Scatter my ashes here...

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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rant: Running for the Long Haul

I feel a rant coming on.

Maybe it's lack of sleep but at this point I only owe the sleep bank three hours, so that's probably not it. It's not PMS either. I feel this need to say something, because I am concerned about some of the runners in my life (at least three at this moment) whom I care about and I want to see them continue being able to run. But this applies to almost any woman runner, and a lot of men too.

So consider this a rant coming from a place of kindness, and caring, and concern. Here it goes:

Ultras are a gift to the body, not a punishment. I totally disagree with the "that's crazy, let's do it" mentality. I don't do ultras because I'm daring myself. I don't do them to beat the crap out of my body. I do them for the enjoyment and what I get from them, which are unique experiences shared with other unique human beings that I hope I'll be able to continue to have for a long time.

I've been running for nearly 27 years, ultras for 20 years. As long as I'm physically able, I intend to continue this.

I could care less about where I place in the pack. I have no interest in being competitive anymore. Interestingly, I still place pretty high at times, when I have a good race, without trying. I certainly don't plan on it, but I seem to hit those good races more often than a noncompetitive runner would expect to.

People say to me all the time,"I don't know how you find the time to train for ultras."

"I could never put in that kind of mileage."

"Marathon training is so painful, I could never imagine training for ultras."

"How does your body hold up?"

Hmmmmm. How does that work? Let's think about this together.

I averaged 48 miles a week prior to the Keys 100 for 4 months. I finished in 26 hours and change.
I averaged 47 miles a week prior to the Lean Horse 100 for 3 1/2 months. I finished in 28 hours and change.
Wanna see my weekly mileage trend from the Keys to Lean Horse?

Here it is, in chronological order, starting with the week after the Keys 100 race.
week 1: 6 miles of running, 14 miles of walking
week 2: ran 33 miles
week 3: ran 36 miles
week 4: ran 38 miles
week 5: ran 50 miles
week 6: ran 75 miles (including a 30 mile training run)
week 7: ran 70 miles (including a slow Leadville Marathon in 7 1/2 hours)
week 8: ran 19 miles (worked, then on vacation in Phoenix, traveled to Death Valley)
week 9: ran 10 miles (in Death Valley for Badwater, caught up on sleep afterwards)
week 10: ran 85 miles (including a 50 mile training run)
week 11: ran 70 miles (including 5 x Rock Repeats for 22 miles)
week 12: ran 70 miles (including a 33 mile training run)
week 13: ran 41 miles (including 3x rock repeats for 13 miles)
week 14: ran 21 miles (week before Lean Horse)
week 15: Lean Horse week. Ran 106 miles total including the 100 mile race.

Only five of those 15 weeks were somewhat high mileage, and only because I did long runs those weeks. In the middle I took two weeks easy, since I was traveling and busy doing other things. Hardly obsessive.

There is so much more to life than training all the time. People think what I do is obsessive but really, I am about the least obsessive runner I know out of all my friends. I know how to get down to business when it's time to focus on a goal I've set, but I also know how to let go of the need to constantly pound out the miles.

This fall I plan to take September mostly off, with cycling as my cross training. If the weather doesn't cooperate, well too bad. I'll ride in the rain or I'll just take the day off.

Sure I plan to run Across the Years in late December and I'll get serious sometime in October, but I'm not going to worry about it. I'll do a couple of long training runs around Halloween and Thanksgiving, but other than that, regular mileage applies.

This week, after my race, I'll concentrate on letting my feet heal and not worry about fitness. I won't lose much in a week. Nothing noticeable anyway.

I can only run a lot of ultras for a couple of years before my mind and body tell me I need a break. Fortunately it's usually my mind first. I tend to get burned out on training all the time, I miss my other interests, I miss doing things with my family, and I feel like I need to back off so many hours of training and preparing to train and run races.

On the physical end of things, I have never had a stress fracture. Never missed a menstrual cycle due to low weight. Since starting ultras, any injury I've had is due to a mishap, like a sprained ankle, not due to overtraining.

And I eat. I carry a little extra weight, not so much because I eat, but because I do have thyroid issues, and to look at the body type of my ancestors, they were not fat, but short and solid, more of a muscular build as they got older.

