Monday, March 29, 2010

CA 70.3 Race Report 2010--First Triathlon of the Decade

This Saturday kicked off the triathlon season for 2010, the year and the decade. It was my 3rd time racing CA 70.3 but considering Ironman Utah is only 6 short weeks away and I just did my first ultramarathon the week before (Oriflamme 50K), I had no expectations for this race. My primary goal was to a) have fun and b) use it as a training day for IMUT. Everything else was gravy.

I arrived in O'side at 6 am, still dark and still cold. I came armed with my headlamp and jacket. I mounted Torch in my flip flops and, transition bag loaded onto my back, wearily rode the 1.25 miles into transition. Like a very tame Critical Mass, I joined a silent procession of other triathletes, and we all bike commuted to the start on our high-tech carbon steeds with aero bars and race wheels. It was a strange juxtaposition; a conglomerate of sweats, flip-flops, backpacks, and coffee, set apart by aero helmets, compression socks, and tri bikes.

--break out the Neoprene caps! It's going to be a cold one.

The crowds increased, music blared from loudspeakers, and a bright, fluorescent light washed out the transition area, emanating from several spotlights. I was forced to dismount and patiently found my spot in transition, weaving in and out of hordes of nervous, twitchy, athletes, moving unpredictably to and fro. I had been nervous on the drive up but now that I was in transition and in motion, I felt a strange calm come over me as I got to work. It felt good to set up. This is something I had done many times before.

I racked Torch, reset his computer, and laid out my towel. Set my running shoes with socks and visor at the back, my bike shoes with helmet, sunglasses, and race belt in the middle and swimming stuff at the front. Opened the wrappers for my bars and blocks. Let out a loud sigh. That was it. Time for body marking and the Port-a-Potty. I always use the Port-a-Potty line as an opportunity to converse with other athletes. I met a nice group from Colorado Springs and secretly envied their altitude training.

Before I knew it, it was time to slip into my wetsuit and shed my warm-up clothes. I was corraled into the chute with my wave like steers lining up for slaughter. And then, we waited. The nervousness came back. I hate to wait. To be still. I couldn't wait to go.
--Monica and I in the chute, rarin' to go.

We lined up on the boat ramp. The race volunteers motioned for us to get in the chilly 58-degree water. I dove in, trying to ignore the stinging sensation on my face. We lined up by the invisible start line and the clock counted down as it's done so many times before. Here I go again, I thought to myself. The gun went off, and the chaos began.

--Lined up on the boat ramp (middle with the neoprene cap and Zoot wetsuit), preparing myself mentally to dive into the cold water.

Instantly, I began getting bumped and jostled by other swimmers. I've been trying to swim more in the middle of the pack since sighting and drafting is much easier. The downside is the increase in full-frontal contact. A couple of jibs and jabs asserted my dominance over my space and I quickly found my rhythm. I felt strong and easily zoned out for awhile...until the men from the wave behind us began swimming over us. I threw out some more elbows and a few vicious kicks and tamed the testosterone into submission. The turn-around was a little choppy, as usual. I counted strokes to maintain my rhythm. The blinding sun on the return made sighting impossible, and I was forced to sight a lot more to avoid zig-zagging bodies. As quickly as it had began, the swim was over, and I was simultaneously stripping off my wetsuit as I ran into transition. My breathing was calm and easy. I was happy I hadn't swallowed any water. I felt, wait a minute. I felt good! Okay, Rachel, take it easy. You've only just begun.

--And we're off!

--Running into T1

--Video clip of T1 (thanks to Molly Sharp

T1 went very smoothly. I ran with my bike shoes in hand to the mount line. No sense in running 1/4 mile in cleats. A kind volunteer held Torch as I strapped my shoes on. A moment later, I was cruising into the marine base (Camp Pendleton), salt water streaming off of me. I was hungry. Yea! I engulfed a bar and eagerly drank my sports drink. As expected, the first 25 miles was flat and fast with a generous tailwind and gorgeous ocean views to the left. Since I ride this route often in training, I definitely had a homefield advantage, knowing every rise and fall and turn and twist of the road like the back of my hand. I was cruising at 25 mph singing Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance" out loud. Clearly, I felt good. And maybe I wasn't pushing hard enough? Generally, if you can belt out a tune, it's a sign to up the intensity a bit.

I hit Christianitos Road and turned east back into the base. Goosebumps rose on the backs of my arms. This part of the route is not normally accessible to civilians, and it's a privelege for me to be able to ride these roads on race day. Plus, the epic hills were looming just moments ahead. Instantly, the cool ocean breeze died down, the air became stifling, and the temps rose. I shed my arms warmers and continued hydrating. As I turned south to begin the battle of the hills, I drank in the views of the lush hills covered in a thick carpet of green with pastel wildflowers. Birds sang romantic lullabies, clearly twitterpated by the first throes of spring.

The first and worst hill arose, snaking up and around into the distance as far as the eye could see. The anticipation was the worst as I rode to the base. Once I started climbing, I downshifted and settled into a rhythm. As the grade steepened, I alternated between seated and standing climbing, until the final 1/4 mile, when I was forced to stand to the top. Several athletes did the walk of shame up the hill, the click-click of their cleats on pavement sounding like a slow, tortured tap dance.

The most wonderful thing about every uphill is the rewarding downhill at the top. I zipped downwards with relish, taking the opportunity to drink and eat as I cruised at 40 mph. I hit an aid station and grabbed some much-needed bananas. The wind picked up severely, and I found myself battling a strong headwind as I toiled up hill after hill. Headwind? Usually the wind is coming from the west, not the south. I wondered a little worriedly if I would have to battle this wind the entire ride back. On a couple of downhills, the wind shifted into a wicked crosswind that threatened to blow Torch off the road.

