Thursday, May 21, 2015

Massanutten 2015

Alright - I'll be the first to admit it...I'm not a smart person.  In fact, I make some downright stupid decisions.  Why else would I be running Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 only 2 weeks before the World Trail Championships?  Well - it seemed like a good idea at the time!!!  In my logic, it seemed that running on technical trails with some good climbs would be great training for the technical climbs I would see in France.  The key was to take it easy and not wear myself down with the effort.

That being said, Brian and I headed down to Virginia to run Massanutten.  Last year, Brian finished a strong 2nd place behind Karl Meltzer - he was hoping to win this year.  I finished 4th place behind the fastest female field the race has ever seen.  Given the start list of speedy ladies and my laidback approach to the race, I anticipated that 4th place was the highest I could finish this year - I wasn't hoping for much.

(Flash forward - even just after I finished, the RD Kevin was giving me RD advice!)

Pre-race was fairly uneventful - catching up with Kevin (MMT RD), meeting up with my crew and pacer, picking off the first few ticks of the adventure, and an early bedtime.  Before I knew it, was lining up at the start and ready to go.  The race starts up a 4-mile stretch of roadway with a gradual uphill (that would be the last 4 miles of the course).  I relaxed and let a long line of runners spread out ahead of me - today wasn't a race for me, it was a long 100-mile adventure. 

As I hit the first trail (at mile 4), I was already soaked with sweat.  It was relatively cool (60s?) but the humidity was high.  I fell into rhythm behind folks, and followed their pace.  I walked when they walked, I ran when they ran.  I was determined to not start out too fast this year.  Parts of me were itching to pass folks as they hiked a relatively mild grade, but I kept my composure and hiked behind them.  I watched as folks I typically beat were getting away ahead of me, but enjoyed the moment and let them go.

(Riva Johnson, pictured at VT50, would pace me for the final 40 miles.)
I hit the first major aid station (mile 12) in about 60th place, and 6th female, but my split was right on target.  My crew, Riva and Michael Johnson, had everything ready for me and I was quickly in and out.  I had an interesting history with the Johnsons - back in the day, when I used to xc ski race and then xc ski coach, Michael coached the West Point team (that we competed against).  I am sure I met his family at a few races over the years, but didn't really remember them.  A few years after I gave up ski coaching, I was running Bull Run Run, and saw Michael (Colonel Johnson to me) on the sidelines cheering.  After we gave each other a few inquisitive looks, we remembered why we knew each other - and he told me that his wife Riva was racing also (and was right behind me).  Since then, I've done quite a few races with Riva over the years (sharing some race miles along the way), and seen Michael biking around the course giving her support.  I was so excited to be able to share this with them, and knew that they would take excellent care of me. 

(Cruising the early miles - photo by Paul Encarnacion)
Anyway, I relaxed and cruised the next section - the temperature was starting to climb, but the humidity seemed to be dropping.  I enjoyed miles with different runners, got freaked out at an animal grunting in the woods (deer?  moose?  I couldn't see, but it sounded pretty ready to stampede!), and was loving the technical trails of the Massanutten Mountains.  Through the mile 20 aid station, I worked my was up to about 40th place, and 4th female (as I passed one of the top females sitting in the aid station with an ice pack on her knee) - although I don't remember passing that many people. 

An hour later, the day was heating up and I was at the mile 25 aid station (about 1/4 done with the race already) and had again moved up to 35th place, 3rd female (although Kathleen Cusick was on my heals).  Kevin (the RD) was at the aid station checking in, and announced to everyone that I was from New England and this heat must be killing me.  I told him that this felt like when I go to hot yoga...about the same temperature and humidity! 

