Monday, October 27, 2014

Tecumseh Trail Marathon, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the grind

Hey folks, I thought it was about time to do my yearly blog update. HA!

I ran the Tecumseh Trail Marathon two days ago and how I feel like writing about it. It was a great learning experience for me and represented a first in many ways, despite the fact that it was my sixteenth marathon and took place ten years after my very first marathon (Chicago 2004).

Before I get into specifics about the race, I should explain that my attitude toward marathoning has changed significantly in the past few years. For a long time, I just wanted to get faster and qualify for Boston. That took about five years to accomplish, but I did it. Running Boston was magical, and I would love to go back, but since my Boston year, I've been struggling. I did have an injury that sidelined me for a few months, but the main struggle has been motivation.

I undeniably love running, and don't feel complete without it, but for months at a time, I just couldn't get myself to string together more than a couple of days at a time. It becomes a downward spiral; lack of training means races and runs generally don't go well, which causes motivation to plummet further. What's the point? It's just going to suck. Forcing myself to go out would work for a short time, but then it wasn't fun and I'd relapse into a lazy permablob on the couch.

I snap out of it sometimes. Two years ago I built up a pretty good year of training and ran a few decent-for-me marathons in the 3:55ish range, as well as my first trail marathon. That spurt lasted into last year, and then things fell into the major blahs after last year's Hood to Coast relay. The awful winter we had didn't help, but I really can't put the whole blame on that because I probably wouldn't have run much even if the weather had been good. Finally, this spring, I got the bug back a little bit and started to put together some consistent, solid weeks in the 25- to 30-mile range. And I've been able to keep it going since then.

Over the summer, I got interested in the possibility of doing an ultramarathon. I always knew it would happen in that distant future time when I finally figured out how the heck to run a marathon. I was afraid of it because running a marathon seemed to be (and honestly still is) more than I could handle most of the time, and the thought of going any farther seemed to me to be, frankly, insane. But I've gradually come to realize that running a road marathon and running an ultra (most of which are on trails) are two completely different things

Having watched several friends train for and run 50Ks, 50-milers, and even 100-milers, it started to look more doable. And the idea of running for hours without really getting tired is just plain enticing to me. It's like having a superpower. It was inspiring, and I began to want to see if I could do it too. The kicker was pacing my friend Chris in the last 15 miles of his 100-miler this summer, one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.

So I started running more. Actually not THAT much changed from what I usually do when getting ready for a marathon, but I've been doing some back-to-back (Saturday/Sunday) weekend long runs and more 20+ milers, all on trails (and therefore, two or three minutes per mile slower than my road long runs). It has been more time intensive. Mileage has been in the 45-50ish range per week, with generous cutback weeks and lots of running by feel. And it's making me so happy. Hours of running through the forest, whether they're with friends or solo, never get old for me. I feel like my soul is getting its breath. I'm not a religious person, but sometimes I feel like a spiritual person, and trail running is when that tends to happen. When I'm done, even if it wasn't the best run, I just feel so good.

I started eyeing a new ultra race nearby, the Jackson County 50K, as my possible target. As the running throughout the summer and into early fall went really, really well, including back-to-back 20s for a 40-mile weekend, and a really comfortable 24-miler with over 3,000 feet of elevation gain, one of my running partners (the awesome but possibly evil Alicia), made the impeccably timed comment that I could probably do a 50-miler, no problem.

This notion took hold, but I gave myself a couple of benchmarks to achieve before I would even consider it. The first of these was to run the Tecumseh Trail Marathon as a training run and finish feeling like I could keep going. And that is how I came to train through a marathon.

I went into Saturday at the end of two higher-mileage weeks, and 40 miles in the preceding six days, so no taper to speak of. I have never attempted anything like that before. Even with the longer trail runs I was adapting myself to, it was still completely new territory for me.