Because I would rather have a few pounds extra for my bones as I get older, I don't worry obsessively about weight. Sure I'd love to feel light on my feet again and fit in my smaller running clothes, but that is less important to me than staying healthy. I am thankful that despite my increasing middle age vanity about things like hair color, I have never been one of those skinny at any cost people. Whenever I've been skinny, it's been because my thyroid is out of whack.

Sure I do think about weight and in the back of my mind I view my body image in the same way as nearly any woman brought up in this culture. I go back and forth in my own mind, thinking I'm too fat at times. Somehow I've managed to have some of my best running performances when I was at my heaviest weights. I've tried to re-train myself on those matters. And I've managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of being too skinny, not eating enough, and falling apart.

That's where the concern for my friends comes in. I see them making the common mistake of too many miles, not giving your body a break, thinking you feel good after a long race without allowing the healing that has to happen at a microscopic level in the soft tissues and bones to take place, the probable but unknown effects on your immune system, the risk for mental burnout, the cost to families and individual lives.

When you feel good now, it might be a function of your great fitness. But it can be tricky. Often runners say they felt great right before they got sick or injured. Feeling good now does not mean that all is good inside. The body has it's own wisdom and we can try to avoid it but eventually it will get us.

If runners are not able to cut back on miles or take necessary care of their bodies, they are running for something beyond the enjoyment of running, and it is most likely an addiction, and no, it's not a "good" addiction. It's just a different drug. And it's rooted in a fear, which is related to body image, fear of losing something youthful about appearance, fear of running a little slower, fear of having a little fat on the body or weighing a certain number of pounds, in the brainwashing so many women have endured.

Those fears lead to overtraining, fear of taking a break because they might gain weight. Fear of losing a little fitness, as if once it's gone, it will be gone forever.

Guess what, fitness is a renewable resource. It's like money. You can always find more of it, you just have to be motivated to get it.

I think about my health years from now, and I want to give myself the best chance possible to be one of those 80 year old ultrarunners. There are enough pitfalls of getting older, some of which we can't control. But I want to make damn sure my bones hold up in order to do it, and that is something I can control.

Less is more.

End of rant.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Nirvana at Night: Lean Horse 100

Final score: Argyle Road 100, Alene's feet -4 toenails in overtime, 28 hours, 22 minutes.

I had to run the Lean Horse 100. It's inexpensive, it's close to home, it has the same climate and terrain as Fort Collins, I know a lot of the runners who were there, the time of year is perfect, and I needed a training run for Across the Years. Mission Accomplished.

By the time I reached the finish line twenty-eight hours and twenty-two minutes later, my feet had been screaming expletives at me with every step since about mile 80. Ask my feet if they needed it.

But the real outcome of this race was that I was once again reminded of why I do ultras, despite the temporary pain like sore feet. Running through the trees and scenery of the Black Hills, and through the moonlight at night, is the ultimate high. And the Mickelson Trail is the perfect place to do that.

Overall it was a fun time and everything you could want in a 100 miler was there. It wasn't my best race, not by far, but it was one of those gems, low-key, easy on the budget, great scenery, nice course.

Holley Lange from Fort Collins was running the 100, and Doug and Marji Nash were coming up to help both of us. The plan was for Doug and Marji to crew for me from the 16 mile point until about halfway when Doug would begin pacing Holley, and Marji would crew for me throughout the night.

The way things worked out, Holley ended up having muscle problems that resulted in a painful 45 degree lean, and at about halfway she decided it was enough, a wise decision. Marji gave Doug and Holley a ride back to Custer, where Holley found a ride back to Hot Springs so she could go back to her motel room. Doug ended up crewing with Marji all night and then he paced me down the last 16 mile Argyle Road stretch in the morning.

Another nice thing about Lean Horse is the reasonable 6 am start time. It's always great to get a decent night's sleep before the race. I need that.

I appreciate so much that Jerry, the race director, kept the pre-race briefing short and to the point. It lasted no more than about 20 minutes. There is nothing worse than pre-race events that go on for hours when all you want to do is eat and finish preparing for the long day ahead.

