Nature Photography Challenge

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I’ve really enjoyed seeing my friends’ posts for the Nature Photography Challenge (‪#‎challengeonnaturephotography‬), and after Julie Tuttle and Dan Pittillo challenged me, I spent a few days thinking about what kind of “theme” might guide my choices. I decided to … Continue reading

Something new: Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock 50K race report

I *love* point-to-point trail races. So when a new 50K opened up that wasn’t too far away, I was excited. Some friends signed up, which only made it more enticing. Unfortunately, I’d spent most of the summer nursing what turned out to be a hip labral tear. While getting the uber-fancy fluorescent MRI, I got a cortisone shot, which seemed to settle the pain enough to finish my early fall training. Once I confirmed that it wouldn’t get worse, I signed up for the 50K distance in the inaugural Pilot Mountain to Hanging Rock Ultramarathons.

The trails and course were a complete mystery to me, which was exciting. The race organizers promised some crazy tough single-track, but other sections of the website described trails that sounded like Umstead bridle trails. The elevation change wasn’t horrendous, given the mileage. Much of the race was on the Sauratown Trail, part of the NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail that I’d never hiked. It couldn’t possibly be harder than Uwharrie and I figured that any easy sections would be a welcome surprise. What I discovered was that the course offered a little of everything.

There were only 2 hills on the 50K. No problem!

There were only 2 hills on the 50K. No problem!

Will, Joanna and I caravanned up to Winston-Salem, where we hit packet pickup at By Foot Sports in King, NC. It poured rain all afternoon and evening. Later, I found out that some of the 50 milers dropped down to the 50K. Then, J and I hit some local attractions (read: bakeries) before having dinner and spending the night at her mom’s house.

Carb-loading is an important part of race preparation.

Carb-loading is an important part of race preparation, and impossible to resist when the original Krispy Kreme is in Winston-Salem. Thanks Mr. Sta-Puff!

Joanna’s mom, Isabelle, was a hoot. She watched us scamper around, while having the inane stream-of-consciousness back-and-forth that passes for conversation between runners when packing and prepping for a race. When Joanna went upstairs to get something, Isabelle leaned toward me and asked, “How far is this race tomorrow?” When I told her 31 miles, she shook her head in wonder. “And why do you want to do that?” She didn’t say it in an eye-rolling, exasperated way. She genuinely wanted to know.

I fumbled a bit, as I always do trying to explain why I love running long distances on trails. “Well, I love being out in the woods—and the chance to do that for most of a day, and nothing BUT that, traveling by trail on my own two feet for a long distance, flying along and covering ground, and seeing beauty everywhere—makes me so happy,” I explained, inadequately. She nodded. I couldn’t tell if she meant “I understand,” or “ah, there are others like my daughter. Maybe she is not crazy.”

I woke up the next morning at 4:30 and wondered groggily how this was required, since the race didn’t start until 8. We had to catch the shuttle ride to the start no later than 6, though, and it was an hour drive. We hit the road at 5:00. One wrong turn and some backtracking and we were suddenly behind schedule. Then, we were lost. Part of my problem was that our plan to stop to get coffee was flubbed by the fact that not a single convenience store in Stokes County opened until 6:00. I drove on in quiet desperation. I don’t need a lot of coffee, but no coffee guarantees an all-day caffeine headache.

Fortunately, we got a tiny window of cell service just as Will called, and we found the Green Heron Club, the finish for the race. We were the last people to jump on the bus that took us to the start. On the way, I ate my oatmeal and wished for some of the black juice.

We arrived at the start in a parking lot just outside Pilot Mountain at the Grassy Ridge trailhead. There were volunteers checking people in, and one of them kindly shared some of her coffee from her own thermos. Race volunteers are the best!

We are off! Me, Joanna, and Will are all in this picture. Cross the road and hit the trail. It's going to be a great day!

We are off! Can you spot me, Joanna, and Will? Cross the road and hit the trail. It’s going to be a great day!

The race started without fanfare, and I wished my buddies good luck. Grassy Ridge Trail was a supremely runnable trail that skirts the east side of the mountains section of Pilot Mountain State Park. It was easy running and the 80 or so runners spread out to start the day. Fall color was about a week ahead of Raleigh, so the oak-hickory forest was gorgeously aflame with reds, oranges and golds. For a few miles I ran and chatted with Michelle, whose longest race before #PM2HR was a half marathon. Wow, so gutsy! Love it!

