Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Soapstone Mountain Trail Race

I hadn't run this one before, but Ed did it last year and wanted to go again. Sure, long run can be a trail race, why not? And actually, this one was pretty runnable, so that fit the bill nicely. And you can't go that wrong with a Grand Tree race. I took a look at the Ultrasignup predictions and some past results, and decided that I'd be pleased with a 2:10, but aiming for closer to 2:05. That would be averaging a little over 9min/mi, so knowing that number would give my brain something to crunch while running.

The race started down a gradual dirt road, so the first mile basically felt free. It was fun to cruise down that road in a tight little pack, just letting the ground roll away behind us. Then we turned onto some flattish/rolling singletrack back up toward the main paved road, and it was so pretty. We've had such a late spring, all the leaves were still in that light green/golden glow, with some stuff still flowering. What a day for a run! At the main road, we crossed and headed up Soapstone Mountain. Rutted and washed out and dirt, but not mud, which would have been tough at that incline. At this point I was sitting as second woman, with Kehr out of sight but no real challenges from behind. I'd built an ~3min buffer on my goal time over the first two miles, which disappeared quickly hiking up Soapstone. Breakneck tumble down the other side (wheeee!), and then some flatter/rolling trail. It was a fun trail, definitely runnable and fast but technical enough to keep me happy.

Thanks to Shenipsit Striders for the photo. Downhills go "wheee!"

Given the cool temperatures and aid stations every ~3mi, I had elected to not run with a water bottle. You'd think I learn from my mistakes, but I repeatedly prove that I'm too stupid for that. Not running with a bottle means you have to spend much more time at the aid stations, and then you run off with a belly sloshing full of water. D'oh. Future self, please don't do this again. So, I was definitely losing more time at the aid stations than was ideal, around 30-45 seconds of drinking.

Somewhere after the first aid station, the trail took a sharp bend left off a cliff, and I was coming down a hill approaching that junction, thus going fast enough that my eyes were watering a bit and I was really focused on my footing. I saw a yellow blaze on a tree and race-brain thought that was good enough, even though I was supposed to be looking for white blazes or yellow flags in the ground. Rain-brain really isn't very smart. Whoops. That cost me a bonus hill and ~1.5 minutes, along with a good number of the damns I'd brought to give along the way.

The next few miles were flat/rolling and gradually trending downward, and I tried to pick people off but they weren't coming back to me very fast. It was sort of nice to have my watch beep every mile, and I was only a little behind my desired pace, but with my little bonus tour I didn't know how much extra distance I'd done. The downhill culminated in a stream/trail, over loose rocks, and my busted/abused ankle really did not like that part, so I ceded even more time.

On the gradual rollers back up toward Soapstone Mt, I put out an honest effort, but I was tired. Definitely riding the edge of that pace where most of your thoughts are concerned with stopping, or maybe hammocks and beer and a nice breeze. The trail was rocky enough that when I lost focus I'd slow way down, so I tried to stay focused on moving forward efficiently. Anyway, my efforts yielded me two dudes, but no ladies, and it was a real relief to start the climb back up to Soapstone, since that meant I was almost done. The descent was hard on my ankle, which was complaining about all the micro twists from the river running, and I backed off a little in the name of self-preservation.

The final 3/4mi was painful, and felt like it took forever. I passed two ladies with a dog, and one reprimanded her dog "don't interfere, dog, this lady's having a hard time," which made me chuckle, and she immediately tried to justify "but a hard time in a good way!" I guess I didn't look like I was having a good time at that point. Eventually I lumbered across the line, 4th woman, about a minute slower than I'd hoped, and not feeling particularly positive about my shape. But that was a fun course, and had a nice race vibe.

This lady's having a hard time. Shenipsit Strider's photo.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Sisters-Billygoat double

Two of my favorite races fell on the same weekend this year: 7 Sisters trail race was on Saturday, and the Billygoat was on Sunday, at Ward Pound Ridge. The good news was they were on separate days! Sorry, body, you didn't actually need to walk on Monday, right?

7 Sisters Trail Race
This race is amazing. It packs the vertical relief of Mount Washington into 11 miles or so, with nearly every step requiring finesse and agility. The uphills are steep enough that you have to hike, often using your hands to pull yourself up rock faces, and the downhills are best described as a barely-contained tumble. As far as I'm concerned, this is about as good as it gets!

I actually targeted this race, focusing on the uphills and the downhills with the only easily-accessible vertical on my commute - Harvard Stadium. I was starting to feel pretty good about my fitness, and then I actually rested properly leading up to the race. Morning of the race, I felt good, and knew that despite the wet weather, this could be a very good day. My plan for the race was to start conservatively, let the speedsters take off, and run my own race. It's a long enough race that I wanted to save something for the return trip, and after getting completely depleted last time I ran this (protip: don't throw your food to the side of the trail because you think your water bottle belt is too bouncy), I had a feeding strategy and planned to stick with it.

