Thursday, October 9, 2014

Caring for the B-dog - Amy's Crewing Report

Typically, Brian and I run the same races - it means that when we've committed to traveling to a race, we're both getting to pin on a race number.  Because of that tradition, we rarely get the opportunity to crew and pace each other.  This year, I've twice gotten to crew for Brian - at UTMB, and again at Grindstone 100.  Brian's likely one of the easiest runners to crew for, but it's still an adventure to take care of him throughout a 100-mile adventure.  When Brian decided to race Grindstone (only a few weeks before the race), his first step was to ask if I would travel down to crew and pace him - it would be a deal breaker for him if I wasn't there.

Grindstone 100 started at 6pm, so we arrived a few hours early to check in and get ready.  I snuck out for a short run along the course while Brian organized his stuff.  Just as I was finishing my run, it started raining...and kept raining.  We walked to the starting line in a downpour - I could only imagine that Brian was having flashbacks from UTMB, starting in the evening under pouring rain.  As crew, I know I shouldn't complain about the rain (the runners have it much worse off!), but darn, it's hard to stay warm and keep your runner's stuff dry in the rain!  (*Shameless Inov8 plug - my Inov8 Race Elite Stormshell kept my upper body warm and dry, and I found that the Inov8 Kit Bag is actually waterproof - so it was a great place to store all of Brian's dry/spare clothes!  I just struggled to keep my lower half dry, or to keep things inside the Kit Bag dry when it was open at aid stations.)

(Brian, almost ready to race - with me holding his raincoat)
Anyway, so despite the rain, the racers lined up.  A quick prayer was said, and the runners were off.  Then, all the spectators walked through the woods where we could see the entire race field go by, about 1 mile into the race.  It was great to see everyone, from Brian and the other leaders, to the first females, to other New England runners, to the back of the packers - it might be the only chance I'll have to cheer everyone on!

After the excitement of seeing all the runners, I then had a few hours to kill.  I wouldn't see Brian until mile 22 (3+ hours into the race), and it was only about a 45 minute drive.  I organized my crewing stuff, read in the car, stopped at the store to get myself food for the overnight, and tried to sleep (but couldn't that early on).  I anxiously waited at the mile 22 aid station, flinching at every headlamp that came up the trail sure that it was the front runners and not another crew.  The crowd built up, as crews for anyone in the race started to line the trail leading up to the aid station.  Finally, about a half hour behind course record pace (due to the rain, I suspect), the lead runner came through. 

It was hard to tell who the runners were, through the rain and darkness - I was trying not to blind them with my headlamp.  Luckily, Brian's running stride is distinctive even in the dark - he came through in about 5th place but within minutes from the lead runner, as were most of the top 10.  However, the look in his eyes was similar to his expression at UTMB - he was not having fun, running in the rain and the dark.  He grumbled a bit as we swapped out his stuff...but I sent him on his way with as much positivity as I could.

(Patagonia teammates Brian and Jeff sharing the early miles - photo by Katherine Hawkins)

After seeing Brian, I had to do my best to scurry back to the start/finish area and pick up the other part of Brian's crew - Jason Lantz, who couldn't get there until around 9pm at night.  It was a long vehicle shuttle to drive back, pick him up, and then drive to the second aid station at mile 35.  I was nervous that we could potentially miss Brian, especially when we took a wrong turn!  I was frantic - but luckily Jason also has some Mass-hole road rage, so he didn't think I was a nut as I swore under my breath at the guy ahead of me who stopped to let every driver coming down the road know that they were going the wrong way.  Eventually, after tailgating that would make any Boston driver proud, he finally pulled over to allow me to speed to the aid station. 

We got there with about 5 minutes to spare before the leader, Jeff Browning, rolled through the aid station looking fresh and easy.  Then, we waited and waited for the next runners...and most of the runners coming in looked like they had been through a war!  Brian was no exception - he looked beat up, and his spirits were pretty darn low - he grumbled something about 'this is the end of my season' to me as I changed out his water bottles.  Jeff had built a 15-minute lead on Brian, who was in about 5th place.

