Friday, May 10, 2013

Ironmom Goes Ultra-- or it seemed like a good idea at the time (or the Bear Mountain 50K race recap)

In my head, I'm an athlete.  In my head, I'm capable of just about anything.  Its just my body that sometimes doesn't want to comply. . . This was one of those occasions.

I've always wanted to do an ultramarathon.  In fact, in my head (note the theme here), I'd love to do a 100 miler somewhere-- knowing full well it would take me forever.  Figuring that there is no time like the present, last fall I signed up for the Northface Endurance Challenge at Bear Mountain.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.   I took a look at the elevation profile and saw that we were talking about 5000 feet of climbing over trails over the 50K. I thought, "meh, how bad can it be?  I've been running trails in San Francisco for years."

Fast forward about 5 months.  Add in a few months of serious snow. . season with a bar exam (I passed by the way). . . and then top off with a sub-par Boston Marathon recovery and a bit of associated mental anguish and you have me. . . arriving at the start line of the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K at Bear Mountain last weekend.

Race Morning was clear and cool.  It was supposed to warm up so I dressed in my Ironteam singlet and arm warmers, threw on some sweats and grabbed the hotel shuttle to the parking lot.  (This would later turn out to have been a mistake, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.) Switching to the start line shuttle at the parking lot, we headed up the hill.  I arrived just as the 50 mile runners headed out on their adventure and their fans were headed back down the mountain for some much needed sleep.  In 2 minutes I'd gotten my race number and settled in in front of one of the many fire pits that were heating up the area.

The awesome thing about the fire pits was it gave people a place to congregate.  As people trickled in, they came over to get warm.  Before I knew it, there were 8 of us gathered around our fire pit sharing concerns about the day.  None had done this race before, and all were amazed at how, "this year" it didn't sell out in 10 minutes like every other race. . . (hmmmm. . . sounds like IM St. George). . .  There were many experienced racers-- most trail racers--only 2 of us were in line for our first 50K trail race.  I'm a veteran of a million road races. . . and one woman. . . who hadn't run a race EVER. . .

Before we knew it-- it was time to head out.  Sweats dropped and waive 2 started out.

I Had A Game Plan. . . I know. . . as Jack Reacher says, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.  My plan was to go really slow.  Keep up with my nutrition.  Walk the uphills.  Take the DNF if you need to.  This plan was endorsed my all of my ultra friends and my old Iron Team Coach... what could go wrong?

At the first rise, I was heartened to see that EVERYONE started walking.  As in, walking up what I ordinarily would have considered a BUMP-- not even a hill (much less the mountain that comes later).  Traffic slowed to almost a halt as we walked up the hill like ants in a line.  At the top, the pace picked up a little bit and people started to sort themselves out.  I, made sure to say super far to the back, trying my hardest not to get ahead of myself. . .

This went on for a while-- the course was slightly rocky at this point but there were no major climbs.  The participants had sorted themselves out so that I was running with a couple of women who I would pass on the flats and who would pass me on the walks uphill.  By the time we got down to the mile 3.9 aid station, I was feeling fine, had passed these ladies, and was starting to lose the jitters and enjoy myself.  I pretty much ignored the first aid station, I had water in my backpack and enough UCAN to make it to the next aid station so I didn't stop.  I puttered on, passing a group of 3 guys who I would get to know well during the remainder of the race.

It was on the way to the second aid station, 4.7 miles away, that I began to wonder if this had been a good idea.  Already my fingers were starting to swell. . . a sign I usually associate with dehydration. I was running slightly ahead of the group of 3 guys on the flats and downs and would get passed by them on the uphills. . . We were all joking around as we went along. . . It was getting warm, so off came the arm warmers.  And out came the back flies.  LOTS of them. They were everywhere-- swarming around your head, flying into your eyes and nose. Especially on the uphill sections where I was moving pretty slowly.
The guys and I, at one point, clocked a 29 minute mile.  Yes, I'm serious.  I remember looking up at them and saying out loud, "Wow guys, that was a sad little mile we just put in there."  And sad it was.
I pulled into the second aid station.  Happy to add water and some electrolytes to my water supply (and hopefully cut down on all the finger swelling), mix up a second bottle of UCAN, and see if the medical staff had any bug spray.

I pulled out of the station ahead of the three guys and headed out for what turned out to be, by far, the most difficult section of the course.

Difficult really isn't the right word for this section of the course.  The proper, X-rated, terms are "Fucking Ridiculous."  (or, "FR" for short).  What was FR?  Pretty much everything.  The terrain was FR:  a constant diet of rocks for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Not friendly little rocks that you can step on; and not huge boulders that require you to go ahead and climb them with hands and feet, but pesky medium sized rocks that are loose on the ground. Just big enough that you can get your foot on them, but not big enough that you can balance on them when they start to tip over.  Just small enough that you can clear them, but not small enough that you can avoid hitting your already tender from last month's marathon on them.

The elevation change is FR.  At one point, the trail approached what appeared to be a gigantic ledge/boulder.  It was not something you could go around.  As you got closer you saw the course marker. . . An Arrow. . . pointing straight up into the air.

Which pretty much added insult to injury right there.

On hands and knees and feet you pulled yourself up this huge incline. . . pulling yourself up to the top. . . where you were faced with a few hundred yards of rocks followed by, you guessed it, another straight up arrow.  FR.

The view from the top was well worth the climb, but by that point, all I wanted to do was get down that thing.  I sort of regret not pulling out my camera, but already I was concerned about the wasted time/effort that pulling it out of my backpack would take.

Also FR?  The descent from that lofty perch.  Backwards downwards like I was going down a ladder.  Legs wobbly from the uphill climb. .It felt good to be on terra firma.

