Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Trials at Trans Rockies

One of the most challenging and rewarding weeks of my life, this recap goes through all of it from course details, personal thoughts, IV bags, ups, downs, frustrations, blisters, nutrition, camp life, personalities and the questionable mental stability of an ultra runner. Rather than run you through the technicalities of the course and overall standings, I’ve tried to provide an honest account of what I went through this week. To me, course beta is a lot less interesting than the human condition and analysis of our personal trials. After all, we’re all here as mirrors to each other right?
Magi and I didn’t win. We weren’t able to complete the race as a team as she had to drop out on day 4 due to injury. But rather than wallow in self pity, which is what I so badly wanted to do that day as I vowed to quit running altogether, in a not-so-surprising twist of fate, my perspective on life was shifted by an unexpected new friend, and I accomplished something I never thought I could.
My apologies for the lack of pictures. No time to stop.

It was still the beginning of the racing season when my sponsor, Arcteryx, contacted me with an offer for an entry to the Trans Rockies Run. I didn’t even hesitate in responding with an enthusiastic “Of course!”. I had big shoes to fill after Adam Campbell’s incredible performance there last year so after sending the affirmative email, I had a brief moment of panic.

Amy you’re not an ultrarunner. What have you just agreed to? But before I had a chance to talk myself out of it, I started the search for the perfect partner.

I’ve had a lot of running friends over the years. And some of my best friends are the ones I’ve run with, in university, in college, through children, marriage and divorce. The first few years after my twin girls were born, most of my friends knew that if they wanted to see me it was going to have to involve a run. When you’ve only got a couple hours in the day to spare, you’ve gotta multi task. Regardless of speed of the running partners, there’s something about sweating it out through a tough workout that brings you together, bonding over the common pain and ensuing pride in accomplishing what you thought you couldn’t.
But hill workouts, speed work and tempo runs were nothing compared to what I knew I would face on the trails in the Colorado mountains. It goes without saying that any friendship will have to be a strong one to withstand the rigors of blood blisters, aching muscles, extreme fatigue, low blood sugar, delusion and hallucination at times (yes this happened!), success and failure. No matter how beautiful the trails are, when every part of you is in pain and things aren’t going according to plan you need to know that you can make it through and that your partner has the inner strength to do the same.

I’ve been trying to get Magi Scallion to do the Trans Rockies with me for years so when I got the call from Arcteryx, I shot her an email and had a response within a few minutes. Done. Arc’s (Arcteryx) Angels it was. Magi has been through enough in her life and I’ve had enough battles for medals with her on the trails that I know she’s one of the toughest runners out there. So it was decided.

Fast forward through the summer of my marathon in Vancouver, Scorched Soul Ultra, Powderface, Footstock, Crazy Soles and NACAC’s. All baby races compared to the mammoth of a challenge I was getting myself into. I had no idea whether I could actually complete it or not as I have mainly been a 10k runner for most of my life. Not only that, but my pattern around races has been to take a few days off before the race, run balls out, and then take at least a day to recover before I get back into training. There would be none of that at Trans Rockies. It’s 6 days, 113 miles (180 km!), and over 25,000 ft of elevation gain. You don’t get to recover. Every day you get up and run no matter what. No matter what....


Day 1
I’ve found my tribe! I’m not the only one in this group with ugly feet! And not only that but I can walk around in sandals! Hooray!
The foot situation was just the first of many common bonds I would learn I shared with fellow ultra runners at TR. Others included but were not limited to: questioning of sanity, love of suffering in beautiful places, ability to balance kids, jobs and life and still get out for weekend runs, running on the edge of control down a hill, willingness to stop in the middle of a race if a fellow runner is distressed (something you don’t often see in road races as others hurdle you when you have just eaten pavement), ability to swallow 3 gels, 2 saltsticks and 500ml of water in under 30 seconds and then boot it up a hill while trying not to vomit.

Truly though, I can’t even begin to speak to the respect and admiration I have for all of the people I met last week. I realize we were in a bit of a bubble and were getting some seriously high doses of our addiction - running, mountains, socializing with other great runners, incredible food cooked for us, and all the non alcoholic beer you could ever dream of. It’s pretty hard not to be happy in that crowd. But I don’t think I came across any cranky people all week. Sure there was disappointment and pain and I certainly had my share of tears at some points, but it’s all just so raw. The true essence of life for me.

Ok enough of camp life...

Stage 1: 20 miles, 2721 ft of elevation gain. Start line: Buena Vista Colorado.

I had arrived late the day before, after Adam Chase, master trail runner and social networker extraordinaire was able to save my butt and get me a ride to Buena Vista in time to register and find myself a tent for the night.

The first day at breakfast I had no idea which other womens‘ teams were there. It was great to run into the Banff Trail Trash crowd and veteran TR runners: Leslie, Keith, Tim and Doone. These guys have been through it and have come back for more so it can’t be that bad right? But one of the first things Doone says to me is "Nikki Kimball is here. You won't beat her so don't try. If you don't see her back, you're going too fast". I didn't know who Nikki was but with all due respect to Doone, as soon as someone tells me I can't do something, I decide that I will prove them wrong.

