Thursday, June 09, 2016

From one who got justice

I am a rape survivor. With all the well-deserved attention garnered recently by the Stanford rapist, his father's stunningly blind and cowardly letter of defense, and his victim's brave, thoughtful, and moving letter of impact, my own experience has been on my mind more than usual. I've compared the details of our two cases and drawn parallels (many) as well as distinctions (few, but significant).

The most significant difference between us, this amazing woman who I don't know, yet almost feel as if I do, is that I got justice for what Robert Murphy, my rapist, did to me. My rapist is about eight years into a 60-year sentence in maximum-security prison, precisely where he belongs. It's possible he will get out after as few as 30 years, depending on his behavior, but that's still ages longer than most rapists get, if they get convicted at all. I reported my rape, made a statement (I'll never forget how the police officer who responded put his face into his hands when I described the details of what my rapist did to me), worked with detectives and prosecutors, testified against my rapist, and looked him in the eye as I identified him before a court of law as the man who raped me. This process was stressful and harrowing, and it took a year of my life. But I was rewarded by the removal of my rapist from society.

The Stanford victim went through a very similar process, but she did not receive the same reward. She still beat the odds by having a case that went to trial at all, that secured a conviction, and that resulted in any jail time whatsoever (even if it was a paltry six months). But the time of the rape to the time of sentencing was more than twice as long as the fucking sentence. That is, her ordeal lasted longer than her rapist's will last (and of course we're not talking about the lifelong implications yet). That is NOT OKAY EVER. "Twenty minutes of action"? The rape is only the beginning, you piece of shit.

You can see that I'm angry. I'm still angry at my rapist. I hate him and I will never forgive him (like Brock Turner, he never admitted his responsibility; maybe I would feel differently if he did). If he dies in prison, I will celebrate, because then I will never have to worry about him again. When I'm low, I like to think about all the women he will not rape during the next 22 or more years. Every day I have to live with the memories of what he did and how he made me feel. And this is coming from that rare person for whom the justice system actually worked. So I can't imagine the anger she must feel, the flailing, powerless rage that must consume her and all the other victims who are forced to accept injustice.

In fact, beyond, you know, being raped in the first place, my situation was about as ideal as one could hope. I had the full and constant support of family, friends, law enforcement, and the prosecutor's office. No one questioned the veracity of my story, made comments about what I was doing in an isolated location all alone, insinuated I was asking for it by wearing form-fitting clothing, or any other ridiculous justification for blaming me. No one blamed me at all--everyone blamed him. He had no defenders, only court-appointed public counsel. All I received was praise for being brave. Why was this? Privilege? I'm sure that was part of it, maybe all of it. I am an athletic, college-educated white woman with blond hair, a young professional. He is white too, but he was poor and had a lengthy criminal history, including jail time for a similar offense. We all know Brock Turner's status as an athlete with a "promising future" and no criminal record swayed the decision on his case. Robert Murphy had none of these things. They're both garbage humans, but only one of them is spending a significant portion of the rest of his life in prison.

What I'm getting to is that my case is a huge outlier. What made it different from so many others? Why was I believed? Because it fit a narrative that people use to comfort themselves that what they did wasn't rape? Because it was a stranger who jumped out of the bushes and attacked from behind? I wasn't drinking or partying? I wasn't exposing skin? Can we just take a moment here and realize what we're telling women and victims (it's up to you to avoid it, but if you don't, you were probably asking for it) as well as entitled, violence-prone men (when she dresses like that, it's all for you) when we probe for those distinctions? 

Even with support, even with no blame, even with justice, the rape was bad enough. And now I submit to you that to be without these things, or even one of these things, is many times worse. I can only imagine how bad. I can give you a firsthand account of being raped, and of the process of participating in a trial, but not of what it feels like to be victim-blamed, gaslighted, revictimized in the media, scrutinized by strangers, denied justice, forced to see and/or interact with my rapist, afraid of seeing him when I go out in public, etc. Only those victims who have been through it know. And who imposes these things on the victim? Society does. And we have to do better.

I don't have the answers; I'm just here to say that living with trauma and having a perfectly good life is possible. All victims should get that. Believe them. Support them. Remember that they're people. People who didn't choose this. People who expected nothing more than a fun night and maybe a hangover.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

IT83: Looking for that breaking point

When I first heard that people ran races of 100 miles, I was skeptical. How is it humanly possible to do that? I couldn't imagine. But as I gained more experience doing ultramarathons, it became clear to me that I would try. I didn't know if I could do it, but I wanted to find out.

For my first attempt I chose the Indiana Trail 100. I had paced my friend Chris N. there the year before so I was familiar with the course and I knew the organization and race atmosphere was second to none. (After having done it myself, I can confirm that the RD, volunteers, aid stations, etc., are the very best I've ever seen.) There would also be lots of support from people I know, and it wouldn't be too long a haul for my crew and pacers. The course, in good conditions, is magical. Easy, rolling hills, wide, manicured, grassy paths, soft double track, and a few single-track sections, all of it entirely nontechnical and enticingly runable. In good conditions it's a wonderfully fast course. In good conditions.

Last year, rain rendered the course anything but easy. And when the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and the cold descended. All too well I remembered the crawl through the mud, every step a victory as Chris N. worked his way doggedly through the final 16.7 miles of his journey. When I registered for this year's race, I knew I risked those conditions myself, and I could only hope for the best.

And so as I prepared my gear and supplies for the big day, I watched the weather forecast like a hawk. I had reason to be hopeful; for a time there was rain predicted for Sunday, but not Saturday. Then the rain forecast shifted to Saturday afternoon, but it still wasn't a death knell. The chances were not absolute, and if it hit late enough in the day it wouldn't do as much damage. I packed rain gear and extra layers. Gloves, extra buffs. Socks, so many socks.

I went into the day still holding to the goal that I had formed, to break 24 hours. I knew everything would have to be perfect to hit that goal, and the chances of doing so on my first try were not great, but I needed something to schedule for so I could tell my crew when to expect me at the end of each of six 16.7-mile loops. My B goal was to finish within the cutoff of 30 hours. The closer it came, the more nervous I got, way more nervous than usual. I always have a little anxiety before races, even local 5Ks. But it's minor, just butterflies in the stomach, something I can control by taking a deep breath and remembering that I trained for this. This time I truly didn't know if I could even make the distance, let alone predict how fast, and nothing I could tell myself would convince me of anything other than the long, hard day in front of me. 

Lyrics by Mollie!
After arriving in the park and picking up my packet, I spent some time at the prerace meeting talking to friends who were there to run and volunteer, and then I went for a final easy shakeout run With Alicia and Mollie. We fixed dinner and spent a really nice evening in the park cabin I rented. We went over my gear, supplies, and tentative plan, and then they surprised me by singing a song to the tune of the Proclaimers' I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)! It was embarrassing but hilarious. But soon enough it was time for bed. I didn't expect to get much sleep (I had gotten 7.5+ every night that week so that didn't worry me), but my nervousness made it even worse than I'd thought. I lay there fidgeting, getting up once an hour or so to pee. I honestly don't know if I slept at all. From 3:00 to 4:00 a.m., I just kept checking my watch. Finally at 4:00 a.m. I got up and started to get ready for the 6:00 a.m. start.

I made coffee and tried to nibble on a bagel with peanut butter. I already knew it would be a bad day for my stomach. I'm never good at eating in the morning, but the struggle of forcing down just a mini-bagel definitely did not bode well. My stomach felt light and nausea clawed at my throat. My gut roiled. I told myself to calm down. Often I have a sour stomach in the morning, especially very early mornings, and then feel fine later.

