"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The 100 Mile Record Wasn't Painted in a Day (but 3 Canadian records were)

The clouds parted not long after the noon start. It's amazing how hot 20 degrees feels on a 400m track at a 5.15min/k pace. My soaking down with the sponge began.

The tools of the craft for my 'art project' (when asked about the knife, Rolf said it was to end the monotony of crewing)

Less than 1.5 hours in, I had a fatigued DOMS-like feeling in my glutes and high hammies. Runners know the feeling - the day after a big run or gym session and every time your glutes jiggle when you take a step, you feel a little "3-out-of-10" discomfort. That feeling. It was very worrying.

I ran along, doing some intermittent high butt kicks and hip 'looseners,' and lamented my pre-race internal debate over whether to wear compression on race day. I often find I need to remove quad guards after about 12 hours. But that seriously only takes a few seconds. So, in all my internal debate, I'd ended up forgetting to pack both my calf guards and my quad guards. Stupid. Very stupid. There was no option to put on compression I didn't bring.

One of the great times I didn't forget to take my compression (ADU 100k, January 2018)

Then there was the matter that my new shoes hadn't arrived the week before the event, as expected. I was wearing my favourite performance type Inov-8 f-lite 240s (which they stopped making). I had been hoarding two used pair. Both were over 2 years old. One pair had 160km in them and the other had 180km! My painting was being done with used brushes. Not necessarily bad, but it would remain to be seen if they would hold out.

The track was busy. 101 entrants in the various events. Lane 1 was for the thirty or so 24 hour runners (my event), with Lane 2 for passing. Lane 3 was for the ten or so 12 hour runners, with marathon runners joining them at 6pm. Lane 4 was their passing lane. Lanes 5 and 6 were for the walkers.

The 12hr and 24hr walk and run noon start line (marathon started at 6pm; 6hr race started Sunday at 6am)

24 hour crew tables set up inside the track on the grass. Other crews were to be outside in Lanes 7 and 8, but the reality was different, as crews darted in and out to Lane 3. Many competitors ran or walked and chatted side by side, leaving faster ones to run the gauntlet of trying to squeeze between the talker on the inside and the inside track rail or trying to squeeze between the two talkers or running to the outside of the pair. That often required going all the way into Lane 3, because the talkers wouldn't always run close to the inside, either. Sure, there was a rule stating we were to run "single file only please unless overtaking." But no one wanted to be the mean police. So I was trying to paint in a crowded room without anyone bumping my elbows. I was doing it, but it was adding to the mental challenges of the art project.

A few runners had huge crews - with five to eight people even. Some played loud music. The "no smoking, alcohol or pets" rules were broken. At least the dogs were on leads. One crew BBQ'd meat over a gas flame a few times, which I found nauseating to run by every few minutes (not against any rules to make smelly food). The "friends and family" festival feeling seemed to be appreciated by most. For me, a quiet introvert with a tough speedy goal, it was utterly overwhelming. I tried to go into my internal meditative "trance," where I really enjoy looking at the trees, creek, and hillside, watching the clouds, and listening to the birds, but feeling the need to be constantly alert for children, negotiating tight gaps between talking runners, trying to sponge down and fuel up, whilst running relaxed and calm amongst all the loud music and cheering.... it wasn't happening. The system supported the majority, but it was stressful for me.

I don't blame these conditions on my failed art. They simply were. Most people love the atmosphere of big races - UTMB, Comrades, the New York Marathon. I find those conditions exhausting, as my energy is sucked away by others. I became even more motivated to reach my goals and make this my last track race ever. I could take my easel and run off into the wilderness.

These are laugh-out-loud funny for me, that's how introverted I am.

Despite my challenges, I reached 6 hours with 67.531km. A new Canadian W50 6hr record (to be ratified), surpassing Patricia Sommers' 63.443km (set in 2003). I was still right on target for my 100 mile 15 hour world record goal.

Suddenly just after 6 hours, a giant blob of red paint got dropped on my canvas. Well, I must have dropped it, but I have no idea how. That is to say, my pace dropped about 10 seconds per lap. That's about 25 seconds per km! It was massive and inexplicable to me. I would spend the next 5 hours trying to figure out how to incorporate it into my beautiful painting.

Art installation in the vast silence and space on Cirque Peak, Canada, 2016

Certainly, I still felt the fatigued glutes and high hammies, which still reverberated with every step. My calves and shins were also now a bit achy, which I was guessing had to do with the old shoes. I told Rolf about my feelings of stiffness and he looked surprised, as he said my form still looked really good. I tried some paracetamol to take the edge off - at least it might make coping with everything else easier. And the sun had finally set, which was a relief.

I settled in for the 100k, my next interim goal. The program said I should be there almost right on 9 hours, but having fallen off pace, it was 9:12:31. Another Canadian W50 record to be ratified (Patricia Sommers, 2004, 10:01:46).

Painting a Canadian W50 100km record on the canvas

I knew from the 6.5 hour mark that the 100 mile world record was gone. I held the possibility of sub 15:15:00, which would still be a time I'd be very, very pleased to achieve, and would earn me back the CAN and AUS 100 mile open records, both of which I used to hold.

My pace took another tumble with about 10.5 hours on the clock. I'd been able to sit "comfortably" at ~2m18s laps for nearly 4 hours, but suddenly I dropped to 2m30'ish - a 6.15min/k pace! For me, with this level of fitness, at this point in the race, that was bizarrely slow. That was more like my finish pace in a 24 hour race, not at 10.5 hours in.

Around this time, I had ticked past 108km - the 12hr Canadian W50 record mark (Barbara McLeod, 1988, 108.038km). I realised it a few laps later, as I'd been so focused on trying to understand what was happening to my body.

The internet is a wonderful thing - to be able to find this pioneering woman who took up ultrarunning at 48 years of age.

Although it was tempting to stop - just claim the 12 hour record with 110km, I couldn't do it. I felt stiff - like I was on day 3 of a multi-day race - but I wasn't injured. I would honour the 12 hour with the full 12 hours - not stop just because I had another record. I was 95% sure I would call it quits at 12 hours, though. My estimate was it would take me roughly 16 hours to do the 100 miles - if I didn't get drastically slower. That time would still net the W50 age group CAN and AUS records. But I am capable of so much better. That wasn't a painting I'd be proud to hang on my wall.