Part of my tapering plan was to get a massage, which was dearly needed. Sam Peck is a master. But thanks to my crazy schedule, the only time I could get in was on Thursday, and that was a little too close to the race. I decided to go with it anyway, but that was a mistake - I could feel the sore bits as the race went on, and really just needed one more day in there. Argh, I hate preventable mistakes!

The second preventable mistake I made was to swap my shoes at the last minute. I had been planning to go with the X-Talon225s, an awesome racing shoe that I use for pretty much everything. They're hands-down my favorite Inov-8 shoe. But, I made the mistake of also bringing the TrailTalon250s to the race, and suddenly I had given myself choices. And we all know that before a race, if you have choices to make, you will agonize over those choices, and then you will probably pick the wrong thing. In this case, it wasn't wrong per se, because the TrailTalons had phenomenal grip and I have been doing a lot of my long runs in them. But, because they have a little more room in the toe box, I wanted to make sure that my feet wouldn't slide around at all, so I cinched down the laces way too tight. Like waaay too tight.

I've done this before. It's a bad idea. You'd think I'd have learned my lesson.

We took off and as predicted, Kehr and Kelsey were off the front and a couple others followed them. I found myself in 6th place, with a couple other girls getting pushy, but they didn't seem very confident on the rocks, so I knew they wouldn't last. I felt pretty good and light up that hill, but cresting the top I discovered that my shoes were too tight, and that was making my calves cramp worse than usual. A smart person would have stopped and loosened her shoes. Did I do that? Noooo.

We started to catch the end of the elite men's wave on that first climb. and it was nice to be passing people. I wanted to throttle back the effort a bit, but was struggling to do so. When I finally passed Ed, who had hiked out to the low point to cheer, I was settling into more of a rhythm. Hike the uphills, generally with hands on knees (gotta put that extra skier weight to use somehow), tumble down the hills. I was going back and forth with a couple guys at this point, who were generally better on the ups and I was better on the downs. This is how it goes for me.

At the Summit House road, I was 2 minutes behind my 2014 split. I was more depressed by this than I'd anticipated. Even with the tight calves and muddy trail, I'd felt like my training was more than good enough to make up for that. How had I gotten so slow? I couldn't speed up much more without paying the consequences later, so maybe my training hadn't been as good as I thought. Maybe age is starting to catch up. Maybe I could have been actually pushing a little harder. But then I lifted my gaze as I climbed up to the Summit House and saw a female figure disappearing over the crest - that's 4th place up there! Maybe I can catch her on the downhill.

After a welcome walk across the porch (forced by race organizers), where I tried to drain my bottle and rest the calves, we were into my favorite part - the sustained downhill to the turn-around. It's not only downhill, there are a couple lumps along the way, but it's all technical and all awesome. I quickly caught up to the 4th place woman, and had a partner in the descent as a guy in a Tough Mudder shirt was keeping pace, and this was nice actually. The front of Wave 1 was catching me by now, but not that many of them. Eventually I started seeing the leaders coming back, and then Kelsey, then Leah, and finally Kehr, touchable but only with a massive effort. I hit the turn-around about a minute behind 2014, and thought, maybe I can make that up on the return! Silly me.

I actually did feel really good climbing back to the Summit House. I was keeping pace with a guy in a red shirt, and only two guys from Wave 1 passed me, so that was good news. My calves were still tight, but not exploding anymore, but I was starting to notice my heels - almost like they were falling asleep, but not really, more like they were just starting to ache really badly on the bottoms. Again, a smarter person would have stopped to loosen her shoes. At this point I certainly had the leeway.

The wheels started to really fall off after crossing the road. My butt was so sore, it just wasn't working anymore, and it turns out you can't just use your triceps instead of your glutes. My calves hurt, my heels hurt, my quads hurt. By the time I hit the low point, it was sheer survival. The bottom of my heels were in sheer agony. Again, all I had to do was stop and loosen the damn shoes. I tried to drown out the pain with positive mantras. "I'm so strong!" on the uphills, "this is fun!" on the downhills. Over and over and over. The final two climbs up Hitchcock and Bare Mountain I actually wasn't sure if I could take another step. I dropped an additional 6 minutes to my 2014 self from the road crossing back to the finish, and all I could think about was how excited I was to sit down and take off my shoes.