The pre-race dinner was a little disappointing, but it is a low key event. They had only hamburgers, bratwurst, and potato salad loaded with mayonnaise. None of those things are appealing to me anyway, but especially not the night before a race. I choked down a dry hamburger and then walked across the street to the grocery store and bought a couple of frozen pasta dinners to heat up in my motel room microwave. Ugh.

Hot Springs doesn't have much for restaurants, there was a Pizza Hut, a Subway, a Dairy Queen, and a few little mom & pop places.

I saw a lot of runners I knew at this race, and I met a few for the first time. I saw Badwater/Across the Years runners Dan, Jamie, and Dave. Pat and Karen were there, along with Steph, my super alpha crew chief at Badwater. Karen was running and Pat and Steph were crewing for her.

I also saw Brad, who reads my blog and was running his first 100 at Lean Horse. He ended up having an outrageously great race, finished 5th overall in about 20 ours. Way to go Brad! Congratulations! I saw him around halfway during the race and he had his son with him, and he looked fantastic. Mike from Fort Collins finished 3rd, and I haven't met him yet, but congratulations.

I met Fuzz from Oregon for the first time, whom I know only from the ultra list. I met Bob, who was paced by my friend Cat at this year's Grand Mesa 100. And I met Ray.

I first met Ray around 15 miles on the Argyle Road, he was chasing butterflies. I threatened him. I said if you're not careful, you'll end up in my blog as "The Butterfly Man". But I had several conversations with Ray during the race as we leapfrogged each other. Turns out Ray has not only had a lifelong interest in butterflies, but more recently has developed an interest in tree farming.

We talked about trees from our respective parts of the country, the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. Ray has a tree farm on Vashon Island in Washington, on family property. You never know what conversations you might have with other runners in these events. Meeting Ray was one of the highlights of my race, because it's always fun to talk about mutual interests and things you would never imagine talking about during a 100 mile race.

It was a great day. The weekend before the race it had been 100 degrees in Hot Springs, the day before the race it was 101 degrees, and on race day we had cloud cover for the first two hours and the temperature never got much above 90 degrees even on the hottest part of the course. It rained in the evening and cooled things down.

The only glitch I noticed in the whole race was in the morning, 10 miles in, at the Morph aid station. About a dozen of us showed up there at the same time. No crews are allowed on the first 16 mile stretch which includes the Argyle Road. It was already getting hot and the aid station had no ice, which was concerning. All they had was warm powerade and warm water. They were out of water in their coolers and were refilling them as we all stood there. They seemed a little unprepared.

Other than that the aid stations were great, the volunteers were helpful and enthusiastic throughout the course.

I started out with a plan: I wanted to see if I could finish under 26 hours by pacing myself to go to halfway in 12 hours. I got to 25 miles in 5:52 and 50 miles in 12:05. Might have been a little too fast given the heat of the day. If it was a good day, and all went well, I know I could have done 26 or better. It was a little hotter than I anticipated, but I could have avoided some of the suffering by planning a little better.

The lessons will be repeated until they are learned. It was warm, and I didn't cover myself from the sun with my jacket during the heat of the day, which might have contributed to my lack of appetite. I did wear tons of ice on my neck and my hat and sunscreen, but the clouds make you think it's not as sunny and hot as it really is. I ate two sandwiches in the morning but all afternoon I struggled with taking in calories, it was just too hot to be interested in food. As a result, I was playing catch up with my blood sugar for most of the second half of the race.

My hydration was perfect, I did my usual ice topped with gatorade and a salt stick capsule in each bottle until night time when I started getting sodium from the chicken broth in the soup at the aid stations.

The one thing different about this race was that I never slept. Usually I take a nap, but I never reached that weaving, inefficient place where I am dead on my feet. I was drinking Starbucks frappucino and double shot drinks from about mile 50 on for my main source of calories. Liquid was the only thing I could deal with in the second half. I ate a lot of shot blocks too.

Around halfway I had grabbed a baggie full of cantaloupe and strawberries from my cooler and then picked up a banana at the aid station. After eating all that fruit I felt nauseated from about mile 50 to 60. It eventually passed but I couldn't deal with solid food anymore.

The middle section of the course was beautiful, between Custer and Hill City. Also there was a view from the trail of the Crazy Horse memorial.

One thing I noticed during the heat of the day were the signs warning of rattlesnakes along the side of the trail. I also saw a "Danger Buffalo" sign. I thought of this on the way back in, in the evening because it would be warm, but the rain kept the critters away.