Nervous as fuck with the Marks and Chris N. Photo: Chris Buehler
We drove over to the start/finish at 5:00 a.m. and brought our stuff up to the large tent set up by Terry Fletcher and the folks of Indiana Trail Running. This "basecamp" is a huge part of why I wanted to do IT100. It's a beacon of warmth and comfort at the end each lap, a place where your gear is guaranteed to stay dry, and it's full of friendly faces who are ready to help. It's also a dry, warm place for pacers and crew to hang out during the long breaks between my appearances. The only problem is leaving it again!

We set up my little corner and I went through my final prep: pinning on bib number, filling hydration pack with Tailwind, putting on headlamp, breathing. Nervousness pierced me and I wanted to double over it as if I'd been physically impaled. Finally, FINALLY, it was time to line up and we were off. 

Loop 1: 3:27
I wanted to run 12:30ish pace for the first loop, and when I looked down after a bit and saw 12:40, I was pleased. I settled into an easy shuffle, walking any inclines, and that kept me right at 12:30-12:40. I ran for a bit with my friend Kim before letting her go on ahead (she was doing the 50-mile race). A little while later, a group of guys I know, Mark, Brian, Clay, and Chris J., caught me and I ran with them for a bit too before they slowly pulled ahead. I kept up my 12:30s.

It was so beautiful at first! Photo: Dawn Stine
The first loop felt fine. Not great, but solid. My gut still felt off and I couldn't think about solid food, but I did fine with gels, chews, and Tailwind for about 800-900 calories total for the loop. I passed two out of the three aid stations without stopping, and only paused at Rally to take off my gloves and have Erin stow them in my pack.

We were treated to a beautiful sunrise before the sky started to cloud over. It was cool and breezy, and the trail was soft from rain a couple of days before, but dry. At some point I realized I had forgotten to turn off auto pause on my watch, which was annoying because I wanted to have an accurate average pace (taking aid station and bathroom stops into account). But at least I could compare my total time with time of day and keep track of my moving time versus overall time.

Loop 2: 3:42
Mile 17. Photo: Chris Buehler
I stopped into the basecamp tent and refilled my gels, chews, and Tailwind, keeping some solid food on me so I could have a go at that too. Chris N. had taped a picture of my dogs to the lid of my supply box (there would be different pictures throughout the day) and that brought a big smile to my face. I dropped off my headlamp for the day but kept my gloves. At that time, we expected the rain to hold off until about 3:00 p.m., so I didn't take my rain jacket yet. I stopped quickly in the portajohn, hoping to the relieve some of the discomfort in my gut, and then started the second loop feeling pretty confident.

The second loop was much like the first. Solid food was a no-go, but gels and chews were staying down. The course was soft but dry. The clouds increased. I pulled over two or three times to pee, more often than normal but I've had worse. Between Schoolhouse and Rally, it started to rain very lightly. It didn't seem so bad; it barely made my shirt damp. I felt comfortable. 

My crew met me at Rally just to say hi and I was really glad to see them. I took another portajohn break and then paused to say hi to them. "Halfway to pacers!" I said gleefully, and then took off again. The misting rain continued, and I kept telling myself that if it didn't get any worse, then everything would be fine. I caught up to Kim and we ran together awhile before she pulled away again. I was working on eating another gel when suddenly an especially bad wave of nausea overtook me. I pulled over and threw up. It's actually the first time I've ever thrown up while running! Two quick heaves of syrupy liquid and I immediately felt better, good enough to just keep sipping Tailwind.

This time I didn't quite finish off my Tailwind and I lost 100 calories' worth of gel, so I give myself 750 calories for the loop. Another efficient basecamp stop for a refill and to grab my jacket, and I headed off again. I took off my long sleeve layer and stowed it in my packet, then put the jacket on over a tank. My crew urged me to try harder to eat solid food, and this time I took along a Clif sweet potato packet for something more substantial, along with a 500mL soft flask of ginger ale to help settle my stomach.

Loop 3: 4:26
About mile 38, coming into Schoolhouse.
Photo: Russ Jensen
I was a little freaked by the vomiting, and my gut still made itself known. I was still close to Kim and we sometimes ran together and sometimes just close by. I also ran with a nice woman named Carrie from New Hampshire, whose bib number was only one higher than mine. I nibbled at the sweet potato and my stomach seemed to be working on it okay. I kept sipping Tailwind as much as I could to keep some calories flowing that wouldn't further upset my stomach. It just felt so iffy, and I was really worried about losing more calories.

At Rally, I was able to run right by the aid station without stopping and soldier on. However, within a mile, I started to regret that. The mud was starting to get treacherous; it wasn't deep, but it was slippery, and it was slowing me down. Consequently, I was starting to get cold. The rain didn't soak through my jacket, but it clung wetly to my bare arms underneath. My gloves became soaked through and my fingers were going numb. I wasn't generating enough body heat with my movement, and I wasn't eating enough to keep my energy up. The rain was getting worse, and I didn't want to stop to redo my layers in the cold; I was really annoyed that I hadn't kept my long sleeve layer on under the jacket. Should have known better. I slipped and slid through the mud and it was in this section that I realized my first goal was gone. My legs hurt just as badly or worse than they had in previous 50-milers, and the thought that I wasn't even halfway done completely undid me for a short time; I actually started crying quietly as I slogged. But my spirits lifted as I approached Schoolhouse.

About mile 47. Photo: Russ Jensen
Finally I arrived at Schoolhouse Back, about mile 47. My hands were so cold and numb that I was unable to get my gloves off and a volunteer had to help me. Let me just start gushing now about how incredible the volunteers at this race are. They make every single person feel like an elite athlete. On this occasion, he helped me off with my gloves, while another lady brought hot chicken noodle soup and a pair of plastic gloves like food service workers use. They suggested wearing these under my gloves to trap heat and keep out moisture. Take a seat, MacGyver. With my gloves off, I downed some hot soup and noodles and then put on my long-sleeve shirt and the jacket back on over. It was a very lengthy aid station stop; putting the plastic gloves on was really hard with my clammy fingers and then getting wet gloves on over them was a struggle, but this man didn't hesitate to help me the whole time. THANK YOU!!

Fortified and with dry hands, I set off again and actually felt pretty good for the last bit.

Loop 4: 7:01
In fact, I felt so good that I thought, hey, I don't need to change any more clothing! My core is still warm and dry! I can keep moving well enough to keep my legs warm! And now I have Mollie to keep me company and make me laugh! My crew found another Clif sweet potato packet to give me some more substantial calories, refilled my pack and my soft flask of ginger ale, and we were off.

Unfortunately, my sunny feeling dissipated almost immediately. I took small mouthfuls of the sweet potato, but even that was a struggle to get down. My gut was bothering me immensely, and after a mile or so I had to stop to relieve it. That helped a bit, but it didn't last long. It seemed that either my gut or my bladder (or both) bothered me almost the whole time. Also, the cold was digging into me and I realized it hadn't been smart to leave without changing into longer pants. And then I realized I hadn't picked up my headlamp. We were going to be WELL after dark at the rate I was going and we only had Mollie's headlamp. I had to hope that someone would notice and meet us at Rally with it. In the meantime, Mollie offered me her rain jacket in an effort to warm up my core a little bit. I managed a sad little shuffle and we slowly made progress.

Not literally accurate...but accurate.
The mud was getting deeper and stickier, sucking relentlessly at my shoes at each step. It took a lot more effort than usual to stay upright and pick up my feet. And the rain was worsening. Somewhere in here I began to voice my doubts about whether I was going to be able to make it the whole distance. I subjected Mollie to every bit of my normally inner monologue. My own sense of determination was bruised and bleeding in the corner, so she had to take its place. She later compared it to the journey of Joy and Sadness in the Pixar movie Inside Out.

