Tuesday, 4 December 2012

North Face 46.8 mile race weekend

Last weekend I travelled to San Francisco to race my first 50-miler in the Marin Headlands. I travelled with my training buddy and fellow VFAC member, Barry. His side of our trip adventure is here: http://one--step--at--a--time.blogspot.ca/2012/12/california-streamin.html?spref=fb,

I signed up for this race on impulse, a week after badly spraining my ankle during the Kneeknacker 30 mile race. I based this decision largely on the course video from 2011, showing the top two males dueling it out, on singletrack trails in the rolling hills underneath a bluebird sky. The video should have come with several disclaimers.

packing the bikini was optimistic
After running in the rain for the past month, I was excited to race in sunny, dry conditions. A week before the race, I started to check the weather: a lot of rain, and a lot of wind. By the Wednesday before the race, I would check the forecast on an hourly basis. I was not the only one. A decrease in prepcipation probability from 100% to 80% made me ecstatic. The expected winds of 30-40km/hr made me nervous.

Luckily, the temperatures were still predicted at a relatively warm 14C. I packed arm warmers, a tank top, a run skirt, and kept praying to the weather gods.

I travelled to San Francisco with Barry and Amber. Barry was also running the 50-mile. Amber came down in a team manger role. This entailed: making fun of us for doing such a ridiculous race, drinking, being hilarious, encouraging me to drink, and in general helping us to take this whole thing not too seriously. This worked well for Barry, but less well for someone as highly strung as me.

best team manager (and travel buddy)!

When we arrived in San Francisco on Thursday afternoon, we were greeted by rain and wind. Barry got a t-mobile chip, with (I believe) the express purpose of being able to constantly check the weather.

what we would be running Saturday

runners: 0, weather: +1000
Thursday night, we went out to an event that Barry found on twitter. For something found on twitter, it was surprisingly awesome. A local sports store hosted a documentary about the 2010 Dipsea trail race, which ended up as a fight between a 8-yr-old girl, and a woman in her 60s. The movie was accompanied by pasta, kegs, and appearances by Adamn Campbell and Anna Frost (the 2012 race winner).

Earlier that afternoon, we received e-mails from the North Face telling us to be on standby for course changes, due to the weather forecast for the weekend. I decided this was a good time to invest in a waterproof running jacket.

taper goes out the window
During my spring running season, I tapered well: no gluten, minimal caffeine, no alcohol. This relaxed a bit as the year progressed. Pre-Kneeknacker, I had two cookies and a glass of wine - to knock me out. Before the Victoria half-marathon, I had wine and chocolate cake.

I kept meaning to swear off alcohol and caffeine during the week leading up to the race. In retrospect, travelling with a Brit and an Aussie was probably not the best way to do this. I was doing moderately okay on the no alcohol front...for at least for hours (lunchtime cider).

Then we got another e-mail: the California Parks had revoked the permit for half of the 50-mile course that was on state park land due to the antipated weather, and the damage already done by the rain. As a result, the course would be significantly changed. A new course map was promised to be sent to us sometime on the Friday.

At this point, I took Barry up on his offer to get me some beer. After the documentary ended, we walked back to our hotel in the wind. As we got closer, a heavy rain decided to fall. I was still anxious as hell about the course change, about the weather, about my running and life decisions in general. A stop for a drink ended up in two bottles of wine between the three of us. At least there are carbs in wine?

race eve
I woke up Friday (the day before the race) hungover to the sound of rain pounding against the window. The noon deadline of when we were supposed to see the new course map came and went. All we knew was that the new course was 2 loops, and 46.8 miles. I was cheered by the news of the loop course: I get lost easily, and felt like having two tries on the same route to learn directions would be better than one.

There was a brief 30 minutes of sunlight that afternoon, which was quickly offset by more rain on the drive over to the Marin Headlands hostel. The Hostel was a great, older building, located crawling distance from the start and finish line. We arrived at the hostel to see all of the previously assembled tents blown over and scattered by the wind.

The hostel knows about Barry's tendency to wipe out on the least technical surfaces

We got our race drop bags ready. We checked the weather. We ate $2.99 safeway sandwiches for dinner. By this time, it was just after 6pm. In 11 hours, we would be running.

