Mar 27, 2021
I’m sitting in front of my computer screen with a million things I’d like to share with you, but it’s hard to decide which to share first.
I am a high energy person negotiating living in a body affected by energy depleted conditions.
Let’s rewind first to 2017 Mountain Masochist. I was registered for the 50 miler, but had been diagnosed with relapse of Epstein Barr Virus, Babesia, and HPA dysfunction. The former spring, I had trained through my treatment and participated in races when... maybe I shouldn’t have. I decided soon into my second treatment (which came with complications from the steroids and anti-malarials and antivirals) that participating in this 50 mile race would be lunacy. At that time, I physically couldn’t run more than 12 miles in a week or run faster than ~11:00 pace without my heart rate soaring to 200 BPM. I’d already pulled out of the West Virginia Trilogy races and now I was emailing Clark Zealand to say I’d like to come to the pre-race dinner (Scott Jurek was speaking), but I couldn’t race.
Here I am in 2021, with a 2nd relapse in 5 months of Epstein Barr Virus, and yet also registered for Terrapin Mountain Half and Promise Land. My doctor is taking my case to her mentor immunologist, as my previous care suggests proper treatment. I’m clearly not healed (there is no cure)! I could take on some IV Myers Cocktails or high dose vitamin C, as those have helped greatly in the past, but I really am traumatized by the needle part of that treatment protocol, and it’s been said that if I require that kind of treatment, maybe I shouldn’t be racing at all. Oof.
August EBV labs:
February EBV labs:
I really did not want to email Clark again to tell him basically “boohoo, I’m sick again”. My racing journey is not a sob story. I have shared my story to build awareness for 4 years, and I am annoyed to be so affected by these conditions that strike whenever my stress level crests above a certain threshold. I have felt victorious, strong, and woman, but in the past month I have felt (more times than I’d like to shared) oppressed, hopeless, and unsafe in (even betrayed by) my body. Maintaining a growth mindset is key in overcoming any challenge, but not one person can say doing so is easy!
Hellgate 100K was a big ask on my body, and I believe I honored it. I rode the high of my race experience and gave my body the space it needed to heal and recover for over a month before even trying to run again. I know that was not the fire to reignite this relapse. While my recovery rate from workouts and various training tends to be longer than typical, I do not believe it’s the training that is causing a relapse. Overtraining in life? Yes, but my threshold is low, at least for now.
As an integrative health coach, I understand that health and wellness isn’t just about movement and nutrition. It’s about joy, spirituality, relationships, career, and more. I think about my joy and creativity. The build up to a race includes strategy consideration, planning fun, adventurous training runs, visualization and manifesting success! The journey to racing brings me joy. I need that in my life. I cannot cut it out and simultaneously say that I am living. I could cut it out and say that I am surviving, though ultimately I think my soul would suffer eventually. I’ll never forget paying a visit to John and Michelle Andersen at Crozet Running in early January 2017, and when I came up to the counter with various fuel sources, they noted that I was making my training runs longer again. It felt so good to be seen, that I was returning.
My hope is that this is my last racing season where I am training under treatment. If you’re tired of reading about Lyme disease, the coinfections, the EBV, and whatnot… please let me assure you I’d love nothing more than to not be experiencing it at all and instead be progressing upwards and onwards. I can’t count the number of posts where I’ve shared it all and then just minutes gone back and hit the backspace button until the bare bones of the post remain. That insecure part of me doesn’t want to appear a whiny, “same sad story” human. I do want to be seen and understood. I do want to shed light on the appearance of high functionality masking the invisible debilitating symptoms that come with chronic disease. I had half a mind (maybe three quarters) to not even share this much.
Enough of that.
A couple weeks prior to the race, Mike and I drove out to run parts of the course. Originally intending to run 16-17, we cut the run down to ~13. On the climb up the mountain, my legs screamed at me. This shouldn't be this difficult, but I was a few days into treatment and the burning fire in my legs had returned (much like in 2017, the 270 days of antibiotics year). I shed some tears, and Mike just listened. I spoke about how even though I think I’m good at racing ultras, maybe it’s time to hang my hat. Maybe it’s just too much on my body. Maybe I needed to take a couple of weeks off running entirely. I was feeling sorry for myself and not really allowing myself to enjoy the new scenery on this warm, beautiful day.
We scrambled to the Terrapin Summit after a wrong turn, and struggled immensely with the technical descent for the next 2-3 miles. I really suck at steep, technical descent. We quickly realized this race did not suit our strengths, at least until the Reed’s creek trail, which ascended, descended, winding around the curvature of the mountain. Give me rolling trails, and my body is magic. We navigated the frigid creek crossing and the rocky bombers back to the finish.
When we finished, I honestly did not want to run the half. I didn’t intend to run it. But as race day approached, I realized that I needed to follow through. Treatment wasn’t fun by any means, and the course was very challenging, but I needed to toughen up and honor my commitment.
On race day, Mike and I woke up around 3:30, left the house by 4:30, and drove to the start. Packet pick up was smooth, but also weird, the climate largely affected by COVID protocols, and so the usual congregating and well-wishing before races just wasn’t happening. It was pretty cold outside, just below freezing, so Mike and I huddled up in the car to wait until it was time for his start.