The thought of going through this twice more overwhelmed me. It wasn't just fatigue, it was pain--my legs had gone more than 50 miles and they were hurting. Also around this point was when the mud started actually soaking through my shoes and socks and forming hard little mud balls beneath my toes and the balls of my feet. In effect it was like small rocks. Every step hurt. Add to that the cold and I knew my current layering situation wasn't working. I told Mollie we'd have to stop at Rally so I could change into tights and fresh socks, and to add another layer on under my jacket. We made good progress as it started to get dark and managed to get there before full darkness fell. Alas, no crew and no headlamp, but I put that out of my mind and concentrated on dry pants.

Erin and Chris B. were (still!) working and they took care of us, working on getting my jacket and gloves dry and bringing over my drop bag. Chris N. had taped onto the bag a picture of David Tennant (my favorite Doctor) with the caption "You are awesome" and that helped. I brought out dry pants and socks and changed gratefully, using paper towels to scrape away as much mud from my bare feet as I could before donning fresh socks. The warm tent and some hot soup revived me. Chris even gave me a beanie to wear, which was a nice improvement over my buff. They even found some vinyl gloves to replace the plastic ones. I refilled my soft flask with Mountain Dew, hoping the extra caffeine and sugar would help.

Mollie asked around and found someone willing to let us borrow his headlamp. In fact, he said, "We're all family here," and told us not to worry about returning it. I posted this anecdote on the race Facebook page because I was so touched by the gesture. At the time, though, I was so dazed that I barely registered what was happening. We set off again. 

Frozen? Check. Sticky? Check? Falling apart? Double check.
And here came the very lowest low point of the entire race. The mud was unreal, constant, grasping. The rain began to fall in buckets through the darkness, soaking my head, running down under the collar of my jacket in rivulets, and soaking my clothes underneath the waterproof layer. It slowly spread out from my back to my sides, down my arms, and around front. My entire body felt frozen and within two miles, the mud balls were back in my shoes. Every agonizing step meant I had to haul my foot out of the mud--thwup--and find stable spot for it--squelch. My mind simply could not comprehend how awful it was, or how I would keep going for 40 more miles. I kept asking Mollie, "Why is this so horrible?" I even apologized for asking it so many times. After a while I stopped doing much talking at all and just cried. I don't remember the last time I fell apart so utterly. The trails that had seemed so wonderful hours earlier were unrecognizable now; every incline was a precarious, hunched scramble to keep from sliding backward. Some hills were slanted to the left or right so that with every step, we slid back and to one side constantly, in danger of falling right off the trail.

But thanks to Mollie, we kept moving forward. She was relentlessly cheerful and would not take no for an answer when she asked me to eat. I can't remember what else I ate, and it became no less of a struggle to force it down, but it seemed I nearly always had a morsel to work on. She encouraged me to pick up my gait to a shuffle whenever it was possible. We reached Schoolhouse Back and paused again so I could get some hot soup in me. We didn't really know what to do about how cold I was other than hope it stopped raining and get back to the start/finish so I could change clothes again. While we were there, we started talking to another pacer, Crystal, whose runner had dropped her earlier. She asked if she could run in to the finish line with us and we said Sure! The more the merrier.

I don't remember much about the last segment of Loop 4 other than general misery and the carrot of dry clothes hovering in front of me (not a literal hallucination, fortunately!). I was cried out but I kept slogging and squelching forward with little exhausted moans at every step.

Loop 5: 7:32
I can only imagine the relief of my crew when we finally stumbled into the basecamp tent! I had originally estimated a little over four hours for this loop, and while they knew I almost certainly wouldn't hit that with the conditions, I was so overdue that they were worried. And Alicia had been sitting ready to pace for hours. I took a long break here, the longest of the race, to change every top layer (this mile split was 55 minutes, so probably spent 35 minutes stopped). I was soaked through under my jacket and my hands were shaking so hard I couldn't hold a cup of soup. Chris N. stripped off my gloves and used his own hands to warm mine. I meant to say I had another thicker jacket in the car, but Chris and Alicia both offered their jackets so I put one on. Dry sports bras, a cozy base layer, the warm dry jacket, dry gloves, and most especially the news that the rain looked to be over for the night: I almost wept (again) with relief. I sat for a little while by the fire and tried to eat and drink as much as I could: soup, coffee, I forget what else. There was pizza but I couldn't even think about it. My hands were shaking so badly that I could barely hold my cup. Meanwhile, my crew worked on changing my socks and scraping the mud deposits from my feet.

At last we were ready to go and I followed Alicia out of the tent. I was in a bit of a hurry to get going, not so much because I wanted to go but because waves of nausea were making it pretty clear I had limited time before my stomach rejected all the food I had just eaten and I didn't want to throw up in the tent. The pair of us made it maybe 100 yards before I had to double over and let it go. This time I had to heave for quite a while before I felt I could go on, and I didn't really feel much better. So Alicia got to start her loop of pacing by holding back my hair! I lamented the lost calories, not least because it had been so much effort to swallow them all. I had more Mountain Dew, and I sipped a little and it seemed to be okay. We went on.

My thoughts on Clif Shot Bloks.
I managed the slightest shuffling gait for a little while at first, but it was so slow that Alicia was able to hike alongside me easily. Once the mud really got going, though, it became impossible for me to break out of a walk, and it wasn't a fast walk either: just a drunken stumble. Every few minutes Alicia would pass me an energy chew and I reluctantly but obediently put it into my mouth, chewed it for a few minutes, and finally managed to swallow. I had to wait a few minutes after each one before I could tolerate another. Around mile 3 of that loop, Chris N. met us nearby our cabin and gave us a pair of hiking poles that he had borrowed from our friend Heather. He also gave me some Tylenol. I had some with me, but having someone hand it to me forced me to take it. I have trouble swallowing pills on a good day, but I chewed up an energy chew and swallowed the whole thing together...barely.

Now normally I would say this course is the very last trail upon which you would want or need hiking poles. But in these conditions they were a godsend. Having extra points of stability in the mud made a big difference, and we made relatively good time to the next aid station. However, my shoes and socks and once again filled with mud balls and it was quite painful to walk or run on them, so once we had to get them off and scrape away the excess mud from inside. More soup, Pringles, goldfish crackers, and we were off again. I kept up with the poles but also noticed that my arms were beginning to tire. Something to work on, for sure! It would have been even more pronounced, I think, had it not been for the extra conditioning I got from doing yoga recently. They also made it quite the fumble for me to get to my hydration bite valve and drink. For the rest of the loop, Alicia and I traded off with the poles. I tried to keep sipping, often with Alicia's reminders, and she kept passing me energy chews, goldfish crackers, and later, cheese-its.

At some point during this loop, I became fully aware that I wasn't going to finish the race, and I wrestled with that realization nearly as much as my legs wrestled with the mud. I still had some resolve to keep going, but was there really a point? I didn't know what the finish line cutoff was to begin loop 6, but I knew intimately how impossible it would be to do it in any fewer than six hours, and as time ticked away, I knew that unless I grew wings on my feet it was hopeless. Alicia tirelessly encouraged me to keep going, to speed up, and I tried, but there were sections where it took all my willpower not to stop, and our forward progress was achingly slow. The desire to stop consumed me. It was irrational, because if I stopped I would get cold and there was nothing else out there, only darkness and mud and cold puddles. But I still wanted so badly to just stop and stand there forever. I told Alicia (so many times) how badly I wanted to stop, how much it hurt, how hard it was. I don't even remember feeling any pain in my legs by this time (my feet with the ever present mud balls was another story), just the soul-sucking void of utter fatigue.