It seemed like no time at all before we reached mile 10.5, where our drop bags were. I really didn’t need anything so early! I might have changed socks if I’d packed them; we had our first stream crossings already and my feet were wet. As it turned out, that would have been pointless, as we splashed across small streams many times. I dropped off my arm warmers, stuffed some extra snacks in my pack, and motored on.

The least-fun section paralleled a road and had several crossings, and there was a 2.5 mile stretch on a road, which seemed harder than the trails. There were some jaw-dropping vistas of Hanging Rock to keep us distracted. One of the landowners along the trail wanted to enjoy the opening weekend of hunting season, which was good enough reason for me to stay on the road without fuss. Great reminder that much of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail passes through right-a-ways on private lands, due to the generosity of many landowners. We need to be good stewards and users of the trails.

The morning started cool and foggy but turned warm and humid. I felt really good, and I was having a great race, maybe my best ever—no one passed me after mile 10, and I caught more than a dozen people on the back half, running steadily. This was the first ultra-distance where I raced—not running as hard as I could, because that would be silly, but pushing myself to run at a steady pace, move quickly through aid stations (OMG the RD’s wife made peanut butter rice krispy treats!), and keep my walk breaks short. I had a touch of nausea but a ginger chew seemed to help.

I ran and chatted with three other guys for awhile and one said he was hoping for a 6 hour finish. That sounded crazy, not that I could do the math, but someone else said if that was the case, he’d better move. I was saying I’d be sure to get a PR since it was my first 50K. Someone commented, “that’s surprising, because you look like an ultra-runner.” I laughed—this is what an ultra-runner looks like? A 43 year old mother of two, with an average build, sturdy legs for climbing, and salt and pepper hair? But it was meant as a compliment and I accepted it with pride. Hell yeah I look like an ultra-runner! I joked that we were about to pay for all this nice runnable trail we’d had. And we did, in spades.

Once past the mile 23 aid station, I saw very few runners. We were spread out. I began the tough climb through Hanging Rock State Park. Some extremely rocky trail on the Moore’s Wall and Magnolia Springs Trail, combined with steep climbs, reduced me to a steady hike. Every once in a while the trail would pop out at an overlook with some amazing views. When the going got tough, I’d admire the forest, noticing that the extreme-loving species like Table Mountain pine were there clinging to the cliffs I was climbing.

After the big climb on Hanging Rock, the trail connected to the Hanging Rock summit trail, below the summit. It was disconcerting to have been alone in the woods for over an hour and suddenly share the trail with oodles of hikers and families ambling toward the summit. They seemed surprised, too, to see a runner come flying (well, it felt like flying) down the mountain. “Excuse me! On your left! On your left, please!”

I climbed a short hill to the aid station in the parking lot, panting a little.
“Thanks for volunteering. Is there a bathroom here? What mile is this, anyway?”
“Bathroom is across the parking lot. You’re at mile 27. Fourth female.”
“What, are you serious? Geez, I can’t go to the bathroom now!”
“Well…3rd female is way ahead. I don’t think you’ll catch her.”
“I’m not worried about that! I’m in the old lady division and don’t want to be passed while I’m in a porta potty! I’ll have to chance it!” They laughed, but I was dead serious. I grabbed a handful of chips and headed across the parking lot.

The last section of trail descended through the crowded picnic area and past the waterfalls. Talk about painful. It was steep, rocky, and wet, and my legs were tired and starting to get shaky. It was also crowded, and I called out (politely, I hope) multiple times as I passed that I was finishing a race, hoping that they would not ask where it started. No time to explain!

After the waterfalls, the trail leveled out and it was smooth and beautiful, easy running. In the last mile, there were four creek crossings, which felt refreshing on my tired feet, though I grumbled, “really?”

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What a tired, dirty, sweaty, happy distance runner looks like.

I came out to the Green Heron Club and crossed the finish line. One of the race directors, Jeff, came over to shake my hand and congratulate me on my finish. I was indeed 4th female, 1st masters, with a finish time of 6:15! I was 19th of 72 runners overall, possibly my best overall placing ever. I was thrilled. I didn’t have any time goal, but that far exceeded what I thought was possible.

