Monday, February 28, 2011

Dust of Snow: A Little Post-Race Cross Training

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

-Dust of Snow, Robert Frost, 1923

As my friend, fellow runner and blogger Ilana recently put it, you have to master at least three outdoor sports in Colorado or they kick you out. I think I am good to go in this department, initially moving to the state to enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and other activities, but the skiing did wind up going to the backburner during the childbearing/caring for infants and toddlers years. This winter has marked a very welcome return, though, to getting out to play in the snow.

In the week following the RedHot, I have been taking it easy as far as running goes, and it feels good. I've felt no pressure to get out there and hammer away on the roads immediately, and have just been to a few dance classes to loosen things up, along with a few slowly paced, short trail runs. The thing I looked forward to all week, though, was my first weekday off in ages, and several hours of cross country skiing. Gliding through the trees is very relaxing on its own, but I believe it to be one of the best forms of cross training for runners. That makes it a win/win activity for me.

The Skyway Cross Country Ski Area is probably one of the best kept secrets in my neck of the woods. It sits on top of the Grand Mesa, just an hour above the city of Grand Junction where I live, but feels like a world away from civilization. There are a multitude of trails in this area, well maintained and groomed by the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, of which I became a member this year. When I can enjoy this area for lift ticket or other expenses, and they provide grooming, condition updates on a daily basis, not to mention good events, clinics and races throughout the winter, I figure that's the least I can do.

As someone who is usually up before five o'clock in the morning for runs, or before six to start getting kids ready for school, it was great to just SLEEP IN last Friday, and lollygag over to my friend Cassie's place once I'd gathered gear and had a bite to eat. We take dance classes together, but she also does a variety of other stuff like snowboarding and roller derby, and is always game for trying other stuff and playing around outside.

The drive up was kind of, um, exciting. There's a point on the road once we've passed Powderhorn, our small local ski and snowboarding hill, when the road suddenly gets snowy and icy, and if you're driving through weather, you might be a little, shall we say, snow blind. Well, this Friday, we were driving directly into weather. As we climbed higher and past the Mesa Lakes Lodge/Rec Area, the snow coming down was out of control. Nothing like your buddy saying "Where is the road? I can't see the road!" We made it up in one piece, though, and parked next to just a few other vehicles in the lot this day. Before hitting the trail, we posed for our pre-ski photo, because we're cheesy goofballs that way.

And, this is when we discovered our gear malfunction/miscommunication. We unloaded skis and other stuff from the back of Cassie's truck, and I pulled out my poles. She then asked me "where are the other poles?" I said what do you mean...I thought you had poles. The poles in question were borrowed gear, and apparently each of us thought the other had them. Crap. Well, not much you can do so she said she'd schuss along, pole-free. I told her I'd share the poles but with the kind of skis she had, it wasn't impossible to slowly shuffle along. We received our good karma for the day, though, when we encountered another skiier a few minutes in who happened to be one of my neighbors, and her coworker. Cassie asked her if she had some spare poles, not really expecting to be in luck here. Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I've got several pairs back at my car, here's where you can find my hidden car key, go help yourself! SCHA-WEET. Six people up there skiing, and one happens to be this generous lady. After getting fixed up with some schmancy racing poles, it was time to just go back out and have fun.

I practiced my POSE skiing (why, yes, there really IS such a thing!), but mostly just took it easy and listened to the sound of almost silence, save the creaks of the trees, and wind blowing between them. The snow was coming down hard, and if I got out of the tracks meant for classic skiing, it would immediately clump up under my binding. Really wet stuff that just started sticking like glue, and Cassie got very adept at taking her pole to scrape what I couldn't reach on my own. She would make fun of herself and say "oh, I have NO cardio!" every time I'd ski out and back to her, but truth be told, she'd done pretty well the first time we did this, and the lungs seemed to have adapted a bit more. This was all just for fun, anyway. Sometimes it's nice when you're performance driven in other sports to get out of that, and just do it for the sake of getting outside for an endorphin fix.

It was just a giant time suck out there. When my friend said she'd had about enough, it didn't feel like we'd been there long, but upon returning to the car we figured out that we'd been there for about three hours. I guess that's always the case when you're really enjoying something. The time flies by. It was the best of both worlds, chatting with Cass half the time and lost in my own brain the rest of the time. When we took our post-ski photo, I realized some hair had slipped out from under my hood, and I now had a lovely haircicle sticking out the side.