As we inched closer and closer to each aid station, I began to reason with myself that this didn't have to continue. I COULD stop. I could drop, we could call Mark, and he could drive me back to the cabin, where I could sit in front of the fire and not move. I wasn't even sleepy. I didn't want my bed.  I just wanted to be motionless. There was no shame in dropping, none at all. These races are hard no matter what, and the conditions were extraordinarily difficult, and this was my first attempt. I had already gone many miles over my previous limit. All I had to do was say, I'm done, and it would be over. Why not? What point was there in continuing? I knew I couldn't finish so why not cut my losses?

But as we approached Rally, I found myself preparing to keep going. The section from Rally to Schoolhouse is the longest one between aid stations and had been a mental battleground since loop 3. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it. But once inside the warmth of the tent, with the tireless volunteers I knew from ITR, Johnathan and Ken, taking care of us, I did feel better and I knew I had a little more in me. I sat for a little bit while we yet again worked my shoes off and scraped out the mud. I even agreed to try eating a grilled cheese sandwich. It looked so good at the same time that eating it was practically unthinkable. I managed a few bites, as well as a couple of Pringles. My stomach still roiled, but it accepted them.

About mile 82. Photo: Debi Alexander
On we trundled, our pace glacial. My emotions were totally out of whack. I would cry and giggle in the same breath. Alicia mentioned a climactic plot point from the movie Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and I wept because it was so sad but has a happy ending. I wept with relief when the sky lightened and I realized I didn't need my headlamp anymore. I was still wrestling with the burgeoning knowledge that I was on my final loop, and when the sky lightened, I knew it for sure. We were easily two hours out from the start/finish, and I had six hours left to do that plus another entire loop. Thinking back to my two 3.5ish-hour loops from the day before was enough to make me cry some more. I think Alicia had been hoping to shield me from this knowledge as long as she could, but instead of making me want to give up, it filled me with relief. I think if I'd been allowed to go on, I would have, but having someone force me to stop was different.

I actually mustered some real running (it was through shin-deep mud and up slippery impossible hills, so it was a 15-minute mile, but still!) leading up to the last aid station, mile 80. We paused for more soup and when offered bacon, I couldn't turn it down! I ate most of a slice. They had pancakes too, but that was more than I could handle. We set off again and although it wasn't any faster, my mood was better. It was all a soup of disappointment and elation that I would be able to stop soon, but it was better than the despair I'd been feeling for so many hours.

Photo: Chris Buehler
I shambled into a jog again in the last half mile or so, and even kept it up right to the finish line. Crossing was merely symbolic, since I was only on loop 5, but it still felt good. I had missed the cutoff by about an hour. Even the cutoff only allowed five more hours to complete the race, and I honestly don't know if I could have mustered such an effort. I was only relieved I couldn't try--I didn't have to keep searching for that breaking point. All my eggs were in the basket for this race, so stepping off and trying again this season was not an option. I embraced Alicia, Mollie, and everyone else in sight, and we all cried a little bit. It was almost melodramatic after the storm I'd been through.

Someone at some point said that a 100 doesn't hurt any more than a 50, it just hurts for longer. I would say that at least up to 83, that's accurate. My legs felt more or less like they do after any other ultra, or a road marathon. The soreness faded by Tuesday. I'm taking a full week or more off, no matter how my legs feel. And I'm still not making any future racing plans just yet. I just want to take some time to run exactly as much as I feel like.
Photo: Chris Buehler

I'm wrestling a bit with the DNF (it's only my second one ever), and hemming and hawing about silly things like whether I deserve to wear the race jacket (which, I am, because I'm sorry, it's an $80 Salomon jacket, duh. And I feel that I earned it.). I know that when it comes to 100s, I'd better get used to DNFs. I knew that going in and I'll never forget it now.

It doesn't matter how hard you try, or how much willpower, training, strength, or resolve you have. You might still fail, and I think that's where the allure is. What can you overcome? That will always be an open question that demands an answer, and I imagine that answer will never be quite the same from race to race. Part of running ultras, I think, is being humbled, and striving, sometimes uselessly, against failure. The failure is the teacher and the striving is the lesson. Twenty-six hours of striving taught me a lot this time, and sooner or later I'll put what I learned to good use. All I know is that I can do better, and I'm eager to try...eventually.

I wish there was a way to adequately thank my pacers and crew: Mark, Chris N. (who was to pace loop six but was either cheated of a good piece of training for his 100 or dodged a bullet, you decide), Mollie, and Alicia. Chris might have missed out on the pacing, but I saw him often around the course, and he thought of everything. His advice before and during was valuable. Mollie and Alicia especially got to see me fall apart pretty spectacularly. If you want to learn a lot about a person, pacing him or her in a 100-miler is a GREAT way to do so! Mark has been patiently helping out around the house with the things I usually do and has been supportive every step of the way during my training for this, and when I couldn't even finish it for him, you know what he said? "Next time will be better."

Here's the Strava file for the race. Some kind of weird malfunction stole a mile from me, but I promise my watch said 83 when I stopped!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thoughts at 30,000 miles

This is the earliest running photo I could find. It's the St. Xavier
Tiger Invite in Seneca Park, Louisville, in August of I believe 1997.
I have been steeping this post in my brain for quite awhile, ever since I noticed that I was approaching a hefty milestone in my running life: 30,000 lifetime miles. It's a long way--more than the circumference of Earth, Mars, Venus, Mercury, or Pluto. It's roughly the diameter of Neptune, the smallest gas giant (next up, Uranus! *grin*). It took me about nineteen and a half years, from a sticky afternoon in August of 1996, when I started running cross country in high school, to Saturday, February 20, 2016. Now admittedly, it's an estimate. I've logged my runs since 2007, but before that I did not keep track. Smartphones, the Internet, and GPS have certainly made it easier. For 1996 through 2006, I entered an estimate for each month into RunningAHEAD to give me my lifetime total. I feel pretty confident that it's close to the real number.

Running all those miles gives me plenty of time to think. One question folks ask me is what I think about when I'm out running. Well, sometimes I think about the horrible things going on in the world, and how I'm privileged to have avoided most of them. Sometimes it's just what's going on at work or with friends, and sometimes nothing at all, but sometimes I figure things out for myself. Here are a few of those.

On top of the world: just before Boston 2010!
1. A peak always follows a valley, and a valley always follows a peak. I only know where those high and low points are in hindsight. When I qualified for Boston, I felt invincible. I was certain that if I just kept running more and doing more speedwork, I could keep right on improving. But I learned that everyone's body has a different way of finding limits. Mine was mental burnout. After a brutally hard season of training with too much running and too little rest, I didn't get hurt, but my race times suffered anyway. Once I actually ran Boston (15 minutes slower than my PR on what should have been an ideal day), I lost my way. I wanted to keep improving, but the daily motivation began to wane. What a struggle it was! I was fighting myself all the time. It just didn't feel good. In hindsight, duh, I trained too hard without giving myself enough recovery time. But at the time, I thought I just needed to regain the spark and keep the train going. After months of barely forcing myself out the door to train, I finally hurt my knee when I slipped and caught myself from falling on an icy, steep downhill. I tried for weeks to run on it (taking a few days off, trying it again, etc.) before I finally gave up and just took six full weeks off, missing my second Boston. I was enormously disappointed, but a tiny bit relieved.

Later in 2010. Aaaand I hate everything. 
Once I was back to running pain free, I kept right on fighting myself. I could run. I was healthy; I could easily have built back up into real training again. But my mind was against it. I didn't run at all for the last two months of 2011. It took until 2014 for that spark to fully reignite. Right now I suspect I'm close to a mental high point again. How long will it last? No telling, but this time I know I can't stay here forever and I can enjoy it as such. And I don't have to fear the inevitable mental low point so much because I know that won't last forever either.

