Sunday, July 27, 2014

Race Report: Goat Hill 7k

So.. Vermont 100 was a week ago. My chafing was pretty healed by Tuesday, my feet stopped swelling on Thursday, and the bottoms of my feet no longer hurt when I walked.. well.. they still do, but smooshy shoes help. (Thank you to my Torins and Olympus!) It would seem that I may not be recovered enough from my hundred for another trail race, but I figured that it was about time for a little shake-out run.

John happily sporting his new Olympus.
Me in my dependable Torins.

Pre-race smiles.
My mom had told me a bit about a new local racing company that had made its way into the Blackstone Valley in the years since I had moved to Idaho. There was not a huge running scene in my area when I was growing up, and certainly not a trail running scene. I was happy to hear that this void was being filled by MRA Multisport and that one of the races in their Durty Feets Trail Series was right at home in Uxbridge, MA.

The course for this race- the Goat Hill 7k- utilizes a trail system that I ran frequently back when I lived in the area. My mom and I have been running parts of it during my visit, though not the part with the big climb. I was able to talk her into registering for the race along with my friend John, who is newly recommitted to getting back into shape (as of this week). None of us really knew what to expect, but we were all happy to arrive on race morning, collect our numbers, and hit the trail after a quick pre-race briefing and the quietest rendition of the National Anthem that I have ever heard (sung by the runners in a very whispery volume).

We took off down the trail along the section of the course that I knew very well. In fact, I took a good digger on some roots on this trail several weeks back, so I was extra cautious with my footing. I noticed right away that the air was much more humid than it had been for a while. The single-track congo line  formed fairly quickly, so runners were sort of locked into position for the first few miles. I was moving along much better than I had anticipated and clocked about nine-minute miles for the first few miles.

The first big trail junction of the race.
(I should note that photos from the course were taken the day after the race when my mom and I went out to walk part of the course backwards. Consequently, some parts of the trail are seen from the other direction as well.)
I love me some wooded single track.
Passing was awkward because the trail was narrow and because so many of the runners were wearing headphones, which I did not expect. My interactions with other runners were not as upbeat as I am used to, but that may just be a culture difference- I am pretty spoiled with the Boise Trail Runner crew back in Idaho. There were many sections of the course where switchbacks ran very closely to each other, and I offered a "nice work" or "lookin' good" on several occasions. The only responses I got were from my mom, two sixteen-year-old girls who were out running together (which I thought was super awesome), and a couple guys who were in sync closely with me for some time and chatted briefly with me. I was also sure to thank the aid station workers and people out directing runners every time that I passed one, and I was surprised to not hear that from anyone else around me. It's always important to show some love to the volunteers, especially since so many of them were kids! Maybe I just needed to be running a bit harder and be more out of breath.

Jake enjoying the course the day after the race.

I don't think that I really could have run much harder. The feeling of "oh boy, this is surprisingly easy" wore off after about two miles, and I could feel all of the muscles in my legs that were not quite ready to be out for a run yet, especially as we hit some climbing up on Goat Hill, though this was my favorite section of the course. I have run in that area many times, but I never realized that there was such an intricate trail system tucked behind the more commonly utilized trails. There is beautiful single track that weaves in and out through the forest, lacing back onto itself in a neat little network. (I am spatially challenged and have not quite figured out all of the connections yet, but it is my goal to do so before I return to Idaho so that my mom will be able to run these trails by herself.)

The race directors did a great job of showcasing this little gem, not only in picking great trails, but in the way that the race itself was orchestrated. There were just two aid stations, but they were in great spots at miles 2.2 and 3.2. There were ample volunteers at the aid stations as well as any junction on the trail that may have been confusing, and the trail was impeccably marked. Especially because there are so many offshoots and unmarked trails through this area, having markers in all the right places is key. Although I was suffering, I was so happy to have gone out and run this race.
Be a billy goat!