But I didn't put the hammer down between 11pm and midnight, because I didn't want to close the door on 100 miles. Not yet. Just in case things changed. In case somehow my body "clicked" and that soreness and stiffness somehow (how?) fell so far into the background that I could run smooth. But that didn't happen.

So I took my heavy little sandbag in hand at 11hr51, and at the 12 hour whistle, I dropped it to the ground. I carried on to finish the lap. Couldn't get into the women's portaloo, so walked another lap and said my goodbye to the track and a most excellent timing guy, Brett Saxon, and a most excellent RD, Tim Erickson.

12 hour signal - I stop and reach back to drop my little sandbag with my name and number on it for measurement

Many months ago, I entered both Coburg 24 hour and Sri Chinmoy (Sydney, June), knowing a world record 100 mile shouldn't be expected to come easy. I will have my compression back on, my new shoes, colder weather, and a quieter track. Perhaps I will try a more reduced mileage in the taper, in case the 50 year old me needs that. Though given that 'DOMS' is usually limited to 48 hours (and I'd been resting pre-race), the feeling I had on race day remains a mystery. I have to assume the strange glute 'fatigue' was the cause of my massive slowing spells. I do recall that my legs kept going numb during the first night in the Jayco trailer bed at the caravan park we stayed in. That was two nights pre-race. I thought it was the wires in the electric blanket, which I removed from the bed Friday night. But maybe the problem is my wiring ;)

I love running.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Art Installation in Place at Coburg 2019

Over the past 10 years, I have been an ultra runner. That is, I run ultramarathon distances. Sometimes in races, sometimes in training. Sometimes apparently just for the joy of travelling long distances on foot.

I've explored a range of challenges and adventures. Or, I could say, I have explored my love of ultra running through different mediums. Terrain (sand, road, track, mountain, snow), distance, time, country, culture.... I've run in multi-day and team formats. I've run for national records. I've run for my CAN-AUS countries. I've run for FKTs.

A very special 6.5hr "run" of just 13k return to summit Mt Sneffels, Colorado, 4315m in 2015.  Highest reached by foot.

This exploration has been both a honing of and a continual expression of what I have come to realise is not merely a "sport" for me. It's an art and a craft. Over the years, I've dug deep into research papers, attended training camps, experimented, and listened to the experiences and advice of masters. Every bit of that has helped me learn and refine.

Art, as "a skill acquired through practice," seems almost synonymous with "craft" (as in "kraft" - force, strength). We use our art and craft to create something - that which may be a vocation, in the traditional sense. The creations that came from those kind of forces were, I think, primarily utilitarian at some point in the past. Clothing, spears, housing, all created by "artisans."

Moe 6hr, 2010. Hot day, pushing for 70k. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder ;)
Nowadays, we tend to think only of art as paintings, sculptures... things with no utilitarian value. By that, I mean, they are not essential to a human being's survival. Art is created to be appreciated for its beauty or its emotional power alone. But emotional power can support social causes, healing, or political change. Or it can simply be entertainment.

Avocado sandwich jumpy shot. It's art, man.

For me, ultra running has no "real" utility. I do not need to travel so far, so fast, at once, for my survival. I have no political or social justice cause I run for. I am not healing a wound or managing an addiction. And I do not do this for entertainment. I am thus left with the fact that ultra running for me is my art and craft. And I do know that I have felt the emotional power of watching other ultra runners. The same goose bumps and watery eyes I've gotten when hearing a particular piece of music. Interesting, that is.

Coast 2 Kosci, 2013, finish
Yet, I also have a feeling that the art I create is not outside of me. When my race ends, there might be a finisher's medal or a t-shirt. There will be a time and a distance stamped to that experience. But those are not the art.

So, do I create the art or does the art create me?

Perhaps I am creating my masterpiece. And it is me.

Art installation live in place on the Harold Stevens Athletic Track, Coburg, Victoria, April 13-14 2019!

Sunday, February 10, 2019

IBS: Iron Burn Syndrome

No, I'm not mistaken. I know it's supposed to be Irritable Bowel Syndrome. But I've just re-diagnosed myself.

In mid-January 2019 (last month), I was misdiagnosed with "IBS." It turned out - and I discovered this through my own "Dr Google" research - that I had iron-pill (Ferrograd-C) induced gut lining damage. I went from being a gut-mess to being 100% in a matter of a few days. It sounds like some exaggerated story, where I will now launch into my sales pitch on the magic crystals that cured me...which you, too, could have for just $29.99! Nope, this is for-real. And there's nothing for sale.

I share this story because it might help others. But don't read it if you don't want to read words like poo and gas/wind! 

A different kind of wind. 50kph on Prairie Mountain, Alberta, Jan 2019
At the end of September 2018, I developed bloating (like 4 months pregnant), lots of wind/gas which got worse as each day progressed, often resulting in my sleeping on the sofa. Accompanying symptoms: narrow stools and going to the toilet 4-5x/day for a "number 2". Never constipation. No blood ever seen. No reflux type symptoms until early January, when I oddly started sometimes getting a few hiccups or burps for a few minutes after drinking water when running.

I've chronically had slightly low white cell counts, which my sports doc said fits with my athletic level. Though the GP kept hinting "bowel cancer." Recently, on routine bloodwork, I had high ferritin, too, which is not just an iron marker, but an inflammation marker.

I had a poo test in November to see if I had giardia or crypto or something - negative.
Pulk-pulling hike February - no FODMAP diet, hooray! 

On December 1st, I had a crazy pain attack in my belly that put me on the floor for an hour. I thought maybe I was just really hungry when I ate and ate too fast, swallowing air. I had the sweats, it was so painful.

I tried no spicy food plus the very complicated and restrictive low FODMAP diet at the beginning of December for two weeks, logging all my food. There was no change.

In late December, the GP re-did the poo test, as sometimes a bug can get missed. All good.

