Running through a Postcard – MMTR Race Report

“Feeling my way through the darkness
Guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start”

-Wake Me up, Avicii

A few weeks ago this became my MMTR anthem.  Unsure of my training and my health, I wasn’t certain of the race’s outcome.  But I knew that in the darkness of the morning, I’d be on that starting line.

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The Mountain Masochist Trail Run was my goal race for 2013.  But what did that mean?

Did I expect to win? No.

Did I expect a 50 mile PR? Nope.

Did I expect to make the top 10 women?  After seeing the entrants list on Tuesday…an emphatic NO!

I describe myself as a B+ runner.  I’m strong.  I push through.  But I’m not a contender.  I am sooooo OK with that!  I love keeping up with the fast kids on training runs.  I enjoy having the cushion that comes from being comfortably in the middle.  I’m not well equipped to manage other’s expectations and so I like floating along – right under the radar.

What I wanted was a strong MMTR.  One where…

…  I didn’t crumble mentally.

…  I ran a smart race.

…  I stayed on top of the essentials…food, hydration, electrolytes.

… I could take in the experience, hang with my ultra-family, make new friends, and come home refreshed and renewed.

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By September, my training was going well.  I was logging lots of miles (though not as many long runs or back-to-backs as I’d like).

Summertime training with the RVA crew!
Summertime training with the RVA crew…
..and Autumn running with the CATs!
..and Autumn running with the CATs!

With the girls  in school, I am able to train during the morning and “hide” my workouts.  It’s becoming increasingly important that I am home with them in the afternoons and evenings, and I never – EVER – want them to feel like I’m choosing running over family time.

But with the peak in mileage, my immune system took a beating.  I ended the month with a bad case of bronchitis/walking pneumonia.  October passed in a lethargic haze.  Worn out and run down, I decided to focus less on pace and more on staying within my limits.  The best I could hope for was a steady run.

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I am blessed to have some very strong women in my life who have a ton of experience with Masochist.  In the weeks leading up to the race, Martha and Sophie told me what to expect.  Martha’s photographic memory painted a picture of the course in my mind.  Sophie, always so generous, shared her strategies and advice.  A few days before leaving for Lynchburg, I met Bethany for coffee.  While she wasn’t running it this year, her enthusiasm was contagious and I finally started to get excited!

When Martha pulled up Friday, I gave the girls hugs and kisses and hopped in the car.  With Prissie and Mike joining us, it was a quick trip to Lynchburg.  We went straight to packet pick up, where Horton put us to work hauling boxes of t-shirts 🙂  A fun dinner followed…seeing friends and familiar faces, meeting new people, and getting ready for the morning.

Happily (and uncharacteristically), I was not a bundle of nerves.  I knew I could manage the distance.  I did not have any time goals.  I did not expect to be among the top women.  I was going to take Sophie’s advice- go out slow, run without my GPS, rely on my body, and enjoy the day.

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The race began at 6:30, which required an early wake-up and bus ride to the start line.

WARM buses & friendly chatter made the shuttle ride pass quickly...
WARM buses & friendly chatter made the shuttle ride pass quickly…

 It was warm for November, so while I started in a long-sleeve shirt, I was quickly able to strip down to my tank and skirt.  I paid no intention to my place in the bunch, and when we started I jogged along with the group.  As the line thinned out, I found some space and settled into an easy pace.  The trail was rockier than I would have like – a trashy jeep road – and I stepped gingerly over the obstacles- careful not to roll my ankle early in the day.  Over the first 10 miles I was uncomfortable….I hadn’t been able to use the bathroom and my stomach was complaining.  Catching up to Sophie and Donna as the sun came up I couldn’t quite find my breath…I was running too fast.

The day was beautiful, especially as the sun brightened the fall colors around us.

Photo Credit:  Katie Keier
Photo Credit: Katie Keier

 When the time (and trail) permitted I ducked into the woods to FINALLY answer nature’s call -I ran much more comfortably after that!!  I watched Sophie zip off and was worried – if that was her conservative pace, I was outta my league!  So I returned to my mantra – steady girl, run within yourself.  Enjoy the day.

