin’ psyched when my period ends the day before a race.
What do you wear?
I tend to be unfinicky when it comes to running clothes and shoes. I think all those years of barefoot running toughened up my feet as I am not prone to bad blisters. My toes and toenails often blister but so far they haven’t caused me any pain while I’m running. I hope this still holds true at miles, 70, 80, 90 and 100. Also over the years I’ve accumulated several common chaffing spots on my upper body that can be incredibly painful if I forget to put Glide on (Glide is a silicone lubrication used by runners to prevent chafing).
It’s going to be cold (40s-50s) and possibly rainy so I’m planning to have a few sets of spare clothes in my bag at the aid stations. I don’t care about wet feet but I’m definitely concerned about getting cold and wet at night and not being able to move fast enough to stay warm.
Do people seriously injure themselves doing this kind of thing?
Of course. And people seriously injure themselves walking to work too. But you knew I was going to say that. So yes, here are a few common things that happen to ultra runners: Dehydration, over-hydration, hyperthermia and hypothermia. BIG blisters on the soles of your feet or heels that get deep enough to cause real and lasting damage. A somewhat life-threatening thing called rhabdomyolysis which happens when you break down muscle faster than your kidneys can process the waste (less common with slow runners like me) and musculoskeletal injuries such as sprains, strains, cramps and stress fractures.
Aren’t there more important things to be doing with your life?
Yes. But I can’t do them unless I take care of myself mentally and emotionally, and for now that means running. Plus, I am ridiculously lucky to have a job that allows me to spend so much time with my family and still have time to run and draw and yes, obsessively call and write my state senators and representatives to tell them what I think about health care, trans-rights, local food sovereignty and immigration. And if the world really does fall apart maybe I’ll be able to outrun it?
Do you really think you can you do it?
It is said that completing a 100 mile race is more of a lack of failure than a success. A few people have gleefully pointed out to me that in order to complete this race in 24 hours I only need to “run” 14 minute miles and how hard can that be? I agree, I think if everything else goes smoothly the running part isn’t the hard part. It’s all the other stuff, like wasting time at aid stations, trying to find your gear, getting lost, slowing way down because the roots/rocks are hard to see in the dark, not being able to digest calories, or letting your mood and attitude get negative for too long.
I have no idea if I can do it, but I am curious about what kind of adventure I’ll have trying.
How a 45 mile mountain trail race in Barcelona became part of my 100 miler training plan
I had been eyeing this pretty, somewhat rugged little trail race out in Moab (called Behind the Rocks) for the past couple of years and I even talked my twin brother into joining me. The only problem was that getting from Maine to Moab in March is not a cheap undertaking. When I talked to Jerome about it he casually mentioned “oh, that’s the weekend I’ll be in Barcelona for work”. This is my highschool social studies husband speaking. What? What kind of Bucksport High School work is required in Barcelona? Turns out EF Tours, the company he works with to organize his school’s international trips needed him in Barcelona for a training.
Never one to give up
I casually joked, “what if there’s a trail race in Barcelona? The kids and I could come and you could watch them after your training”. He looked at me with horror and made me swear I wouldn’t do any such thing. But it was too late, I was already googling “Trail Races Barcelona”. “Oh look honey, there’s a 45 mile trail race that exact weekend!”. Nooooo, he groaned. I closed the computer and tried to put the idea down. But not after peeking at plane tickets and gasping over the incredibly cheap fares. The very next day Lucy (my ten year old daughter and future Secretary of State – the Madeline Albright kind not the Rex Tillerson kind just to be clear) announced to my good friend that “Mom and Dad want to go to Barcelona without me and Georgia, can we stay with you?”. To my surprise and horror my friend said “of course!”. And so it began . . .
Sometimes just getting out of the house is hard enough
A crazy idea turned into reality. Just barely. Jerome and I were due to fly out Wednesday evening and Tuesday Lucy came down with a brutal episode of the stomach flu. My friend, also conveniently our family nurse, assured me she could handle it. Her husband maybe not so much. But off we went, the girls in good hands.
Because Jerome was traveling for work, and I was traveling for cheap, we were on different flights. The overnight flight sucked as much as one would expect. I arrived in Barcelona at lunch time and caught a bus to my hotel (a different one from Jerome’s for the first night). After gathering myself I decided to head off on the mile walk to the outdoor store that was hosting my race’s bib pickup. I wanted to get that out of the way before I got lunch, but as I was walking I couldn’t figure out if I was hungry or . . . what . . . Alas, when I got to the store it was closed for the traditional 2-4pm siesta.
That gnawing feeling = stomach flu
I thought I would get lunch and then go back to the store in an hour but I was quickly starting to feel horrible. Not just hungry and jet lagged, but horrible, horrible. I bee-lined for my hotel and got to my room seconds before I started to violently throw up. Oh boy, I had Lucy’s stomach flu. Things got worse and worse and all I could do was alternate between passing out on my bed and barely making it to the bathroom. It was Thursday, the outdoor store was only open that night until 9pm and this was the last day to get my bib if I wanted to race on Saturday. Just as the sun was setting I forced myself out onto the street and decided I could walk the mile in 20 minutes, get my bib and walk back in another 20 giving me 40 minutes to NOT puke. In case you’re wondering, this plan failed miserably. I did make it to the store, with much sitting down on the edge of planters and sidewalks in between forced, dizzy marching. This was totally ridiculous and I knew it. I finally made it to the store and panicked when I realized the next major wave of vomiting was imminent. I asked an employee if he could help me get my bib (to my horror it was ALL THE WAY DOWNSTAIRS) and then if he could help me hail a cab. He did not speak English and the situation was well beyond my, or perhaps anyone’s, Spanish but somehow he got me out onto the street, utterly pathetic but victorious with my bib in hand.
Check off Life List: public vomiting in a foreign country.
The cab deposited me a block away from my hotel and as I stepped out I lost it. Violently retching in front of a lovely little sidewalk café. (Dear Barcelona: I am so so sorry). But all I had to do was get to my bed and pass out, which I promptly did.
I woke up the next morning feeling emptied out and tired but with a glimmer of hope. The hotel proudly advertised it’s healthy breakfast choices and I wandered downstairs to find the an un-appetizing (to me) array of cured meats, cheeses, savory spreads and all kinds of fried, sweet baked things. But then, there at the end I spied fresh juice. Not just any juice, but fresh ginger-beet juice. I probably spent an hour sipping juice and taking tiny bites of toast, so grateful to find something that agreed with my stomach.
Check out time was noon and sight-seeing was my only option until I could check in at Jerome’s hotel that evening. The metro system in Barcelona is fantastic. Inexpensive, relatively clean,
easy to follow and it goes all over the city. My first stop was the Sagrada Família. I didn’t know too much about Gaudi before this visit, though having gone to Waldorf school I knew something about his influence on the use of geometry and natural form on architecture. The space really is gorgeous. And what you can’t see in the photographs is how amazingly well the geometry absorbs the sound so that even with several hundred tourists milling about (and at least half of those are students) there is still a feeling that you are in a softly quiet space, like being in an old growth forest.
