Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Mental Training - TARC 6 Hour Spring Thaw

This past weekend, my 2015 ultra season officially began.  I ran the Trail Animal Running Club (TARC) 6 Hour Spring Thaw.  After a trying winter with many challenging training conditions, I was optimistic that the weather would behave as advertised in the title - with a spring thaw!  Unfortunately, no such Sunday was cold, there was over 2-feet of snow in the woods, and the weather forecast called for a mix of snow, rain and/or sleet to fall during the event.  I took solace in the fact that, no matter what, it would be over in 6 hours...that's the joy of a timed race.

Since misery can love company - I was pleased to see so many friends and familiar faces at the race.  It was fun and surprising to see that the women's field was stacked (with Deb Livingston, Jenny Hoffman, and Lori Wetzel), considering it was a low-key, fat ass style event. It would be fun to share some miles with these ladies and enjoy the day!

(Breaking trail in the early miles)

The race started out with a quick 1/2 mile lap around the parking lot (to spread us out) before we started our first (of many) laps on the trails.  As I turned onto the trails, I immediately post-holed to about mid-shin.  I got out of that hole, and proceeded to post-hole about every 5 steps.  It took about 6 minutes of post-holing (and a few face plants) to see the 1/2 mile marker.  I couldn't believe how slow I was going.  I continued to post hole and face plant till mile 2, wondering how I would deal with 6 hours of this!  Mile 2 to mile 3 on the loop was the worst, as I post-holed every step and was slowed to a walk.  I was frustrated, I wanted to quit, this was miserable!  Luckily, the last 1/2 mile of the loop was the same as the first 1/2 mile, and I was pleasantly surprised that it was fairly packed out from the 100 or so runners behind me.  Alright, I thought, I'll at least do one more lap to see if conditions are any better.  However, it had taken me almost an hour to cover the first 4 miles!

(Enjoying some packed trail in the later miles)
The RD, Emily, was in the lap area and asked me how it was out there.  I told her this is horrible, this is no fun as I grumbled along.  (It took me a mile or two before I was hit with the guilt of being rude to the RD!  I apologized to her after the race!!!) 

(Focusing, thankful that my Inov8 Stormshell kept me dry!)
However, conditions did improve - while it was still slow going, the snow was packed down after the first lap and it was at least runnable-ish.  If you happened to step off defined path or loose you balance at all, you would post hole and fall, but that only happened maybe once every mile or so.  The mile 2 to 3 section never got well packed out and was, at best, 1/2 track - you had to run an extremely narrow gait to stay in the packed sections and there were several spots where you could plunge ankle-deep into an icy stream.  I spent the next lap trying to catch the lead guy.

(Closing in on the lead guy)
Once I caught the lead guy, Greg, it was great to have some company and pass the laps together.  We ran together for several hours and traded stories about running adventures and life.  I likely wouldn't have been able to keep my focus and continue if I hadn't had his company through the middle section. 

After about 4 hours, conditions started to deteriorate again.  It started to rain on us.  One of my microspikes broke (so I had to run with only one on).  The trails were turning to ice covered in slippery slush.  Greg pulled away from me after my microspike broke, so I was on my own. 

(On my own again, practicing mental toughness)
I wanted to stop, but thought of all the races on my calendar and the mental strength that would be needed.  I focused on staying mentally tough and running strong for the full 6 hours.  I started to lap folks, including Jenny and Deb, so it was great to share a few minutes with them before I moved ahead.  I counted the laps left...only three times more past the bonfire, twice more past the snowman. I was passed by the 2nd place guy and let him go - he was moving better than me at that time.  I dropped my waist belt for the last lap, just for something to look forward to.  It has started raining pretty hard in the last hour, and I was ready to shed anything I could.

(Greg and I, as male and female champions)

At the end of the day, I had run 28.5 hard earned miles.  This was essentially a flat course, but the snow conditions had made it such a challenge to get in every one of those miles!  I finished 3rd overall and 1st female.  With 100 runners starting the day, only the top 3 of us managed to get in an ultra distance.  Many folks bailed after the first lap and ran on the local roads instead.  It was certainly a great day to test your mental toughness and continue running!  While I was a bit disappointed in the mileage I accumulated, I was pleased to have run strong the entire 6 hours given the conditions.  It'll be hard to gauge my fitness based on this race, but at least it was another training day in the books.

(RD Emily with top 3 females - Deb, myself, Sonia L-R)
This was my first TARC event, and they do an AMAZING job of putting on a low key and fun event.  Emily, the RD, is enthusiastic and did a wonderful job with some rough conditions.  The volunteers who stood out in the rain just to take care of us were AWESOME!  One of my favorite things that a volunteer did was build a snowman to point out an unmanned turn (see picture above).  Thanks to Emily and her volunteers! 

(Volunteer-built snowman to direct runners!)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why Not Me? - US Snowshoe National Championships Report

As a youngster, I was a competitive cross country skier.  I raced through the high school level making the Massachusetts team to compete in the New England Championships, and through the collegiate level where my team annually competed at the Collegiate National Championships.  I still follow xc skiing, and was inspired when two members of the USA Ski Team made the podium at the World Championships earlier this week (Silver - Jessie Diggins, Bronze - Caitlin Gregg).  In an interview post-race, Jessie said "We've never had U.S. girls podium at a distance event at the World Champs and to have two?  It's incredible.  We talked at the team meeting last night and I said, 'Why not me?' I knew today I had great skis.  And I skied my heart out to create the opportunity."

