Too much of a good thing
I had planned on finishing my 2013 six month ultra running and racing season with the Mount Desert Island Marathon on October 20. But then a couple late season opportunities came up that I just didn’t want to pass up. The main one being the 100k La Ruta Run trail race in Costa Rica. That meant that I had to prolong my season by an unplanned month. A wiser me would have turned that month into a nice long relaxing sauna-session, focusing more on heat training than over training. But the newbie ultra-runner in me didn’t feel confident enough to leave well-enough alone and during the few weeks after the MDI marathon I stacked up a couple 30 mile training runs and then some short fast trail races. It was a really fun month and I figured why take a break when nothing’s broken?
Ouch, that heel pain.
I knew I was in trouble the week before La Ruta when I felt a tell-tale sharp pain in my right heel. Fortunately I had a taper week ahead of me and I spent most of it on a bus toodling around San Jose. The dull achy pain migrated around my heel from side to side and front to back. Not always worse in the morning, sometimes completely gone, and then back again. I don’t take pain killers and I didn’t have any tape so I just kind of hoped for the best during the race itself. Which in the end turned out to be fine and almost entirely pain free despite the 8,000 feet or so of elevation gain. Compared to how Joe Fejes describes his achilles pain during his six day run at Across the Years, I got off easy!
The straw that broke the runner’s tendon
If I had just stopped there I might have spared myself, but noooo, the Crows were planning an early morning Thanksgiving run up and down Cadillac Mountain, how could I possibly miss that? Coming down the mountain I felt an ominous crackling in my Achilles tendon. It’s a feeling no runner wants to feel. That “oh shit, this is going to take a long time to heal” feeling. I limped home and pretended I was fine while standing on my feet all day cooking.
The next day my sister and her kids invited us on a hike up and over Champlain Mountain. Again, how could I possibly miss that? Four hours into the hike my foot and ankle throbbed and burned and I whimpered back to the car, tail between my legs. I know better. Really I do. A week off turned into a month, and then another month started to slip by. I ran 8 miles total in December. I wasn’t too bummed because I had planned to take it easy for a month anyway, but when middle January rolled around and I was still limping I decided it was time to get more serious about healing myself.
1) Identify the obvious source of stress
I had stopped running but my injury wasn’t healing. There must be another source of stress causing the tendon and fascia to stay inflamed. One obvious culprit was my diet. Ever since the VT50 I had really let my diet slip. Gu and Tailwind (or any sports drink) are like gateway drugs for me. Add a few holidays to that and suddenly sugar and grains had crept into almost all of my meals. A muffin here, a cookie there. Here a pie, there a pie, every where a pie pie . . . until a couple of weeks into the New Year I looked in the mirror and noticed a pair of puffy tired eyes staring back at me. As if the Achille’s pain wasn’t enough of a warning sign now I was showing other signs of systemic inflammation. My back ached, my period was painful, my sleep was sucking and my mood was bleak.
2) Take away the most obvious source of stress
Out went all the sugar and grains. In came at least 30 different vegetables and fruits a week, a good amount of super-high quality protein in the form of locally raised and pastured furry and feathered beasts and super-high quality fats like avocado and coconut. Within a week my heel pain had subsided enough to get back to running every other day. The third week I ran 35 miles and this past week I joyfully skied 60 pain-free miles. (Why run when you can ski?).
3) Prevent future occurrence
I’ve been backing up my clean-diet with some other healing strategies. First, I’m trying to get 8-9 hours of sleep a night, especially on the days I’m running. I’m not great at this but I’m working on it because there is a ton of evidence that sleep promotes recovery and decreases inflammation. Second, I’m cross-training as much as possible by xc skiing, biking on my inside trainer when it’s really crappy (or dark) out, and swimming, and third, I’m working my ass off. Literally.
Look for other sources of stress or causes of imbalance
Besides treating the systemic inflammation, I need address the obvious alignment and strength issues that I know added extra stress to my Achilles tendon and right foot during that period overtraining at the end of the season. My achilles was just the weakest link in a stressed out chain. To heal that link I’ve got to strengthen the whole chain.
I’m practicing glute and adductor strength routines four days a week (classic Pilates mat classes plus this “myrtl” routine). I’m also consciously working to keep my intrinsic core muscles awake and firing while I run. To help with my alignment I’ve gotten a few chiropractic adjustments though ultimately my left hip is so dysplastic that skeletal symmetry is not going to happen for me in this life time. The adjustments do seem to help me access my glute and hamstring muscles more and I think that helps take some load off my right foot.
Becoming my own expert
Over the last few months I’ve researched a lot of advice about plantar fasciitis (aka fasciosis) and Achilles tendonitis (aka tendonosis). There are “experts” coming from all different angles. Some say you need more arch support, some say you need to go bare foot, some say you need flat shoes, some say you should only run with heel lifts. Some say you just need to align your toes and stretch the front of your ankles while others say you should align your hips and stretch your calves. Some say only run on flat even surfaces and others say trails and hills are the way to go. What all of this tells me is that the origins of pain in the lower leg and foot are varied and complex. Ultimately:
The key to resolving pain is to bring the system back into balance. How you do that depends on what took you out of balance in the first place.
As a yoga teacher and an athlete I have a few generalized templates of balanced alignment and action that I keep in mind as I help people reduce their stress and get out of pain. I often know what I need to do in my own body to get there and I can often help other people move toward balance too, but the reality seems to be that human health is an ongoing experiment. Not all things work for all people, we are biological not mechanical and the attributes of sensitivity and responsiveness are critical in a healthy biological system.