The GP then sent me for an ovary ultrasound (I was sure it wasn't a cyst or similar - the symptoms didn't line up). Ovaries were good. Once they found them underneath the wall of poo in the way of the camera. But they found gallstones. Now, I learned that lots of people have gallstones and never even know. But then I realised what the attack was on Dec 1st! I understand that you can get stones from red blood cell damage, and ultrarunners damage their red blood cells.... so it seems likely to me that it's this type. But I still have to meet with a gallbladder specialist in late March. Anyway, gallstones wouldn't account for my wind and poo regime.

In mid-January, the next step was to go for a colonoscopy and gastroscopy. Though I was dreading the liquid laxative stuff I had to drink (3 times!) in preparation, that wasn't so bad. The bad part was the anaesthetist telling me, in my vulnerable, naked-except-for-the-gown, half-delirious fasted state, that it would all be done under "twilight" anaesthetic. I'd be "awake" for the whole thing, she said. Well, that brought out a sudden (but quiet!) swear word and a few tears. Shove a pipe and camera down my throat whilst I'm awake?!? F*cking hell. She promised me she'd increase the sleepy-meds if need be. The last words I heard in the theatre were, "Have a good sleep, B." Right on. Wake me up for lunch.
Wide-eyed look of Wasootch Peak I'm climbing. Better than wide-eyed fear of a gastroscopy while awake!
No, it wasn't bowel cancer. One tiny polyp was removed (I understand it's the polyps that turn cancerous sometimes - so they just removed it so it couldn't get a chance to go rogue). That little polyp wouldn't have caused my symptoms, either.

The findings I got before leaving the hospital, which felt hurried, especially given I was just coming out of my morning snooze:

1. "mild reflux oesophagitis" - Inflammation of my oesophagus. The "reflux" part seemed particularly strange, as I didn't get reflux/heartburn at all. The doc at the hospital gave me a script for some meds to take for a month for this "reflux".

2. "mild duodenitis" - that's inflammation of my duodenum (my upper small intestine was also inflamed).

They tested and excluded Coeliac disease and H pylori bacteria.

Snowmen never have these problems. 
The result was the doc thinking I had "IBS" and that I should try a low FODMAP diet (I told him I'd already done that though). In addition to the script he gave me for my non-existent reflux, he told me to see a dietitian for FODMAP advice and take something called Mintec before meals and when I get abdominal pain.

However, I had to keep telling people, I don't (usually) get abdominal pain. I just looked 4 months pregnant, got increasing wind all day, poo'd a lot (but no pain), and my intestines sometimes 'churned' with the wind thing. I could feel it when laying in bed. Like I had snakes in my belly. But no pain, typically (except for that gallbladder night).

Here's where my own detective work came in:

I had to go off my 2x daily Ferrograd-C iron pills for a week before the hospital procedures. I noticed that "ironically" my symptoms seemed to be decreasing that week (but didn't connect it to the pills yet). After the procedures, I went back on the pills. Within two days, the symptoms were getting worse again.

Sudden aha moment - the ONLY thing that had changed had been the iron pills.

Bring in Dr Google. It turns out that not only had I developed two "itis" conditions in my gut from my 7 years of daily Ferrograd-C (iron is almost 'toxic' to the mucous lining of the gut I found out), but I had been taking my iron in a very poor way....right before laying down to sleep and with the tiniest of sips of water. I could often feel the pills in my throat.

Cue face-palm slap moment. If others can learn from this story to never take any pills before lying down and always with plenty of water, typing out this long story of poo and wind was worth it :) And really, really try to think outside the box when it comes to gut issues. I'd been on iron pills for 7 years without problems, after all.

I've had a happy belly for three weeks now, without iron pills. I never took the reflux meds. I've got to see my sports doc to discuss long-term iron options, but things are good.
Cue happy ending. No crystals for sale.
Endnote: Please don't associate my low iron with my veganism - I've had low iron since years before that part of my health journey began - and back then I even tried upping my red meat intake, cooking in cast iron, adding vitamin-c foods to my iron-rich meals....all to no avail.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Be. Here. Now: The Transalpine Run 2018 Stage Race

Transalps. TAR. Transalpine Run. The multi-day stage race across the alps. This year it was 7 days, 255km and D+16,200m.


There will be lessons, a friend joked, if you run a 7 day team stage race!

I wasn't going to deny that, though what I really wanted was the opportunity to go back to Transalps, with a female partner, and spend 7 days immersed in teamwork. Getting ourselves - and each other - over the finish line day after day for seven days. Helping each other find the best in ourselves with which to help the team.

I did this race in 2012, with my "de facto." That is, my partner based on fact, not legal contract ;) Anyway, I digress. Whilst at that time I was a pretty new ultrarunner (just 5 years under my belt, but only 3 with any kind of substance), Rolf was a really new ultrarunner. He was actually a new runner full stop. The race that year was 4 countries over 8 days, 320km D+ 15,000m. It was a beast of an adventure.

Very bad shin splints for him. Sleep dep for both of us. First cold sore of my life.

With my accumulated experience, I was keen to go back and approach the race more competitively. Not as in "compete-against-others," but just race hard. In 2012, Rolf raced hard, but our pace difference was such that I only worked when I chased him downhill :) And that was only until he started to develop compartment syndrome.... I wanted to do it again, but be able to run hard every day. Focus on recovery every night. Repeat. Go into the time warp black hole that is Transalpine Run. Where every moment is a focus on running or recovering from running or preparing for the next run. And if that level of personal - team - competitiveness also saw any podium placings, well, that would be bonus. Because as I always say, you can't control who else shows up and how good their day goes.

I'd made a few attempts to find a female partner for 2017, connecting with a few women internationally who ran a similar pace. Nothing readily came of it and I admit feeling little motivation to pursue it. There were too many unknowns racing for a week with a stranger from somewhere else in the world. Cultural differences, personality differences, language barriers.... Communication is a critical component to team racing. I'd do better, I reckoned, to have a partner who I knew, even if she wasn't matched for my pace.