(Running with company into the mile 25 aid station - photo by Erik Price)
Kathleen caught me at the top of the next climb, and we cruised the next downhill together, arriving at the 33 mile aid station together.   The Johnsons took great care of me and I was out of the aid station quickly.  The next climb was where my stomach turned sour (for the first time) last year, so I focused on holding steady and relaxing on this uphill.  I caught up to my Inov8 teammate Ashley, who was hacking and coughing, and sounded awful - turns out she had come down with a cold earlier that week and wasn't doing well.  We hiked the rest of the climb together and caught up - I pulled away on the downhill, and hoped she could find a way to stay strong.  Anyway, I cruised into the mile 38 aid station feeling good, and having worked my way up to 27th place.

(Running into the mile 33 aid station just behind Kathleen)
From there, it's a few miles on the road (which I was determined to run this year, after hiking much of it last year).  It was starting to get hot, so I was pouring water over my head and drinking anything cold I could get in me.  At the mile 41 aid station, before we entered the woods, I refilled my bottles with as much ice as they would allow me to take. 

I was pleased to come upon Keith Knipling and a few other runners on this climb, and used their company as we worked our way up to the ridge.  I was sweating and overheating, and pacing out my fluids consumption so I wouldn't run out of water before the next aid station 10 miles ahead.  I would squirt a precious few drops of water over my head, in an attempt to cool me off without wasting water.  I was walking flat sections to avoid bringing my core temperature any race was going downhill...FAST.

(A typical Massanutten trail...with the rocks...)

At some point along the ridge, we turned a corner and saw an oasis of water jugs.  The trail running gods (aka Kevin!) and heard our prayers and delivered extra water to this ridge.  This truly saved my race.  I refilled my water containers, drank plenty of fluids, and poured some over my head.  The water wasn't cool, but it was wet, and that was most important in that moment.

(Happy to see my crew!)
I was able to cool down just enough to run some of the flats on that ridge, and cruise the downhill.  With about a mile to go to the next aid station, I was overheating again.  I hung my head in shame as I walked the last gentle downhill mile into the aid station.  How embarrassing.

(While this looks like me, it's actually my Inov8 teammate/twin separated at birth Ashley - photo by Erik Price)
Upon arriving at the aid station, I collapsed into a chair.  The volunteers immediately came to my aid (while helping numerous other runners who looked to be melting also) and handed me some ice water to drink.  They pulled a wash cloth out of icy water and put it over my head, then poured ice water over my head.  I momentarily got goose bumps, it was a wonderful feeling.  It helped, but as soon as I stood up, I was overheated again.  I sat back down and they poured more ice water over my head.  Finally, they offered to put ice in my sports bra, so I held out the front of my shirt and let them pour it right in (modesty was clearly gone at this point).  Finally, I could feel my core starting to cool down a bit.  I shuffled out of the aid station and onward.  I had wasted about 5 minutes at that aid station, and I knew my crew was only 4 miles away...I hoped I was finally in good enough shape to get to them.  [But, let me add that the aid station volunteers at MMT100 are TOP NOTCH, as you can see with how they cared for me at this aid station!!!]

(Decorations at the aid stations - the VHTRC volunteers are AWESOME!)

I ran, walked, and shuffled down the road to see my crew, sharing miles with a guy from Hawaii.  It was nice to have company, as I was moving so slowly that this section lasted forever.  I popped in my music and tried to zone out.  About halfway to my crew, I was finally cooled down enough to run, and I gave a little cheer as I started to shuffle, then run, towards my crew.  A few minutes out from the aid station, it started to rain...

By the time I got to the Johnsons at mile 54, I was in much better spirits, but they knew (based on my time) that I had gone through a rough patch.  Even with all the rough goings, I had somehow worked my way up a few more positions - I was now in 23rd place.  They got me fueled up and sent me for my last 10 mile stretch before Riva would be joining me as a pacer.

(Enjoying some single track)
The gentle rain picked up as I climbed back up to the ridge - the views that I remembered enjoying last year were non-existent.  By the time I reached the ridge, it was downpour raining, and the temperature was dropping.  However, I was moving well again (my stomach was feeling a little non-awesome, but not nearly as bad as in other races) and enjoyed running the ridge and cruising the downhill.  I found on this downhill that the trails were slick with the newly created mud, and the rocks had turned to an icy slickness with the rain - I would have to watch my step on the technical trails.

