The Challenge: Can I hike Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness in a weekend?
The answer is YES and this September I became the first first female to start and record a sub 48 hour Hundred Mile Wilderness finish and First Female to set a Fastest Known Time on this section of the Appalachian Trail.*(See foot note)
Start: 4:14am September 15, 2018
End 1:28am September 17, 2018
Total time: 45hrs 14mins (1 day 21hrs 15 mins)
Nineteen years ago, on September 18, at the age of 24, I stood at the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail, happy and tired after 2,600 miles and five months of hiking. In contrast to the character portrayed in Cheryl Strayed’s book/movie Wild, I was a confident and competent 24-year-old solo female hiker. Like Strayed I’d suffered my share of trauma and angst but worked out much of it on the Appalachian Trail five years earlier. By my mid-twenties I was a trained wilderness EMT, I knew how to eat and dress to stay warm or cool and I had a migratory-bird’s keen sense of direction. I could easily hike 30-50 miles a day for several days in a row and I had developed extra spidey senses around creepy men. Wilderness is my comfort zone. The human-landscape is my real challenge.
Why am I even telling you this? Because I think it’s important for us to collectively change the narrative when it comes to women in wilderness. It’s 2018 and women continue to be underestimated and met with an annoying concern for safety and qualifications. Even now only about a third of thru-hikers are female and only half of those hike solo (1). Maybe it’s the current political events that have me on edge. Maybe it’s the persistent inequality of recognition of men’s versus women’s athletic endeavors. Maybe it’s women’s willingness to believe a false story about gender, and maybe instead of cautioning women we’d all be better off saying “Go for it, if anyone can do it, it’s you!!”
I guess the truth is, a small part of me is proud of the fact that I have, my entire life, persisted with little regard for the naysayers and I hope you will to.
Finding my way back to the trail (jump to the 100 Mile Wilderness part)
Soon after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I met Jerome and in 2002 we hiked 2,000 miles of the Continental Divide Trail together. A few years later we got married and eventually had kids and moved back to Maine. I took up trail running because it was a good way to fulfill my need for wilderness between nursing babies and supporting my family. As they got old enough to camp for a few days in a row we started taking them out first on canoe trips and then on hiking trips. For the last three years we’ve been section hiking Maine’s Appalachian Trail heading north 10-30 miles at a time.
While part of me is genuinely sated by spending long days winding from one shelter to the next, there is another part of me that itches to “see what’s just around the corner”. The hiking pace with my kids is slow, sooooo slow. Mind numbingly slow. I have learned to hike at least twenty feet behind my youngest daughter while going uphill. I sing loudly, take pictures, examine spider eggs, weird fungus and the trail map while she toils along at a steady, very comfortable 10-year-old-kid pace. I’ve also learned that 8 miles makes for a good family day on the Maine AT. One mile an hour of hiking plus lots of time for snacks, lunch and swimming. At this pace my kids enjoy hiking and that makes it totally worth it. They have become skilled backpackers and have learned to take hiker-culture in stride. As when they were introduced to a self-proclaimed alien hybrid who told them way too much about UFO culture. Or when the over-zealous fire-building Polish man taught them Russian swearwords.
As we’ve ventured down the trail together these last few years I can’t help but think about challenges that would fill my own need for distance and speed and still have me home by the end of the weekend. I started to fixate on Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness as an obvious target for this kind of adventure. This is the alternately beloved and dreaded terminal section of Maine’s Appalachian Trail that goes from Rt. 15 near Monson to the Golden Road at Abol Bridge (the southern border of Baxter State Park). In theory there are no good resupply points for thru-hikers in this section and people are advised to carry at least ten days of food to get from one end to the other. In reality Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson, among others, makes a brisk business of shuttling food and supplies to hikers at points throughout the Wilderness. Also, any north-bound thru-hiker that has come that far on foot from Georgia and takes ten days to hike the 100-Mile Wilderness is going willfully slow.
How fast could I do it?
I knew I wanted to fast-hike the Wilderness but I had no idea how long it would take me. I thought maybe I could do it in 36 hours . . . start Saturday morning, finish up late Sunday afternoon and be back home for dinner. (Silly me!) That Fall I saw that two runner-friends were doing just what I’d been thinking about – attempting to complete the 100 Mile Wilderness as fast as they could. I followed their progress on Facebook but they fell short by about 20 miles due to injuries and rough weather. Their attempt was eye opening in an inspiring and intimidating kind of way. (Incidentally, these same two women are headed out very soon to try again and I have no doubt they will succeed.)
When I began to more seriously research my project I looked to the Fastest Known Time website but was disappointed to discover that there were no women’s times listed for this route. Knowing thru-hikers and their smell-the-barn drive at the end of the AT I’m positive other women have hiked this section in only a couple of days and maybe in even less than 40-hours but no one seems to have documented it. Based on the men’s finishing times I decided I could probably do it in 40-48 hours – and I would document it.
It was also about this time that the Bangor Daily News published a very useful and inspiring article about Barry Dana hiking the wilderness: Penobscot Nation elder runs 100-Mile Wilderness in under 48 hours.
My timing was a bit up in the air. I was going to run the Vermont 100 trail race in July which has a good amount of elevation gain (+18,000’). It would take me a while to recover from that but I didn’t want to wait until Fall when heavy leaf fall and cold wet weather would the make conditions more challenging. I decided to play it by ear and marked a few possible weekends in August and September.
The time is NOW!
The Vermont 100 went perfectly. For the next six weeks I rested, swam, hiked and did some easy trail running. Then, at the end of August I went to Acadia to run 25-miles of Jennifer Britz’s 41-mile birthday trail run. She is a wonder woman trail runner and the fact that I was having fun trying to keep up with her meant that I was recovered from Vermont. It was also on that run that I met John Rodrigue who, fantastically, had run the Hundred Mile Wilderness a few years ago.
The stars were aligning. My ankle and hip felt ok, my heart arrhythmia wasn’t acting up and most importantly Jerome was psyched! We decided to go for it the weekend of September 15-17.
The following week my runner-friend Doug Blasius messaged me and asked when I was going to run my next 100-miler. I told him my plans about running the 100 Mile Wilderness to which he enthusiastically replied “Count me in!”.
Getting real about logistics
A few days later John, Doug and I met at my house to go over logistics. John was super helpful and even lent me his Spot locator beacon and helped me set it up so that I would be able to send out pre-set “I’m still hiking” messages along with my current location and time to a few friends during the run.
Conspicuously absent from the meeting was Jerome but I had a few more days to get him up to speed. I bought a brand new Maine Delorme road atlas from Blue Hill Books and used it to map out the big picture (printed maps are the best!) and came up with seven potential logging road crossings for re-supply points. Most of the sections would be 14-20 miles long with two shorter 7-mile sections for the part I would be hiking through Saturday night.
I also downloaded all the topo maps and Guthook’s app to our cell phones since there would be no cell service for the duration of the trip. And finally, because my dearly beloved, incredibly wonderful husband is not known for his navigational reliability, I bought him the National Geographic trail map of the area and printed out the Maine North Woods Kathadin Ironworks/Jo-Mary logging road maps (repeat: printed maps are the best!) Put all together I was 75% confident that Jerome would be able to drive to the road crossings faster than I could hike to them. The trick was for him to stay within the Maine North Woods gated area and to not get shut outside the checkpoints after hours. I did call the Hedgehog Gate to ask if they thought my logging road route seemed viable and the man I talked to sounded equal parts confident and confused about what I was trying to do. Mostly he wanted me to know there’s active logging happening in the area and that the logging trucks have absolute ROW, and oh, we should probably have a high clearance vehicle because some of the roads were sort of washed out. I also talked to Hippie Chick (aka Kim) at Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson and while she seemed less confident about our resupply plans they did have room for us to stay there Friday night.
