Sunday, October 6, 2013

Run For the Toad…My first 50km Race Report

“Hey, you're DFL”, a gentleman with a salt and pepper beard called to me from the sidelines approx.100 m passed the finish line where I had just completed my first 50 km race. “D.F.L.”, I thought to myself. I had heard the acronym before, now how does that go? Oh ya, “Dead F#$%king Last”. Unfortunately as I unraveled the letter puzzle in my mind the words took control of my tongue and I blurted it out loud for anyone near to hear.  Luckily there were no children around and only a few post race stragglers including the whiskered ultra runner who is somewhat of a stable fixture on the Ouser circuit (Ontario Ultra Series Events Races) ultra scene. In fact, I was quite amused to have actually made it on to the veteran runner's radar. “Well at least I didn’t “DNF” I called back jokingly, which I immediately wanted to take back just in case he himself had DNFd(he hadn't). As I headed towards Aid Station 1 to retrieve my gear I could hear a friend of his tell him that shouldn’t have said that and then they both had a bit of a muffled laugh.

50km Race Start - Of 1250 athletes only 169 were in the 50km
I was doing that a lot today it seemed, hearing conversations going on regarding me not intended for my ears. Like back at the last couple of aids stations catching wind of the attendants radioing in my position and progress, “Runner 162 is heading into Station 2”, “Runner 162 has left Station 4”. Then there’s the time that keeps echoing in my head at the last road crossing, with 250m to go and only a short final stretch of forest remaining the volunteer radioed as I passed by, “Last runner heading home”. “LAST RUNNER”, “Did I just hear that?” I thought to myself, “Last runner?”, “Am I really the last one?” I have to admit that a few tears came to my eyes, my lower lip quivered and I am sure I was sporting the most pathetic sad face you have ever seen. “People must have dropped I thought to myself but still I’m last, Last!, LAST!!”. “It’s my first 50km and I’m LAST!”. “Who cares if I'm last” the one way conversation with myself continued, “I’m last and there are people waiting for me and I’m happy just to have finished and hey I beat the muscle cramping demons, I'm still running and never gave up hope”. “I deserve last, LAST is GOOD”. There were no cowbells leading me in this time around and as I approached the finish I guessed the rain had chased everyone home early. The cars were all gone and my spirits slumped a bit. There was one lonely paramedic huddled in her truck as I made my way towards the archway I had already passed under 4 times today. I raised my arms in victory and let out a little holler (hope that pictures turns out well) and a few officials and the photographer were waiting to greet me under a shelter with a few last cow bells to seal the deal. Still as they placed my finisher’s medal around my neck I held out hope that maybe just maybe there was another runner on course but I dared not ask. I just really didn’t want any confirmation at that point that I was indeed last during this final celebratory moment of a race that had begun 7 hours and 20 minutes earlier on a cloudy and humid day.

They had been calling for rain all week plus lightning to boot. It was a chilly fall morning when I poked my head out of my first floor motel room’s back sliding door. I was heading out for some early morning pre-race food and the rain was misty but nothing like what had been forecast. Unfortunately due to the weather predictions, my crew of my Mom and her two dogs had opted out of joining me at the race. I didn’t blame her for not wanting to sit around all day in the rain with two wet border collies. So after a bagel, eggs, banana and a coffee I headed off to the race with a cooler of premixed Vitargo in 5 water bottles, enough gels, blocks and salt tabs to fuel my race  and a couple changes of clothes and shoes in preparation for a long wet and stormy day in the Pinehurst Conservation Area. The line of cars heading into the park seemed endless and we weaved and snaked our way through the forested race venue until finally I was directed to park in some obscure field. I was impressed with the organization to it all and the volunteers did their best to stuff over 1200 athlete’s vehicles into every nook and cranny they could find. I made my way to the Start/Finish area and Aid Station #1 which was also the dropbag area for the 50km runners where I surveyed the land and met some of my fellow runners. We were all busily preparing, trying to figure out what to wear etc. when the bagpipes began to play signifying the beginning of the opening ceremonies. It all happened so fast after that. I was there listening to the music of the Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada (RHFC) and they called for the 50km runners to line up where I found myself behind the arch I would be running through for a total of five times throughout the day. The course was made up of a 12.5 km loop which you ran 4 times for a total of 50km. The 50km runners lined up and started first, to be soon followed by the 25km runners and walkers. The gun went off and everyone began to move, I kept to the back and dropped off my raincoat at the aid station and upon my leaving realized that I was in fact in last place. The mob disappeared ahead of me and I fell in behind a few other slow moving brethren.