In search of forested trails in the city
I am not a city person and even surrounded by the most lovely architecture, people and pavement make my skin crawl. I decided the next stop should be Parc Guell. Another metro ride and I found myself on the outskirts of the city, wandering along narrow streets and up steep hills, past a building that inexplicably bore a plaque reading “Plaça Salvador Allende” and into the middle of a quiet, foggy forest. There were occasional signs pointing toward Parc Guell and after nearly an hour of slow, infirm walking I started seeing other tourist-like people. It was at the moment that I turned my cell phone on to see where Jerome was with his group and as fate would have it, he was only a few hundred feet away! I looked down into the plaza of Parc Guell and saw his red rain coat just as he looked up and saw me. It was a pretty sweet moment having not seen each other since leaving the U.S. a short, but eventful, 48 hours earlier. He was just wrapping up with his group and was able to join me for the rest of the afternoon and we had a nice time wandering around together in the pouring rain. Sadly I still had no appetite and by 7pm all I could think about was bed so our romantic dinner turned into an early, not-so-great pan of paella at a loud local bar.
That night with my race backpack packed, I fell asleep to the sound of thunder over the nearby mountains. I woke up at 5am (midnight Maine time) and felt worse than I had the day before, but not nearly as bad as two days earlier. I took that to be a good sign. I wanted to at least get myself to the start line to see what would happen. I could feel miserable sitting in a hotel room all day or I could feel miserable in the mountains.
Sometimes just getting to the start line is a victory
Still dry heaving and unable to to even think about food, I took a cab to the Gava Train station, where I was dropped off to wait alone in the dark, cold drizzle. In theory I was signed up for a bus that would drive me and several other racers up the mountain to the start line. Much to my relief, another runner appeared out of the darkness to join me, and then another. But still no bus arrived. We sent an emissary around the corner to see if perhaps the bus was waiting there. It was. It was only five minutes after the stated pick-up time but the driver was so irate that we hadn’t been there on time that he refused to drive us. He only spoke (more accurately, yelled) Spanish/Catalan and there was no reasoning with him. So the six of us tracked down a taxi-van to take us up the mountain instead. That’s when I met Fird and Rasim, two runners from Azerbaijan about to start their first ever ultra-trail race. Their enthusiasm was contagious, though I could tell Fird was suffering from the crazy switchback road as much as I was, and I wondered if we were going to make it without having to pull over. We did. Barely. I found the nearest bush, and afterward, the changing rooms. It was so cold I was shivering and I couldn’t bare the thought of taking any of my warm clothes off even knowing that I would overheat within the first ten minutes of running. If I could even run.
Follow your heart
As a funny side note, to register for this race (and apparently most European ultra distance races) you are required to produce a signed document from your doctor saying that your heart is in good enough shape for such an endeavor. Ironically, this past fall, right around the time I ran the Vermont 50 I started to feel a funny new heart arrhythmia. After a few weeks it became quite disconcerting. Sometimes it happens several times a day, sometimes only once a week and sometimes it wakes me up at night. I decided it would be wise to get it checked out and after several months of testing (EKG, halter monitor, MRI . . .) I was told everything was fine, and so there it was, my doctor’s permission to run mountain ultras.
The race waiver said nothing about being able to keep food down
The 70km race started at 8am with 180 runners (17 were women). I’m usually much too fast out of the gate but not this morning. The faster I ran the more it jiggled my stomach. After about a mile I looked behind me and realized I was dead last. Oh wait, except for these two super-friendly guys who started asking me all kinds of questions in Spanish. I quickly realized they were race staff and they were assessing my (apparently worrisome) condition. Once I convinced them I really was ok they told me I had to make it to the first aid station within an hour or I’d be cut off.
10,000 feet of climbing = slow and steady
Soon I caught up to my Azerbaijani friends who in neon-yellow were hard to miss even among
the brilliantly-colored sea of spandex that Europeans seem to love. The trail was steep, muddy, slippery and filled with chunks of jagged limestone. Good conditions for hiking while I got my body warmed up to idea of running.
Who needs food when you’ve got Tailwind?
I was carrying about 2,000 calories worth of Tailwind in my backpack (a very simple and palatable mix of sugar and electrolytes), which was more than enough to get me through the day even if I couldn’t eat. After the 15 mile aid station I headed out alone (Fird dropped out there) and followed the intermittent trail-makers into the wilderness . . . It’s a funny thing running alone in a foreign country relying entirely on faded orange dots to get you from one place to another, especially when the trail looks as much like a river bed as the actual riverbed next to it.
Ultra-racing = solo-running = fun times!
Those are some of my favorite moments in trail running. Being alone but also being part of something bigger. The trail climbed a crazy steep mountain and the summit was not unlike Cadillac Mountain here in Acadia. There was even a narrow road at the summit that switch backed down five miles to the ocean. Now I was feeling really good. I pictured all the times I’ve flown down the Cadillac road and all the good people I’ve run it with. I hit the beach at 5hrs and 50mins, 10 minutes before the cut-off time. There comes a point in every ultra where I know I’m going to make it. It’s a sweet moment where the anxious knot in my stomach dissolves and I can just relax into the present moment, running and enjoying the rest of the day. In this case I had another 25 miles to enjoy!
I headed out of the aid station and down the beach with great optimism. At the end of the beach there was a set of stairs that I ran up, where upon I found myself in the middle of a beachside restaurant. The diners equal parts fascinated and horrified by my presence and I quickly ran back down the stairs, confused about how I had missed the trail. I walked back passed the surfers and the naked kids playing in a puddle and asked a young man if he’d seen “others like me”. No he hadn’t. Eventually another runner came down the beach and I saw him disappear into an alley I had missed.
Ultra runners are always interesting, especially after you’ve been running alone for 30 miles
The rest of the run was incredibly enjoyable. Steep hills with sweeping views, pleasant stretches of dirt road, lots of ruins, vineyards and small farms (with ferocious barking dogs). No longer dead last, I was slowly passing people and enjoying chatting with a few. I met a German Physician-researcher who studies leukemia and says the U.S. is doomed as a leader in medical science. I met a couple of French men who are terrified that their country will go the same way as ours, and several Spanish men who wanted to tell me how wonderful and beautiful their home towns are. None of the locals spoke English and I had a very funny time communicating in Spanish like a toddler, all in the present tense.
