"Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won't exist because you'll have already shut it out." -Mae Jemison, astronaut

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)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Sponge Bathing My Way to a CAN W45 6hr Record

I trained diligently and consistently for 12 weeks preparing for my second attempt at the AUS W45 100km record held by Lavinia Petrie. I needed to shave "only" about 5 minutes off my January time. That's the difference between running a 5.04 pace for 100k and a 5.01 pace (with no breaks). It's actually quite a bit. For me. For over 8 hours of running.

But I thought with cooler weather, calmer winds, the kind surface and precision-like nature of a track, plus 12 weeks of solid training, I might do it.

Lane 1-2: 24hr runners. Lane 3-4: 12hr runners (me included). Lane 5: 24hr walkers

A week before the Coburg 12hr, I saw the Melbourne forecast. "Oh, no, here we go again!" 25 degrees Celsius and a noon start. And heat radiates off a track surface. But I had to try. My back up race - the Sri Chinmoy 12 hr track in June - was out because I'm headed overseas by then.

I packed the sponges and arranged to borrow a Victorian-based esky.

Other than having mental angst along the lines of "Why do I do this to myself?!" and some pretty stand-out butterflies-in-stomach feelings the night before and morning of the race, all was well with last minute preparations.

Fifteen minutes after the start gun went off, the soaking began. If I didn't have Perpetuem or a pear in hand, I almost invariably had a sponge. My fingers got wrinkly from holding sponges so much. (I even had to do sewing repairs on one of my sponges post-event!)

Pace-wise, I tried to hold myself back a bit so I wouldn't burn out before the clouds came in. I went through 50km in 4h7m. That's 1min slower than at the ADU race in January. I could only hope that by being a bit more conservative in the heat, I'd have the ability to push in the last 3 hours. But the heat was actually worse than at ADU, as I was in full sun at 25C from the start, for hours. Who would have thought - the WA summer race weather was better than Melbourne in autumn! (Granted, the ADU ran from midnight and I was done by 8.30am.)

I fought back the voice that kept telling me how hopeless it was. I willed myself to give it a good crack and at least try to get to the 6hr mark, where I should set a new W45 CAN record. And, besides, we had another uncomfortable hotel and no desire to play tourist in Melbourne, so what else would we do with the rest of our Saturday night?

As 6 hours approached and I felt the 100k pace slipping further, I was tempted to run it out hard and leave it all on the track at that point. But I told myself "steady on." I couldn't toss away the 100k yet.

Clouds came in late, but still required soaking.
At the 6hr mark, I dropped a little sandbag on the track and kept running. The race director came around with a wheel to add up the extra metres I'd covered after crossing the timing mat. My total was 72.329km for 6 hours - I surpassed the former record by 2km (though I did better than that at ADU, they had no means to measure the 6hr split). I felt a welling up of emotion for a hard fought battle to that point. But there was no time to celebrate with my partner. I simply yelled out as I passed him next lap, "Well, at least we have THAT!" We both knew 100k time goal looked unlikely.

I pressed on for another hour. We both did the maths in different ways but came to the same conclusion. At my current pace, I'd pass 8hr22 with 2 laps to go. I needed to get my 2min10s laps back down to 2min2s. For each of the remaining 40+ laps. I had to go from 5:15min/k pace back below 5 min/k pace. But when I tried to push, I felt a wee bit nauseous. That means the stomach isn't going to take on fuel, as the body is working too hard contracting muscles and cooling itself. I could push like that for 20-30 minutes, maybe a bit more, but not for 80 minutes.

At 7 hours, I ran past Rolf and said, "I'm not sure why I'm still running." Truth was, I felt pretty good. I mean, I was stiffening up and utterly soaked from my all-day mobile sponge bath, but I felt all right for having run over 80km.

But there was no good reason to put any more load on my body - not to run another 8hr27 or 8hr28. I was time to hang up my shoes and start recovering.

The moment I chose to stop at 7 hours/~84km. I was happy I did my best, given the conditions and just had to concede.

Third time's a charm, right? I've got a few more training strategies up my sleeve - and reckon three sauna sessions might have helped.... But, really, I must get the venue-and-weather combination right to stand a chance.

