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….

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Race Recap: Xterra 21K Trail Run

I didn’t mean to run this race.  There were a lot of reasons not to do it.  I’ve been ramping up my mileage over the last month, and I really needed to get 18 under my belt to set up one last long run before vacation.  After my recent AT debacle, the last thing I needed was to make a foolish mistake, and I worried that the implicit pressure of a “race” would cause me to trip up (literally and figuratively!).  With speed work on Tuesday and a 4-mile race on Thursday, perhaps this would be too much work for one week.

On Monday, I went to the website.  Online registration was still open.  I sat and debated and rationalized.  My smarter self prevailed (for once) and I decided not to run.

On Wednesday, I went to the website.  Online registration was closed.  “That makes it easy” I said to myself, and I decided not to run.

On Friday, with a million things to do and not nearly enough time, I sped down to Canal Street – walked into the Crown Plaza, and plunked down my $50.  Idiot.

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Saturday dawned bright and hot.  The girls gone for the weekend, all I had to do was feed the dogs, throw my bag in the car, and head down to Browns Island.  I arrived, on schedule, just before seven.  My plan was to run 5 miles before the start, thus satisfying my 18-mile requirement for the day.  I also hoped these extra miles would take the edge off my competitiveness, and help me treat this more as a training run.

I loped up the hill to Franklin, then headed east for a lap around the VA State Capitol.  My goodness, but do we have a beautiful city in the morning!  Down to Shockoe Slip past Bottom’s Up, East along Tobacco Row, and back along the bike path to the flood wall.  Easy, Easy running down the canal, and back for a lap around Brown’s Island, I finished up just as the briefing started at 7:45.

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The route took us east, where we crossed the river and turned west to run along the flood wall on the South bank of the James.  Crushed gravel, pavement and no shade went the first two miles (though I got a laugh at the first aid station, when the runner in front of me grabbed a cup of “water” and tossed it over his head, only to find out it was Gatorade).  But then we came upon Riverside Towers and jumped on the Buttermilk Trail.  My feet had found their happy place, and I bounded along to Reedy Creek and Forest Hill Park.

The course makes two loops through Forest Hill Park, and I am glad I knew this going into the race.  The three mile loop is hilly and hot.  Right around the 4 mile mark (9 miles of running), my energy started to ebb a bit.  I had stashed some PowerBar gummies, and over the next 5 miles they gave me the boost I needed.  There weren’t many girls around, but I was able to pass those I came upon. I finished my first water bottle (filled with Nuun), and refilled at one of the water tables.

About halfway through the first lap, I fell in behind a guy from NoVA.  He commented on how tough the trails were, and it turns out this was his first time running off road.  He was a strong, fit guy, and it killed him to hear that our pace was around 9:30/mi.  I tried to assure him that this was respectable (I thought) for the trails (For comparison, when I’m training on the road, I might run a 7:30 pace.  The same perceived effort on the trails will be around a 10-10:30 pace).

I stayed with RoadGuy for the next lap as well, and as we were nearing the end, I stood aside to let another man pass.  He was jumping back in after stopping to take off his soaked socks.  For the second time, I got the comment that the trails were incredibly difficult.  We started talking…he was from Kentucky and had come up so his boys could compete in the triathlon Sunday.  Our pace had slowed by this point, and I was enjoying the conversation, so I didn’t mind when the girl who had been shadowing me finally passed us.  I let her go, confident in my strategy to enjoy the day, and not make myself fight for higher placement.

We rock-hopped across the James, and up and over Belle Isle.  Got to meet a guy training for Grindstone who had run the entire course before the race (don’t I feel like a pansy for my measly 5-miler).   We chatted about JFK and Catoctin – he’d run both and was happy to give me advice.  I was reminded again why I love ultra-runners.  My ClifShot had kicked in, and I was feeling like I could have run all day.  I passed one last woman on the footbridge, trotted up Tredegar Street and sprinted through the finish line.

My time for the day was about 1 hour and 53 minutes.  Not a PR by any means, but enough for 9th female overall (3rd in my age group).

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It turns out the Xterra was a huge step forward for me, with lessons that I will apply to the coming months of training:

1)  It was totally the right call to add on miles before the race.  It kept me on schedule, training wise, and dealt with the psychological issues that creep up during a race.  I went to the starting line without the self-imposed pressure to perform.

2) That being said, that I could take it easy and still crack the top-10 was highly motivating.  My hip & Achilles felt great and I could totally tell that the strength-training is working.