Minutes per mile, miles per hour, hours per race is the constant background chatter in a runner’s mind
My original goal of finishing the race in 10hrs had dissolved with all the morning’s hiking, but I thought maybe I could make it in under 12hrs. But I swear the Spaniard’s Kilometer math didn’t add up. At 50km the race volunteers said 20k left! Ok great, that makes sense. So the next aid station was 12km away, which means the finish line should only be another 8km after that right? It was just getting dark enough to need a headlamp, I could here cars on a road somewhere nearby and by my watch I had nearly run the last 8km. Surely the end was in sight. But when I popped out of the woods there was yet another aid station. Was it for the 100km runners? Was the finish line just around the corner? No, apparently, I still had another 5k to go. I think the Spanish are a little looser with distance than say, U.S. road runners.
I’ve never felt better at the end of a 70k run
Running in the dark is fun and I swear I was feeling great! I wasn’t so much in a hurry to be done running as I wanted to get to bed at a reasonable hour since my flight was at 6am the next morning. Plus daylight savings was that night and I was going lose yet another hour of sleep. I reeled in another half dozen runners in that last 5k, discovering for the first time how fun negative splits can be (when you run the second half of a race faster than the first half). The last bit of the course was thinly marked and I had to look cautiously for turns, straining my eyes for any glimmer of headlamp on the trail ahead. Indeed, the very last turn, the one right in town, I headed off the wrong way until some people leaving a restaurant casually pointed and said “la meta está ahí”. Muchisimos gracias! I turned around and sprinted just in time to pass two smartly dressed and perfectly clean looking French runners on their way to the finish line (how do they do that??). My final time was about 12hrs and 34 minutes and I was 105th out of the 126 that finished the race (55 dropped out). Mostly I was delighted with what I had just pulled off, proud of persevering and having such a great day. A small, competitive sliver of me wishes, somehow, I had run just a little faster. And that there is the paradox that keeps mountain runners alive.
After a quick, scorching hot shower in the local school gym I tried to eat a few bites of white rice at the post race meal but failed. I passed by the finish line just in time to see my Azerbajaini friend Rasim finish and after a hearty congratulations I went in search of a bus that would take me back down the mountain. I didn’t get far before a couple offered me a ride and I was so grateful! They had both run in the shorter race that day and their 11 year old son looked as ready for bed as I was. They took me straight to my hotel near the airport, thereby demonstrating, once again, the generosity and goodness of runners and people everywhere!
Eventually Jerome wandered back to the hotel having spent a wonderful day eating tapas and biking around Barcelona. We were each happy in our own way.
If you want to get a feel for the scenery in Parc Del Garraf and what it’s like to run all day I made a little video of my adventure. It’s as boring or as interesting as running is, depending on who you are! https://youtu.be/AL0GwnaO07Q
The value of training in adverse conditions
My first ironman-distance triathlon was in September of 2014 in Hunter, NY and it included lots of elevation gain and frigid pouring rain. I knew the Mont-Tremblant bike course would be similar to Hunter, with close to 7,000ft of gain, and then when I started checking the weather a week before the race it looked like we’d be getting plenty of rain too. Maybe even all day thunderstorms.
Fortunately I trained in a wide variety of conditions this summer, including two 100+mi rides in pouring rain. The kind of rain where not a single inch of your underwear is left dry and you feel more like you’re swimming than biking. This kind of training was great because it taught me how much extra I needed to wear and eat to stay warm. I learned to pack my Tinderhearth sourdough spelt sandwiches into a few separate plastic bags so that when I ate one the others would stay dry, and to always, always pack my rain-wind jacket even if it felt sort of warm when I headed out the door.
Training in adverse conditions is important because it teaches an athlete how to read their body when they’re distracted. When the external conditions are extreme it can be easy to focus on that and not yourself. At least once in my early training days I realized too late that I was over heating or hypothermic and had to be rescued or limp home.
I had a fantastic experience of managing myself in this way during the Ultra Trail du Mont Albert in the Chic Choc’s this June.
It was hot and humid and the race covers 27 miles and climbs over 5,000 ft to the highest point in Quebec, which turns out to be exposed alpine tundra. There were very few aid stations and I had to keep track of my
nutrition, hydration and electrolytes while also really pushing myself to get up and down the mountain as fast as I could because of a looming afternoon thunderstorm. In the end I felt proud of myself for being able to move confidently over the mountain terrain and was able to finish the race a full half hour before my goal time.
Again, this kind of all-day self-management is an important part of Ironman training. By the time the race came around I felt totally confident that as long as the race wasn’t cancelled (due to fog or lightening), I would be able to handle the conditions.
Ironman Mont-Tremblant, August 21, 2016
When I registered for this race I was incredibly annoyed to discover that I had to check-in Friday afternoon for a Sunday race. What kind of people can take off two days of work for a race?? First the crazy registration fee and now taking vacation days during the busiest time of year? Adding insult to injury, I discovered the Thursday before the race that the traffic around Montreal could add a few hours to my travel time and it was very unlikely that I would make it to check-in if I left early Friday morning and I was going to need to leave Thursday evening instead. That’s how I realized I had three hours to pack instead of 16. Lucy, my 10 year old daughter LOVES check lists and was a big help in gathering everything on such short notice. Finally, having double-checked the epic Ironman gear list which includes such essentials as three kinds of zip lock bags, three kinds of tape, several colors of permanent markers and another random but possibly necessary 300 items, I was ready.
I left my house at 6pm Thursday evening and meandered my way through the moosey back woods of Maine. There really is no other way to get there from here. The tiny border crossing had one women and she waved me through. Good to see Canada won’t be building a wall anytime soon. I spent the night at a funky little college town hostel-type hotel in Sherbrooke and found a great coffee place in the morning with fresh bagels and smoked salmon.
I then made a fatal navigation error – following my car GPS without really knowing where I was going. It turns out the GPS was sending me to the heart of Mont-Tremblant Parc, which is not the same at the ski resort where the race was being held. They are in fact 60 miles apart. Again, insult to injury the road the GPS sent me on had a mysterious road block which sent me on another 40 mile detour. All I could think was thank god I had left the night before and still had plenty of time to make it to check-in. I arrived around 1:30 and quickly realized the scale of the event when I tried to park. Which ended up being three miles and a shuttle bus ride away. Finally I found my cousin Samantha who had been occupying her time with a serving of poutine while waiting for me to arrive. We found check-in, where again, I realized, this was definitely not a “throw my bike over the transition area fence” kind of race. I picked up all kinds of waivers, signed them, weighed myself (still not sure why we had to do this, but man, if you want to fuss up a bunch of triathletes try telling them not to take their shoes before they get weighed).
It took about 45 minutes to wind myself through the check-in maze after which I gratefully followed Samantha to the crepery for lunch.
Samantha and I shared a room at Auberge Le Lupin, a fantastic bed and breakfast only a 10min walk from the start line. We spent Saturday going through our gear and collecting miscalaneous missing pieces – like the straw to my aero water bottle that Lucy had borrowed for a home science project (and filled with mysterious black gunk), and a spare long-stemmed inner tube to use with the super-awesome Reynolds Assault carbon wheels that the Bar Harbor Bike Shop put on my bike for the weekend. We also gave in to the temptation and both bought new swim goggles, which turned out to be a great decision.
