Scatter my ashes here...

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

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Across the Years: Phreezing in Phoenix

Going in, I thought I would have a good race. I trained on the ideal course, a flat dirt loop where I could pace myself perfectly. But suffering through 18 degree mornings and windy afternoons with 40 mph gusts late this fall I didn't realize that I was also training for the exact conditions I would face at Across the Years this year.

The race fell on a week where the Phoenix area would have record cold conditions, plus a relentless rainstorm that turned the dirt track at Nardini Manor into a quagmire with a lake in the middle. I lucked out by running on the last 2 days and missed the rain, thunderstorms, and flood on the track. Everyone who started on the 29th got to experience that.

I arrived in Phoenix on the 27th after a relaxing 2 day drive with a stop in Albuquerque for green chile. When I got into Phoenix, the traffic was thick like LA, and the sky was clear. The forecast was for not so-nice weather, with an 80% chance of precipitation, but it was hard to imagine with the perfectly clear skies.

I called Dennis when I got to my hotel and he told me the Buffaloes seemed depressed, and Iris was not eating her food. I called the house and left a voice mail message for Iris.

"Iris, this is your mom. I want you to eat your food. Mom is going to be gone for 10 days and I need you to be a good girl and keep up your strength so we can go for runs when I come home. Isabelle, I need you to tell your sister to eat her food."

Dennis played it for them on speaker phone, and he said it worked. Iris ate. On the next call, I sang to them, and they sang back.

I spent the morning of the 28th in my hotel room getting organized. In the afternoon, I headed to the track to set up my tent and pick up my race bag, number, and chip.

The weather still looked perfect. I ran into my Colorado buddy Paul Grimm and my ATY/Badwater/mashed potato buddy Phil Rosenstein from Maryland and we set up our tents next to each other. I saw my friend Lynn Newton, the webmaster, who came out from Ohio. Then Jamie showed up and set up her cute little pink tent with the matching sleeping bag and chair that she got as a bargain and it was small enough to take on the flight from Arkansas. It wasn't quite big enough to lie down in, but who needs sleep?

Jamie and I were staying at the same hotel and we planned to go to dinner together and hang out before the race. I know Jamie from Badwater medical and from other races, including Across the Years 2 years ago, when she won the womens' 48 hour race.

I thought I lost my wallet by leaving it in my tent at the track, so I drove all the way back from the hotel to the track and as I arrived discovered that I had it on me the whole time- in my vest pocket. Instead of a nap that afternoon I was driving.

Jamie and I went out for Mexican food the night of the 28th and we had a hard time finding our way out of the restaurant! We weren't drinking anything stronger than water, either! It's a good thing the race is only in a circle and there are not places to get lost or we'd be in trouble! That night I also had a hard time finding my race bib and timing chip! I hadn't run a step and my brain was already gone! I did find them, though.

At dinner we talked and had a chance to catch up on our lives. We were both lucky to have been offered help by our friend Don Meyer, who is the closest thing to an angel you can find among people. Don was going to work the aid station from 8 pm to 8 am on the night of the 30th, and then he was going to come back on the 1st to help Jamie & I break our tents down and load all our gear back in our cars, which is a major undertaking after you've run 48 hours straight.

On the 29th I headed out to the track again in the morning and watched the race at the beginning. There was a breakneck pace among the two women in the 48 hour race who started that morning, and my friend Paul was running his first 72 hour and was also on a breakneck pace. I took more gear to the tent and set up my table. Then I went back to the hotel to hide out and avoid using any energy.

Around 11 am it started to rain lightly, but throughout the day the rain got progressively harder and I felt bad for everyone on the track that day. I went to the computer in the hotel lobby and checked the race standings. There were about a dozen people in various races who were stacking up the miles but they had a long way to go. I sent Paul a message to put the brakes on and take a mashed potato break, because 72 hours was a long way off!

That night Jamie and I went to Macaroni Grill for dinner and had an easier time finding our way out. When I got back to the room, I called Dennis. The girls were doing better. He told me about a staff member at work who had made a hugely generous donation, and she was also a cancer survivor. I was so touched, I cried. I kept her name in my mind throughout the race, and told him I wanted to thank her personally when I got home.

