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Monday, March 21, 2011

Way Too Cool!

This winter's training has been the most successful one I remember.  I have been consistently working out with Sunsweet Team-sters Craig, Jeff, Lewis, and Dan, with good results - at least on the track.  I had given Craig the satisfaction of beating me by nearly a minute in the 4- mile Truffle Shuffle in early February, but was betting that I would beat him by 6 minutes at this year's Way Too Cool 50k.

A little after 7:00 on race morning, Craig, Todd Braje, Lewis, John Ticer and I headed out for a warm-up and preview of a bit of the new course.  It was promising to be a great day, weather wise, with blue skies and cool temperatures.  Back at the start area, decisions on clothing (hat/no hat, gloves, sleeves) were made and I headed for the start.  Craig and I ran some strides, and bumped into Jed Tukman, one of my pacers for Western States this June.  Jed said to me "I'm going to stay behind you this year, because I hate it when you pass me!"  I told him that was a good idea.

I lined up next to Joelle Vaught and Caitlin Smith, both previous winners of this race.  I had mentally seeded myself 3rd to those 2, but never allowed myself to think that I couldn't win.  Caren Spore was behind me, fit and ready to go as always.

After a greeting to the masses from RD Julie Fingar, the countdown began.  Finally, we were off at a quick clip.  I was with Joelle and Caitlin for about a half mile before they began to drift ahead.  Jed was unable to contain himself as was Craig, and they both pulled away from me early.  My first mile felt faster than the 6:40 I clocked and I wondered then and there if I was not going to have a good day after all.

The race begins!  Photo by Chuck Godtfredson

The only wildlife I would see all day was surprising - a gorilla jumping out of the bushes randomly scaring runners, as we hit the single track of the new part of the course.  That was a first for me.  The trail felt sweet beneath my feet.  I was running right behind John, and could no longer see Craig, Jed, Joelle, or Caitlin.  After the first stream crossing, the trail wound upwards, and my heart rate was getting out of control.  Ugh - so early, and runners pulling away.  A train caught up to me and hung on me heels for the next few miles as we wound through a beautiful oak savanna.  The runner behind me asked if he was annoying me being so close.  "Not at all".  He hadn't run an ultra in some time and was not sure how hard to go, liked my pace, and decided to stick there.

Some bikers were out on the course, cheering us on, and one of them said "Good job, Caren!".  Great.  Caren is right behind me.  I yelled back "Are you stalking me Caren?"  I'm not sure she heard me, but shortly after she passed me at a water crossing, and I hung on her heels all the way to the end of the first loop.  At that point she urged me to go ahead as we were hitting the long down hill section, which is my strength and her weakness.

 Caren leading me into the end of loop 1.  Photo by Barbara Ashe

Finally, things started to click in my body.  I surged until reaching the next new part of the course - the Western States Trail down to the lower quarry road.  What an absolute blast!  The perfect downhill pitch for flying.  When it finally ended and we crossed hwy 49, I was certain I would not see Caren again.  I grabbed a couple of cups of water, downed them, and forged on.

I was experimenting using a gel flask rather than packets to see if I could improve on my calorie intake during a race.  Historically, I would get behind on consumption due to inattentiveness to time and the nuisance of opening gel packs, the sticky mess, and lack of getting all the contents in my mouth.  Today, I was taking periodic nips of gel, trying to stay topped off all the time.  So far, so good!

Clipping along the lower quarry road, my Garmin was registering about 7:00 miles.  It was a good effort, but I didn't want to go any harder.  I realized the Caren can easily be running that pace, and as the road began including some climbs, she inched her way back to me.  We ran together for awhile and I said "I think we would make either a really good Trans-Rockie team or a really bad Trans-Rockie team" - a race where team mates must start and finish each leg together - and we concluded we would probably be pretty good because we would always be containing each other - she would have to slow her climbs and I, my downhill.

