Monday, May 11, 2015

Being halfway SMART in the Smokies

There is a popular challenge in the Southeast called SCAR--the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run.  The goal is to run all 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that goes through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in less than 24 hours.  My husband Divesh accomplished this just a few weeks ago, and I was tempted to try as well but didn't like the idea of such a long run while training for other races.

Fortunately, there is another good ultramarathon option in the Smokies:  SMART, the Smokies Adventure Run Two-Day.  SMART was created by my friend Janice after she watched runner after runner fail at SCAR.  To be SMART, you take two days for the run, staying overnight in luxury at a hotel in Gatlinburg, which you can get to from the road that splits the park in half.  Two days also leaves you free to run whichever direction you want on each section, and in particular lets you run the easiest direction on both days!

So on Saturday, we started at Newfound Gap (the road that splits the park roughly in half) and headed north for 31 miles to Davenport Gap.  We were mostly incredibly lucky with the weather; we had a cool breeze and shade much of the time, and we avoided all but about 20 minutes of the rain that was falling on both sides of us in the afternoon.  And it was a beautiful day:

Sadly, we were only half SMART.  At the end of day 1, we were met by Divesh, who had had his own exhausting day.  While he was driving my car to pick us up, my car broke down and he had to find a rental car in rural Tennessee, not an easy task.  The entire next day was spent getting the car to a mechanic (who couldn't do anything because everywhere that sold parts was closed on Sundays) and finding a way to get us all home in time for work on Monday.  So the second half of the Smokies will have to wait...but hopefully not for long.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lake Sonoma 50 mile 2015 race report

You know those nightmares where you show up at the starting line of a race and realize you've forgotten all your running gear?  That was Lake Sonoma for me in real life.  Except it wasn't that I had forgotten anything, it was just that I hadn't managed to start properly training for the race yet.  And somehow race day had arrived.

Every runner always complains that they're not trained, not ready, etc. before a race, but here's what happened in the three months prior to Lake Sonoma;

-I had bronchitis (or something that appeared to be bronchitis; asthma/some type of reactive airway problem has also been suggested) for 8 weeks from mid-January to mid-March.  I still have some lingering lung issues;

-I had a nasty case of tendinitis in my left knee for two weeks before the race;

-I failed to complete my weekly training goals in all but 1 of the 12 weeks of "training" and generally didn't even come near the weekly mileage goal.  Since I'm a low-mileage runner anyway, this is bad!

-My training pace, as dictated by my heart rate monitor, in the month before Lake Sonoma was the slowest it had been in about 6 months; and

-I missed out on all the shorter races I had signed up for as training for Lake Sonoma because of the bronchitis.

What I'm saying is that it's not exaggerating when I say that I was in no way ready for this race.  The only things I had going for me were that I'd had a solid long run in training two weeks before the race, I had been doing a good job on my knee and hip strengthening exercises over the past two months, and I'd done my sauna training to prepare for the heat.  I decided to keep the goal time of 8:45 that I had set for myself in January, but it seemed an unlikely prospect.

With a deserved lack of confidence, I headed out to California on the Thursday before the race.  My friend Jaclyn, also from Atlanta, was running the race too and had gone out a few days earlier with her boyfriend Connell, so the two of them plus Divesh and I all spent a reasonably relaxing day on Friday eating real Italian pizza (sorry Molly!!) and checking out the course.

The showing-up-without-preparing nightmare didn't magically go away at the start of the race.  By about 7 miles in, I was already feeling like it was mile 40.  My knee hurt, my lungs felt constricted, the pace felt uncomfortably fast, and 50 miles seemed like a very, very long way.

Part of the problem at this point was that we were on (gorgeous!) singletrack trail and the pack hadn't yet spread out.  Since I run by heart rate, I go pretty slowly uphill and then speed up a lot on the downhills.  The other 10 to 15 people around me, however, were doing the exact opposite, and so we were constantly passing and re-passing each other.  There are no flat parts at Lake Sonoma--while the hills aren't big, you are always going either uphill or downhill.  I kept having to decide between wasting energy overtaking, or losing time by going too slowly on the downhills, or putting in extra effort to stay ahead of the pack on the uphills.  I alternated between all three options before eventually sticking with the third, which in hindsight was probably the right choice and one I should have made sooner.  I arrived at the aid station at mile 11.5 at my goal time, but I had run at a much higher effort level to get that time than I would have liked.