I was still debating what shorts to wear since I really wanted to wear one pair through the whole race and not change clothes at all during transitions but when I tried running in any of my tri bike shorts, even the ones with the thinnest padding it still felt like I was running with a diaper. I gave up on finding the perfect tri-shorts and packed my trusty running compression shorts into my transition bag.
The whole transition set up is really fancy and well-organized. We had to drop off our bags and park our bikes in their designated spot by 4pm Saturday afternoon, which means we had to be totally decided on what gear to put in each bag (a swim-to-bike bag and a bike-to-run bag) a full 15 hours before the start of the race. For the average type-A triathlete this kind of loss of control over gear can be nearly debilitating. But I managed to only goof up the placement of my watch, which is not waterproof and thus should have gone into my swim-to-bike bag, but since we were allowed access to our bikes in the morning before the race I stuffed it into the snack bag on my frame. Did I mention they photograph each bike before you roll it into the bike rack area? I’m pretty sure Midnight (my bike) felt like royalty in front of the paprazzi. Don’t tell her, but she’s an aluminum frame Cannondale CAAD10 and she was kind of a Mike Mulligan surrounded by a field of carbon tri-bikes.
With all of our gear taken care of we had a couple hours to enjoy the ski resort festivities which included riding the alpine slide and eating ice cream dipped in hazelnut chocolate sauce.
Pierre and Sylvie at Le Lupin made us a great pre-race dinner which we finished by 7pm and after only a little more gear review and anxiety (not much we could do at that point) we went to bed.
We woke up at 4:15am and ate an awesome pre-race breakfast, once again made by Pierre. The morning was warm but not at all foggy and the forecast for thunderstorms had been postponed until at least 11am. This was a great relief because it meant the race would go as planned (instead of altering or eliminating the swim portion).
We walked over to the bike area, pumped our tires, filled our water bottles and headed straight over to the beach. With the huge crowds slowing everything down we had no time to spare. We threw our “morning gear bags” into the giant dumpster truck as instructed and made our way to the water.
I had just enough time to jump-in and get wet before my swim wave was lining up. I kept telling myself “nice and easy” for the swim. No need to rush, no need to breathe hard, it won’t make me any faster and it was crucial that I not re-experience that panicky racing heart-rate feeling that came on when I had my episode of pulmonary edema this spring.
So that’s just how I swam: nice and easy. I took one buoy at a time and told myself I could swim all day if I needed too. The wave never thinned out and I had fun trying to draft off swimmers just ahead of me. I did get kicked a bunch and my goggles even came off once. Also, I still have no good way of managing my three feet of hair in a swim cap and about half way through my cap started flopping about precariously and was barely hanging on by the time I finished. The water got much rougher during the second half of the swim and I could see people bobbing off to the edges of the course and looking pretty green. I watched one guy puke and quickly turned my head back into the water pretending I hadn’t just seen that. I train quite a bit in Blue Hill Bay and it can be very rough with both choppy waves and big rollers and I’m lucky I have yet to get seasick.
Once out of the water I sat down on the red carpet and let the “strippers” pull off my wetsuit, which I then slung over my shoulder and ran the 500yds up to transition. All I had to do was put on my sunglasses, helmet and bike shoes but my transition was a bit slow because I couldn’t find my bike. Volunteers are supposed to bring you your bike (valet-style) but things got mixed up (or I got mixed up) and I had to chase down Midnight before the well-intentioned volunteer wheeled her all the way to the opposite corner of the bike pen.
My mantra for the first few miles of the bike was “don’t go out too fast”. I love to bike and it is by far my strongest of the three legs but I decided to see if going a little easier would give me more for the run. So I rolled along at a comfortable 18mph for the first big stretch of highway. There were some big rolling hills in this section and I hit 43mph a few times. At first this was fine, but as I caught up with the men’s wave it became a constant challenge to not run them over. I weigh at least 20lbs more than the average tri-guy (plus Midnight is a little heftier than her carbon friends) and consequently I overtake almost everyone on the down hills. About an hour into the ride it began to rain steadily and this added to the excitement because it is very difficult, if not impossible to break hard with new carbon wheels. The first lap of the bike ends with a dramatic 8% climb up a mountain with a corresponding descent. By now it was pouring and as I approached the start of the hill I came on a major bike accident pile up. There were a few guys on the ground, one was still in the middle of road with horrific looking injuries to his face and head, another on the side of the road with a friend stabilizing his neck. There were at least a dozen bikes on the side of the road and everyone was yelling to slow down. The riders coming down the other side of the road were barely able to break in time to avoid those of us biking up and around the accident – it was quite sobering and made me wonder if I would be able to adequately control my own descent. As it turns out by the time I was coming back down they had volunteers posted in the middle of the road above the accident and forced all of us to slow way down. I kept my speed below 15mph on the entire downhill and I was relieved when I made it back down safely. I had planned to stop once on the bike at the half way point – here I topped off my water, dumped in Tailwind, peed and headed out for the second lap. I had stuffed a rain jacket into my saddle bag and considered putting it on several times but kept being just not cold enough . . . I had plenty of energy on the second lap and started to regret that I hadn’t pushed it harder on the first. Then just before hitting the final ascent I fumbled (cold hands) and dropped TWO packets of Gu – which left me with no fuel for the climb or the remaining 40 minutes of riding. Oops.
Finally off the bike and onto the run. Have you ever tried to peel off wet spandex and then put on dry compression shorts over wet legs? It’s impossibly tedious and even slower with cold hands. I think I’m glad I did, though all my tri friends claim that running 26 miles with wet bike-padding isn’t as bad as it sounds.
The run was fairly uneventful. It took me about three miles to catch back up on calories but I was staying under 11 min miles and feeling pretty good. If you have trained adequately, the run in an Ironman is almost entirely mental – my mantra on this section was “if you can walk you can run”. I would pick out something ahead and tell myself I could run to there, and once there I would pick a new bench mark. Or I would count runners coming the other way and only after I had counted 50 would I allow myself look at my watch again. In the end I walked very little of the course and was really proud of how smoothly I completed the run. Maybe biking slower paid off?
My goal was to finish during daylight and as I ran down the final hill I could see lovely pink streaks of clouds as the sun began to set. I’m not a crowd person but it was fun to come through the finisher chute and high five all the cheering kids along the way.