2. Slow down. Rest. I say this so often that if you've ever talked to me about running, you've probably heard me say it. It's like my religion. My approach isn't the only way--plenty of people run far less and do it relatively faster and race faster than me. Running a lot too fast is where you may start to have problems. In general, if you like to run and want to run as much as possible, intentionally keeping your pace easy on most of the miles you run--easier than what you're capable of--opens up many possibilities. My best long races come after cycles in which I slowed my training paces and took plenty of recovery time. That helped me not only train in my aerobic zone, but to avoid injury. I love running relatively big miles, but I have to run those miles mindfully and balance them with rest. I know I can't negotiate with my body--it will give all it has until it can't. If I can't be honest with myself, my body will give me the hard truth in due time, one way or another.

Foam rolling and watching Star Wars a few weeks ago.
I think rest and recovery are very general terms with multiple meanings. For some it's a shakeout run instead of a workout or moderately paced run. For others it means days off. Some measure by heart rate, fatigue, sleep patterns, etc. I go by my breathing. If I can hear myself breathing, it's not an easy run. It's simplistic but it works for me. I get minor niggles all the time. Right now I have a heel/Achilles thing. I have been taking care of it by carefully stretching and foam rolling my calf, gentle massage of the heel and foot, and icing the area. It's been perfectly manageable and has gotten better day by day, despite some serious training. Sometimes it takes reduced miles or even one or more days off, and when that's necessary I do it without delay. It's taken a while, but I've learned to differentiate between "good" pain and "bad" pain. It's an important distinction. I've been extremely lucky to mostly avoid injuries. I don't pretend to really know how (maybe it's just how I'm built!), but I have to believe that paying close attention to rest and recovery has at least helped to stop major problems before they start.

3. My body is awesome. For so many years, from a very young age, I hated my legs. I thought they were too big, and I really wanted my body to change. I never had a weight problem, so it was never an issue of needing to make a change for my health; it was complicated. I didn't start running to get the body I wanted, but when I started running, I started comparing myself to other runners and I wanted my body to be like theirs: lean and defined. Some of this was purely for vanity's sake and some was because I thought if I were skinnier I could be faster. Now VERY luckily for me, this never translated into an eating disorder. It so easily could have. But I didn't like what I saw in the mirror and in pictures of myself. Who does, right? I feel like just about everyone has this issue, in one form or another, no matter your body shape. I think for athletes, the issue can be become very sticky indeed because there is so much focus on the body and how it performs.

Same body, different angles, lighting, etc.
I still struggle with this. I still catch myself, when someone is taking my picture, angling my arms to make them look more defined, and sucking in my belly. I still look in the mirror and pinch and pull my jiggly underarms and bulgy waistline, wishing glumly for just a little bit of ab definition (I can get it if I suck in and flex really hard). I still look down at my legs when I'm running and feel dissatisfied because they seem enormous and can't go faster. I see pictures of others looking super fit and thin and think: I want to look like that, even though I know that it's an illusion born of camera angles, filters, and lighting. In fact, my foam rolling photo above is a great example of that--I didn't edit the photo, but yes, I did choose the one where my muscles were flexed just so. I don't think there's anything wrong with choosing flattering photos of oneself, but I never want to forget they represent a filtered reality. Lauren Fleshman's blog post about this issue from a few years ago is probably the best known writing on this topic as it relates to runners. So many people, especially women, responded to that post because it was such a relief to know that even a woman whose life revolves around her fitness still doesn't just look like that without some effort.

I know that I'm relatively thin (I mean, yes, I'm thin; I say relatively because I'm comparing myself to runners who are even thinner--duh, don't do that). I'm a size 6, 5 feet 5 inches tall, and generally weigh about 130 pounds. Objectively those are perfectly normal measurements in healthy ranges. But sometimes I feel huge. It's such a weird thing. I feel like I'm an unreliable narrator in a novel--like my own perceptions are untrustworthy. I've read blog and Instagram posts from women of every shape, and it seems many see the same flaws. And no matter how toned and fit and thin one gets, they see room for improvement. I feel that way too. I can't help it, but at least I can recognize it for what it is.

Mile 12 of 26 for the day--the moment
when I hit 30,000 miles.
I can't say I'm over these feelings and I don't pretend to have the answer to body image issues. But I've gotten better at accepting, loving, and being grateful for what I do have, which is a lot. What I've taken to doing is whenever I have these thoughts, I concentrate on what my body can DO, rather than stupid details about what it looks like. It looks fine. My legs WORK. They are powerful. I'm not the fastest but I can run faster than many, and as much as I want without getting injured. My legs climb mountains, make it through ultramarathons, run marathons and aren't sore the next day, and I hope, will run 100 miles in one day. My bones and tendons and sinews have stood the test of time and mileage. My body has been running for nineteen and a half years and has run 30,000 miles. These things are great and they make me happy. I'm proud of them. How can I hate my body when it is the reason I can do these things?

Here's to 30,000 more. :)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mountain Mist Ice Mud Snowpocalypse Adventure 50K: A recap

For the past couple of years, I've had friends who have gone down to Huntsville, Alabama, in January to run the Mountain Mist 50K. It never occurred to me to go down to run it myself, but when Alicia decided to run it this year and started working on me, I couldn't resist for long. I promised myself I would treat it as a training run for my upcoming 100-miler at the end of April and make it a fun birthday weekend with friends.

And then Winter Storm Jonas came and mucked everything up. On the great spectrum of damage and death this storm has caused, my grievance is insignificant, and to complain about it a little petty. But the fact remained that I had reservations for boarding our dogs, a vacation day scheduled from work, and everything else ready to go for a 30-mile training run in the mountains of northern Alabama, and forecasts of up to 14 inches of snow lay directly in our path. Huntsville itself was on the southern edge of the snowstorm and under weather warnings. So not only was getting there going to be a real problem, but there was a very distinct possibility that the race would be cancelled. In trail running you come to expect some adversity, but this was stressing even me out.

I can't believe we actually made it!
Fortunately, everything worked out. The race was postponed until Sunday, most of us were able to get down to Alabama, and after a discombobulating couple of days, I lined up on the ice sheet start line of the Mountain Mist 50K. It's a huge testament to the race organization that they were able to accomplish this feat. Everything about the organization was top-notch and went off without a hitch despite the delayed start.

Since I was doing the race as a training run, my "race" plan was pretty simple: start off comfortably but conservatively for the first third, maintain over the second third, and depending on how I felt in the last third, maybe pick up the effort level a little for a "fast finish" long run of sorts. I knew that more than ever, my effort level and not pace would tell the story: everything I had heard about this course told me that the first half was relatively easy, and the second half disproportionately challenging. Patience on this course could pay off in a big way.

I wore capris and a long-sleeve shirt with a thin jacket over top (plus gloves and buff) for the 15-degree start. For shoes, I went with my trusty Peregrine 5s. Luckily the race starts at a state park lodge with plenty of space for runners to sit and keep warm until moments before the gun. The downside to that was that the first mile or so is on the state park road, which the city of Huntsville doesn't maintain--so, no salt. It was a solid sheet of ice, so instead of spreading out by pace, runners went single file on either side of the road on the narrow gravel shoulders where we could get some purchase. I didn't mind since I wanted a slow start, but I'm sure this was maddening for many!

