Thursday, August 8, 2013

World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships - Race Report

With a few minutes to go, we were called to the starting line.  The World Championship athletes lined up in front, with the open racers behind a separate banner.  We stared up the ski slope...the gun went off...and we started jogging easily up the first climb.  I immediately fell back in the crowd, running between Amber and Sesalie, but being sure to not kill myself on the climb.  My goal was to survive the climb and still feel good at the top - in hopes that I would be in a position to move up and run my race I was running aggressively but still keeping something in the tank.

(Running the early climbs up the ski slope)
The early climb was gentle and runnable, as we worked our way up to the top of the first ski lift.  I stayed between Sesalie and Amber and felt comfortable with my pace.  About halfway up the climb, the grade got steeper and the real mountain running began.  I sprinkled in walking and hiking, pacing myself off Amber - I would hike when she hiked, and then jog as needed to catch up on the flatter sections.  As the course turned to a hiking trail, I got ahead of Amber but felt comfortable with my pace.  I could see the top and put my head down to power up the last steep bit.  Considering the climb was an average of about 11% grade - and the early slopes were so runnable, the last mile or two of the climb must have been super steep, and the trail was covered with carefully placed rocks in almost steps (I flashed back to Cayuga as I powered up).  I was as aggressive as I could be with my pace - running earlier than others around me - I wanted the climb behind me and wanted the real race to start. 
(Towards the top of the first climb, with the rock steps.  The peak behind me is the finish line.)
I was incredibly pleased as I crested the climb - I was only 4 miles into the race, but I had climbed more than 2,000 feet already and my biggest fear was behind me.  It had been about 50 minutes of continuous up - but I had survived.  More over, the legs didn't have that distinct fatigue feeling - so I was pleased that my recent 100-miler didn't appear to be affecting me out there - phew!  From the top of the climb, you could see the ridge we were going to run, the ups and downs we would traverse throughout the adventure.  It reminded me of the White Mountains, when you ridge run from mountain to mountain, and that feeling filled me with joy - this is why I run! 
Almost immediately, the trail turned downward in a super technical rocky trail.  The first mile felt like it was 15-20% down, and was large placed rocks that you hopped across - it was terrifying.  I did my best to enjoy and cruise down them, but a part of me was freaking out that I was going to fall and get injured.  I was sure glad to have on my trusty Inov8 Roclite 268s - they gave me enough grip to summon some courage through the rocky sections.

(Running a rocky downhill section)
I kept imagining that Amber was right behind me and going to catch me - and that kept me aggressive.  I was pleased to be catching the stronger climbers, although I didn't catch too many ladies.  In general, I was just running in awe of the beauty - there were these 30-50 foot rock features that were completely natural but were like no geolocial feature I've ever seen in the US.  There were people along the course cheering 'Bravo!', and offering splashes of water to runners. 

(One of the many rock features we passed along the way.  This was about 1/4 mile from the finish line.)
At some point along the way, I started to notice these small concrete bollards painted white and red, along the side of the trail - with the letter C or P on them.  These were the bollards marking the Chez Republic and Poland border - we were literally running along the ridge that separated the two countries. 

(Polish-Chez Republic border markers)

The amazement of the views, the wonder of running in and out of two countries, and the awesomeness of wearing the USA jersey in a World Championship certainly fueled me through the first half of the race.  As I approached the turn-around (22.5km), I saw how the USA men were doing (which was incredibly well!), and saw that Alison was about 5-minutes ahead of me.  Then, after turning back towards the finish line, I saw that Sesalie was about 15-minutes behind me, and Amber was struggling behind her.  But, considering Amber was hurting, the rest of the USA ladies appeared to be running strong and doing well.

About a mile out of the turn-around, the heat started to affect me.  This entire ridge was exposed, there was little breeze, and it was upwards of 80-degrees of baking sun.  The aid stations were far enough apart that as much as I drank and splashed water over my head, I wouldn't get completely cooled until I could reach my next aid station.

(My nightmare at 25km in - rocky technical trail)

During this tough patch, I quickly reached several rocky and technical sections.  These sections that I typically love and float over were now land mines, and I stumbled over rocks as I tried to tip-toe and gingerly step around them.  I couldn't stomach any gels or chews and my luke-warm fluids weren't doing anything to cool me down as I continued to hydrate as best I could.  I mentally struggled also - thinking about how I wasn't a mountain runner, and how I had just run a 100-mile race only 2 weeks prior and ran a hard 50 miler just 2 weeks before that - what the hell was I thinking even toeing the line at this race?  My only solice was that I wasn't loosing ground to the South African runner who was near me, she could run the technical sections better but anytime the rocks subsided, I was able to catch back up.  I just hoped I wasn't loosing too much ground overall as I waited for this to turn around.

