Attitude of Gratitude – my one year ultra anniversary

So I figured I’d bring my blog out of its summer hiatus ahead of this weekend’s epic adventures. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on this year and the incredible ride I’ve been on ahead of the 2014 Squamish 50km, which is set for this Sunday. Exactly one year ago, the 2013 Squamish50 was my introduction to the world of ultrarunning, and I can’t quite believe that it’s already been a year since I crawled across the finish line, exhausted, in more pain than I knew was possible, and somehow still smiling through my tears.

That race was an accident – a distance I had never even dreamed of running until about one week before when a few last minute spots opened up for the 50km course and I impulsively threw my name into the hat. I had no real race training, and about a grand total of 4 months of actual trail running under my belt to date. The longest distance I had ever run prior to this was 28km (and it nearly killed me!), and I decided to run 50 with a week’s notice. Crazy? A little…

I remember toeing the starting line with more than a few butterflies in my stomach. I had never run any of the trails in Squamish before, and all I knew about the course was that it was “hard” and supposedly had a couple of big hills in it. “No problem”, I thought, “I do the grouse grind. I can do hills”. (Ha!).

My only goal was to finish, which ended up being my saving grace, and a mantra that I stubbornly repeated for 8 hours and 46 minutes. I made a rookie mistake the night before the race, putting drugstore-variety insoles into my running shoes without ever having run with them before. I soon realized what a terrible idea it was as I noticed hot spots on the inside arches of my feet after 4km. Yep, 4km into a 50km race. I compounded this problem by refusing to pull over to deal with the issue until 10km (I was caught up in the heady excitement that comes from having energy at the beginning of the race), and by the time I pulled over and assessed the situation, I had raging blisters going already. Crap. I slapped a few bandaids on them and kept going, ignoring the raw, burning pain that just kept building. No way I was going to be taken out by something as mundane as blisters. Mind over matter, right?

To make a long (and painful) story short, I finished the race with huge gaping sores on my feet… blisters so painful that I spent the last 15km running on the outsides of my feet, which then begat several months’ worth of IT problems. Ignorance is bliss, right??

My feet at the finish line.
My feet at the finish line.

The pain from my blisters made me so nauseous that I couldn’t choke food down. I barely knew what gels were anyways, but I grabbed one from an aid station and managed to get it in, and that was it. I relied on drinking as much flat coke as I could chug at the aid stations and kept repeating my “will not quit” mantra over and over and over until finally, I dragged my carcass over the finish line and high fived some random dude with a very red beard (who knew that 7 months later he’d end up being my coach, inspiration, and such an important part of my journey?!).

The top of the mtn of phlegm. Photo credit: Rob shaer
The top of the mtn of phlegm. Photo credit: Rob shaer

Looking back on that day now, I have to laugh. I made every mistake there is to make, and it’s an absolute miracle that I ever ran again after being so traumatized. But despite all of the problems and pain, that race lit something in me. Maybe it was a craving to feel that incredible high that follows the very depths of despair that only 5 hours of running with no end in sight can produce, or maybe it was a need to prove to myself that I could be better than just finishing. Who knows. All I know is that something changed that day, and I haven’t gone back since. And I don’t want to either.

Much has changed since that disastrously epic start to my ultrarunning “career”. I have gone on to complete 5 additional 50km races since that day. Each race has seen improvement and growth, both mentally and physically. It’s still freaking tough. Every damn time. But as I get better at keeping the emotional extremes in check (aka calories, calories, calories), and tweaking my gear, fuel and hydration, there is an immense satisfaction in seeing that change happen. It’s unbelievably rewarding in a way that I have never experienced before. I have always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie (skydiving, climbing, you name it I’ll try it), but this feels different. This is something that requires hard work to be successful at. It means sacrificing weekend sleep-ins to get up and run 40km in the rain, snow or heat, or going for a run after work and skipping that 5 o’clock drink with the gang. There are days when I feel like a trail ninja, and days when I keep checking to make sure I’m not dragging 20lb of lead weights behind me, because it sure as hell feels like it.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Gary Robbins and Eric Carter of Skyline Coaching Services since March of this year, and I have definitely seen the biggest changes since then. Their expertise, patience and constant encouragement have made a huge difference to the way that I tackle training and listen to my body. I’m a smarter and stronger runner today, and I’ve seen results beyond what I could have imagined possible with their help. Gary and Eric, thank you for everything. Gary, that high five at the finish line this year is going to be pretty damn awesome. You might even get a (very) sweaty hug to go with it.