Finally we reached trail, but it was little better. Even flat stretches and gentle slopes that would normally be perfectly runnable after a few inches of snow were treacherous after a couple days of heavy rain followed by snow and a (for Alabama) deep freeze. I could run, but it took great concentration to avoid falling and it was hard to relax and keep my effort level easy the way I wanted. On the plus side, it was flipping beautiful. The sun was coming up and shining through branches lined with snow. In the course of the run we passed rock faces festooned with glittering icicles. Evergreen leaves showed through white snow and chattering mountain streams gurgled through ice formations made into sculptures of light by the sun. We even ran through a boulder field where narrow cave tunnels had formed, forcing us to climb over and under rocks and around trees.

As promised, the first third of the race was relatively easy with a couple of minor climbs. It would have been very fast indeed without the ice. I didn't fall, but I did go down pretty hard on one knee once, and had lots of slips, slides, and scrambles on the slick surface. I could not imagine running at the speeds that I knew Alicia, Scott, Ron, Matt, and the rest up front would be putting down. I kept up a comfortable but relatively fast trail pace for me of 10:30-11:00 per mile, but worried that I was using up too much energy early. I reminded myself to sip my Tailwind often and took a Honey Stinger gel an hour in.

I came into the first timed checkpoint at 1:15:16, in 177th place. This must have been around mile 7. I paused briefly to thank the volunteers and grab a few couple Oreo cookies, which I nibbled over the next mile. From here there was a long descent. I kept moving fairly well, but went carefully.

Around mile 9, there was a lengthy section along an exposed power line cut. Kim, another one of our awesome Bloomington contingent who was running near me, described how one year she ran this race and fell into briars in this section. So I took it very carefully! It wasn't so bad because the sun had melted away some of the ice on the exposed rock, but there were plenty of slick spots. Near the end, I had another near fall, catching myself on my wrist hard enough to hurt. Just in time for the first real climb to mile 10! I hiked it steadily, still trying to conserve.

I was trying to assess how I felt overall, but it was hard to get a handle on it. The footing seemed to change every few steps: solid rock, smooth but sticky dirt, snowpack, mud, solid ice, roots, rocks--you name it! I spent most of the run in a state of planning my next few steps. Miles 10 to 17 or so didn't have any really long climbs or descents, but many minor ones; the terrain changed constantly and it was quite challenging. I felt good to run at the same effort level, but I kept having to pause to make my way over ice-covered rocks, boulders, and frozen trail. By this time, the sun and the feet of of my predecessors had broken up and melted quite a bit of the ice, but slick spots lurked everywhere. I stayed on my feet but caught myself from slipping often. Although I felt fairly good, I watched my average pace climb steadily past 12 to 12:30.

I kept sipping Tailwind and took a handful of food at each aid station. Sweet things seemed good so I went with it--first the Oreos, then Snickers bites, then a Nutty bar. I also took Gu gels at hours 2 and 3 (lemonade and salted caramel). My stomach was solid all day and the aid stations were fantastic. You would never know this race was taking place a day later than originally planned. The food at the aid stations was organized into categories--sweet, salty, fruit, etc., and cut into bite-size pieces. The volunteers were plentiful, cheerful, and helpful. I thanked them at every opportunity!

At around mile 17, I arrived at the Fearns checkpoint in 155th place and at a time of 3:32:16. I would later find out that many consider this the actual halfway point because of the difficulty of the later sections. Soon after that was a loooong descent. It went on for miles, with grades sometimes as steep as -10 to -15%. I moved fairly well on my way down, even catching and passing people (which is a big deal for me while descending!), but it was terrifying and treacherous. Excuse the profusion of photos, but I am excited that the following moment was captured.

I had been slowly catching these two men up when we hit this creek crossing.

They were gingerly making their way across the water on rocks.

Guys please. Your feet have been wet for hours. Just run through it, not over it. Wink to anyone who gets that reference.


See you later, guys!
Now I was past mile 20 and feeling pretty strong. It had warmed to nearly 40 degrees and the sun was warm. Somewhere in there, at one of the aid stations, I shed my jacket and asked about the frontrunners while I stowed it in my pack. I was definitely wondering how my friends were getting on! I gathered that Matt was in the lead and probably Alicia as well.

I was passing people pretty steadily now. I still felt really solid, and now I was in the last third so I felt like I could up the effort level a little bit since I felt good. I could run up the smaller climbs, and had enough energy and concentration left to do fairly well on the descents. I certainly wasn't bombing them but I could quick step down at a decent clip. At mile 23 was one of the longest climbs of the race. I alternately ran and hiked hard up until I caught up with a long line of people. I knew the infamous Waterline climb, a steep trail up over a waterfall, was up ahead so I didn't bother to get around them.

I could hear Waterline before I could see it. When it came into view, my heart dropped. I craned my neck up, and up. Far above, but not that far ahead, I could see several emergency personnel standing there to help people climb, and, I supposed, to rescue anyone who fell. My GPS recorded a 37% grade. When the race description says you will need to use your upper body to climb this section, it is not kidding. The volunteers helpfully pointed out the best footholds and handholds and were ready to give a hand up when needed. I took my sweet time getting through there, making sure my feet had good purchase on the rock and securing handholds on roots and trees before shifting my weight. Afterward, the climb continues in a somewhat less death-defying manner, but still a hands-on-knees climb. I was so winded here that I actually had to pause to rest a couple of times on the way up. Once the trail flattened out a little bit, I got my legs moving again and jogged in to the next aid station, passing most of the people who had been in line ahead of me.

At this point I quit eating solid food and started going for liquid calories; my stomach still felt fine but I wanted quicker energy. I took in a cup of Mello Yello and kept going. I was still taking steady sips of Tailwind. Before much longer, I tackled another steep, mile-long descent, with grades in the -20+% range. This one had more mud, so I was able to slither down pretty efficiently and pass a few people. I was working pretty hard now, feeling the finish line getting closer and ready to be done.

The climb from mile 27 to 29 is a tough one--about 600 feet up in just less than two miles. I hiked it aggressively, running any bit that leveled out. I was sucking wind big time, but I knew at the top I would have just over a mile to go and that it would be flat! At this point I broke out my "secret weapon," the little bottle of Mountain Dew that I had been keeping in the pocket of my pack all day long for just this moment. I chugged about half of it and kept grinding.

The voices of the aid station volunteers at the top were music to my ears. "Water, Powerade, Coke, beer!" they shouted. "Beer?!" I exclaimed. Just over a mile to go, stomach solid, why not? They handed me a half-full cup and I downed it as quickly as I could, thanking them profusely.

At last, AT LAST, runnable ground! It was sticky with half-frozen mud, with some twists and turns, but flat! I gunned it, and in fact the last mile and a half was my fastest of the day, around 9:30 pace. It just felt so good to finally be able to open up. I passed two or three guys, making it to the finish in 101st place overall, with an official time of 6:52:16.

As soon as I crossed the line, Mark was waiting for me and I asked after our friends. Matt won, Scott came in second, and Ron took third. And Alicia, despite it being what she later described as "not her day," won the women's race by about 35 minutes. Alicia, Scott, and Ron had had to take off to make late checkout at the hotel, but Mark and I hung around the finish with Matt, Jeff, Travis, and Jeremy until Kim finished a little while later (placing in her age group as well, BAM!), cheering folks in and eating pizza and Moon Pies. All in all, I feel like we stole a very fun and successful weekend out of the grasp of Winter Storm Jonas.

