Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hell's Hills 50M Race Report - What not to eat before you run 50miles...

Well it turns out there aren't all that many "hills" per se at Hell's Hills, but there's enough abrupt ups and downs, rocks, twists and turns, and "fun stuff" the last few miles of each loop to justify the name.

My Saturday morning started off pretty much like any other Ultra race day - EARLY.  By 340AM I had made it out to Rocky Hill Ranch in Smithville, Tx and was regretting not packing my typical gluten free PB sandwich also known as 2nd breakfast.  However, as I was getting situated, Rob Goyen (HATR president, and my Crew Master for the day) sent me a text asking if I wanted anything for breakfast. Thinking this was fantastic, I texted him back and anxiously awaited my eggs.  I figured this would be something bland, and packed with protein to keep me full awhile to boot.  I couldn't have been more thankful as I scarfed down an egg burrito, that while delicious may have turned out to be my stomach's culprit later on in the day.

The 50 mile edition of Hell's Hills started promptly at 5am, and off we went into the darkness winding our way through the woods and up and down some dirt paths riddled with roots and loose rocks.  I had been warned that the first few miles and the last few miles of each loop were the hardest so I settled into a 10 minute pace with a small group of folks and I was happy to have their eyes to help find the course through the trees.  We spent most of the first 7 miles to the first major aid station switching spots back and forth as one of us would just about miss a turn, and the ones behind would identify the correct path and move to the front of the pack until they also went the wrong way.

As we approached the first aid station, I didn't even slow down and took the lead heading into the next 5 mile section of the race.  I was very happy that this section was not nearly as technical, as the winding was reduced and the running surface turned mostly to soft dirt with minimal rocks.  I really enjoyed this section.  And it showed as I was clicking off 930-945 minute miles, and I maintained my position at the lead of the group.  What I couldn't get over though was that nearly 9 miles into a race, I was still running WITH a pack of folks.  There was still a solid group of 5-6 guys plus myself running within 45 seconds of each other.  As the trail winded on, and the path was nice and soft I forgot about the pack and slowly began to pull away from them as I began to focus more on my own race.  Somewhere around mile 10 or so as I had begun to gap the group of boys, I heard one of them ask another, "Is that a girl?".  I laughed to myself, smiled broadly and surged ahead a little harder to put a bit more distance between the pack.  Then around mile 11.5 or so, we hit the Blue Bonnets.  WOW.  It was amazingly beautiful - an absolutely massive field of wild flowers moving with the breeze like waves, it was stunning.  Pure joy of being able to run somewhere so special carried me through the aid station at mile 12 where I again, unlike some of the competition behind me, did not stop.  This was the last I heard of the group behind me, and I ran the next section to the end of the first loop pretty much solo until I caught a guy around mile 14 or 15.

Field of Blue Bonnet's at Hell's Hills
The third section was a mixed bag.  It started off very much like the second section - very runnable.  I enjoyed the sun coming up, running through some southern pines, and being able to click off some more steady miles.  About 3 miles into this section though, you hit the fun stuff.  The hills get steeper, and the trail gets a little bumpier again.  And then with about 1.5 to go in the loop you wind your way up and down and around a few short, but very serious climbs.  A few of these climbs are aptly named the Grind, and the Wall, and one of the descents has a XXX warning for mountain bikers.  Needless to say, I would not attempt that section of trail on wheels.  However, eventually I popped out onto the field and made my way to the aid station at the end of loop 1 in 2:45.

With crew-master Rob, I was refilled and on my way by 2:47.  While I was starting the second loop I took stock of where I was and noted that my hands were pretty swollen.  CRAP.  Too much salt, or too little?  I took stock of what I had eaten, and realized the answer had to be too much.  I didn't worry too much about this though, because it should be warming up soon, at which point my body would use the salt, and besides I had water in my pack this loop.  I continued on, trying to maintain my pace, and was soon rewarded by blazing past the 2nd place female.  Excellent I thought, my race was playing out just as planned.  Soon enough I passed the 7 mile aid station, at which point I thought about, but passed on the idea of using the port-o-john there as my stomach was really starting to talk to me.

A few miles into this section, I realized my mistake of not using the bathroom.  But, I figured the next aid station likely had a port-o-john also, and surely I could make it another 5 miles.  When I got there, I realized this wasn't the case and went off into the woods.  After a quick off course excursion, I felt much better and went about tackling the remainder of the loop.  After a few more miles though, I realized that my "much better" was about to be short lived, and I slowed down a bit making it back in to the start finish about 5 minutes slower than my first lap.

While at the S/F aid station, rob asked how I was doing, and I told him my stomach was sour.   But I knew I had over 3hrs and 20 minutes to make it home in under 9 hours.  I grabbed some 7-up, my gluten free annie's animal crackers and went off on my way.  The next 7 miles took forever.  I was very unhappy to be running the hardest section of the course on a very not happy stomach.  I took a few more bathroom trips into the woods, and walked more than my legs needed to at that point of the race.  It was incredibly frustrating.  My legs felt reasonably good still, but every time I pushed the pace, I had to head off trail for a few minutes.  Eventually, after 80minutes, I made it to the mile 7 aid station.  Here I grabbed some ginger ale and then made a stop at the portojohn before continuing on my way.

