"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

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