As has become tradition for Brian, he did get partially naked at this aid station - changing out his shorts...but he's becoming smarter about it; he did step away from the lit aid station table before he dropped his shorts.  (This lead to a funny conversation after Brian was gone, as Kristina Folcik-Welts said to me 'umm...did Brian really get half naked in the aid station?!?'  I had to explain to her that Brian does this often, and has zero shame about it.)  Despite how he felt, Brian was swift through aid station, and he got out while a few other runners were still collapsed in chairs. 

Jason and I enjoyed hanging out for a bit, cheering on many of the other top runners and lending a hand when we could.  The rain had only recently let up, and it was around midnight - a mentally challenging time for most everyone.  It was hard for many who were struggling to imagine that they would feel better once the sun came up, or for them to wrap their heads around moving for another 6 hours in anticipation of the sunlight.

After a while, Jason and I headed to the turn-around point at mile 50 to wait for Brian and the other runners.  Considering Brian's defeated attitude, I was curious if he would still be going, worried that he would be broken out in hives, and anxious about sending Jason onto the trail with a grumpy Brian.  We watched Jeff come and go, covering the last out-and-back (about 1-mile total) and out of sight before the next runners appeared - he had continued to stretch out his lead as everyone else struggled.  Jason said to me 'do you think his body knows that it's run 50 miles?' certainly didn't look it. 

We waited anxiously, and about half an hour behind Jeff, there were headlamps heading down the mountain - and I heard Brian's voice!  He was running in 2nd place with Mike Owen and feeling much better.  He dropped his gear with instructions as he headed to do the out-and-back...I prepped his gear and Jason got ready to pace Brian.  As they left together, Brian was in such a great mood that he told me he loved me and gave me a kiss.  Ahhh...what a sweetie!

I hung out for another hour, cheering on the front runners and helping as I could - and then went to drive back to the mile 65 aid station...only the car wouldn't start.  I guess I used the battery for too long at the aid station, as I was trying to stay warm and recharge Brian's headlamp.  Woops!  There was a bit of panic then some chaos as I got another crew to jump start my car - luckily someone else had jumper cables and was able to help me out.  It's amazing how idiotic I can be on little sleep!

So, back to the mile 65 aid station - and I had a bit of time to wait, so (with the car running to recharge the battery) I curled up and was able to get about a 20-minute nap.  I woke up in time to see Jeff blaze through the aid station - still looking fresh and holding on to a commanding lead.  Brian was the next through the aid station, now 35 minutes back but looking strong.  He and Jason were quick through the aid station and ready to tick off more miles.  Mike (who had been with Brian at the turn-around) was only 5 minutes back and in the hunt to catch Brian - it looked like the 2nd and 3rd place might be a tight battle to the end.

Again, I stayed to help out a few of the next runners, but tried to leave relatively quickly in hopes that I could sleep a bit more.  However, the sun came up by the time I reached the mile 80 aid station and I simply stared at the inside of my eye lids for a bit instead.  I changed into my running clothing, ready to pace Brian if needed - but hoping that Brian would decide to have Jason continue with him.  After VT50, I wasn't feeling great about my fitness, and I was nervous about trying to keep up with Brian if he was feeling good. 

Jeff came and went, and I waited.  With few runners within an hour of Brian, this aid station was quite lonely, devoid of anyone except Mike's crew.  About 40 minutes behind Jeff, Brian powered up the climb and into the mile 80 aid station.  He immediately looked at me with sad eyes, and said 'will you run with me?'...I could tell he really needed my spirit.  I told Jason to be prepared to jump back in with Brian if he beat me to an aid station - I wasn't confident I could do the entire last 22 miles to the finish at Brian's pace!

We swapped out Brian's gear, and I joined him as we jogged down the trail.  I was afraid that Brian had requested me because he wanted to fall apart - and it's much easier to do that in front of someone you're close with rather than someone you typically compete with.  Luckily, while his energy was a bit low, he was in relatively good spirits and moving well.  Once we were away from the aid station, I updated Brian on what I knew of the race behind him.  The last update had Mike only about 5 or 7 minutes behind him, and Adam Wilcox (another New England runner, yay!) was only a few minutes back from that. 

(Pacing Brian as he powered through the late miles)
Brian, who typically runs everything, apologized for any uphill that he had to walk - I just chuckled to myself, thanking my lucky stars that I could keep up.  He enjoys quiet while he runs, so I kept the chatter to a minimum, giving him gentle encouragement when he ran a strong section or powered up a tough climb.  We left the mile 80 aid station, and after rolling for a mile or two, the trail turned up into a killer hill - it wasn't a steep grade, but it was long and unrelenting.  Brian kept having me check behind us for Mike, certain that he was gaining ground. 