An amazing race director, Tim Erickson. Oddly, I came away with 1st place in the 12hr, despite stopping at 7hr.

So... maybe.... If I don't run out of time and turn 50 before I find that perfect venue in perfect cool, calm weather! It's a strange feeling to break a record, but feel unfulfilled. The 100k challenge remains strong in me.

I'd like weather where it's not hot enough for spectators to sunbath in tank tops on the infield, please.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Women Are Not Small Men - Even in FKTs

When I attempted the Bibbulmun Track 1000km Fastest Known Time (FKT) in November 2011, I chose to go supported. In FKT world, there are 3 categories: (1) supported (all varying levels of assistance), (2) self-supported (must be alone, no dedicated help, but you can use shops and the like that everyone else has access to), and (3) unsupported (must haul all gear start to finish - pretty much impossible for a 1000km track like the Bibbulmun).

November 1st - about 5am.
The records at that time:
Supported - Men: Paul Madden - 16d 8h 15m (Nov 2010)
Supported - Women: none
Self-Supported - Men: Andy Fawcet had made a claim on self-supported, with incomplete evidence provided and a woman reported she was with him nearly all the way (making his attempt really a supported one). In November 2012, Andy Hewat removed any ambiguity from this category by running 17d 9h 39m, which was faster than Fawcet's claimed time.
Self-Supported - Women: Nicki Rehn - 19.5d (Apr 2009)

My original plan had been to go self-supported and attempt to better Nicki's 19.5day. Once convinced to go supported, I was left needing a target time. Since there was no supported women's record, I chose Paul Madden's time of 16d 8h as a benchmark. He had been walking, so I thought I might be able to go faster than that running, despite having the physical disadvantage of being in a female body.
South of Balingup, from memory. The Bibb foot saga begins!

The attempt was almost a comedy of errors, with my suffering over 50 tick bites, having food repulsion, forgetting a spare headlamp battery one night and being in the dark on Mt Vincent, having our support vehicle breaking down (and bogging down at one point).... The list goes on and on!

I developed compartment syndrome in my left leg, which came on within 5 days, and eventually had me spend a day off the trail in Denmark and Albany hospitals for scans. My pace became a hobble. Despite it all, I managed to finish in 15d 9h 48m. My partner and I had nightmares for two weeks.

For the next few years, whenever I heard about an FKT attempt, I stressed over it. My effort had been so hard fought that I was overly attached to it. I felt that if someone "smashed" my time, it wouldn't then reflect the pain, determination, strength, and resilience of my 2011 run.

Such stress has gone down with each passing year and with each new attempt I've heard about. I stopped having to wrestle with the mixed feelings of wanting them to go well, but also not break "my" record.

The curious thing, though? That every single attempt since November 2011 has been by a male. Including this month's - April 2018. Shane Johnstone and James Roberts of Perth set off on a supported FKT attempt from south to north. About the time they started, I was asked my opinion on their publicised 12 day attempt. I finally realised that I should simply do the maths. I'm very science-based and science has always guided my running. It takes the emotion and guesswork out of so much.

We know from the data that men generally outperform women in running by about 11%.

One of the things that can go wrong.
Given my 370hr finish, a man should be able to run the Bibbulmun in at least 335hr (13d 23h). Given I spent a day off the track in hospitals, perhaps my time could have been more like 346hr. That gives a male finish time of 312hr (13d 0h). Given my compartment syndrome and the fact that I was forced to rest multiple times each afternoon when the pain made it impossible for me to weight bear (the worst time was 5km in 3hrs), there was likely even more room for a man (and a woman) to do better, if they had a more "perfect run." But of course there's so much that can go wrong, from injuries to getting lost to vehicle breakdowns.

Doing the maths reminded me that I must never compare my performances to men's. Over that many days, 11% ends up looking pretty huge, too. It's days, not minutes, like in a 5k track race. Women are not small men. Our testosterone levels are lower. Our muscles are smaller. We have less haemoglobin. Our VO2max is lower. We carry more fat.