I don’t like to say that I wasn’t prepared for this race as that kind of talk only sounds like I’m making excuses. But I had been very ill for 2 weeks straight, not being able to run at all during weeks 13 and 14 of my 16 week training program and not being well enough to run a true long run since week 11. When I finally was able to run at the beginning of week 15 it then took me all of those 7 days to get my running legs back and culminated with a nice 10km run in the woods. It was then time to taper. It really didn’t make sense for me to do so but not knowing what else to do the week of a race I kept to the schedule and taper I did. Well we have all read the studies that say you don’t lose that much fitness in the course of a month's time so I figured I’d run the race and see just how accurate those accounts were.  My “A Plan” was to finish running, “B Plan” to finishing walking, “C Plan” to finish as many loops as possible without damaging my body. So finding myself at the back of a pack of many veteran and talented ultra runners including David Riddle, Cleve Thorson and Stacie Carrigan to name a few, didn’t worry me a bit, in fact it was comforting to know that I hadn’t gone out too fast and I felt ready to settle into my own rhythm and a comfortable pace. Unfortunately the muscle cramping demons in my legs had other ideas.

In the woods
OK I expected that I might have to deal with some muscle cramping issues sometime in the race, like on loop 2 or 3 or 4, but loop 1 at 6km, no way!! I still find it hard to believe that only 6km into the race my legs began to cramp up. From the bottom of my feet to the tops of my thighs, I had spasms upon spasms. It could not have been the distance, it could not have been the hills(I had walked almost all of them), it could not have been my fueling. I didn’t know why but all I could do was deal with it so from that point on, with 44 km in front of me to go I began the process of cramp management. Whatever it took to keep my legs from going into full spasm I did. Mostly that meant running with straighter legs and walking the hills, sometimes sideways so the shins were happy. It seemed that anytime one muscle was stretched the opposing muscle cramped so I couldn’t stretch or contract any muscle too much…for hour upon hour. It was a constant mental battle to figure out the rubrics cube like solution to keep my legs functioning. But lap after lap I succeeded and really from the waist up I was in as good of spirits as anyone in the middle of a 50km race could be. In some ways I was the lucky one because I wasn’t taxing my anaerobic system at all. My heart rate was steadily between 130 and 140, exactly where I would have wanted it to be with or without the cramps. So perhaps in a way the cramps forced me to slow down and may have actually saved my race.

 As I pulled into Aid Station 1 for the last time to refuel I noticed a gentleman a bit older then myself follow me in. “One more lap for me” I told him, “Me too he replied” and I was off. Funny thing but I suddenly realized that the muscle cramping demons had mysteriously disappeared as fast as they had arrived 6 hours earlier. I was moving freely and felt strong. “Dare I ?” I thought to myself, “Dare I push the last lap of a race distance I have never run before”. The furthest I had ever run was perhaps 28km and as I entered into lap 4 I had already surpassed that mark by10km. Well I went for it. I ran every hill in the early going. Finally I was able to put to use all of hill repeats and hilly tempos I had been running previous to getting sick. I did notice that my foot was hurting me, an old cuboid problem I haven’t felt since hiking the Cataraqui Trail pulling a sled this past winter. But I wasn’t going to let a foot ache slow me down. Heck it was probably the pain from the foot that had in fact caused the cramping to so suddenly stop. I do know that the body has a short attention span and that diversions like sour pickle juice or a pinched lip has been known to stop muscle spasms. I actually tried using that tactic earlier in the race by breaking my salt tab on my tongue every hour hoping for that very effect. But alas I do believe it was the foot that finally did the trick, but how long would it last. Well not that long.

The finish
 One particular quad, the right one was determined to keep on cramping which forced me to run or walk sideways up every hill but undeterred I kept moving forward, every sideways hill climb carrying me closer to the finish. BTW, that rain I mentioned earlier that was suppose to make the day so wet and miserable, well it finally hit halfway into the last lap. I laughed, I had to laugh, no rain was going to stop me, as long as I didn’t tumble down a slippery hill and hit my head that is. But I didn’t and I rolled through each aid station, hearing my number being called ahead to the finish line as they awaited my arrival and I thought about the guy who I assumed was behind me and how he was making out in the rain. “Last runner heading home”, is what he said, and I crossed the finish line, received my medal, was chided for being DFL from the sidelines and as I made my way to the drop bag area I fully expected it to be empty and deserted, but it wasn’t. Hey maybe I wasn't DFL after all I thought to myself. Just then Peggy, the race director came to check on the area and I pointed out 4 lonely bags to her to which she replied, “Yep, they're still out there”.