When my running mate Sanja said she was looking for a race in Europe in 2018, I threw it out there. And she was keen. Temperament is also a key element to team success and given that we'd had several running adventures together, we had a decent sense of each other's quirks. I thought ;)

Sanja was immediately a bit overwhelmed at race pack pickup in Germany, seeing runners go by in their "Lavaredo Ultra Trail" or "Eiger Ultra" t-shirts. She'd never raced in Europe.

We had a rough start. I felt that Sanja was sabotaging things by not taking beetroot juice, Fully Charged, or caffeine pills - things she'd planned to use. I thought it was her way of giving herself an out, reducing her own expectations on herself, in order to relieve the self-imposed pressure. To top it off, a combination of nerves and fighting illness seemed to put her heart rate very high on Stage 1. She had no experience of trying to back up racing day after day and couldn't be reassured by those of us she talked to who had. She needed to see that her own body could do it.

Thankfully we kept working together, so we could get ourselves to places like this! Stage 4.

Our paces weren't matched on the climbs, but even less than I expected. I found myself walking uphill, heart rate less than 100 bpm, whilst Sanja chugged away. I was sending emails and Whatsapp messages. Yup, really.

On the downhills, we couldn't make up time because Sanja was unnerved by the complete and utter absence of sun-baked red hard ground covered in pea gravel and honky nuts contoured by enormous ruts. That's the treacherous turf in Western Australia. Instead, she had rocks and tree roots. To her eyes, it was "very technical." I had thought we'd be matched - or I'd be chasing Sanja - on the descents. Wrong.

A sample of Sanja on WA's "non-technical" terrain. The defence rests.

Despite these obstacles, we ran ourselves as a team onto the Masters Women podium for Stage 1 and Stage 2! Though we had never planned to attend the nightly pasta parties unless they were very convenient, we agreed I would attend the nightly race briefings that were held at 7.30pm, after the daily podium ceremonies. Attending the race briefings is mandatory for one team member. I'm an "upholder" type person, so I like to meet expectations (both internal and external ones) and stick to the rules. And I wouldn't have slept well if I missed a briefing, wondering if anything critical was said.

Indeed, there were times when the course was changed - and the start time, too! Then there were practical reminders. Like don't poo behind the vehicles at aid stations. Okay, maybe I didn't need that one. But some competitors obviously did.

For day 1, our accommodation was 12km away. Day 2, our accommodation was 300m away, so Sanja came over for the 7pm podium ceremony only. I admit I felt a little less silly having her with me on the podium, but my ultimate goal was for her to best recover for the following day. Making her come to stand on a podium wasn't in the team's best interests.

Day 3 on 'partial tow' in boggy terrain between 1600-2200m, AUT
Stage 3 was the longest stage. Made even longer by a landslide that caused a course re-routing. 51km + over 3,100m. I thought 7.5 hours might be possible, but much of the terrain proved to be very boggy. But the day dawned as very hopeful on my part, because I had found out I could tow Sanja. I'd thought it was against the rules and all I could do was carry her pack. But the organisers clarified that towing, pushing, pulling - it was all encouraged as an aspect of team racing - as long as there were no fixed lines between runners (a safety issue). When we hit the first hill at 4k, I put Sanja on tow, using her poles between us. I was relieved to hear she liked the method. Then elated that I could finally get my heart rate up! I felt like we were finally a team, instead of me suffering mentally whilst she suffered physically!

It was mostly a climbing day, so we didn't have to worry too much about the descending. Still, she found the boggy stuff technical, too. 8 hours 15 minutes. 3rd place for the day again.

Day 4 podium in Solden, AUT - 2nd place for that stage.

Stage 4? I have no idea. In fact, as I wrote this blog post up, I had to keep referring to my daily race profile summaries, my photos, and the website in order to piece it all together! As I talked about the race afterwards to others and as I wrote this post, I found myself conflating experiences and days - mixing them all up. That shows how unreliable our memories are - what we think the "truth" is.

And Transalps is just the kind of race to exacerbate our subjective storing of memories. You need so much to be in the moment and there's so much "go" that when you get "woah" moments, you sleep. So, looking back, I can see Stage 4 was a "recovery" stage. Haha. Just 28km, starting at a leisurely 9am. Add in 2,300m of climbing. A glacier crossing. High altitude running. A high point of 2,998m, which is reached via a 4km "VK" (vertical kilometre) with 1155m of gain involving via ferrata sections. And then a nonstop quad-crunching descent of 1,800m over just 9km. We finished in 5hr44m, in 2nd place, only 2 minutes behind the 1st place USA girls, and with the German girls only 2 minutes behind us! Since the hotel was just 200m from the finish line, Sanja came over for the podium ceremony for a second time. Another chance for her to show off her special "bronze Berkie - CEP sock" combo.

Stage 4, in the 4km 1100m climb  - a short via ferrata section, where towing is impractical and dangerous

Stage 5. 38.5km + 2220m, over Timmelsjoch (joch is 'yoke' or a pass) from Austria into Italy. They moved the start time from 8am to 7am because of the threat of afternoon thunderstorms, which would be dangerous in the high alpine. I towed for 2.5 hours, from 1346m at the start to the 2,475m high point. We took a quick celebration photo, she let go of the poles, and we began the 9k descent of about 1,100m. It was switch-backed and rocky to start, so I focused on my feet. Glancing back a minute later, I saw Sanja far above. I could give her tips for the downhill, but I couldn't tow her down. I paused. She caught up and said she had no quads. Just as we'd experienced so much on Stage 1 and 2, team after team passed us. I offered some tips, turned, and ran. Then stopped to wait. The German girls passed us. Sanja caught up. I turned and started running a third time. Then I found myself crying. A dry, hoarse sort of crying out of frustration. I felt powerless. I was having a most excellent "sooky la la" moment, as the Aussies say.

Time for Whatsapp. (Inside joke regarding tea for quads.)