And I did!  With the pressure of “racing” off the table, I bounded along the trail, enjoying a long stretch of running with Brian, trading places and smiles with Donna, overhearing the chatter and conversations of runners around me.  I looked around, blown away by the beauty of autumn…

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Lynchburg Reservoir.
Photo Credit: Katie Keier

…the light bouncing off the mountains, the reflection of the reservoir, the open fields and wooden fences.  The warmth of the day.

Photo Credit:  Katie Keier
Photo Credit: Katie Keier

I stayed on top of nutrition as well.  I don’t like to eat, but I forced myself to take in calories on a schedule.  Not since Emma’s newborn days was I that focused on feeding by the clock!  It worked – though I tired, I never once bonked.

I wanted to run easy and strong to the “halfway” point – Long Mountain Wayside.  I knew there was a long climb up Buck Mountain that I’d be walking.  After that, I’d start pushing it (if I could) or walk more (if I had to).  When I rolled into the Long Mountain aid station there were two unexpected, friendly faces there to help.  Sam and Brad had driven up from Richmond – they helped me get re-stocked and re-shoed and I set off knowing that there were friends on the mountain!!

Brad and Sam with Prissie.  Their faces gave me SUCH a boost at Long Mt. Wayside!
Brad and Sam with Prissie. Their faces gave me SUCH a boost at Long Mt. Wayside!

The climb up Buck was when I knew I was having a good day.  I started passing other runners…and not just guys.  It was a big boost to know I was running strong relative to other women who had been ahead of me all day.  Hiking up the mountain I had a nice conversation with Kevin (about raising chickens, of all things!).  We reached the top, ran to the next aid station, and then we were in The Loop.

I knew the first few miles were runnable and I forced myself to cover them quickly, as the terrain would devolve into a rocky mess.  It was beautiful in there as I was running along – not a soul in sight.  When I got to the turn-off for the out-and-back climb up Mt. Pleasant I saw Nebs running strong, immediately followed by Gaby (looking great!).  I shouted out a congratulations to them both and started the climb.

I think half of the field was on that mile section.  How funny to run alone for so long and then see how close everyone is to one other.

Photo Credit:  Katie Keier
View from Mt. Pleasant
Photo Credit: Katie Keier

I had no interest in counting girls, but I did see Sophie right above me.  It was great to catch up to her and chat over the next few miles.   She told me to go ahead – and she also mentioned that I was now in 9th place.  I tried not to hear, but with only 12 miles to go I was now determined to get into that top 10!

I came out of the loop, and started a long climb to the next aid station.  Then more climbing and a long single track section.  I was chatting with one of the guys when he asked me if I knew there was another girl right behind me.  I looked over my shoulder and saw her 100 yards back.  Thinking a) that she was gaining on me and b) that I would still be in the top-10 if she passed, I almost eased off to let her go ahead.  But then, considering that I could still run and that there was another women within view up ahead, I kept my pace steady and pulled away.

I caught up to the next woman and we talked for a moment.  At the aid station (the last one, I think?), I noticed her race number and realized this was Sophie’s friend Meredith.  I introduced myself, but there wasn’t any time to chit-chat.  We both knew that puffy-vests were on the line.  Meredith had much happier quads than me, and bounded down the mountain.  I rolled on…trying to run as strong as I could, while saving just a bit in case I needed to push it on the final flat section.

Three miles to go….down, down, down.  Where – oh where – is that really cool tree that will tell me we’re 1.5 miles from the finish.  There it is!  OK…down some more…ONE MILE TO GO!  Hit the pavement….there is Rt. 56.  Left turn, Clyde…stay strong, final curve, finish line in sight….across the line at 9:34.   DONE!!!

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For weeks I’d focused on this moment – when I could change into sweats, put on my new socks and slippers,  find a patch of grass and watch my friends finish the race.  I was pretty queasy after crossing the line, and my body decided to empty out all of the gel and liquid sloshing around my stomach.  Feeling better, with chili in hand, I sat next to Loretta and Nebs to watch the finish.

