Sunday, February 19, 2012

TAPER -- The Most Beautiful Word in the English Language

For all of you non-runners, "taper" when applied to running can be defined thusly: "the training phase right before a long distance event, such as a marathon, when a runner starts to cut back on his or her mileage." In other words, I get to run less after today's run. Glory glory hallelujah! I thought this day would never come, but here it is.

Today's run was scary to contemplate -- 28 miles in the Rincons. It would have been even scarier if I had looked at an elevation profile. Thank God I didn't because I might not have even gotten out of bed this morning. The run went like this: 9 miles up Douglas Spring Trail to Cowhead Saddle, then another very long -- 12 miles? 13 miles? something like that along the Tanque Verde Ridge trail to the picnic ground at Saguaro East, then another 8 miles along the road and trails of Saguaro East.

Here's the thing: Doug Springs Trail and I have a murky, twisted relationship. This trail has made me do all of the following things at various points in my running history: cry, throw up, sit down on the trail, turn around two miles into a planned ten-mile run and walk back to the car, pitch a fit after nearly stepping on a rattlesnake, swear off trail running alone because I thought I saw a mountain lion, swear off trail running altogether because it is so f-ing hard, and feel like a rock star for being able to run nearly the whole thing in a relatively good time. That last one is the least common, by the way. I hate those first two miles -- a nasty, rocky, steep slog uphill with giant step-ups the whole way -- always have, always will. The good thing is if I get through those first two miles, there are about four runnable miles before I run into two more horrible miles up to Cowhead Saddle. So the best way to deal with Doug Springs is just to hold my nose and plunge in. And that's what I did today.

It was cold at the start, but not too cold. I was only slightly frozen in shorts, long-sleeved shirt, and gloves at the trailhead, and once I started moving I was comfortable. Except for the completely full pack on my back and the bottle in my hand. I hate carrying my own fluids but my miserable experience on the Redington 50k taught me something -- bring more than you think you'll need, because you'll probably need it.

I was with a good group to start -- the slow group. Everyone was walking the uphills, which was all of it past about the first half mile. Even walking it is hard. Have I mentioned I hate step-ups? I do. But eventually we got to the more runnable part of the trail and I started thinking about getting to Doug Springs campground, 6.5 miles up. There was an outhouse there and I had somehow forgotten to pee before leaving the house. Oops, big, uncomfortable oops.

Here's another thing -- I have learned that you never, ever think of the whole distance ahead when doing long distances. You have to break it down into segments. My segments went like this: first two miles; 4.5 miles to the campground; 2.5 more miles to Cowhead Saddle; unknown but really long distance on Tanque Verde Ridge (which I pictured, oh so mistakenly, as a gentle descent down into Saguaro East); aid station to Cactus Forest Trail, one mile; Cactus Forest Trail to road, 2.5 miles; road to Loma Verde Trail, somewhere around a mile; Loma Verde Trail to Squeeze Pen Trail, very short distance; Squeeze Pen Trail to Carillo Trail, 1.2 miles; Carillo Trail to Garwood Trail, .8 miles; Garwood Trail back to Doug Springs, 1.4 miles. The problem, of course, was that big stretch in the middle that I couldn't break up because I didn't know what it was like.

Anyway, I reached the campground and went straight for the outhouse. Mike appeared and warned me there was no toilet paper. "That's OK, I've got some," I said, and this would be a good time to admit that that was a LIE! I didn't have any, and the truth is I didn't care. I am so disgusting after a run like this anyway, I have to ask the question, who cares if I have toilet paper? I only had to pee; in case of a true emergency, like a #2 emergency, there was always GU wrappers and orange peels. But I digress. By the time I got out of there, I was in the very back of the group. I started the slog up to Cowhead Saddle being just able to see Julie and the other Christy way up ahead of me, and made it my mission to catch them.