3) I fueled and hydrated correctly.  Nuun to start, water & gatorade to finish.  PowerBar gummies at mile 9, 11, & 13.  ClifShot at mile 16.  When I felt tired, I ate or had some Gatorade and I never felt like I was nearing empty.

4) I could have gone farther.  Especially if I had dialed in my pace during the 21K.  Knowing that, I feel OK upping my long-run mileage over the coming weeks, and I feel good about my plan to run Catoctin July 28.

#7 & #8: Get Outside and Go Long (Holiday Lake 50K++ Race Report)

Last fall, while tapering for the Richmond Marathon, I laid out my 2012 goals.  Among them was this line:

February 2012:  First Ultra.  With a friend.  Awesome.

And it was, even when the pain and the doubt and the tears crept over me, it was a truly awesome day.

But let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?

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I planned to run Holiday Lake with my friend Kelly and her husband Matt.  Jimmy agreed to “crew” for us.  Give the ample aid stations and mid-point drop bags, his was a pretty light work load (Case in point, after the race started, he took a long shower, ate breakfast, caught a movie, took a bike ride, made some phone calls, and met up with us for the last five mile stretch — lucky man).

We left Richmond Friday afternoon, and got to the 4H Center in time to eat dinner and secure a heated bunk.  Thoroughly enjoyed hearing Dr. Horton’s tips & tricks for surviving one’s first ultra and seeing all the college kids ready to tackle such a run.  When I was in college, I ran sporadically, usually in March as a futile attempt to get in shape for Spring Break.  Only later did I become a Runner.  If I had been exposed to this lifestyle when I was in school, would I have had the discipline and maturity to endure?  I wonder.

The four of us turned in early, and after a lot of tossing and turning and precious little sleep, we awoke and got ready for the start.  It was dark and cold, but dry when we started at 6:30 a.m

Everyone gathered under the banner, sang the National Anthem, and locked in their satellites…

and we were off….

The course is a 16+ mile loop, run clockwise to start, and counter clockwise to finish. Our plan was to go out slow and easy, keeping our pace in check and walking any daunting incline.  Aid Stations are set every 4 miles, with ample food, water, and cheering volunteers.  I’ve been nursing an injury since December, and was hoping and praying that I could get at least 20 miles under my belt before my right hip and ankle realized what I was doing to them.

The first loop was a blast.  The aid stations appeared just when they should, and we clocked along in the 9 min/mi range.  When I felt tired, I took a gel and bounced right back.  My ankle hurt, but not terribly.  My trail shoes (Brooks Pure Grit) were a dream, and handled the stream crossings and slick spots with ease.  We chatted with friends and new acquaintances and rolled into the 1/2 way point around 2:40 – perfect.  I felt great, and couldn’t believe that I had 16 miles on my legs.  Now turn around and do it all again…

Halfway!

Things were OK for the next 8 miles.  I was tiring, but holding my pace.  I left my water bottle at the turn around, but a quick pit stop assured me that I was properly hydrated.  I borrowed Matt’s bottle and was able to roll on.  At one point I looked at my watch and couldn’t believe that we’d been running for 4 hours – it did not seem that long.  I noted to the group when we hit 26.2 miles and took our first steps into ultra territory.

But between miles 24 and 28 the wheels started to come off.  I slowed a bit, and my injured right leg was weakening quickly.  As a result, I kept hitting my toes on roots and rocks and tumbling down.  I fell three times hard.  I was still running with Kelly and Matt when Jimmy found us about mile 27.  We stuck together for another mile or so, but soon after leaving the last aid station, I lost it.  The magnitude of the day and the distance overwhelmed me.  I thought of Jimmy’s dad, and how much he would have wanted to be a part of this day,  and I wept.  I decided to drop back and walk a bit.  I pulled myself together, but no sooner had a started to run when I kicked another rock.  This time, instead of tripping forward, I twisted.  My knee immediately seized up, and I couldn’t run another step.  Heck, I almost couldn’t walk.  And I still had 3 1/2 miles to go.

I hobbled along for 10 minutes, crying and muttering to Jimmy that this was not how it was supposed to end.  Through it all, I remembered Dr. Horton’s words from the night before.  Just keep moving forward.  The important thing is finishing.  I kept walking.