My mama!
I came in with 4.7 miles at 52:14, ten minutes behind the first place woman. My mom finished really strong just a bit after I did, and John finished a bit after her. When most of the runners were done, there was a little awards ceremony where the winners in each division were recognized (junior, open, master, senior) and the crowd mostly dispersed. Knowing what it is like to be the last runner coming into a dead finish line, my mom and John and I stuck around to see the last runners through. Being able to watch people finish from the back of the pack is its own reward- there is much as much grit in the twenty-minute miler as there is in the five-minute miler at the front of the pack.

I loved this race, not just for the race itself, but for the fact that it filled a long-open gap in my hometown community by offering a place for people to come out and hit the trail together. I would recommend this race to anyone who is in the Central Mass area. The organizers are really trying to create an atmosphere that is welcoming to everyone, regardless of their background or experience on the trails. Also, did I mention that the race only cost $15? It can't be beat! Thanks to MRA for an excellent event; I hope to catch another one next time around. If you are local, I highly suggest checking out the other races here and getting your feet dirty.

Race Report: Vermont 100

A Tale of Two Races

Last weekend, I conquered the 100 mile distance for the fifth time in West Windsor, VT. I really stepped up my game in my mental preparations and expectations for myself, and in combination with many other factors, that allowed me to have a great race. Now, it wasn’t flawless all the way through, and being able to figure out how to extend a great first half through the entire hundred miles is an important part of the smart running of hundreds. However, my first 75 miles were so comfortable and well-executed that I view the race as one of my best performed races to-date, in spite of the fact that the last 25 miles were rather pitiful. 

Horses at their med check.
Since I have had the summer free between semesters, I was able to research the course ahead of time, and I read a lot of race reports and spent some time figuring out splits and distances between aid stations. (I am bolding some key information that may be helpful to others in their own research.) Vermont has twenty-nine aid stations- most of which are manned- which can help speed up your race or slow it down, depending on your tendency to dawdle. I typically race pretty conservatively out of fear of bonking, so the close proximity of all of the aid stations was very helpful to me. I knew that if I pushed too hard or if I wasn’t minding my nutrition or hydration that it would not be long before I reached aid. In other races, I don’t necessarily want to be experimenting with pushing myself if I have twelve miles in the dark between me and the next aid station. Vermont is a very safe race in this regard. Combine the plethora of aid stations with the fact that there are 300+ runners sharing the trail with you, and it is nearly certain that you won’t be in any kind of precarious position. 

Last-minute preparations.
I drove out to the race start with my mom (who was kind enough to crew for me), and my friend Randy who had flown in for the race. We arrived a little after noon, which gave us plenty of time to set up our tents and get a feel for the place prior to the pre-race meeting at 4. I got my number and did my medical check- which was really my only source of stress about the race. I have never been weighed before and during my races- I don’t even have a scale in my house to have a rough idea of my fluxuations- so I was worried about staying in the right weight zone. I weighed in at 139, and kept that number in my head so that I would be able to pay attention at the three weight checks throughout the race.

Tent City.
In addition to the usual droves of excitedly anxious runners, we were also in the presence of many riders and horses in the midst of their own pre-race preparations. I found myself wondering if the horses felt nervous- if they had any idea what the next day would bring. I am sure that if they had any anxiety, it was only caused by all the commotion, but it was an interesting thing to consider. 

The pre-race meeting was interesting, mostly because I haven’t run an ultra with such a large field before, and it was great to see such a large group of ultrarunners all together. I didn’t really hear anything at the meeting that I hadn’t previously read online, but I suppose if you were really off the ball with reading the pre-race emails, it may have been helpful. Dinner was delicious and had a plethora of vegan food, which made me very happy. We didn’t linger long before heading back up the hill to the camping area.

Bring earplugs!
Noise was an issue when it came time to unwind and settle into my tent. I actually wound up scooting my tent away from its original spot due to the fact that I was situated in the middle of some large groups of chattering people. If this race is on your list and you are planning to camp, be sure to bring earplugs. I was offered a pair of plugs by a nice couple camping nearby and was able to settle down for sleep before too long... 