Official time: 6:52:16
First "half" (start to mile 17ish): 3:32:16
Second "half" (mile 17ish to finish): 3:20:00
Overall place: 101
Female place: 11
Age group place: 3
Calories: Tailwind (600); gels (300); soft drinks (170); Powerade (40); aid station food (240); beer (70): 1,420 total or 202/hour
Water: 60 oz

For a 100-mile training run, this could not have gone better. My fueling went really well (although I'll need to drink more water--the cold weather is tricky!), and I unraveled my effort perfectly over the course of 7 hours. I got another demonstration of how beautifully patience pays off in an ultra. Now I just have to reproduce this on over three times the distance and 3.5ish times the time on April 30-May 1.

It's hard not to think, even though I wasn't supposed to race, oh, if I'd gone just a few minutes faster I could have cracked top 10 women, I could have attacked the middle section a little harder, etc., etc. In the end I have to remember that the big goal is the important goal, and that is the 100-miler. This was a stepping stone, and I met my goals for the day in support of the big goal. Patience!!

I don't always buy race photos, but when I do it's because they offer simple downloads for a reasonable price and also are really good photos in beautiful spots.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The HUFF, year's end, and 100-mile training

As the indifferent blogger that I am, I'm just now getting to writing up a few reflections on the end of the year and the beginning of the new one. Also a quick race report for the HUFF because I haven't done that either.

This was a late entry to my race schedule, and a late race, period--it took place on December 19. HUFF stands for Hoosier Ultra Frigid Fifty(K). It's been around for quite a while, and is currently run in Chain o' Lakes State Park, near Fort Wayne. Since it's in northern Indiana, it's more or less flat (only 1,200 feet or so of gain in 50K), and, the main attraction for me, is run at the same location as the Indiana Trail 100, which will be my first 100-mile race in just a few short months.

I registered with a couple of aims. I wanted to score a large 50K PR, and I wanted to do some course recon for the 100 (that is, during daylight and when the trails there are in good condition, neither of which I was able to do while pacing last year). My pie-in-the-sky goal was to break 5 hours, but I figured I would be happy with anything under 5:30. My PR was 6:43, set in my very first ultra ever, on a muddy mess of a course with 5,000+ feet of gain.

I didn't have the sub-5 in me that day. It was very cold, much colder than it had been, and I didn't do a good job with my fueling. My final time was 5:18. I went through the halfway mark at 2:35, so really I'm okay with that. With a late-season race that I tacked on, it's pretty darn good. And hey, it's an 85-minute PR, so I'm certainly not complaining!

2015 recap
This past year has been really good to me. I ran a lot, I ran consistently, I didn't get injured, and I had fun. I got to go trail running in a lot of really amazing places, including California, Minnesota, and West Virginia. I was second place woman (to a legit elite ultrarunner) in the Land Between the Lakes 60K, and first place woman in the Cloudsplitter 50K.

Although I didn't read as many books this year, I still managed a good number (a little over 40). I also started a new job (same company, different department), which has been an enormously positive change. And I strengthened friendships. I guess there's really not much else to say. It was a good year. I hope for more of the same in 2016.

Miles: 2,537.8
Climbing: 169,334 feet
Lifetime PRs: 2!! (marathon!!! and 50K; plus, tied my certified road 5K PR)
Books read: 44 (including for work, so a few of them are still not published, but they still count, dammit!)

Looking ahead to 2016
Really my only goal for the year will be accomplished, or not, at the end of April: the Indiana Trail 100-mile run. At this time I'm setting no overall mileage goals and making no fall race plans. I want things to be wide open afterwards, so I can see how I feel and do whatever I want, with no upcoming races or anything hanging over me. If I need to take an extended break, I can, or if I feel like training again after recovering from the 100, I can. I don't know how I will feel after the 100, but I know it'll be like nothing I've ever done before, so I can't see any point in planning for the aftermath.

So, between now and April 30, I plan to run A LOT, more than I ever have (as long as my body cooperates of course). I'm not completely throwing caution to the winds--it will still be my usual recipe of easy miles with infrequent speedwork, with mindfulness about recovery. But for once I'm not necessarily thinking long term; I'm throwing in all the chips for April.

I also hope to read more books this year. I set a goal of 50, but more than that would be great. Maybe even in a dent in the TBR list.

Although I don't know what the future holds, I'm excited about following the path ahead! Bring on 2016!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The monkeys were kind: Flying Monkey Marathon recap

I've been hearing about the Flying Monkey Marathon for many years--mostly that it was really hard (3,600 feet of climbing according to the website), with a small, devoted following and surrounded by a playfully irreverent mythology of testing your luck against the elusive flying monkeys, who may carry you away if you stray from the course...or who may be kind to you and let you finish. The folks who put this race on clearly love running and it is important to them; they believe it that it should be fun, challenging, and not full of elitist, self-important jerks. The signs posted along the course give away the flavor of the humor: "Last hill" (at the beginning), "The beer is gone," "Oprah just finished," "IDIOT," and, near the top of a particularly brutal hill, "Why?"

Photo credit: Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Facebook
The race is sort of an anti-marathon, at least compared to the big megaraces like Chicago, New York, and the Rock 'n' Roll series. It is intentionally small with as many hills as possible, no certifications, no bands, no cheerleaders, no online tracking, no start corrals, and no half marathon, 10K, 5K, marathon relay, etc. It's just about running in a beautiful place. (Truly, beautiful. I recommend following them on Facebook for year-round pictures of this place.) Whether the running is fast, slow, or somewhere inbetween is not unimportant (they do use chip timing to provide results and the winners get prizes), but the individual experience is the real draw here. That said, finish times this year ranged from 2:42 to 8:42, so there's room for long as you can get in.

It's capped at 300 people, so it's very difficult to get into. They run a lottery, which I had entered before with no luck. With running going so well this year, and my one big goal race in early October, I thought this would be the perfect year to try again, so I tossed my name in. Lo and behold, I was selected as tribute (this year's theme was the Hunger Games)!

This race was the perfect antidote for my mildly disappointing experience at the Indy Monumental half. The informational emails leading up to the race included, instead of anxiety-inducing instructions about a myriad of race-day logistics, advice like, "Running is stupid. You cannot train for the Monkey. You might as well give up now." This refusal to take things too seriously perfectly mirrors things I say to myself before (and during) my best experiences in races..."I am questioning my life choices right now" and "What was I thinking when I decided to do this. Wow, I am stupid!" ... and was exactly what I needed. Sometimes I need a reminder to step back and realize that this endeavor is a little bit crazy and all of us need to be able to laugh at ourselves.

And now for the race. My plan had always been to just have fun. Now, you can define fun in many ways, but for me, it's fun to run a well-executed race and not stress about specific goals or going balls to the wall. I also like hitting goals and taking risks, but I'll save that for the HUFF 50K next month. Of course, I still had some things in mind that it would be cool to do, like keep my streak of sub-4 road marathons alive, achieve a negative split, place in the top 10, etc. Last year, a 3:54 finish was good for 2nd place female, but in checking over several years' results, last year was a particularly slow year (it was rainy and cold), so I figured if I could be a few minutes under 4 hours, I could also maybe hit top 10 women. Some Athlinks stalking told me that most folks run about 10-15 minutes slower here than at a "normal" road marathon.

I had some minor reservations about my fitness for the day. My last race, the Monumental Half Marathon, while a really good time for me, was well off my goal time, with the problem being that I was simply unable to hit my goal pace from the beginning. And I'd just been feeling tired lately while running. Possibly not completely recovered from Cloudsplitter and all the higher mileage weeks I had put in before it? In response, I had cut back. Most weeks between Cloudsplitter and now have been in the 40-50 range...those are still certainly solid amounts, but in practice it felt like two-month-long taper. One week was 70 and that felt like too much. I also only had one run longer than 13 miles between Cloudsplitter and this--a 15-miler on October 24. Not exactly ideal training for a marathon, but I knew I should be able to enjoy myself as long as I was conservative at the beginning. I just wasn't sure how the last 10K would go.