I slept pretty well the night before my start, but I did wake up and hear the thunder and the wind howling. It dumped rain all night and I imagined the track was muddy. When I woke up in the morning the rain had all but tapered off to a few sprinkles.

I stopped by McDonalds and bought two breakfast sandwiches with bacon, egg, and cheese, and scarfed one down on the way to the track, ate half the other one and stashed the uneaten half in my red box under the table, thinking I'd heat it up later.

The mud on the track was slick and there was a small lake in the middle of the grassy area next to the track. There was mud everywhere in the big tent, and everyone who had been running through the night had mud-covered tights and shoes.

By the start, it was no longer raining and a few blue holes were visible in the clouds. The sun started to come out late in the morning, and a stiff wind picked up, keeping everything cool. After the start, I saw Nathan Coury and Paul Bonnett on the track, raking the mud off and adding dirt. With the wind and the sunshine, the track was in great shape by noon!

It was so much fun, I met some first timer ATY runners like Maryann, and Tammy, and Sarah, all of whom posted great efforts and mileage. I also spent lots of time with my Colorado buddies Dale Perry and Jack Menard. Dale is about twice as tall as I am, and I was hoping to run in his shadow to stop the wind, but I kept running into him in the heated tent instead! Jack was in his first big ultra since going to nursing school a few years ago. We commiserated through nursing school and our first couple of years of nursing together. It was great to see Jack tearing up the miles again.

It was cold throughout the race, but especially with the wind. The warmest place during the entire race was inside the portapotties during the day, when they would heat up from the few hours of sunshine and inside you could be out of the wind. Even the big tent was cold. It was freezing on the track, the sun came out in the afternoons but the wind was gusting 30-40 mph and it was COLD! Just like Fort Collins!

photo: Nathan Nitzky

photo: Nathan Nitzky

At night it was just plain cold, the wind would mostly die down but there was a breeze. I had 2 pairs of tights and windpants on top of those, and on top, I had one or two long sleeved shirts, two thin fleece jackets, a windbreaker, and a thick fleece outer layer, plus a headband, hat, and scarf over my head, and thick gloves.

The entire time, in my pocket, I ran with this little stone. This stone reminds me of all the people I touch with my race stories and those I hope to help in the future by working toward the goal of raising money for the cancer center. I attend a cancer support group called Sharing the Cancer Journey and by listening to the stories and experiences of cancer survivors and those who are undergoing treatment now, I hope it will help me to be a better nurse, to be better at meeting patients' needs. At our Christmas party the facilitators placed these little stones at the tables with words like "love" "hope" and other positive messages. I took "joy" because I think that is what people should have in their lives every day, and that is truly what drives me to run ultras. I think anyone who has watched me run would agree,because I am always smiling in these races.

During my race, I stuck to my plan very well for the first 28 hours. I ate a ton the first afternoon and evening, I have never eaten that much in a race before, and I am generally a good eater anyway. I think I ate more during this race than some people I know eat in an entire week! For about 6 hours it seemed like every other loop I grabbed a bowl of pasta, lasagna, macaroni & cheese, grilled peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, pizza. I also ate a green chile burrito and a bean burrito for dinner. I was trying to pack it away for the next day. I couldn't sleep at all the first night. Even when I got off my feet and lay down in the tent I jumped up after 15 minutes because I wasn't falling alseep.

photo: Nathan Nitzky

But I felt terrible on the second day. My stomach was feeling marginal, I wasn't interested in food and everything I ate made me feel queasy. I stayed with a steady but slow walk for hours. By the time it got dark the second day I had made only 30 miles since the 24 hour mark and I had to pick it up knowing the long night was ahead of me, that the New Years celebration could slow me down, and that at some point I might need a real nap.

I knew I'd have to take more frequent short breaks to get off my feet, the later it got into the race. I knew that I could still make 150 miles but I'd have to stay out there and keep moving consistently, and I wasn't going to be able to take more than minimal breaks. I was determined to do it. I kept getting e-mails and I knew I was being watched!

