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

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)

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.