You are the experiment
That’s why at no point in this injury cycle have I been tempted by the quick-fixes of pain killers or shots. I need the sensation of pain as feedback to assess my healing strategies. I need to know if I got enough sleep the night before, if running barefoot or in shoes (and which shoes) is helping or hurting, and I need to know how that breakfast of turkey and spinach is treating me. I don’t need an expert to tell me to avoid lateral standing poses in my yoga practice (side angle, triangle, warrior 1 and 2 . . .) when I have the wisdom of pain to warn me away, and I don’t need a company-funded study to tell me that their $500 pair of orthotics is my only salvation when a cheap pair of boots with the insoles taken out feels great.
The usefulness of pain
Pain is complicated but it’s not that complicated. At a basic level pain provides us with critical information about how we’re managing the stressors in our lives be they emotional, environmental, dietary, biomechanical or other. We think pain is complicated when we’re sure we’ve done all that we can to mitigate the stress but the pain persists. And it’s true, sometimes you’ve done all you can but your pain is in fact a result of a stress that is not under your direct control. When you are in this kind of pain it can really really suck to realize that you are not the master of your own universe. I’ve had this experience too many times (like the time my wrist bone broke and died and then took three painful years to dissolve and in the mean time I couldn’t open doors or slice my own bread. Holy crap that sucked.)
Pain is a sign of stress
The message of pain is “You are overloaded by the amount of stress in your life”. Stress from a combination of sources that are personal to you (accident, illness, birth defect, environmental, diet, life style, relationship etc.) You can respond at the first niggle of pain, or like me you can wait until the pain becomes intolerable. Either way your response should be to systematically remove the stressors that you can, starting with the easiest and most obvious ones. Hopefully for most of us most of the time this will give us relief. For me diet is one of the easiest places to start and that’s why I offer my seasonal cleanses – because it is my experience that by removing dietary and some key life style stressors pain often resolves itself. At best it’s cheap, low risk self-care, at worst it’s a good start.
When a clean diet and rest aren’t enough
For those of you actually experiencing plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis I want to share some of the useful resources I’ve come across. Remember, there are as many ways to get back into balance as there are ways to get out. Some people need to take their shoes off, some need to put shoes on. Some people need to strengthen their feet and some people need to strengthen their butt. The key is to be sensitive and responsive – which means sensible and responsible in your own recovery process. Sometimes pain just needs you to change your socks, sometimes it needs you to change your life.
I’m absolutely loving ROLL Recovery‘s R8 contraption. The cost seems totally outrageous but considering how expensive bodywork is it has more than paid for itself over the past month. Seriously, the ability to work trigger points along the sides of my shins and ankles and get blood flowing to the belly of my calves and hamstrings, plus the targeted work I can do on my ITB (not just smashing and trashing it with a foam roller) is absolutely fantastic. Oh, and I’m using it to tease apart the scar tissue from that old wrist injury too . . .
As a barefooter with good strong feet I found the Sock-Doc’s recommendations for foot and ankle stretches to be really helpful.
If you are a shoe-wearer Dr. Ray McClanahan at Northwest Foot and Ankle has some good thoughts on how poor foot wear and toe alignment can contribute to PF and AT.
And here’s another one geared toward how stiff ankles and wearing shoes with toe-spring might contribute to plantar fasciitis. I don’t wear stiff shoes with toe-spring, but if you do, you’ll want to check this article out.
And finally, if your misery needs company listen to Caity McCardell’s funny and poignant rant about her own struggles with plantar fasciitis and the wide spectrum of remedies she’s tried.
Learn to love the cold
When I raced cross-country skiing in high school and college, -4F was the official low cut-off temp for competition. Because of this we spent many weekends standing around in our thin spandex suits freezing our asses off waiting for the mercury to rise a scant millimeter. I don’t remember any spectators at our races, probably because they were all hiding in their cars wishing their child had joined the swim team instead.
We would take turns zipping out and back on the course to warm up (futile, but better than freezing to death in place) and peeing in the bushes (less effort spent heating the water in your bladder means more energy available to heat your toes). It was during those sub-zero races that I learned the insulating value of nose hair and eyelashes, what real lung-burn feels like and how cold is too cold. I also learned the secret to loving winter:
Get outside everyday no matter what and keep moving.
The key to getting myself out the door is a non-judgmental attitude when it comes to weather. Weather is not good or bad. It is guaranteed to happen no matter what I think about it, so I try not to waste my energy thinking about it. A grudge will only slow me down and make my toes colder. I try to go out the door with my shoulders rolled back ready to receive whatever the day gives.
Dress based on how confident you are that you’ll be able to keep moving
Running, skiing, hiking or walking in sub zero temps is only dangerous if you are forced to come to a halt. How much cold weather gear you choose to bring with you when you head out the door depends on how much you trust yourself to get back to the door without being forced to stop or slow down along the way. As long as you’re moving, you don’t need much. While I might fetch wood mostly naked I wear a bit more when I head out on to the trails for a run. But not too much more because I don’t like to be a sweaty mess, plus I’ve always had a minimalist streak – I prefer light and fast. Partly because I’m cheap and partly because I like trusting my body as much as my gear.
Here’s what I wore and why this morning on an eight mile ran up and down Cadillac Mountain at AcadiaNational Park. I started at 6am, it was still dark and the thermometer read 1˚F.*
• A neck gaiter is a must for sub zero temps. I like my synthetic Buff
because it is thin enough to breathe through but thick enough to keep my nose, cheeks and ears frost-bite free. When it’s really cold it freezes solid with my breath and creates a wind proof layer over my face – which is just what’s needed when it’s that cold. I also wear a thicker fleece neck warmer around my ears and a pair of Swix ear warmers, because I find most hats don’t come far enough down over my ear lobes. Once you’ve had your ears frost-nipped you’re unlikely to let it happen again.