Rewind: Doone and I had battled it out on the Powderface trail together a few months back. She has got to be one of the toughest women I know. And not only that but as I’m running along in the forest, making up all sorts of excuses about why my legs are tired and I’m feeling sick through this race, she pulls up beside me and starts to chat with ease as I’m gasping for oxygen. Here I am thinking I’m entitled to quit because I ran a 50k race a few weeks back and must not have recovered yet, and she says: “Just finished the 100miler so I’m not feeling that great. And off she goes leaving me in her dust. Wow, what a humbling experience. Good practice for Trans Rockies for sure.

The first stage of TR was a grueling hot day. It took me at least an hour to shake the cobwebs from my legs. While I had spent a week in Montanna at altitude, for some reason I just couldn’t find any oxygen in the air that first morning. Poor Magi was feeling great and patiently waited as I battled up the hills. This first hour was a good way to see who was in our field.

By the time we got to the first aid station I finally had my second wind and I was ready to tap into my specialty of letting it go on the downhill. We took a little too long at the aid station so Team Salomon from Quebec blew by and we never saw them again. We did manage to maintain the 2nd place position though, cooking down the hills with ease. The race just seemed to get easier as the day went on. Unfortunately for Magi, the reverse was true. She started out strong but as we pounded through the desert like terrain, her IT band started to tighten up. She battled through until we hit the long home stretch road and then had to slow down. When your body locks up, you make a call; you can fight through it and risk needing a week to recover or you can walk in. Magi is one of the toughest cookies I know so if she’s complaining of pain, you know without a doubt that there is pain. As much as I wanted to turn it on and sprint in the last 4k, I knew we had to be smart about this. We had 5 more days of grueling miles and blowing up the first day would be ridiculous just to be 2nd. It was tough to be passed in the last 2k by 3 other open women’s teams but as a member of a team I had to put my ego aside. Finish line soak in the river, watermelon and plenty of fluid. Now, can I do that 5 more times?

Once you get back to camp, the cold beer (mmm... all the taste with none of the calories or alcohol) and chips, fruit, Cliff bars at the Salomon tents beckons. As there is no formal lunch, I had opted to bring Vega Sport Performance protein so I was always sure I could get in some quality recovery fuel. I take it everywhere so I know I’m always covered. Ice bath and a warm shower and you’re human again.
Cheers to Karen and Damian from (http://icoolsport.com/index.php) who so brilliantly positioned the ice baths in front of the shower house... way to keep us in the tub longer as we gazed at the shirtless men coming and going. :) A little nap, a little reading of “Born to Run” for inspiration and before you know it it’s dinner time. Cowboy caterers are my new heros. I’m not sure how you guys made such incredible, clean food for 300+ of us but whatever you do, keep doing it. You fueled us all week!
After dinner, the TR team presents the photo and video recap of the day as well as the virtual beta for the next day’s stage.

The first night we sat down for dinner, unknowingly, beside Max and Andy. “How was your race today guys?” “Not bad, they reply”. It took until the awards started for us to find out that they had won the entire race. Humble people here. There’s no bragging or self endorsement. Like I said, quality.


Vicksburg to Twin Lakes Dam. 13.5 miles, 3617 ft of climbing.

Mental note: next time I do Trans Rockies, bring ear plugs. What are the chances that in a group of 300 tents packed into a field together that you’re not going to hear snoring... or worse than the PG13 version I can describe here? Needless to say not a great sleep but for me, waking up in fresh mountain air at 8500ft is better than a soft bed in a house in a city any day.
Having a vague sense of what I’m in for, I try to eat just enough to fuel for the day without putting so much in that my body will be digesting rather than sending energy to my muscles. Always a delicate balance.

We hop the shuttle and drive into the canyon where the Leadville 100 race had taken place just days ago. Today, we climb to Hope Pass: elevation: 12,580ft. Cold start line, long lineups for the bathrooms. Sunshine and crisp air. A quick sprint along a road before an insanely steep and grueling climb up to hope pass. We crested in 2nd place but the technical descent was painful after Magi’s IT band injury from the day before so we slowed down a bit. While the distance was a shorter 13 miles, it was a grueling day. After a technical descent and a rolling trail beside the Twin Lakes dam, we finished in 3d place with a time of 2:47:08, 14 minutes behind the leaders and 9 minutes behind 2nd place. I will have to go back to admire the view some day.


Day 3
Leadville to Camp Hale. 24 miles, 2737ft of climbing.

Unable to reach Natalie and Jasmine by phone for more than 4 days now, the morning just started off on the wrong foot. I had purposely left my cell and computer at home so that I could focus on the race, but talking to my kids is something we do every few days. This blog is about real life, and what goes into racing and I have to tell you that when I have to fight to talk to my kids it makes it tough to fight on the trails. So after a few private tears, I pound another cup of coffee and head to the start line.