So this brings me back to this race. This race that started it all. For the first time in a while I feel nervous going into a race weekend. I know I can finish it… I’ve proved that much to myself this year. And I sure hope that I will have a faster time than last year. At least that’s the goal. Whatever that time ends up being, I’ll be content as long as I feel that I run a strong race and can see the results of this past year reflected in that. Trail running is a funny sport – it’s hard to measure improvement from race to race, as times vary wildly depending on terrain, weather, and all sorts of other variables. Running the same course is as good a way to measure improvement as any, and for that reason I feel nervous. I want to do myself proud, my coaches proud, and all of those who have supported me on my journey proud. My family sacrifices time spent with them so that I can get in my long runs, and my partner puts up with me disappearing for most of the weekend, every weekend, even though he doesn’t share my passion for this crazy sport.

When I toe the line this Sunday, my mantra for this year is going to be gratitude. Gratitude for having the health and ability to do something that challenges me so completely. I am overwhelmed by the richness that has been brought to my life by the running community, the friends that I have made along the way, and the satisfaction that comes from challenging myself to be the best that I can be. I run because it makes me feel alive. And on Sunday, I’m going to run for me.

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Gorge Waterfalls 50km – April 2014

This past weekend marked my first 50km trail race since November, and I approached it with a much different mentality from last year. 2013 was all about figuring out this whole long distance trail running business, and sorting out newbie issues like fueling, proper footwear, and dealing with chafage (I have the scars to prove it). However, three 50k races have taught me a couple of things at least, and one of them is that 2014 is going to be the year of not making the same mistakes twice!

I’ve been looking forward to this race for a while now… there’s really no better way to gauge how your training for a 50km is going than to run 50km (shocker, right?). Lots has changed for me lately too: I’m now getting coached by the dynamic duo known as Gary Robbins and Eric Carter, my training levels are ramping up overall and I’m finally kicking nagging injuries (hopefully for good!), and I just feel more prepared to tackle this year’s races now that I have a few more trail kms under my feet. I signed up for this race with my good friends Shea and Melissa, and together with the ever awesome Candice (aka CandyPants) who came along for the ride and moral support, we decided to make it a no-pressure race and road trip weekend. [Spoiler alert: we did, and it was pretty damn awesome].

Wet coast paradise.
Wet coast paradise.

This race – one of the Rainshadow Running series – is billed as one of the most beautiful courses on the west coast, and for the most part I would have to agree. It was a veritable rainforest paradise (made more convincing by the fact that it POURED the night before the race, and we battled bipolar weather during the race… starting with sun, then clouds, followed by rain, hail, wind, and then back to sunshine once we’d finished – of course). As the Pollyannas of our group liked to remind us, there’s nothing like a lot of rain to make the many waterfalls more awesome.

Our little posse got into Portland on Friday evening, and promptly made a beeline for Shea and Melissa’s favourite pub, which happened to be right down the street from our Air bnb apartment…convenient, that. Considering that Melissa booked our place, I would also venture to call it more than coincidence. 🙂

No complaints tho.. the food was delish! We had a great little meal and a couple of bevvies, (despite gluten free options on the menu, I played it safe and stuck with a quinoa and kale salad and a glass of white wine…no need to end up with the literal runs on my run). After settling in to our quirky and classic Portlandia apartment, we went for a quick spin around the block to stretch out our legs after the long drive, and headed to bed soon after. Friday night craziness, I tell ya.

Melissa's best angle!
Melissa’s best angle!