“How did you like the race? What did you think of the course?” Jeff asked. “It was totally wicked!” He glanced at my face–I elaborated, beaming. “I loved it.”

I loved this race and would do it again in a heartbeat. The course was fantastic, with plenty of challenge, but it was also very runnable. The medals were a cool horseshoe, and I received a nice zippered jacket as my award. The Green Heron Club was the perfect relaxing venue post-race, with places to change (even showers, if you’d brought a bathing suit), a barbeque meal, and draft beer. Many thanks to Trivium Racing for an excellent race!

The Never-Ending Reindeer Run (#NERR) Part 3: Lessons

I’m running Uwharrie 40 for the first time next Saturday, so it’s time to wrap my head around running that distance and what I’ll want to have with me. I’ve also had this list open and in editing mode for awhile, so it’s time to wrap it up.

What we did well:

1. Having an amazing co-conspirator is a must. Not only is Joanna more rational than me, but she had a similar vision. We were all about having fun and enjoying the adventure, but we were both committed to finishing the distance. And, we’re different enough we brought different strengths to the planning and execution of the adventure.

2. Running on Friday seemed silly given that 3.5 mi was a drop in the bucket toward our overall distance. However, it gave us a “shake-down” for the long run on Saturday and helped us prepare for the long day on Saturday.

3. Vaseline is awesome. I’ve fortunately had few problems with chafing and blisters, but dry winter weather will sometimes put deep, and painful, cracks in my feet. I had one on my heel that was mostly healed before the weekend. I generously slathered my feet with Vaseline before putting my socks and shoes on that day. Zero blisters despite running for nearly 10 hours, 7 of them in the rain with wet socks.

4. Extras of everything, or at least two trail maps. I lost mine at dinner on Friday but fortunately bought two and gave Joanna one. Joanna didn’t lose hers.

5. I’m not a big fan of gels–more than 2 guarantees nausea. However, I was glad I had one with caffeine in my pack. I woke up with a migraine on Saturday. I didn’t want to take my big-league meds, but caffeine can help. Running helps as well–all the blood going to my legs eases the dilation of blood vessels in my head, which causes the migraine. My headache never really went away, but the caffeine helped take the edge off and kept the weird visuals (like double-vision) to a minimum. I will always keep a Cliff Shot with caffeine in my pack.

6. My Nathan running hydration pack (70 oz.) was great. Perfect combo to have water in the pack and a small hand-held in the pocket which I used for Nuun. I brought extra tablets and could fill the bottle from my pack. I had plenty of pockets for snacks, my camera, my phone, and a small first aid kit.

I learned a lot while running 50 miles on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail:

1. Always have a headlamp, and check the batteries, especially if you are starting a no-drop run on a Friday evening in December at 4:30. You will inevitably start late because of rush-hour traffic and run slower than you expected. I brought my headlamp but the batteries had died the day before. We definitely should have had them in our drop bags at Creedmor Rd. on Saturday. Without Nancy’s headlamps, we would not have finished 32 miles on Saturday.

2. For long distances on trails, plan time, not distance. I planned and ate snacks as though I was doing a 20 mi run to Creedmor Rd (where more snacks were stashed), not considering that it would take nearly 7 hours to get there. I had more snacks with me but didn’t eat them.

3. Focus on my/our needs. I knew this, but still found myself not wanting to slow others down. I should have stopped sooner than an hour and a half to eat something but didn’t want to interrupt the flow of a fun trail run or fall behind the others. Despite a good breakfast, I think I ran a calorie deficit for the rest of the day—fortunately not enough to bonk, though a calorie deficit definitely contributed to my despairing mood at Shinleaf.

4. Refill water when you have the opportunity. I completely forgot to call Falls Lake to make sure the rec areas were open. When we reached Blue Jay Point, we still had plenty of water and didn’t refill because we planned to refill at Shinleaf. When we arrived, we found the restrooms closed and the water turned off.

5. Be efficient at aid stops. Sure, we weren’t in a hurry, but stopping either too often or stopping too long each time added up. I should have been thinking ahead about what I needed to do during the stop.

6. Walk when you need to, but run when you can. Sometimes I found myself walking for long periods even though I felt fine to run.