The start of races at this time require special consideration, like waves, rolling starts, field limitations, etc. It was determined that this race would follow a rolling start or window in which you can start the race, with chip timing so as not to punish those that choose to start later or in a smaller (or no) group. This would prove to pose a challenge strategically for those competing for top spots. Personally, I believe that in this environment, those who are competing for top spots race by gun time, as I find it more advantageous to be chasing people down instead of being chased down.
So, Mike started his race right at 7:00, hoping that his top competition was starting right along with him. Because I wanted at least 16 miles for the day, I began my warm up around the parking area and the initial road section of the race, which was fun because I could cheer on 50K runners as they started. I felt I had fueled myself well with a GF oatmeal bowl plus my usual protein coffee. I took an extra gel before the race and proceeded to the start line. Leg swings and quad stretches and deep squats before standing behind the start line, taking advantage of that final seconds countdown.
The race had begun, and I knew because of the crazy steep technical sections, my best strategy to position myself for a top finish would be to push hard on the flat sections and the initial climb. So far, I hadn’t seen any females, but also what was I doing? I wasn’t racing; I was just out there for the run with no expectations other than not to die coming down the mountain. Ugh, the cognitive dissonance. I wanted to race, but my legs were saying “no, thanks!” One mile into the race, 8:24 split, I felt that was a strong mile, but the devil on my shoulder was goading me to turn back. My legs felt like absolute garbage. They were sore after my 5K shake out run. So annoying … and disappointing. But whatever, not every race is going to be amazing or “my day”, so onward progress. To have those thoughts that early in the race though? That was worrisome.
Regardless, I began utilizing intervals of 100-200 running steps, 50 steps power hiking. Hands went to my hips immediately. I started passing by other runners, both 50K and Half. Around mile 2, there was a creek crossing, and instead of teetering across and attempting to balance on the precarious logs or find the path of least wetness, I just barreled across the stream, leaving around 5 people behind me. That water was freezing, but my body was on fire, so other than my toes, I felt fine.
Parts of this climb were really quite gorgeous on this clear day, because the views through the barren trees showed how much we’d already ascended and more rolling mountains resting in the distance. After a couple more miles, we emerged onto the parkway, and that was very rewarding to reach the first aid station. But the climbing wasn’t over. Another 500 ish feet to the top of Terrapin Mountain Summit: big rock scrambles and hands on knees hiking. I took my first race gel here (Huma chocolate mmmmm) at elapsed 50 minutes and dug deep to finish this nasty climb. I passed more men, but still no women to be seen around me. That was exciting. Okay, so maybe I am racing after all.
After a long ascent, it was time to go down, down, down. I anticipated the frustration and danger of this section. While I dreaded it, I suppose knowing it was coming prevented the whining that came with it a couple weeks prior, and also, I think the practice helped me improve my footing for race day because my splits were faster! At one point, a group of men that I’d passed earlier had gained ground on me, and so I moved aside. There was a gentleman up there taking photos, saying “aren’t your shoulders cold?” and “y’all around 15th place”. I told him my shoulders felt great (I was wearing arm sleeves and a crop tank under my hydration vest) and had he seen any females? I guess he didn’t hear me because he didn’t respond. Oh well, onward. We’d descended 1000 feet in a mile at one point, and it wasn’t long before we were reaching the rock garden and dangerously steep slip ‘n slide that was called a trail. Oh, how I HATED this section. I was sidestepping my way down and grabbing onto trees to prevent myself from butt-sliding the whole way down.
Finally, that trail leveled out (sort of) and the trail proceeded downward of course for another mile into the final aid station. This aid station included a ~.3 mile out and back (downhill, then uphill) and I knew that coming back up might unveil any competition. Sure enough, as I’m doing all I can to look strong and confident (while also taking a gel), one, two, three women come bombing down the hill. And here’s the kicker: I have no idea when they started. And I wasn’t about to ask!
Thankfully, my adrenaline kicked in and I knew that if I wanted to place high (as far as I knew, I could still be first female, and until someone passed me, that’s how I was going to behave) I’d have to push and create as much distance/time as possible between myself and them. But I also wanted to be realistic and remind myself that if I was passed, I would not quit trying. Getting passed doesn’t make me a “bad” runner. I would stay in this until the finish. Finally, the section of the trail which was to my benefit: the rolling Reeds creek trail.
While my legs were full of lead, my soul was also on fire. Let’s go!!!!!! Okay, some running up until breathless, and power hiking 50 steps. Don’t look back; look ahead, and look FIERCE. This section would climb up into the mountain and then gently descend and then climb out of the mountain, again and again. I took another gel (not 20 minutes after the last one) as I fell into line with a couple of men, and running behind them helped me stabilize my heart rate and build in some recovery. Finally, I think we all accepted that it was time for me to move on, and with maybe 3-3.5 miles to go, I took off and began flowing on the gently rolling descent.
At one point, I felt like I’d lost control of my legs. My knees were knocking each other and my feet were hitting the ground in places that I didn’t plan for them to. Neurologically, I felt like this could become a problem, and I almost turned back to alert the guys I’d been running with that I might need help. I chugged some NUUN endurance to make sure I had plenty of electrolytes and breathed deeply. That sloppy running has NEVER happened to me before. Luckily, the problem dissipated, so it must have been electrolyte related, who knows? I was pushing, and again, as far as I knew, I was in first!!! These longer trail races, it’s been a long time since I’ve led a women’s race. Maybe 5 or 6 years?!? It felt awesome. I wanted to defend my spot!