Look, no women!
I've become quite vocal in the past couple years about our tendency to compare men's and women's performances and to note things like when a woman wins an event "outright" or gets "third overall" or similar. According to the IAAF and IAU, women and men run in separate events held concurrently. This is done for simplicity, really. On the track, men and women still run separate races.

I don't want to be compared to men in my running. If I win an event "outright", it just means that men underperformed or the calibre wasn't there at that particular event. That's all. Physiologically, women do not outrun men. And, no, not even at the longer distances, as some have tried to suggest. The exception continues to be the exception. Not the rule.
Look, no men!

There is no "outright" win in a running race, other than "outright" men's winner and "outright" women's winner. They are two separate events held concurrently. Have I mentioned that?

When the Boston marathon winner of the men's event finishes, I just can't imagine he says, "I totally smashed Paula Radcliffe's time."

So, how did the boys from Perth go? James had to pull out with a leg injury/bacterial infection, but Shane powered on to finish in an amazing 11d 7h 8m. That's one stout men's supported FKT.

Shane (centre) at the finish, with crew man Kyle (left) and James (right) - photo by Rob Donkersloot

Friday, March 23, 2018

From Sea to Summit: Simultaneously Training for Track and Mountain Races

Being my own coach means a lot of things.

Autonomy. The freedom to stuff up totally in programming for myself. No independent, objective consultants to offer potentially disagreeable opinions on my "brilliant" training plan.

Internal Accountability. No one to answer to if I hit snooze and sleep through that early session. No one to notice if I change "Mona fartlek" in the program to "easy 10k."

Unique training: flag a trail race then run it hours later!
Improved Reading Skills. Scouring the research for the latest in training ideas*, injury prevention and management*, strength training for runners**, and recovery strategies also offers the opportunity to hold a paid-for UWA library membership for journal access.

I'm training for the Coburg 12hr. I'm in for the 6hr and 100km splits, followed by a pretty bad 12hr finish distance! Race day is 21 April. This has been one of the longest, most structured programs I've ever undertaken. It's got some new elements in it for me (which, as my own coach, I don't have to worry about any disapproval over!)

I've been at it for 8 weeks and am now 4 weeks out from race day. My "A goal" is to break the AUS W45 record held by Lavinia Petrie of 8.22.17 from 1992. I should also record a 6hr split that would better my CAN W45 6hr record. I don't think I've worked harder for a goal race outside of UTMB.

Other than the April 100k race, which was an obvious choice for me after coming within 5 minutes of the AUS record at January's hot and windy summer Australia Day Ultra, the rest of my year sat open before me. So many races, but I just couldn't find one that called me with an irresistible siren song. I can never be sure what the tune will be when I'm looking for a race. For example, UTMB held no allure for me for years. Finally, at the end of 2014, I found myself captivated by it. How well could my 46-year-old-me do, if I put everything I could into it?

The 2018 race that sang out to me back in December was Tenerife Bluetrail. Roughly 100km + 6800m from one side of Tenerife island (Canary Islands) to the other side, over Pico del Teide, a volcano that stands at 3,718m and counts as Spain's highest peak. Whoa! A race that's almost all uphill for nearly 60km?? On a volcano? Point to point? On a country's highest peak? Move over, sirens, I'm headed for shore!

But ...the date...only 7 weeks after the 100k track race. How could I recover properly and then train for a mountain race? A race with D+680m per 10k. That's more vert per 10k than UTMB.

I searched and searched for another siren song. A race at the end of June would be much better. Like Marathon du Mont-Blanc (91k+6220m). I've been sitting on that entry for 1.5 months.

So, the Tenerife date isn't perfect. But it calls. And if anything, trying to figure out how to train for a massive mountain race, whilst simultaneously recovering from a 100k track race adds to the alluring challenge. And if there's one siren call I always hear, it's CHALLENGE.

Hence, the unique training program. Which I shall not divulge the details of. Just in case I need to patent it later.