Loretta had rolled her ankle and dropped a few hours earlier.  It was disappointing after all of her hard work, but she wasn’t the only casualty.  Tight cut-off times got a lot of the other RVA runners, who filtered in slowly.  But we were there when Brian finished, then Guzzi, Elizabeth and finally MARTHA!!  Powering through a recent ankle fracture to come in before the cut-off!

Elizabeth, Martha, and me post-race.
Elizabeth, Martha, and me post-race.

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Masochist was a HUGE success for me…I gained a lot of confidence by running my own race and seeing that I had the legs to feel good throughout the day.  I ended the day 10th female (oops…not as much cushion as I thought!!) and was truly humbled to be standing in that line with the other nine women – amazing athletes and really great people.

10 top women - MMTR 2013
10 top women – MMTR 2013

But, more than that, MMTR was just plain fun.

Horton and me - Lynchburg Ultra Series...DONE!
Horton and me – Lynchburg Ultra Series…DONE!

These crazy people have become like my family in so many ways.  I can’t wait for next year 🙂

RVA!
RVA!
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Terrapin Mountain 50K Race Report

I got my most recent taste of “real” Virginia mountain running a few weeks ago when a group of us from Richmond headed up to Nelson County to run Three Ridges and the Priest.  It was to be training for the upcoming Terrapin Mountain.  I had no idea what to expect, but the training run confirmed what I already knew:  I like climbing,  I stink at running downhill – especially the technical stuff (i.e. ROCKS).

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Intrepid souls nearing the top of Three Ridges
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Done!! This is a run I’ve wanted to do for a LONG time, and can’t wait to come back during swimming hole season 🙂

Still, I was excited for Terrapin, and a new adventure.  My quads, glutes, and hips had recovered quickly from Holiday Lake…the only lingering problem was my feet.  The tendons and ligaments had loosened, and I was constantly rolling my ankles.  I was worried, especially since I have a history of issues with my left achilles.  10 days before Terrapin, my RIGHT foot decided that it was its turn to complain.  Serious bruising and weakness led me to believe I might have a navicular stress fracture.  Drawing inspiration from many stubborn seasoned trail runners before me, I buried my head in the sand.  I iced, compressed, rested, and put my fingers in my ears when anyone mentioned going to get it x-rayed.

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In part because of my cranky foot, and in part because of the serious reduction in training mileage, I was a neurotic mess going into Terrapin.  My non-running life has been CRAZY lately…we are in the middle of a home renovation, the girls’ activities are ramping up for Spring, and the never-ending-richmond-cold-rain-winter-weather has kept us from being outside most afternoons.  I’ve been short-tempered at times, and, although the girls were thrilled to be spending a River weekend with their grandparents, I couldn’t help feeling guilty as I rolled out of town Friday afternoon.

I started to settle down when I turned onto Rt. 29 outside of Charlottesville.  It is SUCH a beautiful drive, as one leaves the Piedmont and gets a glimpse of the Blue Ridge.

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Who needs medication? Go climb a mountain!

By the time I reached the Sedalia Center at 6pm, greeted friends, and set up my “tent” (really just an air mattress in the back of my minivan), I was ready to get my mind back in the game.  The Sedalia Center serves as the start and finish point of the race and provides a wonderfully terrifying view of Terrapin Mountain.

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Martha, Mark, and Me. That’s Terrapin in the background…it looked MUCH larger in person, pre-race!

There was an open pavilion where we got our race numbers, AWESOME pottery mug (love!!!), and pizza.  A band was on stage, playing laid back music (kind of a celtic-folk sound).  I chatted with the Richmond crew…almost all of the “usual suspects” were running…

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Some of us stayed for the photo op….

…then headed back to the van for a COLD night.