• Thin, wind proof gloves are less sweaty than fleece mittens and good for adjusting laces and clothing without exposing flesh, but they won’t stay warm if you are forced to slow down. Sometimes I stick a pair of homemade waterproof mitten shells in the back of my underwear as backup. (I made them out of the same silicon-impregnated nylon that I made my tarp-tent out of. Buy a couple yards of this stuff and the possibilities for lightweight cheap, windproof, waterproof homemade gear is endless . . . ) This morning I opted for windproof fleece mittens and sure enough they were soaked on the inside and frozen solid on the outside by the time I got back to my car.
• When I’m road running I often wear cheap acrylic leg warmers bunched up around my ankles. They keep my feet warm without having to wear thicker socks (which would make my shoes too tight). This morning I wore a pair of short stretchy nylon gaiters to keep the deep snow out.
• The rest of my body is covered by a pair of Patagonia wind proof tights (the same ones I wore under my spandex race uniform 20 years ago**), long and short sleeve wool t-shirts and a water resistant windbreaker with a hood. I consider the tight-fitting hood part of my emergency back up gear.
I admit I like to play the edge on winter gear. I often ski or run a 15+ mile loop around Acadia National Park’s remote carriage roads with no more than my wind breaker tied around my waste. But a wiser athlete would pack one or two instant hand warmers, a space blanket (I saved one from my last marathon for just this purpose) and something sweet into their waist pack. That way, when you accidently end up sideways in a snow bank or limping home into a 30-knot headwind the local police beat will at least report that you were “prepared”. A friend is great backup too, there’s always the get naked and shiver together strategy . . .
Eat your warmth
I pre-fueled this morning’s run with a nice warm baked sweet potato sprinkled with unsweetened cocoa powder, coconut milk and hazelnuts. I added an extra tablespoon of coconut oil for good measure.
Oil inside, oil outside
Never underestimate the value of a Hot Drink
I also always leave a thermos of hot tea in my car for when I’m done. The first few sips are truly life-giving. I find at 0˚F and below I need nearly twice as much water as I do on an average warm (30-60˚F) run. Warm water is absorbed more quickly and will keep your body warm even as you cool down post run. I also leave a change of dry clothes in my car for when I’m done running or skiing. I change right away and it helps me sustain the post-run glow until I can get warmed up inside for real.
If loving winter and cold weather running is just a matter of attitude and gear, I’m not sure why more people aren’t moving to Maine. But a least maybe after this winter’s polar-vortex, more people will fall in love with the cold?
* Some people really LOVE cold weather running. This morning Gary Allen started chasing down the Polar Vortex on his 500 mile run from the summit of Cadillac to New Jersey and the Superbowl (#maine2superbowlrun). He’s raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project. Read more here or track his run here.
**Have you seen Patagonia’s short film Worn Wear? It’s a fun look at the special bond we create with our most trustworthy gear.
The perils of an embodied life
In a recent yoga class I had just finished a too-legnthy rant about the perils of unskillful back bending, when a visiting student asked “Sooo, if it’s so dangerous, why are doing backbends?” Right. Damn good question. And while we’re on the topic, I want to know, why do we even get out of bed in the morning?
Creation of a meaningful life
During my hippy, alternative grade school years I was taught numerous creation myths. Men and women born of fire and ice, emerging from divine armpits, crawling up from holes in the earth, molded from clay, brought forth on a wave and breathed into being . . .
But my favorite story remains a smashed-up version from the Indian Samkhya and Tantrik traditions. Here, a mysterious imbalance between the forces of nature (the three Gunas) compels the infinite-absolute (Shiva) to know itself more completely. But in this limitlessness and formlessness Shiva is incapable of any kind of self-referencing experience. Thus, out of a desire to know itself more fully, Shiva becomes embodied in the limited form of the world as we know it (Shakti).
According to this version of things, the purpose of creation is to experience the full wonder and power of the universe through embodied life.
We are here to live.
And living is meant to be a fully engaged, sensory experience. At least that’s how I talk myself out of bed every morning. Especially in the middle of December when there’s no wood in the firebox and the sun gets up to slide sideways across the horizon before disappearing again.
Why do I get out of bed in the morning?
I’m writing this to encourage my inner-hibernating-bear to stay awake. To engage with the world, with you, with my hands and my heart. As a moody intellectualist I am prone to bouts of severe depression and I don’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for life to solve my existential crises. Purposefully engaging my hands and moving my feet provides a more potent relief than any drug can. I’ve learned this through trial and error and many many amazing mentors.
Shopcraft as Soulcraft
This is not only the title of a great book, but it is a phrase that (coincidentally) sums up everything that was right about Bill Copperthwaite’s life. No rumination on living through your hands and heart is complete without a tribute to this great man.
I first met Bill 20 years ago. After hiking nearly an hour down a rough, snowy woods trail near Bucks Harbor, Maine I came to a clearing with a yurt in the middle, smoke drifting from the chimney. Bill came out to greet me and I shook his strong hand. After I introduced myself he reminisced about working with my parents 20 years earlier on a windmill somewhere nearby and welcomed me in. Over the next month he showed me how to carve knife handles and birch baskets (he’d recently learned how on a trip to Siberia), we stewed apples and oats on the woodstove, bathed in the cold spring by the shore, and pulled up the unwanted red spruce seedlings that seemed to sprout everywhere on his land. He taught me that handcrafting is far more than a quaint, archaic pass time. It is a deeply satisfying engagement with the world and with each other. Skillful crafting requires a breathless balance between peril and flow and there is nothing more deeply satisfying to the human spirit than to walk the razor’s edge between the absolute and the infinite. I left Bill’s with a blue jay perched on my shoulder, very much wanting to live this kind of useful, happy life.