She pulled away from me before Maine Bar aid station, and I stopped to get my bottle filled.  John was still there and waited for me, and we ran out together.  He said Craig was about a minute ahead and that he was tired of trying to catch up to him.  We settled into working together, which we do very well, as we have run most of White River 50 Mile together, he paced me to a win at Where's Waldo 100k, and we have done numerous workouts on the track and long training runs together.  Come to think of it, Craig should have been with us from the start.  Maybe then....but I don't want to spoil the story.

As usual, Jady Palko caught up to me, and I chatted with him for a bit.  Jady is known for his sporadic bursts of speed followed by tortuous slow downs, but he seems to enjoy himself.  He apparently tired of my talking and flew ahead, only to be passed by John and me shortly after.  We took turns leading, and I wondered when the heck I was going to see Caren, or was she feeling so good that she would catch the leading ladies?  A couple of stream crossings were so deep I wondered if she had gotten swept away.  John noticed my untied shoe and made me tie it.  I told him to keep moving and make me catch up.  As I started to reel him back in, he started to pick it up, and fairly soon, we were beginning to roll.  We flew into ALT, I grabbed and S!Cap, drank two cups of coke, and was gone.

 John and I cruising into ALT aid station.  Photo by Carole Connor

John then had to run hard to catch me, and we kept the pace going.  I was feeling great, and suddenly ahead of me I spied blue shorts, grey shirt, and red cap.  Not remembering what color hat Craig had on, I yelled back to John "what color hat is Craig wearing?".  I got no reply, so I asked louder (we are getting older, after all).  A very reluctant "Red, yes, that is Craig".  I did a little happy jump, and John reined me in with a "Just wait, be patient", but what I heard was "Pipe down for crying out loud!"

I did a little yoga breathing, and John and I silently caught up to Craig.  I put my arm around his shoulder and he said "I wondered when you guys would catch me".  In a very sympathetic voice I said "how's it going?"  He said "oh, up and down".  I took off, baiting him with an invitation to "work with me!" but he declined.  John and I kept up our strong pace, passing a couple more runners before we hit the base of the big climb up Goat Hill. I spied Jed and yelled out to him.  He was a sack-a-woe, cramping and beat.  He tried to run with me, and I chided him for not sticking to his plan.  I told him his job at Western States is to make me hate him, and he said he hated me already.  "But you can't drop me at Western States" I said as I left him to struggle his way in.

Goat Hill is runnable if you are Caren Spore.  I could run sections, and when I got to the top was told that Caren was about a minute ahead of me.  I grabbed a couple of cups of liquid, one gel pack in case the flask went dry, and flew down the hill.  John was no longer with me, and I was on a mission.  I was focused on not going too crazy, as there are some uphills that I had forgotten about in previous races here.  I caught a couple more men, and FINALLY saw the bright yellow jersey of Caren.  She was cresting a hill, and I hope she hadn't seen me, but as I approached the top, realized it was part of a switchback, and she probably saw me and picked up the pace.  I kept pushing, and saw her again.  Gradually, I reeled her in, called her a stinker, and she returned the compliment.  Finally I said I was going around and she stayed right on my heels.  We caught a man ahead, and I abruptly told him "You're going to have to get out our way, there's a race going on" and I think he probably heard "OUT OF OUR WAY! TWO B____S COMING THROUGH".  (To the man we passed - if you are reading this, I sincerely apologize!)

I managed to stay ahead of Caren by a few feet all the way about half way up the trail before the hwy 49 crossing.  She is a superior climber, and she pulled away a good 10 yards by the time we crested.  My long legs pulled her back and we crossed the hwy virtually together.  She ran close to the aid station table and whether she was planning on stopping or not, I yelled at her "don't stop!"  I wanted this race to play out with no excuses.  She stayed in the lead as we climbed out of the aid station, and somehow I managed to stay right on her heels in the lower section.  As soon as we hit the steeper, rocky section, she gapped me again.  We had less than a mile to go, and I was about to explode I was breathing so hard.  I only hoped she was breathing hard enough to not hear mine, as it is kind of embarrassing.