After the third aid station, we had a good long flat-ish section. Or mostly flat section.  I was able to finally get some momentum going, while still cursing not only the rocks and the bugs but also this time the between knee to ankle high grass that was pulling at my legs constantly.   It wasn't really flat-- there were some nice ascents and some seriously crazy descents, but overall this section wasn't so bad-- or it wouldn't have been if it had come first. . . or maybe even second.

Garmin was registering about 22 miles as I pulled in to the 4th water stop.   The problem with this?  The aid station was slated for 20.9 miles.  Well, maybe Garmin was right and the water stop was wrong.  It was also right about here that the course split between the marathoners and the 50K'rs.  I would be lying if I didn't admit that I spent serious time thinking about switching to the marathon course.  When I signed up for this thing, I thought "how much further can another 5 miles feel?"  By 20.9 (or 22) miles?  Those extra miles sounded like an eternity.   I actually stood there for a minute. . . filling my water pouch. . . and contemplated heading out with the marathoners.   Sighing, I decided to go on with the 50K course.

And about 20 minutes into it, I realized what a mistake this might have been.  I was dizzy.  And weak.  And Tired.  Not just tired.  REALLY TIRED.   I actually sat down for a few minutes and realized that I probably needed to eat something.  (Thank you Sedonia and Ironman training for reminding me that the negative mental energy can be cured by carbohydrates).  I ate a bar. . . got up and started moving forward.  I was slow and I was having trouble on the uphills but I was moving.

It was then that I realized how alone out there I really was.  Dizzy, stumbling a little bit, and all alone on the course I started to imagine how long it would take for someone to find me should something bad happen.  I imagined heart attacks, hyponatremia, and other crazy ailments.  Panic probably didn't help my heart rate elevate. . which fueled my panic. . . which raised my heart rate-- you know. . . it seemed like a good idea at the time.  These are the games that your starved mind plays with you on your 6th hour of running.

Luckily for me, I was still moving forward.  I came upon a women whose leg was bothering her.  It was enough to remind me that there were other people out there on the course and that someone would likely find me if I started to die.  I stayed pretty close to her for a while, or at least until my panic started to subside, and then started to pull away.  That was the good part.  The less good part-- she'd done the course before and was telling me all these things about how IMPOSSIBLE the course was from the 25.5 mile aid station to the finish. . . "Harder than the FR section",  I asked.  "WAY HARDER", her response.

It was also around this time that I had to go down this absolutely FR downhill section.  It was dirt. . . with a few rocks thrown in for good measure but it was nearly vertical.  As I was trying to get down this thing, my legs trembling, the first of the 50M racers came by me.  They were about 20 miles ahead of me. . . and bounding down this thing like it was a flat 5K.  ASTOUNDING.   I managed to make it down without falling on my head and at that point decided I was dizzy, I was tired, my legs wouldn't stop trembling, and I was DONE.  When I got to the next aid station.  I was stopping.  I was taking the DNF and would live to fight again.

In saying that, I've got to tell you.  I've had one DNF in my life.  It was at Boston in 2013.  To agree to take on a second one so soon. . . it should tell you how great I was feeling.

The Man with the Orange Hair. Really.  He had Orange Hair.  It wasn't my exhausted and malnourished self.  There was a woman with Blue Hair.  And someone with Green Hair.  They'd dressed up as jelly beans.  The man with the Orange Hair greeted me as I pulled in to the 25.5 mile aid station.

"Can I fill up your water bottle?"  NOPE.  I'M QUITTING.
"No, you're not quitting-- you've only got 5 miles to go, are you a wimp."  NO. BUT I'M QUITTING.  I'M DIZZY.
"You're dizzy.  Everyone is dizzy. Have a potato.  Dip it in this plate of salt.  Sit down.  Then we will talk about quitting." OK.  I'LL SIT AND HAVE A POTATO.  BUT I"M STILL QUITTING.
"The next aid station is only 2.5 miles away, you can quit there.  You can't quit here."

Two salted potatoes (my absolute new favorite food) and two glasses of Coke later.  I filled up my backpack and headed back out into the woods.  I'm not sure how long I sat there.  But it was probably worth it.  The potatoes, salt, and sugar made a difference.  I found my way up the "Horrible" section. . . and it wasn't nearly as bad as the FR section that I'd already done.  From that point on it was all downhill.  THANK GOD.  There are no words for how ready I was to go down hill.

Except for the rocks.  It was all downhill, but it was all mini boulder rocks again too.  They moved, they wiggled, they twisted.  I made it!  I made it to the final aid station, grabbed another potato, a coke and a handful of M&M's (Yes, Coach Dave, I know that this is NOT a good nutrition plan) and made it to the finish line.

Actually, I was 10 minutes over the cut off time.  But they counted me as a finisher anyway-- I'm not sure why.  They even counted about 10 people who finished after I did.

I hadn't properly trained myself. . . Clearly, despite my nutrition plan, something went wrong and I wasn't getting enough calories.  I was sore.  I was tired.  And I'd missed the cut off.  But I had the medal. And I had done it.

If you'd asked me that day if I'd ever do this course again I would have said "NO WAY"  twice.  But with a few days under my skin, I've started to wonder what would have happened if I'd trained properly.  If I'd had a better nutrition plan (or executed my nutrition plan better).  Would I do another 50K.  Yep.  Will I do it at Bear Mountain?  . . . we shall see.


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  2. Nice job Paula! I think anyone that made it through the course deserves the medal regardless of the finish time. It's a testament to your tenacity, persistence and strong will. I wonder how that rookie runner made out. That's a lot to bite off for your first run!