Thrown into the logistical mix was that my sister Meg and her 16 year-old daughter Eva had just hiked the 100 Mile Wilderness and we thought it might be fun for Eva to join me for some of the hike. I was excited about the idea but also admitted I was nervous about how and where we could make it happen and if I could reasonably be responsible for her welfare after running all day and on very little sleep. We had a good meeting where I more-or-less made my sister promise not to kill me if I killed her daughter. I so didn’t need to worry. In fact, the next time Eva plans a trip I’m going to take my own advice and tell her “Go for it, if anyone can do it, it’s you!!”.
Once I had the logistics down all that was left to do was to obsess over the weather forecast, paint myself an expedition t-shirt and make a sing-a-long worthy playlist. Oh, and find someone to take care of our animals and a place for my kids to spend the weekend.
This final but totally critical detail was miraculously solved by my friends Clara and Nathan who not only offered to take our kids for the entire weekend but also planned to spend the entire time, along with their own three kids, on a sailing trip. If you are picturing a large yacht complete with flush toilet think again. My intrepid friends thought taking five kids in a tiny motorless boat out to camp on a small Maine island for the sounded like a grand idea. I thought so too.
Which is how I found myself packing up my kid’s camping gear into dry bags while simultaneously packing my own extra clothes and gear into plastic containers. There was a headlamp shortage and some debate over who should get the nicer camping mattress
Finally Friday September 14thcame. I finished teaching, delivered the kids to their new guardians, left pet-care instructions with our ever helpful neighbor Robert, met Jerome at our house after school and together we drove up to the Bangor Airport where I had reserved a surprisingly affordable rental car with high clearance. (And New York plates.)
Doug met us at the airport so we could drive to Monson together. Our first navigational challenge didn’t bode well as we all drove in circles on I-95 attempting to rendezvous the three cars at the Odlin Road park and ride. But finally, all in one car together, our gear packed in around us, we drove west into a beautiful sunset.
We got to Shaw’s Hiker Hostel well past Hiker Midnight (aka sunset) and I felt bad creaking up and down the stairs making final checks on water bladders, watch chargers and gel packets. However, at least one thru-hiker was still awake and eager to talk to us about his experience getting through the 100 Mile Wilderness. He had the typical whipped-look that south bounders do only ten days into their 2,200-mile trip. He warned us that the first five days of our hike would be really hard and that there was no water along much of this section (which was particularly hard for him because he only had one kidney). If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a female thru-hiker it is that men are happy to advise and warn me about everything. Everything. In return they rarely ask any questions or solicit my advice. There’s so much I could tell them.
Before bed Jerome and I spent a little more time going over the maps and confirmed that the first place he would try to meet us would be 11 miles down the trail at what appeared to be a parking lot at the end of a somewhat sketchy looking woods road. It would require us to hike about 500ft off trail. We hadn’t been able to confirm the drivability of the road that intersects the trail near Long Pond Stream and this parking lot seemed like our best resupply option before the Katahdin Ironworks road 30-miles north.
If you are a more visual person here’s a compilation of video from my run/hike. It’s long, but not 45 hours long.
The hike begins
I slept reasonably well and woke at 3:15am to all three of our phone alarms going off. We made some tea and headed out to the trailhead just a few miles up the road. I was anxious to start hiking at exactly 4am. That’s how I am. But we didn’t get to the parking lot until a little after 4 and then there were last minute Spot logistics, photos to be taken and watches to be synced. Finally, at 4:14am Saturday morning Doug and I headed north.
The first eleven miles were easy moving. Of course as fate would have it I forgot to replace the batteries in my headlamp after the VT100. Yes I know full-well to start every new trip with fresh batteries as well as backups but knowing isn’t the same as doing. Fortunately I got lucky (again) and my headlamp faded just as the sun came up around 6:30am. We only had one minor trail-finding incident and that was crossing Little Wilson Stream before we should have. The Appalachian Trail is so heavily used that not only is the main trail well-trodden but so are the billions of side trails to stealth (and not so stealth) campsites and viewpoints. In this case upon crossing the river we came on a few sleepy thru-hikers just getting out of their tents who told us the trail was back on the other side of the river.
Doug and I were mostly sticking together through this section and eleven miles down the trail, right on schedule at 8am we encountered the side road that we were to follow to meet Jerome. As planned he had left a gallon of water on the side trail to let us know he was there and sure enough we found him in the gravel parking lot watching Harry Potter on his laptop. It was a huge boost to know that our most sketchy meeting point had worked – we managed to get to the same place at the same time. I wanted to make the refueling pretty quick so I gave Jerome my headlamp and grabbed some water and a few more gels to get through the next 20 mile section. Jerome was eager to make Doug fresh coffee and I think he managed a quick sip before we headed back out.
Just as we approached the intersection with the AT a pair of runners crossed in front of us. Runners, not hikers. I said “Hey, you look like us” and they replied “Yeah, we’re running the 100 Mile Wilderness in a weekend”. Their t-shirts said Trail Monster Running which is the Southern Maine trail running group that gives out buckles to anyone who can complete the 100 Mile Wilderness in less than 48 hours. It turns out the guy was Ian who happened to be the Trail Monster race director I had emailed a few days earlier to let him know I would be trying for under 48hrs and if I succeeded maybe I could have a buckle? The woman was Emma, his wife. They were clearly speedy and passed us right away. We saw them one more time purifying water at a stream and the next time they passed us they said “If we don’t see you again, good luck”. They were on a mission. Not that I wasn’t. I am always totally serious and committed to every race I do, but perhaps because I am slower and used to never winning I don’t take myself as seriously. I was looking forward to being the first women to record a sub-48hr finish, but I knew I would only be the first, not the fastest. So when I saw Emma was out there too I decided not to let it change my run, we were going to have totally different experiences doing the same super-cool thing and I would be super-impressed with anyone doing this regardless.
It was about then that I lost Doug. I had started ascending Barren Mountain and I was feeling really good. I love to climb, going uphill is my happy place. It’s why I have thighs that don’t fit into regular jeans, and it’s why I look for races with more hills not less.
Doug and I discussed our strategy before we started – what were our goals and how much would we stick together? I am definitely more comfortable moving alone on the trail which is why I’ve never had a pacer in longer races. But I’m not opposed to good company, especially if they are independent and self-sufficient. Doug is a retired merchant marine and all around good guy. He is a cheerful, easy-going runner and on the slower side like me. He was excited to complete the 100 Mile Wilderness in under 48 hours and like me he really wasn’t sure if it was going to be possible on the first effort. For me it was really important to finish under 48-hours and if at any point that seemed impossible I was willing to quit so as to conserve my energy to try again with whatever knowledge I’d learned from the first experience. Plus, Jerome and I had to be back home by Monday afternoon. With this knowledge we agreed to start together and if our paces diverged we would let the other person go ahead.