 As of now while I write this I still don’t know when or if the others made it in. I wish I could have stayed to wait for them but it was a long 4 hour drive home alone in the dark and rain with a pair of cranky legs to contend with. I wish I had stayed, they deserved that. So to whoever you are, congratulations on a great race and if you were the one to finish last then CHEERS TO YOU and your well earned title of DFL!!

Lap 1 1:48:05 avg. hb 136 bpm
Lap 2 1:51:13 avg. hb 137 bpm
Lap 3 1:54:26 avg. hb 135 bpm
Lap 4 1:47:50 avg. hb 143 bpm

 Of course I have to thank the RDs Peggy and George and all of the great volunteers who encouraged all of us runners and provided everything we could possibly need during the race. Kind words, drinks, food, a good laugh and endless clapping, cheering and cow belling. Also congratulations to all of the winners and finishers of this 12th Annual Run For the Toad event. See you all next year:-)

Update: Results are up and I was officially 143 out of of 147 finishers. Cheers to finisher 147 Peter Bromley. Way to get 'er done!! Although I lost my title of overall DFL to Peter it turns out that I was DFLF. I'll carry my title proudly(after a good tear up and lip quiver that is):-P
…hopefully some pics to follow :-)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Is it possible?

Is it possible?

I was pessimistic, in an optimistic kind of way. I held on to the hope that I would feel up to running today but knew it probably wouldn’t work out that well. I hadn’t run in 2 ½ weeks and history tells me that I never have a good run the first day back after being off for injury, illness or race recovery. So I was hoping for the best but expecting the worst, i.e. runners knee symptoms that always pop up, shin tightness I’ve been plagued with for a year now and maybe even the muscle cramps which crept into my last run those 17 days before that finally clued me into the fact that I was sick…real sick. Not just stuffy nose above the shoulder you can run through sick. I had the sweats and unexplainable cramping of my quad muscles only a couple of kilometres into my run which had me turning home with the sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be back anytime soon.

“Maybe a week”, I thought to myself, 7 days of no running and resting would surely have me back on track ‘er trail, missing merely one week of a 14 week plan (which had already been modified from a 16 week plan). Even though the coming week was supposed to culminate with me running my first half marathon, as a training run mind you, I knew I’d have to give the “rest and recovery thing” a good effort or I’d risk letting this illness drag on even longer. I had already taken a half assed approach to getting over whatever it was, with taking 2 days off then trying to run, and taking another 3 days off before trying again and failing miserably.  I was only getting much worse and didn’t want to jeopardize my ability to take my place at the starting line at this year’s Run For The Toad 50km on October 5th. So 7 days off it would have to be. I’d probably have to miss the half but hey, if I was back to feeling good by the Saturday I might still be able to get it in and then get on with the next 3 weeks, and what important weeks they were to be.

Two of my biggest running weeks were ahead of me, an 84 km week followed by a 74, a 67 then a taper week before the BIG RACE. Two of those weeks would hold the biggest running totals I have ever done along with some hilly tempos and increasing hill repeats so I was still holding out hope that one OFF week to kick this illness wouldn’t be the end to my successful foray into the world of ultras. Well the week dragged by and I visited my doctor to get her opinion. It isn’t always easy to get in to see her and I luckily already had an appointment lined up to talk to her about my shin. It had been a year since she had diagnosed me with a stress fracture. The diagnosis was the impetus for me to begin hiking and in turn for deciding to back off of 5kms and try to get a good base of slower miles in my legs. For the most part this approach worked out well as it had always seemed that I would begin getting injured (foot, calf, knee) when speed was introduced to my training. Unfortunately though, the shin never seemed to be absolutely happy as it still had this constant omnipresent dull throbbing ache.

So there I was in the doctor’s office and she starts in with, “So I understand your shin is still bothering you”, to which I reply, “Forget about the shin doc, I have bigger problems these days”…or something to that effectJ So it turns out I had a temperature and together with the sweats, muscle cramps and aches she thought I probably had a nasty virus that was going around. She also ordered a round of blood tests to be sure it wasn’t something more chronic like anemia or a hypothyroidism. Well the rest of the week didn’t go well and I ended up skipping the half, and had only enough energy the next week to get up and go back to sleep a few hours later, every day, day after day. I have never felt like that before and all kinds of thoughts entered my head, let’s just say I was worried and not just for my race but my future health as well. I was very glad that I had taken time off to recover though because as it turned out I could have extended this thing a lot longer if I hadn’t headed the warning signs and tried to push through my workouts just to get the miles or time on legs in.