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Saturday we were up bright and early, got ourselves to the start line, and were loaded onto school buses to be shuttled to the start line. The sun made an appearance to send us off, and all 250-ish runners trotted out of the gate feeling over-layered for the weather. Shea, Melissa and I started together, and we spent the first 5km or so stripping off jackets and finding our legs. Knowing that one of the two big climbs of the race was in the first 15km of the race, we purposefully took it slow and tried not to get caught up in the overall adrenaline of the crowd. It was hard not to, however, and much of the climb was very runnable… something that surprised me, and definitely made us push a bit more than we otherwise might have.

The trails were squishy single track that wound through lush forests with occasional glimpses of scenic mountainsides as we climbed, interspersed with pretty stunning traverses along mossy ridges that looked like they were populated by gnomes.

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So there I was, running blithely along and watching the scenery more than my feet, I suddenly felt them fly out from under me. I was literally in the middle of calling out to Shea: “Wow, isn’t this beautifu—” when it happened, and the first thought that popped into my head was “well this is ironic”. It was one of those falls where there is nothing you can do to slow it down, and I just tried to go limp and pray for no breakage. I landed with a big thwump, crashing down onto my left kneecap and then banging up my hips, elbows, and other knee for good measure. My first thought was that I must have broken my knee – felt like everything rattled around a lot more than it’s designed to. However, after gingerly picking myself and my pride up and taking some tentative steps with no major pain, and conferring with Shea and Melissa, I decided to keep running and see what happened. At this point, Melissa was just getting stronger and stronger, and I had no idea if I’d even finish the race (my knee was already puffing up and pretty angry), so I waved the two speed demons on, and off they went. [Spoiler two: I could probably write a novel about S & M’s race, but for now let’s just say they came in together with a fantastic time of 6:31, and with one of the most memorable finishes ever!].

The rest of the race was fairly uneventful. I rolled my capri leg up so that I could monitor the swelling on my knee, and trucked along. Climbing felt great and I was pleased at how much energy I had – I ran most of the hills and definitely did most of my passing on them.

Watching the knee inflate...
Watching the knee inflate…

A note on fueling: I was trying to do this race on gels and chews only, and I have to say it worked pretty well. I had no major energy bonks, and aside from feeling hungry towards the end of the race, my stomach seemed to tolerate the gels reasonably well. The flat coke I chugged at the last aid station was a lifesaver, and definitely deserves a shout-out for my hill slaying. The downhill stuff was not so good, unfortunately, and a combination of feeling more cautious of the slippery terrain and dealing with a noticeable increase in pain had me slowing down way more than I should have had to. Ah well.

It’s funny. Every race I do ends up teaching me something that I shouldn’t try at home, and this was no exception. This time it was that I should pay more attention to my feet than to the scenery… or at the very least, don’t try to rubberneck and run at the same time. Despite the wrench that the fall threw into my plans, however, I was actually pretty proud of this race. It was good for me to have to deal with unexpected injuries in the middle of a race (thank you first aid training!), monitor it closely to make sure nothing was getting worse, and play to my strengths (hills) while protecting my knees on the downhill (aka gingerly walking them). I never took it for granted that I would finish the race, and instead took it aid station by aid station.

One note on the course: Just after the second aid station, there’s a 3 mile connecting section of road that runs parallel to a fairly busy hwy before the trail picks up again. It was a very long 3 miles. I’ll just leave it at that, but considering how remarkably beautiful the rest of the course is, I’d say my strategy for that section was to just suck it up and look forward to being on the trails again, while repeating the mantra “I am not a road runner. I hate roads.” over and over again.

Views like this one made it all worthwhile...
Views like this one made it all worthwhile…

The most challenging part of the course was definitely the last 12km or so. When we left the last aid station, I knew we were heading into the biggest climb of the race, which was immediately followed by a steep descent that pretty much spat you out at the finish line. In hindsight I would have loved to take more pictures of that section, as the course climbed in a series of steep switchbacks alongside three stunning waterfalls, but the only thing I kept thinking was that the more uphill we did, the more downhill would naturally follow it. (My powers of deductive reasoning are particularly impressive after 40km, I assure you!). I felt really strong on the big climb though, and continued to pick up speed as we went. We finally crested the trail, and the dreaded downhill kicked in and kicked my butt.