But here are some numbers from the past 21 days:

Distance run: 495km
Vertical: 14,275m
Number of days waking to an alarm because of work: 1
Number of days waking to an alarm because of running: 12
Nights slept in full compression tights: 5
Hammer Race Caps and Mito Caps consumed: 21 each
Udo's Oil consumed: ~26-30 tbsp
Number of one hour massages: 4
Sports chiro visits: 1
Treadmill runs: 1
Other altered runs: 2 (for heat)
Loads of laundry done: 295 (or thereabouts)

Tenerife Bluetrail profile

I must say, although this has been a very challenging program, made more so by it being summer, I'm happy to report that I still love running. I've had loads of whinges and a few bad words have been uttered about Perth summer heat, the insane humidity this year, and crazy winds that make holding speed work pace an impossibility some days. But my easy days have become an even better excuse to do rubbish collection on the trails. Mother Nature is winning!

My "single use" shop bags have become too small for my efforts!

*I still won't be investing in a pseudo altitude training mask or voodoo floss
**I have found great value in my purchase of Jay Dicharry's latest book Running Rewired.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Australia Day Ultra: Saved by a Donga and a Stampeding Herd in the Dark

I wrote my race plan. Then my partner showed me the detailed forecasts. The ones pilots use. Nothing like the wide-angle lens that our regular pedestrian forecasts provide. 71 to 77% humidity. Wind starting at 26kph increasing to 30kph at 3am. “That’s not record breaking weather!” I groaned.

Somewhere in Bunbury, this was the forecast. But not exactly where we were.
The midnight start provided a feeling of serenity that made the race start feel more relaxed. And I liked that it made me feel a bit more invisible. I’m always pretty quiet before a race. Introverts have to guard our energy. And I have a tendency to get excited around my tribe of MUTs.

Thirty seconds in, WA runner and NZL representative Richard Avery had shot out into the darkness and I was running beside two other locals, Kevin Matthews and Jon Pendse. Kev had an ambitious M50 national record goal, but appeared relaxed and was cracking jokes about our 4.22 pace. Yeah, we reeled that in in a hurry. But the boys were soon off in the distance as we all settled into our target paces.

The wind was forecast to be ESE and we were running a N-S out-and-back that was 6.25km one way. I wondered if the Bibbulmun Track was closer than I thought. Because the Bibbulmun Track always had lessons for me. And I was being served my first “acceptance” lesson. The gusty cross wind often had me feeling like I was running into a headwind both directions. It was so humidly hot I was pouring water on myself from 1.15am.

From 1:30am to 3:00am I mentally quit. I quit a hundred times. Silently, I ranted, I whinged, I spat the dummy and I threw all the toys out of the pram. I retired from racing. For sure this time. Really. At 2hr30 I was less than a minute off the plan. Not much, but I knew where it was headed. And then the wind picked up. In the next 6.25km section I lost another 30 seconds. I noticed my shoes felt a bit loose. Running in a half-size larger, as usual for this distance, combined with silicon Blistershield and Sportshield lube on my feet, I hadn't gotten the laces quite perfect. I fixated on whether I was getting hot spots on my soles and whinged about whether I'd have to stop and tighten my shoes, wasting a precious minute I didn't have. At 2hr05min, I was headed in for a headlamp swap when I was suddenly thrust into total darkness at a 4.45min/k pace. Not enough charge left to run the battery on full brightness. Another whinge. There is no room for errors and faffing about in any record-breaking plan I write.

Luckily, I had really crappy accommodation. Every time I pictured going up to my partner (the silent, steadfast sentinel crewing me all night) to tell him I quit, I imagined driving back to our crappy “cabin” (a.k.a., donga or ATCO trailer). And laying there all night in a worn out bed with a too-high pillow, amped up on Fully Charged and caffeine, whilst everyone else ran. I had no idea at the time, but now I know how strategic it can be to make quitting really off-putting!

I was coming into the start/finish line just after 3am, finishing my third 12.5k lap (of eight). The 50km runners were starting. I had a brief game of dodge-em, as the pack was using the width of the entire path, passing each other in the frenzy that usually accompanies a race start. Because the footpath had curves there, the ones passing couldn't see ahead that there was oncoming traffic in the form of a little redhead. I shouted, "Keep left, keep left!" as I ran into the herd of oncoming headlamps.

