Scatter my ashes here...

Scatter my ashes here...
scatter my ashes in the desert...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lake Erie 2, Alene 0: National Championships at North Coast 24 Hour Fall 2014

North Coast 24 is one of those races with a character of its own.

It's subtle, but there’s a unique understated charm. It's well-organized, and has a definite following of locals, and it has a way of growing on you, even on this westerner at heart who loves mountains and small cities, not big urban messes with sketchy downtowns and crowds of people.

Being in downtown Cleveland might as well be another country or planet to me. One of my former patients used to work in law enforcement and warned me before my first trip to Cleveland, “When you're in Cleveland, just shoot, and walk away."

It's hard to find your way around downtown in a modernized but also partially decaying cityscape where the streets don't make any sense. To visit the downtown areas shops and restaurants you have to park first. In between lightposts, trash cans, fire hydrants, there are very few scattered parking meters which force you to find parking garages, the entrances to which are inhabited by panhandlers.

And then trying to get out of the parking garage is another adventure. We thought we were going to witness a crime scene there when an impatient driver in front of us was getting pissed off at the first car in line. The guy just lifted the barricade up and out of his way instead of paying for parking.

I ran here in spring of 2013 and at the time I didn’t think I’d come back. Not that there was anything wrong with the race, it was just that I couldn’t see traveling all that way when I could find something closer to home. But then it was announced that the 24 hour national championships would be there, and I wanted not only a competitive race, but a chance to hit my 120 mile goal.

I missed last year’s nationals due to a hamstring injury, but it also happened to fall about three weeks before I quit my job, so I was about as stressed as I’ve ever been and wouldn’t have been a good time to race anyway.

The thing about North Coast 24 Hour is that it’s next to fickle Lake Erie with crazy weather and wind. Talking with Joe Fejes earlier this year about races, he advised me to seek a fast race or a track for my 120 mile goal, because he felt North Coast was a difficult venue, and the weather was unpredictable.

I knew about the weather from my first experience there, but I usually can do well in the heat and I figured that might be the thing that made it hard in the fall, and maybe rain. I am not used to running in humidity, but I’ve done well in it before, so I wasn’t concerned as much about the weather as maybe I should have been.

I thought being in a competitive race would be good, and it was. I learned a lot watching the other runners, and learned a lot about my own racing style and preparation. It was more like feedback this time. I feel like I’ve got it down really well.

But Saturday September 20th was not the day I hoped for, and the same could be said for most of the other runners there. All week Saturday’s weather forecast looked hot, sandwiched in between milder days. It never budged. Thunderstorms were predicted for Saturday night and Sunday.

The weather forecast turned out to be very accurate except the temperatures got even higher than predicted. At one point someone said it was 85 degrees. I saw 81 on my phone when I checked it around 5 pm.

I've been to this race twice now and both times the weather got me good. Now I understand why Joe felt it was difficult. It’s not that the course is hard by itself, the weather is a contributing factor, but it’s what goes on in the park all day that makes it difficult.

I say this not as a criticism of the race itself, but just as far as practicality for running optimally. I think Joe meant there is an advantage of having a controlled venue like a track where people are only there for the race. And also there is something to having a race with fewer distractions, as there are lots of things going on all over in a busy urban park like Edgewater.

Between people often walking three abreast and the random pedestrians, kids, bicycles, kite flyers, smokers, large groups (and I hate to say it but large people like the guy in the shirt, and even bigger), it got quite crazy and chaotic around mid-afternoon and it was very difficult to stay on the inside throughout much of the loop. Especially the half that goes alongside the water.

I would say there was a lot of extra distance covered on that course due to the amount of passing people. The area where we all had our tents and tables set up was almost impassable at times during the afternoon.

The lower corner just before you take a curve to the right to cross the mat and pass the aid station was challenging at times as pedestrians seemed to have no idea that they were crossing our direct path.

It took a lot of energy, both mental and physical, to get around the people, who of course had no idea they were hindering our progress, and it’s not their fault either. We were the invaders, we were the crazy zombies who took over their park.

Not that it was all bad. I had a lot of fun. Despite the poor conditions for running I enjoyed it. It was entertaining, too. There was the “Kale Yes I’m Vegan” guy, that’s what his tank top said, who spent the entire day and part of the evening jumping rope and working out in the east corner of the park with some sort of gas mask on.

And it was a beautiful scene next to the water, a clear fall afternoon with kites flying, people out enjoying it, weddings, nuns walking, people grilling with their families, a mix of people watching, but also very distracting. I don’t think I would have been as distracted if I was running better. I would have been concentrating on my stride and forward progress and not looking at the scenery as much.