On another descent, I realized I had overhydrated. My bladder was full. I did the only thing I could think of: pee. Only, I couldn't seem to pee enough. I must have peed a gallon on poor Torch. So much so that Travis was fascinated by Torch's scent when I returned home later. Travis looked at me questioningly as if to say, "Mom?! You mark too?"

--coming back home, ready for the run.

Finally, I turned onto Vandegrift and began the 10 mile westward trek back to transition. I braced myself for the dependable headwind that could always be counted on to appear. Only, where was it? It was a tailwind! Whoo-hoo! I cruised down the road, spinning at 25 mph. This was FUN! I blasted into transition, feeling like a superhero.

I sprinted out of transition. My legs were stiff, and I was taking short steps but my pace was waaay too fast. I forced myself to wear my GPS to concentrate on pace. 6:50 was not going to fly for a half marathon, considering my half-marathon PR is a 8:45 pace. Slow down, slow down, I kept telling myself. 7:00 min/mi. Slow down. 7:30 min/mi. Slow down. I hovered around 8:00s for the first 3 miles. I felt good. Really good. I grabbed some Coke at an aid station and downed it. Ugh! Not flat, not flat! Like clockwork, my stomach started churning, and within 1/2 mile, I was sprinting to the Port-a-Potty. A few minutes later, I re-emerged, and all was well again. Yes, I lost a few minutes but my stomach was fine again. Actually, my stomach had never felt so good on a half-ironman! I could eat and drink and run? Amazing! The entire run was an adrenaline rush. I waved to friends who had come out to spectate and chatted to friends on the run course I hadn't seen in awhile. It was like social hour. I couldn't believe how quickly the miles flew by. My breathing was slow and even, my legs landed easily under me, and there was no pain or fatigue.

--Feeling good on the run, waving to my friend, Randy.

--Sprinting to the finish.

All of a sudden, I had less than a mile to go. I mustered up my final push and began increasing the pace. Friends cheered me on as I sprinted down the chute. I crossed the finish line, victorious!

--High-fiving friends in the chute. What a fantastic race!

I had a blast, I felt strong the entire way, and had a ton of energy afterwards. Finally, I PR'ed by 30 minutes! And fulfilled my longtime, secret dream of breaking 6 hours, clocking in at 5:52. Whoot, whoot! Here I come St. George!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

CA 70.3

I know it's nuts to do a half ironman the week after an ultramarathon. But I never said I was sane! So....I'm #2204! Whoot whoot! Can't wait for Saturday (CA 70.3 in Oceanside)! It's my 3rd time doing it. I'm not really racing. Just a training day since it happens to fall exactly 6 weeks away from Ironman Utah. Couldn't be more perfect. Also, this race officially kicks off the triathlon season for most of us in SoCal...and the decade!

For those of you interested, here's what to expect based on my previous 2 years doing it (and 1 year spectating):
1. It will be dark and cold (around 40) with a chilly ocean breeze when you arrive. Don't forget to pack warm pre-race clothes and a headlamp. Also, you will be standing in the chute before your wave starts for ~30 minutes. Bring socks you can throw away moments before getting in the water to keep your feet warm.
2. Swim:
Again, it will be cold. About 60. Wear your wetsuit (duh) plus 2 caps or add a neoprene hoodie under the cap they require you to wear.
Course is an out-and-back. The water gets a little rough as you head towards the open sea out of the harbor at the turn-around. Also, I always get tricked into thinking the turn-around is coming sooner than it really is because I forget that the course veers to the left before the turn-around. It's always a good idea to try NOT to swallow salt water.
3. Bike:
It will be cold on the first part of the bike and probably be gorgeous, sunny, and 70 on the back half. You will get warm when you climb the hills. I always like to wear arm warmers under my wetsuit (it works, really) to help stay warm on the first part.
The first 25 miles of the bike are pancake-flat and with a superfast tailwind. You will be tempted to hammer. Don't. Pace yourself and take this time to enjoy the ocean view, hydrate, and eat. Then, you turn inland and back into the base on Christianitos Rd. Let the climbing begin. The first hill is definitely the worst. There will be people walking. It's definitely doable but you will probably be in your granny. There are several more hills (3-4) after this one so don't go nuts on it or you will pay later. The final 10 miles of the bike course (once you turn onto Vandegrift) is very flat but always into a formidable headwind. Plus, you're tired from the hills. Just put your head down, zone out, and grin and bear it.
4. Run:
The run is a completely flat 3-mile out-and-back course along the cement boardwalk. You do it twice for 13.1 miles. I hate the cement part. Yuck. It's not hot but the sun is blazing by this time so it will feel hotter than it is. Don't forget to reapply sunblock in T2 or you will burn. Even though the ocean is to the west, the run is not that pretty; it's more of a get 'er done course. However, if you saved yourself on the bike, and you feel good, you may have an opportunity to make up time (never happened for me, however). There will be NO sand on the run course this year; I asked.
5. Post-Race:
It's a zoo. Barricades, athletes still on the course, and spectators make it almost impossible to get out easily with your bike and gear. You will be walking your bike through crowds of people and most likely sand for about 1/2 of an agonizingly slow mile before getting the opportunity to get on your bike and ride the mile+ back to your car. Stock up on the pizza post-race. You'll need the fuel to re-energize yourself for the trek home.

Race Reports from Prior Years:
2007: (my first half)

Good luck everyone and have fun! I'll see you out there!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Oriflamme 50K--My first ultramarathon

I've been itching to try ultrarunning for awhile now. Maybe it was after running my first marathon and wishing it had been longer. Or not wanting to cross the finish line of my first Ironman (Arizona, April '08) because I wasn't ready for the experience to come to an end. But I've had this building feeling in my blood like I'm destined for ultrarunning. Like it's in my blood. Maybe it's a calling but the idea of running insurmountable distances in remote areas excites me so much that I get goosebumps.

Yesterday, I finished my first ultramarathon, the Oriflamme 50K. It was the inaugural year for this race so I guess it was a first for both of us. Volunteers and other athletes teased me after getting my race number when I checked in, lucky 13.

