Trail Weekend – Day 2 (50k)

After a successful first day of Trail Weekend, Day 2 dawned pretty much the same with one slight difference. There was actually sun this time! Despite the sun though, it was still cold and windy and I spent a while debating on my outfit. As Sunday’s race was 50 kilometers, I knew it would be much warmer by the time I finished. Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to wear shorts and a tank top from the start since the wind chill was only in the high 20’s. I decided to start out in warmer clothes and then change into other clothes later on if needed.

Just before heading to the start line, I saw someone who looked mysteriously like my college friend/former roommate walk by me. I yelled his name and started running toward him before I was 100% sure it was him. Thankfully, it was. Otherwise it would’ve made for a pretty awkward hug. Even though he lives in the area, I was surprised to see him there because he is a super fast swimmer and triathlete and not so much a trail lover (or so I thought). It was about one minute before race start at this point and he informed me he still had to go collect his bib so I left him to it. At the start line, I was excited to find that the 50k/marathon crowd was significantly smaller than Saturday’s half marathon. Hooray for having more space!

IMG_8020.jpg

A mile or two into the race when there was still a decent size “pack” of us running together, I felt someone elbow me in the side multiple times. I was about to tell whoever this idiot was to either go by me or get back behind me before I realized it was my friend I had spotted earlier. He had thought the race started at 8 instead of 7:30, which explained his tardiness in picking up his bib. Despite starting the race a few minutes late, he had already caught up with me. Not having seen each other in several months, we ended up having plenty to talk about over the next 20ish miles. I knew he was basically jogging to keep pace with me so I told him to feel free to leave me in the dust at any time, which he did eventually with 10k to go in his marathon.

My plan for this race was to run the first 13.1-mile loop at a relaxed pace, the second one hopefully at the same pace, and then just go as fast as I could for the last 5 miles. I told my husband who was on sherpa duty to expect me to finish each half marathon loop in about 2:15. At 2:13, my friend and I finished our first lap and I decided to do a wardrobe change into shorts and a t-shirt, and I was so glad I did.

IMG_8054.jpg
So worth the extra 2 minutes

As we continued on to our second loop, I was still feeling great and started to think that the day might have potential to be a huge PR. I kept focused on eating and drinking Coke on loop 2 as well as using the downhills to pick up a little extra time. Around mile 20, my friend decided to go ahead on his own for his final miles to the finish. Thirty seconds after he went ahead, I decided to get a picture of him but he was already just a speck in the distance. For the last couple miles of loop two, I decided to pick up the pace as well in preparation for the final 5-mile “sprint”. I came through the start/finish area after 26ish miles in exactly 4:30, right on my predicted pace. My goal for the day had been to finish in under 5:30, and it was at this point I realized I had the chance to shatter my goal with a good last five miles. I ditched my pack as I came through for the last lap and had one last swig of Coke.

IMG_8077.jpg
Five to go!

The last five miles ended up being the fastest five miles I’ve ever run in an ultra. Looking at the results afterward, there were only a few people who ran the last loop faster than I did, and all of them finished way before me. Oops. Maybe I should’ve started running faster earlier. At any rate, I was cruising through the last few miles, including up the “giant hill” one last time. I passed several people on the last loop but had no idea what race or lap these people were on as the shortened loop merged with the longer loop at some point. Having had the benefit of running the final stretch of the course three times in the previous two days, I knew when I was getting to the close and gave it everything I had to the finish. According to Strava, I was running 5:45 min/mile pace when I crossed the finish line. This led to some really attractive finish line photos and also a huge PR of over 30 minutes compared to my last 50k. While every ultra course is different and it’s hard (impossible, actually) to compare times across courses, I think it’s safe to say that I’m probably at least in slightly better shape than I was a month or two ago. After the struggle that was the Glass City Marathon the previous weekend, I was super excited to have a race where everything went right. It definitely helped to have someone to run with to keep me moving a little bit faster in the early stages of the race. Being so familiar with this trail and the course definitely was a benefit as well. Most of all though, I just had a fun day being on beautiful trails. I think anytime you can enjoy yourself in a race, you’re going to have an awesome day and for me, that means being on trails, not a flat, paved road or sidewalk.