At the top of the rocky section she had 20 yards on me.  My mind was no longer in the game, but my body completely took over.  My legs unwound and ate up the ground beneath me.  Caren was getting closer and closer, and at the very top of the climb, I caught her - with a quarter mile to go.  "Let's go!" I shouted between gasps.  "I'm done" she said.  I clambered down the steep dip before me, fumbled my way up the other side, and ran as hard as I could.  "She may think she's done, but I know better than to give an inch," I thought to myself.

 Finish line in sight!  Photo by Chuck Godtfredson

I did try to look back, but couldn't see anything.  I crossed the finish line, 4:11 flat, and Caren, a mere 11 seconds back.  We embraced, and laughed at how much we hated each other.

 So glad to be done - photo by Chuck Godtfredson

Of course, in reality, I love her for what she brought out in me, and I think I did the same for her.  Without our race, I would have easily been a minute slower.  I found that my body could actually take over my mind, rather than the other way around.  Joelle and Caitlin added their bit of drama to the finish with Joelle taking over the lead the same place I passed Caren.

 The top 4 women left to right - Me, Joelle (1st in 4:02) and Caitlin (2nd in 4:04), and Caren.  They were reacting to me telling them I was turning 50 in 5 weeks.  And, I'm really NOT that tall.  RD Julie Fingar at far right.  Photo by Chuck Godtfredson

This was my fastest Cool ever, even though with a different course it is hard to compare.  My energy levels were great for the entire race, so the gel flask is 'in'.  John finished in 4:15, and the 6 minutes I had predicted I would beat Craig by turned into 9.

 Hmmm - 4:20:27 minus 4:11....that is MORE than 9 minutes.  Photo by Chuck Godtfredson.

He and Jed both say they are going to stay behind me at Lake Sonoma 50 Mile on April 2nd.  Really?  We'll see.

 John Ticer, Chris and Craig (you can take the boys out of Cool, but you can't take the Cool out of the Thornley Boys) and me.  Photo by Carole Connor.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bandera 100k - 2011

As one of the long runs in the Montrail Ultra Cup series, I decided last summer to enter this winter event.  I figured my best chances to repeat the win were to hit all the 100ks, and now I had an excuse to try another race.  Later it was announced the race would also serve as the USATF National Championship race which could possibly add to the competitive field.

Up and coming Pam Smith from Salem had run this race last year, and was only minutes from the winners. She entered again this year, and she joined the Sunsweet group of Laura and Jeff Riley, Craig and Laurie Thornley, Dan Olmstead, and I on this trip to the Lone Star state.  A wealth of information, she filled us in best she could on the terrain, course, weather, and the town of Bandera.  We made it out to the course the day before the race for a sampling.  It was all it was cracked up to be.  Rocks, rocks, rocks, dirt, sotol cactus, climbs, rocks, descents, rocks.  Rocks.

Sotol Cactus - Note the nice teeth!

Race morning arrived and the weather looked promising for the most part.  Former Oregonian and good friend Olga Varlamova welcomed us, and was the aid station captain for the start/finish area.  The start for the 100k was near the headquarters, and the 25/50k start was about a quarter mile away.  All races started at the same time, and the courses were staggered to eliminate as much overlap of athletes as possible.  Logistically this was a great plan, but it put a big question mark on how I was going to tell if I could beat Craig in my first lap of the 100k to his JV 50k.

The ever charming Olga Varlamova

My time goal was to break 10 hours, after conferring with Pam and Melanie Fryer (100k Team USA member, and very experienced on this course).  Pam started with a goal of 4 minutes faster than last year (10:32?) and I immediately gave her a new goal of  10:15, based on her recent performance at JFK 50 Mile.  The other main competitor was Liza Howard, who I barely met at The NorthFace 50 in SF last month, but had been impressed by her competitiveness and humble spirit.  She lives in San Antonio and trains on this course, which I would learn is a pretty nice advantage and a great skill to learn.