During the night I saw the horse poop, a few times there were stepped-on road apples that looked like tarantulas, and the crickets in the grass sounded like rattlesnakes. But I swear I wasn't hallucinating.

I completely enjoyed the course, especially the part at night, going down the trail in the darkness, only with moonlight and stars in between the dark spaces of clouds, the big black shadows of ponderosa pines, smelling the trees and rain, seeing the moonlit meadows and beaver ponds, and listening to trance music on my MP3 player as I powerwalked the Mickelson trail.

I think it was nirvana, or heaven, or something, from about mile 55 through 75 in the darkness. I didn't use my lights hardly at all, and I reached that place that is why I do ultras. That feeling of being out there under the stars, moving forward, with music, like a dance. It doesn't get any better than that.

I did try sleeping at mile 80 at the Lime Kiln road aid station, but after climbing in the back of Doug and Marji's Ford Explorer, five minutes passed and I realized I wasn't going to sleep, so I got up and went on.

It did rain off and on at night but only enough to cool things down, never enough to get soaked or have to put on heavy rain gear. It also cut down on the dust on the Argyle Road the next morning.

What I didn't count on was the impact the Argyle Road would have on my pavement trained, dirt and rock-naive feet. I've been training almost exclusively on pavement for the past year, since my sprained ankle mishap last August. I did do a few Rock Repeat runs on the dirt road, which helped for the hills. My muscles and joints felt good and I am not sore anywhere except for my feet.

Since Doug wasn't pacing Holley as we planned, I asked him if he'd like to pace me down the Argyle Road starting at mile 83. It was a good thing because my feet started hurting around mile 80 and once we made the transition from the soft Mickelson Trail surface to the gravelly, hard-packed dirt of the Argyle Road, it was excruciating.

Every time we made the transition from going uphill to downhill and then back up again, cresting a hill and bottoming out on the endless repetitive hills of that road, the muscles and tendons on the front of my lower shins, and the surface of my feet, were screaming. The pain only compared with my foot pain at Badwater.

The bottoms of my feet felt like I jumped up and down with my full body weight, plus a couple of 50 pound dumbbells, on top of spikes for 28 hours. Every step was painful, and I wasn't the only one suffering. I had gaiters and my shoes stayed gravel-free, enough that I never had to take off my shoes.

Going down the Argyle road in the morning, there were several runners who were having to dump out their shoes and then deal with the nearly impossible task of getting them back on, and getting started again. I tried not to stop at all once we hit the Argyle Road.

At the Morph aid station at 90 miles I saw Fuzz. His eyes were wide open and he was drinking a beer! He offered it to me, but I said no. Soon he came flying by me and finished about an hour ahead of me.

It warmed up in the morning, but I was hurting too much to notice the heat. I couldn't manage running very well even when I reached the finish line. I could not wait to get off my feet.

By the end I had a huge blood blister on my left heel, a smaller one on my left big toe, a few little friction blisters on top of my toes, heat rash, and a hugely swollen left ankle. I had taped my right foot because of my peroneal tendon which has been bothering me, and my right foot looked 1000 percent better than my left foot. I should have taped both feet.

I am also going to lose 4 toenails. Less weight to carry.

Doug and Marji were a fantastic crew, and I was so glad they were out there. We sat there at a table in the post-race party, and Fuzz joined us, there was more leftover food from the pre-race dinner. Even as hungry as I was, I couldn't stomach the two day old bratwurst they were serving. I got some fruit and my belt buckle, said goodbye to people, and went back to the room to put my feet up while Doug and Marji unloaded my stuff into my car.

I got my training run for Across the Years. I plan to take it easy in September and then hit it hard again throughout the fall into Across the Years. As much as my feet hurt from Lean Horse, I imagine I'll be back, it's too convenient and close to home to not run this race.

Sunday I took a long nap in the afternoon. After that I went for a short drive around sunset to Wind Cave National Park and the wildlife are amazing. I saw buffalo, antelope, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and beautiful views of the Black Hills.

Monday morning I drove home to Fort Collins, and now I can start paying back the sleep bank and resting my feet before I go back to work Wednesday!