On the drive down to Nashville, I developed some pretty severe lower back pain. I'm not sure what happened, but sitting in the car was miserable and I had to be careful how I moved or it got all spasmy. I honestly don't think this was a factor during the race--if anything, it encouraged me to keep a better posture on the climbs because if I hunched over too much it hurt like hell. Other than some minor soreness in my quads, it was the only thing hurting the next day!

I had a UGo bar and some coffee for breakfast on race morning and changed into my race outfit--bright-colored capri tights with a scale pattern (I like them because they look like dragon scales), blue tank top, and arm warmers. My plan was to distract the monkeys with my bright outfit. I packed three gels into my pocket. The weather for the day was near perfect: clear, sunny, and about 30 degrees. We arrived at the start in plenty of time for me to visit the portojohn and then stood around at the start for a few minutes until it was time to strip off my layers and go. I had a moment of panic when I realized the buttons on my watch had become locked, but luckily I figured out how to unlock it and get a signal just as we crossed the start.

Miles 1-5: 9:16, 8:54, 8:33, 9:08, 9:15 (45:06)
I settled into a pace averaging around 9:00/mile, which felt right. I didn't look at splits at all, just the average, and concentrated on keeping even effort on the uphills, and short gliding steps on the downhills. At mile three, I saw a friend, Dana, who I knew from an online forum, but had never met in person. It was so cool to finally meet her in person that I gave her a hug. I drank some water and SWORD energy drink and was on my way. I've never tried SWORD before but this was clearly the time to do so. Less than a mile later I also tried Huma gels for the first time. Luckily for me they agreed with my stomach! The monkeys laugh at the rules!

Photo credit: Elly Foster Photography
For the first few miles, lots of people passed me, but I was really determined to be conservative, so I just stayed in my comfort zone. This soon shifted to me passing people on uphills and being passed on downhills. I traded with people a few times in this way. In fact, one lady actually "buzzed" me, that is, she passed by me really closely on a downhill and cut in front of me, eyeing me sidelong. Seriously? I passed her for good a couple miles later. Mostly I just concentrated on running comfortably and enjoying the scenery, which was beautiful. The aid stations were plentiful and the volunteers were warm and friendly, despite the crisp temperature.

Near the top of a big-ass hill at mile 5, I saw Mark and the fuzzies. Yay!

Miles 6-10: 9:19, 8:39, 9:38, 8:53, 9:06 (45:35)
The hills really got going. They were long and relentless, but at least they came with nice long gradual downhills. I felt nicely settled into my pace, holding steady just a few ticks over 9:00 average. It wasn't easy, but it was comfortable and I wasn't breathing very hard. But it was still too early to know how the whole day would go, so I stayed conservative. I was really hoping I could pull off a negative split and I didn't want to go for it too early. I figured anything beneath 4 hours on this course would be awesome!

I ate two more gels: one of my own and another Huma. I'm sold on Humas--yummy! And I got to see Mark again around mile 10.

Miles 11-15: 9:09, 8:50, 9:37, 8:38, 9:21 (45:35)
Around mile 11 I saw Christy and Aaron waving and cheering so I grinned and waved hello. I was still feeling really good and actually anticipating the halfway point so I could start picking it up. Already I was starting to pass lots of people.

I went through the half in 1:59:13 by my watch. I did want to speed up, but I didn't want to just start running all out. I worked on gradually increasing my effort level, opening up my stride more on downhills, and working on catching people on uphills. I saw Mark again at some point but I don't remember exactly where.

Miles 16-20: 8:13, 8:44, 8:11, 9:12, 9:02 (43:22)
Here's where I started to work. This stretch of a marathon is always the most difficult for me. My body is starting to feel it and my mind is starting to look for excuses. I broke things down in my mind and concentrated only on getting to mile 20. The hills were starting to burn, but I refused to start walking, just kept grinding up them in low gear. On the downs I tried to rest and cruise.

I was passing so many people. I offered encouragement when I had the breath for it. Everyone was so friendly! And I got a lot of compliments on my pants. :D I also ate two more gels in the course of this section, both Huma.

Photo credit: Elly Foster Photography
Miles 21-25: 8:12, 8:44, 7:55, 8:57, 8:05 (41:53)
At mile 20, I started doing math: here's what will happen if I run 10-minute miles, 9-minute miles, etc. Unless something pretty major happened, I knew I could be under 4 hours. If I could hold on to my current pace, 3:55ish was doable. In the back of my mind, I thought of speeding up more and hitting 3:50. That would be pretty wild. I think I ate my last gel, a lemon Huma, around mile 20 or 21. I drank several gulps of water at about 22 and then after that I just ran.

Although my legs were burning, I was still feeling overall really good, so I started to really go for it. I broke it into single miles and redid the math at each one. Mile 24 had a relatively short but very steep hill that kinda sucked out my soul, but when I got to the top, a volunteer told me I'd climbed it like it was nothing. I had kept running, but felt like I was running in place, so that was really good to hear!

At the turnoff with less than half a mile to go, I saw Christy and Aaron again, and Mark just after them. Almost there!! I summoned a bit of a kick. The last full mile was 8:10. When I finished, after getting my swag, I found Mark and stopped my watch. Realizing I had 26.1 miles, I definitely jogged around until I got to 26.2. Yes, I'm ruled by my device, but I couldn't leave it at 26.1!

My official finish time was 3:50:29, which was good for 9th place female and 2nd AG. It also gave me about an 8-minute negative split. I know that a negative split that big isn't the most efficient way to run a marathon, but it was sure as hell fun! Along with a beautiful wooden medal, I received a unbreakable "Silipint" pint glass (well, cup; it's made out of rubber) and a Merrell buff. Seriously, the swag for this race was absolutely top notch: TWO shirts, one of which was personalized (!?!!), car magnet, sticker, temp tattoos, finish line goodies, free beer, food, and free race pictures to top it off.

There was beer from Yazoo Brewing and several folding tables groaning under the weight of the many dishes that runners had brought, potluck style. I'm telling you, everything about this run was awesome; it reminded me in so many ways of a trail/ultra race. I went for a beer first, which I sipped while sitting in the sun and checking social media, then I loaded up a plate with food. We didn't stay very long afterward because it was still pretty cold and we realized the afternoon was already getting on and we needed to get home. The only problem with Sunday races! I would love to do this one again; the volunteers and organizers deserve nothing but kudos for this amazing gem of a race.

I went down the race stat comparison rabbit hole a little bit and looked up some numbers from previous races. What I saw made me feel REALLY good about this run. First, it is, believe it or not, my fifth-fastest marathon EVER, only 22 seconds slower than Boston. The negative split made me compare the last halves of each of my top five marathons:
  • Flying Monkey 2015: 1:51:16 (finish time 3:50:29)
  • Bayshore 2015: 1:50:51 (finish time 3:36:05)
  • Boston 2010: 2:03:41 (finish time 3:50:07; ow)
  • Philadelphia 2009: 1:50:54 (finish time 3:36:11)
  • Illinois 2009: 1:49:55 (finish time 3:40:07; still my best executed race ever, and only negative split marathon until FM)
Yep, that's right, I ran the second half of Flying Monkey, hills and all, only 20-25 seconds slower than either of my (flat to pretty flat) 3:36 PR races. That is mind boggling. I don't know if it says more about how terrible I usually am at closing the deal in marathons, or how much my fitness has improved this year. Probably both. After sixteen road marathons, I still learn something new each time.

It's a nice confidence booster about my fitness for the ultras I have upcoming this winter and spring. Next up is the HUFF 50K in December!