Finally, I came upon the creek crossing, which was a fast flowing rapid. I really didn’t want to waste any time here, so I took the most direct path from one streamer to the next. Freezing cold but home free basically! Time to let gravity and turnover take over. This descent is fairly technical with it’s ruts and loose rocks, but FAR more runnable than the descent of Terrapin, and eventually the trail turned into dirt, then gravel, and with just after 1 mile to go, pavement. I remembered pushing this section on our training run and the speed I was able to recruit, and so I did all I could to engage. 7:00 pace, 6:50 pace, 6:45 pace. I can do more. I can push harder. 6:40, 6:30, 6:10, 5:48 pace at one point. I turned right towards the final straight away and there was the annoying bump of a hill. It didn’t last long, and at the top of that, I could see the finish line arch. Hang on! Strong finish, I could be the first chick, and I was so happy to have stayed present and in the game that whole race.
I finished in 2:23 +, and while my watch said 12.75 miles, other half marathoners had around 13.01. So who knows what the actual distance was? The next female (Elisa Rollins) rolled in not long after I’d finished, and I cheered for her because I was grateful to her (and the others) because their presence helped me push myself, regardless of the outcome. Not long after her, another female finished (Allie Zealond). Together, we cheered for her. Then, I took off for another 2 mile slog because I needed a longer run that day.
After I returned from my run, changed and slightly refreshed, I learned that through chip timing, I was 3rd female by around a minute to Elisa. Allie beat Elisa by around 2 minutes. I started my race at 7:30, Elisa started hers at 7:36, and Allie started not long after Elisa! Craziness!
As top finishers, we scored Patagonia top finisher duffels, in addition to the super sweet Terrapin mug and fleece blanket received by all finishers! I love my race swag!
Meanwhile, Mike was out there racing still, and so I set up camp behind the finish line in my fleece blanket, drinking more of my still warm protein coffee. He won his race, and as always, it was a joy to watch him compete! We spent the afternoon socially distanced with fellow ultra running friends, and that was long overdue and very much appreciated.
I am so grateful to have finally finished a Clark Zealand race; this course taught me a lot about how to grapple with weakness. It’s easy to work hard where it suits, but it’s character building to push and carry onward when the course plays directly to my growth areas.
This race taught me the value of competition. While I didn’t win, I can be happy for the women who beat me and simultaneously grateful for the environment their presence created to help me push myself to reach my potential.
The jury is still out on Promise Land. I’ve had a hard time getting my long run mileage up, and my volume and days run/week is lower than usual, due to the effects of treatment. I had big goals for Promise Land before this, and I’m not letting them go, but I also recognize that there are physical limits to my treatment and setting the bar unrealistically high is unfair to myself and even dishonorable to the healing my body is aiming to do on my behalf.
It's still crazy to me that we climbed to the top of this!
Feb 15, 2021
By Mike Fox
Left the house at 3:45am, 2 hour drive to Holiday Lake.
Turned off of Highway 24, along with 30 other cars to find the road to be covered in ice (it hadn’t been treated) and quite a few people that were nervous on the slick road. A Toyota Corolla tried to make it up a hill and failed. For some reason that made several others with 4x4 not want to try it, and they clogged the road. I drove around about 20 cars using the grass on the edge as traction, but then there was one stopped in the middle and wouldn’t move. Frank, Sean, and I were trying to convince them it was ok, but it was no use. They weren’t interested in trying anymore, and I couldn’t REALLY blame them. It was a complete ice rink.
It’s only about 4.5 miles to the starting line from where we are. I COULD run there and make it. I mean, if you’re gonna run 50k (++), what’s another 8k. Plus, it would be an effective warm up! But, I couldn’t leave Nelle and the girls stuck at the car. I would’ve been worried about them the whole time.
My preferred option was to attempt a gutsy move across the road to the far side and hook the grass again. Nelle decided it wasn’t worth the risk despite me giving her the “there are leaders and there are followers” speech.
We decided to turn around and try a different route. At this point it was about 6:30am. I was supposed to start my race at 6:30am. …read that sentence again.
We followed a new friend, Sean (Cate, maybe), onto the new route and it was just another ice covered road. One of his friends in a Tacoma was sideways in the road, stuck in the ditch, and blocking our way. Once again, we all get out to help. After trying to spot him out of his stuck, I suggested we hook a strap to him and try to pull him out by hand. I got a few weird looks, but I convinced our group that 5 guys could pull a small truck. If any of you know my rockcrawling background, you would know that I have some experience with this. So, we did! I hooked the strap to the front of the truck, we all grabbed hold, and I said “go”. Ten seconds later, the truck was free and we were running back to our cars to try to make forward progress. Again, hugging the edge of the road, with two tires in the ice covered grass, we made it the rest of the way to the camp and starting line. It was now 7:35am.
I went to Brenton Swyers, race director, and asked what to do. He said to get my bib number and start in whatever wave I could get into. At the time, I didn’t know it, but they were starting the 25k runners. All of the 50k waves had started on time. I am so grateful for them to be understanding and letting people start late considering the circumstance.
The good news: I’d actually get to run the race.
The bad news: I’m going to have to run the whole race by myself.
I packed 4 gels in my handheld bottle pocket. Time for a 50k++ Time Trail!