7. Looking at other “reasonable distance” stage races, I found that most average 20-25 miles/day. Since this was our ultra run for 2013, we wanted one day with 30+ mile distance, but we probably would have felt better had we done a more even mileage split between Saturday (32.2 mi) and Sunday (14.5 mi).

8. Once again I learned the importance of mentally breaking down a long distance into manageable chunks. The only time I was discouraged during the whole journey was when we reached Shinleaf feeling tired and I realized we were only halfway through our distance. Joanna wrote down the section distances on her arm on Sunday. The smaller sections not only seemed more manageable (focusing on the next 3.5 mile section, not the total mileage), but the road crossings reminded us that we were making progress.

This time next Saturday, I’ll still be out on the Uwharrie Trail, hopefully running. My goal is to experience the deep joy that comes from a long trail run and pushing my limits, accept and appreciate what I can do, and look inside myself to see what I can see.

Must be present to win.

Covering ground like water flowing over rocks.

Covering ground like water flowing over rocks.

The Never-Ending Reindeer Run (NERR) Part 1: How and Why

“What are you thinking about for fall?” she said.
“Well, I don’t want to miss the fun of doing Richmond with the Peeps, but I’d love to squeeze in another ultra. Trails, you know.” I said.
Joanna nodded. As in, “duh.”
“I’ve always wanted to do one of those long distance stage runs,” she said.
“What’s that? I’m game.”

Our search didn’t turn up much. There was a great-sounding one in the New River Gorge, but it was billed as a romantic getaway weekend. The Table Rock Ultras seemed too formidable to tack on at the end of a fall race season, particularly since I was more excited about the 50 mi course than the 50K.

“We should do our own.” [Can’t remember who said it first, but it was carelessly, with a touch of bravado.]
“We ought to.” [just as casually]
“It wouldn’t be that hard to organize. We could do it on the MST.”
“It wouldn’t be a travel race, or expensive. Our friends could come. We could spend the difference on burgers and beer afterward.”

A few conversations later and we knew the other was serious. It was April and we were already planning for December. There were 2 phases: the beer phase and the coffee phase. This succinct, brilliant cartoon spells out why both beer and coffee are helpful catalysts for planning projects.

beercoffee

Brilliant, except that you can’t see the whole thing onscreen. Infographic by Ryoko at en.ilovecoffee.jp, based on an article by Mikael Cho.

During the beer phase, we discussed the possibilities. Admittedly, many of my ideas were foolish, and like any good manager, Joanna politely but systematically shot each of them down.
“If we end up at Shinleaf, we could camp out! That way, we’d never have to leave the trail!”
“It will be December. And part of the bonus of doing this here is that we get to sleep in our own beds.”

“You know, it’s only another 10 miles to finish the whole section at Penny’s Bend for a total of 60.”
“I’m good with 50 miles.”

“We could stop at Rolling View on Saturday, rent the building and have our Peeps solstice party!”
“You’re crazy. You do not want to host a party after you’ve run 30 miles. Plus, no beer.”

The coffee phase was closer to the event and slightly less exciting as we hashed out the details on a spreadsheet, pored over maps, and decided on matching apparel (e.g., Umstead Marathon day-glo pink for the section through the state gamelands during hunting season). Then, we sent out invitations and obsessively watched the weather forecast.

thisiswhatcrazylookslike

This is our logo. We had fun inventing reindeer dialogue and made many versions.

Friends (even the running kind) joked that we were crazy, and asked what the run was for. It wasn’t for anything other than we wanted to do it. Fun and excitement drove our planning, but we were absolutely serious about completing it. We chose fifty miles because it would challenge us (we’d both completed a 40 mi ultra) and a stage run to see what it was like. We hoped that friends would join us along the way and catch our excitement, even if they didn’t quite understand why we were doing it.

 

Sometimes, I feel uneasy that what passes for adventure today is contrived luxury, essentially invented risks and hurdles to amuse the participants, distract them from the ennui of modern life, and of course, announce to their Facebook friends. Our run might be accused of all three. But I’d like to think that the spirit of our adventure echoes earlier explorers—maybe most closely the scientists, who, while operating within economic directives, retained their wonder and joy about each new discovery. Turning corners along the trail to views we’d never seen, knowing that there would be challenges but unsure of what they would be—felt authentic. We were modern explorers, yes, but with the spirit of adventure and discovery that burns inside us all.

