Monday, November 07, 2011

The Power of the Turtle

I had a little turtle, his name was Tiny Tim
I put him in the bathtub to see if he could swim
He drank up all the water, he ate up all the soap
He tried to eat the bathtub but it woudn't go down his throat
Bubble Bubble Bubble
Bubble Bubble Bubble
Bubble Bubble Bubble
Bubble Bubble POP!

I sang this song for my friend Marci at some point during our training for OKC, or maybe during her training for Chicago '11, when we were talking about how slow we felt sometimes, and how for back-of-the-pack runners, long SLOW distance can be pretty slow, sometimes 12-minute miles or more. So slow, in fact, that some "elite" runners dismiss us as "not even running." But we always came back to the idea that it doesn't matter how slow we are, as long as we DON'T STOP. Marci had a charm made of a turtle and wore it around her neck during Chicago, in which she busted wide open her marathon PR by 37 minutes. She says she called on that turtle, and on my words, during her successful push for her goal of a sub-5-hour marathon.

Separated at Birth, Sisters We Choose
Marci gave me that charm to borrow during my fall ultras. I wore it at Palo Duro Canyon, when I DNFed at Mile 18.  And I had it around my neck when I drove down with 3 much stronger, much faster runners who were attempting their first ultra at Rocky Raccoon 50k in Huntsville State Park this weekend.

Libby, Fiona and Alicia have all had amazing training and racing times recently, while I struggled with consistency and lost "speed" and recovery after my hysterectomy & other things this summer. But I've been on the 50k road before though, and they felt like they could learn something from me.  I only hoped to rein them in as much as I could on the first 15.5 mile loop, so they'd have enough energy and push left for the second loop. I knew I'd have my work cut out for me to keep these raging racehorses tempered, but I also knew that when push came to shove, if they were feeling stronger than I was out there, that they were free to go on ahead and leave me to pull up the rear.  We had come up with a race strategy on the way down there of sticking together as much as made sense in the first loop, and then making the call on breaking out on the second. And I have to say that it seemed to have worked really well for all of us - we had times of running together in various combinations and we all had times of running alone. I think we were able to really draw on each other when we needed it, and yet each of these women is strong enough and well-trained enough to have done this on their own, although we were lucky enough to not have to do that. And we were also fortunate that we had Fawn, Kerry, Tony and a surprise support team member waiting for us at base camp.

The crew at packet pick-up. So happy to share in their first ultras!
I had a lot of demons to conquer during this race.  I was fresh off the DNF at Palo Duro, in which I became dizzy and blacked out for a millisecond at mile 16- not too much, but enough that I was not ready to go back out in the heat and unrelenting sun that had emerged by the time I had to hit the second 12-mile loop. I wasn't prepared to pass out in a ravine somewhere.  I was dehydrated for the better part of a week after that race, so I had to figure out what had gone wrong and how I could prevent a repeat. I also had some slight stomach issues immediately after Run for the Ducks, so I was concerned about that as well. And there is always the mental part of this, the part that says "Really? Why? Isn't 18 miles enough? Why do you have to do this? WHY? What are you trying to prove? and to who???"  You sure as shit better have the right answers when those questions pop up, because if you don't, it makes crying uncle and giving in look really appealing. And I have Erin & Drum to thank for helping me through this, because they really helped me get that straight in my own head as we drove to & from Palo Duro Canyon.

These two really helped me crystallize my motivation. Thanks!! 
So, there you go. Much of what was running through my head as we headed down to Huntsville. I tried not to feel the pressure of "shepherding" the girls through their first ultra, as I knew they were more than capable of it, but I also tried to give them the few insights and nuggets I've learned the hard way at my previous 50ks. Most importantly, I wanted them to take it slowly at the start, especially since we were in the dark, and be careful of the roots and footing in the first few miles. I also emphasized that we wanted to walk the uphills even early on, and control our descents on the few downhills. No need to bomb out our quads in the first hour, when we would definitely want them working later on. The other one is my big downfall, which is that I tend to move into the aid stations, hang out, take pictures, chat with the volunteers (they are a very helpful bunch, after all!) and just linger too long. So, from the get-go, I was cognizant about all of this, and tried to be supportive and encouraging and cheerful and all the while knowing that I was going to end up behind them all, because at the end of the day, I have more guts and determination than real physical skill at this. I know this. And I'm okay with this. Just don't make me stop doing it.