It was 7:45 and I’m at the starting line. Frank Gonzalez was huge in this moment. He said, “I’ll see you in 2 hours, don’t go out too fast, I love you, Mikey!” The last part he had to yell because I was GONE!
If you don’t know, the race is two virtually identical loops. When I ran this race a few years ago (I won in PERFECT conditions), it took me just under 4 hours, and that was my goal for today. But there was a problem. Actually lots of problems. The course was destroyed by the runners that started before me. The temp was right around freezing and it was raining. Traffic was a challenge and a blessing. Passing folks on a single track is tough, but without them it would’ve been very lonely (I enjoyed exchanging “good jobs” and seeing friends). I was racing, but I had to hold myself back. I had a long way to go, I’m not going to catch the leaders and I don’t know how fast they are running. It’s like I’m chasing something or someone, but I don’t even know if it exists.
Only a couple times on the first loop did the cold bother me. One was the stream crossing which was about thigh deep. That water was quite chilly and made me ease back into speed on the other side. Another was the SWAMP at the bottom of the logged field before you get back to the lake. It was mud up to my knee.
Finishing up my first loop, I could hear Nelle yelling for me across the Lake. I was feeling great! Almost like I had just finished my warm up and was ready to race. When I came through halfway, Nelle got some great pics of me, and Frank shared that I was almost EXACTLY the same time as the leaders through halfway!
That was huge news. With all that had happened that morning, just trying to get to the race, having to do this effort alone. Today, I could accomplish something incredibly special. I told myself that many times. I can do something special today: win this race running all by myself. What a story that would be.
The first couple miles into the 2nd loop were not great. My confidence was high though. My legs weren’t tired, and I remembered the first time I raced HL50k I didn’t feel good starting the 2nd loop either. All systems were “go”.
However, I didn’t know what laid ahead. As trashed as I thought the course was on the first lap, the 2nd lap was WAAAAY worse. The single tracks seemed to all have mud rivers, running down them. The power line reminded me of the nasty mud you see around cow feed troughs. The gravel roads offered two options: solid ice that had you straight arming on every step, or slushy goop that splashed icy mud on your lower legs every step. The tree limbs were heavy with ice and blocking the paths. Attempting to brush by them resulted in a feeling as though someone had whipped my face with a leather belt. The pines with their icy needles were more like getting beaten in the face with a frozen pillow. I’ve run some icy, muddy races that I’ve been able to laugh off, but not this. This was very serious.
Conditions aside, there was no one. NO ONE. Just me and aid stationers cheering every 45 minutes or so. I was 3 hours into a hopefully 4 hour run and didn’t see anyone. And my gels were sooooo hard to eat. My hands were too cold to open/squeeze them and when I did finally get it into my mouth, it was the consistency of chewing gum. I even tried to stick them inside my glove for 5 minutes prior to eating to warm them up, but it didn’t work.
There weren’t any negative thoughts though. Most ultramarathons will likely have you questioning why you are doing this to yourself. That never crept into my mind. I was very focused and knew I was moving well. I kept thinking that I didn’t know how my legs were taking this abuse, and that I could STILL do something very special today.
Unfortunately, the cold slowly started to catch up with me with about 5-6 miles left. First, it was my head. Everytime I blinked, my eyes would ‘shutter’ as though I had blinked 3-4 times rapidly. The ability to hear seemed to be leaving me. I didn’t hear my feet crunching ice or the rain/sleet hitting my hat anymore. Then it was my torso. My soaked shirt that was tight fitting at the start was now a bit baggy, had ice along the shorts line, and wasn’t protecting me anymore. In fact, it felt like barbed wire any time the cold breeze flapped it against my skin.
I had ice balls and frozen mud tangling the hair on my legs. It felt like my socks were off my heel and were bundled up at my toes, but whenever I looked down then were just as they were when I started. Man, did my toes ache!
I really had to be careful because I felt that If I were to fall, I might not be able to get back up. Legit concern at this point.
The last couple miles included some short uphills that I reluctantly walked. I would like to say I “power hiked” them, but that would be a lie. I walked. I’m not going to say my legs were tired. It wasn’t a tired leg feeling. It was a “we’re reaching the end of our tolerance for this bullsh*t” leg feeling.
Finally, I was at the top of the last climb and only had a few minutes of downhill road running to the finish. I did not sprint, but I didn’t walk either. David Horton gave me the news that I got 3rd by just a few minutes. I didn’t quite understand and so he tried to clarify. He said that top two guys (Jordan Chang and Daniel Rau) were only seconds apart. I honestly had a hard time comprehending, and a bit of trouble speaking, so lots of very cool people helped me inside and helped me change my clothes while wrapping me in blankets. Thanks everyone for that!!!
Turns out that the top guys waited an hour for me to finish because they knew there was a chance I could beat them on race time. Unfortunately, my time of 4 hours 28 minutes was around 6-7 minutes too much and their positions stood. I took 3rd place.
I didn’t stop at any aid stations, which is a shame because those awesome volunteers looked like they were having a great time despite the cold! That might have been a bad idea, but I didn’t want to give up even 1 minute of time. I took one of my gels every hour on the hour as I had done in my training runs, kept sipping my NUUN-laced water, continued to risk assess, and keep my effort as close to redline as possible without going in.