At this point my stomach was finally starting to be a bit more agreeable.  I was able to convince myself that the next section was runnable, and ran every step to the 12 mile aid station.  From here, I just had to make it home.  I continued to plod my way down the course forcing myself to run until I hit the harder sections, and then quickly hiked the hills.  But at this point, have to deal with my stomach for 18 miles had taken a lot out of me and my run and fast hike had slowed considerably.  But I knew I was approaching the end, and eventually I popped out onto the field, and although my stomach problem was starting to resurface from pushing again for so many miles, I was able to run it the rest of the way in.  Finishing in 8:46, good enough for 2nd female and 8th overall.

Showing off my 2nd Place Rooster Award :)
While I clearly didn't have the day I had planned on, I couldn't be disappointed with my performance.  Having never had stomach problems like that in a race before, I just needed to figure out what caused it.  After carefully considering my food, and the noticed salt spike early in the race I am fairly certain that the fast-food style eggs, plus the flour tortilla (which I eat minimal gluten to begin with) must have been loaded with more salt than I anticipated.  Plus some future research would list eggs as a source of magnesium which can REALLY jack up your GI system during endurance events.  So lesson learned.  Don't change your nutrition the day of an ultra!  And perhaps gluten has a larger impact on my intestinal system than I have been previously willing to admit.  That said, I am fairly certain that I can prevent having such an issue at a future race and will return to the race diet that has worked for me so well in the past!  I am looking forward to testing this theory later in April at Brazo's Bend 50 Mile on 4/26.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Rocky 50 Race Report - Running like I stole something.

Last Saturday I toed the line for the Rocky 50 Miler. My intention was to run around 8:30, give or take.  I knew I was fit, and having previously run a 9:09 on a much hillier course, I figured this was doable and would be a huge accomplishment.

Cruising into mile 45.6
As Jeff and I got ready at the start and I told him good luck I figured we'd probably run at least the first lap together, as he is also really fit right now, and could definitely go sub-9 as well.  But when the gun went off I immediately lost track of him as the start was very crowded and there were some people in front of us that should have probably started a little further back.

As I found my rhythm in the first few minutes, my excitement quieted a little and I enjoyed watching the snow fall through the light of my headlamp.  Due to it being dark at start, I had really no idea how I was doing position wise.  This was fine by me. I knew there were some fast girls registered and was content to go about running my own race.  The first 3 miles really were without significance, other than I realized that the crowd has thinned out and I was comfortably running with 1 other person near me after about mile 2.
Sooner than I expected we reached the first aid station, and Jose was there to cheer and offer support.  My mind was focused more on my husband than on myself at that point, so my only request to Jose was to keep me updated on Jeff's progress the rest of the day.

Over the next 3 miles to the second aid station I enjoyed the mildly technical terrain, and the winds of the trails, and had some conversation with a guy I caught up to shortly after the start of this section.  As we approached Damnation at mile 6.2 I asked the guy how far this aid station was because we got to it much quicker than I thought we would - around 56 minutes or so.  Upon realizing that I was 6.2 not 5.8 miles into the course, I decided to hang back a little and let the fellow go on without me.

I proceeded along at my own pace, and even let a girl go on without me as she caught me going up the one hill on the course that I hiked all 3 times.  At this point, I still thought I was averaging about 9:40-10:00 pace, depending on the ups and downs and terrain of any given mile and really hadn't a clue as to the incredible journey of a race I was embarking upon.  As the course wound back to Damnation and I saw all the folks behind me, I started to realize that my run was perhaps going better than I planned.  I was pleased.  I slowed at Damnation to ensure that I hadn't taken a wrong turn, and we really were supposed to come back this way as I was running solo at this point and then continued on my way to the next aid station.

The next section of the loop is the most boring and for me, as well as the most disconcerting section of the loop.  It winds back through the woods on some of the trails I had already seen that morning and then spits you out on a undulating and very dull fire road.  Having not looked at a course map ahead of time, I was unsure if I was supposed to be on the same trail as earlier again, and was slightly worried that I was going the wrong way!  But once I got on the fire road I knew I was gong the correct way and proceeded along to the next aid station.  At this aid station both Jose as well as my co-worker Maryann were there to cheer me on.  I was feeling solid, and was happy to hear that Jeff was only a minute or two back at mile 3.  Without slowing I was through the aid station and on to the last section of the first loop.

This section is my favorite section of the course.  It has a few inclines and then eventually winds back into the path that we are on at the beginning of each loop.  As I got nearer the end of the loop I was the leaders heading back out for loop number two.  I determined that some 7 girls or so were ahead of me.  Huh, I thought I would be higher up than that!  Then once I got to the loop end aid station and saw my time, I was in a little bit of disbelief.  2:31 for 16.7 miles, and in either 7 or 8th place.  Wow. Weather was definitely on our side today.  I quickly got my pack refilled, and Jose helped me sort out my food for loop 2 and off I went at 2:34 elapsed.

A few minutes into the second loop I saw Jeff coming in to finish loop 1, he looked strong and after passing quick cheers for one another as we passed I continued on to what would be another excellent loop.  I felt strong. I sort of just bopped on down the path, and paid a little more attention to the distance between the aid stations this time.  This loop I stopped at Damnation to briefly down some quick fluids before continuing on to the little lollipop section of 2.? miles before arriving back at Damnation.  This time I saw Jeffrey on  my way back to the aid station, and as I told him he was doing great, he replied that "you're doing better!" his encouragement helped lift my energy as I cruised back through Damnation and through the halfway point of the course in under 4 hours.  At this point it hit me that so long as nothing went wrong the last 25, I really had a solid shot at finishing right around 8 hours.

