Monday, March 23, 2015

Being Smart

My celebratory "Spring Is Here In The Mountains!" stance... and celebrating running pain-free

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to "be smart" in our sport of ultrarunning. Ultras, on paper, don't appear to be a very smart activity. The extreme distances can strain the body; the time commitment can strain relationships; and the FOMO adventures with friends can lead to poor decision-making due to Groupthink.

In my early years as an ultrarunner, I took some risks that now make me cringe when played over again in my mind. That first-ever night run in the Massanuttens in pouring rain that led me to the edge of hypothermia when we missed our rendezvous driver. Or running part of the first Reverse Ring in snow, with temps in the low teens, and with no one aware of our location on the ground in case one of us got injured. Or, more recently, running on the AT with friends and turning back due to ice-covered trails, only to then have a fellow runner fall, break her wrist and have to be rescued off the mountain in sub-freezing temps. Ugh. Not smart.


For the first time since 2004, I found myself sidelined this past month with an injury. I wasn't too surprised, given that I had been playing with fire by running back-to-back ultras, the Sean O'Brien 26++ followed by the Holiday Lake 50K++ the first two weekends of February. As I have gotten older, I've become much more conservative in my race scheduling and more committed to rest and recovery, so attempting this double was out of character for me. But as my students would say, YOLO ("You Only Live Once" for us old people), so when the chance to run in California came up the week before Holiday Lake, I couldn't resist.

Both races went well. I emerged relatively unscathed after Holiday Lake with only a slight right calf strain, which is my typical sore spot after a long run. This strain is a result of some chronic wear and tear around my right big toe, which I've dealt with for almost 8 years with help from Montrail inserts and Hoka Stinsons, Cliftons, and Challengers. (The Hokas have been a game changer, actually. They allow me to push off without requiring big work from the big toe, and the inserts support that as well). After all the snowfall we had in mid-February, I took out my cross-country skis for a spin around the farms near our house, and the repetitive action of lifting my heel up and down did a number on my sore much so, that when I resumed running a week later, two miles soon became impossible. Ice, rest, Aleve, and stretching did nothing to help, so after three weeks of this routine with no change, I visited my physical therapist, Eric Magrum. The last time Eric had helped me was when I had ITBS after running the Ring in 2004, so we had a good time catching up on local trail talk (Eric is a dedicated biker and trail work volunteer for our local mountain bike club) while he massaged (read: squeezed, beat, worked, bruised) my calf into submission. His Rx: stretch my soleus and calf 5-6x daily as well as my big toe, and "don't be stupid." I smirked and said, "Yes, sir." And, I meant it.

After a fun few days of trail marking and pacing Bill Gentry at the TJ100K, I'm grateful to have been able to run 50 miles last week and finish my first long run in the mountains yesterday with no issues. As a 52-year-old ultrarunner with 13 years of running long stuff behind me, I've learned that in order to keep training and racing at a high level I will have to be diligent with foam rolling, stretching, continuing my 2x weekly strength training, swimming and pool running routine year round, as well as take off 1-2 days a week. In other words, I have to be smart. I'm grateful to be on the road to recovery with just a soft tissue repair, because I have friends who are battling chronic arthritis in their joints or nerve damage in their feet and may not be able to run again without pain. This was my wake-up call. I have to truly listen to my body and pick my training runs and races carefully. FOMO and YOLO is going to be replaced with my new mantra, "Be Smart."

Over the years I've been asked by my running friends,"How do you stay uninjured, with all the miles that you run?" My response was always tinged with a bit of hubris: "I rarely run on pavement and I don't race too much." But from now on that response will be tinged with humility: "I'm lucky. I rarely run on pavement, I don't race too much, and I try to be smart about when to run and when to rest."