After several miles of struggling, I finally reached the next aid station (30km), where Sesalie's husband and son were there.  Her husband handed me fluids and a fresh bottle as her son poured cup after cup of water over my head and shoulders.  I left the aid station ahead of the South Africa runner, and felt good about my quick aid station stop - especially since the water was starting to cool me back down.  Mentally, things were turning around. 

I caught and passed a few runners, and tried to run as hard as I could.  I could cruise over the rocky and technical sections again without fear or stumbling, I was enjoying the amazing views along this ridge, I was soaking in all the cheers of bravo from folks along the course.  I ran a few of the last climbs, as folks around me were reduced to a power hike.  I reached the last aid station (38km), at the top of the opening climb, and our course went past this and one peak farther along the ridge - I had one more mountain to summit and about 5km more to run.

(Example of the rocky and technical terrain on the course - no longer a nightmare)
Amber's husband (Chris) and Sesalie's daughter were at this aid station.  Chris took my waist pack and handed me some fluids to drink as Sesalie's daughter poured water over my head.  I didn't even break stride as I powered past them.  Chris told me he thought I was in 32nd place.  My pre-race goal, seeing results from last year's results, was to finish top 40.  Considering it was my 34th birthday, I decided at this point that it would be fantastic to try to beat my age - so top 34 became my new goal.  In Wales, I had experienced some conflicting information regarding my place, so I didn't completely put faith in the 32nd place that Chris told me - and left the last aid station determined to catch as many folks as I could.  I was feeling strong, and the finish line was in sight in the distance.

I quickly caught one more female, then didn't see any other runners for a while.  I could see the finish line, off to my right, and I started to panic that I had missed a turn.  I kept trying to ask folks that were on the trail hiking, but without them speaking english, I wasn't getting any info.  I did keep the pressure on and try to hammer the last few miles, but I was anxious about running any extra distance.  Finally, the course turned toward the finish line, and I could see national team athletes cheering us towards the finish. 

(The last Chez Republic-Polish border marker, 1/4 mile from the finish on the rock feature above)
In the last 1/4 mile, the course goes past one last rock feature, which had the country border painted on it - and I turned onto Polish land for the last time and up to the finish line.  The finish line was very remnicent of Mount Washington, as the grade got steeper and steeper in the last few meters - I did my best to keep running through the line as it got increasingly hard. 

(Crossing the finish line)

I was quickly able to find Alison, who finished about 10 minutes ahead of me (20th place).  We headed out onto the course to cheer on Sesalie - we had heard that Amber unfortunately had to drop out due to an injury.  Sesalie powered through the finish about 17 minutes behind me - a super strong performance for her.  I quickly talked her into also getting a celebratory beer at the finish line - I was calling it my birthday beer!  We were both the most novice of team USA at this distance and competive level of racing, and were extremely excited to have finished strong and represented well for the USA.  Turns out I finished 29th place and second USA runner - not so bad considering my preparation, my recent 100-miler, and my experience at mountain races in general.

(Birthday beer with Sesalie)

It took 2 ski lifts to get from the finish line to the starting line - really showing us how much climbing we did.  After a quick shower, the team returned to the awards ceremony to cheer on the podium finishers.  Our men's team was a close 4th place finish (just over 2 minutes off the podium!) and our ladies team was 8th place, which tops our 10th place team finish in Wales.  Then, we decided that we had to have one more Polish experience before we returned home - and we went out for perogies.  They were handcrafted, you could literally see the finger prints of the chef around the edges of each perogie; they were the best thing I had eaten in a while.  Totally worth running for, and the perfect way to finish my Polish adventure.

(Handmade perogies, a well deserved post-race treat)
All in all, this was an incredible experience.  I was extremely pleased to run a true European mountain marathon, and experience the enthusiasm and support of trail racing in Europe.  The course was amazing and challenging.  I was pleased with my results, but not completely enthusiastic - with more advanced selection, I would have focused a bit more on my technical running skills and mountain running strenght, however I did well considering.  I finished my second World Championship race, within a month of each other, and placed in the top 30 at both events, I believe I represented the USA as well as I could have.  However, I think that between the World Trail Running Championships, with the 50-mile distance that I love and focus I was able to give towards that event, and the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships, with the technical section, beautiful and challenging course, and cheering spectators along the course - that I got to experience all the aspects of a World Championship and European race that I had always imagined.  And to get to do that with a USA singlet on was an honor.  I don't know if I'll ever have an opportunity to race for team USA again, or get to travel to these amazing places for races, but I am grateful for the opportunities that I've been given this summer and look forward to any other incredible opportunity in the future.

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.