--The beginning of the race at the Sunrise Trailhead, 6,000 feet on top of Mt. Laguna.

A small, intimate group of us lined up at the "start line", the wooden fence post at the start of the Sunrise Trailhead. A volunteer counted down the final ten seconds from a stopwatch and shouted, "Go!" I loved the down-to-earth, grassroots, no-frills atmosphere. Very relaxing.

We headed down a gentle, rolling singletrack trail along the famous Pacific Crest Trail. I was reminded of David Horton, the ultrarunner who broke the world record from running the entire PCT (yes, the entire thing--64 days), all the way from Mexico to Canada. I was literally following in his footsteps. I don't know where I got the idea to try running distances beyond marathons through mountains and deserts but I owe some of my motivation to people like him.

We took off jogging in single file. I tried to be patient and seeded myself in the middle of the pack. It was going to be a long day; I was in no hurry. This wasn't a race for me. It was to be an experience, a test to see if I could finish an ultramarathon, and hopefully, somewhat fun. I had no expectations. I hadn't prepared or trained for this at all. I had signed up months ago on a whim. At this point, signing up for crazy-hard races has become some sort of an addiction, akin to a gambling problem. Is there an association you can call for that? A support group? Therapy? Realizing that this ultra was only 7 weeks out from Ironman Utah, I had decided about a month ago not to do it since St. George is an A race. Oriflamme? Not an A race. A "just for fun" race that happened to fall on, yes, a recovery week. At some point this week, I decided, what the hey, I'm going to do it! I just couldn't resist. Oriflamme Canyon was calling me.

Here I was, attempting to run 31 miles, at altitude (6,000 feet), no less. The race course was on difficult trails, dropping from the top of Mt. Laguna into the Anza-Borrego desert and back UP again. But spring had come early, and I had always wanted to see the flowers blooming in the desert. It would be an ideal year for it! What better way to experience desert flowers in March than a 31-run through the desert? I expected obscenely spectacular sights, sounds, and smells from Mother Nature. I wasn't to be disappointed.

I carefully danced over rocks and deep trenches along the narrow, winding singletrack trail the first several miles, picking my way over large boulders and loose shale. The last thing I wanted was an injury this close to my Ironman. Other more competitive athletes breezed by, and I squeezed to the right to let them go. I watched them in amazement as they sprinted down the trail. They were flying. I couldn't figure out how they skated effortlessly over the treacherous trail. The torrential rains of late had dug deep gullies into the center of the trail, leaving only narrow banks to tiptoe on the sides. I waddled down the trail like a duck, trying to figure out how to run sideways. I wished I had Spiderman-like webbed feet that allowed me to defy gravity.

Finally, the trail widened and opened up to the Mason Valley Truck Trail, and I breathed a sigh of relief as another burst of runners I had been clogging rushed by. A bunch of runners trailing behind me makes me nervous. I just wanted to run solo, find my rhythm, and fall into my zone. Unfortunately, despite the luxurious width of the trail, the terrain was covered in rocks, shale, and sandstone. I picked my way carefully and quickly as I dropped down into Oriflamme Canyon, descending 2,000 feet over the next 3 miles. I zig-zagged across the trail to diminish the harshness of the drop. My knees cried out in pain, and my right IT band twinged and throbbed from my hip to my ankle. Hmm. Mile 6 and already IT band problems? Not a good omen. I pushed the thought out of my head.

I took a misstep on the rocks three times, and gasped in horror as my right ankle rolled to the ground. Thankfully, I have very flexible ankles. I hopped a few steps and continued running. No harm done. I breathed a sigh of relief. A fellow athlete further down the the trail had not fared so well. He had snapped his ankle and was hobbling the next miles to the closest aid station on one foot. I asked if he needed help.
"Are you okay?"
"No, I snapped my ankle." I looked in horror at the purple swollen balloon that had once been his left ankle. He continued hobbling, his face contorted into a solemn, stoic grimace.
"Do you need help." Silence. Not a good sign. "Seriously, dude. Do you need help?" I asked again.
"Nah, thanks."
"Um, are you sure? You don't look so good."
"No, I'm fine."
"You are?"
"A ton of other runners have loaded me up with ibuprofen."
"Okay, I'll make sure to notify the guys at the next aid station. I think it's about 2 miles away."
"K. Thanks. It could be worse, right?"
It could? Really? I shuddered. Well, I guess the guy could be dead. Realizing that wasn't the right thing to say and that more than a few awkward moments had passed, I hesitated and replied, "Um, I guess." There was nothing more for me to do after that than to keep running, and carefully.

--spectaculor view of the surrounding mountains as I descend into Oriflamme Canyon on the Mason Valley Truck Trail (about mile 8). Still morning shadows!

I finally made it to the first aid station. Man, I was starving! I had eaten a bar and some Cliff Blocks but hadn't realized how hard I'd been working. I couldn't believe the spread of food: oranges, bananas, PB&Js, Red Vines, and thin mints (yea for Girl Scout cookies!). I ate a little of everything, grabbing a handful of salt tabs and Red Vines, my mouth stuffed, as I jogged off down the trail.

I was now running in sand. And there were cacti. The temperatures rose sharply, and I began to sweat uncomfortably. This must be the desert they spoke of, I thought. My stomach turned and twisted a bit. I found a bush to take care of business (of course, I had my period; lots of fun, especially the pack-it-in/pack-it-out policy).

--sandy trail in Mason Valley; not so easy to run through

--cool cactus; I love the different formations they make!

--another cool cactus!

Feeling much relieved, I started to marvel in the sights from the desert floor. I was in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all side. I creek gurgled alongside. Water? In the desert? It was like an oasis. I had expected a barren desert floor. But, instead, the sandy terrain was densely peppered with blooming vegetation. Purple flowers nestled inside of bursting yellow blooms exploded throughout the desert floor like fireworks. The air was thin and still. The only sound I heard was a soft busy buzzing of hard-working insects flying from flower to flower. A confused green beetle alit on my blue shorts momentarily before I brushed him away. The gentle aroma of lilacs and lavender delicately clung to a quiet breeze.