I got up at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning and followed my usual pre-run routine: coffee, breakfast (oatmeal), prepping my gear, getting dressed, etc. Actually I could have slept in a little more, but I was pretty keyed up. I mixed six scoops of Tailwind into my 2L hydration pack, packed four more into a baggie, and stuck a UGo bar in the pocket just in case. I've been training with Tailwind for a couple of months, and it's been working perfectly for me. I like to have a backup (UGo bar yumminess), but Tailwind does the job.

I had my Garmin fully charged, but it's a basic model that only lasts five to six hours. I'd been thinking of ways to get an entire six-hour+ run on a single file (without, you know, dropping hundreds more dollars on a fancier Garmin), but unfortunately my basic Garmin resets itself when it's charging, so even a portable charger wouldn't do the trick. So for this run, I decided to test the portable charger idea with my phone using the Strava Android app. That way I could keep something going the whole time, and hopefully have a chance to compare the two files and see how close they were in terms of distance and elevation measurement. I prefer using the watch, but it's painless to carry the phone/charger set-up with my pack, and I even rigged it up so it was easily accessible to check on the run. Spoilers: The phone rig worked great and the Strava app measured both distance and elevation pretty nearly the same as my watch. Close enough for me! (I need to figure out how this could be done in the rain, but otherwise I'm feeling good about the solution.)

The plan was for Mark to drop me at the host hotel here in town so I could catch a shuttle up to the start of the point-to-point race. Then he could meet me at the finish line later. We got there well before the shuttle departure time of 8:30 a.m., but then I realized that I'd left my bib number on the counter at home. I guess I was a little TOO intent on making this a training run! Mark, like a superhero, took off back home to grab it for me. He returned a couple of minutes before 8:30 and said a bus was pulling away, but I said I'd just get the next one. There were still lots of people loitering in the hotel lobby and I was thinking one more bathroom break wouldn't go amiss. The last time I did this race, there were a few buses that left from the host hotel, so I wasn't worried.

So Mark left and I waited for another bus. And waited. Nine o'clock came and went and still no bus. Starting to get a little worried, since the race started at 10:00 and it was a good 25-minute drive to the start, I texted Mark. Other people started to drift away as they found other ways to the start. Finally, we decided Mark would have to drive me up there, and he drove back over to get me. Superhero part 2. We made it to the start line at 9:58. Worked out fine, but I missed the BARA group picture. >:(

The race started just a few minutes behind schedule. The first three miles or so are pretty flat and on gravel access roads, so I just settled in and let people pass me. I walked uphills from the beginning. Just a training run, just a training run. It was necessary to remind myself early on! Once we hit single track, I just tried to let myself zone out with just that peripheral focus on not falling off a hill or rolling an ankle (which takes up a lot of concentration actually, especially with all the leaves down on the trail). It was overcast for the first hour or so, but even so, the rest of my brain was enjoying the beautiful fall scenery.

I had my buff over my ears to keep them warm and wore arm warmers, but the buff became a sweatband and the arm warmers were stowed by mile 4. It was warming up fast. I kept drinking and just went with the flow. The first 10 miles or so felt pretty good and I covered them in just under two hours, which is on the fast side of my normal range. Somewhere in miles 10 to 12, I started to feel a little bit off. I realized I was really welcoming uphills because it meant I could walk, and I was feeling winded even just walking them. Around mile 12, there's a long stretch on a gravel road with no shade. The sun was out now and it was hot. The high that day was over 70, which after weeks of running in the 40s and 50s, was not fun.

I kept up a steady jog on that flat, but it was miserable. I got to Indian Hill Road, which is the halfway point and features the worst hill in the whole race. There is no universe where I was ever planning to run up that hill, but now, even walking, I actually had to rest a couple of times on the way up. I couldn't really put my finger on what was wrong. I felt just a little lightheaded, my stomach felt just a little off...I just felt crappy. I don't keep track of my heart rate, but it was probably way up. It just didn't feel good to run. I was sad because I'd had so many really great long runs lately, many over the summer in WAY worse heat/humidity, and this seemed like such a stupid time to have a bad day. I knew I was just unused to the heat and that was probably a large part of the issue, but that didn't make it any easier to take! I was really worried that I'd just bitten off more than I could chew by not tapering for this run.