I think that was my last trip to this race. It is such a well-run event though, it's too bad. But to be realistic, I live too far away, it's an expensive trip, and it just hasn't panned out for me. I don't have a lot of time, I’m getting older and I want to get my goal. So I will move on to somewhere else. Not sure where that will be yet, but I’ll find it.

What Happened

Beth McCurdy and I met each other at the keys 100 in 2010. She’s from the Atlanta area. Then we ran together again at NorthCoast in 2013 in the horrible wind snowstorm. This time we decided to share a room to help with costs in Cleveland. It was a good match even though I usually like to have my own space. Beth understood all my quirks and it turns out we both have interesting quirks before races, we share many of the same obsessions, preferences, and weird habits pre-race. So it worked out well. Compatible weirdness.

I flew into Columbus again this trip, it's an easier airport, better flights and less expensive from Denver, plus my friends Lynn and Suzy Newton live there. I stayed with them for 2 nights before the race. I’ve known Lynn through running since about 1997. I know their daughter, too, the three of them used to attend Lynn’s races in Arizona such as Across the Years. Lynn decided to run North Coast this year, too.

I always sleep well at their house, I had plenty of sleep hours and good food in the tank by the time I left for Cleveland Friday morning. I drove to Cleveland to meet Beth at the downtown Hilton Garden Inn. On my way into town I stopped at Whole Foods and did our shopping, Beth gave me a list of what she wanted.

Neither of us wanted to attend the prerace dinner as we are both not into expending a lot of energy and socializing the night before the race. We found a good restaurant in Lakewood that has pasta and salads and ate there for our prerace meal then holed up in our hotel room to relax and prepare for morning.

Bill Damman offered to help us. Poor guy, I don't think he knew what he was getting into. But he was very generous to help us with our gear before and after, brought us ice during the heat of the day, and checked on us. He covered our gear before the downpour, and set up a tent for us to change in or sleep in if needed.

Neither of us slept well the night before in the hotel, but I wasn't worried because I had so much sleep at Lynn's I knew I'd be okay. I got maybe 5 hours, but I had plenty of crack gels- the chocolate cherry Clif shots and drinks with caffeine if needed.

We got to the start and got stuff set up and everyone was saying hi as we got ready. I had to organize my table. I saw quite a few runners I know and met a few new people. Beth knows everyone. We got set up next to a tent that said Virginia Tech Hokies. Wheaties Boy territory. I sent him a picture and took it as a good sign.


It was already quite warm. I knew we'd need the ice from Bill. I had my plan at a very conservative pace. I realized I might have to slow even more for the first half, and I was prepared to do it.

Soon it was time to line up at the start. There were about 170 entrants, so it was pretty crowded. They start you a little before the aid tent and finish line because of the course measurement, so you get to 100 miles on the finish line mat instead of some random place.

Then we were off.

I started out according to my plan, at a relaxed pace, talking to a few runners and then doing most of my laps in silence. I needed to get a feel for how my body wanted to run in the conditions. It felt easy and I immediately stuck to my planned run/walk pattern. I got through the first 20 miles or so at exactly my planned pace and I knew that I would have to slow down to get through the afternoon, so I did that.

I started putting ice on my neck sometime after noon. A lot of people were feeling the heat, there were already people running with ice packs on and talking with their crews about hydration and electrolytes. I knew by the time I got to about 35 miles that it was not going to be the day for performances. I accepted that and knew I still had a chance to run faster after dark. Pretty much everyone I talked with was saying the same thing, we were all just waiting for dark. It was a survival race.

It was a bloodbath out there though. So many runners quit early. In the afternoon I saw quite a few suffering in the heat. People who were flying and leading early in the race one by one started to drop. I felt pretty comfortable with the pace in the heat, but I backed off early. Harvey Lewis was moving well in the men's race along with several other guys, and in the women's race it seemed like there were a lot who dropped. I'm not sure.

I was there to run my own race, not worry about what they were doing. Debra Horn was there and she was running very well, but she wasn't going blazing fast. She seemed to be running smart. Beth looked good early on but we run differently, she likes to run and I do the run/walk thing. I lost track of her for quite a while.

Some of the older runners were amazing though. Those of us in the USATF national championship race had our age groups on bibs on our backs, and there were some 70+ year olds out there who did not in any way look their age. They were moving well too. The two women I saw in the 65-69 age group looked great, too.

I went through 50 miles in about 10:25 which is a lot slower than usual, but it was necessary. I have no idea where I was at 100K because after 50 miles I stopped paying attention to splits and just focused on moving forward and staying cool. I ate a couple of PBJs and then stuck to yogurt. My stomach was fine.

The afternoon was chaotic with masses of people in the park. I stopped for 10 minutes and got into Bill’s tent to change into evening clothes. My legs were surprisingly fresh. I’d been well-hydrated, peeing hourly, and I didn’t have any muscle cramping when I had to crouch into the small tent to change clothes.