And like a miracle, my knee eased up.  I started to run again, and was able to go on with a run/walk combo until we hit the road.  1/2 mile and I would be at the finish.  Jimmy stayed by my side, and we traded running quotes to keep the motivation high.  I let gravity pull me down the hill the to finish.  Dr. Horton gave me a hug, and just like that, I was an official ultra-marathoner.

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One day later, my knee and ankle are more swollen than I’ve ever seen them.  I can’t really walk with bended joints.  And yet, I’m already counting the days of recovery before I can do this again.

It took me 5 hours and 40 minutes to run Holiday Lake.  I came into the day injured, which kept me from running to my potential, but in the end that did not prevent me from enjoying the experience.  My father-in-law passed away four days before the race – I ran for him.  I ran for my daughters, who will grow up with the legend of their grandfather and know that anything is possible.

I run, not for fitness, but for serenity.  In the miles and hours on the road (or trail), I go into myself and find a greater understanding.  What did I learn from Holiday Lake?

I learned that I can run far, and I can run through injury and pain.

I learned that ultras attract a great group of people.

I learned that a good conversation can make the miles melt away.

Looking at my fellow runners, I learned this is a lifestyle, and one that I want to (and can be) living for the next 30 years

Thank you to everyone for making this such a special day!

#5 – Embrace the Mud

No better way to embrace this resolution than by running the 2012 Willis River Trail Run!

I first heard about this race from a friend in the fall, shortly after finishing the Maymont X-Country Festival’s 8 miler.  That was my first trail run in several years, and while I ran hard and finished well, I was amazed at how much harder it was to run trails.  I went out fast, and for the first 3 miles was in first place.  But, while 7:30/mi would have been a conservative pace for the road, it was way too aggressive for the trail.  My whole body hurt, and I started to bonk big-time around mile 7.  I ended 5th among women, and realized that if I could actually build some core strength and train off-road, I might score a podium spot in 2012.

Since that race in September, I’ve only been on the trails a few times…while I never hesitate to go for a run on the road, a solo trail run is beyond my comfort zone.  Despite my lack of training and string of recent injuries, I decided to go out and run the 35K race on Saturday. I was running with my friend and her husband, both of whom have signed up to run Holiday Lake 50K++ in February.

It was a CHILLY 28 degrees at the start.  I wore long pants and a double layer of long-sleeves on top.  I decided to forgo my new trail shoes (not enough training miles in them yet) and put on an old pair of my tried-and-true Adidas Supernova Glide’s.  I was a bit worried by their lack of traction, but knew my feet would stay happy in them.  As it turned out, they held the ground just fine.

The course was an out-and-back, with aid stations about every five miles.  35K should = about 22 miles, so we were expecting the turn around mile 11.  We started at a conservative pace for the first 10 minutes, and when my hip felt OK, I decided to go on when my friends picked up the pace.  Of course, it was a wilderness trail, so the pace was a blazing 10:30/mile.  It takes a lot for a road girl like me to get used to the “slowness” of trail running, but having my HRM show me how hard I was working, I quickly made peace with it.

We hit the first aid station about an hour after starting, not before hitting what would truly be the most maddeningly difficult obstacle:  MUD.  Early week rain showers and balmy temps had turned much of the trail into a swamp.  The race director had a few detours in place, but none of the runners escaped with clean shoes!

We left the station, and ran to the second section…looking out for the blessed turn-around.  It seemed like forever, but we finally saw the first two guys run by – they were smoking!  The first woman passed us maybe 1/2 mile before the turn-around, and by the time we pulled out of the aid station, we knew we were the 4th and 5th females on the course.  Mercifully, we also knew the top 3 were essentially out of reach, so there was no need to push the pace and try for the podium.

I felt tired leaving the first aid station, but caught a second wind during that second section.  I knew it would be a long road back, but I just needed to keep pace with my group and endure.  I stayed on top of hydration, and ate three gels over the course (along with one chocolate chip cookie!).

We made it back to the aid station, topped off our water and set out on the last section – about 5.5 miles.  I started to get really tired, and we walked a lot of the hills.  Even so, we maintained our placement and crossed the finish line in 3:29.

All told, the race took me as long as my marathon, and the effort felt similar.  Mentally, it was much more enjoyable, as the uneven terrain and obstacles kept me on my toes!  It was a huge confidence boost to get 3 1/2 hours on my feet, and I hope this signals a return to form.  I start PT today.  This, along with my cross-training will strengthen my legs and get them ready for the 32+ miles Holiday Lake will throw at me.

One step at a time…