 

Trail Weekend Day 1 (Half Marathon)

Last weekend I was supposed to run the Zane Grey 50 Mile near Payson, Arizona. With nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain at an average elevation of 6,500 feet, and a course that’s littered with giant rocks, rocks, and more rocks, many people have deemed it one of the toughest 50-mile runs in the country. Living in Phoenix was the perfect opportunity to train for this race. Close proximity to lots of rocky mountain trails and the ability to go check out the course in person ahead of time were ideal for training for this race. Everything was going great until I ended up returning home to Michigan sooner than I’d planned. Not having the funds to fly back to Arizona and rent a car for the weekend, I decided to do the next best thing: run on one of my favorite trails in Michigan as part of one of my favorite events.

Trail Weekend, which is hosted by local running shop/event company Running Fit has long been one of my favorite races. It takes place at the end of April ever year near Ann Arbor, Michigan, mostly on the Potowatomi Trail in the Pinckney Recreation Area. This trail is a favorite for many people in the area including mountain bikers, trail runners, backpackers, and wildlife enthusiasts. Like most trails and areas of Michigan, Poto (as the locals call it) passes near numerous lakes, through forests, and also contains some of the biggest hills in the area, which is to say they take about 4 minutes to power-hike up. They’re definitely not big hills by most people’s standards but the number of hills and the fact that you’re constantly going either up or down is what most people find challenging about it. My favorite part of this trail is the remote feeling and being able to cool off in the lake after a hot summer run.

Trail Weekend consists of a half marathon on Saturday and a 5-miler, marathon, and 50k on Sunday. For the most fun possible, you can sign up for both the half marathon and the 50k, which is what I usually do and this year was no exception. I originally wasn’t sure about signing up for this race since I had done the Glass City Marathon the previous weekend. When my friend asked me to run the half marathon with her as her first official half marathon, how could I say no?

On race day, after about an hour’s drive, we arrived at the park and got our bibs. The weather for the day was typical Michigan spring weather, which is to say it was 35 degrees, gray, and windy. We sat in the car listening to not very pump-up music keeping warm before going to the start line. There seemed to be even more people than I remembered there being in previous years (turns out there were actually fewer people than the last time I did this race, but there were still 580 finishers this year). After making our way through the crowd, we decided to start with a random group a group that looked about the pace we were planning to run.

 

After about a minute of running through an open field, we hit the singletrack, and the inevitable standstill that comes with just about every trail race. As we slowly made our way through the first mile, a guy behind us asked “I’ve never run a trail race before. Is it going to be like this the whole time?” I reassured him that it usually spreads out pretty quick, although that didn’t really turn out to be the case on this day. It ended up being at least 4 or 5 miles before we got some breathing room near our spot in the middle of the pack. Except for the bumper to bumper traffic on the trail, things were going really well for the first 6 or so miles. We were keeping a steady pace and we had perfect running conditions. It was around this time, my friend started to get a headache.

About a month ago, on a half marathon distance “training run” in the desert, we discovered that my friend loses an extreme amount of salt. She loses so much salt in fact that I was feeding her S Caps every 30 minutes and she doused all her food in salt for the next few days. She thought in milder (read: cold) temperatures, she wouldn’t need salt pills and hadn’t brought any. Thankfully, I knew better and had packed plenty for the occasion. After I told her I had packed salt pills and she could have as many as she wanted she told me “I’d hug you right now if you weren’t so far away.” After a quick stop for a life-changing salt pill, we were on our way again.

We continued on at a steady pace and around mile 9 we could hear lots of yelling in the distance. There turned out to be a large group of kids (scouts maybe?) who were walking along the trail cheering on runners and giving out liberal amounts of high-fives. After passing through the cheering section, someone (maybe me) said something like “Only 5k to go – piece of cake!” A guy who we had been running near all day warned us not to get too excited as there was a really big hill coming up. I spent the next several minutes trying to think of what hill he could be talking about. As someone who had run this trail at least a hundred times, I thought I would have remembered a hill with that kind of reputation. Turns out, I did remember the hill once I saw it. Usually when I’m on this trail, I’m going downhill though as that is the normal direction for foot traffic. By this time we were around mile 11 and my friend was finally starting to get tired. Barely. She even appeared to be having fun while going up the “monster” hill, although this is probably because I had just said something incredibly funny.