Let me tell you, Indian Hill Road is probably the worst place ever to have a pity party. Have you seen this hill? It is the suck. I finally slogged up it. I ran some more for the next mile, which had some downhill, but it just sucked (you may be detecting a theme here). I stopped for a breather at the mile 14 aid station. The people that run the Tecumseh aid stations are all beautiful, darling, amazing people with hearts of gold, by the way. After a few minutes in the shade and a pep talk, I soaked my buff in cold water and put it back on, and shambled off again.

I mostly walked the next three miles. I couldn't help but remember my last marathon attempt, the Eagle Creek Summer Trail Marathon, which also turned into my first DNF. (That was mostly due to undertraining, but I had felt similar--a little lightheaded and just not right.) Was this seriously happening again? I did entertain the idea of dropping out. But here's something I've already gathered about ultrarunning: things can change. And it isn't always from good to bad and bad to worse. I thought about the Western States 100 documentary, Unbreakable, where Geoff Roes has a tough time in the middle of the race, but comes back strong. And just the day before, I had watched a video by Ethan Newberry (aka the Ginger Runner), about his Squamish 50/50 double (50 miles one day, 50K the next) and how he had felt awful very early on in the 50-mile race, but pushed through it and ended up feeling much better and completed the double. Same deal with another of his videos about crewing for Sally McCrae--she struggled and overcame and ended up finishing strong. I was sensing a pattern here. I'm not an ultrarunner yet, but Tecumseh was my ultrarunning dress rehearsal.

So I kept moving forward. I kept drinking. I kept hoping. I hit the aid station just before mile 17 and took a pretty long break. That mile split was about 24 minutes, the longest of the day. I drank water and soaked my buff again. I topped off my hydration pack and tipped in my baggy of Tailwind. I realized I needed a portajohn, which I dimly realized was good news. If the plumbing still functioned, things couldn't be THAT bad. But at that point I still felt pretty awful and it was hard to leave. They even asked me if I was okay, and I assured them that although I was struggling, I felt okay to go on and that I planned to walk as much as I needed to.

More walking, but I managed to sneak in a few jogging breaks. I reached a point in the route that I recognized from an out-and-back training run I'd done a few weeks before from the finish, which was a much-needed mental boost. But the distance was still crawling by, which it tends to do when you look down at your watch every minute or so and you're walking. The next aid station was around mile 19 or so. More water, more buff soaking. I walked up a hill and finally pulled over for a pee break (I'd been hoping for a portajohn but no dice). And somewhere in there, almost imperceptibly, I did start to feel better. I put together longer stretches of running. I was looking forward to seeing Rebecca's beer stop, which I knew should be coming up pretty soon.

I heard cheering up ahead and realized here it was, the beer stop! Not just Rebecca, but Evan and Barry too. I gave a Rebecca big hug. Seriously, there are few sights better at a time like that than a really good friend you haven't seen in months. Especially when she's handing you beer. I gave the PBR some side eye...I wasn't exactly sure how my stomach would take it at that point. Luckily they had the good stuff too--Dogfish Head Brown Ale. Just a little shot of it, but that went down just fine.

I said my goodbyes to my friends and kept plugging on. I really was feeling better. I kept reminding myself to keep it going by continuing to drink. I was still walking a little, but mostly the uphills, and the worst of those is well over by mile 20. I even started passing people. I hit the second to last aid station and gave myself a breather to drink more water and soak my buff again. Then I plunged back into the woods. I'd reached the lake. I knew I was getting close, but that it was still a fair way to get around the lake to the dam. I realized that although my stomach was still slightly wonky, my head had cleared up and my legs actually felt perfectly fine. My feet didn't hurt. I felt better than I did at the end of plenty of my long runs. It was like magic. Had I accidentally cut off part of the course? Without my watch telling me I'd run 23 miles, I might have seriously wondered about that. But it was still so weird. I kept passing people, including other runners that I recognized from earlier in the race, and hikers just out for a walk, and even stopped to pet a dog.