Jamie and I were talking around 6 pm on the second night and she was in the same situation as I was. She was feeling slow and queasy too, and her progress matched mine. We decided to make a deal with each other, we'd stick together and do a strong walk so I could reach my goal and she still had a chance of making hers, but even if she didn't, she would stay on the track instead of stopping early.

We'd break together and keep each other from taking too long in the heated tent. We started going and it was great having the company. We talked and laughed. Every time Nathan Coury ran past us, flying around the track at 6 minute pace in his one-piece blue pajamas at 3 am, we giggled about "pajama boy" and wondered if we were hallucinating. I kept the tunes on so I would keep moving at a good pace. I cycled through my MP3 player more than once.

Both nights I made myself eat a few of my microwavable entrees that I brought. The first night Don was working in the aid station and I kept the volunteers entertained with my 3 hour bag of mashed potatoes. I'd have them add some water to the flakes in the bag, mix them up, and I'd eat what got soft on the top. When I started crunching on flakes again, I'd drop the bag off at the aid station for more hot water.

It took about 2 1/2 hours and countless laps, but I ate the whole bag of mashed potatoes! We had a little celebration in the aid station when I was finished, I'm sure Don and the aid station people thought I was high maintenance! Finally toward the end of the second night I discovered gummy worms in the aid stations and got fixated on those. I'd grab a handful of worms on my pass through the aid station.

Throughout both days I took little breaks at the table to put my feet up and read my e-mail messages. Those were awesome, they charged me up. Knowing you have people pulling for you makes a huge difference in wanting to put your energy into moving forward. I was able to jump up out of my cold tent under layers of sleeping bags whenever I took a 10 minute or longer break, to get back on the track, knowing I was running for the Cancer Center Project Save Change campaign.

As it turned out I took 3 little power naps the second day, of 30, 20, and 10 minutes each, so I only got an hour of sleep in the entire 48 hours. But each time I got off my feet, I felt so much better afterwards.

At midnight on New Year's Eve everyone stops and gets a glass of fake champagne and does a lap together, and we have fireworks. It was so cold this year no one really wanted to stop for very long!

At 6 pm when I started chipping away at my goal for the final stretch, I had 117 miles and I was in 17th place overall. I knew it would be down to the wire to reach 150 miles but I was doing it and nothing was going to stop me. I hit 150 miles about 15 minutes before 9 am and had time for another 4 laps! By the time 9 am came and the 48 hour race was over, I had 151.3 miles and was in 5th place overall!

Jamil and Nick kept the awards ceremony short and sweet, which was nice because it's hard to sit there for a long time when you're exhausted and depleted. They had great food for us and they gave out the belt buckles and mugs.

The race was as well-organized and well-done as any other year, Jamil and Nick Coury, along with their brother Nathan and their parents and former Race Director Paul Bonnett and his kids, and the rest of the amazing race staff and volunteers executed another perfect event, despite adverse conditions. It could be the last year at Nardini Manor, but it sounds like there are plans in the works to keep the race alive and find another facility. It will be hard to beat Nardini Manor, but enough people love this race and are determined to keep it going, that I think they will find a way to make it work.

After the race, I drove across town to my dad & stepmom's house in Scottsdale and stayed there until the 4th. I found gummy worms in my pockets when I did laundry, and a half-eaten 4 day old McDonald's breakfast sandwich when I was sorting through my gear. I also had ice in my shampoo bottle which had been sitting out in my car during the days of the race. My dad is great at making delicious meals and feeding my depleted body after these races.

Looking back at my race, I think I was capable of quite a few more miles, but only if it had been warmer. I am a better warm weather runner, and there was no way to get enough calories in and stay warm enough. After the first night of keeping warm I think I was wiped out by the morning of day 2. I did recover and run strong the last 15 hours, but staying warm takes a tremendous amount of energy, which is why I usually overdress, but you can't really wear any more than 6 layers, which is what I had on!

So, now I'm home. I'm still tired and needing lots of naps, but my feet are better and I feel brave enough to try walking today.

Recovering is painful. First there's catching up on the sleep. You are brain fogged and silly for days. Not only do you have to make up for the two nights of no sleep, but also extra rest for making your body do extraordinary things.