As soon as I crossed the line a volunteer grabbed my arm and ushered me right into the recovery tent. I wondered if she thought I was going to pass out because she didn’t let go of me for a couple of minutes. The race logistics were pretty amazing at this point. The same bag I had tossed into a garbage truck at 6:30am was immediately handed to me with all my dry clothes in it. I managed to hide behind a space blanket to change while I waited for Samantha to finish. I also attempted to find something edible in the post-race meal, which turned out to be terrible. Cold and very mayonnaisey pasta salad, cold and very dry looking cous cous, and raw cucumbers and carrots. Plus of course poutine. Out of desperation I got the pountine without the pountine (aka plain French fries) and nibbled on cucumbers and carrots. All of the beverages were caffeinated but since I was hoping to sleep soon I stuck to water. Samantha finished an hour and a half after me and was in great spirits. She had also had a great race. I started to offer to help her get food and find her warm clothes when all of a sudden I felt horribly ill. Where was that overly protective volunteer now? All I could do was sit on the curb with my head between my legs getting more and more nauseated. The EMTs did find me and I tried to convince them that really all I had to do was puke and I would be fine again. The problem is that in every endurance event I’ve done my digestion pretty much shuts down after 10-11 hours of racing and it can take several hours for it to start back up. Usually I need to start with warm soups or tea before I can eat anything dense again. Thus the French fries and cold vegetables were just sitting there. But not for long. The EMT’s brought me a garbage bag and I gratefully puked into it, and yes, I instantly felt better. Samantha and I headed out to pick up our bikes and transition bags and walked back under a lovely, clear night sky to our bed and breakfast. I fell asleep on an empty stomach but miraculously was able to sleep all the way through until 7 the next morning.
We woke to the aroma of crepes Florentine and whole grain pancakes with fresh peach compote. Plus bread pudding and espresso. It was a beautiful fresh morning and I realized this little resort town had really grown on me. Or was it just Pierre’s cooking?
The drive home was mostly uneventful. There was no line at the border but the customs man did in fact check my passport card and cheerily told me he had gone to high school in Blue Hill. Also, by trying to avoid buying gas in Canada I ran my tank perilously empty in that 40 mile stretch of wilderness between the border and the first gas station. I’m convinced I only made it because there was a really strong tailwind. Gas isn’t the only thing that runs in short supply in this part of Maine. There is virtually nowhere to buy food (excepting slim jims and cheap American beer). Normally I would not notice such a thing but seeing as I was down a few thousand calories I was fairly desperate by the time I hit the Sugarloaf general store where I bought a box of wildly over priced crackers and a small square of cheddar cheese. This made it even sweeter to get home and discover that for dinner Lucy had made me a hamburger with all the fixings and steamed me a big bowl of green beans. It was the best homecoming ever!
Post Ironman recovery and what’s next
The great thing about triathlons is that they are fairly easy to recover from. At least in terms of soreness. I took the week off and started running the following week. Two weeks later I was still feeling general fatigue but only when I pushed myself. Even so, I had a great time running laps at the Last Man Standing race held at Pineland Farms this past weekend (32.4 miles total).
This week I’m working on my running mileage and plan to hike Mt.Katahdin this weekend. This will be my final training burst before the Vermont 50 (a 50 mi mountain trail running race) on September 25th.
Overall I am very pleased with how well my body is holding up. I think the considerable amount of strength work I did last fall-winter-spring has paid off and is keeping my hip out of the main-line of fire. Another success is that I’m feeling excited about running and being in the mountains. There’s nothing like training 18 hours a week to make a 3-hour run feel down-right relaxing!
I’m 13 weeks into my 24 weeks of Ironman Mt. Tremblant training. I chose to follow Joe Friel’s plan this year and have been enjoying the variety, inclusion of strength training (more on that in a minute) and periodic time trials to check for improvement.
Strength adds resiliency, power and speed
I added strength training to my regular endurance routine about four years ago. I started slow – first Pilates, which was really hard for me and a serious reality check on how weak my gluteus muscles were. Then TRX, another reality check, but very fun because I notably improved my leg balance and strength over a single winter, then this past year I added more dynamic work like box jumps, squatting with heavier weights, high skipping and jump roping. These are all things that I never could have done as a kid because my hips were much too weak and my knees hurt just from walking. It’s quite satisfying to master these simple movements at the age of 41 and have virtually no hip or knee pain.
Beware of the bench
I did have a minor set back earlier this Spring when I attempted to set myself up with heavier weights to do squats. Up to that point I’d been slinging a 25lb dumbbell over each shoulder but on this fateful morning I clipped 30lbs to each end of free-weight bar and then went to sit down to wait for the trainer to give me further instructions. But I didn’t sit down, I tripped on the foot of the bench and fell over backwards jettisoning the bar and weights off to my side as I went. I landed hard on my elbow and sat there dazed, assessing damage while the entire gym turned to in horror at the sound of 80lbs hitting the floor. My foot hurt and when I took off my shoe I found a bleeding four-inch gash on the big toe side of my foot. Maybe one end of the weights had landed there and bounced off? In the moment I was totally mortified because I am still one of those people that doesn’t believe she belongs in a gym. My foot and elbow really hurt and I had to work the rest of the day so I went next door to the drug store and bought a 10-pack of instant ice packs, stuffed them into my socks and shirt and commenced a full day of teaching. That evening at home I had time to fully assess the damage and discovered several more weird injuries – my pinkie toe was clearly broken, I had a large cut and bruise on my upper inner thigh and a spectacular hand-sized bruise on one butt cheek. Plus I couldn’t get the cut on my foot to stop bleeding. I tweezed out the sock fuzz and tried several times to steri-strip it closed. Finally with my 9-year-old daughter’s help I got it zipped up. So yes, if you’re thinking I should have gotten stitches, you are right. It took that dang cut 6 weeks to heal and another 2 for my pinkie toe to stop throbbing after being jammed into a shoe.
Though the accidental weight-lifting incident humbled me greatly, it didn’t slow down my training.
Swimming break through
I was never a swimmer as a kid. The two main reasons being that the Maine ocean is frickin cold and I hate getting water in my ears (too many ear infections as a kid). So I taught myself to swim 6 years ago when I started training for triathlons. I watched a few youtube videos, found ear plugs and goggles that don’t dig into my eye sockets and figured out how to freestyle well enough to get from one end of the pool to another. But no matter how much force I put behind my stroke I never got any faster. So this spring I ventured down to Bowdoin College for a 2hr swim clinic with their head swim coach and had my entire swim-world turned upside down. I learned about body position and how to use more momentum and less force. I went from sort of dreading the effort of tedium of pool time to eagerly looking forward to working on my newly found technique. I’ve shaved 30 seconds off my 500yd time, which may not be huge, but it’s the right direction, and the amount of effort I exert to achieve this time feels like a fraction of the struggle I was putting into my laps before.