En route to the next aid station at mile 29 I started to have some serious cramping in my right quad.  This was unexpected, but not surprising since I was pushing pace quite a bit as compared to my last 50 milers, and I had a few minutes of cramping in my left hammy earlier in the loop. A few minutes later, I was happy to see some folks up in the distance to try to catch and worked to ignore the pain and try to close the gap as I approached Jose and Maryann.  At 29 I had to stop and get some vitamin-I in hopes that it would help lessen the pain in my quad.  It didn't much, but on I kept trucking and by playing games with myself I got myself through the lap, passed another girl, and finished the lap around other words my lap splits were almost DEAD EVEN 34 miles into a race!  WHO DOES THAT?!  After a bit of  a mishap at the aid station resulting in a quarter of my pack being spilled on me, I was off for lap 3!  If I could hold pace again, I'd come in nearly an HOUR ahead of my goal, and if my quad didn't loosen up, I still had nearly 3 hours left to break 8, and 3:30 to break my goal.  No matter what, I was going to PR today.  If that doesn't get your adrenaline flowing, then you must be a corpse already.  I was ready to tackle the third loop and set off down towards the first aid station.

The last loop was by far the hardest.  I knew exactly how much distance I had to the next tree, or so it seemed, from having already seen the course so much that day.  And my legs were getting tired.  I added in a few fast walk segments, and made it past the first aid station by about 1 mile before my garmin finally gave out.  As a side note, I hadn't really been using my garmin for much more than controlling my pace early in the race, and then helping to keep myself moving as my legs got tired on loop 3; but once it gave out, I knew I just had to push more if I wanted to meet my goals.  I kept winding through the woods and eventually made it back to Damnation, at which point I asked if anyone had the total distance and was told that I'd be at 25 miles when I came back through.  I couldn't do math in my head at this point, and just tried to keep moving and trying to get back to Damnation before too much time had passed. Somewhere on this lollipop I started to feel good again, I was slowly catching people that were still on loop 2 and this gave me energy to feed off of and keep pushing.  I was still taking very brief walk breaks here and there; but they were shorter and fewer.  After I went through Damnation for a final time, when I knew I had less than 9 miles to go I was ready to start pushing again.  I took one final short walk break and then started pushing until I heard the party at mile 45.6.

Leaving mile 45.6 and talking strategy with Jose
This was my longest stop at an aid station other than the end of each loop all day. I needed to eat; but couldn't suck down any more Gu, and needed water as I knew I was almost dry in my pack.  While I was trying to sort out what I needed in my head, Jose got me psyched up by telling me that I was in 5th, and within striking distance of 4th.  He also is a big liar and told me that she looked rough, and was going to be easy to catch.  Newly motivated, hydrated, and fed I started down the trail with 2 goals in mind.  Break 8 hours, and catch the chic in front of me.  I was going to run until I couldn't run anymore.  Somewhere about 2 miles into this section, my pack went dry.  Crap.  But okay, 2ish miles from homes, and I could manage that, right?  Soon after that I caught glimpse of the 4th place girl.  She looked strong and was simply enjoying the day. Double crap. Okay. Time to rethink this.  I knew I could make it through without the water, but I needed to pass her with conviction.  So I slowed up for a minute and took stock of what was in the bank, and then I picked it back up, passed her and never looked back.

Now I just had to make it home! Dang I was thirsty though, and I needed to eat something, but only had Gu's on me that weren't going to go down without the water to chase them.  I started figuring out how far I was, and eventually realized that the worse thing I could do right now was not take in anything.  So, I took off my fleece ear warmer and sucked some of the salty sweat out of the band.  Yeah, I did that.  Yeah it sounds disgusting.  But, it worked.  I got both the fluids and salt I needed and felt much better as I got closer and closer to home.  When I crossed the road about a half mile out, I turned on the jets, and when I crossed the final road and started down the chute, I turned on the turbo, especially once I saw the clock.  I sprinted in to a final time of 7:45:06, 4th place female, and 12th overall.  I was and still am ecstatic over how well this race went! I can't wait to line up for my next 50 Miler in a few months.

So elated about this race!

Some end notes and credits:
-Jose may simply be the best crew anyone could ever ask for.  He was quick and got me what I needed as I needed it, and crewed for both me and Jeff for the majority of the race, running back and forth between the aid stations to see us both multiple times.
-Jeffrey also had a fantastic race, and a 20 minute PR, and I'm super happy and lucky to have such a great motivating training partner every day.
-Seeing Maryann each loop and knowing that I had all of Luke's Locker in Katy cheering for me, as well as the entire Houston Area Trail Runner crew was also incredibly motivating. I was happy to be earning points for the HATRs!

-Alternated filling my pack with Gu Brew, Water, and HEED (on course electrolyte drink) this plan worked perfectly with not going overboard on the salt and staying hydrated...until I ran out of fluid on the last lap!
-Ate 1 bonk breaker bar and 3-4 GUs per loop.  The bonk breaker bars worked fantastically as did the Gu until my stomach said no more!  I'll have to have more bland food in my pack for later stages of my next race. I think eating more would be helpful.