Even so, not hearing him behind me made me worry a tiny bit. I continued up over Barren Mountain and somewhere before Columbus Mountain stopped to filter 1 ½ quarts of water. It was hot and really humid and even though I drank an entire gallon of water on this 20-mile section I was still thirsty. Lots of people bemoan this ridgeline because of how “hilly” and long it feels and it’s true. I thought I was at the summit of Chairback several times before I made it to the actual signed summit. However, I would argue that the beauty of remote Fourth Mountain Bog makes this section worth the effort. It was late afternoon when I made it to a part of the trail that I remembered well, a pretty mossy side hill and I knew was within a mile of the Katahdin Ironworks road. It was an hour over my estimated arrival time so I was quite happy when I saw Eva coming up the trail to greet me.
In addition to Jerome, Meg and Eva, I was surprised to see two of my favorite race directors at the road crossing. Valerie and Mindy are the race directors in charge of the Riverlands 100-Mile Endurance Run in Turner, Maine and are the chief reason for it’s great success. They were assisting Emma and Ian during their run and I can only imagine they would be the perfect trail crew for this sort of thing. Since their runners had already come through they were packing up to head to the next road crossing.
Now I began to worry about waiting for Doug. It was 5pm and I didn’t know if he had a headlamp, I figured he was at least an hour behind me if all was going well, and if not, that last boulder field would be hard to negotiate in the dark. Jerome said that after Eva and I left he would hike back up the trail with a headlamp to look for Doug but we didn’t plan much beyond that. It’s all fine and well to say you’re running independently but in the end it’s impossible to not feel responsible for your friends.
As I mentioned it was really humid and I was really sweaty. The consequence was that I was fighting off some chafing by using a sample packet of anti-blister stuff given to me at a previous race. It wasn’t working at all and was maybe making things worse. I changed my shorts, sprayed my thighs down with my regular product and hoped for the best. Eva and I left the road around 5:20pm, easily crossed the West Branch of the Pleasant River and headed out toward Gulf Hagas, West Peak, Hay and White Cap Mountain.
Soon after we left Doug showed up. He was eager to continue hiking but Jerome wasn’t sure how he was going to logistically support both of us, now an hour apart. Doug was disappointed but he agreed it would be easier if he took on a support-crew role from here on out. This was the part we hadn’t thought through very well but what became obvious is that either two people would have to commit to sticking together or each have their own crew. I was bummed that Doug had to give up his own effort just because he was slightly slower than me but I also didn’t trust that my own pace was fast enough to finish in under 48-hours and so wasn’t comfortable slowing down to wait for him.
Eva turned out to be a fantastic fast-hiking partner. I could hear her taking long walking strides behind me as I “ran” ahead down the trail. She has an amazing spatial memory especially considering she had hiked this section in the opposite direction. She kept giving me descriptions of what was coming up, mostly detailed variations of “oh yeah, there’s another really steep part coming up”. In reply I rewarded her with some spectacular burping. It was like my digestion had a built in altimeter and as soon as we started going up I would start loudly burping again. I reassured her that burping is a good sign because it meant I was not likely to start puking.
After four steep, long climbs we reached the lovely summit of White Cap Mountain. It was 10:20pm, almost warm with a light breeze and the brilliant orange crescent moon was setting over the dark valley below. It’s moments like this that make me grateful for being able to get myself into these situations.
Headed back down the mountain Eva’s headlamp caught a flash of something white up on top of a boulder – it was the infamous White Cap Dalmatian dog statue. I don’t know how she was so calm when she pointed it out to me because that thing is super creepy! Equally creepy was the silent guy standing by his tent with his headlamp on watching us as we passed by Logan Brook Lean-to.
We hit Logan Brook Road ahead of schedule (just shy of midnight) and Jerome and Meg were still asleep in their cars. We woke them up along with Doug who I was happy to discover sleeping in a tent nearby. When he heard me he jumped up ready to run this next section. Before I could get going again I had to deal with the very painful rash that was now covering much of my legs down to my knees. Upon inspection it became obvious that I was having an allergic reaction to the free-sample stuff I had used earlier. I took the time to hose the whole area down with water, cleaned it with anti-bacterial wipes and covered as much of it as I could with sterile gauze. I felt some relief and hoped getting the offending goop off me would help. Eva was having a good time and feeling good so she decided to join me for the next 7-mile section as well.
I don’t remember much about this section as it was dark and the middle of the night. There were a few blow downs but nothing as bad as had been reported. There was a 1,000 foot climb over Little Boardman Mountain but it must have been mostly smooth trail because I don’t remember it. Soon enough we were at the Johnston (Kokadjo) road crossing. I downed some hot ramen soup and was feeling fine – not sleepy at all even though the only caffeine I’d had was from a few gel packs and a bottle of Guayusa tea around sunset.
It was close to 3:30am and both Eva and Doug were happy to keep running. Especially since the next 7 mile section was supposed to be “all downhill” and very runable. Again, I don’t remember too much of this section though I think we did run a good bit.
I might know more about how I moved through these sections if my GPS watches were doing what they were made to but ridiculously they were both acting up. I had set the Sunnto to the less accurate but super-long battery life mode and I thought I had cancelled the auto-pause feature but early on in the run it kept auto-pausing and missing huge sections because my uphill pace was so slow. So I switched it over to Trekking mode which took care of the auto-pause problem but unbeknownst to me also switched it back to the highly accurate GPS track mode and thus killed the battery after only 20 hrs. The reason I brought along two watches is because lately my Garmin Fenix 2 has not been reliably storing data after long runs, plus the battery always dies after 12-15 hours. I had it on as backup and I thought it would continue to track even when plugged into a battery charger but that’s not what happened. The consequence is that I have several non-contiguous tracks that cover the span of weekend with varying degrees of accuracy.
Regardless of pace, the sun coming up through the open woods was very pretty as we approached the Jo-Mary Road. It was about 6:20am and Eva had just hiked/run her first ever 50k over a mountain range through the night. She was was finally ready for some rest. Doug however was still fired up. More ramen soup and I stuffed my pack with Gu and Hammer gels and Square bars as the next section to Nahmakanta Lake was 14 miles and it would be midday before I saw Jerome again.
The first half of this section was lovely early morning running. We hit Antlers Campsite along the side of Jo-Mary Lake just as the lazier (aka faster) thru-hikers were rousing themselves. Happily I ran into a few of the thru-hikers I’d met while hiking with my family two weeks earlier, they were my kind of people – content and in no rush to finish the trail but moving along at a smooth, efficient pace. As they caught up and passed me I told them that my brother Turtle Traxx was camped ahead at Namakanta Lake doling out trail magic, including, he had promised me, freshly grilled burgers. They picked up their pace and I tried to do the same but as I watched them nimbly fast-pack ahead of me I tried to match their movements and I just couldn’t do it. 28-hours of continuous movement was starting to take a toll.
Somewhere around Twitchell Brook I lost Doug again. This is also where the trail started to feel incredibly tedious. It was hot, I was tired and with no notable landmarks I trudged on following the rooty, slightly uphill path along Namakanta Stream. Each twist and turn looked like the next. I was out of water but unsure how much longer it would be and if I should take the time to purify more. Without water my bars were too dry to eat so I was forcing down gels just to stay on top of calories. Every yellow or red-leafed tree in the distance looked like a possible man-made object signaling that the trailhead could be near. But no, just another pretty tree.