Upon actually taking off my shoes, I found I couldn't stand. Ed carried me back to the car, and over the course of the next hour or two I tried to relearn how to stand, walk, and move around. I've never been so hobbled after a race. It was terrible, and it was entirely my own fault. This doesn't take away from the awesomeness that is Sisters, it just ensures that I'll be back, to try for that elusive 2:20 again.

Post-race leg-soak in Puffers Pond was heavenly. And frigid. 

The Billygoat
Overnight brought no relief. I didn't really sleep at all, the pain in my feet keeping me tossing and turning as though maybe if I lie on this side my feet will hurt less. Come morning I still couldn't stand. Last night I'd sort of been able to tiptoe around, this morning my arch muscles were in as much pain as my heels, so tiptoeing brought no relief. 400mg of ibuprofen with breakfast got me to the point where I could lurch to the car, and I decided that this wasn't the sort of pain that was likely to cripple me long term, so I'd better just take some more ibuprofen and do the race. I really badly wanted to win the ugly billygoat doorstopper back. And you can't win a race if you don't even start it.

Another 800mg and I got through a short warmup test jog. The pain was now at a level where it just felt like a dull ache, no more stabbing. Let's do this thing! We started off, and I immediately felt the effects of doing neither a cooldown yesterday nor a warmup today. Those legs were STIFF. Everybody was running off, and I was left in what felt like the dust. But I focused on being efficient, and despite climbing up that first hill at snail pace, I found myself a loose group of Jeff, Andis, and Keegan for the first controls. This was a good group!

I then decided to abandon my reliable group and strike out on my own to 5, going left on a trail, that gave me bonus climbing, bonus mountain-laurel-bashing, and bonus cliff-scaling. That cost me about 4 minutes, and now I was alone and depressed. My everything still hurt, and I knew Izzy had a big lead, and I kind of just wanted to sit on a rock and listen to the birds. When I saw a pheasant flapping away from me I knew nobody had passed through in a while, and got even more glum. Figured it was about time Izzy won one of these things, anyway. Too much hubris to think I could do both a tough trail race and a tough orienteering race in one weekend. I'm getting old, need my recovery, don't have the snap that I used to.

About three controls of wallowing later, I finally started to pick up some runners. That lifted my spirits enough to pick up the pace a little, and I managed to get back into the game. As I headed to #9 I saw Izzy leaving it, and from the direction she was going, I figure she was skipping #10. In this race, you're allowed to skip a single control, which adds a different element of strategy to it. Seeing Izzy skip 10 firmed my decision to skip 14, which looked about equal in its skippability. Gotta try something different, see if it'll lead to an advantage. Like that, the competitive embers stirred, and the flames began to grow. This race isn't over yet.

I started to run a little more aggressively and moved up through the pack. The thing I love about the Billygoat is that I pretty much know everybody who is racing it. Definitely one of my favorite communities, that I wouldn't trade for anything. By the time I finally got to #13 and headed off towards #15, confident in my skip choice, I was feeling a lot better about my placement. I'd been steadily moving up, and had a long trail run ahead of me. My body was cooperating, the sun was shining, life was great.

At 15, I ran into both Izzy and Kseniya. Yay! Contact made! I relaxed a little, to try and recover, knowing that at some point, somebody would attack, and I wanted to make sure I could match it. We were together, with a few men in our pack, until about control 21. We had a long trail run then, and I decided to stretch the rubberband a bit and see what happened. It wasn't quite enough, but I could see that my trail running was a little stronger. We converged on 23 again, and then Kseniya got a bit of a gap coming down a steep rocky slope in the woods. She hit the trail by the river and accelerated, and I knew that this could be decisive if I didn't cover it. Definitely burned a match to close down the gap, but that had been a bluff - I could see her fatigue as we hit 24. Her attack had dropped Izzy, and I knew that with a mostly-uphill finish on trails and fields, things were in my favor. I took the uphill side of the wall leaving 24, which was more packed-down than Kseniya's side, and this gave me a few seconds. We hit the trail, up a hill, and I gave it some oomph, determined to not look back. I couldn't tell if the footsteps behind me were the West Point cadet or Kseniya, so I kept driving. One final uphill through the field, and as I turned 90 degrees to head to the finish I risked a look, and saw a comfortable gap. Phew!

I was very proud of the end of that run. It had been a mental game from the beginning, and came down to determination and motivation. I was very pleased to have been able to summon the oomph that I needed near the end. And, I hit all my goals of the race:

1. Finish, in under 3.5 hours
2. Beat Ed
3. Win the women's race

So I collected the ugly doorstopper for another year, as well as a delicious victory pie. A great end to a tough weekend.

Monday felt a little creaky, but my heels appear to be recovering, and by Tuesday I could run. So glad this isn't permanent damage!