I think I woke up about 2:15am. My alarm was set for 3am, but I could hear people mulling around and using the portas. (I had taken the plugs out during the night.) I decided that I may as well get a move on starting the day and got myself dressed and down to runner check-in right as it was opening. I ate a nice breakfast of quinoa porridge with walnuts and cherries in the car with my mom, and before we knew it, it was time to head down to the race start. We were all warned that the most sensitive landowners were within the first few miles of the race, so the day began with the subdued energy of three hundred runners beginning their journey into the forest. 
Mmmm early morning start time.

I knew that I was going out faster than I should have, but for the first several miles of the race, I like to let myself do whatever feels good so that I can shake out any nerves and get into a groove. It turned out, on this day, that my groove was a lot groovier than usual, and I continued to run pretty smoothly and quickly for most of the day.

The gaggle of runners stayed pretty tight for the first section of the race. I was concerned that this would add to congestion or the dreaded congo line through single-track, but the majority of the race is on dirt roads or slightly-narrower jeep track, so overcrowding was never an issue. I ran through the first several aid stations, having worn my pack with a bladder so that I would not be tempted to waste time with stopping so early. I made it to the stop at 11.5 by 6:11am. (I know because I texted my mom at the porta potty so that she would have a better idea of my arrival to the first crew stop.) I was moving well and feeling good! 

I recall that it began to feel nice and light around mile 10.5 (a bit before 6am), but the headlamps were off well before then. The horses came up from behind us shortly after that, which I really enjoyed. I was a horse nut for most of my youth, so I caught some good bouts of nostalgia from the smell of the horses as they trotted past. Most of the riders were incredibly courteous, wishing runners luck and offering morning greetings. One of the riders posted a video of the course from their vantage point, which was cool to watch after the race when I was spending a lot of time on the couch. 

Still super smiley at mile 21.
I saw my mom for the first time at mile 21 at the Pretty House Aid Station. I completely missed the pretty house, but I did get myself squared away with some snacks, ample amounts of Aquaphor, and my handheld. I had planned to swap for my handheld at this point so that I wouldn’t hold additional heat on my back as the sun became brighter and temperatures rose. I found that one handheld bottle was sufficient, but this year was cooler and less humid than many previous years. Gatorade has never tasted so good. I was downing that stuff all day, and it really hit the spot. 

In a race like this, you often find yourself back and forth with the same people for quite some time. I kept pace with one runner, Bob, in particular, and we spent at least 40 miles running together, linking up sometime before mile 30. This helped the miles tick off very quickly as we chatted about life, running, and the overlap and intertwining of the two. We went up dirt road hills and went down dirt road hills and ran through trees and ran through fields. While the entire course was very enjoyable, it also sort of stands as a blur in my mind. When I was reading race reports in an attempt to get a feel for the course, I wasn’t able to find anything that gave a really great description, and I realize now that this is because, while the course is very pleasant, there are not spectacular climbs or areas of terrible stream crossings or poor footing, so in hindsight, nothing in particular stands out. 
Bob and me coming into mile 30ish.

I saw my mom around mile 30, 47, and 59. My pacer, Nick, had arrived early at Camp 10 Bear, which served as aid for miles 47 and 70. Nick is a friend from college who has been active in the world of triathlons for the past few years and is just jumping into the ultra scene. I was stoked when he agreed to pace me for the race- largely because I like to have a pacer with me through the night, but also so that we could catch up and he could get a glimpse into the 100 mile world. I was happy to touch base with him at 47, and he traveled with my mom to the next aid station. At mile 47, I also hopped on the scale for the first time in the race with great trepidation. 137. Whew. Only down two pounds. The weigh-ins were not as scary as I thought they would be. In my later weigh-ins at 70 and 88, I was 136.4 and then back to 137. No problemo.