The race started at 7:30, and the top men bolted quickly.  I was running next to Liza for maybe a half mile, wondering why she was wearing tights.  We chatted briefly, then she pulled away on the first climb, seemingly floating away effortlessly.  In a matter of moments, the field had thinned and for the rest of the day I would run alone - maybe with someone tailing me for awhile, maybe passing, but the largest number of folks I saw were at each aid station.  On the way down the first hill, I started brushing up against the sotol.  Ouch.  Tights good, Lululemon shorty-shorts - bad.  At first I was weaving away from it but that got tiresome and didn't work anyway.

As Pam said, just because we get a downhill, doesn't mean we can run it.  No kidding!  A few long strides, then a bunch of short ones, a few walking steps, then some longs ones, then running, then another climb/hike.  It was like running in 5/4 time, always one extra beat per measure that one doesn't normally expect.  I started to hear music from the first aid station, so glanced at my watch.  It was in the 40+ minutes range.  I predicted that if I could run between each aid station in under one hour that I could reach my time goal.  The music was a tease, as it was quite loud and could be heard when still minutes away.  When I finally arrived it was so loud that my request for a gel went unnoticed, so I went through without, and my time was 52 minutes.  That seemed reasonable to me.  I took one of my gels from a pocket and gulped it down.  The sotol in this section was much less abundant, and the trail flattened out quite a bit.   I came to an opening and road crossing where the RD Joe was hanging out.  I asked him "how far is she?" and he said, uh, I think less than a minute.  Comforted by that thought I relaxed a bit.  The rest of the way to the next aid station was runnable and pretty straight forward.  I arrived to a helpful crowd, include Laura Riley, who was worried that I didn't have a back tag indicating my age group (a USATF requirement in age championship races) pinned one on me.  She said the leader was about 8 minutes ahead (!).  Wow, that was more than a minute.  

The next section was also mostly flat runnable trail.  Eventually I made it to the aid station "cross roads in" which we hit twice.  Laura was there again, ready to help make sure I had what I wanted.  I grabbed gel, heed, and took off.  Alone again, I was ambling along at a relaxed pace when I heard footsteps.  When I finally turned I saw it was Pam!  She said something very cute - about feeling like she was in some parallel universe where she was way ahead of where she thought she would be.  I told her all I kept thinking was we had to do this loop again.  Worried that maybe I had been too relaxed, I picked up the pace, and through the technical section, she dropped off.  After more climbing, getting scratched up again, encountering 50k runners, the trail turned downhill, back into 'cross roads out'.  I was hitting all aid stations in less than an hour.  I asked the volunteers where Liza was, and they said about 10 minutes ahead.  I forged on, into a section with a lot of climbing.  Into the next aid station in 45 minutes, I asked again, and I was seemingly holding my own with Liza.  

The next section had two big climbs - Cairns Climb and Boyle's Bump.  I was pretty much reduced to grinding up and gingerly going down.  When it flattened out, I reminded myself to save something for the next loop.  Coming down from Boyle's I tripped, fell ALMOST to the ground, but stopped in a full plank.  Gingerly getting up, I was relieved to be unhurt.  I picked up speed gradually, hit another downhill stretch with a 90 degree turn at the bottom.  I caught my toe and crashed HARD, calf cramping slightly.  My first thought was "am I done?" but my body allowed me to walk a bit then jog, then run.  Entering into the only out and back section before the turn around for the loop, I strained my eyes looking for Liza, but to know avail.  At the turn-around I was ahead of my 4:45 projected time, in 4:37.  Craig was there, and let me know that he had barely beat me in the JV race with a 4:32.  Liza was reportedly 12 minutes ahead now.  Olga took over getting me fueled up and focused, and I was on my way to 'race' the second half.  