Finally, as I saw how useless my behaviour and emotions were - for me and for the team - I regrouped. "Information, choices, and consequences." That's what a rebel apparently needs (Sanja's a rebel type when it comes to meeting expectations). So I calculated that the slow descents would add 30 to 60 minutes to our day and I shared that information. And offered some more descending advice. Sanja made a choice - to push out of her comfort zone and work her alpine descent skills. Woohoo for Team CEP Australia! That's teamwork. We finished, shovelled food in our faces like wild animals at the finish line, had our daily 20 minute massages, and got a shuttle to our hotel 7km north of the village. I did the usual - left Sanja to recover and prep for the following day, whilst I had 3 hours of shuttle buses, pasta party, podium ceremony, and race briefing.

Stage 6, 6hr15. We won the stage. I rocked the solo podium thing again ;)

Stage 7, the final stage, 5hr44, 2nd place. And in the final tally of total time, we finished 2nd Masters Women team overall. We'd had some not-so-secret racing (quite friendly, but still competitive) with the "open" Women's 2nd place team over the week. They seemed to get an extra spring in their step whenever we caught them on a stage. I don't think they liked it when the "old lady" (me) caught them - I worked magic on their pace ;)

In the end, we finished with a total 7 day time faster than theirs, as well. (Quiet fist pump.) So, including all women's teams regardless of age group, we finished behind the open Women's winning team and the German girls in our Masters Women category.

Day 7 - approaching the last summit - before the quad punishing 2000m descent over 11km down to Brixen, ITA

We ran from Germany to Austria to Italy. I towed all the climbs and some flats, when Sanja was more tired. Occasionally, I felt the benefit of her pushing me from behind when I'd have a brief low. We checked on each other's hydration and fuelling, shared some laughs, and even took photos. We clearly and kindly communicated, for mutual benefit.

Our days were generally a variation of this:

5.20am - wake up, pack big duffel bag
5.30am - take duffel bag to lobby of hotel for pickup
5.40am - breakfast, dressing, taping, lubing
6.20am - head to start line (earlier if on shuttle bus)
6.40am - mandatory gear check, final briefing
6.59am - listen to ACDC's Highway to Hell (their start line tradition)
7.00am - run
1.00 or 2.00pm - finish, eat everything (including Hammer recovery powder), find a shower
2.00 or 3.00pm - 20 min massage
3.30-5.30pm - organise for following day, read next day's map, calculate splits, water and fuel needs, eat more avocados and more carbs
Avos on pizza, avos with beans and turmeric...avos and avos....
5.30-8.30pm - I go to pasta party/podium/briefing (Sanja attended Stage 2 and 4 podium only). I send Whatsapp to Sanja with any critical info on next day's stage.
8.00pm - Sanja in bed
9.00-10pm - I return to tiptoe around hotel room, organising, taping toes, etc
10.00pm - I'm in bed

I can't speak for Sanja, but I did indeed get my challenging team race (and not because she was the only challenging part!) Sure, she did my head in a few times ;) But it was my opportunity to figure out what I could do to help the team. To observe any useless, unhelpful thought patterns or behaviour of my own and figure out how I could make something better of it. To try to mentor a peer through her first European race and her first multi-day race.

My lessons? Well, perhaps more "reminders" than "lessons." I am never powerless over my own thoughts, views, emotions, and reactions. As a "control freak", it's easy to race solo and only worry about myself. The magic in team racing is working my "control freak" tendencies on myself to find out how I can gain "control" of my monkey mind when it starts writing unhelpful stories. When it writes a black-and-white, doom-and-gloom B grade movie where I'm the victim, I have the power to use "Information, Choices, and Consequences" on myself. What info do I have on this issue/situation, what choices can I make about my thoughts, feelings, actions, opinions, reactions? And what might the consequences be?

They say in ultrarunning the only certainty is that things will change. That's true for the mind state as well. And the reality is that I have power over that change.

I'm grateful to Sanja for racing with me.

Just. Be. Here. Now.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Matterhorn Ultraks: The "Sprint" Ultra

Given what I often get up to, 49k + 3600m is a sprint, yes!

The 49km "sprint" started under a blanket of cloud in the Zermatt valley at 7am
I went into the Ultraks Skyrace feeling well-prepared. My recce run of the course over two days in July had shown me where my weaknesses were. A rocky, rooty, steep "get your balls on" descent and a mucky, side-cut sloped section which alternated between very fast runnable to jerky jumps and side steps gave me my skills to work in the five weeks leading in.

Based on previous race results of other women - plus comparisons with my speed on similar courses - I calculated a 7 hour race. 6 hours 45 minutes if things went really, really well. I wrote a 6hr40 plan, just to help ensure I was pushing myself to do my best. The winning woman would probably run under 6 hours.

My A goal was to run my best race possible and find out if I could really get my 49 year old me around that course in under 7 hours. And, if so, could I also hold myself within the top 10 women?

Top 10 was an adjunct goal, since one really can't control who shows up and how well everyone else runs. Unless you employ mafia techniques and that's just not me ... even if I could afford it ;) I had my challenges to intrigue me. And I knew it was a stellar route.

The race director told me I could go in the elite box up front to start, but on race morning I saw that the elite box (for those "seeking to win" according to organisers) was very small and my allocated "Group A" (for those "aiming to run sub 6hr15"!) was also pretty small. Knowing the first 5km was wide road/gravel road that would give everyone time to spread out, there was no pressure to race at red-line pace from the front to try to avoid a congo-line scenario. And I had no pretences of winning.

Thus, I happily chose the no-fanfare, no cameras-in-your-face Group A.

Though I avoided the scrutiny of others before the start, I had plenty of scrutiny from the monkey mind in my head once the gun went off. I started chugging up the shallow incline out of Zermatt and the monkey started up.

Queue monkey mind!
This is stupid. Why are you doing this? This is hard. There are so many people breathing heavily. We hate heavy breathing noises. It's cloudy. You can't even see the Matterhorn. When you get to a junction, just turn left. Run back down to Zermatt. Go back to bed.

Running with the monkey mind can be very exhausting. Eventually, I shut it up by initiating my "Regret-o-meter." The Regret-o-meter is my handy life tool that helps me decide on actions based on whether or what I'll regret afterwards. I ran the "go-back-to-bed" scenario and Regret-o-meter said, "You'll regret never knowing how fast you could have run around that Matterhorn course. The weather is good for it, you're trained, and you did the maths. You'll never know." So I ran. If nothing else, it was like a maths and science experiment. N of 1.