We were warned that around the halfway point, there would be huge puddles spanning the length of the road that would be impassable save for slogging right through. I didn’t find that to be the case, however, and kept my feet dry for the entire day. In wetter years, this may not be the case. I switched to my Lone Peaks for the section of anticipated moisture (they are designed to drain better than the Torin- which is a road shoe), but I was happy to put my Torins back on and get a bit more cushion under my soles. Although the course is a nice easy dirt road for most of the way, there are plenty of little stones that could cause the feet to get a bit achey.

I was happy to see my mom again at the Seven Sees AS. I encouraged her to skip the next crew-accessible aid since I would be picking up Nick there and I wanted her to get some rest. My mom had some canned stuffed grape leaves, which sounded surprisingly appealing, so I ate a few of those before heading out on my way. 

A bit before mile 70, I began to notice that the balls of my feet were developing hot spots and that the chafe that I had been keeping at bay all day was beginning to catch up to me. I decided to change my soggy shorts and my socks at the next point where I could, which turned out to be mile 76. Before getting to that point, I picked up my pacer, and I was still feeling really good. My last few miles getting back into Camp 10 Bear, I was able to pull eleven-minute miles. I was just barely ahead of a twenty-four hour pace with thirty miles to go. I didn’t think that twenty-four was realistic, but I thought that with how good my muscles still felt, I would be able to get in around twenty-five hours. I picked up Nick and told him that I wanted us to go-go-go! We started climbing out of the aid station, and after a couple smooth miles with some runnable sections, the chafe and the blister pain hit me like a brick wall. Suddenly, everything hurt. Not sore muscle kind of hurt. More like searing burning chafe kind of hurt. Like, everywhere below the waist. and all around the band of my sports bra. Owwww.

Coming into mile 95.
I made a big mistake in not changing my shorts earlier in the race, and it was a stupid mistake. I frequently chat with people who are considering their first ultra-distance, and my advice is always the same: eat before you are hungry, drink frequently, and take care of little issues when they are still little issues. While I had been applying Aquaphor every time I saw my mom, there is only so much that can be done in the face of shorts that have been wet for 70 miles. Same silly error was made with the blisters on the bottoms of my feet. Enough dust and dirt had built up in my sock around the ball of my foot that it was as if I was running on sandpaper. I didn’t notice the issues until they were very painful, but I should have known better and changed them out before they became problematic. 

So begins Part Two of Rachael’s Vermont 100. The part where time came to a crawl. I swapped my shorts and socks at mile 76, but it was too late. I told my pacer that I didn’t remember the last time that I wanted to cry from physical pain, but I came pretty close a few times (which I am sure can partially be credited to the exhaustion). I went slowly and I was in a lot of pain, but aside from the moments where the pain became nearly unbearable, my spirits remained high. Nick was great company and saved me with some Vaseline that he had brought in a baggie. The Aquaphor served its purpose for a while, but after the skin was already broken, it stung pretty badly, where the Vaseline did not.
My pace had deteriorated quite a bit, so I didn’t worry so much about needing to take time if I felt it appropriate. We took a few stops to dump sand from my shoes, stopped once to eat some chews when I started feeling a tiny bit wonky. I was thrilled to have my mom waiting for me again at Bill’s AS at mile 88. I got a chuckle from quite a few of the crew folks waiting for their runners when I ran into the aid station in the dark around 3am and yelled, “Mommmmmmmy! I’m tired!” This quickly became my favorite aid station when I discovered that they had warm veggie broth with noodles! I enjoyed a good sit for about ten minutes and continued on with my shuffle.

Nick and I both started to have a bit of a mental drag, but fortunately it was right as the sky was beginning to brighten, which always grants a new source of energy. The chafe pain was still terrible, but I am pretty sure I could have run through it if the bottoms of my feet were not also in sorry shape. I stopped to empty my shoes, eventually stopped to pop one of the huge blisters that I could feel spreading between my toes and onto the top of my foot, and stopped a few times just to sit for a moment. Nick and I decided that once we made it to mile 95, the last crewed station, that we would just push on through to the end.