--Gurgling creek running through the desert across the trail.

--gorgeous view of spring desert vegetation and blooms.

--The spring "meadow" in the desert. Clusters of yellow flowers everywhere.

I reached the 2nd aid station, still smiling, still in good spirits. The volunteers were ultrarunners taking a day off. As soon as they heard it was my first ultra, they were all smiles and friendly advice:
"You need to eat more."
"You need to drink more."
"You're doing great, sweetie!"
"Keep up the good work."
"Your pace is great."
"You REALLY need to drink more."
"You're not drinking enough."
"Really, you need to drink more."
"Are you getting enough to drink?"
"Don't forget the salt!"
And my favorite: "Your Camelback bladder is in upside-down." DOH! This great volunteer took my Camelback, unpacked it, righted the bladder, re-loaded everything it, and filled it for me. Wow! Now, that's service!

--still smiles after the 2nd aid station (mile 13)

--running towards the turn-around into Box Canyon

I continued trudging through the sand, making my way into Box Canyon. Walls of rock rose up on three sides of me. A delightful chilled breeze whistled through the canyon, instantly cooling me off. Ah, nature's air conditioning. Unfortunately, the constant downhill combined with perpetual sand had done a number on my IT band. After 13 miles of going down a mountain, rocks, and sand, the entire right side of my leg was on fire, as if I was getting electrocuted with every step. I knew walking or changing my stride would only make it worse. To compound matters, my stomach had begun to churn, right on schedule, like clockwork. Ah, stomach, I've been expecting you. Other runners who had already reached the turn-around and were now making their way home breezed by in the other direction. I tried hopelessly not to let their amazing speed and progress deflate my spirits and amplify my pain even more. Spectators cheered me on and volunteers snapped pictures. I coaxed my searing legs and churning stomach into a shuffling jog.

As soon as the flurry of runners dissipated and all was quiet again, it was easier for me to deal with my pain. I shuffled to a walk to ponder my options for a minute. The nice thing about an ultra is that it's perfectly okay to walk. My stomach contorted and twisted, and I frantically looked for a bush. The bushes in the desert are not the most conducive for GI emergencies. First, there aren't many bushes to begin with, and what few do exist are sparse and somewhat transparent, making them a poor choice for privacy. To make matters worse, most desert bushes have spines, thorns, or some other type of piercing spike along their branches. Desperate, I made do with what was there. I continued walking down the trail. My stomach continued to lurch. Really? Still? C'mon! I popped an Immodium, checked my watch, and waited 5 minutes. The spasms in my gut were slowly sedated and my stomach was silenced. I gingerly continued trotting through the sand.

Somehow, I made it to the turn-around, and was overjoyed to see a familiar face. My friend (and awesome acunpuncturist), Jen, was there handing out delicious purple grapes. Momentarily, I felt like Aphrodite on Mt. Olympus. I selected a smiling zebra sticker and affixed it to my bib on my shorts, proudly stating that I had reached the turn-around. Heading back, I couldn't believe that I was now officially over halfway done.

Despite the burning in my leg, I knew it could be much worse. My stomach had been silenced from a screaming wail to a quiet whimper. However, my IT band was so inflamed, I began fantasizing about amputation. Knowing the risks of ibuprofen to GI upset, I was hesitant to take any. I had been expecting Pain. Like an old friend, I could always count on Pain to drop by for a visit during an endurance event. Hopefully, Pain would not overstay her welcome. Ah, there you are. Can't say I'm happy to see you but you are right on time, aren't you? Anything I can get for you? You didn't bring your sister, Suffering, did you? I asked hesitantly, peering nervously behind Pain's path. Unfortunately, Suffering usually always is trotting right behind Pain, although she is not a welcome guest. Finally, I couldn't resist any longer. I popped two Ibuprofen and waved goodbye to Pain & Suffering, wishing them well on their way, still shuffling down the trail. They assured me they would pay a visit again soon. I hoped that would be the extent of the low point I had been expecting.

As I waited for the ibuprofen to work, I began snapping pictures to block out the pain. For a few brief minutes, my focus was shifted from pain to odd desert formations. I noticed strange piles of rock statues, odd plant formations, and naturally carved rivets in large boulders, giving each big rock a face and personality. There was still pain but because my focus had shifted, I was no longer suffering.

--Blocking out the pain as I make my way out of Box Canyon

--A "yucca teepee" I discovered along the trail.

--Grimacing at mile 18 but still making forward progress.

I braved a smile for my friend, Greg, snapping pictures of me at mile 18. Unfortunately, I think it was more of a grimace. "It's starting to hurt some now," I lied. I'm in so much pain I would rather cut my leg off and hop the rest of the way back, would have been more honest. At the aid station, I wasn't hungry but was afraid I wasn't getting enough electrolytes. I warily eyed the boiled potatoes, cold, quartered, and still wearing skins. I dipped one in salt, popped it in my mouth, chewed, swallowed, and chased it with a cup of Coke. Not so bad. I tried another. Hmmm. Delicious. After a 3rd, I trotted down the trail.

A cool breeze tickled my back. The caffeine in the coke, calories, Immodium, and Ibuprofen all hit me at the same time. I started to feel good. Really good. Ah, Endorphins. There you are! You can stay as loooong as you like! Endorphins decided to set up shack and party inside my brain. My legs went wonderfully numb, my stomach was quiet, and I was fully energized. I started charging down the trail, through the sand, and a grin began to spread across my face. I drank in the mountains, the cacti, the flowers. Oddly shaped spiked cacti, shooting stalks from succulents, and long, thin rocks dotted the desert floor, like an eclectic handful of spectators staring in wide-eyed wonder at this goofy girl running through their living room. Each boulder, each cactus, each bush had its own personality like a misty spirit, hovering transparently above. The desert was alive. And thousands and thousands of years old. I noticed subtle creaks from shifting rocks and gentle whistling from the wind. Suddenly, an enormous jack-rabbit, complete with huge, catapault-spring legs and gigantic, funnel ears, bounded across the trail, only a few feet in front of me.