Considering the pre-race events and circumstances, I can’t be upset. However, I still want to win one of the individual Lynchburg Ultra Series Races this year and place as high as possible overall. I have 3 more tries. I’m behind the eight ball if Daniel and Jordan are in the series. Next up is Terrapin Mountain 50k at the end of March.
Dec 16, 2020
A few people asked me about my training as a mother of younger kids, working full-time, etc. Races are an exciting part of training, but they certainly don’t comprise the majority of the journey. Good thing since most of them were canceled this year, right? Part of my training process is extremely creative. How can I integrate specificity, adventure, comradery, variety, and still balance having energy and time for family, relationships, and work?
First, I am a weekend warrior and a co-parent - my schedule is less familiar to nuclear families and more familiar to blended or single-parents. With the current custody schedule, my children are with their father on alternating weekends, and while in the early years of my separation and divorce I struggled to strike a balance with running and babysitters, I’ve made it a point to rarely sign up for races or go on long trail runs when my kids are with me. Actually, it was out of the separation and the deeply lonely weekends that shook my identity as a mother that spurred an interest in ultrarunning. The weekends were so long, and I’d find myself running, then trying to sleep through them. I was new to the area and didn’t have many friends yet, so I wasn’t really motivated to do anything but run, eat, and sleep through the depression I was experiencing. Ultimately, my counselor (who regularly hikes sections of the AT) suggested I start making plans for my weekends without my daughters, do all the things I was unable to do when I’d been married, yet still basically a single parent. At first it was difficult, but I soon started looking forward to my weekend adventures instead of dreading them. Those weekend adventures became a part of my creative training process. Those weekend adventures actually led me to my now amazing husband! So you really never know what gifts adventure may have in store for you if you don’t take them!
Currently, I work full-time as a reading specialist, primarily working with kindergarten through 2nd graders. I have spent the past 8 years in education! In this COVID year, I’ve taught 1st grade in-person and virtually, then interventions and class B teacher roles. To say teachers are tired is an understatement, but we sure do love the kids. I will say that being home, running became essential, to the fullest extent of that word’s meaning in 2020. I’d sleep until 6:30, record a morning message for my students, feed my children, do some morning work and check in with students, then take my own children out for a 5 mile bike ride (AKA P.E.), weather permitting. The afternoon would be spent checking activities and reviewing student work. Screen time went way up, and we bought the blue light blocking glasses.
So training! One caveat I will mention here is that physically taxing activities obviously count as training, but so do the restorative practices, and some would argue that balancing and prioritizing the latter is the game changer in peak performance.
I have spent a moderate amount of time at Valley Cryo, though none initially during the pandemic. If I had plenty of time, I’d sit in the Normatec boots, then sit in the sauna for 25-40 minutes, and then stand in the cryosauna at -210 degrees F* for 3 minutes. This is around a 2 hour commitment.
After every hard workout or long run, I will take my protein coffee (Bone Broth protein by Ancient Nutrition) and soak in a steamy epsom salt bath. This is bliss BTW, and one day I’ll have a soaking tub of my dreams.
Multiple times a week, I am foam rolling, stretching, and going through my Excel Rocktown Maintenance Routine.
This winter, I invested in Faster EFT with Nicola, and that was a worthy investment!
Finally, nourishment and sleep are a must. Because I have attained remission for multiple tick-borne illnesses (Lyme, Babesia, Bartonella) and Epstein Barr Virus and strive to keep HPA Axis dysfunction to a minimum, I supplement with between 10-15 minerals, herbs, and vitamins daily. Furthermore, my body recovers slower from workouts and feels stress more easily, so eating well and prioritizing sleep are a must. You will not catch me hardly ever staying up past 10 PM, and if I haven’t consumed 5 servings of vegetables in a day, it’s an off day.
Training Runs and Milestones
2020 began with Boston Marathon training. Actually, Boston training began in early December with speed work (alternating intervals and threshold workouts) and a building series of long, tempo runs. I’d be waiting at the gym on alternating Tuesday/Thursday mornings waiting for the doors to open at 5:15 AM. Mike led track workouts for JMU ROTC cadets, but my hands could not survive the combination of winter cold with the fluctuations in my circulation during speed workouts, so I hit the treadmill. Anyway, it was during these track workouts that I first began to take notice of the Corona Virus, and initially, it was a joke in daily phone calls with a training partner as we commuted to work.
Speed workouts usually included mile, 1000m, or 2-3x2-3 mile repeats. With my first self-trained marathon (Marine Corps 2015), I referred to Hansons as a training manual, but ultimately, I felt in my future training that 3 hard workouts in a week was too much, and I wanted more confidence with Marathon pace than 10 miles offered, so I was working toward 14 mile tempos (I ran a 12 mile tempo at 7:40 pace prior to my BQ at Shamrock and soon after, 6:33 at Promise Land, and the flow of that effort was amazing). I really appreciated the progressive build of the speed and strength workouts, but also wanted their “strength” workouts to be longer and faster.
I did race a 5K, Cardinal Point Wine Lovers 5K, and won the whole women’s race! It was not my fastest 5K, but a win is a win! I am guessing most of the competition in the area was at the Olympic marathon trials the next week in Atlanta, and I’m okay with that!
While in this Boston training segment, I ran my long runs early and mid morning, depending on the weekend, and in all conditions. I did not run on the trails at this time, but I ran around 70 miles/week in my peak weeks, with a couple of two a days! That was very exciting. The two a days occurred on speed work days (where I ran speed in the morning and slogged in the afternoon - that was really challenging!).