And push we did. Not a speedy push, but a push nonetheless. I couldn’t enjoy the downhills as I was wincing with every step, but I enjoyed getting closer to the end. Up and over a few more hills, and we found ourselves in the final stretch. There was a sign that let us know when we had a mile left, and from there, it was all cake. Bloody, chafed, painful cake. 

My team!
I had been dreaming for hours about getting to the end and giving my mom a big hug, and that was just what I did. It was a great finish line with more spectators and cheering squads than I normally see. I plopped myself down in a chair and immediately drank a tasty vegan protein shake. Randy was already at the finish line, and we decided that we would head back home instead of staying for the awards ceremony. I sat in the big tent with Nick as my mom and Randy packed up our tents, both of us in a bit of zombie mode. We parted ways and I headed up to my mom’s car, where I took a nice baby wipe bath (another painful endeavor) and changed into sweats for the ride home.

That is a DEEP blister.

Even though, as I said, the last 25 miles of the race were rather pitiful, I am still incredibly proud of the day that I had. My official finish time was 27:52:20. In comparison with most of my races, this was a great time for me. In comparison with how most of my day went, it could have been better, but gaining the awareness that I can dig deep for so long without running myself into the ground is invaluable, and I hope to be able to carry that with me. It’s easy to say “well, if I hadn’t chafed, I could have done better,” but figuring that shit out is part of being a successful ultrarunner, so that serves as no excuse for my slow down. I hope to be able to mind those little things a bit better on my next go-around. I did do a lot of things very well. My nutrition, my hydration, my energy- those things I managed better than I have in any other race. I also kept a positive attitude the entire time- I didn't swear off hundreds to myself at any point! So, I am happy with all of those things.

It's important to have good recovery buddies for stretching!
I still have some stiffness, and the bottoms of my feet still suck when I am walking, but it is just because of the new skin that was under my blisters. (I cut back the dead skin on top a little at a time because I worry about infection in places that I am not able to keep clean.) The chafing healed very quickly, which I actually credit to the Aquaphor. Muscles are achey in unusual places due to the fact that I was walking funny to avoid the blisters, but that has been getting better each day as well with lots of stretching and rolling. Other than my blisters from the grit in my shoes, my feet were super happy all race in my Torins. In fact, they may be my new favorite shoe. I will just make sure never to neglect my gaiters again. 

We’re always learning out there on the trail, and with 100s, the learning curve is steep. You can go out and run a 5k every weekend if you want, and you will learn quickly where your weak points are, where you slow down, and where you have extra juice. Hundred milers only come around a few times a year, so it’s good to take a good inventory when you are done to come out swingin’ the next time. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Road Trip! Leg Four: Through South Dakota

While camping at Bruneau Sand Dunes a few months ago, I met a retired couple who had taken to the road for a few years. They were driving all over the United States with their horses, camping and riding and exploring the corners of the country. I asked them about the favorite place from their travels, and to my surprise, they told me that South Dakota was at the top of their list. I knew absolutely nothing about South Dakota, but I decided to take their word and put the state onto my itinerary. I was not disappointed. 

Part One: The Drive

I was in great spirits on Sunday after my stay in Custer National Forest. I was on the road at 6am, which got me a nice and relaxing three hour drive to Mount Rushmore. Overcast skies still lingered, which I actually think made the drive through the Black Hills all the more beautiful. In fact, I was much more impressed with the drive in the areas surrounding Mount Rushmore than I was with the monument itself. This wasn't just because the faces were covered with a thick fog, but because the hills had so much to offer. I would love to go through that area again someday and be able to spend time exploring the hills. 

Georgie Boy is hiding under the fog up there. 

Sleepy pups!

That's all, folks!

I drove up to and around Mount Rushmore, but I didn't actually get close enough to take good photos. It costs $11 to drive up closer to the monument, and I decided that was a bit steep for a photo of some dead guys on rocks. No, no, it is a cool thing, Mount Rushmore, but it is not my kind of sightseeing. Especially with the knowledge of the history of this part of the country, there is just something that doesn't sit right about this being carved into the hillside.