The unexpected. Like the Looney Tunes dancing singing frog
The adrenaline rush of not being knocked over by a full grown bloke with a 50km PB in mind turned out to be a good thing. It broke my perseverative internal tantrum. Ever seen your child having a tantrum and then stood on the coffee table and started singing the national anthem at full volume? Try it. Distraction. They taught us that in child psychology school :)

So, I had a sudden distraction that broke my tantrum. And then it hit me that I'd been so fixated on the 8.22.17 W45 AUS record time that I just wasn’t accepting the conditions. Tunnel vision. I widened my lens and remembered my mantra written on my toes: BESTDAYEVER. I held on to the aspiration of the 8.22 (maybe the wind would suddenly abate and the humidity would drop), but shifted my mindset to fulfilling my mantra. What would it mean to have the best day ever? Run as solidly as possible for the conditions. Don’t stuff up nutrition or hydration. Run efficiently. Don’t back off and slack off, but don’t get into a heart rate zone that will destroy me. Finish strong. Smile.

The birds sang and the sky started to lighten about 4.15am. The sun was well up at 5am and we got word to drop the mandatory night gear. I dumped my headlamp and high-vis vest with Rolf,  surprised at how heavy it actually felt in hand.

This one didn't sing. Stuffed kookaburras hidden in trees for points comp.
The routine of the morning continued. Soak myself with water at aid stations. Watch the splits, push as hard as I dared. Swap Perpetuem bottles every ~30 minutes when I passed Rolf and grab a 1/2 peeled pear at the same time. One word answers to his questions. "Want your sunnies or anything?" No. "Want some extra pear?" No. "Want a spray?" No. No time to stop and talk, no extra energy wasted on words. Though I did shout "Thank you!" sometimes as I ran off. And always felt grateful he was there and dedicated.

At the 6 hour mark, I passed the middle aid station - about 72km done. For the second time in three years, I had unofficially broken my CAN 6hr W45 record of 70.228km. Unfortunately, there were no stopwatches and no survey wheel to record my official split. 

As I headed for the start/finish line again to complete lap 6, the 25km runners appeared. Easier to dodge in the light. I practiced my Kipchoge smile as much as I could. Boy, that makes you feel good!

Eliud Kipchoge, 2.03.05 marathon PB. He knows how to use the power of a smile!
Completing lap 7 in just under 7hr21, the 8hr30 goal was still attainable. The support of everyone on the course was insane. It was one of the most encouraging "good mojo" events I've ever been to. I heard so many encouraging words as I passed runners, many realising I was on my last lap. The heat increased, my leg muscles became more tired, and my stomach was less able to process calories. There's only so much blood to go around. The stomach is the first to shut down when demand outstrips supply. I had to very carefully monitor my calories. Much as I wanted to stop fueling, I knew it would mean a massive bonk. So I continued to sip Perp and nibble pear, drip feeding the carbs in.

I passed Rolf for the last time at about 8.05am. 3.3km to go, shouting, "See you at the finish! I think I can make 8.30!" My last 6.25km was faster than the two previous, but just by a bit. I had paced well.

Final 2km.

I finished and kept walking it out a bit, as I often need to do after a big effort. If I stop too suddenly, I can seize up - or worse, get really dizzy as the calves have stopped pumping all the blood back up to my heart and head. A rush of emotion came over me as I reflected on how hard I'd worked to push through the long tough patch. How certain I was that I was going to quit. But not only did I not quit, I broke the 8.30 mark (achieving an A grade qualifier for World Championships), broke the CAN age-group record, broke the course record, and won. All on a day where I think conditions were tougher than 3 years ago.

Rolf went off to get my recovery powder, some water, and my sunnies, and I continued to walk it out, feeling another wave of tears briefly pass over me. After sitting for a few minutes, I realised Dave Kennedy was there offering recovery massages. I gingerly got on the table. When he told me to flip from my stomach to my back, my left calf went into a cramp. It was the only time I've cramped like that during or after a race. I've had calf cramps in bed on occasion and I never thought they could have been any worse than they had been. I was wrong. I set a new bar for what a 10/10 calf cramp was. For what seemed like at least 30 seconds, I screamed and breathed like I was giving birth (I actually have no idea what that's like, but I've seen videos. And actually, the two births I've witnessed were far more controlled and quiet than I was!) There was nothing in my world but blinding pain and Dave holding my foot in dorsiflexion. I would have run another two laps, puking, than have that pain.