At the top of the climb after pacing about an hour, with no one in sight behind us, Brian got himself worked up.  The angry B-dog came out, and he started cranking up the pace.  I was struggling to keep up with Brian's frantic pace, as he worked to open up the gap to his chasers.  We cruised the downhill and flats into the next aid station at mile 87, with Brian taking advantage of the beautiful trails. 

(Enjoying the Grindstone course with Brian)

At the aid station, no one could give us an updated split on Mike and Adam, but Brian had closed a few minutes on Jeff - I reasoned with Brian that it was unlikely that those guys were closing too much on Jeff so he likely wasn't losing ground.  He stayed motivated, and hustled up the start of the next climb.  Eventually he calmed down and we power hiked up the last big climb of the race - which went on forever.  The footing was unsteady with mostly loose rocks covered with moss and I wondered how the runners had bombed down this earlier, when it was wet and (according to everyone's stories) foggy! 

We were glad as we reached the top and plummeted down the other side - down a steep gravel road.  Brian kept his eyes on the trail, as I looked ahead for the turn - I had been told that it was an easy turn to miss and I was determined to keep Brian on-course.  Eventually we turned onto some awesome single track, and Brian kept the intensity up on the flats and trails.  As we ran past some folks that were horseback riding, they asked what we were doing - I proudly told them that Brian was running a 100-miles, and he was in 2nd place!  They said 'the guy ahead of you wasn't moving as well' - which was likely not true, but it was nice to imagine that it might be true! 

We finally came to the mile 96 aid station - and we only had a few miles (maybe just over an hour?) to the finish!  Brian was feeling pretty worn down, and was relieved to learn that he was stretching out the gap to 3rd place, and slightly closing the gap to 1st.  While we didn't believe he could catch Jeff, it was helpful to know that he could finish respectfully close to 1st place.  He took a few minutes out of the aid station to regroup himself, hiking a few smaller climbs as he focused for the last push.  With about 1/2 hour to go in the race, I started to recognize the trail that I had run the day before...I told Brian he only had 1/2 hour to go, and he increased the pace.  We were tempo running, after he had already run nearly 100 miles (and over 18 hours!).  I was impressed, and proudly stretched my stride to keep pace with him.

(Brian and I, hand-in-hand at the finish line)
The last several miles flew by as Brian cruised the closing miles, and soon we were going around the reservoir (you could see the finish from there, which I pointed out to Brian).  At this point, he said to me 'you're finishing with me, right?!?', of course I was!  As we ran in sync down the finishing chute, he grabbed my hand and held it up - making me feel like it really was a team effort out there.  Brian had finished in 2nd place, in 19:08:01, good enough for the 4th fastest time on the course.  Jeff had finished strong, about 1/2 hour ahead of Brian...but Brian also opened up a 1/2 hour gap on Mike in 3rd place.

I am always incredibly proud of Brian - but experiencing his race at Grindstone made me especially proud of him.  I had gotten to experience, first hand, the determination and grit that Brian gives to every race he does, as I watched him overcome obstacles and remain strong throughout the race.  I also got to see that Brian struggles with the same emotions that we all do during these long epic events, but he does an amazing job of focusing and regrouping when needed - I could learn a lot from my husband; I certainly did that day!  Lastly, I got a much-needed confidence boost by running the last 22 miles with him, which was important after my Vermont 50 experience.  We both left Grindstone pleased with the experience, and with a renewed passion for trail running and the ultra running community.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Running on Emotions - Vermont 50 Race Report

Vermont 50.  The fall hits, leaves start to turn, and it's Vermont 50 time.  Way back, Vermont 50 was my first ever 50-miler.  Then, it was my first 'good 50 miler' when I surprised myself with a 2nd place finish.  Next, it was my first ultra DNF as the mud forced me to drop.  I feel like I've experienced highs and lows and everything in between here.  I've won the race (both 50k and 50 mile), watched Brian win 50 miler many times, and had friends pace me only to fall in love with ultra running.  Through it all, it is an annual reunion with New England trail running friends that ushers in the fall.