Finally around 12:45pm I heard the familiar cry of “Moose Poop!” coming from down the trail. It was my twin brother Leith (aka Turtle Traxx). Phew. I happily sat in his camp chair and enjoyed another pot of ramen while the thru-hikers sat around me enjoying the trail magic and a different kind of pot. Doug arrived just as I was heading back out and he decided to rest up so he might be able to join me for the final push. All I wanted to do was jump in the lake to rinse off and cool down. I must have been really thirsty because that’s usually the only time swimming sounds fun to me. Alas, Nahmakanta Lake seemed to be only ankle deep for at least a hundred feet out and the effort of taking my shoes off and wading out that far felt like it would take too long. So I simply splashed my face and continued down the trail. I was 74 miles in and had 16 hours to hike the final 26 miles. I was sure, barring disaster that I could come in under 48 hours. Still, applying the mental discipline I’ve learned from the last five years of running trail ultras, I tried hard not to think that far ahead. Knowing that I was going to be awake and moving for an additional 16 hours on top of the previous 32 would be more more depressing than motivating.
Ahead of me was the most maligned hill of the entire 100 Mile Wilderness: Nesuntabunt Mountain. I was winding my way slowly, too slowly past the lake, past Wadleigh Stream Lean-to, up the first hill and was just about to start the final climb to Nesuntabunt when I saw two hikers coming toward me. Not hikers, runners! It was Jenn Britz and John Rodrigue. They had been following my progress via the Spot notifications and came to meet me. Grateful for the conversation and company we were at the top of Nesuntabunt before I knew it. John insisted we hike to the viewpoint – which psychologically felt like a ½ mile side trail over huge roots and boulders but in reality was more like 100ft detour, and yes, totally worth it. Katahdin’s summit was shrouded in fluffy clouds but I could see the low green hill of Rainbow Ledges in the distance and the fact that I could see it made it feel within reach.
We hiked fast down the mountain, winding around Crescent Pond for what felt like way too long. Up to this point my energy felt consistently good but now I noticed that I didn’t have anything extra – no actual running was happening, just steady fast(ish) hiking. I realized I was really hungry and found myself fantasizing about ramen noodles, big wads of bread and jam and cold cans of coke.
We hit the final road crossing, Pollywog Stream Bridge, a little after 5pm and I said goodbye to Jenn and John. In my head I wanted to be back on the trail by 5:15pm, but I had a lot to take care of. I put fresh batteries in my headlamp and packed a set of back-ups (go me!), my feet had just started to hurt but I ignored them, I slurped another pot of ramen, made a few “sandwiches” by mashing lumps of sprouted fruit-nut bread together with marmalade and stuffed them into a plastic bag to bring with me and downed the coke that my brother magically put in my hand.
The best part was that Jerome surprised me by deciding to run the last 17-mile section with me. Doug and Leith had him all geared up with their hiking poles and hydration pack but he wore his own ancient, wafer-thin, duct-taped sneakers and brought his own special, terrible sense of humor.
We headed out a little before 5:30pm, excited. This was it. I was going to complete this adventure and I had my best friend with me. The euphoria subsided after a mile when I checked my pace over what felt like super-tedious rocky terrain and then started doing mental math (remember, never do mental math during an ultra!). Oh man, 6 more hours? 8 more hours? If things smoothed out could I do it in 5?
So far my digestion had been fully cooperating but now nothing sounded good. My stomach was rumbling with hunger but I was literally too tired to want to eat. My pace slowed correspondingly. Which frustrated me more. We passed Rainbow Stream Lean-to and it wasn’t the first time that day that hikers asked us if we were “Doing that race?”. Apparently three runners heading north on the same day was newsworthy. But no, we reassured them, it was purely coincidental, not an organized event. They cheered us on anyway as we crossed the bridge waving our poles overhead. That was the beginning of the end for me. I started swearing and cursing at the rocks and routes, mad that I couldn’t move faster, mad that I wasn’t going to finish by midnight, mad that I had taken so many breaks earlier or hadn’t run when I could . . . All of these were ridiculous self-sabotaging thoughts and none of them made the situation better. Thankfully Jerome saw through my black mood and happily skipped ahead narrating every delightful and non-delightful aspect of the trail. “Oh look, a flat section, time to pick up the pace . . . oh wait, more roots and rocks, sorry about that . . .”. Shortly after passing Rainbow Lake we turned on our headlamps.
I asked Jerome to take over keeping track of distance and time and he did his best to oblige his very picky, very grumpy wife. He kept saying things like “I think we can hit the beaver dam by 8:23, unless that’s where we are right now”. When I asked him what mileage or time his watch said he wouldn’t tell me because he hadn’t remembered to start it until 30+ minutes after we started. Of course – because this really was meant to be the weekend of watch failure. Anyway, at this point what I really needed wasn’t a timekeeper but someone willing to tolerate my extreme negativity and to keep me from sitting down.
My brain was so so tired. Too tired to change my mood even though I knew that’s what I needed most. I knew that if I could just settle into my pace and let my mind go I would get there eventually and with time to spare. That started to happen as we headed up Rainbow Ledges, which un-coincidentally was also minutes after I had spied a snickers bar in Jerome’s pack and demanded he hand it over. That was the last thing I remember eating. I also ceased being able to talk or process anything complicated that Jerome was saying. By complicated I mean anything that required forming an image in my mind. We hit Rainbow Ledges at 10:18pm and saw the sign that says 6 miles to Abol Bridge. To the average runner six miles is an easy short hour away. To an ultra trail runner that has been awake for 40-hours six miles might as well be 600.
It was about then that I started to have delightful visual hallucinations. There are lots of little animal holes tucked under the roots and rocks on and beside the trail and every time my headlamp caught sight of one of these holes I saw a small animal duck inside and then turn around to peer back at me. With every sweep of my light I was surrounded by friendly, cartoonish voles, salamanders, frogs and squirrels. It was cracking me up but I was too tired to explain to Jerome what was happening. There was also a (real) Barred owl calling from somewhere above Hurd Brook Lean-to and a giant (real) northern leopard frog on the trail.
During the last few hours of hiking the only mental process that felt manageable was inwardly chanting the two-syllable mantra given to me many years ago during an initiation into Neelakanta meditation. That and a single stark line from song Meg Chittenden taught to our community singing group last year: “Holy Mother full of grace awaken, all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken . . .” I don’t know why my brain chose these words but I clung to them as my feet moved forward.
At one point, after what felt like infinitely more hours of hiking I took the map back from Jerome to glean some morsel of hope, surely we must be getting close? I sat down just long enough to read that the next landmark was described as “Pass through an interesting area of large boulders and large hemlock trees.” I thought to myself “Right, because the rest of the trail is covered in average looking boulders and hemlock trees.” I tossed the map back to Jerome and kept an eye out for interesting large boulders. It was after midnight and I had become fixated on the idea that I really wanted to finish by 1:14am as that would make for an even 45 hours. But I also only had one speed.
Hurray! We finally hit the bogwalk that signaled we were within a half mile of the finish. We were both surprised to find we could easily run the lovely smooth wooden planks. It felt like a moving walkway and was quite satisfying after the last few hours of tediously rocky trail. This section is short lived however and for at least a few more minutes we were back to the drudgery of uneven trail. But then, there it was, THE SIGN.