Monday, August 23, 2010

160,000 Steps Closer

This past week I listened to an amazing story.

I attend a local cancer support group fairly regularly, which I joined early this year for two reasons. One, I thought I might be able to learn from listening to the experiences of cancer survivors, their caregivers, families and friends, as I was interested in making a move into oncology nursing, and also, I thought I might learn something that I could use to help my own family members who have been affected by cancer.

This past week the guest speaker was a physician, a surgeon who is a cancer survivor. Without going into great detail, I can say that his story really touched me for several reasons. One was that the audience, mostly lay people without medical training, were listening to a surgeon, and a good number of them were his patients. People tend to place physicians in a category somewhere on a higher plane than the rest of us mortals.

Everyone listened quietly as he spoke about his own cancer experience in great personal depth. He talked about the physical and emotional events surrounding it, from the events leading up to his diagnosis to where he is now, about 4 years out from treatment. To share such personal and private fears, revelations, and experiences with the audience was an act of great courage and strength. The audience saw that this talented surgeon is also very much a human being, very approachable and real, with the same fears and hopes, made of the same flesh, with the same vulnerabilites and mortality as themselves.

This surgeon also happens to be a runner and he talked about how the cancer affected his running and physical activity, with the neuropathy from chemotherapy, and the effects of the cancer itself on his ability to get through a run. He talked about the fear he had of the neuropathy not going away, because if it didn't, he might not have been able to return to surgery, which is one of his great gifts.

The kindness he shows to his patients and others who cross paths with him is an example of his humanity, and speaking publically about his experience is another gift he gave to everyone in attendance that night, and everyone who shares the story he told us was okay to share with others outside the group.

He described a renewed sense of purpose as a result of his cancer journey. He feels that he is here for a reason and he continues to do surgery with a special affinity for those who are going through cancer treatment. He is open about his own experience when he meets a new patient for the first time who is about to undergo treatment for cancer. It puts them at ease and makes them realize they are in the hands of someone who cares about the outcome.

I imagined him, taking each step, not being able to feel his feet, taking one step at a time, over and over. He went for an evaluation to see if his stride was altered while he was experiencing the neuropathy, as he was afraid he would fall on his face. They told him he was doing fine, so he continued to run. As I imagined him taking each step, I thought about the finite number of steps each of us takes in our lives. Some take more steps than others, by choice, or sometimes not by choice. Everything we do, enjoy, and endure is a step by step process, even when the steps blend together.

I can feel my feet. I have fairly good health and I don't have cancer. I don't need chemotherapy. I don't need surgery. I can take a lot of steps on my own, by choice. I want to make those steps count. I want to help someone with every one of those steps, if I can. You don't have to be personally touched by cancer in order to reach out with generosity, kindness and caring to those who have been.

Even in my good health, I could stand there at the start of a 100 mile race and think about how impossible the journey seems, and be intimidated by all the mountains I might have to cross in between there and the finish line. I could think about the pain I might feel somewhere in the middle, and run with my tail between my legs. Instead, I lean into the first step and feel my feet carry me forward to encounter whatever is in my path. That carries me to the next step, and the next, until the finish line.

People with cancer can't do that, they have to go through a lot of steps and feeling up and down and lots of places in between to get treated. It can seem overwhelming standing there at the starting line knowing you have so much ahead of you and so many unknowns. But there is only one way and that is forward.

All I have to do at the start is look around and see the other people who are joining me in that journey. We help each other along the way, and we make it to the finish line, exhausted, sometimes beaten, but better for it. We help each other through our bad patches and we give words of encouragement when someone thinks the only choice is to quit.

We tell each other war stories along the way, from our past ultra experiences, and share them for the purpose of encouragement. There are always reasons to keep going forward, to reach for the success of the finish line. Not everybody makes it, but giving your best effort and getting the most out of every moment is just as successful as finishing intact.

The PVH Cancer Center will happen as a result of people telling their stories and helping others understand the importance of giving, caring, helping someone up when they've hit bottom, when things seem impossible and they feel like giving up hope.