Pre-race. Chilly cool weather that was PERFECT all day!
Anyway, race morning was a flurry of activity, as usual, getting to the race site, pretty close to our hotel.  For some reason, I thought we had a 6:30 start, so I hadn't started eating when we got to the park and picked up our bibs. Only about 5:35 or so did I realize we were starting in a few minutes and I hadn't taken in ANY calories.  Oops! I gobbled half a clif bar and hit the bathrooms, then wandered over to the start line. The girls had already taken Libby's cooler and set up an impromptu drop bag area near some trees, so we set that up and then joined the fray at the start.

It was dark. Really dark 
Alicia and Libby have pretty detailed accounts of the first loop on their blogs, so I would direct you there for the technical details. I know I let them go about 50 yards in front of me early on, because I could still see them and hear them (Marco! Polo!) and I was keeping the gap pretty even. I only did that once I knew they wouldn't be too fast, and were remembering to walk the uphills. I hate roots, and there were a lot of roots. I am tentative on this terrain, which I know I need to deal with, but I also knew it wouldn't do me any good to take a digger in the first 3 miles. So I was content to go just a TAD slower and be conservative.  And really, I ended up at the first aid station about a minute after they did, quick enough for us to take a group pic. Really, at this point, we all were feeling strong and confident, and the weather was just amazingly perfect. By the time we left the first aid station, we could see the sun peeking out just a bit, and that gloaming light was teasing us that soon enough we could dump the headlamps. I was feeling good. Things were going well.

My view for most of first loop!! This is what happens when you're faster than I am!
After a bit, Libby and Fiona pulled in front, leaving Alicia and I to pick our way through the woods and chat and just run.  Except for the roots, which made me feel very stabby, I really enjoyed this trail. Lots of towering trees, the pretty lake, random little wooden walkways over swampy areas.  Alicia commented at one point that it looked like I was dancing as I picked my way around the roots, and I really did feel light on my feet. It was pretty cool. Once the light came up, I was feeling really confident about my ability to handle the terrain. Before we knew it, we were at the last aid station on the loop, just less than 5k from the start/finish.

Beautiful scenery off one of the footbridges. 
At this point, I feel safe enough that Alicia won't spoil the surprise to tell her that Greg, Fiona's husband and a super-ultra runner himself, was going to be waiting for us at the halfway point. He knows how crucial a lift it can be to see a friendly face during a race, and he had let me in on my secret and I was DYING to share! Apparently, she was surprised, so I did my part! whew!! Alicia sprinted in front of me in the last half-mile or so, and reached the clearing into the start. I stayed behind just a bit to chat with Greg and give him a hug, and snap a pic of him with the girls. Then on into the camp to prepare for the second loop.

Alicia & I hung together for most of back half of first loop. 

Requisite self-portrait!
Ultra Ninja G & the girls! 
Right when I came through the chute to mark my loop time, the 50k winner came in behind me. Wow. Yeah, I'm slow. I get it. Whatevs, I'll still finish this damn thing. 

So, I changed shoes and that was pretty much all I had to do. I started out in the NB 10s, and they worked pretty well at PDC but with the roots, I was feeling the bumps a little more than I was comfortable with. I switched into my North Face shoes that are just as minimalist but have a sturdier rock plate. They are a little longer, though, so I tend to trip if I don't lift my feet enough, and I needed to be aware of that, but I felt the trade-off was worth it so my soles didn't get beat up so much. I did grab a couple of acetaminophen from Alicia because my knee was starting to ache a bit, not much, but I wanted to get ahead of it.  By the time I headed out, Fiona had already taken off, and Libby and Alicia were ready to roll.  As we headed out, we saw a ton of 25kers finishing their loops and shaking their heads at us, giving us "way to go"s as we went out as they were done for the day.  At this point, Libby and Alicia surged in front just a bit, and I could see them on the long jeep road (which did seem WAY longer in the daylight!) just ahead of me.  We got to see our friend Ali Wheat on her way out of the first aid station and the about a mile in front of us we saw Fiona, looking strong and fresh.  Go Fiona!!