The clouds magically cleared at Gornergrat, 3000m, for some insane glacier views.

Being a race in the Skyrunner World Series, the only mandatory gear was a windproof jacket. I still carried a pack with some hydration and all my fuel (Perpetuem and a few gels). Nearly everyone wears a pack in this race. Aid stations could be over 2 hours apart. I carried my phone, as well, which was recommended. That turned out to be very handy, as I could get Whatsapp messages from Rolf telling me what position I was in after every aid station timing mat. Though once I knew I was 9th, it was pretty easy to keep track of whether I was overtaken by or whether I passed any other girls. I had a brief back-and-forth with one girl who tried to pass at Aid 1, but couldn't hold it on the next descent. Then it was 9th all the way to the last aid station.

Representing the 1960s on the Ultraks podium!
I wondered whether I was fading more than others and would be passed like I was standing still in the last 7k. Sure enough, I was passed, but only once! Laia Canes (ESP W30), who was 2nd at World Trail championships this year, came charging through just after the last aid station. I'd see her early on - at the 7k point - leaning against a tree, looking winded and disappointed, like her race was over. Now, she came charging past, looking strong. I cheered her on - she was crushing the finish. She had made up over 20 minutes from her long stop near Aid 1 I later saw. Just the mental fortitude to come back after being so far back is something to tip my hat to. Un chapeau, Laia.

In front of Laia and I was another girl (Barbara Trunkelj, SLO, W1, running for Salomon). She had lost the spring in her step. In the matter of a minute or two, I went from 9th to 10th and back to 9th as we both passed Barbara. I thought I saw another girl further in front and gave chase, but she saw me and found another gear. Turned out, after perusing results later, "she" was a "he!" 

I finished in 6hr50.

I typically say I don't do races more than once, but this race was incredible. Despite massive vert over such a short distance, the terrain is very runnable. The views are insane and it's brilliantly organised. And the bonus is that a body recovers so much faster from a "sprint ultra" than a long one.

I might have to see how fast a 50 year old me could run around the Zermatt/Matterhorn loop next year :)

Top 10 women

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Godmother: 10 Years in Western Australia

I don’t know who first used the term. Maybe it was Shaun Kaesler, an ultrarunner and race director of several ultramarathon events in Western Australia. I have become known as the godmother of trail and ultrarunning in WA. Shaun even notarised it a few months ago via a lovely “valour” award for 2018 at his Lighthorse Ultra – for service to ultrarunning in WA.

As I write this, I’m on a mountain top at 2,300 metres in Switzerland, and there are just 3 days before I race the 49km+3600m Matterhorn Ultraks Sky race. I’m 49 years old, so I’m in the W40-49 age group. Barely. Two more wrinkles and I'm into W50 ;) I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be W50 so much until now!

Though this race is definitely too short for me to obtain a top rank, it’s a race that really interested me. Two of my key principles for life are "Least Regret" and "Rush: Perishable" (these human bodies don't last forever). I don’t get motivated choosing races based on whether I might win. I choose primarily by whether I feel there to be a personal challenge - a feeling that the race is a journey of some sort. This race has so much character, the course has flow (even when it’s straight up!), and the Zermatt area is absolutely stellar. I’ll certainly race (live tracking link) to the best of my ability, that’s for sure. Bring on “near puke” running for 7 hours – I’m in!

Recce run in July - selfie at Gornergrat (3130m) - 16km point of the Ultraks Sky race
Thinking about being 49 and chasing “kids” up mountains got me thinking about my “godmother” (not grandmother, I have to remember!) moniker. My 10 year anniversary in WA corresponds pretty closely to my number of years racing ultras, as well. Naturally, pioneers like to reminisce about the old days (good or otherwise).

So, with that in mind, pull up a rocking chair and I’ll spin a yarn or two….

I landed in Perth, the most geographically remote city in the world, on the last day of May 2008, as the recipient of an international PhD scholarship. I knew no one.

I remember trail and ultra running in WA when…
    6 Inch Trail Marathon finish - December 2008
  • WA had one official ultramarathon – the WAMC 40 Miler. It ran out-and-back 4 times over a 16km stretch of wide, pretty flat, railway-grade gravel trail. Most of the runners of that event seemed to be in training for the Comrades road ultra in South Africa. I’d never even heard of Comrades until I moved to WA. And no one in WA had ever heard of the Western States 100 miler.
  • 6 Inch Trail Marathon in 2008 (fatass) and 2009 had 20 starters at each. Two rubbish bins with a tie-down strap formed the finish line.
  • My first solo bush run was July 2008, after I bought myself a $750 car. I drew a mud map on paper and went to suss out the “King of the Mountain” course in the Helena Valley. I had been very excited when I’d heard about the upcoming 16km trail race. I was thrilled to find it involved a river crossing, but left disappointed at the fact that I was running along a pipeline-access gravel road in a valley. There were so many hills around. Why wasn’t anyone running them??
    Australia Day Kings Park run Jan 2009 - no packs (except me)
  • There was no place in Perth called The Running Centre. Or The Running Warehouse.
  • I joined a large group of runners for my first Australia Day, January 2009, to run in Kings Park. I was the only one who wore a hydration pack. We ran from water fountain to water fountain.
    Garmin arm workout
  • The Running Centre opened, but they didn’t sell trail- and ultra-specific gear. How could they, when the market comprised 20 people?
  • No one knew what Clif Bloks, Sharkies, Honey Stingers, or GU chomps were, nor trail running gaiters. I would pay $75 in shipping to get several months of running fuel sent from North America.
  • I took people to Wungong for the first time January 2009 and they said, “I can’t believe it took a Canadian to show us this place” and “8.43 pace?!?”
  • In September 2009, Dave Kennedy hosted the fatass “Waterous 100 mile” race. There were two entrants, Dave and Rob. I went to pace Rob. The funniest moment was when Rob’s wife, Sue, asked before the start, “Where’s everyone else?” and Rob told her there was no one else.
  • I had a Vodaphone SIM in a flip phone that was essentially useless in the bush.
  • I ran with a huge Garmin Forerunner 101 on my bicep that used AAA batteries and could not be connected to a computer to upload or download anything. I found my way using the breadcrumb trail, making pencil and paper drawings on the fly, and by leaving cryptic markings at junctions in case I found myself having run in a circle!
    Waterous (aka WTF) 100 miler start - Sept 2009
  • I created the Perth Trail Series and one of the first items of swag was “tubies” (a Buff-like tube of fabric). I told people this was going to be the most amazing item of running kit they never knew they needed so badly until they had one.
  • Perth Trail Series held the first event in mid-January 2012. I originally thought it would be a series of 5 short (8 - 19km) trail races run over the summer months and that it would go into dormancy for nine months each year. A primary goal was to give people a means to get into the sport of trail running (without having to do a 46km race as their entry point!) and "create" ultra runners in the process. I anticipated having a different volunteer race director running each event. I’d oversee the whole thing. I quickly realised it was going to be much harder “herding cats” than simply being the sole cat.