Our fellow teammate, Alicia, was also staying in the hostel, fresh off of her win at the Cougar Mountain 50k (www.runningoverdose.com). We decided to combine poor nutrition choices with her: Barry and I contributed a screw top bottle of "Lunatic" red wine, and she contributed a dutch apple pie. We drank our wine in oversized juice glasses, and chatted with the other hostel-ers, virtually all of whom were racing either the 50 mile or the 50k.

either the best or the worst taper nutrition ever

go time
I woke up at 3am to rain against the window. I put on run clothes, ate breakfast, and was very quiet.

The race started just after 5am. The start area was a sea of headlamp lights. The starts went off in three waves: the elites were wave 1, Barry and Alicia were wave 2, and I was wave 3. We lined up, and were sent off.

Running in the dark is a dreamlike experience. I could see the lights of hundreds of other runners bobbing up the switchbacks ahead. I had no idea how to pace, or how hard to go. At first, I looked at my watch to see pace. As the fog descended and the uphill grade increased, I changed focus: find people to run with.

It started to rain harder. As we crested one of the hills, the wind picked up. Fog rolled in, and my headlamp barely penetrated. The first downhill was a shock. While the uphill climb was on easy fireroads, the downhill switched to a narrower trail, with huge chunks missing from streams. I found my downhill trail legs along slick wood bridges and sloping stairs. Far below, through the fog, was the ocean - all I could see was white, but I heard the crash of waves.

I didn't have many doubts during the race that I would finish, and finish well: this was one of them. I was cold, with rain in my face, running alone in the dark hoping like hell not to get lost.

20k into the race, the black faded to grey and morning hit. Thankfully, the daylight came in time for the first time down a sketchy downhill to an aid station. On a dry day, the down would've been easy: views of the ocean, big drop, wide trail. The rain had turned everything into a slippery clay. I went down like a shot and prayed I'd keep my footing, as there was nowhere to go to run out. As I ran down, I saw my teammate Barry, already on his way back up, already killing the race.

Despite running on it for over 8 hours, I still can't coherently describe the course. We climbed along winding trails on the headlands hills, then descended along trails eroded by the rain. I ran through eucalyptus trees, with branches littering the trail. I ran through and past some houses, seeing their lights as we descended in the dark. We climbed again, then downhill, then up. Time was different. I kept looking at my garmin for how many kilometers each climb would take, and I can't remember a thing that could describe the course for another person. The uphills all seemed long, and the tops of the climbs always just over the next curve of hill. The downhills were always muddy and far too abrupt. The fog came in and out.

trail friends
About 25k into the race, my legs woke up. It was still raining, but the headland trails were bleak and beautiful. I saw Alicia in her bright pink run dress, and the familiar face helped. I met up with two guys - Julien and Morgan - and ended up running with them for over 30kms. They had both done other 50 and 100-milers, and hearing stories about their experiences made this one seem a bit less crazy. Both of them had come from the east coast and had made it through Hurricane Sandy, only to run in more crazy weather on the opposite side of the country.

When we got mis-directed for a mile or two at one of the aid stations, they helped me to stay positive and keep going. The surprising thing about the race isn't that I got lost - it's that I was able to find my way back onto the correct trail.

I tried to explain about how we ran trails in Vancouver: how it's normal to run in a skirt, make sighs going uphill, and make downhill trail noises. I tried to convince them that the best way to tackle uphills was to talk about relationships - breakups, makeups, TMI, and that downhills are best when you sing.

At about 60k in the race, the sun shone out through the dark grey clouds. We were running along hard blue ocean, about to tackle wet stairs for the second time. Julien pulled away, and I could hear him yelling in the distance on the downhill. I chased him down through mud and rock, and the joy I felt made me remember exactly why I love trails so much.

I have walked off a cliff every day and kept on walking
I always knew, at some point, the race would go to hell. I had been running at a decent pace, moving through the aid stations quickly, and pushing hard.