-Wore the Nathan Intensity Women's Specific Pack.  I love this pack; but I hate that people at aid stations can never figure out how to open / close it.
-Black Diamond the Spot headlamp clearly illuminated all of the roots early in the morning without weighing me down.
-Wore the Brooks Pure Grit 2 which did an awesome job protecting my feet, keeping them nimble, and gripping the few muddy spots.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Consistency and My First Ultra Win

Saturday Dec. 7, marked another anniversary of Pearl Harbor. It also marked the first Houston Area Trail Runners (HATRs) race, fun run, or speak easy run if you will on the Ho Chi Minh trails in Memorial Park, Houston. The race almost didn't happen due to issues with permits and potential flooding/ park trail closures. Luckily, the HATR group is headed up by an awesome guy, Rob Goyen, that went to battle with both the city and the park so that we could have our event. The catch was no advertising, and no signage could be put up at the run. Hence why I am referring to it as a speak easy race (the difference being, we weren't doing anything illegal - just playing by the city's specific rules). 

The race brought out some fun loving trail and ultra runners, as being a 6 hr event - there are no DNFs. The course was a 5 mile loop on the Ho Chi Minh trails, which is the premium spot for trail running within Houston city limits. All runners were invited to run as many laps as they wanted to or could complete within the 6 hour limit. 

The fun kicked off promptly at 6am with a nearly 60 runners crazy enough to brave the frigid temps (for Houston) and not scared off by the threat of a little water falling from the sky or mud on the ground. For the record, even this Yankee thought it was downright COLD at 27 degrees. 

As the race started I situated myself near the front, I'd say top 10 - an uncharacteristic move on my part; but I had a feeling that I really had a shot of doing well. Besides, with the amount of single track, I didn't want to get pushed too far to the back with the start. 

We started down the trail heading in the opposite direction of what I am used to running with the HATR group on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  It was incredibly dark and cold. After a few minutes of trying to stay with the rabbits to both warm up more quickly, and use the extra light offered by their headlamps, I settled into what seemed like a slow but maintainable pace. I had a feeling that this first night lap might be a bit slower than I wanted; but since I usually have the opposite problem, I was okay with that.  The trail winds quite a bit and has some nice little rollers the majority of the way. So once I got far enough back that I had to rely on my own light, I definitely proceeded cautiously, stopping a few times to check for markers, and yelling to the folks behind me where there were trees to jump over or duck under, sharp turns, or poor footing. I was especially careful to do this after I heard someone not too far back trip over some knarly roots. 

After what seemed like far longer than 2.5 miles I made it to the 1/2 way aid station with a group of 3-5 other guys running close to me. As we proceeded to the Bayou crossing, we got a little hung up and went slightly off course before a few runners with better eyes than our group tracked down the markers and got us back on course. 

From here, the course flies! It's a undulating single track that just winds around the outskirts of the park. This part of the loop has the best footing by far, and I could feel that I was making up time. I was warming up, and starting to wish I hadn't worn sleeves or gloves. In around 53 minutes I am through lap 1, and told that I am indeed the first female.

This news was pretty exciting. I'd never won a trail race before, so I had every intent of staying where I had positioned myself.  The sun was starting to come up and by the time I finished the second loop I felt super awake and ready to race.  At this point I still hadn't stopped for aid, as I was fully loaded with Gus and my 2L Nathan Hydration pack - my own sneaky time saving measure for ultra racing. :) And as I went by the aid station, I checked my watch and sure enough - I was about a minute faster.

The 3rd loop was one of the most fun loops, I was lapping some of the runners and enjoying myself immensely on the windy single track while I shouted words of encouragement to everyone I encountered.  I was down right chipper. And I was haulin'!  I finished this lap in 48 minutes and some change and was super thrilled that I was negative splitting an ultra! What the heck!!! Heading out for lap 4, I was determined to try to negative split the whole darn thing, and flew around the next 5 miles in 47:51, fast enough to claim the fastest female loop time prize for the event.  Yowza's.  

At this point I was pretty confident I was going to win the women's and just needed to hang on for a few more laps - my goal was to finish 30 miles in 1st for the women, and juuuussst over 5 hours so I wouldn't be allowed to start another loop.  I know, a bit of a slacker's aspiration....but it was COLD still, and 30 was my ideal distance for the week having only 1 other long run being the 26.2 mile training run I ran the Sunday before, and a long year of racing planned for 2014.

Lap 5 was a little unremarkable, I did start getting a little tired, but still did a good job maintaining pace coming through the loop in 49:22, which was just about perfect for my aforementioned goals, and my dream of negative splitting a freaking ultra distance event! As I got into lap 6, I debated how badly my legs felt and whether I should go for 35 miles.  As I approached the water crossing and came upon one female I had not seen previously during the race that was moving pretty well, I thought I might HAVE to run 35 to ensure she didn't catch me again!  A few minutes later I realized that 30 would be sufficient and put it in cruise control to coast in to the finish in 5:00:30, a PR trail 30 mile time, and on pace for what would have been a significant 50K PR.  As I got to the aid station, Rob told me I had 1 minute to start another loop if I wanted to. And I told him, that I was good, I timed it perfectly - I ran the fastest 30 miler I could without feeling obligated to run 35!

In the end I was 1st female and 4th overall. And I couldn't have been happier with my first ultra experience in Texas!  (I do hope it's a little warmer for the next one though!).  And despite slowing a little on the last 2 laps, my second 15 miles wound up being almost 4 minutes faster than my first 15 miles, and it was the most consistent I have ever run an ultra from start to finish. I couldn't be more excited to train and race here in 2014.

Happy Trails Everyone!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

TRI-ing to stay healthy!