--awe-inspiring desert/mountain view.

Still feeling good after passing the 3rd aid station, I started climbing back up towards the top of Mt. Laguna. I was pleasantly surprised by my good spirits and fresh legs after 20 miles. I settled into a steady rhythm, slowly jogging up the rocky trail. I had been expecting to walk the next 5 miles, prepared for extreme fatigue and a sharp ascent into altitude. However, I found it was easier to run than walk. I went with it, absolutely delighted. After a few miles, the grade increased sharply, and I settled into a quick walk, snapping pictures as I ascended. I began to pass the occassional straggler. A few of us walked together for a bit, chatting as we toiled up the mountain. He spotted a large rock and pulled over, "This rock is telling me to sit on it for awhile. I'm going to enjoy the view." And he pulled off all smiles. I waved and continued on. Up the trail a bit, I coaxed and encouraged a grimacing runner, hunched over and stopped by a boulder at the side of the trail. He had a strained look plastered across his face I knew all too well.

--the rocky trail back up the mountain (actually, this part wasn't too bad).

--gorgeous red flowers (like a burst of red stars).

--giant bush with very fragrant white flowers and LOTS of busy bees!

Unfortunately, my stomach had started churning again and I had some, um, female issues to
attend to. Finding a bush as I climbed the trail up the mountain was quite the challenge. Finally, I discovered one and climbed my way into luxurious and secluded privacy to take care of business. I popped another Immodium, re-emerged, and surprised all the weary runners as I passed them again.
"I thought you were ahead of me!" Rock-Sitter Guy exclaimed.
"Bathroom break," I replied. I wonder if I momentarily frightened some of the runners I re-passed. Maybe they thought they were so tired they were having deja vu. I can only hope I contributed to their wonderful feelings of delirium. My leg started burning with fire again. I popped 2 more Ibuprofen. A delightful feeling of numbness spread throughout my lower body again and feelings of euphoria began to build.

After the urging of several volunteers, I had been drinking like a madwoman. Eating like one too. Unfortunately, at mile 22, I ran out of water. The next aid station wouldn't appear until mile 29. Because I had no water, I would be unable to take salt tabs without the wrath of a furious stomach and churning acid. And it would be risky to even pop a Cliff Block without water (although I found I was able to get done about 3 without issues). My Garmin 405 flashed "Low Battery". My iPod beeped "Low Battery". How is it that these pieces of equipment were already dying, and I felt fine. Actually, I felt great!

I snapped tons of pictures, now in a state of delightful delerium, trying to capture the moment, not even sure what I was photographing. I had no water so I didn't have to worry about drinking. I couldn't eat without water. There was nothing I could do. No sense in worrying. I was suddenly relieved. I felt fine and had been freed of all distractions. Finally. I could simply focus on running. I was rocked into a state of deep meditation by the gentle lullaby of my feet. My mind floated out of my body and hovered above me. I felt no pain. I began to expand throughout the desert and mountains, until I felt connected to the rocks around me, the dirt beneath my feet, the cold breeze like a gentle helping hand pushing against my back. It was if I had given up my sense of self to melt with the earth. Now the forces of the universe were pushing me effortlessly along the trail. I was no longer running. I was floating. I no longer worried about tripping on the rocks littering the ground. My feet simply danced around them. I easily leaped over trenches and gullies.

--view of the desert below from the top...and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

--looking back at the trail where I had just been from the top. Wow. That's a long way!

When I reached the top of the Mason Valley Truck Trail and turned back onto the singletrack of the PCT, I had no problem running on the banks of the trail despite the deep eroded ditch traversing the center. My feet leaped and skipped back and forth. Two steps to the right, two steps to the left. Back and forth, over and over. This was fun! I was beginning to pass people now, lots of athletes hunched over, reduced to a painful trudge. I encouraged them as I passed.
"You're doing great!...You can do it!...Keep it up!"
Most of them stared vacantly ahead. Some were startled and jumped as I gleefully jerked them out of their reverie. Some glared at me. One even cursed at me. I understood. I knew what it was like to be hurting and get cheered on by a passing competitor. Not fun. It was okay. I wished them well and hoped they had a safe journey to the finish. I reached the final aid station and gleefully chugged an entire bottle of water down as the volunteers refilled my pack. I popped some salt tabs and caffeinated Cliff Blocks. I would be an unstoppable force now! I couldn't believe there were only three miles to go.

--A ghostly field of skelton bushes at the top of the mountain along the PCT.

As I bounded over another creek, I felt a sudden gush of hot liquid burst on my first toe, and a sharp stinging quickly followed. Every time I ran downhill or hit a rock, excruciating pain stabbed through my toe as if a nail was being hammered into it. It's just a blister, just a blister. It will pass. It will pass, I told myself. Amazingly, in just a few minutes, it did. My foot went numb and I continued running, my runner's high perpetuated. Knowing my first ultramarathon journey was all too quickly coming to an end, I drank in the ecstasy. A sudden feeling of intense euphoria spread through me like warm honey, and a giant smile spread from ear to ear. Laughter burst out of me, making me jump slightly. Who was that maniac laughing? Oh, it's me. I had a sudden epiphany that I was at that precise moment exactly in the world where I wanted to be. There was nothing else I would rather be doing. I began running faster and faster and faster. My pace was faster than it had been at the start. I was flying. I felt like I could keep it up all day.

--zipping towards the finish.

--coming towards the finish with a big smile on my face.