Just an hour earlier, I had walked by a woman crying while talking on her cell. Something about a hip. I had felt so compelled to hug her, but probably more to give myself permission to cry than anything. I just wanted to share her moment of pain. As I found out a few days later, it was Martin Gaffuri’s partner, Caitlin Nelson, who got on a plane that morning after calling it quits due to injury. As it turns out, Martin became my unofficial new partner and was the reason I finished the race at all.

The stage started off well with a long climb through the trees on a dirt road. By the top of the first climb I was bagged. My legs were tired, my stomach felt empty. And I had no idea how I was going to complete almost an entire marathon. I kept tripping on rocks, an early sign of fatigue and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t seem to get my legs to pick up. About mid way through the race, while running along with some new friends Stephen and Deborah and telling dirty jokes, I tripped and came within a few cm of eating a giant rock and losing at least a few teeth. And that was it. My ego had had enough. Tears. Tantrum.
“I don’t know why I’m crying! I don’t cry! What is this?”
Magi: “Amy I’m a little jealous of your cry. Don’t worry about it. You look great with mud all over you!”
More crying.

(Side note: I've spoken with a few other runners in camp since that little episode and from a nutritional perspective, I'm pretty sure that sugar was a huge part of the emotional outbursts. Other runners have experienced similar episodes ranging within hours from anger to tears to hopelessness and back to elation. Don't get me wrong, it's not like I don't know that my body was exhausted, but just as a learning point here, when you force feed your body isolated sugar without any of the other nutrients that come with whole foods, from a 5-phase theory point of view, you are bound to have some parallel feelings of isolation. For those of you who know someone with emotional outbursts or instability, try cutting simple sugars out of your diet and boosting good fats and protein. You'll be amazed at how much more grounded and stable you feel.)

Amazing the hormones that are released through tears. After a few minutes of feeling like a two year old, I was good as new and ready to go. Within a km or so, Magi and I had made an unspoken agreement to just hold the position we had (4th) and enjoy the day. There were non stop jokes with other runners and aid station workers, a request to a cop manning the course to commit me to a mental institute, a few flying unicorns and even trying to convince a couple of doctors to moon the camera with us on the finish line in the hopes of getting a little air time from Glen and honoring my fellow trail trasher Jen who couldn’t be there to moon herself because she had just given birth to her new baby girl! While we packed on a good 20 minutes of time, it was a great day overall. Little did we know it was also our last full day as a team.


Day 4
Camp Hale to Red Cliff. 14 miles. 3009ft of climbing.
Reward at the end: the famous fish tacos and margaritas at Mangos.

“Magi, this is our day. I had a dream last night and I know what to do. If you can just stay with me, even if you hate me all day, I know I can pull us through to first.”

Up to this point I had been running without music. So I’m not a purist. I have a crutch. I like the beat of music in my ear, partly because then I don’t beat myself up for such labored breathing but also because I was a dancer for 8 years and music moves and inspires me. It blocks everything else out and becomes almost meditative as I let it pull me. We had to carry a pack anyways for safety reasons, whats a few extra ounces for an ipod if it speeds me up? The day started out great. We were in the lead and I felt strong and confident we could win the stage.

But it was not to be. Again, as much as I wanted to push, it’s a team event and Magi just wasn’t able to force the pain out of her body. We made it to the top of the climb and as we jogged away from the aid station, I said to her
“Magi, you’re done.”
She keeps walking, unable to bend her left knee at all because her IT band has completely locked on her.
“Magi, you’re done”.
“No, I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
“No Magi you’re not fine, you have to stop.”

She stops, fighting back the tears. I know how hard this point in any race is. I went through the same thing at 32km in the Vancouver marathon earlier this year. You tell yourself you’re being a baby and that the pain will go away. You tell yourself it’s not really an injury. I had to be her logic because as tough as she is, it would have been crazy to try to continue.

She lets me massage her glutes to try to loosen her IT up as a few of the other teams pass us but refuses to stop walking. I decide not to push it or her, and resign to walking the rest of the way out.

I try to stay positive as we descend the relentlessly steep hill through the forest. No views, just interesting red spotted mushrooms and a few wild strawberry patches which I enjoyed (the strawberries not the hallucinogens). It took us close to 3 hours to get down to the next aid station and when you’re feeling really crappy, there is only so much conversation you can force. I think for both of us it was something like being at a Christmas party with a bunch of people you don’t know when you’re having a fat day and your boyfriend just broke up with you. You just want to crawl under a rock.

At the next aid station we managed to hitch a ride to the finish line, which is why our time for the day shows up as 11 hours even though it was closer to 4.5. Magi understandably disappears back to camp as I head in to Mango’s for a beer and some fish tacos. At this point, I couldn’t see getting back out there for two of the longest days in the race if I wasn’t going to place. I figured I’d cut my losses and just help out with the incredible staff and enjoy the race atmosphere. Little did I know that within a few hours I will have met Martin, who convinces me to get back on the start line and finish the race as if I was still in it. To be clear, Martin is a world class runner who could have finished at the top that day. His patient encouragement, and his boundless energy, compassion and passion for life was what got me through day 5 and even through the worst 24 hour flu and severe dehydration on day 6 that I've ever experienced.

To be continued in TR2 asap...