Triathlon swimming is about more than your stroke
Thus I arrived at last weekend’s Sebego Olympic Triathlon excited to try out my new skills. The lake water was a mere 54 degrees but I didn’t think much about it. Heck, every summer I swim 2.5-3 miles across Blue Hill Bay, and I’m pretty sure Frenchman Bay never gets above 56. I love my wetsuit, and usually after I get my face wet a few times I’m good to go. But on the morning of the race I got into the water to warm up and oddly struggled with keeping my face in the water. It wasn’t just the usual reticence to get started, it was more like a visceral aversion – even after swimming 100 yds or so I kept wanting to get my face out of the water. What was weirder is that my body didn’t feel particularly cold. I got out and said to my cousin Samantha “Wow, that’s pretty cold on the face!” and she said “Yeah, but it got better once I got swimming”. There wasn’t much time to think about it as the race was just about to start. We were funneled knee deep into the water and just a few seconds later the race started. I didn’t have time to position myself off to the outside and back where I typically like to be so I ran-walked through the water to get myself out of the kicking fray and started swimming. Usually I start with a minute or so of same side breathing and then after the initial sprint I settle into a more sustainable alternate breath pace. After a few minutes I tried a few slower strokes and alternate breaths but I kept being forced to breathe every stroke – my heart just wasn’t slowing down. This went on for a bit and I figured I was just amped up from the fast start and the cold water and I figured things would settle down shortly. But they didn’t.
SIPE – Stress Induced Pulmonary Edema
I had to take more breaths, not less. Until finally I decided, ok, I’ve just got to stop completely, relax, float a bit, get my bearings and start again very slowly. I’ve never had to do this in a race before but I also realized I had a long ways to go and hacking my way through the water in a panicked state wasn’t the best way to get there. Even as I floated calmly, sculling on my back, looking at the clouds, thinking chill thoughts and reassuring myself that I was totally fine, I still couldn’t take a deep breath. I backstroked my way to the furthest bouy, the waves were getting bigger and every time the water hit my face I had to stop and catch my breath all over again. I thought about letting the lone kayaker out there know that I was struggling but then decided that once I turned the bouy and started going in the same direction as the waves I would be fine. A few friends passed me – also struggling to put their faces in the water and I told one of them I thought maybe I was having a really hard time breathing and it might be dangerous for me to keep going. I don’t think she heard me because of her earplugs.
When I was halfway between the two furthest buoys I heard my lungs gurgling. I thought about asking the swimmer next to me to stay close but when I tried to talk I started coughing with the effort, My wetsuit suddenly felt much too tight and I desperately wanted to rip it off. Then my vision got weird. Or I thought it did. The thing is, it’s really hard to feel or think clearly when you’re bobbing around in the middle of a very cold lake having a hard time breathing. Finally, I got to the point where I could only catch my breath if I floated still on my back. Any stroke or kick immediately made me cough and gurgle. That’s when I decided to call for help while I still could. The kayaker saw me – but he was several hundred feet away helping someone else. I knew I wasn’t about to sink so I just floated and waited. When I got picked up by the recue motor boat I had zero regrets. It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done in a race. We picked up two more swimmers – one who was suffering from the same gurgling and coughing as me. I tried not to puke into the boat, though I did cough up some really nasty foamy pink stuff onto the fake grass at my feet. I was still convinced I was fine and assumed I was having my first ever asthma attack that would surely resolve now that I wasn’t in the cold water. But an hour later, still on the boat, I felt worse not better. Finally deposited on shore I went back to my rental cabin and took a hot shower (though I wasn’t that cold) and tried to lie down to rest. Sadly I discovered that I could not lie down without feeling like I was drowning so I walked slowly over to the EMT tent, trying to breathe and calm my heart rate. They offered me an Albuterol inhaler, which I refused because I had talked to my asthmatic husband and decided this wasn’t asthma. I opted for oxygen instead which made me cough up more pink foamy nastiness but also made me feel much better. I couldn’t remember the name of what was happening to me but I remembered the symptoms from my days as a Wilderness EMT. The weird thing is, none of the race medical staff knew what was going on either. Now I know it’s called SIPE – Stress Induced Pulmonary Edema. A condition caused by increased pulmonary artery pressure due to cold water immersion and increased heart rate (from exertion). According to a study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine
“Symptom history compatible with SIPE was identified in 1.4% of the population [triathletes surveyed]. Associated factors identified … included history of hypertension, course length of half-Ironman distance or greater, female gender and use of fish oil supplements. Of the 31 cases reported, only 4 occurred in the absence of any associated factors.”
I don’t take fish oil, my blood pressure is very low and I experienced symptoms after swimming less than 500yds. So that leaves me with being a female, a risk factor that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
What is dead can never die
I began to recover after a few hours and after cheering on all my friends at the finish line and eating lunch I decided to head out on a recovery bike ride. I biked 30 miles up to Norway in hopes of finding a snack at the Nomad Café (closed on Sundays!) and 30 miles back to my car where I had some hearty Tinderhearth bread waiting. I felt ok, kept my heart rate below 130 the whole ride and stopped coughing up foamy stuff after an hour or so. The next morning I felt horrible – like I had drowned the day before. All week I’ve been tired, my legs are slow and I feel under-recovered. The results of my time trials over the last two days were disappointing and I’m wondering if I need another very easy week in preparation for next weekend’s trail marathon up Mont Jacques-Cartier. http://ultratrailma.com/sky/skymaraton-2/?lang=en
Most worrisome is that after my 500m swim time trial in the pool this evening I could feel my lungs rasping – something I’ve never experienced before. More investigation needed . . .
I have ten weeks before Ironman Mt. Tremblant but I think the hardest part of recovering from this will be in re-gaining my confidence and not worrying about whether it will happen again.
If I had to sum up my advice to my future triathlete self it would be
- Don’t over hydrate before the swim
- Warm up thoroughly – swim at least 200yds of free style before the start
- Start slow and stay slow. Slow is better than not at all!
In case you don’t know my brother here’s a little background. First off, we’re mirror-image identical twins. And the first thing most people want to tell us is “But you can’t be identical, you’re not the same gender.” Or, maybe they’ll tell us “But you can’t be identical, you look so different”. (By which they really mean, “Why is he so much shorter and rounder than you?”). So let me explain. My brother is transgender and I am cisgendered. He also had childhood Leukemia before doctors really knew what they were doing with radiation and chemotherapy (but happily they knew enough to save his life) and those treatments changed how he grew. So here we are, an identical matching set that now looks more different on the outside than the inside.
How we got into running
When we were 24 years old my brother decided to run a marathon with Team in Training which raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I joined him and together we flew to Honolulu for our first ever marathon. Since then we’ve run many more – some together but mostly on our own.
Last fall my brother texted me that he had just signed up for the Antelope Canyon half marathon in northern Arizona. I had so much fun running around Page, AZ last February during a family trip that I was eager to go back. Plus, I couldn’t let him go out there alone. I signed up for the 50 mile race.
A training buddy is invaluable when it comes to running through the winter. Even though we live three hours apart we regularly texted each other pictures of frosted eyebrows, complained about getting slushed by 18 wheelers and whined about getting up in the dark to run long weekend miles.