Happy spring, my friends! As you celebrate your return to the trails after the long, cold winter, enjoy every moment. And run smart.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

California Dreaming...and Holiday Lake Memories

                                               All the leaves are brown and the sky is grey
                                                   I've been for a walk on a winters` day
                                                    I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.
                                                California dreamin` on such a winters` day

                                                                           --The Mamas and The Papas

Our daughter is looking at colleges on the west coast, and last weekend we had the good fortune to be in LA on the same weekend as the Sean O'Brien 100k/50/50k/26 races in Malibu. I had heard fantastic things about the SOB course from Andy Jones-Wilkins, so when I realized that the marathon and 50K distance started at 7:00am on Saturday, I was psyched that I had time to run on the famed SOB course and get a taste of the west coast ultra scene, while hubby could take our daughter shopping in Santa Monica. I love it when the cosmos line up! Win-win!
The Georgian ---a classic hotel in Santa Monica
We stayed at the Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica, a wonderful old boutique hotel that was built in 1933 that once hosted Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. It was about 20 minutes from the race start/finish in Malibu Creek State Park. Hubz drove me to there along the Pacific Coast Highway just as the sun was rising;  it felt a bit surreal to be mentally preparing for a mountain trail race while admiring the moonrise over the the ocean! The Santa Monica Mountains are craggy, exposed, and wonderfully runnable. The TV show M*A*S*H* was filmed in these mountains; in fact, the 100K course went through the old set for the show. With about 5500 feet of climb for the marathon distance, I knew I was going to get a tough workout just one week before the Holiday Lake 50k.

The site of M*A*S*H in Malibu Creek State Park
  Since I typically never race on back-to-back weekends, I asked my Charlottesville Area Trail Runner peeps for their advice on whether I should: a) take it easy and run SOB as a training run for Holiday Lake; b) race it and take my chances that I would have dead legs at Holiday Lake; or c) go out easy, take lots of pics of the views on the course and then throw the hammer down on the way back if I felt good. The unanimous response was c). In addition to getting in a good training run/tune-up for Holiday Lake, I was excited to see some beautiful new trails and meet some kindred spirits on the left coast.

The course led us up on the ridge line of the Santa Monica mountains to the Backbone Trail, which offered great running and gorgeous views. Below are a few pics from the first 13 miles:

Views of Malibu early in the race

Typical fire road in the first 6 miles

Looking west towards the ocean

There were miles of this runnable, buttery single track

The aid stations were manned by experienced ultrarunners. Each time I arrived I was personally met by a volunteer with a pitcher of water ready to pour in my bottle (this was a cup-free race...of course!) and move me quickly on my way. The aid stations had the usual fare, along with Clif Bloks and Shots, and when I got to the marathon turn-around, a volunteer saw from my yellow bib color that I was running the marathon.  She approached me, looked me in the eye, and told me to turn around to go back to the finish. No messing around here --- they made sure there would be no bonus miles! The return trip was a blast with greeting and cheering on fellow runners, most of whom were running the 50K. I did notice that there were many more women 50 and older than I typically see on the east coast, and everyone was incredibly supportive and positive as all ultrarunners tend to be.

The scene of the crime: course ribbons were moved to direct runners to the left side of the photo
 The only glitch of the day took place with about 3 miles to go, where *someone* had moved the ribbons to purposely direct runners off course. I spent about 15 minutes with a few other guys running downhill before we realized that the ribbons we were following were NOT the race ribbons, just shorter versions of the actual race ribbons that had been ripped up into shorter pieces and placed on the wrong trail. Ugh.

A volunteer appeared on the ridge (having quickly been sent by the RD to fix the markings!) and directed us where to go. We hammered the final miles of downhill and I tried hard to save my quads for Holiday Lake, but I knew I had been just behind the 2nd and 3rd place females before I went off course, so being conservative was a challenge. I ended up 4th female, about 20 minutes from the 3rd place female (who also went off course), and we had a good laugh at the finish line. This was the first race in my 13 years running ultras that I had gone off course due to sabotage. It can happen on popular trails, and I'm very glad it didn't impact the 100K runners who were going for the Western States slots!

RD Keira Henninger awarding me my sweet 4th place SOB coffee mug. How did she know I love coffee?
 At the post-race party, there was a huge buffet of veggie and turkey subs and soups, and I was able to chat a bit with Ultrarunner Podcast's Eric Schranz, who had been running the 50K. While we were chatting, I got a text from Andy Jones-Wilkins, who wrote, "Have a great run and don't take too many pictures!" I was happy to text him the pic below of Eric enjoying his post-race carbs (Andy has been a guest on URP a number of times)!