A year ago, I was sitting on my hands anxiously waiting for the fourth Thursday of November -  and not for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving day marked the first day I could try to start running again after sustaining a fairly severe pelvic stress fracture. Once Thanksgiving came, I started what seemed like an eternally long road back to fitness.

Now I should probably note that I had been pretty stubborn about going to the doctor. (I was having pain that was affecting my activity level in July and didn't get it diagnosed until the first week of September.) Had I not played the self diagnose game this process probably would have been a lot shorter! So lessons number one and two today: LISTEN TO YOUR BODY! AND if you think you are injured GO TO SEE THE SPECIALIST! (They have these nifty tools that can see things inside of X-ray and MRI machines.)

Ok, back to getting fit. This process was SLOW. I was trying to be very careful and was doing any exercises or activities that I thought would help me avoid a repeat injury. I picked up Yoga in January, and after a few sessions I could feel my muscles getting stronger and more flexible and being able to better support my posture, running, and climbing. This seemed like the perfect addition - until I pulled my lower back during a  class in February and spent several weeks shuffling about, understanding for the first time in my life what it is really like to have real back pain. You know the kind of back pain that wakes you up at night back pain. Lesson number three: KNOW YOUR EDGE - just because the guy next to you can get into a pose, doesn't mean you can or should!

In March a friend of mine recommended I take up triathlon as a good way to encourage non-impact cross training and reduce injury. After consulting two other friends (who happen to be on the board for the DCTRI club) I was quickly convinced that this was a solid idea.

With enthusiasm I jumped in the pool, started cycling, and adding a few Brick workouts (Bike/Runs) and two-a-days to my routine. I quickly did my first duathlon, and then another on some serious hills in Strausburg, VA and realized I loved every second of it! When the event photos came back from the Strausburg Du, I realized I was grinning ear to ear in every one! I didn't have my usual road-race grimace of embracing the suck. Nope, I was genuinely THRILLED!  The only other race photos of me that capture this much joy of sport are my trail ultra photos.
Strausburg Du - 1st in Age Group (out of 1), 6th Female!

Not only was I enjoying the multi-sport thing; but the biking was REALLY helping my running. My knees didn't ache, my speed was improving, and my periformis always felt GREAT after a bike ride. In fact, bricks are now my favorite workouts, because my body feels so good after a long bike ride. And for some reason, after 2-3 hrs on a bike, I can bang out 10 miles at a quicker pace, and with less effort than I can otherwise.

Also, I realized that with my typical running schedule (5 days a week, and no real distance other than the weekends), fitting in the biking and swimming wasn't all that difficult and gave me something to do in the evenings when I would have otherwise been chilling in front of the computer or partaking in more happy hours than are perhaps necessary. So I embraced the triathlon, and over the summer saw it pay dividends in both my health and my running times.

By the end of July when I curtailed my training to focus on selling the house and moving to Houston, I had set two huge ultra PRs in the 50 K and 50 Mile distance, and placed 16th overall in both races. Not only that, but I actually surpassed my 50K mark en route to my 34 minute 50 Mile PR. All of this with lower mileage on the feet due to amping up the biking and little to no speedwork. What the what!! I was sold. In addition, I did my first real Triathlon too - an Olympic distance tri. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience as well and banged out a sub 45 minute 10K after a 1500 meter swim and a 25 mile bike. My run split ended up being the 3rd fastest female run split of the day. Talk about feeling happy!

Just finished my 1st Triathlon!
In addition to all the awesomeness noted above, one of the best parts of this triathlon experiment is that for the first time in several years - I finished a season of racing without any significant injuries. I will definitely continuing TRI-ing in the future, and am already signed up for my first Ironman next September - Ironman Chattanooga. I highly recommend any runners consider adding some biking and swimming to their routine.

Happy Trails!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Coopers Rock State Forest Trail Running

While the Government shutdown continues to keep our National Parks closed and inaccessible, this weekend might be a great time to visit some of those fantastic State Parks.  A personal favorite of mine is Coopers Rock just outside of Morgantown, WV.  Granted, I am a bit biased since I grew up less than 10 miles from here; but it REALLY is an excellent place to run, hike, bike, climb, picnic, or just be outside.
Wild and Wonderful at Coopers Rock - View from Raven Rock
This park contains over 12,000 acres and is well known for it's rock climbing and bouldering and hiking trails. With it's location just off of Exit 15 of I-68, it is perfect quiet oasis for an early morning trail run as well.  The trails here offer incredible variety, from hilly to flat and technical to smooth dirt path and fire roads offering running paths suitable for all abilities.

When you enter the park, it is a 3.5 mile drive to the Overlook (or main) parking lot near the concession stand/store, picnic tables, and restroom facilities.  From here it is pretty easy to hop on any number to trails. As you are facing the concession stand, the trail off to the left will jog you down to the overlook.  This is a heavily used short little trail; but is worth the trip if it's your first time at Coopers.  If you look over the hill to the right of the concession stand, heading that way will take you towards Rock City, the Rattlesnake Trail and the Rhododendron Trail - all great areas to explore if you are doing a shorter run, or wanting to loop several different trails together for a longer run.  Rock City and the Rattlesnake Trail are again some of the more heavily used trails due to their parking lot and facility proximity.