Several years later I was attempting to make myself a useful woodswoman by studying natural history and land conservation at University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program. Our winter ecology professor was Bernd Heinrich who also happens to be a world class ultrarunner. We spent all day literally running through the woods chasing after him while he chased down golden crowned kinglets to see where they roost. As the afternoon sun set, we would jog back to the cabin to find our all-day-stew sitting hot on the woodstove. In the evenings I stretched and drew in my field journal by lantern light, or sat by the campfire watching Orion swing overhead. Running through the woods, watching, waiting, greeting the raven’s quork. This is a useful, happy life.
Now I live in a fully finished log cabin on a dirt road. We have hot running water and a pretty efficient wood stove, it would be easy to hunker down and hibernate, to let my body soften into the couch and watch my hands and feet grow weak. Instead, each morning I wake up to nurture that little spark that willed Shiva into being. The spark of desire to discover something brand new about the world. Sunrise turning the red crest of a pileated woodpecker into a burst of flame, the feeling of my arms and legs swinging in perfect sync as I glide through the woods on my skis, an otter sliding above the stream, the divine softness of my daughter’s cheek as she rubs it against mine. There are so many reasons to get up, there are so many ways to move forward into the world. Find one. We are here to feel the edges of the infinite through the world, not in spite of it.
P.S. Here’s the study about standing up without your hands that I’ve been telling my yoga students about. (They all pass with flying colors).
And here’s a little bit about how exercise can change your mind.
Read here about the four poses I do almost everyday to balance out my less-than-perfect running form.
La Ruta Run 100k & 52k Race Report, October 16, 2013
Race day morning started with a 4am minibus ride to a prerace breakfast of fruit and some particularly greasy gallo pinto.
When we got to the start line it was like letting a herd of antelopes out of a cage. Everyone was so psyched to finally get into the mountains to run!
40 or so racers gathered at the start line. Most were from Costa Rica, with a handful of indigenous runners from the BriBri and Cabecare tribes and some well-acclimated ex-pats. The rest of us were traveling from cooler, drier climates and were easily recognized by glisten of sweat gathering on our faces before the sun had even risen. Before the race the Tarahumara burned kopal and performed a short prayer ceremony with signing and dancing.
And then we were off . . .
The first aid station was 14 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain away. I knew I’d be slow on the more technical trail sections so I wanted to keep at least a 10 min/mile pace on the roads to make sure I would make the first cut-off time. With the heat and humidity I was pushing my edge going that fast up hill but I held steady hiking as fast as I could. I normally don’t drink much the first couple of hours of a race, but in this case I finished my full liter of water early on. The
last three miles to El Sur aid station were down a steep, slick, rocky ATV trail. I slowed down considerably, admiring the skid marks that the faster runners had left behind. I was loving the traction and drainage of my brand new New Balance Minimus trail shoes and was sad that I was too slow to watch the Tarahumara run this section in their sandals. I made it to the first aid station at exactly three hours, grabbed a couple of water bottles and kept going.
Ahead was a mix of jeep trail and slick mud with several refreshing river crossings. The route follows the eastern edge of Carara National Park, which is the northern most section of remaining Pacific Coast Rain Forest, and is suitably wild and beautiful. There were toucans and aracari’s calling and emerald hermits chipping away as I ran down the steep trail trying not to grab hold of acacia trees, thorny vines or worse, vipers that look like vines. As I was picking up speed to pass three Talamanca runners, a family of rancid-onion smelling peccaries crossed the trail in front of us. The Talamanca boys were in no hurry, calling to me “Tranquillo!” as I ran by.
A short while later I came to another river crossing and without thinking much about it, I continued straight across and up the jeep trail on the other side. The mud was so deep and wet that it didn’t hold distinct footprints and only after 30 minutes of climbing did I begin to wonder why the Talamanca guys weren’t behind me. But they had been running slow and stopping to take breaks so I figured they were cooling off in the river below. There had been only a few orange flags marking the route thus far so I didn’t think it was odd that there were none on this section. About half way up the hill I came across a man in a jeep parked at a trail intersection. He asked me how many runners were behind me and I told him about ten. I figured he was a race volunteer and I was happy to confirm that I must be going the right way after all. I continued up the impossibly steep, slick muddy trail. It was hard not to use my hands climbing and soon I was totally covered in the sticky red tropical mud. The whole time I was thinking “holy shit, this is one hell of a course!”. Up and up I went. Another 30 minutes of climbing brought me to harder packed mud and I immediately noticed there were no sneaker or sandal tread marks here, just horse hooves. Uh oh. A little further down the trail brought me to a gorgeous overlook. I was officially at the top of whatever mountain I was on and there was definitely no aid station around. A farmer and his horse came up the trail from a field behind me. I asked him if he’d seen “anyone else with numbers on”. He looked at me the same way I would have looked at him if he’d shown up in my front yard in Maine. After a brief moment of bewilderment, his already impossibly wrinkly face crinkled up inhysterical laughter and I had to join him. It was clear I was way off route!