I remember when I could name every trail and ultrarunner in WA on my 10 fingers. It’s bittersweet that I can’t name even 1 out of 10 who cross the finish line at a trail running event now. But as long as the ethos is in all of us, we’re all still trail family. Keep looking after each other out there, WA, I've just got the matter of a 7 day stage race to attend to after Matterhorn and I'll be back! Well, there might also be a quick trip to China in October....

Running with some of the extended trail family in Tenerife in June

Monday, June 18, 2018

B is for Beast (Animal): The Mágica Tenerife Bluetrail

This was my first Spanish race. I've raced in other countries with Spanish competitors and spectators and the one word I heard was "Bravo!" (or "Brava!" for the feminine). Which means brave or good or courageous. But what I found out running in the Canary Islands, an autonomous region of Spain, was that a far more popular word of encouragement on the trails is "Animal!" This is Spanish for... yes, you guessed it, animal. But it's also Spanish for beast! The important thing is to get your Spanish pronounciation right - ah-nee-mahl!

Happy Animal, somewhat bewildered that I actually did it!
My nickname in Australia is "B" (they tried Berni and I had to nip that in the bud by giving them another option). One running friend decided that "B is for Beast." Well, the Spanish agree :) I must have been called a beast 100 times over the 17 hours and 55 minutes I was out on that 102k course, with its 6800m of climbing.
Go up 60k, go down 40k. Roughly.

Going into the event, I had beastly training, managing to tally 150-200km weeks with up to 9000m of ascent. And I did it all in the Perth hills! Unfortunately, the stress of preparing to go abroad for 4 months left me frazzled at the end of May. I arrived in Tenerife, one week before race day, feeling burnt out. The idea of a race sounded awful. I couldn't even begin to convince myself I was looking forward to it. I wasn't. My mental batteries were low. My race sheets for fueling and crewing weren't done. This animal needed a hibernation.

It was time to pull out the "Fake it Til You Make it" and "Act as if" mantras. I kept remembering back to when I had first found the race online - a race that ran almost all uphill for 60km, to the top of a volcano! A journey from sea to sea, from the south of the biggest Canary Island to the north, from beach to pine forest to Spain's highest point (Pico Teide) down to rainforest and then to the sea in the north.

I simply kept going through the motions of preparing. There was no passion, only practicality. But I held space for movement, for change to happen. I acknowledged and accepted my current feelings of stress and lack of interest in racing come Friday night, but didn't let the feelings dictate the future. Ultrarunners know the adage that things change during a race. Well, I knew things could change before a race, too :)

Animals like bananas.
Thursday morning we drove to the capital city to collect my bib. I was hoping to slip through without attention, and purposefully had left my "daggy" adventure clothes on, as we'd stayed at the volcano hut at 3250m the night before. I reckoned by going in all smelly and grungy, I'd encourage myself to bolt through quickly.

It didn't work. I was greeted warmly and enthusiastically and asked to do an interview. Well, at least I had a a clean Bluetrail race shirt in my swag bag!

Thankfully, Friday was a pretty quiet day and I was feeling at least a bit of enthusiasm for the 11.30pm start. So, to the pounding of drummers and the beachside fireworks (everyone knows bears don't like loud noises!), we took off at a frantic pace along the promenade. One guy dropped his mobile phone and when another tried to pick it up, it just about became a game of human dominoes.

I passed a few girls, but had no idea of my position. Though it didn't really matter, as I knew it was at least a 15 3/4 hour race for me and there was no point trying to chase or outrun any other "beast" this soon.

The temperature was mild (~20C) but with humidity (~84%) it was fierce. My face was red and dripping sweat. My watery eyes were at an all time personal best. We climbed into the cloud and mist layer at an altitude of about 700m. There's a Star Wars 'warp speed' effect with a headlamp on in mist. At times, we'd all have to pause at junctions to try to search ahead for a flag, the air was that densely whited-out. My nose was running so much I gave up wiping it and just let it run down to the ground. Animals don't care about snotty noses.

I passed a girl on a climb and she gave chase. It made her breathe heavily though. Too heavily. She made a distinct effort to look at my bib. She let me go but caught me on a short flat. At the next rise, I created a gap again. We did that a few times, but on a sustained climb, I was ahead for good. She remained in my mind. She seemed strong on the flats and downs and the last 40km of the race are mostly downhill. That's where I was really going to have to work, I figured, to hold whatever position I had.

I met Rolf at the third checkpoint, Ifonche. My ETA was 3hr15 and it was 3hr08. Rolf told me I was third. He asked if I was having fun and I said, "I'm not sure." With the initial crowds running at a silly furious pace and then climbing into a cloud, running on rocky technical ground with watery eyes and a snot nose, it was hard to say if I could call it fun. But it was an adventure. That much I could say! I had enough experience of the island to know there was every expectation we would be poking out through the top of the cloud band at some point and it would be lovely. And the crowds would continue to spread out over time as people settled in to their own paces.

Mt Teide behind me - leaving Parador Hotel for the summit
I came in to Vilaflor at 4hr57, 15 minutes ahead of estimates. Six more scoops of Perpetuem with a scoop of Fully Charged (love that taste combo), some water, and I was off. Definitely in my happy place.