Her words resonated with me, as I mentally prepared for the 2015 US Snowshoe Nationals in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  Why not me?  Why couldn't it be me who races well?  Why do I count myself out before the race has even begun?  My mantra leading up to the race was 'why not me'.  Those three words captured everything I wanted to believe and achieve.

(Rocking the Inov8 Trail Ultras, and Dion 121s)

For me, the 2015 US Snowshoe National Championships was an opportunity for redemption over last year's results (15th place finish).  I was also excited about the addition of a half marathon event, and was planning to 'do the double' by racing the 10k on Saturday and half marathon on Sunday.  While I didn't get in a ton of snowshoe racing this season in preparation, my snowshoe training was plentiful and I felt strong.

(There was minimal snow coverage, often time just a narrow ribbon of snow to run on.)

Saturday morning started with the men's 10k race - so I cheered on the race while I tried to prepare myself.  The course was rolling (but with no big hills), and had minimal snow coverage which lead to some fast times.  It wasn't exactly playing into my strengths, but I did my best to stay positive.

(Early in the Women's 10k race, I am in the middle of the lead pack)

Soon enough, the ladies 10k race was lining up and getting under way.  While the lead pack took off immediately, I scurried to catch up (which is typical - my ultrarunning legs take a few minutes to catch up).  The first 1km of the race was wide double track, and there was plenty of jockeying.  As we turned onto the first single track (at 1km), I was in 7th or 8th place in a tight train of the top 10.  We battled for the next 2km of mostly double track and ultimately I found myself in 8th place as we dodged through the trees on the tight single track mountain bike trails.  I felt like I was flying - but the tight tracks and close trees might have been giving that illusion.

The next km of the course brought us through some single track with a huge 180-degree turn, and I was surprised to see that the leaders were only about 30 seconds ahead...I was still in the hunt!  I focused on the ladies ahead as I climbs up from the river.  On the next double track, I could still see the leaders not far ahead.  The 4km mark was on a tight squirrelly downhill with a few bare patches where we ran across dirt!  I hesitated on the dirt section, focused on not falling and not breaking a cleat...and between that and the next uphill/downhill section, by 5km I was running alone with no one in sight.
(Early race in the Women's 10k, jockeying for positions)

I glanced back, and couldn't see anyone - I was running in no-mans land.  I'll admit it - at this point, I settled.  I mentally gave up.  I stopped chasing 7th place and started defending 8th place.  I ran controlled, but was thinking of tomorrow's half marathon.  I enjoyed the last 5km of the race, winding around the single track and through the trees...and didn't see another racer.  I finished in 51:09 for 8th place. 

I was immediately thrilled to improve upon my 2014 results - cracking the top 10 in a National Championship is always a challenge.  However, the more I let the result sink in, the more disappointed I was in the result - knowing that I didn't give 100%, knowing that I mentally shut down and ran tactically, knowing that my mental strength still needs some improvement. 

(Enjoying a bit of alone time in no-mans-land)

However, the blessing and curses of a 2-day event is that (negatively) you have to immediately get over any disappointment and focus on the next day but (positively) you immediately have the opportunity to right any wrong.  I had to regroup, refocus, and try again the next day.  It can be a challenging task to turn around and race the next day, especially when I was in the middle of the country and didn't have Brian around to chat with. 

Sunday morning, and I was once again lining up to race a National Championship event.  It wasn't until we had started, and I was looking around my competitors, that I saw that none of the other women in the top 5 had raced the previous day - I had expected that most folks who would race the half marathon would also be on slightly fatigued legs...but I was apparently incorrect with that assumption.  Luckily, one of my training buddies, Erik, also jumped into the half so we ran the first several kms together, gabbing like it was a training run. 

(Start of the inaugural National Championship Half Marathon race)

About 6km in, he asked me if there were any females ahead, and I answered that there was only 1 female ahead of me...but that I was more nervous about the female that was only 15 seconds behind me.  He offered to put in a surge with me, to try to drop her, but I knew I could only do so I wanted to wait and see where she was in another 10km.  He did take the lead and we unintentionally picked it up for a few km of fun rolling single track.  Funny how no matter how tired I might be, I will always open up my stride when I'm having fun and enjoying a trail!  By the end of my first lap, Erik was about 30 seconds ahead and I was, again, running alone...but without the next female in sight behind me I was content to keep cruising.  The first female was long gone ahead of me, so I focused on maintaining 2nd place.

The second lap was pure joy on snowshoes.  I took in the moment, enjoyed the trails we were running, and had fun with the solitude that snowshoeing often brings.  The 3rd place female was within striking distance, so I cheered her on when the trail allowed, but was sure to keep the pressure on to maintain my gap.  I passed a few guys as they faded, but in general was running on my own.  The feeling I got for this lap, however, is exactly why I love snowshoeing - it was completely zen.

(Once again, running on my own through the trees)

I crossed the finish line in 1:59:04, good enough for the silver medal on the day.  I was proud of that accomplishment - my best ever individual National Championship results have been bronzes (at Collegiate Skiing Nationals and the US 50 Mile Trail Champs).  This felt like a break through - I might not have taken the top step...yet...but I took one step higher and proved that I can be among the best in the country.

(Celebrating with my training buddy Erik, who earned a Silver in his age group)

In general, while I'm not 100% satisfied with my results, I am pleased to have gotten some redemption on my 2014 Snowshoe National results.  I am also excited that I got to participate in (and show support of) the snowshoe half marathon at the championships, which I think is a great addition and will (hopefully) attract more of the endurance runners to the event.