Eric and the crocheted shorts that are all the rage (?)
After socializing a bit, it was time to head back to the beach (Dude...I love the sound of that...) and continue our weekend visiting USC, the Grammy Museum, and Griffith Park. I loved running the SOB and visiting sunny LA in February!What a treat!

The view of the city from Mt. Hollywood...yes, that is smog.

Sunset from the beach

Looking towards Hollywood Hills

Me and hubby at Griffith Park. Yes, it's kinda smoggy.
 After flying home on the redeye Sunday night, the week following the race was spent hydrating, resting, and stretching in anticipation of 32 faster miles the following Saturday. I was a little sore until Wednesday, and didn't run a step except for 4 easy trail miles that morning. The others days I swam, stretched, and slept late...ahhhh. I could get used to just racing, recovering, racing, recovering! Forget training!

Work kept me busy all week and before I knew it I was heading down to Appomattox on Friday afternoon with John and Michelle Andersen, owners of Crozet Running and leaders of the Crozet Ultrarunning Team, of which I am a proud member. Holiday Lake was to be Michelle's first ultra, and we were all really excited to share this special time with her. Holiday Lake 2002 was my first, so coming back each year always gives me a jolt of happy memories...I love watching my friends anticipate and finish their first ultra.

Michelle, Annie, Martha, Kathryn and me in the bunkhouse just before the start
 Holiday Lake is a great first ultra. The 4-H camp has heated bunkhouses, good food, and hot showers at the finish, and staying onsite creates a wonderful sense of camaraderie. The night before the race, after the pre-race dinner, RD David Horton hosts a "first-time ultra" information session which I always listen in on. He tells some classic stories of his days on the trail and gives great advice, most of which I totally agree with! This year he told the newbies not to wear a hydration vest since the aid stations are so close together...but I was very glad that I did because I'm realizing that I can't skimp on nutrition (see my previous blog post, "Hellgate Smackdown"). I'm very glad that I brought all my Perp, EFS, and Hammergel with me --nutrition played an even more important role given the fact I was attempting back-to-back races.

So, how did this back-to-back experiment go? In perfect racing weather of temps in the 20s and dry trail, I started fairly conservatively with my mantra all day being, "Your race, your pace." I needed to just run my race and not get swept up with the fast girls. And, for the most part, it worked. I came into the turnaround at 2:30 on the nose, a little fast for me but a good sign that I might come close to my PR of 5:01 which I set in 2012 in very similar temps and trail conditions. I was around 12th place female, about where I usually am at Holiday Lake. And, I was feeling good, so I knew I had something in the tank in case I needed to actually push the pace. At around mile 23 I saw Rob Colenso who was looking calm, relaxed, and very focused. We ran together for the next 10 miles trying to chat but we soon realized the pace was too fast for chatter. At one point I took a nose dive in front of Rob and two other dudes. Rob's comment: "Very graceful!"  There is nothing like a face plant and shoulder roll in front of a bunch of dudes to get the adrenaline moving. "Nothing to see here!" was my response and before long I was back running behind Rob, focusing on his Happy Trails shirt to pull me along. Whew. Dodged a bullet there, nothing hurt but my ego!

Around mile 26 we met up with Jason Farr. Jason is a fellow CAT and he has treated me to some fun hill workouts during the past few weeks on Carter's Mountain. As we were crossing the creek, he told me he  was hoping for a sub-5:00 finish as well. I was thrilled to be running with these two friends and that we were shooting for the same goals. I learned a while back that running WITH my fellow competitors as opposed to AGAINST them made me a better runner and person. It allows me to dig deeper than I would if I was alone, share the experience of the pain cave and suffering with another, and always reveals to me what a privilege it is to help and share in someone else's PR, win, or course record. Donna Utakis taught me this beautiful lesson at Hellgate and Mountain Masochist. Running with her at the end of both those races enabled me to set a PR in both, even though we were also competing for a top female spot. I try to remember that lesson every time I race.

"Sophie!" Rob is yelling at me but I can't really hear due to my singing "Shake It Off" along with Taylor Swift in my earbud.

 "Whatt???!!" I stop and turn. It's about 4 miles from the finish now, and I'm starting to fade a bit.

"If you pass the next female, you'll be 10th!" he yells, before catching up and passing me like I was a tree standing still.