We were 5 weeks out from the race when schools closed down due to Corona Virus. All of the research I’d done to support my personal health, and that of my clients indicated that endurance efforts longer than 2 hours would increasingly interfere with optimal immune function, and a couple of days after schools were dismissed for 2 weeks, the Boston Marathon was postponed, which did not come as a surprise, although it was quite disappointing. I had hoped to run around a 3:18 at Boston and then run around a 3:13 at Chicago this fall. So during this time, I decided to truncate my long runs, stay off the over-crowded trails, and hit the track to learn pacing off the treadmill. I’d focus on a 5K time trial. I’d been chasing sub 20 for quite some time, and now seemed the right time to go for it!
Not only was Boston postponed (initially), but also was my surgery in late April intended to alleviate my toxin load, which was disrupting my endocrine system. I was much more upset about that, as I had timed it to occur about a week and a half after Boston, to allow for my immune system to recover. I was in touch with my surgeon in Richmond frequently to see about the wait list (it had been scheduled since early October). They resumed “elective” surgery shortly after my original date. My new surgery date was scheduled for early June, which was definitely starting to encroach on Boston training. But I wasn’t going to complain. I wanted to feel better!
Back to the 5K. By now I had had two failed attempts at the 5K. Oh man, they were UGLY. The first attempt was with Mike in a pace car out on Dry River Road. It had just started to rain and the wind was blowing in my face. .62 miles into the time trial, I was well above goal pace and struggling. I stopped, screamed, threw my shoes into the grass, and started walking in the other direction. Running is stupid. Poor Mike, also. I felt like such a failure; how can I coach people if I can’t do the darn thing? Yeah, so many demons.
Attempt number 2 was better, but still failed. I devised a new course up near Turner Ashby High School that would spit me out on 42 and take me to the road by the river adjacent to the Bridgewater football stadium. I was doing pretty well, passed by Mike at this intersection at 2.32 miles and suddenly I just locked up, body and mind. I buckled down to the ground, threw my watch into the grass, and cried again. So close - why did I bail? Running is stupid. Also, I think Mike was done (with good reason) helping me push my brain to the limit of blowing up.
Then within a week, I received a phone call from the surgeon’s office, and they offered me a spot on the surgery schedule for May 11th because someone wasn’t pre-approved for surgery. I took it immediately, figured out child care so we could be in Richmond by 7 AM. But what about the 5K??? One more attempt. It was a morning when my girls were with their dad, and Mike was getting ready for work. I was quiet, stretching, methodically preparing myself for a last attempt at this endeavor. Later, Mike said he sensed I was getting in the zone and took off for work.
I grabbed my racing shoes and two pairs of easy running shoes. I’d drop a pair at the finish line (right past the gate to enter Bridgewater track) and warm up in the other pair. I moved my start line back further than before so that I’d be well past 2.32 when I reached my quitting spot from last time. All the brain tricks. I acquired GPS on my watch, started the carefully selected jams on my headphones/phone, and took off. My first mile was a 6:14 with around 40 feet of climbing and 90 feet of descent. The remaining miles were mostly flat, and I ran off the sidewalk for the majority of it, as the sidewalks were not even. 2nd mile, 6:18, this was going well. Stick with it. I was turning onto the riverside road, past the point where I quit, running towards the incline at the end of the street, knowing I’d U-turn instead of going back up that. My body was screaming, but my brain was aware of how I was going to break 20. Reestablishing speed after that was so hard, but I hauled a$$ until my watch read 3.11 miles, 19:32 5K! I was so incredibly happy! I called Mike, I called Bill, I called Caroline, as I was cooling down. Victory!!!!
So then a few days later I had surgery, which came with some unexpected complications including Candida and an adverse reaction to surgical tape. I was allowed to run after 3 weeks, and I ran my first mile time trial at 5 weeks post surgery in 5:55. I began reintegrating some speedwork into my training, my proudest workout being the following:
1x800 @ 2 mile pace, equal distance recoveries
2x400 @ 1 mile pace, equal distance recoveries
3x200 @ 800m pace, equal distance recoveries
5 minute jogging recovery
1x800 @ 2 mile pace, equal distance recoveries
2x400 @ 1 mile pace, equal distance recoveries
3x200 @ 800m pace, equal distance recoveries
Woof! This was awful and awesome, if that’s possible!
My final mile time trial was 5:34, at like 4:15 in the morning, before we headed out of town for a rock crawling event and socially responsible vacation, just Mike and I. The high after these time trial pursuits, doing it all on your own, it feels very good. My mental strength was becoming evident.
Side note: Unfortunately, some people really cannot tolerate others’ success. I was told by someone I used to consider a friend that I was disingenuous and arrogant in my running performances, that my 5K didn’t have enough elevation to count, and my mile times were misleading. Ultimately, I believe she felt threatened by my success, and her insecurity and poor behavior cost her a friendship. Initially, I doubted and questioned myself, but in the end, her remarks had more to do with what’s going inside her head than with me. For so long, I’d ventured into ultras and longer distances because of the adventure of it, as well as the reduced pressure to focus on speed (because I simply did not have it), and during that time, a natural pecking order for who is faster than whom had formed. My improved speed derailed that status quo, I guess. Clearly, I’m still working on letting this go. Tapping is a great practice for this!