I was so excited to arrive at Camp Roosevelt (mile 64) and pick up Riva as my pacer.  Without realizing it, I had moved into the top 20.  At the time, all I knew was that things had turned around and that I would have company for the remainder of the race.

As we started out of the aid station, I was eager to share stories of my day with Riva.  One of the greatest things about picking up a pacer is getting to finally share tales of your adventure so far - finally someone would appreciate the beautiful honeysuckle blooms and lady slippers along the trail, I had someone to point out the amazing views from the trail to (although, with the moisture in the air, the views weren't that amazing), and I had someone to talk to about all the crazy and stupid things that had happened so far.  We gabbed like it was a training run as we ran, then hiked, up the trail-turned-river.  She had tried to get me to take a headlamp at the aid station (since it was already 6pm), but I told her an emphatic no!  I would make it to the next aid station before I needed a headlamp - so that put a bit of urgency into my stride as I worked to stay ahead of nightfall.

(Beautiful lady slippers along the course)
We reached the mile 70 aid station at 7:30pm, and I gladly accepted my headlamp.  I was beginning to tire, and I knew the climb ahead was rough.  This is the climb that I would repeat again at mile 97, so I memorized segments of it to help me.  'Through the gate and up the grassy hill', 'left for a flatter segment before the sharp right onto the single track', 'switchbacks forever', 'rocky at the top' - I knew that I would want to know how to break up the climb, mentally, the next time around.

At the top of the climb, I smiled at the '1st time/mile 72' pie plate and '2nd time/to the finish' plates at the top - and looked forward to my return trip to this location in 26 miles (only a mere marathon away!).  Anyone who's run this race before remembers the moment when you reach the '2nd time/to the finish' plate at the top of the last climb, and make the turn to the finish line.  I did my best to move swiftly along the ridge, but the rocks were slick as ice and my energy was waning.  Riva kept me going as best she could, but I was slowing down...

(The pie plates that everyone looks forward to...the second time)

I was so glad to finally make it to the mile 78 aid station.  It had stopped raining, but my clothing was soaked through, so I changed my outfit and told Michael to have dry shoes and socks ready to go at the next one...something to look forward to.  The climb out of mile 78 is one of the worst in the race, in my mind.  Maybe because it was so late in the race, or maybe because it was actually super steep...who knows...but I slowly dragged my body up.  I wished I had poles to assist me - especially since whenever I went to put my hand on a rock to assist my climb, I found it covered in centipedes.  Yuck!  I was cursing out Bird Knob the entire that moment, I wasn't sure why I did 100 mile races.

(The climb up Bird Knob - luckily, it was dark for me so I couldn't actually see this!)
At the top of Bird Knob, it flattens out a bit.  Riva did her best to keep me moving, but I wanted to walk.  I was tired!  The only way to get me running was when I was freaked out by the waist high ant hills up there.  Anyway, by the time we reached the Bird Knob aid station, I was about done.  The volunteers offered me quesadillas, perogies, tons of yummy food.  I didn't want any of it.  I wanted to be done.  Then, I looked over and saw that there was a bottle of whiskey - I told them it was too bad they didn't have beer...because whiskey would make me sick even when I wasn't 81 miles in, but beer sounded really great.  They surprised me, and pulled a Dale's Pale Ale out and handed it to me.  I drank it, and suddenly wanted perogies, and wanted to run.  The beer gave me life again.

(Scary ant hills - these are 2-3 feet tall!)
I picked up the stride and started heading down the trail.  Riva was a bit amazed, apparently she had never seen someone drink a beer during an ultra.  But the beer made me happy, it made me remember that I do this for fun, and that this was just a grand adventure.