"Awww. Rob! Thanks for the intel buddy! Now I have to race. Geez" I think to myself, though I very much appreciate him finding this out at the aid station and passing it along. Top-10 females get some special schwag at Horton races, as do the age group winners. If I finished 10th, that meant another "old lady" in our age group-- Rebekah, Martha, just to name a few-- could get the Patagonia backpack instead. I dig deep and find the next female a mile or two from the finish. I make the pass, run ahead, and then once out of sight, promptly start hiking uphill. Rob is just ahead so I focus on his shirt one more time and keep moving. The final mile of the race is on the paved road, and I looked at my watch for the first time all day when I got there. 5:00:34. Ahh well, no PR today but at least a top 10! I hammered on.
Trying to keep it all together on the final paved stretch (photo by SOS photography)
I finished in 5:07:36. Not too shabby for this old girl with no real taper. My nutrition worked like a charm and besides a few miles of low energy and a bad attitude, I felt fairly strong all day. But I know it would not have been possible without the push of Rob and Jason in those middle miles. Thanks, guys. It is very fun watching both of you get faster and faster!

The finish line celebration at ultras are the best, especially at David Horton races. He loves to announce the name of every finisher, especially if he/she is a first time ultrarunner. I remember finishing my first ultra at Holiday Lake in 2002. I was third female in 5:17 (this year, TEN women broke 5:00!). I'll never forget his welcoming hug at the finish. It was the beginning of a life-changing thirteen years that has introduced me to wonderful friends, beautiful landscapes, and challenged me in ways I could not imagine. Thank you, David, for helping me get my start.

At the finish with RD David Horton. I had to sit down because he told me I was 11th female, not 10th! It's all good!
The rest of the afternoon was spent cheering in my CAT, VHTRC, and Crozet Ultrarunning Team friends. It was awesome to see the joyful expressions on the faces of so many friends as they crossed the line. Special congratulations go out to Michelle Andersen and Jen Lysiak who both finished their first ultra! Little did I know thirteen years ago, while sitting all alone on the wooden bench at the Holiday Lake finish line knowing virtually no one, that the sport would embrace me, nurture me, and make me a better human being.

I think about that every time a newbie crosses the finish line, wondering, "Does she know what wonderful times await?"

Charlottesville Area Trail Runners! We are growing, and it is awesome.
Crozet Ultrarunning Team-- Bethany (first female...and she won in 2002 also!), Marc, Michelle, Dan (11th), Horty, Nick, Annie (7th female), Jeff (first old guy), and John (10th!). Love these people.

Congratulations to all the Holiday Lake finishers! Results are here.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hellgate 2014: Smackdown

I'm back! I took a break from blogging in 2014 but with the post below, I am officially making good on one resolution for 2015, which is to get back to writing. Since I've posted about Hellgate every year, it made sense to start with Hellgate 2014.

After running Hellgate 100k eight times with an average time of 15:07, and a PR on my 50th birthday in 2012 of 14:33, I was under the (false) impression that my ninth Hellgate would be a no-brainer. I *thought* that since the weather was basically perfect with lows in the 30s, highs in the 50s, and clear skies, that all I had to do was show up and run. I *thought* that since my training had been going really well and that I had been feeling rested and recovered from Masochist, all I had to do was show up and run. And I *thought* that since this was my 12th year of ultrarunning and I had figured out my nutrition years ago, all I had to do get the idea. But here's the thing about ultrarunning in general and Hellgate in particular: hubris will smack you down every time. Gary Knipling and I had a conversation about hubris at the Barkley as we watched some friends suffer its consequences. And I thought of Gary once again as it occurred to me at mile 40 that I was in the grip of a huge, epic bonk: hubris had reared its ugly head and Hellgate smacked me down for good measure.

What happened? Well, I was cruising along feeling fine around mile 15 along a gorgeous stretch of horse trail known as the "Promise Land" section with Keith Knipling and defending women's champ Kathleen Cusick. "Hmmmm...I must be running pretty well if I'm running near these people." (Lesson 1: Don't get too cocky. They were just having a rough patch and finished in 14:15). 

The headlamp that I had borrowed for Hellgate was blinking a warning that it was time to switch out the battery, even though it was only 4 hours into the race. (Lesson 2: For the love of God, don't mess with what works! Why I decided to try a shiny trendy headlamp and no handheld instead of the trusty Petzl MYO XP and a very bright handheld is beyond me!). 