Back to training: Before the time trials, I decided to get on the wait list for Jarmans Invitational Marathon in mid August. This race is dumb. I’d already finished it once (4th female). Yet, it was 2020, and I was guessing Boston would get canceled, and ultimately, it was moved to virtual. So during our travels, Mike and I ran daily: 10 miles around Mt. Monadnock, which was highly technical, rocky, and gorgeous, 10 miles at Hamilton Falls, 6 miles in some God-forsaken black fly riddled trail (we bailed after being repeatedly bitten), and 6 miles around the Bed & Breakfast where we were staying. Not long after we returned, I ran a Super Jarmans with John Andersen and Sophie Speidel (that was so cool), a 3x Jarmans (18 miles, ~5000 feet) with John and Sophie joining me later (that was so hard), and finally, a Jarmans descent for time (5K in 18:30) and a long run where poor Michelle Andersen dragged me along for 12 more miles.
Then I headed to Alabama and the beach with my girls for a trip to visit family that had seemed so terribly delayed. A couple of weeks out from the JIM, the hay was in the barn, and so I enjoyed short to moderate runs in the southern humidity, then recovered happily on the beach during the day, soaking in the sun and playing in the water with my girls. When race day was upon me, however, I did not feel great. Something about summer weather cumulatively stresses my body too much, and something felt off. What in the??? Anyway, the 12:01 PM start of the JIM on the first Saturday in August was hot and humid. After one climb (at a fair pace), my legs were protesting. Oh boy… by the 3rd lap, I knew I’d be dropping, and I’m actually very glad I did, because I did need to finish the Boston Virtual Marathon the next month in order to “finish Boston” for the first time. I also scored a $50 Crozet Running gift card for being the first person to drop (haha!) and I got to hang out at the aid station and cheer for other people, which personally I love more than anything else about this sport. Becca Weast, John Andersen, and David Horton were at the aid station, and it felt so good to be around cool people again.
I asked Horton then about Hellgate, whether he thought it would happen, and he seemed optimistic. A bold move, but I shared that I’d like to train for it; he looked at me and smiled, and I assured him that I wouldn’t drop like I did today. I don’t think he believed me!
Onto the Boston Virtual Marathon: I ran an 18 miler and a 20 miler in Bridgewater, and my easy runs were on the faster side of easy. I felt pretty alright, which was weird after I felt so off at the JIM. The day of the marathon arrived, and Brittany, Liz, Aaron, and I got a 6:30 start to our 3 loop course. We had pacers, pace cars, and an amazing celebration at the end, plus a beautiful chalked finish line, mimosas, and 3D printer medals from Corinne. Mike made an amazing street sign to signify the “right on Hereford, left on Boylston” we all so desperately had wanted to experience (Brittany, Aaron, and I were to be 1st timers at Boston). We wore our Boston 2020 bibs and Vinyl Cricut shirt designs I’d made to unite us. Aside from walking a couple times in the final 4 miles, it was a pretty great event.
I had a couple of workouts and a moderate trail run at Rockfish Gap after this event, and then my body shut down suddenly. Exhausted from custody tribulations that began in April and were continued to September, only to be continued until December 21, my body was responding physically to the emotional stress of co-parenting with someone who doesn’t honor co-parenting practices. Labwork was ordered, and boom, I had a raging relapse of EBV. I was with my dear friend Caroline when I realized I was possibly going into prolonged treatment again, and in spite of COVID, she enveloped me in a hug as I cried a few, fat tears. September and October consisted of 20 mile weeks. I ran some speedwork, but I gave myself a prolonged recovery. I was, to be frank, exhausted. Given my high emotional sensitivity (remembering the mind/body connection) to environmental factors, I decided counseling (aka talk therapy) wasn’t enough. I had the validation I needed. What I needed were tools to make my emotional defenses so rock solid, that if I didn’t want you to hurt me, you couldn’t no matter how hard you tried.
It was then that I discovered Faster EFT, and I invested in 7 hours worth of sessions (plus a bonus session). Nicola is powerful with language, validating, dynamic, and flexible. I highly recommend this if you struggle with mental toughness, past traumas, toxic relationships, or peak performance. My most profound takeaway from working with her is that growth does not have to occur out of hardship (even though it can), and that I can release myself of creating hardship so that I can grow. Pretty powerful! Furthermore, we discussed my energy deficit, my desire for serenity, peace, and accessing my balanced, constant flow of energy. This work, I believe, allowed for me to have such an incredible race at Hellgate.
TRIGGER WARNING: Shortly after I had my initial consultation with Nicola, I, alongside many JMU ROTC cadets, survived a major gas explosion in downtown Harrisonburg, one that shook the nearby cities for miles and miles. Never in my life have I had to respond to a catastrophic event in such a way, and the aftermath luckily was less damaging than it very well could have been. I ran without looking back, with adrenaline pulsing through my veins, with holes in my jacket. Luckily the injuries of the cadets were easy enough to treat at the local hospital, but others were airlifted to UVA. I was taken aback by all of the concern community members expressed for us, for the running shop, but it was the invisible aftermath of this event that left me with severe concussions, fatigue, jumpiness, and most importantly, depression. I started wondering, what if I had just died instead? Given the custody situation, my chronic illnesses, how horrible the explosion had been, I wondered if the world would be better without me in it. Nicola met with me for a complimentary session to help me get through the trauma of the event, to let me process these awful feelings, to allow myself to re-engage in my gratitude for life, and so when several people reached out to me and said “I’m glad you’re alive”, it resonated in a way I imagine they couldn’t even understand.