I turned around and as I plunge-stepped and glissaded down the steep muddy track. Once again I couldn’t help but love the security and traction of my shoes and I wondered how the Tarahumara navigated so much slick mud in their sandals and ran as fast as they did. (I know several of them took some nasty falls and a few had pretty sore knees at the end, but they all seemed fully recovered by the next morning.)
Down I went. Weeee. I passed the mysterious man in the truck, and when I finally got back to the river I arrived at the same time as the last runner, Christian, with his support crew. They were on another road across the river that I hadn’t seem the first time through. Happy to be back on track but totally starving and thirsty after my detour I gladly accepted a bottle of ice cold water from Christian’s crew. A little while later I made it to the Laguna check point. I flopped down under the tent and immediately consumed the only food they had left – a dozen small potatoes, and poured the remaining salt straight into my mouth. I had another 8 miles to finish the 52k course and there was no way I was going to make it by the cut-off time to continue for the second half of the 100k.
I was disappointed and starving. I left the Laguna aid station running but after a mile or so, I simply could not get my legs to move faster than a fast walk. I kept thinking that once the potato starch hit them they would pep-up, but they remained lead weights. Since I’d initially planned to make the 52k mark in ~7hrs I’d left the bulk of my Gu and Tailwind supply on the bus that was supposed to be waiting there. But now I was a couple hours and several hundred calories behind. Christian and his crew caught up to me and when I admitted I was ravenously hungry and had nothing left to eat they kindly shared a couple Gu packets with me . . . it was enough to keep me moving forward, albeit very slowly, for the last five miles. At about 2:45pm I was the last of the 53k racers to finish. I ate the three remaining bananas on the table and the volunteers started packing up the finish line as soon as I sat down.
I was incredibly grateful that I got to run as much of the course as I did, but I was sad that I got off-route and missed out on running and finishing with the group. In the end, nine of the 40 runners continued on to complete the 100k course, five of those were Tarahumara men. Silvino Cubesaré was the first man to finish with a time of 11hrs 15 mins and Katelyn Tocci , an American living in Costa Rica, was the first female in 13hrs 32mins.
I stuffed myself into the cab of the volunteer truck, along with several water coolers, the inflatable finish line and a lifetime’s supply of Red Bull. We were headed to El Rodeo to meet up with the rest of the runners who had already been bused to the 100k finish line. On the way there the volunteer crew decided to stop for food at a roadside café.
I just about passed out! I had no money on me and I knew a gourmet post-race meal was waiting for me at El Rodeo but who was I to deprive these hard working volunteers of their chicharrónes! Another hour passed as we wound our way (lost) through the narrow foggy mountain roads . . . finally arriving at El Rodeo as the first Tarahumara men were crossing the 100k finish line. I gratefully crawled out of the truck and unfolded myself at the bar where the host and chef at Hacienda El Rodeo promptly handed me a steaming bowl of bone broth and beef parts and two cold bottles of Imperial. Pura Vida!
Over all, La Ruta Run was a fun and challenging race. Any runner that takes on this course needs to be a confident and self-sufficient runner. Aid stations are 10-18 miles apart, and some parts of the trail are only accessible by foot and horseback. The indigenous runners didn’t carry much – just one water bottle each and some pinole (and of course Dave James ran as naked as was practical). But most of us carried larger than average running packs with fancy hydration systems, extra food, clothing and headlamps. I took my favorite super-light Ultimate Direction AK pack, a ziplock bag full of Tailwind drink mix and a dozen Gu packets. I forgot my hydration hose, hence the two ½ liter water bottles strapped to my chest. Next time I would double the amount of calories I carry with me . . . and with the exception of the water bottles I would keep my gear the same. I loved my white Columbia arm sleeves and I used a bandana around my neck – which I dunked in every stream crossing to keep cool. My new shoes worked well even with the pile of volcano pebbles I accumulated at each stream crossing. At size 12, I’m maxing out my potential in the women’s shoe world, and my hot, swollen feet quickly filled the extra space. I ended up down four toenails, but the rest of my body remained intact and pain-free. I consider that a huge success!
More About La Ruta Run 2013:
Running with Tarahumara Women (an article I wrote for the Natural Running Center)
El Heraldo de Chihuahua (pre-race PR)
El Heraldo de Chihuahua (post-race report)
UPDATE: here’s a lovely video slide show of the race. You won’t see much of me because between my invisible cape and my incredible speed, I was hard to capture on film!
How I ended up in a minibus with thirteen Tarahumara Indians driving around San Jose, Costa Rica for five days
On a rare rainy day this summer I was wrapping up an equally rare full morning of work at the Public Library when my phone rang with in unfamiliar area code. I stepped outside into the rain and found myself engaged in a highly animated and instantly intimate conversation with a stranger from California. Bill Katovsky had come across my how I ditched my shoes video on Youtube and was interested in sharing it on the Natural Running Center website. I sat in my car for over an hour talking to Bill about all kinds of mutual interests, including our dislike of chairs, shoes and whiny writers. By the end of the conversation he had given me the name of his good friend, Roman Urbina, the race director of the famously difficult three-day mountain bike race La Ruta de Conquistadores, and more recently, the 100k La Ruta Run which goes from Jaco on the west coast to El Rodeo near San Jose (the same route as the first day of the bike race). I emailed Roman and was soon invited to join a group of Tarahumara and elite runners in Costa Rica for the week preceding La Ruta Run.
Tico Style: loosely organized, well managed
Communication about the details of the adventure were fuzzy in typical laid-back Tico style and while getting ready for the trip I realized I had no idea where I would be staying or traveling for the week, no idea what the running route looked like, or who else was running it . . . I found myself wondering “Am I crazy? I’m traveling alone to run in the jungle with a bunch of men I’ve never met, my Spanish is horrible, I have the heat tolerance of a harbor seal, and nobody has heard of this race.” But . . . I am also a sucker for adventure, I love Costa Rica, and I figured if the Tarahumara were brave enough leave their village to run this race, I would be brave enough to meet them there.