The actual adventure will have to wait for another post, and Joanna’s excellent and way-more-concise account is here. Below is the map of our 3 day, 50 mile route on the NC Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

map2

To DNS or DNF

*To DNS or DNF–that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of a run unstarted
Or run the race and risk a sea of troubles
And by so doing: to die, or at least screw up my leg
And continue my IT band issues: to start, to run until I can
Run no longer; and by DNF, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That flesh is susceptible to? [Hell no!] ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly not to be wished on anyone. To start (or not), to run,
To run, perchance to Dream. Aye, there’s the rub,

For in the grand scheme of life, my IT band problems are self-inflicted and trivial.

Umstead marathon was supposed to be my last big race, but I had to sign up for the Medoc Spring Race, a race styled after Dipsea with a staged start. It’s only 7.5 miles–the perfect distance, plus a fun format to keep me out of a post-season slump.

Then my running buddy decided to drop from the Umstead 100, so I was no longer needed as a pacer. The Mountains-to-Sea Trail 50K is the same weekend, on Sunday. Here was an opportunity to squeeze in an ultra on my home turf. The timing after Umstead was perfect. Steve emailed me and asked, “which distance did you sign up for?” “What kind of idiot do you think I am?” I retorted. It was another two weeks before I actually admitted—um, THAT kind. [He wasn’t surprised.]

When I first went to Mimi, the ITB issue seemed bad, much worse than I thought. I knew my left side was out of balance, but not the extent—weaker, less flexible, limited range of motion. I emailed Bull City. The 12 mile distance is full. It’s 50K or bust.

But, I have made so much progress in two weeks that I have guarded optimism, perhaps too much. Why not start and see how it goes? It’s hard to know how much better I am, though. The only thing that caused pain was running downhill. I’ve done two flat runs with zero pain.

If I consider the distance, my ITBS, and the fact that I would like to be in reasonable shape to run well at Medoc, it seems ridiculous to even start the 50K. Why would I risk the setback on my PT and careful strengthening to do a race that is not my A race, a race that I signed up for out of serendipity?

It’s not just a 50K run, though. The following weekend, I will speak at the memorial service for my lifelong friend Suzie, who was killed last September on her early morning run by a hit-and-run driver in Eureka CA. I had signed up counting on the 50K to help me steady myself for a much tougher event, one that will take everything I have.

I could accomplish this in other ways. But the singular effort of running a long way and the need to focus intently on the trail allow me both time and space for my brain to wander and my heart to find peace. And Suzie loved running trails.

It seems unlikely that I can go the full distance, and I do want to run Medoc with my son Stephen and my friends two weeks later. A friend told me that my brain and body will reach an agreement at some point and I’ll know the right decision.

I’m not afraid of pain, which is temporary. I’m afraid of the setback, of having to start from scratch again and extending the recovery time. If I thought I could run the 15 miles to the dam without causing additional problems, I’d do so happily and call it a very successful DNF. It’s hard to imagine that I’ll be able to run much farther.

My heart and brain will find the right answer. I just can’t see it yet.

*A line from a poem or story gets stuck in my head, and there’s no going back. Acknowledgement and apologies to: Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. “To Be, or Not to Be” [Internet]: Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_be,_or_not_to_be

22 miles on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

What a good day out on the trail looks like:

Image

Did my first-ever 20+ mile single-track training run today on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. I think I ran a bit farther than 22 miles. I’ve run 3 marathons, each with 20 miles as the longest training distance. Uwharrie 20 is the longest single-track run I’d done thus far (oh, and however many miles I actually ran on the Neusiok). Andrew and the boys were camping, so I had the rare luxury of time. Some friends, including my best girlfriend Ann, joined for the first six miles or so; my buddy Steve stayed in for the long haul. Great company and the miles added up.

I ran at the front much of the way, holding a forked stick out in front of me in an attempt to capture most of the spider webs which were stretched across the trail. At one point I picked off a fly, still alive and buzzing with panic, off my hat brim. It was engulfed in sticky threads, ready and waiting for a spider’s breakfast. I put it on a low-hanging branch and silently wished it luck. Yuck.

Mostly, I feel great. Did it hurt? A little bit toward the end. But I kept returning to the gratitude I felt–how lucky I was to have the gift of spending a Saturday morning doing something I love.