Fiona rocked the hell outta this course! woot woot!
I reached the aid station just after Libby and Alicia and stopped for a bit to eat a peanut butter-slathered bagel bite. I'd been alternating between bananas and bagels up to now and it was working just fine, so I was sticking with it.  I'd also set my timer about an hour in to go off every 15 minutes. I alternated longer sips of water with water & E-caps (I use Hammer Endurolytes) every time it beeped. That really helped keep me on track, I feel.  But, standing there at the aid station, I was feeling tired. I was wiped out. I felt like the girls had gotten in front of me and I just couldn't close the gap, no matter what I did. And I started to think that Mile 18 was my true wall.  At Tyler Rose last year, I had to start walking at Mile 18. At NYCM, I had to stop and have both knees taped at Mile 18.  At OKC, I had to let Fiona and Marci go ahead of me at Mile 18. And at PDC, just 3 weeks ago, I had dropped out at Mile 18 after walking two miles after the Swoon. What the hell?  But standing there at the aid station, it wasn't physical at that point, though, it was mental. It seems like I always fall apart at Mile 18 and what was it going to take to get me to not?  I didn't know. And I didn't know that I really cared right there and then.  All this flashed through my mind in about 2 seconds.

Requisite shoe shot. Little stretches of sand popped up.
Until the volunteers asked if this was my first one. And I said "No, I did Bandera..." and I was going to add, "it took me forever."  But the volunteer cut me off and said, "Well, then this is NOTHING! People can't understand Bandera until they do it. You can finish this."  I finally said, "but it took me 11 hours," and he said, "So?"  At that moment, I reached up and I grabbed Tiny Tim, on the chain on my necklace.  And I heard clear as day Marci's voice saying "You don't have to run fast. You just have to keep moving."  And I took another bite of bagel, and I asked the volunteer how far to the next aid station.  He said 3.5 miles, that I was at mile 19 right there. Wait, what? 19?  I didn't even know it, because I'm bad with math and I didn't really pay attention to the spacing of the aid stations, but I'd already crossed Mile 18.  Well, hell.  Let's do this thing, then!

I didn't walk one step between that aid station and the next.  I could see Alicia & Fiona in front of me, and I closed the gap significantly, even though I wasn't running fast, I was running. The painkillers had kicked in and I wasn't feeling any pain. And I knew that I would finish. I knew it would be slow, and I knew they'd be tearing down the aid stations behind me, but I also knew that by the time I got to the next station, I'd have less than NINE MILES to go, and I was going to do this.  I caught up to them at the aid station, and we took a pic together. Then they surged ahead again, and I was ok to go the rest of the way alone.  Except that I saw them at the top of a rise just in front of me, about a half mile out. And I yelled, "WAIT FOR ME!"  For some reason, I needed just one more little bit of hanging with them. I wanted to see them just a little bit more.  They waited for me at the top of the rill and we took one more picture, and then just like that, I was suddenly okay to drop back. I told them I'd see them at the end.