Rolf drove the narrow mountain roads in the dark up to the Parador Hotel (~2100m) in the big caldera below Mt Teide to wait for me and sunrise. Sunrise was stunning. I was well above the puffy white cloud layer. The sun came up near Gran Canaria island off to my right. The sky slowly lit up pink and the hills to my left became more defined silhouettes. The ground in that section was crushed stone and black. I came around the corner to my first view of Teide and began the descent into Parador. 8hr02min on the clock. Still 15 minutes ahead of schedule, but I figured I would lose time on my overly optimistic projections for the high altitude stuff to come - up the volcano to 3,555m. Suncreen, more Perpetuem and Fully Charged, pack the headlamp and pick up sunglasses.

Rolf told me I was still in 3rd place. I expected it was two younger girls up front and was happy I was probably 1st veteran (40-49yrs). Rolf seemed more optimistic than me about my abilities, as he was focussed on the gap between me and 2nd place (just 25 minutes, he said). I was more concerned about who was chasing me down! I asked for some "intel" on how far back the next girl was and ran for the volcano.

In the summit area

My lack of altitude training (two measly days) showed. The only animal I think I was emulating was sloth. I struggled to take in food. 10hr50min total lapsed to reach the highest point of the race. That 10k took 2hr50! The slowest 10k of my life, that's for sure! But I was only 10 minutes behind projections. (And I was just 3 minutes slower than the 2nd place girl over that 10k, I found out later - so much for my altitude training excuses.) The checkpoint staff offered me a chair, food, and hot broth (it was freezing in the 40kph+ wind up there), but I said no thanks. You don't finish a race by sitting down. The sooner I got moving, the more likely I'd stay in front of any approaching girls. And the sooner I'd be down to a more reasonable altitude where I might be able to digest food better. Just a marathon to go. Next section was 13.6k+98m-1743m!

On the other side of Pico Teide, short gentle-graded section, heading in to Recibo Quemado. 

The boys started passing me on the descent. I realised I was in a bit of a "lazy" unenergised state of mind and body. When the next boy passed, I was determined to allow as little gap as possible to open up between us. I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone more in the crazy technical rocks. I was pleased with my pace pick-up but still came into the next checkpoint, with Rolf waiting, having 12hr55min on the clock. I was now 55 minutes off projections. Only half surprising, as I'd recce'd the top bit of this section when I stayed at the volcano hut and it was way too technical for me to run the projected 6min/k pace I'd forecast. The last bit of this section had seen a transition from basalt/lava rock to pine forest. It was lovely - the smell of pine is always "Canada" to me and incredibly comforting. The aid station was in a beautiful location. And they had watermelon, which I tried to use to help reset my slight nausea. Rolf told me I'd lost a bit more time on 2nd place, which didn't interest me. I knew I was unlikely to catch a girl on a descent and far more likely to be overtaken by one coming up from 4th place.

Overly cautious beast with quivering quads.
From Recibo Quemado to the Base del Asomadero continued to be dramatic downhill. 12.4k+396m-1811m. Almost right after leaving the heat of the pine forest aid station, where I had been sprayed down with water and sunscreen, I ran down into the cloud layer. It started drizzling. And then I hit the rainforest. The steep clay/mud was treacherous and I had no quads and no beast mode, despite all the encouragement from any passing spectator. This video shows green-bib racers (20k event), who I think were just 2km into their race. With fresh legs, they were having way more fun than the ultramarathon runners who came through later with 82km in their legs, on trails that had become even more slick over the course of the day. I would have been laughing my head off if I'd had just 2k in my legs, too, at that point! In hindsight, I should have changed from the Terraclaw shoes to the Inov-8 x-talons at the last checkpoint.

The flora in the rainforest was stunning and included things I've never seen before - cool flowers growing straight out of rocks on cliffsides - wonderful for the eyes. But the ground was not so wonderful to my 49 year old tired and inflexible legs. I arrived at Asomadero at 2.06pm, 14hr36 lapsed on the clock, and now 1hr20 behind projections. I knew it was going to get worse. Another rainforest section next.

Uphill nearly 700m in under 3km and downhill slip-and-slide 900m over 5km to Tigaigo. I had found out the next girl had fallen back to 45 minutes behind me. The slight nausea finally started to abate near Tigaigo. I had been drinking tons, which seemed to help. Perhaps it was a combination of dehydration at altitude plus the lack of oxygen to help digestion that had triggered it. I was two hours behind projections now. It felt like a disaster, but it was the best I was able to do. I was in pretty good spirits about my adventure and ready to head for that finish chute.

The last 3km of the run into Puerto Cruz went through town, mostly along the foreshore. Spectators and tourists shouting "Ah-nee-mahl!" and clapping, three "false" gantries where announcers called out details of the runners passing by. The word "tercera" (third) was one I had added to my limited Spanish vocabulary by that point.

Finally, I ran up into that the final gantry. 5.25pm. 17 hours 55 minutes. Two hours behind projections, with one hour of that due to slower-than-anticipated descent off the bouldery technical mountainous terrain and another hour due to the slower-than-molasses descent in the two rainforest sections. A spectacular event with incredible organisation. A one of a kind experience. One of the best sunrises of my life. A highly recommended adventure for all Ah-nee-mahls. Just be sure to get loads of elevation in your training.

Mágica, as they say.

Overall (Absoluta) - 1st: Azara Garcia de Los Salmones Marcano & Yeray Duran Lopez (ESP) 2nd: Nadezda Surmonina (RUS) & Sange Sherpa (NEP) 3rd: me (CAN-AUS) and Juan Antonio Gonzalez Rodriguez (ESP)

Veteran A class (40-49 years): A Canaussie with the Spaniards. 1st: me with Yeray Duran Lopez (ESP) 2nd: Ana Belen Martin Gonzalez (ESP) & Juan Antonio Gonzalez Rodriguez (ESP) 3rd: Carmen Martinez Saez (missing - ESP) & Arcadio Araujo Gopar (ESP)