Your body is full of fluid from inflamed soft tissue and stress hormones like ADH, your feet are blistered, your electrolyte and fluid balance is off the charts somewhere, you get weird little foot cramps and arm twitches, and you still need to digest and process whatever you ate. My appetite doesn't usually kick in for 2-3 days after the race. But it's important to be drinking and flushing all those waste products out of your body, your kidneys will be happier for it.

My left IT band is squeaking and crunching, and it hurts. My left leg was swollen from my hip to my knee for the first couple of days, my ankles looked like grapefruits, and I could only tolerate being on my feet for about a half hour at a time. My right little toe is completely covered by a blister, the entire thing is one big puffy blob.

Some people ask me why I do this to myself, as if it's some kind of self-inflicted torture. It's really not. I have so much fun at these races, the recovery is something you just accept and know that once you rest, there are new goals to pursue, new places to run, and new adventures to experience.

I set a reasonable goal for myself, one I knew was doable. Going into the race I also knew I was capable doing more miles than my goal, but you never know what kind of conditions you'll encounter or how you're going to feel. Things fell apart for me in the middle of the race, but because I kept on moving forward, I was able to salvage it and when I finally recovered, I was able to get back on track and exceed my goal!

I have to admit in the back of my mind I wish the conditions had been ideal because I'd like to see how many more miles I could have put in if I hadn't been so cold, but I will get my chance at another time.

When things don't go perfectly, when you're struggling, and you're trying to reach a goal you've set, you have to sometimes make adjustments along the way. Just because things don't go perfectly, or you're not hitting your goals along the way, doesn't mean you should give up on trying. You can succeed despite adversity and things being less than perfect. It's not a black-and-white, all-or-none world. You have to go with what's given to you in a situation, and make the best of it, always.

Don't give up on your new years resolution. Even if it's already a struggle to make changes and keep them in place, remember this: the difference between success and failure is that we only fail when we fail to see the positive things we have accomplished. No work of art looks perfect at the beginning, it takes time and work and revisions before the final product is recognizable as something beautiful. Every positive step counts!

My plans now? To rest, catch up on my sleep, get back to running, go to Florida at the end of February, but this picture really says it all. I'm sending my Badwater application in February.

Photo credits: Nathan Nitzky (3 photos)


Mike said...

Wow...what an adventure!! Your story paints an honest picture of your experience. Congrats on reaching your mileage goal.

Alene Gone Bad said...

Thanks, the Runner! I wish I knew your name!

JeffO said...

Wow, you really did well, Alene. Beautiful feet (cough, cough). Remind me of, well, mine.

Alene Gone Bad said...

Thanks Jeff! What's on your agenda for the year?

David Elsbernd said...

Great race, Alene! I think you are being modest about beating me. I think the longer the race, the more you would leave me behind. You captured perfectly the way the race became more difficult over the 2nd day, and I enjoyed reading how you overcame the adversity of it and kept on plugging away, something I failed to do so well. Great job!

Alene Gone Bad said...

Dave, you put in a great effort under not so great conditions. I hope I will see you Death Valley this summer! Have a good recovery and good luck this year!

Sarah said...

Great report Alene! I'm so glad I got to meet you and experience this awesome race. Thanks for all your advice and encouragement! It was so cold! --- but I feel so fortunate to have missed that first day.

I wish I had found out the name of the tall man who worked the aid station the the night of Dec 30th. Was that Don? He was so good to me! I loved how he called me lady. What a wonderful man. : ) If that's him and you're in touch please say hi from me!

Alene Gone Bad said...

Sarah, that was Don! I will pass your comments along. I hope you're recovering well, and I hope I see you at future ATYs!

Unknown said...

Great job, Alene! 151 miles, another notch on your belt, and more experience for your next Badwater.

I've been in AZ for the past two days and the weather is fantastic. I hope you will have a blizzard up there so I can feel even luckier to be here (just kidding). Rick

Alene Gone Bad said...

Thanks Rick! I hope you're enjoying the return of the nice Arizona weather because it's 2 degrees here this morning and we have 5 new inches of snow on the ground! See you soon!