My brother had a knee replacement a year ago so every injury-free run was a huge success for him. As for me, my training went really well, just running is so easy (compared to training for an Ironman). Plus, I love running in the winter despite the slush, dark and cold. Something about the stark landscape, the openness of the winter sky and the lack of people feels so easy and spacious, like I can be fully me and not worry about what anyone thinks. I had some of my most pleasant long runs ever and was able to stay off the roads almost entirely because of the thin to non-existent snow cover.
My favorite training runs were going up the Cadillac Mountain Road looking for snowy owls. I made this video during one of those runs when I was trying to figure out how to use my GoPro camera. Some might say this video is a bit tedious and uneventful, but that’s exactly what I love about running and nature – mostly it is deeply soothing and non-eventful!
There were a few stumbles in our training – I had some nagging achilles pain where a thick lump appeared after this fall’s Vermont 50 but I visited a PT weekly to keep it in check. Thankfully the most painful days coincided with the weather and there was enough snow to skate ski instead of run.
A week before the race my brother fell hard on the ice and bruised his knee and shin so badly that by the time I met up with him it looked like it should be amputated! His knee remained stiff right up to the race but besides worsening his pre-race jitters it didn’t cause him any problems.
The Road Trip
We flew from Maine to AZ the Wednesday before the race and commenced our first twin-only-trip in over 15 years. If you don’t have an identical twin I am sorry. There’s something about hanging out with a different expression of yourself that is both supremely comfortable, like wearing your own skin, and hilarious, because if you can’t silly with yourself, who can you be silly with?
The first night we drove north to the Prescott National Forest and found a nice little patch of desert dirt to camp on. The coyotes woke us up shortly before a local rancher rumbled by in his diesel rig and the sunrise was spectacular. From there we drove north to Sedona to check on the vortex and get breakfast. The town itself was unremarkable but the canyon was gorgeous. We stopped in Flagstaff to stock up on groceries for the rest of our trip and then headed north to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
There’s a reason our thru-hiking trail names are Turtle and Hair. My brother is slow and
methodical and visiting a new place requires a good deal of orienting and planning. I prefer to leap into things and figure it out experientially. Even so, we do ok, like that evening at the Grand Canyon when took off from our campsite on a 6 mile run along the rim trail while my brother drove around in loops looking for the parking lot where we were going to meet to watch the sunset. He made it there eventually as he always does and we caught the last few seconds of the sun sinking below the horizon.
Camping that night was freezing. Literally. In an effort to avoid checking luggage I had left my down coat in Maine so I spent most of the night doing sit ups in my sleeping bag to stay warm while my brother happily and loudly snored away next to me. I woke him up in time to join me for a brisk warmup walk down to Yaki Point to watch the sunrise, which was spectacular as expected. For breakfast we ate our fourth meal of sandwiches and headed north toward Page, AZ.
We derived to spring for a hotel room the night before the race, albeit a very cheap one. When we arrived I had to remove the left over food from the mini-fridge, the hair from the bathroom sink and the dried leaves from the towels. (This explains why I almost always prefer my tent to hotel rooms). My 50 mile race started at 6am so my brother graciously got up with me even though his half marathon didn’t start until 8am.
My run started in the dark, but soon we were running straight into the sunrise greeting
the new desert day. It was a lovely race, even with all the sand. I never quite know
what to tell non-trail ultra runners what it’s like to run 50 miles in a day. It’s a little like the days I birthed my two babies. A mix of knowing and not knowing, bliss and pain, boredom and expectation, skillful body and mind management, and of course, beauty, lots of beauty. I love the solitude, even when there are other runners nearby we’re all having our own experience, we’re all getting through in our own way. Mostly in trail races like this, at least where I am in the pack, no one is trying to beat anyone else so there is an easy camaraderie and the shared joy and gratitude for getting to do what we love.
I finished somewhere in the top third for women, but more importantly I met my goal of
finishing before sunset. There is great satisfaction being able to run 50 miles before dark! As has happened in these longer races, after 11 hours of drinking Tailwind and squeezing down the occasional Gu my stomach totally lost during the last hour and not even the bacon quesadillas the local cross country team kids were cooking up at the last aid station could tempt me!
The following day we headed south back toward Flagstaff. It’s a lovely drive because Arizona is a lovely state. I’ll leave you with this portrait of our drive together. There’s nothing better than taking a road trip with a good friend.
More pictures from our trip and the race – Ultra Adventures Antelope Canyon 50 miler in Page, AZ. And if you want to know what it was really like to run this race you should watch this guys very funny but horrifyingly accurate video of the day.
I technically still have a few races left this season – the Mount Desert Island Marathon next weekend that I get to run with Jerome because it’s his first ever marathon(!), and the Downeast Double Trouble trail series that I’ll run with my girls at the end of the month. But mostly this season is winding down and it’s been a really good one. You might recall I suffered from plantar fasciitis for most of 2014 – and then it mysteriously healed during my full Ironman race last September. Well I am glad to report that I’ve only had the slightest twinges of achilles pain since then.
Pain-free, I had one of my best xc ski seasons ever, and finished it by winning the women’s 40k Maine Huts and Trail’s race. I also got really strong at skate skiing and was able to skate 12-15 miles at a time around Acadia’s (perfectly groomed) carriage roads. Skate skiing seems to be great physical therapy for me because it helps me strengthen my external hip rotators. I think the peril for runners who skate ski is that it can aggravate and tighten the tibialis anterior muscles along the front of the shin which can definitely be a precipitating factor in plantar fasciitis. This is a good example of why its important to know the cause of your chronic injury – one athlete’s medicine could be another’s poison.
My first long run of 2015 was a huge success, I finished the Antelpe Canyon 55k feeling like I could easily continue another 15 miles and even though it was a slow run with lots of deep sand, I finished in the top third. The race was a great ending to a great family vacation.
I went from that into a few more ski races followed by a couple rest weeks and then straight into a 15 week Ironman training plan. This put me in great shape Memorial Day weekend when I ran the Pineland Trails 50k 45 minutes faster than I did two years ago. Two weeks later I ran 34 miles at the Great Cranberry Island “Great Run”. One of the great things about the Great Run is that it’s a whole bunch of running back and forth on a small island so you end up passing everyone a couple dozen times and by the end you kind of feel like one big happy running family. Seeing Mike Westpahl run past me every half hour was awesomely inspiring, if you haven’t yet watched this video of his incredible run that day, please do. It was also amazing to watch the women’s champion Leah Frost run with such impeccable form right to the very end. I keep an image of her perfect kick in my head when I’m running now and I swear it’s making me faster. (Thanks Leah!) I also had a lot of fun dancing to the music at the end of each lap.