It was warming up, so I tossed my beanie, but given the protection from my gloves and arm warmers from the last crash, I kept them on.  I got my wheels going, and just before the end of the out and back, Pam was on her way down.  I was only about 4 minutes ahead of her here, and she looked in complete control.

Now it was time to race, go harder and try not to have too huge a positive split.  However, the hills felt a little steeper, and before long I could hear Pam's voice.  I pushed harder, and when I had the opportunity and could hear the loud music of the aid station, I started to roll pretty fast.  I kept checking my watch, thinking I should be well under an hour, but sounds can be deceiving.  When I finally arrived, I was over an hour.  It felt impossible to be that much slower, especially given how hard I was working.  I ate a gel, had my drink filled, and found that Liza was now 13 minutes ahead.  Dang, that girl was GOOD!  I took off, still trying to maintain some speed.  I caught and passed one man, but he stayed fairly close.  I kept looking back, expecting Pam to come cruising by at any moment.  

I looked about how I felt.  Bleah.

I made to the next aid station, and was greeted by Craig and Laura, who both crewed me through.  I had actually cut into Liza's lead, down to 8 minutes, but as I told my crew, I was pretty tired.  I jogged out, and really didn't pick up the pace much above that.  I was going SLOW, which was too bad, since it was one of the most runnable sections, hardly a rock, hardly a hill.  The man I had passed earlier passed me back, then another.  I heard a water bottle full of ice coming behind me, and when I turned to look, saw Pam cruising along quite comfortable.  "Alright Pam!  You are looking GOOD!"  She was gracious and encouraging, and ran by me like I was standing still.  Seriously, I was amazed at how quickly she disappeared from sight.

As I slogged along too tired to care about the race momentarily I felt I had entered that zone where people "DNF".  I didn't want to quit, but I understood why folks do.  I came to Bandera to run 62 miles, and I intended to get it done, provided I was not endangering my health.  I wasn't bonking, hungry, or hurt, but I had shot my wad racing hard for 40 miles, and now it was time to pay.  I felt like crying (like a baby who needs a nap), but focused on what I needed to do at the next aid station to fix myself up for the rest of the day.

I ambled in, and Laura and Craig came to my aid again.  I told them I just need to fix this and get going.  I grazed on almonds, asked for some ramen noodles, drank some coke, and finally decided to go.  I had stood so long my knees were a bit achy as I left.  I got to see Dan come into this aid station at the end of the loop, before he headed into his fourth place finish.  This loop is one of the shortest legs of the race, but as the RD had promised, every climb looked a little steeper, every rock a little bigger.  I was no longer completely dead, but I didn't anticipate a huge bounce back.  

I finally made it back to the end of the loop.  Laura helped me again get plenty to eat and drink, assuring me that I looked much better than last time she saw me.  I said I at least felt like I was running.  I had 9.5 miles to go, something I had accomplished in 1:30 first time around.  I thought I was going slow, but that maybe I could do the same distance in 1:45 and hit the goal of 10:15 I had set for Pam.  

There isn't much to say about the rest.  At the last aid station, the volunteers asked me if I wanted to know where the leaders were.  I said not really, it didn't matter anymore.  I got through the last two climbs and descents without falling, and was happy that my feet weren't hurting given the rocky terrain.  I had a decent kick at the end, and was swept up in a hug by Olga at the end, where I unwittingly used an expletive to describe the course in a very loud voice, much to the amusement of all those around, including RD Joe Prusaitis.  My time was 10:19.  Pam and Liza were both there, looking as if they had already showered and napped.  Pam ran 9:46 (50 minutes faster than last year?) and Liza, 9:35.  All three of us broke the previous course record.

You ran HOW fast?

Frequently when thinking of my goals for a race, I remember a key one is 'learn something new'.  With this race I thought of that at the end, as I indeed learned that I can reach a point that may feel like there is no return, and by trying different things, I may come back.