Fortunately the crowd thinned out dramatically after the aid station.  I started to feel a little more comfortable and in less pain, and my overall pace actually improved while my heart rate dropped.  Somewhere around mile 13 or 14, two guys passed me looking particularly smooth and comfortable, and I resolved to try to stay not too far behind them for a while.  That ended up working out perfectly for the 6 miles or so til the next main aid station, as their pace kept me from dawdling too much on the uphills but they also went just a bit faster than me on the downhills.

Everything kept improving for me, to the point where, during the stretch between mile 23 and mile 30, the unprepared-bad-dream sensation gave way to an equally dreamlike feeling, but this time a good dream.  "Am I really still feeling this strong 30 miles in?  Was that Pam Smith I just passed?!  I am actually awake right now, yes?" (The Pam Smith incident, while technically real, had a lot more to do with the kind of day she must have been having than the kind of day I was having, but let's gloss over that for now...)  It wasn't so much that I felt good, it was that somehow my legs were continuing to carry me forward at the same pace I'd been going the whole day despite my fairly poor efforts at getting them trained to do that.  I steadily worked my way up from 16th place to what I think was 11th place by mile 30.  The whole race was probably my most consistent ever--I think I only got passed by two people in the entire second half, and both of them were people I had just passed myself.

I had been eagerly awaiting getting to the mile 30 aid station since the weather was very hot by this point and when we passed that same aid station at mile 20 (Lake Sonoma is an out-and-back course), there had been a solar shower set up for the runners.  During miles 25 to 30, the thought of returning to the shower had become a beacon of hope in my overheated mind.  Alas, when I arrived at the aid station, I discovered that the shower was gone.  Which led to me loudly exclaiming to Connell as I arrived, "They took away the shower!!" causing more than a few spectators to look at me with concern for my mental state; we were just out in the middle of the woods at this point, not exactly a typical locale to expect a shower.

The main sensation I had over that entire first 30 miles was one of being right on the very edge of blowing up; I constantly felt like I pushing so close to my limit that it could have gone horribly wrong at any time. I was especially dreading miles 30 to 35, which I knew would be largely in the hot sun and had plenty of uphill.  But a big turning point came at mile 32.  I saw a woman in front of me who I was fairly sure was in 10th place, and I suddenly wanted to go for the top 10.  I decided to hang back for a bit, take a gel, and then try to power past once the gel kicked in.  This didn't quite work out for me as taking the gel made me suddenly throw up a few seconds later...and then I immediately felt fine.  No lingering nausea like I've had in so many races, no reduction in pace, nothing.  I kept running, feeling better and better, and after a few miles I knew that I had turned a corner.  If I felt this good at mile 35, there wasn't going to be a goal-ending blowup.  I might yet have a bad patch or two to endure, but I had enough energy in my legs and calories taken in that I knew I wasn't going to lose drastic amounts of time if or when those bad patches came.

Coming into the mile 38 aid station
 And I did have a rough few miles between mile 41 and 45, but it wasn't a huge blowup like, say, the one I suffered around mile 45 of the Highland Fling, where it took me about half an hour to go one mile and I had to beg for food from strangers.  This time there was admittedly some drinking out of a puddle, but I didn't slow too much, and in a complete reversal of the begging from strangers thing, I arrived at the mile 45 aid station and promptly attempted to use their cutting board and knife to cut up a whole cantaloupe.  (A volunteer gently took the knife away and pointed me at  the giant tray of pre-cut fruit.)  After getting some food in me at that aid station, I felt much better and picked the pace back up, though not enough to stay with Denise, who I had leapfrogged with a mile or two earlier and who ended up finishing about five minutes in front of me.  Denise seemed really nice and I wished I could have stayed with her, not to try to pick up another place but to get to talk to her a little more!  In retrospect my big mistake was not taking the time at the mile 38 aid station to get some more food, even though I knew I was getting pretty hungry by that point.