The calf felt very fragile after that. Like it was ready to cramp again any moment. And then I got hungry. Really hungry. And started to get lightheaded. I told Rolf we needed to get me some food, so we headed for DongaWorld (the caravan park), 10 minutes away. By the time I got there, tensing my foot in dorsiflexion the whole way, I was starting to tingle. My face and lips were pins and needles. My stomach was tingling. Then my chest tightened such that it felt like my sports bra was two sizes too small. I actually grabbed it and pulled at the elastic strapping to confirm that it was indeed sitting normally on me and I hadn't somehow swollen into the Michelin man. I was getting a wee bit scared and wondering if I was about to find out where the local hospital was. Full on hypoglycaemia.

I got myself on the little sofa and got my head and heart on the same plane and my feet resting on the arm of the sofa. Rolf got me some applesauce and I felt like he couldn't get it to me fast enough. I started in on that, the whole time having to keep flexing, extending, and rolling my ankle joint around to keep my calf from cramping. The race was over, but my suffering was increasing!

Keeping the foot in dorsiflexion to prevent calf cramping
I continued to tell Rolf my symptoms. I was worried, but trying to maintain calm. It's tricky being your own first aid responder. I asked how my skin looked and he said very pale. I had a bit of a sweat going. I kept getting bites of food in and checked my heart rate. I check my HR every day, so it's quite a natural feeling. But it took me quite a while to get a read on it at the neck. It was weak, but wasn't racing. Rolf tried again to see if I'd try a Nudie beverage (fruit juice). I agreed. We needed to try to get more simple sugar in quickly. The Nudie went down in seconds and I literally felt the colour come back to my face. It stopped tingling, as did my stomach.

But I continued to watch the "python" crawling around inside my left calf. It was bizarre. The right calf muscles were pulsating, too, but nothing like the left. This thankfully gave me the opportunity to learn a new word: fasciculation. Muscle twitching. Essentially, a random firing of the muscles - like low-grade cramps. My poor calves had been going "fire-release-fire-release" for nearly 8.5 hours. The switch was stuck on.

At the same time, I was getting exhausted holding my foot in dorsiflexion. My tib ant was working to exhaustion. I asked Rolf to find a belt-like tool. He got a tie-down strap from the car and I used that around my foot to keep it tensed. Much easier. I had to lay that way for an hour.

I realised afterwards that having switched from the Hammer Nutrition Recoverite, which has protein and some carbs, to Hammer's Vegan Protein, I didn't get any carbs post-race. Normally after a training run, I have the protein powder and eat some fruit or something to get my 45g of carbs for the muscle glycogen. Post-race easily digestible carbs will be on the future post-race plan! I never want to go through that again!
Finishing smile to my crew. We did it! 8.27.39.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Best Day Ever: Australia Day Ultra

It's Friday morning. At midnight, I'll start running the 100km Australia Day Ultra (road race) in Australind, Western Australia. It's the middle of summer. So midnight is a practical time to race. Unless you want Badwater training. I don't.

We just had the edge of a cyclone come through, creating a few days of extreme humidity. We had our first big bushfire in the area, which destroyed one of the Bibbulmun Track's campsites and resulted in air rescue for a solo multi-day bushwalker.

Since the Emu 48 hour attempt at the end of September, I've done my recovery and re-built base mileage and endurance. Recovery was surely hampered (physically, but not mentally!) by deciding on a 10 hour trot up to the highest peak in Slovenia (Triglav, 2864m). Microspikes would have been helpful on the icy ridge. The descent is what really totalled my legs, though! I developed some pretty bad knee pain that was brought on by very tight muscles. Thankful to have self-assessed well enough to gauge that I should go for a few brutal massage sessions, rather than thinking I just had a grumpy patella that simply needed "rest." It came good within a few days with massage.