So here I am now, four days out from the race. Having missed 2 ½ key weeks of training I bring you back to my initial question, “Is it possible?” Can I actually run and finish a 50km race this Saturday? Well to fill you in further, the first run back which you’ll remember had me optimistically pessimistic lasted about 15 min before the knee started complaining, so I tried again a couple days later. I got a bit further each day, 40min, 50min then had a 90 min. run this past Sunday. Heading home from Sunday’s run in Gould Lake on the same stretch of trail where I first felt my shin pain last year, I couldn’t help but hope I’d make it back to my car running. I was also trying not to think about the muscle cramps that plagued my runs 3 weeks back that had put a sudden halt to my training and I had some time to reflect on what had made it all go so wrong. Had I pushed the pace on my back to backs? Heck, should I even have been running back to backs? Well I know my first mistake was throwing my coaching/training funds into the monthly expenses pot and going it alone or coachless for the first time in 4(?) years. But I saw it all as a learning experience and one I dove into head first and excitedly so if not with some trepidation.

I had pieced together a training schedule in a way only Dr. Frankenstein might appreciate. A part from this 50km plan I found on the race’s website, a piece from that marathon plan I googled, a tidbit from past plans, a crumb I picked from my former coach’s brain. I think I probably screwed things up when I  became so concerned with hitting weekly distance goals that I ran recovery runs for distance and not by how I was feeling and thinking back believe that many of them could have been reduced by half or more. In the past I ran 30, 40, 60min recovery runs but now was doing 13km recoveries which came in around 90 minutes. I even wrote a few times in my journal that it didn’t seem much like a “recovery run”. The week I began to fall apart and get sick I had to take two days off before my hills because I was just too darn tired. I had every intention of making up the days later in the week but my body had other ideas and put a stop to my hill repeats early, then rewarded me with horrible muscle cramps on the way home during which time I fell hard and scraped myself up on the trail. I really think that with the overtraining or overreaching as some like to call it, that I left myself vulnerable to whatever viruses were circulating at the time and I seemed to pick up a nasty one.

What I have learned is that viruses love to attack weakened, damaged cells and I probably had a big share of those due to overstressing my system. So once the virus takes up residency in these dying cells it begins to replicate itself. The more weakened cells you have the more viruses can move in and the longer it can take your immune system to fight them and clear them out. So what may have been a virus that most people can deal with in a week, my compromised system took 3 weeks to take care of. All I can say is thank goodness it is gone and lessoned learned.

An interesting side note for runners is that viruses actually help clear your body of all of those damaged cells we accumulate as a result of breaking down our muscles etc. during workouts. Our body is actually not that good at recognizing what cells have been damaged so the bad ones tend to sit around a long time before being replaced with strong healthy cells. However, viruses like colds and flus can detect those compromised cells quickly and when they do move in the body is alerted to the virus and the damaged cells and begins clearing them both out. Of course a cold or flu virus is pretty easy for our bodies to deal with if we are relatively healthy however sometimes a real nasty one can move in which can lead to one of many diseases. So if you are one to always come down with a cold before a race it is probably due to an accumulation of damaged cells from your training. This of course has me pondering how we can best use this knowledge so as to make sure we are healthy for race day. If I want to avoid a cold, obviously, not over reaching in my training is a no brainer but I might want to consider taking a week off now and again weeks before a race to let those damaged cells clear out of my system before a nasty virus moves in. Or if I can’t avoid the colds altogether, I could at least try to “schedule my colds” for earlier in training rather than later. One way to do this might be extend my training period and perhaps the tapers also. Now that I have a better handle on the damaged cell, virus connection it makes it easy to connect it to other dots such as making sure to boost  my immune system with what I put in to my body and to take adequate recovery no matter what the bloody schedule calls for.

As for the race I plan on starting very conservatively. I can only hope to finish at this point. I’ll have a small crew of 2 border collies and my Mom. I am running it as a long run…a very long, long run or perhaps just a good days hike:-) I really hope to be able to run more then I walk. I don't even know if there are cut-offs...let's hope not:-P
Map of Race Course