This surgeon knows, he's been there. He understands what a small act of kindness can do, how a few kind words can create enough support to pull someone up out of a hole they've fallen into, and stand upright and move forward again. It takes many steps forward to make the cancer center a reality. I'm going to take about 160,000 of them myself this weekend at the Lean Horse Hundred in South Dakota. Please join me in a few of those steps forward by donating to the PVHS Foundation Cancer Building Fund. If you're donating before September 1st, please call (970)-237-7400 to make a donation, as the website is undergoing changes at this time.

"Never look down on anybody unless you're helping him up"- Jesse Jackson

Check out this new music video for the PVHS Foundation. For more information about the video, go to their blog.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Sunflowers bloom in late summer, when the days are getting shorter and the air feels cooler than before, just enough to notice.

Sunflowers always remind me of driving through the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona, following slow red Ford pickups down the road, beer bottles propped on fenceposts, and turkey vultures swooping down on roadkill. I can see big fluffy white clouds in a huge blue sky over pine-dotted bluffs with the sun coming down at enough of an angle that it can't be mid-summer anymore. And the highway shoulder lined with tall sunflowers for miles.

August always feels like it's time for a road trip south. This time I'm going north.

Next weekend I'm running the Lean Horse Hundred, a 100 mile race that starts and finishes in Hot Springs, South Dakota and about 2/3 of the race is on the Mickelson Trail through the Black Hills.

The ponderosa pines of the Black Hills also remind me of northern Arizona, around Flagstaff, where I went to school. The smell of pine needles and the whoosh when the wind blows through the needles and small limbs, and the sunbaked smell of pine bark, like vanilla and caramel.

It's less than 5 hours to Hot Springs from here, it will be a good road trip to clear my head and get myself set for fall.

It's been a whirlwind, the past few weeks, and just this morning I finally stopped to think about the upcoming race and got my supplies together. Doug and Marji will be there to help me out. I'm looking forward to the long day and pacing myself carefully. I plan to go out slowly, slower than at the Keys, and if all goes well, to be able to use the mostly downhill second half to my advantage.

I'm looking forward to spending some time on my bike this fall and taking a break before I start preparing for Across the Years. I'm hoping to get up to the cabin and see some fall colors this year. As much as I love the hot weather, it always feels good to cool off.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Salt, Asphalt, and Vanity

No, this is not about the new movie with the buffed out Hollywood amazon chick in it. I am talking about my salty butt after 33 plus miles when I ran a double out & back from Hughes Stadium to Overland Trail along Centennial Drive and Bingham Hill road.

A million asphalt hills for a pathetic 2000 feet of elevation gain and descent in 33 miles and change, for 7 hours, trying to run as close to Lean Horse race pace as possible, the temperature hit 91 degrees until it clouded up and rained in the last 45 minutes.

I parked in the parking lot nearest to the north dam, that gave me four 8-ish mile stretches between water stops. It was warm enough that my frozen water bottles only lasted the 4 miles out from the car each time, so I was drinking warm liquids in the 4 mile approach to the car each time. Until 30 miles when Dennis showed up with a drink cooler full of ice water! That was my reward for the last 3 miles.

I was trying to give my quads an easier time this week. After last week's five Rock Repeats I was sore for almost a week! I couldn't even go down the stairs at work!

When I got home and cleared all my junk out of the car, Dennis said my butt was outlined in salt. He took a picture of it. At least he noticed.

Vanity and middle age is a recurring theme these days. My friends and I joke "DON'T LOOK DOWN!" as the skin on our legs jiggles and gets wrinkly when we run. Some of my friends refuse to wear regular running shorts anymore. They go for the longer lycra shorts that cover their skin down to the knee.

I have found that a little lotion on the quads before a run makes it look not quite so bad, at least from my perspective when I do look down. The person coming toward me might not think so, but who cares.

The gray streak on your head that you can no longer hide, the gray eyebrow hairs that start to outnumber the original color, those pesky little dark chin hairs, the little roll of belly fat that suddenly appears where before you had a flat stomach, the inability to deny the law of gravity, needing to grow longer arms so you can read the fine print, all the things you never had to deal with at 30, are becoming a fact of life you must face beginning at 45 or 50.

There are ways to cover it all up, and I am taking advantage of some of those. I will color my hair until I have so many wrinkles it looks ridiculous on me. Then I will let the gray take over. Wrinkles rule.

Speaking of vanity, I love the new shirt I got this week.