Headed for Triglav summit with one of my Emu race crew

Having some solid base again, I went to a parkrun on December 9th - 5k time trial. 20m32s. Well, that's good enough to work with, I thought. Time to start hunting for a race a few months out. But... I couldn't find a single race over the next few months in Australia I was really interested in (with entries available and relatively easy to access) other than the Australia Day Ultra (ADU) on January 20th. A bit too soon, really. I even looked abroad a bit, but having just returned from months overseas, I wasn't ready for big travel again.

In January 2015, I ran the ADU in 8hr32m00s. That broke the CAN and AUS W45 8hr47m54s national records (which were already held by me).

A few years ago, AURA (Australian Ultrarunning Assn) amalgamated their road and track records (choosing the best of either surface as the record - removing road or track surface records for ultra events). At the same time, they decided a long-standing W45 "asterisk" performance by Lavinia Petrie (year 1992, 8.22.17) would be accepted and my 8.32.00 would be deleted. Their digging into history gave them sufficient comfort that her performance had been accurately recorded on an accurate course.

Multiple W70 world record holder now, Lavinia Petrie continues to excel
So, despite having a shortened speed work/sharpening phase - and it being the middle of summer - I decided the 100k was still the only challenge that would sufficiently capture my attention.

The current records are CAN W45 8.32.00 (me, 2015) and AUS W45 8.22.17 (Lavinia, 1992). The A grade qualifying standard for women to be accepted to a national team for World 100km Championships (Sept 2018 in Croatia) is 8.30.00. I've never applied to go to World 100k - though my age-group performances are respectable, in the open category, many (mostly younger) women at the champs can run much faster. But achieving an A grade qualifier is still an interesting personal goal. And I'm three years older than in 2015.

It sounds cheesy, but it's true: I'm mildly terrified. I've been quietly (I hope!) on edge all week. I have the voice in my head that asks why, that tells me I'm stupid, that utterly freaks out. I've got one mantra after another playing in my mind to counter it.

And though it seems to stress me terribly more often than not when I go into an event, I keep going. It's one of the best ways I really understand (at this point) how to approach mystery. I need to set audacious goals for myself. And then feel my way through the experience of the doubt and the fright.

Running. As I've said before, it's everything and it's nothing. Of all my mantras, I think the stickiest this time around is #bestdayever. Because with that one, I just can't lose. It's a mindset.

Race day updates

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Emu 18 (not 48) Hour: When the Mystery is Complete

I cried. But I didn't cry right away.

At 4.50am Saturday, nearly 19 hours after starting the Emu 48 hour race, I stood in front of one of my crew persons. He handed me my usual bottle of Hammer Perpetuem. Instead of moving back into the darkness for another lap, I looked him in the eye and quietly said, "I think I'm done."

48 hour race start - a small, strong, and encouraging tribe to be amongst.

Only about 30 minutes before, I'd talked to my partner via Skype. I had wanted another opinion - someone outside of myself or crew, to provide another view of things for me. And I wanted some "Dr Google" advice.

From the moment the race started, I'd been a peeing machine. By every second lap (roughly 12 minutes), I'd have the urge to go. Sometimes I'd hold on as long as 5 laps, before I felt like a 3 year old about to wee their pants. We reduced my fluid intake from 500ml/hr to 400ml/hr or less. We stopped electrolytes (I wasn't taking much anyway), in case my body was trying to pee out excess it didn't need. There was nothing else I could think to do.

As I ran along in the dark, I started to reflect on the fact that the problem had actually started a few weeks prior. But I'd kept making excuses to explain it. Needing to pee 3 times during a 1 hour taper run, I'd try telling myself, "Oh, I must have had too much coffee - and it's cold out." I was sure that if I'd been out running longer, my body would have stabilised. But I also recalled how every time I walked up to town for groceries or another errand, I'd be looking for a public toilet within an hour. Urgently.

So I Skyped my partner back in Perth and explained what was happening in the race and over the past two weeks.

Early hours - the hand-off of fuel at the crew table

The problem was menopause. My pelvic floor muscles have changed due to decreased oestrogen. I had no idea this was a thing.