Rock on. Nothing like frozen hair and wind burned cheeks to make you feel alive. Before leaving, I got a few more shots of the wintry conditions. It's hard to believe that while it looked like this up there, it was dry as a bone and fifty degrees back in town.

I foresee more of these days in my future. When you go-go-go all the time, and always have deadlines and other stresses hanging overhead, sometimes the best thing to do is forget about all of them for the day, shut off the phone, shut off the computer, and get away from it for just a little bit.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Slow and Low, Let Yourself Go. The Moab RedHot 55K

Once again, I found myself in Moab this weekend. Time for another adventure, but this was going to be WAY off the beaten path. I came down last year to run the Red Hot 33K in the snow, mud and other fun conditions, and still had a great day despite the conditions and my snail-like pace on the course. At the time I'd been considering the longer 55K course, but wound up bailing a few weeks out and downshifted, realizing that I was neither physically nor mentally ready for it at the time after minor injuries sidelined me early in the year.

Things are a bit different a year removed, though. I'm still slow on trails but my confidence and enjoyment are in a much different place.. The adoption of POSE running principles has made me more efficient (read...a LOT less tired, clumsy, and likely to wipe out). Hence, the trails are more fun in general. When I have more fun, I'm more relaxed, the heart rate is down and I can just keep going for a lot longer than I used to be able to run.
Despite a really bad couple of running weeks and stress leading up to the Red Hot, and seriously considering a downshift again to the 33K, I stayed on the entry list for the longer race. I was committed to getting through it even if I was the slowest person out there, and a friend and fellow runner nailed it a few days before the race in saying that I'd be kicking myself later if I didn't do the 55K this time. I was scared but chose to embrace the idea that it would be hard, but nothing I couldn't do. Still other running friends gave the great, obvious advice to remember that this was FUN-so get out there with the intent of enjoying myself. As a typically competitive person when it comes to my running, I can lose sight of the obvious, so it was good stuff to hear.

Friday night included a solo drive down to Moab, which might sound lame and boring, but wound up being kind of like a mini vacation when I am rarely child-free. I hit up the packet pickup, and laughed when the lady handing out the course maps asked me "55K? You look like you're running the 55K." I'm not sure what made her say that but whatever...I'll take the vote of confidence.

I had plans to meet some of my 24 hour relay teammates for dinner later in the evening but was so starved upon rolling into town that I immediately hit up Miguel's for enchiladas, rice, beans, and a margarita. A few hours later, I joined my teammates, their spouses and another local runner for Dinner Number Two. Yeah, I'm a running omnivore who eats anything not nailed down. Eating what I needed seemed to be the first thing I did right going into the next day.

After hanging out for a bit, I headed back to soak in the outdoor hot tub under the stars and full moon at my hotel. Usually this lulls me into a good sleep the night before the race, but the loud heater in my room coupled with the people having a deep, loud conversation in the next room well past midnight kept me tossing and turning for hours. When morning came I didn't think it was a good sign that I couldn't drag myself out of bed, but after a little coffee I started to feel kind of human. Once I was dressed and my Camelbak was packed up, I headed out to find a bite to eat with plans to get down to the race start (Gemini Bridges Trailhead) in time to leave my drop bag to be delivered to the aid station at mile 23.

Here was my screwup for the day. It turned out that my hotel didn't do breakfast in the winter/off season months. Fair enough. I headed down to the Love Muffin, thinking I could get a bite there. No such luck, they weren't open until seven o'clock. I wasn't going to run this thing with nothing in the belly, though, so I waited it out, grabbed a muffin when they opened, and headed down the road to the start just in time to miss the drop bag truck. Damn. Oh well-I figured I could just move a few of my ziplocked bags of spare socks, gloves, hats and other random small items to my pack.

As I stood around I felt kind of....not just kid of, but totally like an ultrarunning poser. There were some serious rock stars of the trail running world waiting around for the start, and here I was just hoping I could make it through in one piece.The mood was very chill, though, and conversation with other runners milling around was very relaxed. I talked to my son's teacher, who was running the 33K, and made small talk with some other ladies who sounded like they'd be bringing up the rear with me today. It was kind of reassuring to know there were others just out to have fun, not contending for big money and fabulous prizes.