With the recent passing of Chad Denning, whose presence is everywhere at VT50, I knew it would be an emotional weekend.  The absence of his spirit was certainly felt by those who knew him, and by anyone who had experienced the race when he was there.  I was certainly overwhelmed with emotion just thinking about it.

(Chad's spirit was everywhere - the VT50 was dedicated to Chad)
On the other hand, I was ecstatic to have several of my Western Mass Distance Project ladies at the race.  There would be 5 of us starting the 50-miler (each with a teammate pacing us), 2 in the 50k, 1 on a relay team, and another few out there crewing - in total, we had over a dozen of the baby blue representing through the trails of Vermont.  I was so pleased that my passion for trail running seems to have inspired these ladies to challenge themselves. 

Brian and I arrived at Mt. Ascutney early Saturday morning - we volunteered to help out and fill the gap that Chad's absence left.  I spent the day putting up signs, marking out parking, moving donated product, and helping out at the Kid's Fun Run.  Perhaps not an ideal way to rest up for a 50-mile race, but watching the kids race and talking to them after they had finished their 1/2 mile, 1 mile, or 5k race was incredibly inspiring as they clearly showed the passion for the trails.  Of course, volunteering was helpful for me as I continue to learn all I can as the 2015 VT100 RD.
(Volunteering at the Kids Race on Saturday)

Sunday morning was a flash, as I got ready to line up - maybe I've done enough ultras to feel more relaxed and calm in the hour before I start.  I was pleased to see the WMDP ladies all geared up and ready to go!  Of course, the pre-race moments are full of hugs and high fives to friends before we embark on our 50-mile adventure.

(Most of the WMDP crew, pre-race)
The runners quickly strung out, and I found myself running with my husband - just another training day!  Since he is running Grindstone only 5 days after VT50, his plan was to run the first 12 and drop, then pace in his friend Jan for the last 10 miles.  Luckily, he chose to run with me and keep me company in the early miles.  I enjoyed his company, as my emotions were high and I wasn't in the mood to make small talk with strangers. 

(Brian peeling off behind me as we enter mile 12)
At mile 12, I was feeling good, and I kissed Brian before he stepped off the course.  I got a quick bottle change from the enthusiastic WMDP crew, then hurried along.  Quickly, I realized I had a shadow, my teammate Kelsey had been stalking me so far in the race.  I encouraged her to run with me, and we kept each other company as we ticked off the miles. 

(Leaving mile 12 with my 'shadow' Kelsey behind me)

I was feeling good, but was emotionally flat - my typical passion wasn't there.  Sharing the miles with Kelsey helped me enjoy the beauty as we crested Garvin Hill and got into the fun single track sections.  It was awesome to see some of the VT100 race committee and volunteers along the way - they lifted my spirits as they encouraged me along.

(Climbing Garvin Hill with teammate Kelsey)
Somewhere around mile 30, Kelsey and I were power hiking up a hill - and as we crested the top and she started to run, I didn't.  I don't know what happened, but it was like someone flipped a switch - I didn't want to be out here, I wasn't enjoying this at all.  I kept walking down the trail, drinking water and getting in nutrition, hoping this was just low blood sugar.  But, after several miles and no improvement, I knew my day was over.  My heart wasn't in this - I secretly wished I had signed up for the 50k, since I would be done now. 

Maybe it was the emotions of the day, especially once I was on my own and could wrestle with my feelings about the loss of Chad.  Maybe it's been too many races this year and I didn't have the emotional capacity to be mentally strong and push myself.  Maybe it was fatigue from traveling so much over the last month.  Maybe it was the heat getting to me.  My legs felt great, my mind was a complete wreck, I was just wasted.

(Shuffling in to mile 31, ready to quit)
I ran into the mile 31 crew station, and collapsed on the blanket in front of the WMDP crew.  I told them I was done, and that I didn't want to do this anymore.  They were having none of that, and did what they could to make me happy, handing me cold fluids and watermelon.  Jan, who Brian was supposed to pace in, filled my handheld with ice - I looked at him with jealousy, since he was allowed to drop! 

Vanessa, who has crewed for me at VT100 and knows that I have rough patches, gave me my space but reminded me that she's seen me like this before and that dropping wasn't an option.  After a few minutes, she told me it was time to get up and go.  Vanessa told me to be strong and show her what mental toughness was - she was supposed to run VT50 this year and couldn't due to injury so she was looking for inspiration for next year. 