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The race started at a very civilized hour – 7 am!  I had plenty of time to fire up the camp stove, eat breakfast, get dressed, and check in before we lined up and the gong sounded.  I wasn’t sure how my foot would handle six hours of running, but I felt loose and good on the first 1/2 mile of asphalt and the initial 3 mile climb up the mountain.  Coming into the Camping Gap aid station (the first of three times we’d visit), I peeled off my long sleeves and handed them to Drew.  I was third female, but I knew that wasn’t likely to last.  Still, it was encouraging, and I reminded myself to just take the day as it came and not get hung up on placement (soooo much easier said than done!!).

Leaving Camping Gap, we were treated to FIVE miles of downhill on forest roads.  I tried to let gravity work and roll down the hill….making time without trashing my quads.  About halfway down, Kristen Chang passed me.  We introduced ourselves, and she stayed 15-20 seconds ahead of me through the next few miles.  Once we started heading uphill, however, she pulled ahead.  It was on this LONG uphill (Seven miles, in all, back up to Camping Gap) that another girl passed me…I think it was Emily Warner.  She was moving fast, and very quickly was out of my sight.  My foot had started to hurt, we weren’t even halfway through, and I began to worry.  Still, when we hit Camping Gap, I got a nice shout of encouragement from Horton, and I rolled through to finish the climb to the summit of White Oak mountain.

It was on this loop, about mile 18, that I really started to slow.  The downhill was steep and my foot hurt, and two more women passed me.  Coming off of the “lollipop” section, I started to see the runners behind me.  I got a moment of sympathy from Mark, then lots of smiles from Debbie, Nigel, and Hurley.  I came back into Camping Gap in a happier place, determined to get this race OVER and head home!

But first…Terrapin Mountain.  Drew warned me as I was leaving the aid station that I’d have a 3/4 mile climb, and he wasn’t kidding.  Straight up and up and up to the summit of Terrapin.  We had to climb out on some rocks to punch our bib (one of three required check-ins), and then start the trek down the mountain, squeezing through a rock gap (the aptly named “Fat Man’s Misery) in the process.  The descent was HARD and TECHNICAL and I did NOT enjoy it!  But I got it done, and came to what I thought was the final aid station.  Not so quick, Annie!  Only a sign & some volunteers letting us know we needed to go downhill another half mile to check-in, and then retrace our steps back up.  Ooof!

5.5 miles to go.  I don’t know why I thought that this section was on a fire road, but it wasn’t – just more rocky trail – a lot of it uphill.  I could see the valley below and knew we’d have a lot of decent – where was it??  I trudged along, until we hit the road with about 1 1/4 miles to go.  It felt nice to open up the pace and fly for a bit, and my final mile was 7:12.

I finished in 5:47; 8th female.  I met my goals, but wouldn’t call it a great race.  I hurt, both physically and mentally, for a big chunk of the race.  Horton came up to me afterwards and said “You died out there, didn’t you.  When I saw you earlier you were running well, but then you died”.  And he was right.  Somewhere around mile 18 my foot started to hurt and my strength ran out.  From that point on, the uphills were OK, but the downhill killed me mentally.  I knew I wasn’t running those sections well, and that was the difference between an great race and a so-so one.

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Most of the Richmond crew post race

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I gained a LOT of experience yesterday.  I know the training I need to be competitive in the mountains.  I saw how the fast girls run.  I learned that you can’t always use mileage as a nutrition guide (I did NOT eat or drink enough yesterday…I only consumed about 600 calories, or about 100 per hour.  I think 150-200 might have been better).  My foot hurt, but after mile 18 it did not get dramatically worse.

Going forward?

  1. Recover
  2. Go run some mountains (not going to be easy with our Spring Break trip to…..Delaware….)
  3. To the extent that my “real” life will allow, I need to get my mileage back…I whine less when I run more!
  4. Finally, I need to work on my nutrition – both on race day and leading up.

I can’t wait to run Terrapin again next year.  Hats off to Clark Zealand, the volunteers, and everyone who came out to make it a fun, laid back, day!