I did catch them, and trailed along after them towards the saddle. I mentioned something about being glad we were almost there so we could start going down, and Julie, who has run all these trails a lot more than I have, said something about how when we got to the saddle, the real climb would start. I have never been past the saddle; in my mind, we got to start descending as soon as we got to the saddle. I didn't like the implications of what she said, so I just chose to ignore it. But as we got closer and closer to the saddle, I saw that the elevation numbers on my Garmin were nowhere near what they should be. This run topped out at 7000 feet, and as we came up to the saddle we were only at about 6300. That meant... I looked at the sign pointing to the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, and saw that it went straight up. My spirits plunged. Nothing worse than expecting a descent, seeing a gnarly ascent instead, and putting that sight together with what Julie had said earlier. Ugh!

Well, okay, maybe it was just a short climb... But, no. It went up and up for a couple of miles. It was on an exposed ridge, and was getting colder and colder with the wind blowing harder. There were still lots of areas with patchy snow. Thank you Renee for taking a picture of me in the hated snow for my blog:

It will surprise no one to hear that seeing this snow -- and even having to WALK in it for a brief stretch -- did not make me miss New Jersey at all, not one iota. The expression on my face says exactly how I felt about the snow.

We'd been going up for 11 miles now. I was so tired of going up. My thought process became reduced to a few simple, one-syllable words, like a baby learning how to talk: "No more up. No more up." This nonsensical phrase looped in my head while we finished going up and finally started down. At last -- the descent! Here I could make up some time! But it was not to be. This was the kind of descent that was almost as slow as the ascent due to all of the following: steepness; rocks; scree; giant knee-jarring step-downs; and catclaw, shindaggers, and other thorny nasties stretching all the way across the trail just ready to rip skin to ribbons. And even after all this -- I wasn't even halfway done with this run! Unthinkable, obviously, so I didn't think about it. I just kept moving. Walked when I felt like it, ate when I was hungry, tried not to think about my warm bed at home.

Finally I got to a campground at Juniper Basin (which would have been how I split up this trail in my head, had I bothered to look at a map before doing the run). The sign there said 6.9 miles to the picnic area where the aid station was. I was alone now, with Julie and Christy somewhere behind me and everyone else in front of me. I felt very, very alone for about three more miles, then suddenly saw some runners ahead of me, not very far, and realized I wasn't as far back as I felt like I was. That was a great feeling, one of the few great feelings on that trail. Even after I passed the campground, it wasn't the gentle descent I had imagined. Instead of going straight down, it was rollers. Not big ones, but I swear anything is big after a 5000-foot climb.

Finally I got down to the aid station, just past Mile 20. There is nothing more beautiful than smiling volunteers at an aid station. And, as I've said before, food is different when seen through ultra eyes. Normal food changes into food from the gods. Soda is so amazingly delicious and refreshing I always just want to take it somewhere and be alone with it. I scarfed down a Pepsi, brownies, a banana, and some homemade bread. It's hard to overstate what caffeine does to the body when you're not used to having it. It's like an injection of rocket fuel. Eight more miles, totally NBD. No problem. I took off from the aid station and ran 4 straight miles under 9:00 pace, which is pretty good for Miles 21-25.

Then the Pepsi wore off and I didn't feel so good anymore. OK, I knew this was inevitable but I was almost done. So I slow-jogged the network of trails leading back to the trailhead. I was SO CLOSE to getting in under seven hours, but didn't quite make it and ended up at 7:02. That's not very impressive but the truth is on all of these ultra-distance runs I am just happy to finish.

In the past 5 weeks I've done marathon-or-greater distance every single weekend -- one road run marathon-length, then the disastrous Redington 50k, then the El Paso Marathon, then the not-disastrous Pemberton 50k, then today. Most of those runs were followed the next day by low-double-digit runs, 10-14 miles. I don't know when those distances became "normal". This has really shown me that the body can take a lot more than you think it can. Aside from losing a couple toenails, I haven't had any worse injuries than what I used to get from road running much shorter distances. And the trail runners I know aren't injured any more than the road runners I know, despite doing these distances weekend after weekend. So I think advice like "After a marathon, take one day off running for every mile you ran" is just a little over-cautious.

