Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stars Aligned for Poland

I feel like my summer has been a fairytale, a whirlwind of incredible opportunities, shared adventures and miles with friends, and plenty of stories to tell.  No one pinch me, I'm afraid I might wake up to find this was all a dream.

After my race in Wales at the World Trail Running Championship, I was flying high.  I raced strong, and represented the USA well, I had a near-ideal race even on a course that didn't really suit me.  Apparently my result was good enough to get me a last minute invitation to run for the USA at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship, to replace the spot that Michelle Yates earned but had to abandon after her race in Wales (it speaks again to what an incredible teammate she was - sacrificing her opportunity to race in Poland so that we could have a team finish in Wales).  The World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship this year was a 44km mountain marathon in Szklarska Poreba, Poland, and featured 2150m of climbing and 1380m of decent and basically broke down like this: run up a mountain for 4 miles at an average grade of 11%...then run 23 more miles.  While I'll admit that the thought of this race terrified me, I was also honored for the opportunity to race for the USA again, to have another international race experience, and to try something new for me.

(Statue of the 'Mountain Spirit', located in center of Szklarska Poreba)

There were many reasons this was a completely stupid idea.  First off, there were only 4 weeks between my Wales race and the Poland race...and I raced a 100-miler in Vermont between the two - would my body be recovered and ready to run strong?  Also, this is yet another unfunded USATF team, so I would have to pay for this trip out of pocket - an expensive gamble on questionably recovered legs.  Lastly, Brian wouldn't be joining me on this adventure, and I really rely on his support, so I knew that would be a struggle to travel and run solo.

On the positive side, I had to think about the fact that I might not ever get an opportunity like this again, so I should live in the moment and go for it!  I mean, how can you pass up the chance to race in the USA singlet - it's a dream!  The race was on my birthday which was poetic and gave me a sense that there was some divine reason I should go.  I have also always wanted to try a mountain marathon, and I've always wanted to compete in a true Europian race (with their passion and enthusiasm for trail running) - and this was both!

So, in the week before Vermont 100, I tentatively shopped for refundable plane tickets, and found tickets that allowed me to travel in ideal times - and were several hundred dollars lower than any other option.  Again, all signs were pointing towards going to Poland.  I ran strong at Vermont 100, but I quickly focused on recovery in hopes that I could rebound fast - and I luckily found that while I was sore post-race, I didn't have any specific pains or injuries (just lots of chafing!).  I lucked out that this summer I happened to do a large volume of training with my WMDP mountain runners (who, I'll brag, won the Team National Title at the USA Mountain Running Championship!), so I knew that of any recent year, I was much more prepared for this type of race than other years.  I did a speed workout a few days before I left, and was pleased to find that my legs already felt springy and ready to race (and only 10-days post 100-miler).

(Team USA presented at the Opening Ceremony)
Anyway, fast forward...I got on a plane, traveled across the world, and decided to accept this honor and run my first mountain marathon in Poland!  I was so anxious as I was traveling - and realized that I hadn't traveled or done a race without Brian since I'd met him, so it had been a while that I'd really stood on my own without my safety net.  It feels a bit scary to even admit it, but the thought of traveling and racing alone really frightened me, but it also made me even more determined to be strong - I focused on one step at a time. 

Once I traveled across the country and landed in Prague, then drove across the border into Poland, I ran into my first difficulty.  The directions to the hotel weren't great, and I spent an hour driving around Szklarska Poreba before I could find someone who could draw and jesture the directions to the hotel to me.  It wouldn't have been so challenging for me, but I was alone having traveled for the past 24 hours (after I ran then worked a full day before leaving), no one spoke or understood english, I couldn't understand any road signs that might have given me a clue as to where I should go, and I didn't have Brian to lean on for support.  By the time I reached the hotel and found my teammates, I was tired, stressed, and emotionally on edge from the travel and frustration of finding the hotel.  Luckily, they immediately welcomed me and got me some food and started telling me all about their preview of the course and what I should expect.  At that point, they were conversing with me in english, so that was very soothing and really all I needed.

I crashed hard.  We spent Friday visiting the town including a hike/run to a nearby waterfall, lunch of traditional Polish potato cakes, and shopping for Polish pottery.  The town of Szklarska Poraba is a quaint ski town that appeared to be a bit of a tourist destination - the streets were full of visitors, push carts selling perogies and potato cakes, and souvenier shops.  The architecture was very...Polish...just a beautiful place to be visiting.  The small narrow roads reminded me of the small ski towns that the Tour de France riders snake through during the month of July.  From the balcony in my hotel room, I could see the climb I would embark on the next day, as well as the lodge at the top of the final climb.  It was frightening and exciting at the same time.

(Pre-race interview)

Friday evening, we attended the opening ceremony at the race starting line.  It was exciting to see athletes from different countries, all proudly wearing their uniforms.  The Scottish team brought a bagpipe that played as they were introduced and walked on stage.  The entire USA team was also interviewed for a documentary that a local woman was doing about the World Championship race.  I don't think I'll ever get used to this sort of treatment.

I awoke on race day with a sore throat - it hurt to swallow.  I was devistated, but tried to shake off the negative thoughts.  I drank plenty of fluids and tried to convince myself that it was all in my head and I would be ok...maybe?  We drove over to the course and I tried to stay calm as hundreds of athletes were all nervously hanging out and preparing for the race.  At some point, Amber and Sesalie (two other team USA runners) came up to me and wished me a happy birthday - I was so focused on the race and my throat that I had forgotten that it was my birthday! 

As I was waiting in line for the bathroom before the race, a gentleman approached me and asked me if I had raced in Wales (at the World Trail Running Championships).  I told him I had - I figured he must be a team manager or related to an athlete who was also doing both of these races.  Nope...turns out that he had a friend who also did the Wales race, and while he was in the White Mountains on the Wales race day discussing his friend's race, the summit steward overheard and told him that his daughter was also racing in Wales.  That summit steward was my dad!  The active/outdoorsy community can sometimes be very small, but it was encouraging to be so far from everyone and everything I knew, and to know that my dad was meeting random strangers and bragging about me being here - supporting me from afar.

(My happy birthday reminder from the USA ladies.  Oh yeah, it's my birthday!)
*To be continued - the actual race report will be in Poland Part 2.

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