I got back out on the course, but it hadn’t cooled down. The park was still full of people at sunset, it was beautiful though. There was this group of people facing east and doing their Muslim evening prayer, and the seagulls were circling around overhead, along the waterfront, and it was such a calm scene despite having so much going on out there.

As it got darker, it was still too warm to need any extra clothing. I could feel a blister in the usual spot under my left foot, the ball of my foot, the same spot that got me at Badwater. I looked at it when I was in the tent and it just looked like a friction spot. I changed socks but didn’t do anything else to it. In retrospect maybe that’s when I should have broken out an Engo patch or something, but it was not bothering me running.

As the evening went on, it stayed at about 75 degrees. I no longer needed ice but it was not comfortable for picking up the pace. The blister was there but I decided to keep going since it wasn’t affecting my gait. It always took about the first 24 hours for it to be a problem at Badwater so my thinking was, I should be fine to make it through morning. But I’d been walking a lot more than I anticipated due to the heat, and I think that made it worse. When I ran, it was starting to hurt more, especially on the little downhill section going into the aid station.

Sometime around midnight I passed Andy Lovy, the race physician, who told me to be prepared as they were expecting a storm to move in with heavy rain somewhere around 2 am. When I went through the aid station, Bill was working in there so I asked him if he would cover Beth’s gear. When I went by our table I had a garbage bag ready to go so I could cover my stuff, but I didn’t know if she had anything, and I thought she was in the tent sleeping. She’d been having nausea earlier and decided to lie down in the tent and take a break.

The wind started to pick up and I grabbed my rain hat and jacket when I started to feel drops. I continued moving, but it only rained lightly. It did cool things down a little. Eventually I started to notice my groin and hamstring on the left side were getting tight. The blister had been hurting, and it was affecting my gait, which is what I wanted to avoid. I decided to stop by the medical tent to see if the foot care people could help me. I had my own foot care stuff but it was raining and dark, and I thought I’d see if I could avoid digging around out there.

When I went in there were about 4 people who appeared to be students, they all converged on me at once. I told them about my foot and they had me fill out the form, just like Badwater. No problem. I did warn them that I am a nurse and a pain in the butt. I took off my shoe and sock, and a woman who said she was the doctor came over and looked at it. It was the start of a deep blister under that same spot that hasn’t caused me any problems ever since Badwater in 2011. Back to haunt me.

Then she asked me some questions, turns out I’m allergic to the supplies they had available to pad my foot, and they were unwilling to try popping the blister. John Vonhof would have jabbed it with a scalpel. I was a little annoyed but it really is the runner’s responsibility to take care of their own feet. I had all the supplies I needed at my table, so I told them I was going to go and work on it myself.

I know I probably sounded like a bitch but I warned them. I guess what irritated me was that if they didn’t feel comfortable doing what I knew needed to be done, that was fine, I just wanted them to not take so long to make a decision, it seemed like they spent a lot of time making me wait and I’m not sure what for. But then I have little patience with anything these days.

Anyway I apologized to them as I left and thanked them, and went to my table and sat down in the dark. The rain had stopped, so I sat down in the wet chair and dug out my foot kit and my headlamp, and went to work. The blister didn’t have much fluid in it, but it hurt. I tried poking one area with fluid and got very little out. I taped over it and pulled some hypafix up and over the space between my toes, hoping that if it did eventually pop, it would drain.

I got back out on the course, and Beth got up at some point and we ran together for a short time. She was up and down, she’d feel okay for a while and then awful again. I was fine but now I couldn’t run or walk very well either. The blister really hadn’t improved from draining the few drops of fluid I got out. Walking became more painful and around 4 am, the sky opened up with a fury. It was a steady downpour and puddles were forming everywhere, some parts of the course had sand that washed over them, and I was barely moving. I got my rain jacket again, which I had ditched when it never turned to steady rain earlier.

With each lap as I went across the mat and saw the results on the screen, it seemed like it was taking forever to accumulate miles. I was only at 78 or so. Earlier in the night I realized that 100 might be a good thing to focus on, but by the time the rain really started, I knew I was doomed, and it was getting ridiculous.

In the middle of the serious downpour, I was headed east along the lake and realized I was going at Andy’s pace. (He’s about 30 years older than me) . I caught up to him, and we walked together in the rain. We could see the portapotties in the distance and I pointed them out as my goal. I said, when we get there, I’m hiding inside to get out of the rain. He said I might do the same, and told me that it would take about 4 minutes to get there from where we were. We giggled as we headed toward our goal.

There we were, in a raging rainstorm, along Lake Erie with the wind blowing in the dark, at 4:30 am, planning to hide out in the portapotties. I asked him what that says about our sanity. He would know, he was a psychiatrist.