That having been said, I am completely, totally exhausted tonight. Normally these long runs leave me with a lingering buzz that makes sleep difficult, but tonight, I have been in a daze since I got home, the kind of daze where I can barely get off the futon to shower or to make something to eat and can't possibly drive to Dairy Queen to get the Oreo Brownie Earthquake that I totally want and deserve. I can't wait for my head to hit the pillow tonight. Thank God for a federal holiday tomorrow!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pemberton 50k: Popping My Ultra Cherry

MUST I be so crude in my blog? I mean, really, my mom reads this, couldn't I have just called it "Pemberton 50k Race Report" or something? No, I couldn't. That just wouldn't have been me.

Anyway, I have run 50k two other times (most disastrously two weeks ago with TTR) but never completed an official 50k race. I was neither excited nor worried about this race; it was just another long training run to slog through. This is actually a pretty boring race report to write. I prefer to write about those events where either A) there are some kind of adverse weather conditions, B) I embarrass myself with a really bad time for no good reason, C) Something physically unpleasant happens to me in the race, giving me a legitimate reason for a bad time, or D) I kick ass (these are rare occasions). This was none of those things. I had no time goal beyond "something respectable"; I did okay, not great and not awful; I felt basically fine throughout; the weather was nearly perfect (well, a little bit less sun on that second lap would have been nice, but overall not much to complain about); my problem toenail (black from the El Paso Marathon, had to be opened and bled out by my doctor on Thursday, very sore Friday, the day before the 50k) didn't cause even a tiny bit of a problem... boring, boring, boring.

This race took place in McDowell Mountain Park not too far from Fountain Hills. The course was two laps of a 15-mile loop, making the logistics of setting up aid stations uncomplicated -- Station 1 was also Station 4 on the second lap, Station 2 was also Station 5, and Station 3 was in the parking lot where the race started. Aid stations were 5 - 5 1/2 miles apart, making it mentally easy to break down 31 miles into manageable segments -- snack at each aid station; GU plus my own water at the halfway points between aid stations. The elevation chart showed a gain of about 700 feet over the first eight miles of the loop, then loss of the same 700 feet over the last seven miles -- nothing remarkably hard about that, at least not on paper. It was a little chilly at the start line at 7 a.m. -- enough for me to wear gloves and a long-sleeved shirt, but not enough for tights -- but it quickly became pleasantly cool once we got started, and stayed that way for the whole first lap.

The trail was clearly not a Tucson trail. Unlike Tucson trails, it was well-groomed, wide, signed with big, obvious signs at every trail junction, and very gentle in elevation gain and loss. TTR runs have taught me how to deal with 1000-foot "rollers", loose scree, boulder-hopping, step-ups, and various other types of trail misery, so this beautiful, pristine ramble through saguaros barely counted as a trail run in my opinion. It is runnable start to finish, and I did run the whole thing the first lap. I was at Mile 10 before I took my first GU, just because I had plenty of energy until then. The first lap was a breeze. I got to the halfway point at 2:29, which was faster than I thought I would be. I knew I wouldn't be under 5 hours and I knew my second lap would be slower than my first, so I still didn't feel any real pressure to speed up.

Almost as soon as I went through Aid Station 3 at the halfway point, it started to suck and continued to suck for the next 9 miles. I knew it would, because I knew that what felt like a barely noticeable climb on the first lap would feel like mountain climbing on the second lap. Especially with the morning clouds burned off and the temperature climbing. But since I knew it would suck, I was prepared for the suckiness and still managed to jog most of it. On the first lap I had company all the time, but on the second lap we had spread out so much that I could only see other runners in the distance ahead of me. They weren't doing much running either. I played leapfrog with one girl for the entire second lap (and ended up finally passing her for good 3 miles from the finish, which was awesome). Even with the discomfort of the second lap, I was eating and drinking smart, which I am very happy about because it shows that I learned something from the run 2 weeks ago when I ate and drank stupid. As a result, I had no nausea at all and still had working saliva in my mouth. That was nice.

I did lots of walking between Station 4 and Station 5, but once I got to the last aid station and chugged down lots of lukewarm Mountain Dew and water, along with oranges and salted bananas, I got my second wind and managed to get all of my last 5 miles under 9:00 pace. I'm sure the downhill helped but I am going to go ahead and credit the Mountain Dew. When you never have caffeine in daily life, it feels like rocket fuel when you have it in races. My finish time was 5:15, which I think is okay but I really have no idea what an average time for that race is. It was nice to see lots of TTR people at the finish, and even nicer to see ice chests full of cold sodas. I was so hot and thirsty that I sucked down 1-2-3 Cokes, one right after another. I hadn't been nauseous at all in the race, but I sure got that way driving home after all that Coke. I had to stop twice and recline my seat and put my feet up before I could keep going again.