If you head back up the road you drove in for just under a mile, you will find Raven Rock trail on the Right, just off an old fire road that is blocked by a metal gate.  This is, in my opinion 1 of the 2 must do trails at Coopers.  The trail from here is about 4 miles out and back with the summit at Raven's Rock at the halfway point.  The majority of this trail is very rocky and you are pretty much always gaining or losing elevation the entire way.  A little under a half mile to the top, the trail narrows to a single dirt track and goes steeply up hill. While getting to the top will require a little bit of work, the views from the top nearly parallel the views from the much more traveled Overlook, and you will see far fewer pedestrians en route.
Trail heading back from the top of Raven Rock

Another view from Raven Rock
Once returning to the main park road from Raven Rock, you can simply cross the road and will find yourself on the Roadside Trail.  This smooth dirt path runs along the main road from the Overlook parking lot to the first parking lot in the park. This is a great shakeout trail after the rocky and hilly terrain of Raven Rock.

If you follow Roadside trail as it winds along a short distance off of the main route you enjoy some very smooth double and single track that gently winds along until eventually spit you out on the advanced ski loop that goes sharply to the left.  A short ways down this path you will come to the Reservoir Ski Loop off to the left again.  This is the other portion of Coopers that every runner should explore. A nice undulating and sparsely used single track that winds back into the forest and eventually comes out at a little pond.  This trail is so peaceful and serene that it is easy to loose track of time and just enjoy the trail and the air.  If you continue on past the pond you can take several of the paths to weave your way back towards the parking area; however, please be mindful of how far east you are trekking and what trail you are on, as making a left on Ridge Trail is your last chance to loop back before heading to the edge of the park on Mount Chateau Trail.  The Ridge Trail will eventually meet up with Rock City and Rattle Snake Trail.

For more information on the trails of Coopers Rock please go to the official website and download their trail map.  Or click here and here.

Get out and enjoy the some of the state parks and trails this weekend everyone.  Coopers Rock is just one of many places folks can find some respite from the crazy world in which we live.

Happy Trails!

**A few words of caution:
1. Coopers Rocks is open for hunting.  So please wear bright colors if you head out during hunting season this fall.
2. A second word of caution, Rattle snakes and Copper heads are common here, and I have seen both in the area.  But if you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone. :)
3. Dogs are welcome! Please keep them leashed and clean up after them! And if bringing a dog, please be mindful of note 1.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Mohican 50 Miler - Race Recap

This past weekend I loaded up and headed out to the wild Mid-West of Ohio to a small town called Loudonville, located a ways off of I-77 and about an hour out of cell phone reception.  For me, this was the perfect setting for my next ultra adventure.  The Mohican 100Miler, 50Miler, and Marathon are held on the Mohican trails every June.  This year I ran the 24th annual Mohican 50, and in the process raise $1145 for St Jude's Children's Research Hospitals.

I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. I figured the course would have some rolling hills and be a somewhat run-of-the-mill course that would likely seem dull on the second loop.  I was pleasantly surprised to be 100% wrong.  Well okay, maybe 75%, there were LOTS of rolling hills.  However, the course itself could not be any more beautiful.  There was a lot of single track.  Not just any single track, but the kind of single track that trail runners dream of.  That nice narrow path that winds unbroken through the trees and is almost perfectly smooth except for the occasional rock or root.  Yet there was a lot of challenging sections too, where the trail was canted as you made your way down or up the switchbacks, or where there'd be long stretches of challenging footing - littered with roots and rocks and other toe grabbers.  And there was enough double track and fire roads to make sure you were still awake and switch it up a bit.  There was also a small portion of the trail that traveled down to the base of a waterfall and ran along in the ravine, close enough to allow the runners to feel the mist of the spray.  The trail was in a word, stunning.  I was thrilled, and enjoying every minute.

Waiting for the race to start at 6:00, I wasn't sure what to expect. I felt pretty fit, but my weekly mileage has been relatively meager.  And even though I've been supplementing the miles with some biking and swimming, I was a little uncertain.  However, as usual when the race started everything seemed to fall into place.

As we entered the woods I figured I was likely about the 7-8th female, and knew that there was a pair just ahead of me that I would catch in a few miles.  I didn't worry about it too much and enjoyed the gentle ups and downs and sure enough before the first aid station at 4.5 they were well behind me, and I wasn't going to see them again.  I flew through the first aid station around 38 minutes only slowing down long enough to ensure that the next one was only 4.3 miles away.  I hadn't planned on clearing the first aid station that fast, but I felt so good that I figured I'd just go with it.  However, I did make a conscious effort to pay a little more attention to pace on the next section.

About halfway through the next section I spotted another pair of ladies making their way up the hill.  Being a decent uphill hiker, I went to work. Shortly after the hill and before the single track resumed, I put them behind me as well.  These ladies were a bit more talented though, and while they were definitely behind me I could still hear them chatting, and see them on the switchbacks.  So when we came out of the woods at aid station number 2, I just kept on going.  I love the time I save by wearing a hydration pack and carrying most of my own supplies!  My strategy worked, as they must have pulled off for sustenance and I didn't see them again the entire race.

The third section was one of the longest and one of the most technically challenging ones of the race.  It started off on more smooth trail but eventually wound down and back up through the hills and over to a set of stairs that led down to the base of a gorgeous waterfall.  Once at the base of the waterfall the course ran along the ravine through the mud and over some downed trees criss-crossing back and forth across a creek a little ways down from the water fall.  Eventually the trail ran into a natural ladder made of tree roots.  This short little climb was like something out of Jack and the Bean Stock.  It was very unique and added a level of fun to my day.  Once up the ladder, the rest of the section was fairly uneventful.  But eventually after a very steep descent and a short run on a gravel road I arrived at aid station number 3, covered bridge.