31924507_10212737186524528_1535946237092560896_n
Smiling while going uphill – I think she has ultrarunning in her future

The last couple miles of the course somehow seemed the longest/I think they actually were the longest based on course markings. Just before mile 13 (which was definitely more than 0.1 miles from the finish), we heard some 80’s music blasting from a guy carrying around a giant speaker. I can’t remember what song it was but I’m pretty sure it was one of the songs found in Happy Gilmore, which obviously means it was great.

31880937_10212737186924538_4990413266766266368_n
“Thanks for the tunes, man”

After we turned off the trail onto the grass field toward the finish, my friend tried to walk up the last (small) hill. “No more walking!” I yelled. “We’re almost there.” Bystanders probably thought I was a mean friend but whatever, you’ve got to run the final stretch.

31936642_10212737187564554_3144296100853186560_n
Home stretch!

After crossing the finish line, we walked around for a few minutes and looked for a willing volunteer to take our picture. The wind blowing off the lake and still-gray skies made it not a very hospitable environment to hang out in after finishing a race. There was one guy though who decided to brave the elements even further by wading into the lake. I’ll be the first person to say there’s nothing better than being able to lounge in a lake after a run, but usually I prefer to do that when it’s warmer than 40 degrees outside.

31646718_10212737189804610_4636809743157952512_n
Me looking at this guy like he’s the creature from the Black Lagoon

Despite his dip in the lake, he at least seemed to have avoided hypothermia as he managed to hold his hands steady enough to take a great picture of us. Running this race with my friend for her first half marathon (and on a trail no less) made Day 1 of Trail Weekend especially memorable this year. After nearly 16 years of running, sometimes I forget about what it’s like to be new-ish to the sport. Being with friends and helping others to reach their goals are two of my favorite things about running, and I was able to do both on this day. This might have been her first half marathon and first trail race, but it definitely won’t be her last as evidenced by the permanent smile attached to her face and the number of times she said “This is so fun!”.

31880882_10212737190044616_137590956659572736_n

Stay tuned, Trail Weekend Part 2 coming soon!

The day my knee went on strike (Glass City Marathon)

IMG_7932.jpg

Wait, a road marathon?

Where to begin with this one… I signed up a few days in advance for a road marathon in Toledo, Ohio. After spending the first 3.5 months of the year running big miles on big mountains, I wanted to see how my trail fitness would translate to a flat, fast road marathon. If I can run for 12+ hours up and down mountains in the desert with relative ease, surely I should be able to run my way to a new road marathon PR, right? The only catch really is that I haven’t really pounded the pavement much this year. Of the 700+ miles I had run so far this year going into this race, approximately 30 of them were run on the road. No matter though, this was going to be great.

Goal Time

I decided to try for a sub-3:20 time since the last time I raced a road marathon (in March 2017), I ran a 3:23 on a course that was a quarter-mile long in a rainstorm. I definitely feel like my fitness is better now than it was then, so 3:20 seemed doable. Officially, a 3:20 equates to 7:38 pace but I decided to go with 7:30-7:35 pace because it sounded good.

Packet Pick-Up

I chose this race primarily because it was soon and it was close enough to home that I could sleep in my own bed the night before. I originally wasn’t planning on driving down until race day but once I looked up the location of race day packet pick up (a mile from the start line) and all the parking restrictions on race day, I decided to just drive down the day before to get my bib. And I was glad I did, primarily because I discovered that one of the most traveled sections of highway in Southeast Michigan is shut down. I’ve been afraid to do more research on just how long it’s closed but I can guarantee it’s months, possibly even years and I’m not exaggerating. Closing sections of expressway in Michigan for years at a time is actually a thing. But anyway, after an hour and 40 minute drive that should’ve taken and hour and ten minutes, I finally arrived. It was just like every other marathon expo I’ve ever been to: loud and crowded. Guess what one of my least favorite things is? Crowds. I got out of there in about five minutes asking myself why I had decided to sign up for this again.