Finish!  Photo:

I came in at 8:29, under my goal of 8:45 and much faster than I initially thought was possible, but slower than I think I could have run if I had done a better job of fueling in those last 12 miles.  Also, minus the one incident of throwing up, it was another overall win on the stomach front, making me 3 for 3 in my most recent races.  I'm almost tempted to say that I've solved my nausea problem.  Next race I just need a few more calories in the later miles and a lot more training...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Myths and a Long Trail

This weekend I watched Finding Traction, a film about Nikki Kimball's record-setting run of the Long Trail in Vermont,  Nikki came across as a fantastic person--passionate, competitive, and with plenty of interesting things to say.  She's someone who I would love to meet at a race or out on the trails someday.  The run depicted by the film was very impressive of course, and I'd imagine that Nikki's record will last for quite a while.  Two things about the film, however, bothered me enough to make me want to write something.  More accurately, one thing bothered me enough to want to write something, and while I'm at it, I might as well bring up the other...

First of all, I should explain a bit more about the subject of Finding Traction.  In part, it was a day-by-day account of Nikki's time on the Long Trail.  It was also, however, about Nikki's past experiences and in particular her experiences with sexism in the sports world and what she hoped to change about attitudes towards women in sport. I thought her message was excellent and I agreed completely with everything she said.

So while I came away feeling 90 percent positive about the film, the two issues I had with it were:

Issue 1:  A myth.

Near the middle of the film, at 24:18 in, there's a short clip showing a biologist named David Carrier.  He confidently states the oft-repeated line that as race distances get longer, the gap between men's and women's performance lessens, and that at distances such as 100 miles, the differences between males and females "more or less disappear."

The problem is, there's no factual basis for this claim.  It's a myth born out of just a few anecdotes involving women winning long races outright and some speculation, which turned out to be incorrect, extrapolating future female finish times from past improvements in women's records.  You can see the myth debunked in this paper, or, for a less dense explanation, you can see from an Ian Sharman blog post (making the same points as this paper) exactly how far the best men remain ahead of the best women at all distances.  Spoiler alert:  they remain far ahead.  In fact, as things currently stand, the performance gap actually increases at 100+ miles, though that's likely down to a relative lack of female participation in some of the longer events.  There are several reasons why a woman might win an ultramarathon outright, but, based on all the available facts, there's no reason to think that those reasons include a decrease in the performance gap at longer distances.

Why do I care so much if the film got one bit of factual information wrong?  Because I think this myth is extremely harmful to women's ultrarunning.  (Dredging up the myth in the middle of a film which takes aim at sexism in the ultrarunning world made it even worse.  I couldn't help yelling at the TV when I heard what Carrier was saying.)

Think this through:  if we subscribe to the belief that sex doesn't matter when the distances get up into the 100 mile range, then what happens when, back in the real world, the best women don't actually perform as well as the best men at 100 milers?  If we incorrectly believe that the worse performance had nothing to do with biology, then we're left to conclude that the worse performance had to stem from some other factor--a lack of training, a lack of effort on the day, poor nutrition strategy...i.e., something that the women could have fixed had they simply tried harder or used better tactics.  But in reality, nothing other than a few male hormones is going to lessen that performance gap when comparing the best to the best.  In terms of sporting performance, men are just heavily-doped women.  Acknowledging this is, in my view, the first step towards recognizing that the outcome of the women's portion of a race is just as noteworthy as the men's portion, regardless of whether the finishing times are slower on the women's side, because that acknowledgment allows us to recognize that the amount of talent, training, and effort on display is equal.

Issue 2:  A reminder.

In one scene of the film, Nikki discusses the poor treatment that women get in the ultrarunning press.  She mentions that when she won the UTMB, there was extensive media coverage the next day of the top men, going several places deep into the field, and then, as she puts it, a little blurb saying essentially "oh, and some women ran too."  This will no doubt be a familiar story to anyone who has ever read an issue of an ultrarunning magazine cover to cover; there's generally at least one race report taking the common format of a three-paragraph, blow-by-blow account of the progress of the men's race, followed by a terse sentence or two stating that "X took first for the women in 00:00, with Y coming in second in 00:23."  So I loved that Nikki made that point and that she made it well.

What struck me, though, is that there were two Long Trail speed records at issue in the film:  the men's record and the women's record.  Both record times were mentioned frequently and were an integral part of the drama.  However, while the film gave the name of the holder of the men's record, it never once named the holder of the women's record.  This may sound like a very minor gripe, and in a way it is.  On its own, it's not a particularly big deal.  But when juxtaposed with Nikki's observations about lopsided press coverage, it served as an unfortunate reminder that the attitudes towards women in sport, the attitudes which Nikki is doing an excellent job at trying to change, are maybe even more deeply ingrained than we realize.  There's a long, long way to go.  It's a good thing we're ultrarunners.