We cruised into the next aid station and I was so excited to change my shoes and socks, and 'finish the f*cker'.  As I sat down the change the shoes, the aid station volunteer offered me the full offering of foods they had - and I told him he couldn't possibly top the Dale's Pale Ale I had at the last station.  He proved me wrong by offering me a full range of beers.  And as I sat and drank the raspberry wheat (and used it to wash down the electrolyte tablets that Michael handed me), I thought 'this is fun, I love this sport!'. 

I left the aid station with a bounce in my stride and remembering why I am so passionate about this crazy sport.  Riva was still changing her shoes, so I left about 30 seconds ahead of her.  I played a little game, and tried to see how far I could go before she caught me.  It was a slight downhill, and some sweet single track, and I cruised along as I 'ran away' from Riva.  I got excited after 5 minutes and no Riva, then 10 minutes on my own.  I thought I must have been killing it!!!!

After 15 minutes, I started to worry about Riva and what might have happened.  I mean, my ego wanted to believe that I was running so hard that she couldn't catch me, but in my heart I knew that she's strong and could easily catch me.  At 20 minutes out of the aid station, I started to think that she might have gone back to the previous aid station (mile 87) - and I might not see her again until the next aid station (mile 96).  I hunkered down and did a self-check, remembering that I needed to fuel up and drink some fluids (even if she wasn't with me, Riva was still reminding me to take care of myself).  I did my best to stay strong and power hiked up the hill, knowing that Riva would be pushing me to work hard.  However, I came to terms with the fact that I was on my own for the next several miles.

(Pink honeysuckle along the course)

Finally, 40 minutes out of the aid station, I heard 'AMY' yelled through the trees.  It was Riva!  She was still tracking me down!  I gave her a shout back, to let her know that I was up ahead, but kept powering on up the climb.  She finally caught up to me, a full 45 minutes after leaving the aid station.  Turns out, she got lost out of the aid station, ended up back there again (giving me, maybe, a 5 minute head start), then got paranoid when she didn't catch after another 10 or 15 minutes.  Her first comment to me was 'man, we should have started feeding you beer earlier in the race!'.  We had a good laugh that, as my pacer, she's supposed to keep me from getting lost - and yet she's the one who got turned around! 

With the company of Riva again, the miles passed quickly again and we were nearing the last aid station.  It put a bounce in my stride when she told me that I was now in 2nd place female (one of the females ahead of me had dropped out).  I told her I was doing ok, and wouldn't even be stopping at the last aid station - I wanted to finish this race!  If a truck hadn't been driving down the narrow road (and stopped), I wouldn't have even broken stride. 

The last climb was tough - had it grown in the last 25 miles?  I was hoping to see some headlamps ahead (from runners at mile 97, or runners at mile 73, didn't matter!), but there wasn't anyone.  It seemed to take my last ounces of energy to work up this climb, but I was grateful for the mental notes I made on my first time up.  Every turn, I looked ahead to see if that was the last turn and the yellow plates were ahead...and finally, they were.  I saw the yellow plates.  I got to go straight towards the finish.  It was all downhill from here!!!

(Another typical rocky Massanutten climb)
I did my best to stay smooth on the downhill, but the nastiest rockiest section of the course is on this downhill...and the rocks were slick from the rain.  I was disappointed as I had to walk across sections of rocks, since there was no way to go faster.  At the bottom of the climb, I kept waiting for the road (only 4 downhill miles to go), and I had forgotten how long the flat section at the bottom of the trail was.  I did my best to run to the roadway, but was wearing down. 

As we reached the roadway, I was spent.  I told Riva that I was so tired, I didn't know if I could run.  She put me on a strict schedule - we would run for 1-2 minutes, then I was allowed to walk for a minute.  She timed our run/walk cycle, and also checked behind me to be sure that no one was catching me.  We repeated as we worked our way towards the finish.  Whenever I resisted, she reminded me that we wanted to finish this before the sun came up (at around 6am), and that thought kept me going. 