IMG_9058.jpg

Race Day

IMG_7882.jpg
All smiles before the start

Race day dawned bright and early and my sherpa, I mean husband, and I were on our way. There was a ton of traffic near the University of Toledo campus where the start/finish was, so we ultimately parked in a neighborhood just off campus. After waiting in the requisite super-long bathroom line and dropping my bag off at gear check, I went to the starting line, since it was now about 10 minutes before race start.

 

I lined up between the markers that said 7-minute and 8-minute pace, expecting to run 7:30’s. The gun finally sounded and we took off at a jog. I never understand why people ignore corral/start line assignments, but at every road race there are always plenty of people who just start wherever the hell they feel like. Bumping around with thousands of my closest friends in the first 400 meters was really really making me question why I was doing this. I mean yay, I’m having so much fun!

IMG_7939.jpg
The beginning

Thankfully I started to get some more space as we went on although I was still looking forward to mile 8 when the half and full courses diverged. Running 7:30’s was feeling pretty comfortable and I was confident things were going to go well. But of course all good things must come to an end right, and mine pretty much ended around mile 14. I came through the half right on pace in about 1:40. Unfortunately this “knee thing” I’ve had going on for awhile did not appreciate being repeatedly slammed against unforgiving asphalt and concrete. I knew it wasn’t going to subside and would probably only get worse, so I came up with Plan B, which was to go for a BQ. I’m not even sure whether I want to run Boston next year but if this was going to be my one and only road marathon for the year (because let’s face it, I wasn’t exactly having the time of my life), I decided I might as well at least try to salvage the day with a BQ.

IMG_7974.jpg
Around mile 4 – still feeling good

From miles 14-25, I jogged/hobbled/walked my way forward. My right knee issue was causing me to run with a really weird gait that was leading to my left quad locking up and also a blister on my left foot in a place where I’ve never in my life gotten a blister. I was a pretty sorry sight. Marathoners and relay runners were passing me left and right. Usually in races, I run even or even negative splits and am usually passing people towards the end. It was a humbling experience to be literally giving it everything I had while feeling like I was barely moving. I thought several times about throwing in the towel on my BQ attempt, and walking or jogging ever more slowly into the finish, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t at least try. If it wasn’t enough, fine, but at least I had tried.

It was right around this time there was another runner near me whose husband had been waiting for her at a road crossing. She told him “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” Based on the time the clock was at, I’m guessing she was trying to go for a BQ as well. If I had had any extra energy to spare I would have told her, “You know what, maybe you can’t. But maybe you can. All you can do is what you can do, and if it’s not enough, it’s not enough. All you can do on any day is give it your best effort and that means not giving up until it’s over.” For me, when I know I’ve given it everything it a race, I will always be satisfied regardless of what the clock says or what place I come in. Sometimes we have great days, but sometimes we drink too much beer the night before a race (not that I’ve done that), or go into a race with a nagging injury or illness. On any given day your best effort is enough because it’s what you can do.

IMG_8011.jpg
So blurry it almost looks like I’m smiling (I’m not)

But enough philosophy for one day. After a long, grueling journey I had finally reached mile 25. I decided to just run as fast as I could to the finish and see what happened. Thankfully there was a slight downhill, also I guess considered a significant downhill in Midwestern road marathon terms. The race finished on the 50-yard line of UT’s football field so the last few steps were on astroturf. I crossed the line with an official time of 3:32:07, a far cry from the 3:20 I was hoping for, but technically a BQ (but still only fast enough to gain entry into Boston in 2012-2017, not so much this year in 2018).

 

After laying on a bench and then laying on the ground for a while, I decided to go in search of my drop bag with warm clothes and some food. They also had this nifty BQ bell to ring. On the roughly mile long walk back to the car, of course my knee barely hurt at all. I guess it’s only upset when I’m exerting a force of 7x my body weight on it.

 

At the end of the day, like I said before, I can’t be disappointed with my performance in this race because I did everything I could do on the day I was given. Do I wish that my body had agreed with my idea to race a road marathon and that everything else could’ve gone perfectly and I skipped away merrily with a PR? Of course, who wouldn’t want that. But the reality is that very few races follow that story. And let’s be honest, the most memorable races are never the ones that feel effortless or where you ran the fastest, it’s always the ones where you have to endure aches and pains, upset stomachs, foul weather, and just general bad days.  After all, if running was easy, no one would do it.