We were here, finally, the end. I was going to get to sleep really soon!! We saw headlamps up ahead and called out “Moose Poop!” and got a resounding reply. Doug and Leith were waiting for us and had even put out the camp chairs for our arrival. I told Jerome to hit the Spot for one last recording but seems it never got sent. Plus his watch had died (yup) somewhere near Hurd Brook Shelter. So our best guess at my actual finish time is a time-stamped photo of me sitting in a chair perched on the side of the Golden Road which reads 1:28am Monday September 17. 45hrs and 14mins of continuous movement. I sat down in Leith’s chair as Jerome was pulling something out of his pack. He asked me if I swore that I had just completed the 100 Mile Wilderness in less than 48 hours, perplexed I said “I think so?” and then he handed me one of the Trail Monster 100 Mile Wilderness Challenge buckles. Wow! Now that’s some pretty cool trail magic. Apparently Valerie and Mindy had given it to him the previous day and made him promise to keep it a secret. It was a really great ending, and even though I had started this whole thing as a personal challenge, it was super-fun to be part of a small group of recognized trail runners that have done the same thing. According to Leith, Ian and Emma had finished around midnight, giving Emma the Fastest Known Time for a woman to complete the 100 Mile Wilderness challenge and making us the first two women to do so in under 48 hours. I don’t know them but I was wishing they were there so we could celebrate together.
My desire for any kind of celebration waned quickly as I started to get very cold and shivery. I downed 40 grams of protein powder mixed in a quart of water and we drove to the Abol Bridge Campground where I had reserved a cabin for us. I took a brief shower to warm up and wash the crust off and then fell deliciously into my sleeping bag. I woke up an hour later in a cold sweat like I had just broken a high fever, which may have been the case. Adrenaline does weird things to a person.
The next morning wasn’t terrible though I’d only slept fitfully for five hours. The main issue was that my feet were swollen and throbbing and they really didn’t want to be below waist height for more than a few seconds. We said goodbye to Leith who was headed back into the wilderness and Doug, Jerome and I went into Millinocket for breakfast at the Appalachian Trail Café. It was their second breakfast but my first real meal in three days. I ate happily and well while Jerome napped in the car.
I knew the recovery from this would take some time but even so, no one ever knows what it’ll be like ahead of time. In this case my body felt ok. No major aches or pains, just general and profound fatigue. Monday afternoon we picked the girls up from their cross-country practice and all I could think about was how I needed to get us all into bed as fast as possible. But they were filled with hilarious stories from their own weekend adventure that had to be told. My brain could hardly form images as they chattered away at me but it was a delightful reunion just hearing the joy in their voices. Despite getting into bed at 6pm, I didn’t sleep much, still too much adrenaline. I taught for nearly ten hours the next day and though my feet weren’t quite as tender, I sat as much as I could get away with. The brain fatigue persisted for nearly a week. I was slurring words, forgetting names and slow to process the most simple questions. Also, I don’t know if this is a normal kid-reaction but my children generally go in for full emotional-neediness right when I want to check-out the most. For several nights that week both kids needed lots of listening and snuggling and reassurance about problems large and small. All week my brain felt tender and raw and all I desperately wanted was to curl up into a tight ball, sob, and be petted to sleep like a baby.
It’s been two weeks and I think I’m back to my regular self. I’ve been on several short runs and doing lots of yard work but no complicated mental math or logic puzzles. Eva bounced back after a few hours of sleep and went on to run a 13 mile trail race in the white mountains the following weekend. Doug also seems to have bounced back and has already been back on the trail hiking out and back on that last 17 mile section over Rainbow Ledges. It took Jerome’s feet a few days to recover from the bruising they took and it didn’t take him long to buy a new pair of sneakers. Yesterday we had a mini-reunion with Doug, Eva, Meg, Jerome and my daughter Georgia all running the trail races at Hidden Valley Nature Center.
Overall the 100 Mile Wilderness Challenge was a true success. Spending time with Jerome and working as a team on this project was a real highlight. Having my sister and brother meet me out there and hiking with Eva through the night was also amazing. Doug, Jenn and John joining me for parts of the run brought out all the warm-fuzzy trail running community feelz.
I got lucky in so many ways. The weather was amazing. I didn’t have to deal with layering or changing as it was warm and clear the whole weekend and I wore the same t-shirt and two pairs of shorts the entire time. My digestion stayed steady for the first 40ish hours, I never slipped or fell, the trail was easy to follow and my crew navigated the backroads effortlessly! So many people helped along the way and so many happy coincidences made the planning easier. I hope to pass on my good fortune to Doug and any others who need support or information about hiking or running the 100 Mile Wilderness.
Long-live Wilderness, Adventure and all the people who make it happen!
As I mentioned above Emma Barclay ran the Hundred Mile Wilderness the same weekend I did. She started 45 mins after me and ultimately completed it two hours faster than I did. Hence as of this writing she is the official holder of the Female Fastest Known Time for this route. Because I started before her I set the first FKT.
For data-nerds here are my resupply/checkpoint times (determined via Spot and time-stamped photos).
|Checkpoint||Spot check-in Time||Aprox. Total miles||Aprox. miles to next point|
|Logging Rd 11 miles from start of section||8:35am Sat.||11||19|
|KI Road||4:55pm Sat.||30||14|
|Frenchtown/Logan Brook Rd||11:50pm Sat.||44||7|
|Johnston Road||3:20am Sun.||51||7|
|Jo-Mary Road||6:30am Sun.||58||15|
|Namakanta Lake||12:50pm Sun.||73||8|
|Abol Bridge||1:28am Mon.||100|
There’s a reason my blog entries slowed to crawl (came to a grinding halt) last winter. It’s because after the Millinocket Marathon in December 2017 the symptoms of overtraining that started back in September accelerated and left me literally, neck-deep in water. I knew my immune system was taking a hit after the Fundy Circuit 50k when I spent a month fighting off a nasty MRSA infection that colonized a patch of upper arm chaffing and spread out from there like a true believer in manifest destiny. I had to take antibiotics (my first in 18 years) and though it killed the MRSA it weakened my gut and thus my resistance to the seasonal sniffles. I also developed a skin itch that seemed auto-immunish and was keeping me up at night. I spent a lot of October, November and December feeling un-enthusiastic and run-down.
The hard part about being tired and run-down is that it becomes a vicious cycle. When one is too tired to shop for and prepare fresh food, needs cold medicine to get through work, drinks coffee to perk up and eats ice cream to self-soothe . . . one only tends to feel even more tired and run-down. You can only put-off nourishment and recovery for so long before your body starts shouting at you to “do something different!”
In my case the shouting started just a week after I wrote my last blog post back in February. I was on a family vacation in the Bahamas and enjoying early morning runs on the sandy roads around the island. But my left ankle was acting up. Because I am me, I had brought a small travel foam roller with me and I tried using that to roll out my peroneus muscles along the outside of my shin. The way my left hip sticks out from dysplasia puts a good amount of stress on my entire left lateral line, from the TFL and ITB down to my outer knee, calf and foot. I try to manage it by keeping my hip and butt muscles strong but I’ve had issues in the past including torn ligaments, stress fractures and cysts.
This outer ankle pain felt slightly different then just a tight tendon and instead of responding to the foam roller by relaxing, the tendons seemed to react by getting really pissed off! Ok fine, I won’t roll, I’ll just go for some gentle trots.