So! I guess I'm ready for OP-50. Just need to add 19 miles and about 7000 or so feet of elevation change (or is it 7000 feet of elevation gain and the same amount of elevation loss? I forget), otherwise it's practically the exact same thing as what I did today, no big deal.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

El Paso Marathon Report: Who Cares That It Wasn't Scenic -- It Was Fast!

Just check out this elevation profile, if you don't believe me:

That's a thing of beauty, isn't it? Unlike the city itself and the course... but I digress.

State #17, Marathon #23. I didn't even decide to do this marathon until Wednesday. I didn't really feel like driving to El Paso, and didn't want to give up the idea of doing San Antonio for my Texas marathon. But in the end I registered because 1) that was the mileage I had to do this weekend anyway in training for the Old Pueblo 50, so I might as well do it somewhere different and check off a state at the same time, and 2) I don't really have so much spare cash that I can afford to fly to a marathon, rent a car, etc when I can drive -- cheaply and quickly -- to a different marathon in that same state. So El Paso it was.

I've never been there and was surprised to see how close it is to Mexico. I mean, I know the city of El Paso borders Juarez on the map, obviously, but somehow that didn't translate into being able to lean out my hotel window and spit into Juarez. (I'm exaggerating, of course, but anyway, it was close.) And the first word I associated with El Paso in my head, upon driving through it, was "ugly". The second was "dirty". Not that these were necessarily bad things -- I love several ugly, dirty cities, like Tijuana and Naples, so I did like El Paso when I first saw it. I drove straight to the downtown Expo. I was tired and had a headache from the drive, and when I got out of the car a cold wind was blowing hard. All these things made me cranky, and then I walked into the Expo and got more cranky. It was a tiny Expo, and almost all the booths were local businesses that had nothing to do with running, and the shirt was boring and ugly, and the goodie bag was full of advertisements for more local businesses and didn't even have one single actual "goodie" in it, not even a free pen or something. I got my shirt and walked out and it had gotten even colder. I was planning to run in shorts but I changed my mind and was glad I brought tights "just in case".

The next morning the wind wasn't quite as bad, but it was still blowing. This race was a point-to-point with a shuttle bus to the start. We boarded the shuttle buses downtown where the finish line was. I still didn't know anything about the course except that it had a 1500' elevation loss -- had never looked at a map or anything. On the shuttle bus, I ended up sitting next to this not-very-pleasant guy from Houston. They say everything is bigger in Texas, and if so, this guy was a Texas asshole -- a definitely bigger-than-average asshole. He started out by telling me that he was a sub-3-hour marathoner -- and he said it just that way: "I'm a sub-3-hour marathoner," the way I might say, "I'm from Tucson" -- so he wouldn't be seeing most of these people after the start. Then he told everyone around us that the wind would be in our faces the entire time. Then he went off about how he usually only does small town marathons and if he didn't like this one he was going to drop out and do Beaumont two weeks later. Then he talked about how much he hates Rock and Roll marathons and how the organizers worship the almighty dollar and how everyone who runs them is contributing to the commercialization of running. Then I shut him up by telling him Rock and Roll marathons were my favorite and I didn't care if they were in it to make money -- they're a business, why shouldn't they be making money? It's not like people don't sign up by the hundreds of thousands to run them. He stopped talking to me after that and instead talked to the people around him about how with the new course this year he had heard there would likely be major logistics problems and he was looking forward to seeing what they would be.

Meanwhile the bus headed west out of town and then turned north up into the mountains. The wind got stronger and stronger as we headed up, up, and up. I watched the elevation on my GPS go from 3700' up to 5300. We all watched the wind outside shaking the roadside bushes violently. It even shook the bus. "With this wind chill, it's going to be about 15 degrees out there," the asshole announced to everyone, sounding satisfied, as the bus pulled into the start line area.