Holiday Lake 2013 Race Report

A year ago (Feb. 11), I ran my first ultra.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time comparing running to motherhood (its kind of the point of this blog, after all), but the metaphor rings so true….Holiday Lake 2012 kicked me in the rear end….revealed hidden strengths…utterly exhausted me…and gave me something so precious that I couldn’t understand until I experienced it for myself.

Like motherhood, ultra running has pushed me beyond my perceived limits, introduced me to some crazy wonderful people, and provided a structure and rhythm to my life that makes me a better person.

Of course I was going to do it again in 2013!

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I had been looking forward to this race for a few reasons.  The experience and mileage of this past year made me much more confident…I knew I’d be able to run the distance.  But aside from that, I was thrilled that my cousin Mark would be coming down from Delaware to make his ultra debut.  Mark, 18 months older than me, has always been like a big brother.  We spent our childhood and teenage years at our family’s cabin…hiking, mountain biking, and getting into trouble.  I know I can count on him every July for hilly runs and spirited Tour d’France commentary.  This past summer, when he mentioned training for a fall marathon, I suggested that he run Holiday Lake with me.  He took the bait.

We arrived at the 4H Center and settled into our (unheated) cabin in plenty of time for the pre-race dinner and race briefing.  That’s the other reason I was happy to return.  Last year, I knew hardly a soul.  But this year, it was like walking into a family reunion.  So many familiar faces, so many memories of the past year of training runs, races, and adventures.

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Deluxe Accommodations at Holiday Lake!

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Morning came too soon, of course, but a few cups of coffee and some oatmeal cleared the cobwebs.  At 6:30 we were off.  I had lost Mark in the pre-race shuffle, and headed up the first 1/2 mile of paved roads.  Like JFK, I tried to use this time to get positioned for the upcoming trail section.  The only thing worse than being stuck behind a much slower runner on single-track is BEING that slower runner and sensing others’ impatience!  Fortunately, the course has a lot of fire roads and wider sections – I never felt “out of place” on the trail.

There is something so wonderful about the early miles of an ultra.  Rested legs, adrenaline, and relief combine to make the first hour effortless.  The sun rose, illuminating the woods and trail.  The first aid station came and went.  At some point between aid station 2 & 3 I realized that my water was frozen in the hydration-pack tubing.  Uh Oh.  I was able to get some liquid at the aid tables, but by mile 13 or 14 I realized I was seriously dehydrated.  I felt tired, much earlier than I expected to.  I was carrying 60 oz. of electrolyte-laced salvation on my back.  I HAD to get it working.

Biting and bending the tubing didn’t help, so I stuffed as much as I could down my shirt…anchoring it with my sports bra.  It didn’t bother me a bit, and a few miles later – TA DA – it flowed freely!!  It was AMAZING how quickly my energy returned once I rehydrated, and, feeling well, I picked up my pace as I neared the turnaround.

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Holiday Lake’s course consists of two loops.  The first is run in a clockwise direction, the second counter-clockwise.  I hit the turnaround at mile 16 and felt great, pausing only for a moment to look for my Aunt Sue.  I didn’t see her, so I rolled right through and got back on the course.

Last year, I easily spent 1-2 minutes at each aid station (and probably a solid 5 minutes at the turnaround).  This year, I had packed sufficient liquid and fuel so I didn’t need to pause at all.  I love the volunteers that work these races, and gave them all a smile and ‘THANK YOU’, but it felt great to breeze past each table and know that I knocking time off my total.

The first few miles after the turn are a bit dicey, as runners pass each other on narrow single-track.  However, it redeems itself with the best reward – an opportunity to see and cheer the other runners.  Spotting friends, giving a wave, the relief (this weekend at least) that everyone seemed to be having a good race, provided a lift that carried me back to the Mile 20 aid station.  But one familiar face was missing.  Where was Mark??  He’s a stronger runner than me, but had planned to run a conservative pace.  I really had no idea if he was ahead or behind, but I totally thought I’d see him at some point.  Finally, I passed Sir Nigel, who gave me a nod and told me “go catch your cousin”.  “How far ahead is he?” I asked.  “A bloody eight miles, at least” was the reply.  Thank goodness…the one thing I wanted more than anything was to run a strong race AND have Mark beat me to the finish line.  I figured that would ensure many more ultra-adventures for us in the future!