This was the first aid station that I paused at. I paused just long enough to down some fluids and grab part of a PB&J.  And then I was off again.  I was 15 miles in and feeling great.  A few miles later I hit my first rough spot.  Literally.  Stubbed my toe on something and went rolling down the trail.  Got up and everything seemed mostly okay; but I had definitely twisted my left ankle a bit. After a minute or two of walking I went on running down the trail, trying to be a little more mindful of the rocks, and taking note that I might need to have that looked at at the halfway point.  At some point I made it to the top of Hickory Ridge, and skipped the aid station again as I went on down the path and back to the start / halfway point.

This section was 6.2 miles of mostly downhill, but there were several sections laden with toe grabbers.  I fell a second time, stubbed my right toe so hard I gave myself a sinister bruise, and caught myself from falling several other times.  However the most sinister part of this section is being able to look down to the right about 4.5 miles into the section and see the aid station.  But instead of going right at the end of the trail, you go left and up another hill.

Somewhere close to 4:35 I finished the first loop.  I spent a few minutes at this aid station filling my water, changing shoes, and finding my pack of Oreos I had tucked into my drop bag.  By 4:42 I was 26.8 miles in and back on the trail.  I was so happy to finally have Oreos to eat instead of Gu for the next few miles!  I blazed through the first section of the second loop, and actually barely PR'd my 50K time making it to the aid station (31.1) around 5:25.  The second section also went pretty smoothly.  These sections were definitely my favorite, on both loops.  Super runable, with hills spaced perfectly for hiking breaks.

At the second aid station I stopped long enough to grab some watermelon, and a piece of a sugar cookie and PB&J and took off down the only "new" section on the second loop.  A 2.6 mile section that steeply descends down a less traveled trail, but makes the course come out to an even 50.  On this section, (35+ miles in) I started to feel some fatigue.  But I was still cruising, and made the 2.6 mile jaunt just under my estimated time for the section. (I estimate as I go in order to give myself small goals along the course.)

At this point in the day (38+ miles in) I was starting to tire; but I knew I was well on my way to having an amazing race.  I went strong for what was likely another 2 or so miles, but the last ten miles were a struggle.  Eventually I recognized the trail enough to push to the last aid station on top of Hickory Ridge, and I even managed to complete the 5.5 mile segment in my estimated time.  But by the time I got to Hickory Ridge, I was pretty well spent.  At mile 43.7, I had been running for roughly 7 hrs and 58 minutes, and I had another 6.3 miles to go.

The final section was a very long 10K.  It was a struggle for me to not walk when the terrain got hard, or the downhills became steep.  I knew that I was already going to have a massive PR, and a pretty good finish.  It seemed to drag on forever.  Eventually though, I made it back to the campground.  And the last 800m, I even had someone to chase.  It turns out that they were too far ahead of me for me to catch, (I needed another 100m!), but in the end I finished in 9:09:42, a 34 minute PR!  I also ended up being the 4th female, and 16th runner overall!  A second top 20 finish for an ultra!!

All in all I had a fantastic day at on the Mohican trails, and I highly recommend this race to both veterans, and newbies alike.  I am seriously tempted to go back for the 100 next year.
Race Medal and first monetary award for placing in a  race!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Capon Valley 50K Race Report