I spent a lot of energy trying to navigate the technical sections in the dark, and when I came into mile 25 aid station, I was so preoccupied with fixing the lighting situation that I neglected to leave with my Perpetuem powder as planned as well as extra Clif Bloks. (Lesson 3: don't mess with your nutrition! Get it dialed in and stick to it like glue).

As a result, I started to lose energy descending into Jennings Creek at mile 29, and despite eating lots of eggs on the ascent to Little Cove, I continued the makings of an epic bonk because I was without all my other nutrition (Lesson 4: MANAGE YOUR RACE. This is probably the most important rule of ultrarunning. When things start to unravel, figure it out, change it up. Instead of eating whatever they had at the next aid station, I just took photos of the sunrise). 

I knew I was in for a long day when I reached mile 40 aid station at Bearwallow Gap and they didn't have the hamburgers they had made in years past; I had to settle for a pancake. Not the end of the world, but when I mixed my Perp powder from my drop bag into the water from the aid station, it tasted like soap. Ugh. (Lesson 5: see Lesson 4). Needless to say, I didn't drink a drop for the next 2 hours.

 The last 15 miles I spent refueling and chatting at the aid stations, taking photos, texting my son ( who was en route from Australia throughout the entire race, so I was a wee bit distracted to say the least), and death marching to the finish. Despite my low energy and bad attitude, I also enjoyed periods of gratitude and joy as I remembered the many friends with whom I had had the pleasure of running with in 2014 and in past years at Hellgate. And the final three miles always make me smile: a sweet downhill, the sun shining in my face, the prospect of good food and friends at the finish line, and another Hellgate finish. What could be better?

What will Hellgate #10 bring? One thing I know for certain: hubris will not be invited.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hellgate #8...and 2013 in pictures

"You wouldn't have wanted it to be any different!!" David Horton yelled, just as I was approaching the finish of my 8th Hellgate 100K.

"You wouldn't have wanted it to be ANY different!!" he yelled again, just in case I had not heard him.

Oh, I heard him. Loud and clear. And, he was right. Despite my declaration that I would "never start Hellgate if it was raining and in the 40s," here I was, a little over 15 hours after starting, at the Hellgate finish line, soaked to the skin due to sleet, snow, and cold, hard, drenching rain. How did that happen?

The start of Hellgate 2013--photo by Stephen Hintzman

The start itself was lovely. Temps were in the mid-30s, there was no wind, and the trail was dry. David had warned us the preceding week that we were finally going to experience true "Hellgate weather" after years of perfect conditions. In fact, in the 11-year history of the race, this was the first "Precipitation Year" where we actually had wet stuff falling from the sky. Race week prep included trading Facebook posts about good waterproof jackets and shoe choices in addition to all the usual hand-wringing. But as we were climbing up Petite's Gap to the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it seemed like all the fuss about the weather had been for naught.

Not so fast. At around mile 12 and 3:00am, as we were climbing up to Camping Gap aid station, the sleet began to fall, followed by the snow. Huge, fluffy snowflakes covered the Promise Land section of the course. It was magical.

On the Hellgate course, around 4:00am -- photo by Megan Stegemiller

What I love about running in the snow in the middle of the night is that the trail is lit up, reflecting off my headlamp, and I only have to follow the footsteps in front of worries about going off course! Fresh snow makes everything very quiet and serene, and I was having a wonderful time playing around in it, especially while descending the rockier sections---it made descents much easier, too.

It snowed for about 3 hours, and then, 4 inches later, it was over. But not for long. At around mile 35, the predicted cold rain started to fall. Hard. George Wortley took a great video of the race which shows how bad the weather became here. I was very happy running in just my Patagonia Cap 3 Zip Top, and didn't need to put on my Marmot Precip jacket until about two hours to go, when it started to become drenching. I had been making great time through the Devil Trail at mile 35, but the rain, combined with tired hip flexors (due to the slip, slip, slip-ping on the snowy ascents) started to take its toll. Megan Stegemiller and I came into Bearwallow Gap (mile 40) together in 3rd and 4th place, and as I ate my half a hamburger on the climb out, she and Amy Albu ran past me on the steepest uphill of the race. Yowza! That was some impressive running by Amy, a veteran ultrarunner, and Megan, a rising star in the sport. I was now holding on tightly to fifth, which (to me) is the same as being top 3 anywhere else.