The finish line appeared out of nowhere. That's it? It's the end already? I wasn't ready to be done! I flew across the finish line with a smile from ear-to-ear. I was completely blown away by how purifying and energizing my first ultra experience had been.

--I survived but my feet didn't fare so well. I think I'm going to lose my first toenail!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ready for the Weekend

Last weekend's Iron training (100 mile ride and 18 mile run) left me pretty knackered. I did a lot of sleeping and eating this week, managing to sneak in a 4 mile run on Tuesday. After conquering a pretty bad migraine Thursday, I picked myself up and salvaged a 35 mile ride, followed by a 2 mile brick run and weights. Today is a swim. It's not a problem that this week's training has been so light. Why? Afterall, I only have a few more weeks of training left before my taper. Well, #1: it's supposed to be a recovery week. #2: I'm running my first ultramarathon tomorrow, Oriflamme 50K ( Keep your fingers crossed! Great way to recover, eh?
--pics from last weekend's 18-miler

Monday, March 15, 2010

Iron Weekend

I was nervous. After 2 weeks of rest and illness and detraining, I wasn't sure how much I'd been derailed from my training plan. Ironman Utah is just around the corner. I decided to jump back in (not recommended).

Saturday was a 100-mile ride in East County San Diego. The plan was to ride The Great Western Loop ( clockwise 2x for 80 miles and add 20 by riding 10 out-and-back towards Pine Valley on the middle of the first loop. We started at 8:30 am from a Kohl's shopping center in Rancho San Diego. The weather forecast was warm and sunny. I watched everyone layering up. I don't need layers, I thought. Just in case, I threw on arm warmers and a vest at the last minute.

Immediately, as we headed out, I was thankful for the extra clothes. The clouds rolled in, and as we gained elevation, the temperature dropped sharply. Cold, icy drops fell on us periodically. WTF? Rain clouds misted over the tops of the mountains. A sharp wind blew through my bones. So much for a warm day.

I hung out at the back of the pack, knowing the day would be all about pacing. I stopped to pee by a willow tree. No sense being uncomfortable. Note to self: lay off the coffee right before a big ride. My girlfriend J. and I continued riding behind the pack. No worries; we'd catch up later. Unfortunately, even though I had planned the route, I made a fatal error right off the bat. At mile 13, we turned left for an out-and-back, instead of mile 20. Since my printer had run out of ink, the only route slip I was equipped with was my chicken scratch scrawled on a wrinkly piece of scrap paper. Somehow, the rest of the group turned correctly towards Pine Valley, while we turned towards Alpine. This may have been fortunate. Rumor has it that Pine Valley was verrrrry cold. We weren't spared on hills, however.

Patiently, we climbed up and up and up. The road was very scenic and rural. Knowing we had gone the wrong way, we just shrugged our shoulders and kept riding onto new adventures and never-before-seen roads. It was an out-and-back anyway. We debated what an "out-and-back" should be called. J. called it a "dog leg" which neither of us liked. It conjured up images of a dog peeing. We pondered on what the proper noun should be for an "out-and-back" segment. I finally decided on "unicorn horn", which I thought was pretty hysterical. J. didn't think the guys would go for it. I agreed that "unicorn horn" was not very masculine. On second thought, after mapping it, the "out-and-back" we did into Alpine looks more like a "fishhook". That would probably suffice although, personally, I think "unicorn horn" is better.

We zoomed down a steep hill right before the turn-around on the fishhook. It was so steep, I had to lean back as I hit the brakes to prevent Torch from flipping over. "How are we going to get back up that?" I asked J.
"It's not that bad," she assured me. We turned around and were, of course, stopped by a red light at the very bottom of the 20% grade hill. I took several short, sharp breaths, psyching myself up, preparing for the extreme physical exertion I was about to undertake. The light turned green. I took off, gathering as much momentum as I could at the bottom of the hill. I downshifted quickly into my lowest gear as the hill inclined sharply. I jumped out of the saddle and began pedaling, finding my rhythm. My breathing deepened, my heart rate quickened, and I focused on each individual pedal stroke, turning the front wheel slightly with each turnover. I gripped the handlebars until my knuckles turned white, focusing on keeping my weight over the front wheel, to prevent it from coming off the ground. The front wheel turned sharply as I fatigued, threatening to knock the entire bike over. Somehow, I straightened it out, saved myself, and kept pedaling. Up, up, up. I could think about nothing else, entire consumed by the moment. Getting up the hill. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this, I kept telling myself. J. said I could do it so it must be true, I thought. Finally, somehow, someway, I reached the top, completely jubilant. I had this strange urge to go down and do it again, but I resisted. I still had 80 more miles to go. J. caught up to me: "That was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be!" she exclaimed.

We passed by a farm with a sign "Goats for Sale". "I want to buy a goat!" I proclaimed. J. gave me a weird look. I asked her if she thought I'd be able to finish the ride pulling the goat on a cart behind me on my bike. We passed by many other farms, carpeted in a thick, emerald-green grass I had never before seen out so close to the desert before. Goats, sheep, horses, cows, and of course, every farm had a barking dog. The wildflowers were blooming. Thick blankets of yellow, gold, amber and purple lupine dusted the hillsides. A babbling creek rushed alongside the road for almost the entire route. Rivulets of water from melting snow dribbled down the rocks from the mountains above. The breathtaking scenery certainly helped give me energy during moments of extreme fatigue during the ride.

J. and I commiserated on our life woes as we toiled uphill. Funny, but sharing our deepest, most pent-up secrets seemed to make the pain of that hill fly by, as well as the time. What hill? Something about suffering with others in bike helmets and sunglasses that makes us feel safe to share. Kind of like group therapy on a bike. J. asked me the name of the cute guy that had flown by us at the beginning of the ride. I shrugged my shoulders. A group of firemen at the station overheard me saying, "What cute guy?" They all raised their hands and shouted, "Me!" We smiled. Just the sort of motivation I needed to keep pedaling.