The Capon Valley 50K takes place the second weekend of May every year in WV.  A fairly low key and low fee event, it draws about 200 runners to run through some rugged trail systems and on some gravel and fire roads that weave up and down the Capon Valley. Since it is only 2 hours outside of Arlington, I figured it would be a good early season fitness test, and would force a 50K training run on trails before my upcoming Mohican 50M in mid June.
By the time I arrived at the start and checked in, I was giddy to be back running my first ultra since last year's Western States even though the weather did not look promising. With the rain all week preceding the event, the streams were sure to be swollen, and the grey sky looming overhead was not going to disappoint.  Even still, I gathered with a crowd of anxious runners just before 7:00 and took off on what would be a very soggy and mud-filled adventure.
The first section of the course was fairly runnable with only two steep climbs.  This section proved to be a good introduction of what was to come.  About 1.5 miles in we started crossing back and forth across the stream on what seemed to be more of a game trail then an actual hiking trail.  Perhaps this was due to all the rain washing out the trail this past week, or perhaps it was the two deer that came crashing through the woods and across the stream  on the course that gave me this impression.  Either way, I was feeling pretty good despite the soggy feet and was enjoying some of the beautiful country views.  What was even better was that although I didn't feel like I was running above my ability, I was the 4th female going through the first aid station!
The next section was a mix of not so smooth footing on trails and gravel roads with several hills until we ran all the way down to the river only to make a turn and start hiking back up a much steeper part of the hill.  This part was a lot of work!  But at the top we were rewarded with some better footing, and easier to follow trails.  All in all I felt pretty good on this section, I was running smoothly and hiking quickly.  Guys weren't passing me, and it seemed like I made very good steady progress.  In fact, at the top of the steep climb another guy and I gapped the pack of 5 that was fairly together hiking up the hill, and by the next aid station it was evident that I was unlikely to see any of those runners again.
The 2nd aid station marked 10.4 miles, and I was in and out before 1:45 - which meant I was clicking off, on average, 10 minute miles despite the hiking and the wet feet.  Knowing this, plus knowing that I still felt really good was an excellent morale booster a third of the way into a very wet race!
The next section was fun!  It was only about 4 miles and was mostly flat except for 1 longer nasty hill.  The trail itself was mostly an old rail-bed path (with the railway pulled up).  The only thing that made it technical was all of the water made it hard to find the path of least resistance, and the several creek crossings ensured that your shoes didn't dry off.  About a mile into this section, I got a glimpse of a runner up ahead by about 1-quarter mile.  I couldn't tell for sure given the distance and the rain and fog, but it looked like they were wearing a tank top - which made it pretty likely that this runner was probably a chick.  Excited that my race was going well and that the 3rd place female was losing ground, I made sure to make steady effort on this section.  I ended up dropping the guy that I was running with, and started gaining ground.  By the time I made it up the long hill, I could tell for sure that the runner up ahead was a girl, and I also discovered that my effort was going to reward me with 2 people to chase instead of just one.  With under half a mile to go to the aid station, I caught and passed both the third place girl, and the guy she had caught and was running with.
At aid station 3, I was feeling confident.  I was still clicking off 10-minute miles, and needed to stop to refuel a little.  I grabbed some water and some potato chips while the 2 people I caught barely re-passed me by not stopping for aid, and then I headed off down the path.
Catching the girl again proved easier than I thought it would. I knew she was getting tired, since otherwise I wouldn't have caught her 5 minutes before. And I was able to use her fatigue to my advantage.  Less than 1/2-mile from the aid station we crossed the creek and started making our way down a section of trail that was practically a swamp.  While she seemed to be having a hard time with the footing, I was able to dance through the mud a bit more easily and at least mentally was trying to exude confidence and a lack of fatigue.  Within a couple minutes, I couldn't hear her behind me anymore and I was making up ground on the guy that she had been running with as well.  (I later found out that she dropped at some point, which was a bit disappointing, as I like to see everyone finish!)  After a few minutes of swamp land, we turned to the left and started hiking. And hiking, and hiking.  This would be the biggest climb of the race.  But the climb allowed me to catch the guy who had re-passed me at the aid station.  I caught him and ran with him to the next aid station, which marked 18.9 miles.
At aid station 4, I was starting to slow a little bit.  Partially from all the hiking, and partially because I am almost never on trails as washed out or muddy as these!  Either way, I was still feeling reasonably well and was enjoying the day.  The guy I was running with must have felt a little bit better, as he pulled ahead upon leaving the aid station, and I figured I'd be moseying down the path on my own for awhile.  And so I did.  This section was a joy, and was probably my favorite section of the race.  The footing was good, there was some honest single track, and the trail just winded along in a way that just felt right.  Apparently I got a little too lost in the joy of running on this section though, because somewhere along mile 21 I caught my toe on a root that was buried in a puddle and went flying.  This landed me both back in reality, and squarely in the mud.  But never mind, I got up, and was more focused than ever for the next three miles.  Focused enough that I caught the guy ahead of me again, and ran with him for a minute or two before leaving him behind about half a mile out from the aid station.  I was happy to see the aid station - my stomach was starting to turn, and I was out of water.
At this aid station, I needed to get some serious water both in me and in my pack, which was just about dry. So I rehydrated as they refilled my pack and then I was on my way again.  From here there were only 6.6 miles to go.  Now I just had to keep my gut in check for a little over an hour.  As soon as I left the aid station, I could tell that something was funny with the bladder in my hydration pack. It felt like water was gushing out of it and down my legs.  Hoping that they just spilled some water as they filled it up, I soon forgot it and headed up the next hill, and the guy that was now behind me was nowhere to be seen.  After what should have only been a few minutes of climbing but seemed like an eternity, the trail leveled off and the rest of the section was actually mostly downhill with a few short climbs thrown in to keep your on your toes.  Even still, this "short" 3.2 mile section was for me the hardest part of the race.  I was having stomach issues that eventually necessitated a pit stop, and I was starting to just get tired.  Somehow during this portion, I managed to catch 2 more guys, and eventually made it to the last aid station.
At aid station 6, nothing looked appealing. I grabbed some chips, and went down the trail.  In my tired state, I didn't grab any water. I was thinking that my pack certainly had enough water in it to get me home.  About 800 meters down the road, I realized my error and that my pack was actually empty with maybe 2 swigs of water left in it.  Well crap.  Another 400 meters and my body realized that I was pushing beyond any of my recent training runs and started shutting down. Double crap. For 8 minutes or so I did a run/walk until I wizened up and realized I still had Gu with Caffeine, and that was likely all I needed.  Once I got the Gu in me at the expense of the last of my water, I started to feel better and was able to start running steadily again. At this point the course just wound back down the hill the creek on the same trail we that we started on, and after zigzaggin 5 times across the creek there was 1 decent climb and 1 short climb and then a mile of downhill and flat to the finish. I was golden.  Somewhere in the middle of the zigzagging, a guy caught up with me and ran with me until about mile 30 at which point he ran about 10-15 seconds ahead of me and would finish 13 seconds in front of me.  But I was okay with that. I was going to hit a HUGE PR and according to him the next female runner was a LONG WAY back.  I just had to keep moving, and I was going to both massively PR and land on the podium for my first time ever in an ultra!!
Finally at 5:26:56, I crossed the line and very very happily learned that I wasn't 3rd.  I was SECOND! And I had managed a top 20 overall! I couldn't have had a better day on such soggy trails!  I am still elated, and am anxious to see how my 50 Miler in a little over a month is going to go.
2nd Place Female! 16th overall!

Happy Trails Everyone!