Crazy Horse Memorial
For that reason, I had also planned to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is only about a half hour away from Mount Rushmore. I had read that this was free to visit, but when I arrived, they were also charging $11 at the gate. I declined to pay there as well, although in hindsight, it would have been a worthy cause to support. The Crazy Horse Memorial is being constructed independently, and therefore is funded largely by donation. There is a museum and cultural center that I would have been able to view with admission, but I didn't want to do so with the dogs in the car. As you can see from the photo, the memorial is still very far from being finished, and I believe it has been sitting this way for quite some time, which is very unfortunate. I would highly recommend checking out the website for the memorial to learn of its history and mission. 

I took a very meandering route to Badlands National Park after leaving the Black Hills, trying to hit as much green as possible. Inadvertently, I traveled through Buffalo Gap National Grasslands before getting to Badlands, and somehow, I didn't have to pay admission the way that I entered the park. I saw two buffalo immediately upon entering, but that was it! The skies were still grey and stormy, and the rain did come down on me for a few moments, but just like the Black Hills, it only made everything more beautiful. The weather also made this long day of driving much more tolerable by keeping the temperatures down. 

Storm clouds beginning to break.

I pulled over in my car to eat lunch (leftovers from last night's dinner), and while I was eating, I could visibly see the sky begin to clear. Rock formations in the distance became more clearly defined, and blue began to pop out of sections of the sky. I stopped a few times to take photos, but I eventually got into pretty congested sections of the park and I couldn't bear to stop anymore. I have gone to a lot of great places, but I think that the only national park that I have visited is Arches NP in Moab, and I did that at a very early hour. The downside to national parks is that they are designed for tourism- aka, driving slowly and parking on the side of the road. The speed limit was 45mph, but I think that traffic was moving at about 15mph. I got most of my cool photos in Badlands out my window while crawling through traffic. The photos actually came out pretty cool, especially as the blue sky was finally making itself visible from behind the clouds. I love the contrast of the grass, the formations and the sky. I think the photos pretty much speak for themselves. What's so bad about the Badlands?

Part Two: Palisades State Park

Split Rock Creek

By the time I made it through Badlands, it was already well into the afternoon, and I had spent many hours on the road. However, I think that they grey skies and the various stops throughout the day kept me well-energized, so I drove farther than I had anticipated for the day. My original plan was to find a place to camp in some national grasslands, but I was able to identify a state park that was just off the freeway a little ways east of Sioux Falls. 

Princess Gracie by our tent. 
When I arrived, I pitched the tent and took the dogs for a quick walk. I had been driving through cornfields for hours and hours, so I was pleasantly pleased when I found the park to be green and lush. Unfortunately, I was reminded quickly of the pesky little thing that often accompanies all that moisture- mosquitoes. 

Not much room for me on the sleeping bag..

Morning run.
The little bloodsuckers got me to retreat to my tent before the sun was down, and I laid in my tent with the fly open, watching them buzz around the screen. I am accustomed to camping in the mountains in Idaho, where it can get very cold at night, even in the summer. The low for the night was in the low 60s, so I slept with the fly unzipped throughout the night, and woke up occasionally with a view of the stars.

New kicks from The Pulse!

I was up early again in the morning and wasted no time in dressing in my running gear and getting the dogs out for a run. Holly at The Pulse hooked me up with a pair of the new Altra Torin before I left, and I was happy to finally take them out for a good test run. (They were awesome, but more on that later.) We explored the small trail system that runs along the creek through the park, noting the information provided at various places that described the rock formations, the creek, and the historic bridge. I have written more about my experience at the park under my State Park Ambassador blog, so check that out here.

After a slightly less buggy breakfast, I packed up camp and hit the road again with Minnesota on the horizon. 

Next leg: Palisades State Park, South Dakota to Great River Bluffs State Park, Minnesota