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This year’s strategy for the second loop was the same as last year’s.  Run aid station to aid station, without thinking too much about how many miles remain.  Coming into each one, I did a quick inventory.  Did I need anything?  Since I was running with my hydration pack, I’d grab a cup of water so I wouldn’t have to stop & refill my pack later.  How am I feeling?  Can I run at this pace for another 4 miles? Go, go, go!

I had switched the display on my watch so I could only see the time of day – no mileage, no pace information.  Each mile it would buzz, and I’d allow myself a quick look at my pace.  I was thrilled to see it stay consistent for most of the day.  When the trails opened up to service roads, I was cranking out 8:20 and 8:30 miles.  On the true trail sections, I ran in the low 9’s. I felt strong and solid up as I approached the last aid station.  Coming up a long hill, I saw a familiar form.  It took me about 10 minutes, but I finally caught up to my cousin.  He had run a SOLID race for almost 28 miles, and it was so great to see him.  He had twisted his ankle, and was starting to slow down, so he waved me on.  I ran through the last aid station, and and started to feel the accumulated distance.  I was tired, and the last four miles were tough.  Even so, I was able to pass two women, and kept running as hard as I could to maintain my place.

At last, I saw the wonderful orange paint telling us there was 1 mile to the finish.  Soon after, I hit the road and ran downhill the final 1/2 mile, crossing the finish line in 4 hours and 44 minutes; 6th female and 41st overall.  A Horton Hug made the day complete, and I stumbled over to a soft spot of grass to stretch out and watch the other runners fly down to the finish line.

I soon started seeing familiar forms coming down the hill.  First Brian, then Monte.  Where was Mark?  Even accounting for fatigue, he should have crossed the finish line by now.  Finally, I saw his red jacket approaching.  He gave me a quick glance, shook his head, and ran through the line.  He’d twisted his ankle again, but also veered off course for almost 3(!) miles.  Despite this disappointment, he ran so well – especially considering he’d never previously run a marathon.  He’ll be back next year, I’m sure…

The Richmond Crew - all done!!
The Richmond Crew – all done!!

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A year of ultra-running…four seasons of accumulating experience, mileage, and stories.  I’m thrilled with a top-10 finish, but more so that I ran my own race, and it was good enough to stack up against the chicks with way more experience and credibility.

And even though it was a good day for me, I’m taking away a few lessons learned:

  1. DON’T watch the watch!  It’s so important for me to run a pace that’s comfortably hard.  When I have preconceived pace targets, I end up going off track.  Listening to my body is the best way for me to ensure that I’m running at the right speed.
  2. DO check in from time to time.  Noting my average pace every mile or two helps me validate and quantify what I’m feeling.  It also gives me data for future runs (Onset and rate of fatigue…physiological response to Clif Shots…etc).  My left-brain personality LOOOOOVES this kind of info!!
  3. DON’T ignore hydration.  This caused me problems at Catoctin, and it could have really hurt me at Holiday Lake as well.  Running in the cold and not sweating a lot, its easy to think you’ll only need to drink every 4 miles.  Stuffing the hydration pack tubing down my shirt to melt the ice probably saved my race.
  4. DO know your nutrition.  As appealing as the aid station food might look, this girl works best with energy gels.  Every 4 miles, starting at mile 12, was all I needed today.
  5. DO enjoy the competition!  Of course we all want to place well, but the thing I love about longer distances is that you can’t fake it.  One of my favorite moments of the day was at mile 23, when a girl (Kelly Devine) ran past me like I was standing still.  I was feeling good, and running strong, and amazed by her speed and fluidity that late in the race.  It was a joy to watch.  (We chatted after the finish and she shared that it was her first trail run ever- WOW!)

All in all, it was another wonderful weekend, and nice to come full-circle.  I’m looking forward to Terrapin, Promise Land, and all the other adventures 2013 has to offer….