The weekend we got back from that trip I went on a big hilly run and by the last mile the pain had a real burn to it, enough to slow me to a walk. The next day my twin brother was visiting and we’d been planning to do a training run together. I decided since it would be flat and slow I’d be fine. We ran 8 miles and by the end the pain was agonizing. I didn’t know it then but that would be my last run for eight weeks.
No one needed to tell me I couldn’t run, the pain was bad enough that I knew something was really wrong and just the thought of running made me queasy. My first line of medical support is chiropractor Sarah Lucey who not only patches me up but diplomatically accepts my rugged body use without openly calling it abuse. I hoped she could tell me if I’d broken my ankle or torn a tendon. She tried the old tuning fork trick and nothing happened, no sharp pain. Then she gently squeezed behind my fibula and I screeched and just about jumped off the table with pain.
The next step was an x-ray. I was grateful that I happened to see a doctor who also runs and was willing to take my injury seriously. It was winter and running and xc skiing are key parts of my mental-health plan and I was already getting very anxious. She wrote me a referral to an orthopod in Bangor and had my x-rays sent up to him. But she also warned me that stress fractures often don’t show up on the x-ray for at least two weeks after the injury as it takes that long for the rebuilding bone to reveal itself.
While I waited for my appointment with the orthopedic guy I started researching alternative work-out plans. I am not the kind of person that sees an injury as an excuse to sit on my ass. Not because I am virtuous but because both my brain and body need the movement. I don’t talk (or write) much about it but I’ve spent my life managing my mood and let’s just say there is a dark side and I’ve been there.
As I mentioned in my previous post I hired coach Lindsay Simpson from The Run Formula to write me a training plan for the Vermont 100. Ironically the plan she wrote started exactly one week before my ankle started hurting. But the bright side was that I also had access to the Run Formula forum where I could ask coach Beth Schutt questions. I peppered her with several variations of “what do I do now!!?”. The answer was “pool running”. (I did try indoor biking but it hurt too much).
Having access to real runners and coaches when you are injured is really helpful. I still trolled about the interwebs gleaning a self-diagnosis and treatment plans but the reassurance of my coach regarding my training was invaluable.
First, the pool running. I needed a foam buoyancy belt to keep me upright. I didn’t find any locally so I ordered one online (I used the “AquaJogger Active Water Exercise Buoyancy Belt”) and it arrived the very next day. Off I went to the Ellsworth YMCA to try it out. I couldn’t just swim outright because the pressure of kicking horizontally was quite painful on my ankle while running vertically (in the deep end so as not to touch down) didn’t hurt at all.
I found aqua jogging to be tolerable, especially with a good Latin dance mix on my waterproof iPod. I also wore a low-end waterproof Polar heart rate monitor which doesn’t record data but was useful in keeping me moving fast enough. In theory your heart rate in the water is about 10% slower than on land because the water pressure makes your circulation more efficient. So for most of my water-jogs I was aiming for 115-135bpm and 160-180 strides per minute.
My online research resulted in some dietary changes too. This was not my first stress fracture. Over the last twenty years I have also broken my foot bones, the base of my femur, and a wrist bone. My maternal grandmother died of osteoporosis and though I have never suffered from the Female Athlete Triad my bone density could use a little help. I started taking Jarrow Formula’s Bone Up (calcium supplement) BioSil silica and collagen and CBD oil which has been shown to help bone building after a fracture. Certain acidifying foods are said to inhibit building bone mass so I cut out dairy, coffee and most sugar for two months. I don’t drink soda but carbonic acid is another known bone-leacher.
My recovery the timeline went like this:
Week 1: Seek medical advice
Weeks 2-6: Replace all land running workouts with pool running.
Weeks 4-8: Added two 1hr indoor cycling sessions per week (pain-free).
Week 6: Confirmation with orthopod that I had stress fractured my fibula. His advice – do whatever you want as long as it’s pain free and no, you probably won’t be able to run that 50k trail race in a couple weeks.
End of Week 6: Ran 1 hour on an elliptical machine and walked 2 hours on a treadmill at full tilt to keep heart rate up at a 15min/mile pace.
Week 7: Re-introduced land walking 1-4 miles at a time, 20 min/mi pace.
Week 8: Started land running again! But not ready to run Traprock 50k that weekend. Instead spent school vacation with the girls and hiked for several days with a backpack 5-10 miles on the Appalachian Trail. Dull aching pain at night but nothing sharp.
Week 11: Back to regular land training but at a slower pace.
Week 12: Ran 20 miles at the Riverlands 100 relay. It hurt a lot. My pace was slow and even so I was totally exhausted by the finish. But my ankle felt ok and I was back out on trails!!
This is a video of my first celebratory trail run this spring:
Over all I ended up spending 35 hours aqua jogging and only a week inside on machines (I loathe running inside). I was able to run the 50 mile North Face Endurance Challenge Trail race in Wachusett, MA on June 9th, twelve weeks after the original injury. It was indeed a challenging race but I was happy with how I ran it. With over 10,000 feet of elevation gain, several steep boulder fields and very technical single track I had to hustle to beat the time cut-offs and I was the last woman to finish under the 14-hour cut-off (14hrs 3mins). It was excellent preparation for the Vermont 100 and I could see why Lindsay had suggested it as my 50-mile training race.
I spent the next month hill training and by the time the Vermont 100 came around I felt totally ready. I’m not going to write a detailed race report here because the race was almost entirely uneventful in the best kind of way. It was hot and humid and I made some errors in nutrition that left me puking between miles 40-60. But the best part of this race was that I felt reasonably good and even for the last 10 miles I was able to run despite all the climbing and descending. I’ve wanted to do this race for a few years and it was satisfying to fulfill that goal.
It took me a couple months to recover from running the Riverlands 100 in May. This was demonstrated by my less than stellar performance at the St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick REV3 Half Iron distance triathlon in mid July. My swim training for that race consisted of getting into the ocean once with my wet suit to stretch it out and I was probably the only participant thrilled to discover the swim would be shortened due to pea soup fog. The bike leg went reasonably well (because I was so excited to be biking and not running?) and when it came to the run I limped out a 2:20ish half marathon practically melting in the slightly above average temps.
So let’s leave that glamorous event behind and jump forward to Labor Day Weekend when I ran the Last Man Standing with my cousin Samantha at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester Maine. I ran the same race last year and it was really fun. It’s a trail race consisting of 4.2 mile loops that you start on the hour every hour as many times as you want/can. Samantha’s goal was to run her first trail 50k and my goal was to get a solid day of trail run in. We had a great time and both called it quits after 7 laps.
Next up was another trip to lovely Canada for the Fundy Circuit. Another 50k trail race this time a bit more rugged. Alma, New Brunswick and Fundy National Park are really gorgeous and the race takes you on a full tour of all the landscape variations, from rocky rivers to placid lakes, spongy reindeer lichen forests and rugged coastline. I didn’t do as well as I hoped and ultimately I think I was a bit run down because I ended up with some weird ailments immediately following this race (mystery staph infections??). Here’s a one minute video summary of that pretty course:
I took a few weeks to recover and then I turned my focus to The MDI Marathon. This one is always one of my favorites and a good one to measure my progress (or regression) year to year. This year I promised myself to run the second half of the race faster than the first half and while I did sort of start out slower than previous years I still went out way too fast! I ran the first 15 miles at a 9:05min/mile pace which is steaming for me and than quickly bonked. In part because I had stashed bottles of Tailwind along the course in a few strategic locations and when I went to recover them they were definitively NOT THERE. Super bummer. So I resorted to the Gu and Gatorade provided by the race and sort of perked up by mile 20 (and was pleased to discover that my stomach accepted these previously totally products). Even with the bonk I set a personal record, beating my 2002 Burlington, VT time by a minute or so.