With under 2 miles to go, I was startled by two guys passing me.  We hadn't seen their headlamps behind us, so they had snuck right up.  I checked to be sure that it wasn't a female passing me, and just let them go.  Bummer, but I wasn't in any position to respond.  Just after they passed me, I saw the turn into the camp, which indicated under a mile to go.  I was so excited to be almost done, to recognize where we were.  I ran up the camp driveway, powering up a steep climb that was slick, slippery mud, wanting nothing more than the finish line.  I passed the two guys, and cruised the single track downhill into the finishing field.  With a small lap around the field, Riva and I were crossing the finish line just before the sun rose.  Final time - 25:43:52.  And somehow, I had picked my way through the field (even though I don't recall passing that many people) to finish 9th place overall, 2nd female!

(Crossing the finish line, still by headlamp!)

Finishing by nightfall, I was greeted by Brian (who had won the race, and gotten several hours of sleep since then), Kevin (the RD), and Michael.  Very little fanfare, but the most important people in that moment were there. 

(Brian and I, post-race)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Team USA

The count down begins - I am now less than 2 weeks away from the 2015 IAU World Trail Championships, where I will be representing the USA.  This race is an 86km adventure around Lake Annecy in France, with about 17,000 feet of climbing on technical trails.  I am excited and nervous!  The hard work with training is done, and all I can do is taper!
(Racing at the 2013 World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships)
Unfortunately, the USATF does not cover travel expenses, so everyone on the team is expected to cover their own flights.  Trail Butter has partnered with the team to produce a special Team USA flavor, called Red White and Blue Trail Butter to benefit the team.  The sale of this product will help offset our travel expenses. 
(Red White and Blue Trail Butter)
Red White and Blue Trail Butter is a blend of 3 nuts - cashews, almonds and hazelnuts, and combines gogi berries (red), roasted coconut (white) and blueberries (blue).  This is a limited edition product - it will only be available during the month of May.  Please consider purchasing a jar to support the team (, and post about the product on social media.

(In some of my Team USA gear, anxious to compete!)

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Running on Bonk - Bear Mountain 50k

This past week, we returned again to the North Face Endurance Challenge - Bear Mountain.  The trails at Bear Mountain are technical and rolling - perfect training grounds for the upcoming World Championships.  I would have entered the 50 miler, if not for one concern weighing on my mind...

In the past few weeks, I've been doing an elimination diet in an attempt to learn about my nutrition and fueling.  After a few weeks of completely clean eating (only protein, veggies and nuts), I found my energy levels plummeting.  My legs would burn at the slightest uphill and scream for oxygen after an hour of running - I had clearly flushed any readily available fuel out of my system.  A few days before Bear Mountain, I finally reintroduced fruit as the one allowable sugar in my diet.  However, I wasn't sure how much fuel my body had stored up in those two days.  I knew I might be bonking for the entire race, but I figured I'd just do what I could and enjoy the technical trails!

 So, after seeing Brian (and a few other friends) at the mile 4 aid station of the 50 miler, I headed off to start my race.  Without much fanfare, I geared, got my bib, and was lining up for the start.  I lined up near-ish the start since I knew the trail bottle necked fairly early as you hit the first uphill.  I was happy to see that at least one other female lined up fairly near the start - Natalie, who runs for Mountain Peak Fitness. 

As the race started, everyone surged forward and I struggled to keep up.  Natalie went out with the lead guys, way ahead of me.  As soon as we hit the first uphill, I felt the lack of energy in my legs and two more girls passed me.  I was amazed that I wasn't even a mile into this race and my body was essentially bonking.  But, I told myself that I knew this would happen and I had to be strong and continue on.