(No matter how grumpy I got, you can't deny the beauty of Vermont in the fall)

I gave her my death stare (which she was familiar with, I had given her that at VT100 also) - thinking 'haven't I already shown you mental toughness with all my other races?!?  Didn't I show you mental toughness at VT100?!?'  She put her face literally 2-inches from my face and glared right back.  It was mid-day, in a field in Vermont, surrounded by beauty, and Vanessa and I were having a glaring contest.  It was ridiculous.  After a few minutes of this, she just grabbed my arm and picked me up.  She pushed me down the trail, then ran ahead of me (in a super goofy run, with her arms and legs flailing everywhere) saying 'I'm going to run goofy and be super annoying until you catch me'.  I glared as I shuffled towards her, and ultimately the trails.

(Karin, getting crewed by WMDPers Dawn, Janet, and Wayne)

Once I was away from the aid station, I walked again.  Again, the legs were fine and energy was ok, but I just didn't want to run or push the pace.  I strolled through the woods, over some of my favorite trails.  I wondered how I had somehow lost my passion for the trails over the last few hours.

At least I was making steady, but slow, progress.  Finally, about a mile before I picked my pacer, I had a surge of energy and enthusiasm.  I ran, passing folks as I powered up the hill, who had passed me as I walked the previous downhill.  I think I was just trying to rally my spirit, feeling bad that my friend Ashley had dedicated a day to help me through this race and I wasn't even trying.

As I approached the pacers, Ashley was fired up, and several other WMDPers (who were pacing my teammates) offered enthusiasm.  I was grateful for Ashley's company, although I explained to her that this would be a long 10-miles. 

(Kristin, embodying the WMDP team support)

She was awesome, and certainly encouraged me to move as well as I could muster.  We jogged through the twisty single track, gabbing about her son (Anders), our two pregnant teammates (Abby and Sara) whose due dates were just a few days away, Ashley's selection for the US Snowshoeing team, whatever we could think of to occupy the time.  Actually, it felt like a training run to share miles with Ashley, which got my head back a bit.  We slowly ticked off the miles - sometimes jogging, sometimes running, but at least making forward progress.  Ashley was a miracle worker to keep me moving and get me to that finish line.

(Finishing with Ashley)
Finally, we were on the last downhill and headed for the finish line.  I opened up my stride, knowing that this self-imposed torture was almost over.  At about 9 hours and 40 minutes after I had started my day, I had officially finished - I was immediately embarrassed with my efforts out there.

The highlight of the day was hanging out post-race with my teammates, as we eagerly awaited watching the rest of our team finish as we swapped war stories from our day.  Kelsey had run strong through the end, finishing just under 9-hours for 5th place female (1st in our age group).  I learned I finished 10th female and 2nd in my age group.  Kelsey Battige and Danielle had both done the 50k, finishing well - it was Danielle's first ultra! 

(Karin finishing strong - I love the sight of 'Western Mass' under the finish banner)

Karin finished strong, practically dropping her pacer Kate with her late race surge of energy.  Just two weeks after her 50th birthday, and she finished her first 50 miler.  She got 2nd in her new age group with that effort.  Nancy, also celebrating turning 50 (over the summer) finished the 50 miler, however she had a rough day and struggled to the end.  Luckily, she had an enthusiastic and prepared pacer in Kristin to keep her motivated. 

(Cheering at the finish with my teammates)

As the sun was setting, we watched Meghan make her way down the mountain and through the finish, with Jess pacing her in, as she finished her first 50-miler.  Meghan had attempted her first 50-miler at Bull Run Run this year, and got pulled on time at mile 37.  Watching her finish, the emotion of the day overwhelmed me, and I got misty.  It took her finish to remind me how incredible it is to run 50 miles in one day, and how much time and passion go into this endeavor. 

I was grateful to have been surrounded by friends on this emotional day.  While my race wasn't anything I am proud of, I was incredibly proud of my teammates who challenged themselves and overcame the distance to reach the finish line.  On a rough day, the WMDP ladies had a 100% finishing rate - showing our determination is strong!

(Meghan, early on during her first 50 mile run!)