When we got to the portapotties I got inside and stood there for a while. I had my phone with me, which I had used to text Wheaties Boy when things started getting ugly. I snapped a selfie in there, standing there, seriously questioning my sanity. I decided that I was done. I got out and limped the rest of the loop back to the mats and aid station. When I crossed the mat it said 80.2 miles. That’s where I was done. I was over it.


When I got there, Phil McCarthy and a few other runners were in there, doing the same thing I was. Lots of other people had left much earlier. I gave my chip to Dan, the race director, and talked with him for a while. He gave me my medal. I ate some hot food and sat down to talk with the others in there. Soon Beth walked in, looking drowned rat-like in her hoodie. She told me she was thinking about being done too. I didn’t want to influence her decision. I had warm clothes, I could stick around until morning if she wanted to finish.

She went out for another lap or two and then came back. She was done. She said she felt lightheaded like she had low blood sugar so I got her some M&Ms and she sat there for a few minutes. I went to the tent, where Bill was sleeping, and asked him if he could help us get our stuff back to the car. I drove the car closer and we loaded up and went back to the room, showered, and napped until about 10:30 am.

We didn’t sleep much all day, we did eat breakfast and then hung out around the room, talking. Later we went downtown and had a drink and ate. I tried a beer from Great Lakes Brewing Company. It was okay.

I was really glad Beth and I shared the room and stayed together because it made it a lot more fun, especially when our races didn’t go well. But in running the race this time, I realized something, that I did just fine with my body and almost everything was good. The only issue was the blister, and I did a good job of backing off on the pace. My body has plenty left, I was not sore or even very stiff.

I didn’t realize the callus had built up that much again, and running on asphalt in the heat and humidity despite being well hydrated, that is my bad spot on my foot. It got me. I had no issues when I ran on the track last spring in cooler conditions and more miles. So in a way this is good, once the blister heals the callus will peel away and I can start working on reducing it again.

But somehow this experience left me feeling even more confident that 120 miles or more is well within my capability. Things can go wrong in any race, weather can get you, or something else can happen. The faster you go and the more you push yourself, the more things that can happen, so you just need to hit the right one. It will happen, like Joe was telling me. Eventually you’ll hit the right one.

We slept Sunday night and then Monday morning Beth headed to the airport and I drove back to Columbus to return the rental car and catch my flight out. I spent a little time in Columbus before I had to go to the airport. I mailed my cooler back to myself with my laundry in it. Then I ate lunch and walked around as much as I could on my sore foot. On the drive back from Cleveland for some reason I felt very happy. I came to the realization that I had a lot of fun and the 120 goal will be there for me to pursue in 2015.

Then I was checking Facebook and I got this message from my friend Eddie in Boulder. He asked me about the 24 hours of Boulder race coming up in October. The one that I couldn’t do the last 4 years when I worked because it always fell on my work weekend.

For some reason I got excited about that. The thought of running around under the stars all night again sounded like exactly what I needed! I didn’t get to enjoy the night at North Coast the way I wanted to, so this would be my chance!

I might do it. I’ll let the blister heal, and then see how I’m feeling. I think it will be a go. Except I’m watching the weather and will wait to sign up until the last minute. I don’t want to run in any more downpours this year! I’m done with that!

In the Columbus airport there was a Jeni’s ice cream vending machine. I could not believe my eyes so I took a picture. I went to Jeni’s twice while I was there. That is the best ice cream ever.

I started my day at 7 am Eastern time, and didn’t get home until 11 pm Mountain time, so it was an 18 hour day of travel after the exhausting race. I was toast. The girls yelled at me, I had to shut the front door quickly so they wouldn’t wake up the whole neighborhood. Dennis was at a conference out of town so the house was quiet.

Lynn wrote me later to tell me I had won my age group. I guess that should be consolation, but I don’t feel consoled by that. Eighty miles is not the performance I wanted. I want to make my goal. I just need to find the right place on the right day. Lake Erie beat me out of my goals twice now, but I won't forget either of those two events. Definitely memorable. Thanks to the lake.

That’s all there is to it. I might think of some other things, but I don’t feel disappointed by the experience. It was valuable, even in its shortcomings. I have been doing this for nearly a quarter century and I still learn new things every time. I love this sport and I am so glad I’ve gotten a chance to enjoy it from so many different perspectives, competitively, recreationally, as adventure, from the race director, medical, staff, and volunteer perspectives, and now, as I’m getting older, to be able to come back to the competitive side again.

I can’t wait for next year!

2 comments:

Rachel Gantenbein said...

Great job, Alene! You're such an inspiration!

Alene Gone Bad said...

Thanks Rachel...