Libby & Alicia were just ahead of me on first 2 aid stations. 
From there, all I needed to do was get to one more aid station five miles out, and then I was another 3 from the finish. That five miles was the LONGEST five miles ever!!  I saw a hiking group on the trail and quite a few cyclists in that stretch.  The hikers were young kids with a school group, and they all cheered for me as I came through. That was awesome! I said, "Thanks, y'all make me feel like a rockstar even though I'm second to last right now!" and one of the kids said, "Hey, you're doing better than me!"  That gave me a boost for sure!! They also said, "Your friends are just up ahead, keep going!"
Thanks to hikers for my new profile pic! 
At one point, I thought that stupid water cooler a mile out from the aid station was never going to appear. I was running, walking some, running, whatever I could. I knew I had slowed down a LOT. I crossed a bridge and seriously just wanted to sit. For just a minute. I was hungry earlier so luckily I had my granola bar with me and had eaten one of the two in the pack, walking while I did, even through some fairly runnable stretches. But it was the first time in the day that my stomach growled at me for being hungry so I paid attention. I had kept up with the hydration and e-caps just fine but realized that I was hungry because at the last station, I had thrown away the bagel when I found it was a jalapeno bagel with peanut butter. Bleargh!! I felt much more energized after eating, but I was still so so tired.  I passed a bridge and considered just plopping myself down on the edge of it to get a break and get off my feet, but then I looked ahead and no more than 5 feet on the other side of it was a metal park bench.  HA!! Perfect.  I looked at my watch and noted the time. I was not going to allow myself more than 3 minutes here. I just needed to take my weight off my feet. I drank a bit and reflected on where I was, and what I needed to do.  I rubbed my turtle charm and knew that I was going to finish. I knew that I could do this. There was one walker behind me, but how far behind I wasn't sure. I thought he might be catching up to me, so that motivated me to get moving again. I promised myself that as soon as I hit the water cooler that I would RUN to the next aid station, no matter what.  And that's what I did.

When I pulled in, I was so excited to see them. And the first thing the volunteer did was tell me that the Longhorns were whooping on Tech. Then he told me I wasn't 3 miles from the finish, I was 2.8 miles from the end. Oh mah guah!  That's less than my park loop. I pulled into that station at 7:55 on my watch.  I knew I could crawl 3 miles in an hour. I was going to have a PR!! That got me going really quickly.  I thanked them profusely and went on my way. I had this!!

We don't have these trees in NTX! 
I kept visualizing sections of my run to the park & back, and breaking down the terrain in front of me into similar sized chunks - from the front door to the end of the block, from our block down three more to the turn, from the start of the park to the mile marker, etc. I just kept moving.  I finally came out of the woods into the end of the trail and saw a course volunteer on a chair right at the turn into the final stretch.  He told me I had a mile to go. I remembered this stretch from the previous 3 times we'd been on it - I hated it!! Old gravel & a few more inclines. UGH! But, I was almost there!!

About half a mile away, I see this person coming toward me wearing the brightest shirt ever!! It was Tony, from Twitter, who had run his first 50k earlier, with Fawn.  He was either appointed or chose to come out and find me, since I was the last of our crew to come in. He told me he had run with Fawn the whole way (JEALOUS!) and had been hanging out with our group since. What fun! I was so glad to see him, and more glad that I was so close. He was walking, and I was running, and his pace was about the same as mine!! But, hey, I was RUNNING!!  About 200 yards from the last clearing into the finish, I asked him if he would please take my pack and camera and go on ahead and tell them I was coming.

As I turned into view, I saw a desolate finish line, but for this small group of frunners, waving and cheering and calling my name!! I can't tell you what an awesome feeling that is!!! I started to tear up, but I fought it off (NO CRYING ON THE COURSE!!) and just ran in as strong as I could. WOOT WOOT!!

I did it. Ultra #3 in the bag. Last female finisher, ahead of just one other person.  That doesn't matter. I finished, and with a PR of one hour and five minutes, too. Mile 18 didn't get me. I powered through, I channeled Timmy, and I just kept moving. Thanks to Marci for being with me in spirit, HUGE congrats to Libby, Fiona, Alicia and Tony on their first 50ks. Big-time thanks to Tony for bringing me in on that last half-mile. Kudos to Greg for showing up all the other race hubbies and surprising Fi with his support.  Hugs to Fawn for making me smile and inspiring me every time I see her!! And the biggest thanks goes to my family, who tolerates me running away every few weeks to go play in the woods, and who let me know that they are proud of me, even when I don't finish, even when I come in second-to-last. I can't do it without them, and doing it makes me a better person.

Finisher award!
Thanks, Tony!
Frunner Finishers. CONGRATS & Thank you ALL!

Wild Hare is coming up in two weeks. I get to do it again.  I can't wait!!