As I made my way carefully through the less hilly but more "rooty" section by the lake, I saw a guy up ahead on his back and had a moment of panic because I thought he'd fallen and seriously hurt himself. I got closer and realized he was just off the trail and I even recognized him as someone I'd talked to earlier in the hotel lobby. He was okay, but his legs were about done, and he was just resting with his feet elevated. I told him we were truly, seriously, almost there. All he had to do was get to the dam, that there'd be an aid station at the bottom of the hill, and then just one more mile to go.

All the leaves on the trees made it hard to see exactly how close we we were to the dam, and it was a pleasant surprise to break out of the trees and head down the hill to the last aid station. I passed it up entirely and just kept going. I knew there was one last ugly hill ahead and I wanted to get it over with. I passed a couple who had passed me very early in the day on the way up. At the top I stopped for a few seconds to catch my breath again, and kept going. Still feeling okay, but ready to be done now!

Finally I turned into the final stretch, which is nice and cleared off and lined with streamers and then red barriers. I heard the BARA support crew explode into cheers, which is the BEST feeling. Most of the other BARA runners who had raced had finished well ahead of me. More cheers for me! :P

I crossed the line in about 5:37. That's interesting because it's almost exactly the same finish time as my previous attempt at this race. Except last time I was actually trying to go fast, and struggled for pretty much the entire last half of the race, and was in some fairly severe pain by the end. In contrast, this time I just felt some fatigue. I eagerly went back to my friends and was pleased to hear how well everyone had done. Big new PRs, breaking years-long curses...it was that sort of day. I greeted Mark and the dogs and drank my magical recovery drink (chocolate protein powder, coffee, and milk). It tasted SO GOOD.

I ran an easy six-mile loop at Pate Hollow the next morning with no issues. Forty-eight hours later, and still no DOMs in the legs, although my shoulders are actually quite sore. I'm left feeling amazed at what the human body is capable of with just a little time and the right stimulation. Fifteen marathons, some with training mileage averaging upwards of 60 miles per week, with finish times ranging from 3:36 to 5:36, and I'd never run the next day or even imagined being able to. Yet this time, the largest amount of time I've spent running ever, I'm feeling great. My friend Erin (aka Persistent Runner), made my day today by putting into words what I'd been feeling--that this turned out to be a perfect ultramarathon training run because I was able to experience the low point and the turnaround, and that you have to be able to trust that this will happen in order to get through the tough spots. So I guess I feel about as prepared as it's possible to be.

My gut is telling me to quit while I'm ahead and make this week a serious cutback week, and I'm going to listen (not like that wasn't already the plan, but still). The week after this one, I will be traveling for work and although I will be able to do some running, it's not going to be a ton, so this will effectively be a two-week taper for the Owen-Putnam 50K, which is the second of my two 50-miler benchmarks. If I can make it through this (very tough) 50K in one piece, well, then I might actually entertain this crazy 50-mile idea.

Stats and stuff:
Official time: 5:37:someodd (5th AG)
Moving time for 25.4 measured miles: 5:17:40
Avg. pace: 12:31
Elevation gain: 2,595 ft. (I've seen other readings at 3,000+ and the race website says 3,500, so who knows)
Splits (these are moving time): 9:07, 9:57, 9:24, 11:29, 11:54, 12:33, 13:24, 11:37, 12:08, 14:14, 10:32, 11:29, 13:33, 9:31, 14:15, 17:10, 16:35, 16:44, 13:55, 12:25, 11:48, 11:19, 13:14, 13:34, 12:20, 9:10 (0.4)



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