It was extremely warm for February, but the wind was crazy and light rain falling felt like little wet BB gun pellets when it hit my face. The conditions were still far more appealing than what I remembered from the 33K last year, though, and I figured if this was the worst of it I could deal with it. I took my pre-race S-Caps packet o' stuff (it keeps me from cramping up and helps to avoid hyponatremia in an endurance event), guzzled some water and got ready with everyone else. Holy cow, here I am. No backing out now. When it was time to start, though, I was calm and didn't really have a worry in my head. The plan was to stay this way physically and mentally, run relaxed and enjoy. Soon we were off, and headed out on a 34 mile foot tour of the slick rock and red dirt of Moab. John, the husband of my 24-hour teammate Julie, was in the longer race too and said "Remember to have fun!" when he ran past at the start. Excellent advice that I intended to follow.

My plan for the day was simple. Run the easier and less technical sections at the fastest pace I could that still felt "comfortable," so to speak. With the steeper and more challenging stuff, I intended to avoid the power hike in favor of running in the old "Zero Gear." This meant I'd be landing with relaxed compression while lightly lifting the other foot, running as slowly as necessary but still running. When I first started doing this last fall, it felt very awkward. I felt like I was shuffling and couldn't possibly be more efficient this way. Now, I am amazed at how different and comparatively easier to hiking the effort feels and can't imagine doing it my old way. My other strategy was to break the course up into different segments to pick apart-the first ten miles, the next eight to the mandatory time cutoff (had to get there by 12:30), the marathon point (26.2), the last aid station (29 miles), and finally the last five mostly downhill miles.

The first five miles were really just a time for me to settle in and let the body warm up. Some days you have it, other days you feel terrible, and I was relieved that things felt pretty good despite a few weeks of crap running, stress, and a bad night of sleep. I made it to the turnoff for the 14 extra miles on the long course feeling, dare I say, GOOD. There had been some hard rain to the face in the early miles but it seemed to taper off. The wind, though, was a different story. It was the only thing that was less than awesome on race day. I just tucked my head down a bit whenever it got bad and moseyed along.

I'd been told that this 14 mile loop was the "easier" part of the course, and that I'd already covered the tougher section running the 33K last year. Kind of a double edged sword since the hard part would come later, but that assessment was pretty right on. There was a lot of up and down but it wasn't steep or extreme, and there were some views that blew my mind along the way. I believe I talked to most of the City of Fort Collins, Colorado while looping around in this area. It turns out that they'd brought about 40 runners down for this. That's what I love about this kind of race-everyone out there enjoying and sharing the experience. You will have to turn the head for this next video....sorry. My iPod video cam skills were lacking sometimes but it's worth it for the sweet view in this clip.

The wind was still whipping around and the rain was coming off and on, but with relatively warm temperatures it was still kind of refreshing. Last year, it had been very sunny but cold, and frankly, this felt better. The sun wasn't beating down on me and nothing on me was too hot or too cold. Constantly running kind of off-camber and leaning downhill to the right was a little awkward but not awful. When I arrived at the third aid station near the end of this 14 mile loop, I was thrilled to see that unless I lay down and did nothing for an hour, I would make that 18-something mile cutoff with ease. I fueled up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, coke, and water before moving along, and passed the jeep where they were recording runners moving past the cutoff at around the 3:40 mark.

Now I was almost entirely by myself. We were pretty strung out near the back of the pack, with big gaps between runners. Occasionally, I'd overtake someone or a random runner would slide slowly past me, but there just wasn't much in the way of civilization out here. Reaching 20 miles, I was beginning to tire but wasn't hurting yet. It wasn't anything that broke my relaxation. When epic winds and dark skies moved in, and those little water drop bullets started slapping against me again, I felt as calm as I'd felt the entire race. The winds were brutal, the skies were dark, but I felt completely at peace in the middle of it all, and was feeling more and more confident that I'd be finishing with a smile on my face in a few hours.

When the marathon distance finally ticked away on the ol' Garmin around 5:45 or so, it was kind of anticlimactic. I hadn't been running a traditional road marathon pace so there was none of that feeling of impending glycogen depletion or hitting the wall-just the slow creep of fatigue, and when things started to hurt, it seemed like they'd eventually reach a point at which things didn't get any worse, and just went numb. By now my excitement was building even as I tired, knowing I was less than eight miles to the finish. Blue skies and sunshine made a brief appearance to mark the occasion.