The trail had turned into a mini waterfall from all of the rain, and all of the speedy runners in front of me had helped create little mudslides that reduced my progress to an almost literal crawl. The same switchbacks that had featured so prominently in the climb now taunted me with their relentless downward pounding, but I could practically taste the gluten free pizza at the finish line, and I hobbled along as fast as I could. One last bridge crossing past waterfall #15 million, (give or take), and I was practically home free. The last stretch was a couple of flat kilometres, and I managed to pick off a few more runners and finish strong, where Candice was waiting for me at the finish line with a MUCH needed hug. 🙂

My official time was 6:51, third female in my age category, and a 6 minute PR from Baker Lake. Considering this course had quite a bit more elevation than Baker, and with the knee shenanigans, I’d call it a great finish for me, and one I’m proud of.

The last time I saw S&M during the race was leaving the first aid station and I had no idea how far they were in front of me, but it turns out they’d finished a solid 20 minutes before me. Yeah! We all shoveled post-race food and beers down- major kudos to the Rainshadow Running crew for truly first class aid stations and post-race celebrations, btw – and decided to head back to our apartment for some much needed showers. (Turns out Candypants got her own solid 30km trail adventure run in before we all finished, so I’d say our whole crew got an “A” for effort on Saturday!).

After showering and cleaning up we celebrated the day’s exciting events with some well-deserved burgers and bevvies, and I think I had one of the best sleeps of my life that night. One of the most underrated benefits of being an ultra-runner is the fact that you sleep like a baby. It’s so good.

Post-race knee.
Post-race knee.

This week has been all about ice, ibuprofen, and hot yoga. TGIF, and I’m soooo excited to get out on the trails for a little bit this weekend.

To all of my friends doing the Diez Vistas 50km tomorrow…better you than me! 😉

Taper Week Terrors

It’s funny – 90% of the time that I have ever spent at a Sports Rehab Clinic is during the week before a race… aka taper trouble time. The fact that running big races is still relatively new to me means that I am definitely above the average of my own statistic, as all but one of my physio appointments have been prompted by Taper week. This eureka moment only really occurred to me because my physio commented that most of the athletes she sees tend to do the.exact.same.thing. Funny, that.

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It kind of surprised me that I wasn’t the only one who experiences random tweaking sensations during this pre-race timeframe of supposedly gentle recovery exercise and rest, but I guess it makes sense. When we aren’t frantically busy trying to cram scheduled workouts into days that already seem to fill up on their own, there’s more time to focus on niggly pains (both real and imagined). If given enough time and worrying, pretty quickly these minor pains that we happily ignore for months while training can suddenly grow into issues of epic proportions. Cue the last minute sports therapy appointments, which masquerade as a “somebody please fix me now, but don’t you dare tell me I can’t run my big race!” cry of desperation.

On Saturday, I’m running the Gorge 50km trail ultra-race in Portland, Oregon. It’s not the most technical race I’ve ever done, but it’s not the easiest either. Weather can play a big factor at this time of year in the mountains, and there are a couple of killer climbs at the beginning and end of the race that are designed to kick you when it hurts. And even though this race was planned with friends as a “let’s go have fun and take selfies in front of the millions of waterfalls that make this race famous and somehow run 50km in the process”, it’s still hard not to feel a bit of anxiety leading up to the race. Fun-run or not, 50km is still a long effing distance, and I can’t avoid the perpetual, mostly unsubstantiated fear of injury that lurks in the cobwebs of my mind before every big race.

Seriously, the amount of times that I’ve dreamed about falling flat on my face and breaking my nose (or ankle, or leg, or neck) on a suddenly looming root (or rock, or tree, or my shoelace)… You get the picture. The combinations are endless, but the premise remains the same, and the ending never changes. My inner klutz gleefully takes every opportunity to remind me of my talents for tripping over and walking into things, and I spend a surprising amount of energy during taper week reminding myself that I am, in fact, mostly capable of picking my own damn feet up and avoiding ending up on my ass… and that race day isn’t all that different from any other day.