The weekend after the Great Run I headed to South Berwick, ME for the Sea to Summit sort-of-ironman. The night before the race I slept at the start line in my brother’s sedan. I do not recommend this pre-race strategy. Anyway, soon enough I was wading into the murky waters of a tidal river starting the weirdest triathlon swim ever. We ran through mud for a a big chunk of the swim on the way out and then dodged some pretty nasty slabs of slate on the way in. The 100 mile bike ride up to Mt. Washington was nice. I flip-flopped with a fellow female rider which kept me motivated and focussed during the five and a half hour ride and especially up that last mountain climb to Wild Cat ski area where the run up Mt. Washington starts from. I crushed the run/hike up the Lion’s Head trail and though I was hoping to make it up in under two hours I was happy with 2:20. I’m positive I could do under two on fresh legs.
My next race was the Norway Sprint triathlon. Having not learned my lesson I slept in the car the night before the race again. I’ve slept in my car before races for the last 20 years, but I had forgotten why I borrowed my brother’s car the month before – which was because the backseat of my car is broken and doesn’t fold down anymore. Sleep is a generous term for hanging out in a sleeping bag in the front seat of your car waiting for sunrise.
The race went well despite the sleep deprivation. Once again I had a good female competitor in the bike ride and we averaged over 19mph going up and down the hill together. I do have a new bike this season and I absolutely love it but in triathlon world it is still an aluminum clunker and the fact that I can beat a super aero carbon bike is infuriating to high-tech riders. Thus even though I beat my competitor back to the transition she was very relieved when she passed me on the run. We ended up first and second in our age group, and I’m glad she beat me or she might have beat me up!
After Norway my summer was filled with glorious long runs and bike rides. I discovered the Graham Lake loop north of Ellsworth freshly paved and about as scenic as Maine gets. I ran some great mountain loops around Acadia in preparation for the Vermont 50. I hiked Katahdin several times in search of elevation and had my 9 year old daughter join me on one trip. My family also joined me in hiking several sections of the Maine Appalachian Trail which was great fun. I remained injury-free except for some mysterious and sudden low back pain that my amazing chiropractor was able to cure with just one visit. Thus I landed at the start of my last two big races in great shape.
This year my cousin and I opted for the Pumpkinman half ironman in place of the Lobsterman Olympic length race that we’ve done for the past six years. It was a little sad to miss the Lobsterman which was once again blessed with perfect late summer weather. Instead we arrived at the start of the Pumpkinman the following day in a cold gray drizzle. But I thrive in cold wet conditions, partly because I have to bike really hard to stay warm. I averaged 20mph on the 58 mile course and ran the 13.1 miles in 2 hours – my best time in nearly two decades!
Two weeks later I headed to Vermont for what I hoped would be my reward for a great, injury-free, rest-filled, well-nourished training season. I did not sleep in my car the night before even though this fall I finally traded in my decrepit old honda for a Mazda5 with excellent seat-folding capacity (a pre-requisite for any car I own.) I did however sleep in my tent at the start line. I love it when race directors provide start-line camping, it makes everything so much more relaxed. I rolled out of my tent at 5:30, made tea and toast and strolled down the hill for a 6:30 start. Alas, I quickly realized I’d made a fatal error. I was wearing shorts I’d never run in before and suddenly they were giving me a huge wedgie. Panicked, I ran back up to my car, switched out the offending new shorts for my old standbys and sprinted back down the hill to the start line with a minute to spare. Nothing like a little pre-race warm up!
The Vermont 50 was an almost perfect race for me. I still have a hard time focussing on speed on more technical terrain (tight switch backs, rocks and roots) and this is particularly true on longer races when I’m more apt to be alone on the trail. I can practically slow to a walk without even realizing it – I guess I’m still a thru hiker at heart. The other thing that really slowed me down in this particular race was that I had to mess around way too much at the aid stations. I thought I had it all figured out but what happened is this: I had made a cute little laminated card with my projected pace on it that would double as a funnel for pouring Tailwind drink mix into the inconveniently small mouth of my platypus water bottle. This plan worked perfectly until I misplaced the card/funnel at an aid station. I even ran back a few hundred feet to check the aid station trash but gave up in the end, truly confounded about its disappearance (two days later it was discovered in the top pocket of my vest).
The consequence was that at the next three aid stations I had to find some kind of something to roll into a funnel. The volunteers tried to help by ripping up cardboard coke boxes and creatively folding tissues. After a final and impossibly frustrating attempt to get Tailwind into my water bottle I headed out of the second to last aid station on a seven mile section that has been really hard for me the last two years. This year I made sure to bring an extra quart of Tailwind so I wouldn’t crash two thirds of the way through. But then about a mile out I pulled my water bottle hose toward my mouth to take a drink and all of a sudden I felt water pouring down my back. I quickly tore my pack off, flipped it upside down and rescued the remaining quart of Tailwind. It took me some time to get the water bottle hose reattached and there was nothing I could do about my soaking wet, sticky shirt and shorts. Fortunately it was cool enough that a single quart was sufficient to get me through the rest of that section.
The last part of the VT50 a real highlight. I had been passing back and forth with three guys for the last 20 miles and I ended up pacing them the final three miles. This can be a rough section because you basically climb up Mt.Ascutney and run down the ski trail to the lodge to the finish. Most people walk a good chunk of the uphill and often can’t run the downhill because their quads are shot. But I felt strong enough to run the whole thing and the guys refused to pass me, which of course made me run even faster. By the time we got to the final zig-zag downhill I felt awesome! My quads were strong and I was able to really fly down to the finish. Or at least that’s how it felt. The guys all high-fived me at the finish and I though to myself “maybe I really am a runner!”
I had very little soreness the following days and the hardest part of recovering was forcing myself not to run despite feeling “rested”. I know myself and I know that I probably need way more rest than I feel like I need. In the past I haven’t taken that rest and I’m sure that has contributed to my plantar fasciitis and hip arthritis. So I’ve been running easy the last week or so, no more than 6 miles at a time, nice and slow. I feel a little nagging in my heels and achilles and I hope I can get some good myofascial work soon to help break up the adhesions I feel building up in my calves. Incidentally, I’ve learned that stretching does nothing for this issue and strength work while still recovering might be a really bad idea. I’ve also learned that while Tailwind is awesome for preventing stomach issues and keeping my muscles fueled on long runs, I need to recover my gut as quickly as possible afterwards. This means lots of probiotics, fermented vegetables (my favorite is ginger kohlrabi) and as little starch as possible.
Overall it’s been a great season testing out some new training ideas: more intuitive training, less by-the-book schedules, way more strength work, more rest days, more sleep, and little or no food on long runs (just Tailwind). I’m looking forward to another winter of strength and coordination (I love Annie Grindal’s class at the Blue Hill Y!), more slush running and skate skiing. I’m thinking a few 50 mile trail races next season (Antelope Canyon, Cayuga Trail and VT50) and maybe a full Ironman . . . Mt. Tremblant? I hear Ironmen are cheaper in Canadian dollars . . . If any one knows of a good parking lot in Montreal, let me know.