A couple weeks later I headed to Pheonix, AZ for the Javelina Jundred 100K trail race because I love to run in the desert. I made a little video of the highlights from that race.
And finally, the Millinocket Marathon. Every road runner should top off their year with the Millinocket Marathon. It is a joy-filled, community celebration in the middle of winter in Northern Maine. What could be better? I realized within a few miles that my legs were not at all recovered from Javelina so I dropped my pace and enjoyed the rest of the run. I danced with the volunteers at water stops, chatted up the home-baked cookie lady, took a shot of Allen’s Coffee Brandy and politely turned down the Fireball and finished with pacing the horn-blowing kilt guy to the finish line.
What’s next? I’ve started training for the Vermont 100 which will be in July, though technically I’m still on the wait list for that. And I’m finally going to run the Traprock 50k in April. As part of my 100 training I found a new trail 50 miler in Massachusetts (The North Face Trail Series), and in a somewhat ambitious move I hired a coach from the Run Formula to write me a training plan through July. So far it has me running hilariously SLOWLY in order to keep my heart rate in my recovery/aerobic zone. So if you see me fast-walking about town you’ll know why.
After July? I’m going to fast-pack, run, hike or whatever the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine (the Appalachian Trail from Monson to Abol Bridge).
The week before the race I had a very rare (for me) moment of “keeping up with neighbor” anxiety. It happened when I saw my friend Melissa’s facebook post that featured a picture of her car fully packed with her well-organized race gear four days before the race. Her drop-bags were all packed and ready to go while I was still in big-time dithering mode. “How many extra headlamps and batteries should I pack? How many warm shirts am I going to need? Should I leave my raincoat at the 5 or 10 mile aid station?” Gear organization is a great, if unnecessary, way to channel pre-race-anxiety and though it does take a bit of time to sort everything out, the logistics of this race were as easy as they get. A last-minute trail re-route meant there would be three aid stations on the 20 mile out and back course. One at the start, one half-way out and one at the ten mile turn around. That meant runners would hit one of three aid stations every five miles and thus would never be more than an hour away from their gear or food.
Spurred on by Melissa I started collecting my gear into big piles. Starting with food I packed several small ziplock bags of cookies (about 200 calories each) that I could grab on my way through the aid stations. Mr. Muffin, our house rabbit, was particularly interested in the Fig Newmans and it took some effort to thwart his insistent snuffling. In protest he ate half of the piece of paper I had written my gear list on.
That night my brother called and casually mentioned how he needed the next batch of his Appalachian Trail resupply boxes sent out ASAP. So in the middle of packing my race gear I was also assembling and packing four priority boxes with a very precise combination of breakfasts, lunch, dinners, snacks and random, but very specific hiking supplies (like his favorite brand of wet wipes . . . OCD much bro?).
In the process of packing my brother’s boxes I came across a pair of his spare rain pants. Oooo, those could come in handy during my race! I pulled them out and put them in my own pile of gear. (I might have also borrowed some of his spare headlamp batteries.)
By Friday morning I was almost ready to go but I had to work in the morning and I only had an hour to finish packing before meeting Melissa to drive to the race. I was frantically running around throwing all kinds of random things into my final bag – extra warm clothes, an umbrella, trash bags, Tailwind . . . even as I wondered “does one really need anything to run 100 miles?”.
During this final frenetic hour my girlfriends secretly dropped-off a basket filled with homemade snacks, chocolate, Epsom salts, inspiring poetry and tear-jerking notes of support. I discovered the basket on my way out to the car as I was finally getting ready to leave. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to be cared for and cheered on in this way. From a very early age, by necessity, I taught myself to be independent and self-sufficient, which probably explains why as an adult I don’t expect most people to support me or agree with what I do and I certainly don’t expect them to cheer me on!
Finally I was off. And I was only ten minutes late to meet Melissa. [Note: If you ever make travel plans with me please know that I will always be 5-15 minutes late. Pre-kids I was compulsively and predictably always on time, but a critically important part of my internal-timing mechanism broke with their birth and I find it nearly impossible to account for the irregularities of life with kids.]
On our way south to Turner we stopped at a friend’s house, a member of the Team Turtle Tracks relay team, for a visit. Doug made us coffee and showed us around his gorgeous “Maine, the Way Life Should Be” home.
Then we were off again. We went to our campsite first to set up our tents. The site was alongside a river and filled with spring activity – birds, frogs and black flies. From there we drove to the pre-race dinner and picked up our race bibs. The dinner was a classic pasta dinner put on by the local ATV club. For many years I skipped these dinners because I either found the food unpalatable, indigestible or both. But I think it is a testament to my increasing resiliency that I happily enjoyed two big servings of pasta, iceberg lettuce salad and white dinner rolls. Then back to the campsite to for sleep. Which sort of happened. It was just so damn loud! Between the five (at least) barred owls hooting very near and very far away, the loons, coyotes and mysterious things (raccoons or porcupines?) mating or fighting nearby and the song birds joyfully waking up around 4:30, it was a busy night!
We “woke” up around 5 and headed to the start line for a 6am start. I drank the thermos of hot earl grey tea I had brewed the night before but didn’t manage to eat anything. It was foggy and only a bit chilly so at the last minute I stripped off my tights and long sleeve shirt and left them in my gear bin at the start line. And then, right at six o’clock, after the race directors did a roll call of all the 100 mile racers we were off. Like a herd of turtles.
The goal I had in my head over the last few months was to finish under 24 hours. But when I sat down the week before the race and worked out what that meant pace-wise for each of the five laps I realized I was being a little unrealistic. To make that happen I would have to try to run the first 50 miles in a little over ten hours, and maybe on a slighter flatter, faster course that would be possible, but it would still be an aggressive pace for me and I’d still have another 50 to go! So I mentally backed myself up and thought maybe 25 or 26 hours? I was still totally unsure of how fast I would be able to run in the dark and how much the short, steep hills would slow me down after the first 60 miles.
I ran my first lap with Melissa in about 4 hours and 20 minutes. I tried to keep a nice easy pace and keep my shoulders and arms lose and I made sure to take in some calories even though normally on a 20 mile run I wouldn’t eat or drink much.
My second lap took 5 hours and this is when having my period and needing to stop every hour for urgent woodland bathroom breaks became a literal pain in the ass. This is also when the black flies started to get fierce. Fierce enough to keep me moving faster on the uphills where they could catch up to me. At the end of this lap my kids and cousin were at the start/finish line and it was great to see them! I teared up when I saw them running toward me, and my cousin’s support means so much! I think they were disappointed with how little time I spent at the aid station but I got them to walk back up the first hill with me while I drank some guayusa tea to get me through my third lap.
I felt like I was moving well through my third lap and my digestion held steady past the 50-mile mark. The aid station volunteers were very helpful and helped me refuel and move on as quickly as possible. As soon as I got to the aid station I handed them my backpack so they could fill it with Tailwind while I grabbed a 200 calorie bag of cookies from my drop bag. I probably spent less than 3 minutes at most of the aid stations and only sat down a few times when I had to take care of my feet. I did end up getting one new weird blister between my big toe and second toe. It started to hurt quite a lot going down hill and was making me limp a little so I decided to pop it. When I took off my socks I immediately saw the problem – my shoes and socks were filled with abrasive sand. I popped the blister, sprayed it with Glide, put on new socks and had no further foot problems after that. I finished my third lap in 5 hours 20 minutes.