I still haven’t perfected my taper week serenity yet, but what I’ve found that works the best for me is to plan (non-running) activities with my (non-running) friends. They remind me that there is more to life besides my minor aches and pains (specifically the phantom ones). I know it’s terrible that this is the only time I consciously plan to catch up with friends that I don’t always do the best job of keeping in touch with normally, but there are just not enough hours in the days. Plus, it’s a perfectly good excuse to do more races, right? Or I will slowly convince all of my friends to take up running. That is the most efficient plan of all.

Breakfast of champions...obviously the most important part of race prep!
Breakfast of champions…obviously the most important part of race prep!

What’s your magic formula for taper week??

Peanut Butter and Me

So for the past month or so, I’ve gone on a peanut butter bender. I’ve considered it a necessary part of any meal, and its own food group entirely (top of the food chain too, naturally). Seriously, I’m almost at the point where I think I need an intervention, just to gain some life balance with the other sadly neglected former food loves of mine…. but I’m not quite ready for that intervention yet. I still have half a quarter of a 1kg tub of organic, 100% natural, salted PB to get through first.

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While on this kick, I have come up with all sorts of ways to incorporate this beloved food group into my diet. While recovering from my oral surgery a few weeks ago, I found ways to get PB into almost every concoction my Vitamix could dream up. Notable standouts included a PB and Java shake, PB and Banana ice cream, and just plain PB on a spoon. (It’s that bad).

I’ve also discovered fantastic flourless PB cookies that continue to evolve with each new batch I make, and awesome (and easy!)mini frozen PB and Banana sandwiches, which were inspired by a random how-to picture that made its way through facebook land.

Mini PB and Banana energy bites

3-4 ripe bananas, sliced into rounds
2 100g bars of Lindt dark chocolate (I used the Chili one for some spice, but the Sea Salt would be nice too, or just plain)
100% pure PB (salted)
….that’s it!

What you do:

Spread a layer of PB on one banana round, and top with another banana. Repeat until all rounds are used.

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Melt chocolate in a bowl. I find melting it in one minute increments works well… check and stir as you go, to avoid burning. Using dark chocolate (lower sugar content) also helps to reduce the risk of burning. You may also wish to melt your chocolate in two batches… use the first batch until you run out, and then melt more for the rest. I found that this made it easier to work with the chocolate before it started hardening again.

Have a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or something non-stick) ready to go.

This next part is a bit finicky, as the chocolate is quite hot and you don’t necessarily want to just plunge your hands in and get messy. I used a couple of forks and it worked out alright. Drop your little banana sandwiches into the chocolate, roll them around quickly, fish them out, and stick them onto your baking sheet. Repeat.

Pop them into the freezer for several hours, and then you can either stick them in ziplock freezer bags for future treats, or enjoy right away! Personally, I chose both. 🙂

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Rest Days on Sunny Fridays…aka Wasted Sunshine!

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So it’s a beautiful day for a run…I’m full of energy and caffeine, and super stoked that today is Friday. The only problem with this little equation is that today (according to my newly minted training plan from my brand-spankin’-new coaches Eric and Gary), is supposed to be a rest day.

Wah. Buzzkill! Wasted sunshine!

It’s definitely not the dilemma I thought I’d have in my first week of training. But really, this week – notable for being my inaugural foray into official training territory – marks the first time that my regular “go with the flow and don’t stop until something hurts too bad to continue” mentality faces off against a structured plan with planned days of rest that are designed around when you “should” rest, not just days when you “don’t feel like” running.

So here I am. Despite flirting with the idea of bombing up Grouse mtn after work and disregarding my rest day, I’ve decided to behave. Considering I have a slightly tweaking ongoing knee pain that won’t quite go away, I probably should be resting anyways.

I’m going to enjoy a nice long walk after work with my best bud Odin (who is on week 4 of the cone of shame, at the moment), and look forward to running the second half of the Squamish50 course with a bunch of crazies tomorrow morning. With the weather forecast threatening snow, you never know what could happen.TGIF!

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An Ode to my Kahtoola Microspikes

Nearing the top of the BCMC a few weeks ago when we had our big dump...

Nearing the top of the BCMC a few weeks ago when we had our big dump…
Annd winter is no longer coming.
Annd winter is no longer coming.