The downhills came, and I wished desperately for my leg warmers back in the car. It was cold. Bone-chilling cold. I imagined a furnace in my belly, emanating through my limbs. It actually helped. Yea for imagination! The road winded downhill steeply, and I braked carefully. Torch isn't so good at cornering. I don't need to crash this close to my Ironman! The creek flowed over the road at a few places at the bottom. I can't believe how much it's rained lately. Begrudgingly, I steered Torch over the creeks, splashing water up onto my shorts. Great. Now I was cold AND wet.

We finished the first loop and searched for members of the original group heading out for the 2nd go-around. Most had bailed because of the cold. The rest were ahead of us. I had no choice. I had an Ironman coming up! I grabbed my leg warmers, refueled, and J. and I headed out for a 2nd time. 2nd time, good as the first! I prayed for the strength and energy it would take to make it through the entire ride. My mental state of mind was very positive. My legs were a different story. I struggled to gain speed but, as the first 20 miles were straight uphill, found this very difficult. J. said we would need to watch the time in order to make it home before dark. Really? No. I tried to pedal faster. I felt like I was pedaling faster, when in fact, I was not. We reached the halfway point on the loop right at our agreed-upon cutoff. Looks like we would make it in the nick of time. Point of no return now. I suddenly felt energized, seeing the end in my head. I was going to make it! I began picking up speed for real now. We returned to the start at 5:20, a solid 20 minutes before sunset. 100 miles and ~10,000 feet of climbing. Whoo hoo!

I felt drunk the rest of the night. J. asked me a simple subtraction question. I told her I couldn't possibly do math. Higher cognitive reasoning, out the window. I did think I was pretty hysterical, however, and kept laughing at my own jokes. I had a difficult time driving home and my speech was slurred. No officer. I swear, I haven't had a drop. I refueled at home and got ready for the next day, content to lay like a vegetable on the sofa.

Sunday morning, I woke up, feeling a little tired but not sore and actually found myself looking forward to my run. I grabbed my GPS and hydration pack and set off for my 18-miler. The Xterra Black Mountain 15K Trail Race ( was that day. It was only a few miles from my house. I decided to run there, run the race, and run home.

Unfortunately, the whole way there (3.5 miles) was uphill. Well, at least it would all be downhill on the return home. I found a steady rhythm and made my way to the start. Checked in, lined up, and shortly thereafter, the gun went off. I hadn't had time to go to the bathroom, and I really had to go. That's what I get for having a HUGE breakfast right before running. The thought was that by fueling up beforehand, I would need less calories during...which is true, however, you have to pay the consequences. I dove into the bushes and took care of business, only to get some raised eyebrows as I re-emerged and trotted off down the trail.

The trail was extremely rocky, full of deep trenches and eroded cracks, and hilly. Very hilly. Down, up, down, up, nothing about it was flat. Being so close to home, however, I was very familiar with the course and was able to settle into a nice rhythm. Plus there were people cheering me on and aid stations! Pretty cool for a training run. I was very happy with my performance. I felt relaxed and steady and only had to power walk a couple of times up the steepest parts. Just when I started thinking, "Okay, I'm ready to be done with this," the race was over.

Focusing on forward motion, I grabbed some bananas and oranges and popped into the port-a-potty one more time. As all my friends chowed down on omelettes and pancakes, I waved goodbye and kept on running. Only 5 more miles to go.

Now, I was back on the road and headed towards home. I was tired but I had no pain and my legs kept truckin', one foot in front of the other. The next 3 miles were pretty much all downhill. At mile 17, I started feeling a little pain. I grabbed Travis from the house and used him for motivation for the final mile around the neighborhood. However, his constant urge to stop and sniff the bushes was more than inopportune. I kept yanking on his leash, "C'mon! Only a little bit farther!" And, all too soon, it was over. I got a 1 mile cool-down, while Travis got a 1-mile walk (added to his 1 mile run).

Back at home, the clock was ticking. How does one refuel, stretch, and ice bath all in that critical 1 hour post-run window? Well, I stretched as I ate. Showered as I made my ice bath. Eased into a delightful ice bath and treated myself to soft music and scented candles as I read my favorite book. Afterwards, squeezed into my compression tights and curled up under the blankets for the most wonderful 2-hour nap of my life. Nothing is more heavenly than a nap after a weekend of Iron training.

Great Western Double Plus Loop:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Know When To Fold 'Em

After 2 recovery weeks back-to-pack (not intentional), I began to freak out. The first recovery week was planned, and I adhered to my training plan religiously. Somewhere during the 2nd week (let me think, Tuesday), I was plagued with sudden, unexpected, and all-consuming fatigue (more on that later) that left me bed-ridden for the rest of the week. Finally, I cancelled all my weekend plans and concentrated on getting well, succumbing to the irresistable urge to sleep 16 hours a day.

This Monday, my body re-emerged from hibernation rested and rarin' to go. Mild panic swelled in my throat. My Ironman was only 9 weeks away! Count backwards and that's only (gasp) 6 weeks of training left to go! How much de-training had I suffered? Had I trained enough beforehand? Will I be able to start healthy and trained? I'm still trying to convince myself "yes". My training for this Ironman has been much less structured and haphazard than the others. But, I did a 100-mile ride, and several 80s. And some 16-mile runs. And the swim should be no problem. But the course, my God the course!

The temptation is to push myself in training now full-tilt, all the way, to the breaking point. I must stop myself. 6 weeks of training left is still a long time. I need to wait at least until the "Final Push" period before going nuts (last 3 weeks). Oh, but I love to go nuts.