At 65k into the race, I had left behind the guys and was running on my own. Everything hurt: my legs, my arms, my back. My feet felt bruised. I started my second time climbing up the hill from Muir beach. There were 50k and marathon races also held that day, and the mud was even worse after the additional hundreds of runners. There were a couple spots where I kept slipping on my way uphill and tried to use my hands to pull me up. Luckily, one of the 50k runners ahead of me saw this and gave me a hand up. Trails really bring out the best in people.

As I kept going, I could hear my breathing. I'm used to being loud uphill - this was different. I had started to sob and didn't even realize it.

I exhaled.  I didn't bother telling myself to stop crying, I only told myself to keep going, and keep going hard. Earlier in the race, I asked one of the guys: what do you do when it starts to get hard? He said he thought of what motivates him to run. So I did the same.

I thought about all of the friends I made running. I thought about the joy of being on mountains and looking at far-off glaciers. I thought about the sun burning through mist on early mornings. I thought about the discussions, and the jokes, and the secrets I told going uphill. I thought about my parents, and I thought about the people I loved.

8:15 later...

Then I thought about myself. I felt burnt out and stripped away. I thought about the girl I was a year ago: fearful and sad. I met the part of myself that I try to silence with a faster pace, with singlemindedness, with shutting off the part of my mind that questions. I found the person who is scared, and has come a very long way on very tired legs and isn't quite sure why this was all was needed in the first place. The person who wakes up, in the dark, to rain, and wants to stay under warm covers. The person who wants the earlier run turnaround. This person wants to stop, wants to relax, wants to do something easy. I started to make peace with the fear, and the uncertainty, and the aches, and the tiredness that I have trained with these past 11 months. I embraced the part of myself that wondered, how the hell did I get here, and how the hell will I be able to keep going?

Like a training partner, like an old friend, the ache and worry was like coming home. I had been waiting for months to feel this way. With unsteady legs, I picked my way down the last down hill, past the road, and across the finish line. In the end, all I could say to myself over and over in my head: "thank you". Thank you for not stopping. Thank you for being strong. Thank you for being enough.

Immediately following the race, I could barely move. I ran into Barry, who had finished in 7.37 and had already demolished a plate of food. Amber braved the rain and came out to catch us finishing. I was in rough shape at the finish, so we left pretty much immediately.

Several hours later, we had recovery wine - and lots of it. Several more hours, and it was 2:30am and I still couldn't sleep - wired from caffeine and nerves.

When we did the Juan de Fuca trail months ago, Katie had very bad chafing from being in the rain for hours. I made fun of her a lot for this. All I can say - karma is a bitch. I need to learn to apply bodyglide more thoroughly.
The next couple days, everything settled back. The sun came out Sunday afternoon and I walked for a couple hours through the city. I am working to re-learn stairs. I washed the mud out of my clothes. I booked a physio appointment, and dragged my yoga gear back out. It's time for off-season.

Fisherman's wharf and the sun comes out

It feels weird to try and put numbers and rankings into a race that is a one-off in so many ways. The race will never be run on the same course again. Even from race to race, 50-milers are dramatically different in terms of elevation and course.

I came 21 out of 53 women finishers. 105 women started the race. Of this, at least 25 were elites.
(based on the awesome irunfar preview)

Based on scraping my way into the top half of finishers, I came away elated - not from the result, which really has no context. But through setting a big, crazy goal and going after it with everything I had. From the feeling of coming out on the other side.

In running two laps on a muddy course, in the rain, I felt something bigger and stronger inside me. I felt what it's like to run with joy and be passionate about who I am and what I do.

thank you
Brooke, for keeping me focussed (with swear words) when I wanted to bail on the race.
Katie, for your support and love of trails that you shared with me.
Meghan, for teaching me to be tough downhill.
Barry, for being a great 50k run partner and travel buddy
"A" team runners (Angela, Allison, Amanda) for being tempo buddies and training partners.
Ramsey, the best physio and inspirational speaker out there
Lucy, for taking me up trails to the Cleveland Dam years ago and being my best and first run partner
Craig, for dealing with taper meltdowns all year
my work, for supporting me and giving me the flexibility to train for this crazy distance - and for letting me wear flats to work the past year.
all of my other friends and teammates, for being a blast to train with and for inspiring me with their own kick-ass running every day.

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