I spent another mile or two by myself, with a few people in the distance behind me, and eventually found myself creeping up slowly behind another woman who was shuffling along slowly but steadily. When I reached her, we started chatting and just kind of kept chatting and moving along together. We were in just about the same place as far as pace and how we were feeling. Her name was Julia, and we seemed to also be very similar runners in being slower on the trails, but both a little faster on roads, and running Boston this year. It was her second time running the 55K, and she was also down here for relaxed, fun "me time" with kids back home.

I'm not sure if we were tired or if the flagging got a little bit sketchy here, but we went off-course for the one and only time of the day somewhere around 30 miles. We followed one flag toward a hill but then kept going up the hill. Only after cresting the hill did we realize that we'd overachieved, and should have turned right across the hill rather than climbing it. Whoops. Still, this wasn't a whopper of a mistake. It cost us two or three minutes. No big deal.

Now in our seventh hour of running, the feeling was sweeping me that this thing was in the bag. I'd be in the last fifty finishers, but didn't care. Somehow, I'd never reached the point at which the pain and fatigue was greater than my desire to keep moving along and do what I'd trained for today. There were now regular slow-shuffle/hike breaks but never did I reach the "shoot me, put me out of my misery" point. Making our final descent toward the finish area at the Poison Spider trailhead, the wind was really getting insane to the point of a full blown dust storm that stopped us dead in our tracks with about a mile to go. I felt like a wuss for stopping and turning my back against the gusts, but looking uphill I could see that the few other runners behind me were doing the exact same thing to avoid being blinded. It finally let up and we continued down to the finish.

I had my third wind to really finish this thing off now, and wanted to be done as quickly as possible. Right around 7:29, my Garmin decided it was done for the day and just shut off. NICE. Not a big deal but geez, it could have waited another ten minutes. I wound up pulling away from Julia just a bit, wanting to accelerate up with whatever was left and finish strong. Coming down the hill, I could see the finish area, and the few spectators lining the end of the course where whooping it up enthusiastically for those of us coming in. I had a smile on my face and soaked it all in as I finished, 34 miles and a few thousand feet of elevation change behind me in 7:38:06. This was roughly 2:30 after the winning open woman and 2:45 behind Masters/Overall winner (and Western States 100 Champ) Anita Ortiz, but I didn't care. I'd faced down my fear, ran it down and was now standing succesful on the other side.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Going Down to Moab, Gonna Have Myself A Time

Somehow I find myself a day away from my first trip to Moab for 2011. Oddly enough, my last real race report on this little blog was from the last trip of 2010 to Moab. I guess something about that place makes me want to write.

This time, it's for a return trip to the Moab RedHot 55K and 33K. Last year, it was for the 33K with my friends Jen and Nick. This year, it's a lone-wolf trip down in what looks to be sketchy weather for the 55K. I'm reserving the right to downshift to the shorter distance if the weather is disastrously bad, but a huge part of me just says "Suck it up, sista, it'll make you stronger to face that fear." I've had a lot of balls in the air lately, and lots on my mind, and it's easy to give into that temptation to run the shorter race. I also had the first really craptastic race in awhile last weekend at a local 10K, so that gets into the head for sure. It was a race PR, but a lackluster performance that was not up to what I thought could have been possible after last fall's racing season.

I think staring down all that uncertainty and fear of failure might be the best thing, though, even if I am out there, moving along slowly in my zero gear. The course was challenging last year, and it is a little scary actually KNOWING what to expect this year with that route plus 14 miles. On the flip side, I am inspired when I'm in Moab. I felt like I was running across the sky on this course last year, and that's a powerful feeling. Being with like-minded folks who just get it is another aspect of the whole thing that makes me think I CAN make it through, even if I am the last one out there and even if I'm swearing off ever doing something like it again in the final miles.

In other news, I've joined a relay team that currently consists of six women and one man for the 24 Hours of Moab, a relay event that takes place in late March. This involves a six mile loop, and logging as many laps as possible around that loop in a 24-hour period. I've wanted to join a relay team for some time, and am stoked to venture into this new racing territory. I have no idea what to expect, how many laps I'll run or how I'll feel, but I'm excited for the adventure. For now, I just need to do some laundry, pack up some gear, and get myself safely to Moab tomorrow. The next adventure awaits in less than 48 hours.