The Forever Section through Day Creek is typically my undoing at Hellgate, but this year I made decent time and was still running at sub-15 hour pace. The creeks were overflowing, the leaves were slippery and slimy, and the rain was flippin' cold. Eating and moving well were the best strategies to get through this section in one piece. I was happy with my fueling plan---I needed to take in at least 3500 calories throughout the race and was using a mix of Perpetuem, Clif Bloks, Hammergel, eggs and the half burger. At the top of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with only 3 miles to go, I looked at my watch and it read 2:30. Typically this descent takes about 30 minutes, but not this year. My trashed hip flexors and cold hamstrings made sure of it. When I rounded the last corner in Camp Bethel, saw the clock read 15:07, and heard Horty's booming welcome, I laughed. The weather was so ridiculous, and yet so perfect for this race.

No, Horty, I wouldn't have wanted it to be any different!

The video I took during the 2008 Hellgate, with comments and photos of so many dear friends. Timeless.


I get a lot of grief for taking video and pics out on the trail, but 2013's photos reminded me why I do it. Here are some highlights!

January ~ New Year's Day Run in the SNP with the Harrisonburg crew along Jones Falls. Can't wait to do it again tomorrow!

February ~ Road trip with the VHTRC to the Uwharrie 40, one of my favorites races

Pam and Alan Gowen, me, Keith Knipling, Tracy Dahl, Rob Colenso, Beth Weisenborn and Sean Andrish

March ~ The Barkley Marathons. Enough said!

The Yellow Gate
with Craig Thornley
Me, Mike Bur, Jenny Nichols, Keith Knipling, and Gary Knipling
April ~ means all lacrosse, all the time. My wonderful JV girls lacrosse team after a run on the Rivanna Trail.

May ~ Montalto 5k, a race to the top of Montalto. Cool weather + fast girls = a 20 second PR.

with my sometimes-when-he's-running-my-pace training pal, Andy
May ~ Reconning the OD100 course with Jenny and hanging out at MMT 100

Jenny Nichols at the confluence of the OD 100, MMT 100, and Tuscarora Trails
May ~ Carter's graduation from St. Anne's-Belfield School

I love this photo, especially because my Mom is front and center!
June ~ Harry Landers Special (20 miles in the SNP with my Charlottesville and VHTRC trail friends)

July ~ Friday's After Five in Charlottesville with SGG, and a surprise appearance by the SGG kids :-)

Lindsay Goodrich, Anna Goodrich, Carter Speidel and Virginia Speidel singing "Hey Ho" while their dads play back-up

August ~ our family trip to Bald Head Island, the best week of the year.

Sunset on our last night
September ~ the Odyssey 40 and back to school --- this year I am run-and bike-commuting!

The view from my run home one evening

The view from the highest point on the Odyssey 40 course

 October ~ Mountain Masochist 50 training on the Fox Mountain course...

 on Three Ridges...

and with Anton Krupicka...

with the Richmond dirt chicks...

November ~ Mountain Masochist 50: This photo of Harry Landers, finishing his first 50 to the cheers of his beautiful wife Janis, is my favorite of the year!

and this one is close behind:

I love how Horty is saying "first old lady!" and Clark is smiling. I love this race.
Hanging with some of my people...
Megan Stegemiller, David Horton, me, and Jennifer Pharr Davis
The view from the highest point on the Masochist course...

and the spectacular foliage we ran through during the race...

December ~ Christmas with our kids, all home from college

and running with the girls on the Thomas Jefferson 100K course

What will 2014 bring?

Who knows, but here are my goals and plans, if it all comes together: stay injury-free, run a PR at Holiday Lake, volunteer at the inaugural Thomas Jefferson 100K, watch my son play his last season of college lacrosse, tour colleges with my daughter, run a girl's only adventure stage run, and finish Masochist (my 8th) and Hellgate (my 9th)... Lots of changes afoot in the Speidel house, but we are looking forward to the adventure.

Life is good...wishing everyone a Healthy and Happy New Year!