Roman and his girlfriend Erika met me at the airport, easy to spot in their super-sporty La Ruta jackets, and I was whisked off to the hotel by taxi while they waited for the rest of the runners to arrive.
Our hotel, Kaps Place, is in one of my favorite old San Jose neighborhoods. Its bohemian funk might scare the average uptight American tourist but it was absolutely perfect for our group. There was a pool table, open air rock gardens, plenty of incense, a communal kitchen and bottomless plates of gallo pinto every morning.
By Tuesday morning everyone had arrived. Thirteen Tarahumaras, two Chihuahuan chaperones, a Mexican reporter, Melissa and Jonathan from Canada, Dave James, and Mike Place from iRunFar from the States and myself. Two of the Tarahumara had run the race the previous year, but several were leaving Chihuahua for the first time. At first the men had said they wouldn’t travel if women came too, but in the end, two Tarahumara women were allowed to join the group. Their names were Maria Isadora and Sylvia Castillo and I had the great pleasure of getting to know them over the course of the week.
And thus began our week of minibus adventures together. We visited museums,churches and coffee plantations. We met up with Costa Rican Bribri and Cabécar indigenous runners from the Talamanca Mountains and together with the Tarahumara they performed traditional songs and dances for various public relations and cultural events.
Our groups preferred food was corn tortillas, beans, stewed meat and hot chilies. Though Subway generously sponsors La Ruta Run, after the second meal of bland Subway sandwiches there was a revolt and an emergency order of beans, roast chicken, tortillas and chilies had to be made.
The Tarahumara brought their instruments and Silverio, a shaman who is both a great singer and comedian so we were never lacking in music or entertainment. I tried playing one of their violins but they keep their bowstrings very loose and I had a difficult time pressing it down hard enough to make clear notes. They also hold the instrument well below their collarbones, which is more comfortable but these instruments are heavy and without the leverage of my chin it was hard work!
One thing that was missing from the week was running. I asked Silvino if he usually runs the week before a big race and he said “Claro, que si!” but he didn’t want to get lost and he didn’t know when he’d have enough time. I was sick all week with a nasty cough/sinus infection/fever/conjunctivitis thing that I caught from my dear husband before I left the States so it was an ideal week for me to not run. However, Thursday morning I decided I should test out my new trail shoes. I ran a few laps around a loop that included a neighborhood track and a set of stairs. My heart rate soared, my legs were shaky, my left sinus throbbed and the air was humid enough that I was soaked with sweat after 5 minutes. Arriving back at the hotel I had to discipline myself to obey my own Ultra-Training Rule #1: I could not let myself think about how much further and harder Saturday’s run would be!
We made it to Jaco Friday afternoon. Just in time to watch the sunset on the beach. I taught a brief and very funny yoga class, for which I was teased mercilessly by several of the guys for the next two days. (“Look, Eagle!” while attempting to cross arms and wobbling around on one leg). Apparently you can be a world class athlete and have terrible balance. This should make all my yoga students feel much better about tree pose.
Slide Show and
Part 2: La Ruta Run 2013 Race Report coming soon . . .
We spent all day together – we sang, we danced, we ate and we bathed in holy water. We visited coffee plantations and a gorgeous permaculture farm. But the highlight of the day was Silvio’s fart on the run. Because, as my girls already know, fart humor is universally funny.
I can’t wait to write more about this trip, but for now I will leave you with these images.
In a little less than two weeks I’m headed to Costa Rica to run La Ruta Run. The details are still a little fuzzy to me, but here’s what I know so far. We start in Jaco, a beach town on the west coast and head up into the mountains gaining something like 14,000 feet of elevation over 100 kilometers until we end up somewhere near San Jose. This is the second year this course has been run and it is based on the first stage of a popular and challenging mountain bike race, La Ruta de Conquistadores. Last year 21 people ran the race including several Tarahumara who had traveled from Mexico’s Copper Canyons to run the inaugural race.
I’m joining the race as a yoga teacher and natural running ambassador. I can’t think of a better way to end my first year of ultra-running!
It was exactly a year ago that I decided to train for the Vermont 50 and ran my first half-marathon in over ten years. Jerome and the girls met me at mile 10 to cheer me on and bring me hot water and snacks. It’s been an incredible year and you can read about some of what I’ve learned here.
I am as well trained as I can be for this run, though I am pretty nervous about the heat and humidity. It’s been cold and dry here for at least a month and I’m thinking I might need to find some friends who are willing to let me do some jogging in their saunas! This will be the longest distance I’ve ever run and while I don’t plan to be fast, I do plan to be tough.
And tough doesn’t mean I’m not scared, anxious or insecure. It means I’m all that and more. That’s the thing about a run like this – it’s way bigger than I can imagine being, and the only way to do it is to expand myself into it as it is happening. And isn’t that why we take on the impossible?
So be sure to follow me next week as I report back . . .
I had a solid four years of barefoot running behind me
But I hadn’t run further than 8-miles since before my girls were born. I had heard about the Western States 100 when I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 1999 and now that I felt my feet and knees were safely rehabilitated I wanted to see if something like a 100-miles would even be possible. But being somewhat reasonable, I decided to aim for the VT50 first. It still seemed like a solidly impossible dream . . .