Monday, I tested the waters of physical health with a 4-mile run and weights. I ran with my dog, who exuberant at the chance to run with me again, pushed the pace at the beginning. At the end, I saw a guy who I just knew I could run down with the help of Travis (is that cheating? using your dog to run someone down?) so I pushed the pace (and succeeded). I returned red-faced, dripping sweat, and slightly naseous, all signs of a run well done.
Tuesday, I biked on the bike path, a solid 16 miles, not too hard, not too easy and followed it up with a fantastic 3400 yard swim masters workout. I felt like I could have gone forever. I would have....but luckily, I had an engagement that night and didn't want to be late.
Wednesday, I ran a very hard 6 miles on hilly trails (that resulted in a very embarrassing bout of gastric distress) and did weights.
Thursday (oh, that's today), I did a 3200 yard masters swim workout. I felt very sluggish. The time on the clock confirmed how I felt. Did someone sneak in and make the pool longer? I could have sworn the lane had gotten longer! No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn't make my body go faster. The fatigue was catching up.

Thursday night, I got on the trainer. Oh, first I took a late afternoon nap. I know, I know. But I was SO tired. Just an hour. Woke up feeling very refreshed. Popped in a Spinerval DVD and hooked Torch up to the trainer. Filled a water bottle, got my iPod, a towel, put on my bike clothes, and clipped in. Warmed up. God, my legs felt sluggish. Leaden. I tried, I really tried. But at this point, I know my body. I just didn't have it in me. My body simply wasn't absorbing the workouts any longer. The fatigue had accumulated. Yes, I could push through the workout and deepen my fatigue, spelling disaster for my weekend's workouts (100 mile bike Saturday and 18 mile run Sunday). Or, I could get off and go have a nice steak dinner. Yummy! I called it a day. And tomorrow? I'm scaling back on tomorrow's workouts as well. Gotta keep my eyes on the prize. Time to rest!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Barefoot Running Fad

Didn't we just do this a few years ago? It seems like the running and triathlon communities go through cyclical phases. Not too long ago, barefoot running was the new craze. The Newton and Nike Free was inspired. Several running injuries later, everyone was back in orthotics. I had several friends that forced their biomechanically inefficient foot into barefoot running only to end up with stress fractures. Now, a few short years later, barefoot running is suddenly all the rave. Am I the only one that remembers that we just did this?

After reading Christopher McDougal's Born to Run , a fascinating book about Mexico's mystic ultrarunning tribe, the Tarahumara, one might think running shoes are the root to all evils. There is quite a bit about the benefits of barefoot running and a lot of slams against running shoes. The argument is that our ancestors ran barefoot and no one suffered running injuries. The author even goes as far to say that before cushioned running shoes and orthotics, no one got injured, suggesting that running shoes cause injuries. There is absolutely no evidence to support this, and I'm not sure how one would go about designing a controlled experiment to test this hypothesis.

We've all heard that running on the fore or mid-foot is more biomechanically efficient and causes less stress on the body than landing on the heel. In a recent study published in Nature, reveals that habitually barefoot runners tend to land on the forefoot while habitually shod runners land on the heel. Force a barefoot runner to wear shoes, and, whallah, they become heel strikers. This study has sent shockwaves through the running community and made it into the New York Times and NPR . I'm not sure you can extrapolate this data to say those who are used to wearing shoes would get less injuries if they went barefoot, and there's absolutely no way to evaluate a cause-and-effect of running shoes and said injuries.

My fear is that runners accustomed to their favorite running shoe will suddenly ditch the shoes and go naked. For those lucky few used to running barefoot, great. For the rest of us who weren't born with perfect biomechanics, running barefoot for long miles is a great recipe for injury. In addition, our soft feet simply weren't built to run on asphalt and pavement. Yes, now Nike has come out with the "Five Fingers" to prevent blisters and cuts. And I can see the benefit of running barefoot for short distances on soft surfaces to build muscle in your feet and increase body awareness of the impact between your foot and the ground. However, everything in moderation. Don't throw out your running shoes just yet.

Most running articles advocating barefoot running warns against jumping into it full throttle. Try easing into it, say once a week for a few miles on sand. Heck, I already do that, just for fun. Be aware that it's hard on your arches and calves. Plantar fasciitis, anyone? Wait. Isn't that a running injury?

Links to Barefoot Running (Pros & Cons):
Nature Commentaries:

Americans Long Way from Running Barefoot

Runner's World:
Should You Be Running Barefoot?
The Barefoot Running Debate
Barefoot Running: An Opposing View

Barefoot Running Advocates:
Barefoot Ted
Minimalist Runner

Monday, March 01, 2010

Random Recovery Week Contemplations

--in the zone at the San Dieguito Half Marathon a few weeks ago.

I only have 1 more recovery week in my training plan before my taper. Only 5 more weeks of real training. How did this happen? How did I get here? There is something oddly comforting about finding myself here...again. Something eerily familiar. I am just as excited about the anticipation of my 3rd Ironman as I was about my first. Just as nervous and anxious. As I share my fears with others, I get asked, "Is this your first?" I'm grateful that I've still retained the enthusiasm of an Ironman virgin. That gratifying feeling of accomplishing that first Ironman is something very special.

I rested a lot on this recovery week. Probably too much. I'm not that worried about it. As I felt the nervous energy return, I restrained myself from too much activity, knowing I will need every ounce for these upcoming final weeks. My body is doing weird things with weight, muscle, energy, sleep. It's like a newfound wild animal that I observe from afar with amusement.

I enjoyed the hours on the couch, catching up with the news, the Olympics, some bottles of red wine, a lot of dark chocolate, finishing a few novels from bed that had been collecting dust on my nightstand. And the naps, upon endless, glorious naps. Oh, how I love the naps. Complete with vivid dreams, my favorite where I shapeshifted into a coyote and was running full-tilt through a desert canyon, hiding from threatening humans and hunting mice.

However, I was more than ready for my recovery week to be over. The first few days of relaxation and unstructured training was nice but then, the familiar angst of anxiety crept in. Now, I'm craving the structure and routine of the Ironman training weeks to come. No time for anything superfluous. My days finely tuned, each moment planned, giving me a much-relished blanket of security. My bags are packed. When are we leaving?