So as I hiked up the BCMC (the awesome and much less famous sister to the Grouse Grind) this past week, I composed an ode to my Kahtoola MICROspikes… my latest winter trail gear acquisition. I freaking love them.

With this being such a ridiculously warm winter and all, I’ve been consistently hiking up the bcmc at least 2-3 times a week, and I’ve been impressed to no end with their versatility and reliability (both key considerations for me with every new piece of trail gear I buy). I’m happy to say that my research paid off (thank you, MEC user reviews), and spending the extra $20 on these versus other comparable products was money well spent.

Knowing that I don’t hit the snowline until three quarters of the way up the BCMC, I just throw my spikes in my running pack and off I go. When I finally hit the beginning of the icy sections I pull over and slap them on top of my trail runners, and instantly become invincible. Seriously. 4×4 for the feet. These things may not be the best option for you if you spend your time navigating slippery concrete city sidewalks, but get them onto snowy or icy trails and slopes and they are the best thing ever. My love for them has been cemented in recent weeks by the fact that when I get to the top of the BCMC, I can carry straight on to the Snowshoe Grind and they perform better than any snowshoes I’ve seen slipping around there recently. I think the fact that the snow has been so hard packed – yay West Coast winter- makes a big difference (you kind of need to have snow for snowshoes), but all I know is that I’ve been able to go tearing up to the top of the snowshoe grind in them, and then run back down at breakneck speed, with complete confidence in these babies’ ability to stop on a dime. Annnnd I don’t have to haul snowshoes up the BCMC to play in the snow.

Dam mountain- ahh.
Dam mountain- ahh.

Anything that means I can get outside and do a little bit more, and be a little bit faster than I was before, makes me pretty darn happy.
I’m always looking for new ideas… Do you have any favourite pieces of gear that make your seasonal running easier?

Measuring Training by the Hour(s)

So this being the inaugural post of my new blog, I feel like I should share one of my resolutions for this year.

As I mentioned in my little “about me” section, I have only taken up running seriously in the past year, and trail running in the last 8 months. I’m a total rookie in this world still! However, It is highly addictive. With 3 50km races and 1 50 miler on the calendar for this year, I’d say there’s no hope for me now. 😉

Seek the peak, 2013  My very first trail race series and a fav course!
Seek the peak, 2013
My very first trail race series and a fav course!

I have found myself thinking recently: “Well if I can go this far with the training I’m doing now, what happens if I take it up a notch or two??” So. This is my goal for 2014. Take it up a notch or two. And maybe keep track of my progress along the way… both as an accountability measure, and as a means of determining what is working for me and what isn’t.

I started January with this intention, and have been faithfully tracking my kilometers on a paper calendar that I hang above my desk at work. However, I ran into a couple of problems pretty quickly. First off, it is hard to accurately track km’s when you don’t own anything more sophisticated than a Nike app on an iphone. Pretty sure the GPS on my city-slicker sidekick is constantly “lost” whenever I go anywhere near a trail.

Secondly, I’ve been doing more hiking than running in the past few weeks, trying to get lots of low impact cardio in and rehab some lingering knee pain that refuses to go away. This is all fine and dandy… except that writing 3.5km down as my mileage for the day, despite doing a solid hour’s worth of exertion up the side of Grouse Mountain, doesn’t quite feel like it captures my training fully.

As I thought about it more, tracking my kilometers really didn’t seem to make the most sense. After all, anyone who has run trails knows that 8km on trails is a wayyy different story (and can take twice as long and be twice as painful!) as running that same distance on the road (plus any elevation gain/loss, slippery single track routes and potential creek crossings one might easily encounter during that distance).

I know that everyone has a different method of tracking their training, and if I had the budget capacity to get an accurate read on my mileage (hello, $700 unattainable Suunto watches!), I might just stick with tracking my km’s. However, since I made the switch to logging hours several weeks ago (although I still like to make a note of my mileage if I have that data available), I feel that this is a better reflection of where I am at with my fitness levels. My goal right now is endurance running, which essentially boils down to how much time I spend on my feet preparing for the 6-10+ hours it might take me to finish a race course. The km’s will naturally happen as the hours logged on the trails increase. At least that’s the plan, stan!