Things started to really slow down on my fourth lap. Jerome had headed out about an hour before me to run Team Turtle Track’s fourth lap but since he wasn’t out to break any records, he waited for me at the midway aid station. He tore his knee meniscus last December and had run a grand total of 10 miles since then, most of them the week before the race. It’s possible he’s lost a little perspective living with me. His main goal was to complete his 20 mile lap uninjured, and if possible, before sunrise.
I had told him to bring hiking poles just in case but he refused to use them and I ended up carrying them while we ran the next 15 miles together. “Ran” is a generous term. Around the 70 mile point I realized that I was running and Jerome was hiking fast next to me. Hmm. I decided fast hiking was probably the more efficient way to go at this point so we ran the flats and hiked everything else. It was about this point that Laura Perry, the first female, passed me finishing her final lap. She claimed to be hurting but she was definitely still running uphill! I finished that lap in about 6 1/2 hours and got Jerome back to his car by 3:30am so he could take a nap while I ran my final lap.
The fifth lap was really quite lovely, the cacophony of barred owls and loons started back up again and the sun rose around 5am. I took off my headlamp and stopped worrying about my impossibly slow pace.
I am often told “oh I hate running, it’s so boring!” and other people ask “What do you think about for that long?”. All I can say is I don’t think much. I used to get trapped in thought loops and I could spend several miles worrying about daily life and problems that I couldn’t do anything about in that moment (because I was running). But that slowly changed and now when people ask me what I think about I realize “not much”. I’m really pretty much in the moment, I do frequent body scans to see how everything is feeling and if I need any self-care. I listen and watch my surroundings, not too carefully to be honest, but enough to be tuned in a big-picture kind of way. For example I noticed the beech leaves unfurling throughout the day and the rhythm of bird song ebbing and flowing with the brightness of the sun. And I noticed a few of my favorite species of spring ephemeral flowers, the quality of mud (soil type, saturation , , ,) and the kinds of rocks underfoot. But none of it sticks firm and my mind just floats along most of the time. It really is quite medatative and soothing, not boring at all!
I stopped at the 90-mile aid station for some lovely fresh off the griddle pancakes and I headed out of that aid station feeling excited and ready to run! The running feeling lasted for about a mile. It had finally started to rain, at first a light mist but then, with ten miles to go it started to really come down. With five miles to go I paused at the final aid station and put on a dry shirt, my raincoat and my brother’s rain pants. I hadn’t eaten enough over the last 20 miles (it’s hard to eat at 4am!!) so my pace slowed way down and I was having a hard time staying warm. But with only 5 miles to go I knew I was going to make it. Having re-adjusted my goals several times I thought maybe I could finish before 11am? I scuffled along as fast as I could, cheered on by the fat raindrops dripping off my nose. I contemplated the last 98 miles, feeling good about how well I was feeling overall. I never sank into a negative mood and no single part of my body hurt beyond the bland, pervasive feeling of fatigue. I never felt sleepy-tired (which surprised me) but I was a little frustrated that I simultaneously felt so go and yet couldn’t move any faster but maybe that’s why I felt so good – my easy pace preserved my overall wellbeing for the past 28 hours of running.
I happily ran down the final hill and finished at 10:54am. Jerome was there (awake!) to greet me and he helped me jump into our warm car where I awkwardly stripped off my wet muddy clothes and put on dry ones. He handed me a hot bowl of homemade chicken soup, which I happily slurped down. I was so tired and really just wanted to go back to my tent to pass out before the kids came back with my cousin but I also wanted to see Melissa finish, which she did 45 minutes later. I honked the horn and waved but couldn’t get out of the car because I was still so cold! This was her second successful 100-miler after having attempted three others previously.
I definitely felt a special bond with the other female runners out there and was so happy to see them lap after lap. The winning woman, Laura Perry, was so fun to watch – she has the really quick, short, efficient stride that many champion trail runners have and that I can only dream of. She finished seven hours before the rest of us. Yeah, you read that right. The rest of us women finished between 28 ½ hours and 31 hours. For most of us this was our first 100-mile race and of the nine women that started, eight of us finished. It’s inspiring to see other women who, like me, have clearly worked really hard to be here, who love pushing themselves and who are just as happy as I am to run alone through the night in the rain and on slippery, rocky trails. I was happy to be part of this small, cheerful, determined tribe of ultra trail running women.
Recovery. We went back to the campground briefly where I took a quick, not nearly hot enough shower and then blacked out in the tent for half an hour. This was the kind of deep relaxed oblivion that some people use drugs to achieve and honestly, I can understand why.
Jerome woke me up in time to get to the awards ceremony where my cousin met us with the kids. This is when my low back started to scream in pain. It was the same place I injured it this winter when Jerome and I took the girls on a sea-kayaking trip to the Everglades and on the last day we paddled hard in or ill-fitting rental kayaks for five hours into gale force winds. The injury has nagged me ever since, flaring up painfully for weeks at a time. Now I desperately rubbed an ice cube over the joint wondering how I was going to sit in the car for the three hour drive home.[Link to youtube video above: https://youtu.be/nCXcNPBTX5Q] I shouldn’t have worried. It turns out sleep trumps pain when one hasn’t slept for 36 hours. I woke up as we pulled into our driveway. It was 7pm and I said to Jerome “Ok, our main goal is to pull together a quick healthy dinner and get everyone to bed as soon as possible.” And then when we got inside, there on my counter was a gallon jar of homemade warm, creamy potato nettle soup that my friend and yoga student Deborah must have dropped off only minutes earlier. I was so incredibly grateful and that soup was so ridiculously good.
The hardest post-race event was getting up Monday morning, packing my kid’s lunch and getting them to school on time. I went to work until 4:30 and when I got home I crawled into bed and didn’t move for the next twelve hours. Not that my family let me sleep that whole time but at least I wasn’t on my feet.
The most surprising part of this race has been the lack of soreness or injury. My back has felt better than it has since February and I have no hint of plantar fasciitis. I did notice that my entire system was inflamed for at least a week. I felt puffy, my chin broke out, my fingers are numb from a nerve in my shoulder that gets pinched when there’s a little extra swelling. I haven’t been particularly hungry or tired since, though I have definitely been wanting more sugar and carbs than I did before the race. I’ve run about 15 miles in the last two weeks and gone on a few long but easy bike rides. Early this week I swam for the first time since last August. I plan to take it really easy for the rest of the month and I my next big race isn’t until September. Well, except for that half Ironman in July. And maybe a few smaller triathlons in June. But other than that, I swear I’m taking it easy.
Will I run another 100? This is really weird but somehow this race didn’t feel any more challenging or interesting than a 50 miler. There was the unknown of running for 24 hours (or more), and of what would happen after 70, 80 or 90 miles, but the truth is, nothing really happened. I slowed down but other than that my mental and physical state very much matched that of my 50 milers. This race was very simple logistically, which was great for being able to finish it, but not great for creating the sense of adventure and need for creative problem solving that comes with more complicated mountain races. I think for now I will focus on improving my 50-mile time and on finding more adventurous and scenic ultra trail races.
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 home-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!