For the next 20 minutes, I went around the park and contemplated. In an ultra, we can expect that things will change. Get better, get worse, get better, get worse. Change. But this was not going to change. I could no longer hold my pace, as the stops took 45-60 seconds. Once the body gets a little fatigued (say after 14 hours of running), it's necessary to change from running to standing still in a gradual manner. Stop too quickly and one can get dizzy. Similarly, to get moving again after a stop requires a gradual speeding up, as the muscles loosen again. And mentally, the feeling of urgency was killing me. Ten minutes after going to the loo, I'd have the feeling back and then have to start "holding." You know the feeling. Like really holding. Like you've waited way too long. It's that feeling. I was often eyeing off the darker spots on the course, wondering if I might have to make an "emergency" stop. Everyone noticed my fondness for the toilet block.

I now knew that I could continue and nothing sinister would happen to me. I wasn't sick or injured. I had over 150km done. I had just started falling short of my plan. I calculated that even at a walk I could break at least one of the national 48 hour records I was aiming for. I had 29 hours to do less than 130km. If nothing terrible happened, I'd almost surely at least get over 300km by race end.

When you reach milestones like this, they punish you by making you carry a big stick for a lap ;)

But that number wouldn't reflect anything near what I would be capable of otherwise. Sure, these were the cards I was dealt with on the day. Some argue that an ultra runner should persevere no matter what. But I don't need to do that. I know I could. I'm heaps strong :-) For me, the magic is not in just grabbing at a record, but in finding the true potential of my endurance. Exploring. Whether it's running 6 hours, running the 1000 km Bibbulmun Track, walking across the sub-Arctic in the winter pulling a pulk, or running 48 hours.

I was not interested to know how much I could run in 48 hours with a menopausal peeing urgency. In fact, I'd kind of done the math and pretty much knew. There was no magic mystery left. I had my pot of gold for this adventure.

Before the race, I had the image of a mandala come to me. I felt that my race preparation had been like the creation of a mandala. Like it was a thoughtful, detailed, beautiful, attentive effort. A mysterious beauty unfolding. To continue running felt somehow disingenuous to my body and to the spirit of my 48 hour run. Grace could only be found in honouring what was present. Humbly bowing down before it and accepting that the mandala was complete. It was time to dissolve the mandala.

Tibetan Buddhist monks dismantle a sand mandala once complete and pour the sand into a river.

At 5am, my crew person and I went into our trackside cabin. I laid on the kitchen bench in my race gear, shoes on. I wanted to give myself time to change my mind. I didn't. A few times, the longing to be back out there would fill me. I would feel it viscerally in my gut. The craving. I love running. I love the mystery. But neither of those were really on offer. Stop-start running isn't running. I was craving an experience that wasn't on offer. I wanted to make something more out of something that was already complete.

On Sunday at 10am, the race ended for the others. As I walked along the now-still course towards my car, pulling my suitcase, the tears came suddenly and surprisingly. I was mourning, but I couldn't name it exactly. I just let it come. I didn't try to think about it, as I hadn't really slept yet. I was in no mind for deep reflective thinking.

On Monday, I climbed Triglav mountain, the highest peak in Slovenia on a perfect blue sky day. She's a beautiful peak, surrounded by so many others. I could see easily well over 120km from the top. It was a rather ambitious outing after running 153km two days prior. I still hadn't slept much. Occasionally, I felt a sadness/grief/disappointment arise, but didn't dwell on it. I just noted it and moved on.

30km + 2000m two days after a 153k run? Sure! Let's go up there! (Silly girl)

On Wednesday night, back in Switzerland, I finally felt ready to analyse my race and take away all the lessons I could. Other than learning about oestrogen-related pelvic floor muscle issues (which can be either too weak or too tight, for starters), I learned more about the amount of fuel I need when I run so slowly and the impact my body feels on asphalt in my favourite minimal shoes. I was also reminded that I should always, always read my race-debrief notes from previous races for tips going into another race.

I also learned why I cried. I cried for the loss of the mystery. And for the realisation that the mandala was complete and I had thought I could build upon the perfection of grace.