Last fall I ran into Kim Parrot, a fellow runner, at the Blue Hill Co Op right after she had finished her first-ever 13-mile run. She was beaming! She told me that it was exactly 6.5 miles from the Library to the Brooklin town sign . . . So that weekend, buoyed by her success, I stashed a water bottle and a snack in the snow bank next to the sign and took off from the library on my first 13 mile run in over 10 years.The South Blue Hill route is a good one with lots of gorgeous Bay views, the mountain in the background, wintering ducks at the reversing falls and a porta-pottie at the boat launch. On the return I was grateful when Jerome and the girls pulled up beside me to cheer me on and offer me some hot water. When I got back to the library I was both elated and terrified. Which is why I came up with . . .
Ultra-Training Rule No. 1:
Never, ever ask yourself “How could I possibly run another x# of miles on top of what I just did?”
Running has taught me that time and distance are far more elastic than I ever thought. Running ultras isn’t about how far you run, it’s about running. And you don’t really need to know how much longer or further you have to run if you just keep running!
I had another memorable training moment late last winter. The trails were still icy and hard to run so I planned a 24-mile training run on the roads around the Blue Hill Peninsula. I stashed some water and snacks behind the North Blue Hill Grange and on a friend’s porch in town and off I went. It was a long lonely run on one of those bleak, not yet spring days and I was really wishing I had a running partner. And then there was the moment that I had to pee so badly I quickly squatted on the side of the road and landed right on top of a rose bush as not one, but two acquaintances drove by – ouch! In my haste to pull myself back together I scratched myself so badly that later when I got home my underwear was stuck to the dried blood on the back of my legs. (And I wasn’t even trail running!) Which leads to . . .
Ultra-Training Rule No. 2:
Go before you have to go.
Give yourself more than a second to find a semi-private, thorn-free spot preferably out of view from your neighbor’s window and your friends driving by.
The day after that long road run, I ran the 10-mile Bridge the Gap race on Verona Island. Jerome and the girls ran the first mile with me and then I headed off on a lonely (but incredibly scenic) loop. It was cold and I was barefoot and because I had run the first mile very slowly with my family, I ended up all alone on the course (unless you count the chase car flashing it’s lights behind me). Plus, I was really hurting from my long run the day before. I spent the last hour of the race alternately swearing at and singing to the crows like a mad woman. I’ve never had so much fun running in so much pain. Hence . . .
Ultra-Training Rule No. 3:
It is better to go crazy than to go home.
Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. You’re already crazy enough to be running such long distances, why hold back?
By late Spring my confidence as a runner was building but my foot was hurting. I was looking forward to my most competitive race season yet and I didn’t want it to end before it started. So out came my bike. I ended up biking about half my training “runs” in April and May and I’ve had no foot problems since . . .
Ultra-Training Rule No. 4:
Cross training is a great way to keep yourself in the game.
Training for triathlons has allowed me to gain fitness while at the same time healing many of my older running injuries. That seems like a win win strategy to me!
I’ve never thought of myself as a real runner. If real runners are gazelles, I’m more of a moose. But even mooses like to be part of a herd, and that’s why racing is fun, or as some people call it “running together with bibs”. Maybe you don’t know this, and you have been too intimidated to try running races because you don’t think you’ll fit into the herd. But I guarantee that at every race you attend there will be elks, gazelles and lots of fellow meese. Just knowing that makes the running world a cozier place . . .
Ultra-Training Rule No. 5:
Everyone is a friend when you get to the watering hole. Smile often, make room for one more, get to know your fellow runners. We’re all part of the same herd.
I had planned to end my race season with the MDI Marathon on Jerome’s birthday. But that was before I got a great offer to run a brand new 100k race in Costa Rica in November. Suddenly the VT50 and MDI Marathon became training runs, and last weekend’s casual long run became a 30 miler that included running up Cadillac and into the hinterlands of the Roosevelt carriage roads that only Gary Allen knows the way out of.
And that’s how in one year I’ve gone from celebrating the success of a 13-mile training run to running 70 miles a week. Which is how I know . . .
Ultra-Training Rule No. 6:
You always have one more mile in you.
Running is a great way to spend 12 hrs
I had fun. That’s right, running 50 miles in one day can be fun! I was secretly prepared for my first 50-miler to possibly really suck and figured at some point I might be reduced to a sniveling pile of pain and misery. But that never happened.
Ok, maybe it’s because I was run-walk-hiking
Maybe it’s because I stopped to take a photo at every turn in the trail (“look, more flaming red trees, sweeping vistas, stone walls and rumpled green mountains”). Maybe it was reliving the two years I spent in the Vermont woods as a Field Naturalist (“ooo, is that a butternut? Check out that hand-twisted barbed wire. Oh, look three old apple trees and there’s the cellar hole!”) The Vermont 50 race flows through a splendid mix of logging roads, high pasture farms and soft CCC pine plantation trails. The weather was the height of New England Fall perfection. A cool misty morning filled with the happy dee dees of chickadees, followed by a brilliantly clear, cricket-chirping afternoon.
I drove over to Ascutney after teaching my Saturday morning yoga class. For the last few days I had been developing a fluish cold and by Saturday I was feeling pretty miserable so I spent the seven-hour car ride feverishly chewing on homeopathic cold remedies, and washing down herbs and vitamins with a few gallons of hot tea. I arrived just in time for dinner with my awesome housemates whom I’d met this summer at the Greater Cranberry Island 50k. My taste buds and appetite returned just in time to appreciate the delicious roasted vegetable dish that Jim and Doug made. And of course there was gluten-free pasta, because even vegan, paleo, raw food, macrobiotic ultra runners carbo-load.