I got off the bus for the Porta-John line and HOLY CRAP! It was freezing. The wind went instantly through my clothes. Luckily there were plenty of Porta-Johns and the lines weren't long, but it didn't take long to freeze. If not for the wind, it wouldn't have been bad, 38 degrees. I tried to be positive and remind myself that this was NOT the most miserable I'd ever been at a start line -- that would be Boston, with St. George a close second -- but it was right up there. Luckily they kept the buses parked with doors open and heaters running and we were able to stay on them where it was warm right up until the national anthem was sung at 6:55.

(Let me just say right now that even though I have been complaining nonstop about being too fat for months now -- and I am 24 pounds heavier than I was when I qualified for Boston -- today I was grateful for every millimeter of fat I had and would have happily carried ten more pounds in exchange for a little more wind protection. I have decided I am meant to have extra fat in the winter and that's the way it should be. I am not going to worry about it any more. The end.)

The start line was in a mountain pass and there was a 1000' elevation drop in the first four miles. The first mile was miserably cold, with that freezing wind blowing right in my face so strong my visor wouldn't stay on my head and even my earbuds were blown out of my ears. Then at Mile Two the wind died down and wasn't much of a factor at all on the course, despite weather forecasts predicting wind all day. Those first four miles, running down the mountain, were undeniably scenic, with the mountains around us and the city below us. Then we were spit out of the mountains onto a frontage road and ugly took over and stayed for the rest of the course, except for a brief detour through Fort Bliss. Miles Five through Seven were on that frontage road; Miles Eight through Ten went through the obligatory ghetto that seems to be part of every urban marathon; Miles Eleven through Seventeen were on this long, straight, road that went across the top of Fort Bliss but looked like it was out in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't hot, but the sun was shining full-force. This was exactly the kind of long, monotonous stretch that can cause mental fatigue because nothing ever changes, but, luckily, I was having a good day and got through it passing a lot of people and going at a good, steady pace. At Mile Seventeen the course entered Fort Bliss, and the aid station there, manned by men in uniform, was my favorite one of the whole course. (I forgot to mention that there were aid stations every two miles for the first half, and every mile for the second half, which was really nice and something I've not seen in any other marathon, I don't think.) We were in Fort Bliss for three miles, and then the remaining six miles were a combination of nice residential, a little bit more ghetto, and then some downtown.

My goal for this race was to run it slowly and not even look at my Garmin. I just wanted to keep a comfortable pace, walk when necessary, stop to pee if I had to, and in general just have a comfortable long run. This is my peak week in the training for OP-50, and I also have the Pemberton 50k next Saturday, so I definitely didn't want to go too hard. I didn't see a race clock anywhere on the course, so I truly had no idea how my time was. I did know that I was running comfortably though and wasn't walking at all except briefly through aid stations. As ugly as the course was, elevation-wise it was a dream. Those first few miles of downhill were steep, but after that it was this very gradual, gentle loss of elevation as opposed to the quads-busting kind like St. George. There were only a few tiny bumps of uphill. I felt pretty good by the time I got to the finish, no nausea, nothing hurting except a place where my waist pack was chafing my side, and not too cold or too hot. I was completely ecstatic to see that my time was just under 3:55. My average marathon time is probably 4:10 or somewhere around there, so anything under four hours is pretty good. I haven't run any marathons in less than four hours since Missoula in July 2010, so I was stoked about this one. Based on my recent long run times I was expecting 4:30. Maybe 4:20 if I had a good day.

Even more exciting, when I got home and looked at the results I saw that I got second in my division, which I haven't ever done in a marathon. Okay, it wasn't a huge division with only thirteen people in it, but even so that was still pretty good. I'm just mystified as to why there weren't more very fast times with that course? I know that if I was in the shape I was in when I BQ'd, I would have BQ'd again for sure.

All in all, I recommend this marathon for a fast, easy-to-run course UNLESS:
*You really hate ugly marathons
*You like a lot of spectators (there were next to none)
*You don't like long stretches with no turns and no change in scenery
*A drop of 1000' in four miles is uncomfortable for you