(Bonking in the early miles)

The next 10 miles was a struggle, as folks continued to pass me.  My legs could move well on the flats and downhills, and I felt fairly smooth on the technical sections, but I had no energy for uphills.  I walked every time the trail turned up, and watched as runner after runner passed me.  It was frustrating, but I was determined to continue.  I kept thinking 'I've done more than 30 miles bonking before', of course, that was at the end of the 100-mile race when most folks are in a similar situation.  I popped in my music, hoping to just relax and enjoy the trails, and try to forget about my slow pace and bonking legs.

Around mile 10 was the first big aid station, and they had energy gels.  I grabbed one and immediately downed it.  After two weeks of clean eating, this was the first sugar I'd had and my body immediately reacted.  I had energy on the uphills, I almost felt like I was shaking as the sugar surged through me.  I finally got into a groove!

(Finally able to move, I'm enjoying the trails)
With that little 100-calorie packet, everything turned around.  Folks stopped passing me, and I was able to run the uphills a bit.  I quickly passed a female around mile 12, and was surprised that I was running in a podium position.  After the next aid station (and another gel), I was able to keep the momentum going.  I enjoyed the uphill, and cruised on the technical downhill, just enjoying my time on the trails.

From mile 18 to mile 21 felt like one continuous downhill, and I was having so much fun dancing on the rocks.  At one point, I caught sight of the blue singlet of Natalie, and before I knew it I was on her heals.  We ran together for a mile, and it was great to share a mile with another runner (especially another strong female runner!).  At the next aid station, she stopped quickly as I ran through but I figured I'd see her again soon.

(Dancing on the rocks with Natalie)
The last 10 miles of the course can be challenging, especially if you're tired or bonking, so I focused on trying to run strong.  My body was barely holding on, as I would down a gel (100 calories) every hour, and my body would somehow use that to fuel until the next one.  I knew I was running on the edge.  But, the miles and landmarks ticked off. 

At around mile 25, I started looking over my shoulder for the first 50 miler (who typically catches me at this point).  Considering my early bonk and low energy level, I knew I wasn't running a fast time this year, so I expected to see the lead 50 mile runner surge past me at some point.  I tried to play a game - how far can I get before the lead 50 miler catches me?  I used that to motivate me to hike the last climb (Timp Pass) hard.

(Cruising in the final miles)

Just over the top of Timp Pass is the last aid station, with 3 downhill miles to go.  I looked at my watch and was amazed that I was somehow faster than any previous time.  What?!?  That gave me the motivation to open up the stride - I was going to get a best time on the course.  I cruised that last 3 miles, cheering on the marathon relay runners around me and giving everything I could.

I crossed the finish line in 5:09:25 - good enough for 2nd female and my best time on the course by 6 minutes.  The lead female had beat me by about 90 seconds, but we had both gone under the previous course record.  Natalie finished strong, another 5 minutes back.

(Myself and Natalie, post-race)
Immediately after I finished, my first thought was 'how is the 50 mile race going?'.  I left the finish chute to watch runners finish, looking for the first 50 mile runner, all folks could tell me was that the two North Face guys were in 2nd and 3rd, but that someone they didn't know was in the lead.  When I asked if the lead guy had a Patagonia team shirt on, they didn't know (which I assumed meant no!).  Just as I was asking someone to check their phone for the mile 45 splits, I saw Brian's running stride approaching.  I started screaming - this was his 7th time running the Bear Mountain 50 Miler, and he had never won it.  He ran by me and just said 'finally!' as he pushed through the finish line for the win.  I immediately sprinted behind him and gave him the biggest hug! 

(Brian surging to victory)

While the lead female was pretty darn close, and (I think) without my nutritional issues I might have been able to challenge her - I was so pleased to have finished as well as I did.  I ran the race on bonk for 31 miles, and still finished with my best time on that course and 2nd female.  And it was incredible to be there and watch Brian achieve something he's been dreaming about for a while.  We both left with smiles on our faces, and geared up for the next one!

 (Post-race celebration - who knew Brian had so many teeth?)