After dinner I spent too much time sorting out drop-bags for the next day. This was my first 50 miler, and first race without Jerome available for last-minute rescue backup (“Honey, can you grab the low-sugar Emergen C packets in the glove compartment and add them to the 2.3 liters of tepid, ionized water that are in my dayglo green water bottle, the one with the Velcro strap on the front, not the one with the pocket. Oh, and I need my other socks, the blues ones that are crumpled up under the passenger side seat or mayb they’re in the trunk shoved into my other pair of Newtons . . . rinse them out first, ok?”). Wait, I’m not that high-maintenance . . . but I am still figuring out this ultra-running stuff and I’m not exactly smooth as butter either.
I filled three thermoses with Kitchari (mung beans and rice), bagged up several servings of Cocohydro and Tailwind, and distributed various gels and blocks among my bags. Then off to bed. Where I discovered a very loudly snoring, soundly sleeping roommate. So I relocated to a quiet, comfortable couch, where I proceeded to not sleep for the next six hours. Because no matter how quiet or comfortable I am, I don’t sleep well before events or in new places, and tonight was both.
At 4:45am, we were all up stumbling around the kitchen making coffee and toast. I made my favorite post-race protein smoothie and packed it for later (for which I was very, very grateful). We checked-in for the race around 6am and watched the final waves of mountain bikers take off just as the sun was coming up. It was a chilly and foggy morning, but overall, incredibly pleasant.
At 6:35 we were off. The start is an easy cruise down the road with lots of camaraderie and everyone walking up the hills together. At least that’s how it was at the back half of the pack. Which is where I stayed for the duration of the race. For the first 20 miles or so I was in great company, chatting and enjoying seeing the same faces over and over. I would pass them on the uphills (I discovered I’m a speedy uphill hiker.) But then I would get passed on the downhills. My feet were tender from the sharp gravel and lack of insoles (the liners of my Newton MV2’s felt really rough). I found myself ogling everyone else’s cushy midsoles and even lusted after a pair of Hokas as I gingerly picked my way downhill. The biggest draw back to running barefoot while I’m training is that it is very hard to get faster at downhills. The other drawback is that I still haven’t found a tolerable pair of shoes to wear for racing.
Still, I had some company up until the backside of Garvin Hill (the highpoint of the course) where I had to make a pit stop in the woods. There I sat. And watched people fly by while I rustled in the leaves over my cat hole . . .
Bringing up the rear
From there on out I was the back of the pack and I ran alone until mile 40 where my brother-in-law Paul met me to pace me for the last 10 miles. Somewhere around mile 45 I ran out of water and food and any shred of agility I might have had on rooty, rocky trails. I slowed way down. Besides everything hurting in the usual I’ve Been Running All Day kind of way, nothing hurt particularly badly, but my legs felt heavy and slow, my mouth was parched and I could barely keep a 13 min mile pace. Paul kept urging me to run faster . . . determined to get me to the final aid station before the cut-off time. Which he did – with four minutes to spare!
Lex was there waiting patiently for me with my bag full of restorative goodness. Given that it had taken me something like 4 hrs to run the previous 16 miles, she rightly wondered what the hell had happened to me – just how many pictures was I taking??
The final three miles kind of sucked. Mostly because I was anxious about finishing before the 12hr cutoff. Though there was some confusion as to when that was. Someone had told us the race started 15 minutes late so we had an extra fifteen minutes (my watch didn’t agree with this theory), and we had also heard that once you make it past the final checkpoint they count your finish no matter what. In the end it didn’t really mater because I simply could not move any faster. I was sure I was going to puke (I didn’t) and it was getting dark enough that I really had to pay attention to the trail.
Slow and slower
Paul tried to set a 9-min/mile pace, which was hilarious from my perspective. He said things like “if it’s not at least a 6 in pain you can run faster”. And while this is a wonderful concept, it is rarely pain that holds me back. I fear that I am slow simply from a lack of fast-twitchness at the very core of my being. And for that I need better genetics and ten pounds less per leg, neither of which are likely in this lifetime.
The benefit of my slowness is that I never get truly wasted. Unable to raise my heartbeat into the anaerobic zone, I never reach the screeching, puking, muscle spazing-halt that often waylays faster runners.
Some say that if you reach the finish line with anything left, you didn’t run hard enough. But I say, if I hit the finish line ready to do it all again, life is good. Which is how I felt as I headed down the last few switchbacks and saw my twin brother and my housemates cheering me on. I crossed the finish line bawling with joy and gratitude.
At which point Zeke, the RD came right up to me and said “I’ve got to give you the bad news”. He was so serious I thought for sure he was going to tell me something tragic had just happened to my kids or husband. So it was with great relief that I realized he was there to tell me I had just missed the 12 hr cut-off time. He handed me a jar of maple syrup and I thought maybe this was instead of getting a medal and I wondered how I was going to explain to my kids that not everyone who finishes the race gets a medal after all . . . And just then someone handed me a medal too, and someone else told me that the exact time doesn’t really matter, and someone else told me to ignore what Zeke had said because I was still on the leader board. And then I was hugging anyone who would hug me back and crying and realizing that suddenly it was very cold and almost dark. So with chattering teeth I cheered-on the final woman who finished a few minutes after me (who also got maple syrup and a medal) and headed straight for the car where my delicious (and smelly) spinach protein smoothie awaited.
So yes, I would definitely do it again.
Major thanks goes out to my housemates-turned-support crew: Alexis, Alyssa, Doug, Jim, Jeremy, Jonah, Eric and Marcus. Wow, you guys rock.