And so, having survived that explosion, I decided to seize the day and explore my options.
On October 21st, I contacted Horton to inquire about the Hellgate application. Initially, I had written the race off because of my relapse, but I wanted to see if I could get ready. My determination to bounce back quickly by giving my body EVERYTHING IT NEEDED, including sauna, rest, meds, epsom salt baths, massage. He said I needed to get my application in ASAP because November 4th they’d be selecting 100 runners to enter. I printed out the application, filled it out, wrote a special note saying that I believed I would finish because I’ve overcome so much already, and overnighted that puppy to Lynchburg University. I was among the first 100 runners accepted, thank goodness!
On October 31st, I turned 32. An intmitate group of friends and I headed to Waynesboro to race a wine 5K. I was strong, but I wasn’t as strong as I had been. The course was a hard one, but we had a great race. I ran a 20:32 5K there (6:15, 6:38, 7:04 - I died on the last, very hilly mile). I had committed to focusing on one race at a time, though I knew Hellgate was most definitely an A race.
November 1st, though, belonged to Hellgate. It was a full moon, and I really wanted a moonlight run without staying up late to do it. Unfortunately, the moon was blocked by dense clouds -boooo! A small group of friends plus Mike drove to the trail head for The Wild Oak Trail (TWOT, for short). We ran up to Little Bald (7 miles and ~3000 feet of climbing) and returned the same way, at least mostly. Liz found her flow and took off down the wrong trail, and when we realized she was missing, that was very scary. She had no water, no light, and no phone. In our haste to get back to our cars, we missed the turn onto TWOT from the dirt/grass road and went down, down, down until we realized we were off trail, which means we had re-ascend probably around 1000 feet of elevation in an additional 2 miles. Luckily, as we approached the trailhead, we could hear Liz yelling out for us, and she came in from Tillman Road, unscathed. Very scary, very grateful she was safe. After we were all reunited, we celebrated 16 miles and nearly 5000 feet of vert. A great first training run for Hellgate!
The next weekend was one of those rare weekends where I go for a long run when I have the kids. I didn’t love doing this, but I was invited to the event and therefore, couldn’t adjust the date to one that suited me. This was the Mountain Masochist Underground 50K! I was supposed to run it this year, but along with Boston, Chicago, and a slew of other races, the 50 miler was canceled. But I knew I needed some long runs and some vert, so Mike agreed that I should go.
This event was awesome! Lots of leaves, single track, and challenging road climbs, plus beautiful sunrises and vistas. Going out, the pace was an easy one, but going back, I decided I would chase after Bethany Patterson, who was in a hurry to get back to her own family. I did okay hanging on during the gravel road climbs, but once that lady hit the single track, I never saw her again. Skillz. Though a couple sections were a little dicey getting back, I finished the 50K (32+ miles) in ~7 hours 10 minutes. Imagining doing that a little more than twice suddenly had me skeered, although I had intentionally blown myself up that week with a 5 mile tempo at 6:45 pace and a 600/200 relay workout. The elevation was also just under half of Hellgate. I purchased a mug from the general store, some craft high gravity beer for Mike, and drove home.
The next week, I headed to Wintergreen to spend time with my aunt and uncle and also to do a back to back long run weekend. On Thursday, I ran 10x floating 400s at marathon pace, with general aerobic recoveries. That was hard! Then Friday, I ran a 9 mile moderate run, 12 miles on Saturday morning at Rockfish Gap, and while I’d hoped to run 3 Ridges + Priest from Reeds Gap, the weather was looking shifty, and I put contingencies into place based on the weather. I was fearful that it would be pretty remote where I was, and I didn’t want to put myself in danger. So I ran around 17 miles that day with over 5000 feet of elevation. I ran from Reeds Gap to the Mauhar trail, to the 3 Ridges Trail, all the way down to the Priest trailhead, and then returning by way of 3 Ridges all the way back to Reeds Gap. The rockiness in many sections was a lot to handle, and I think this run was the impetus for some improper patellar tracking in my left knee. However, I was extremely proud of myself for the amount of solo running I had done to this point, and especially with the wind whipping around me at such high altitudes. I definitely questioned my courage, but this run taught me resolve!
My knee had my attention on my next early morning easy run, and I assumed then that it was because my Saucony Shifts were dead. I’d had at least 500 miles on them! I immediately ordered a new pair and used other shoes until they arrived. New shoes, while exciting, did not solve the problem. Bummer. The following weekend, Mike and I took turns pacing a friend in his Country Roads 100K, which gave me around 20 miles of running (5 miles of tempo pace). My knee by the end of this was so grumpy and stiff. Time to start figuring this out! I had Brittany take a look at it the next day, and two days later, Dr. Glazer was applying red laser therapy to it. That helped briefly, but I knew what it needed was rest. I needed one more long trail run before I could grant that.
I was supposed to run with Sonja Wilkey the next weekend: 3x Jarmans + 1 Carlos. A day or so before our run, she contacted me to say that she wouldn’t be able to make it due to injury. The weather was looking incredible, and I was itching for adventure again. I had attempted TWOT in the past, but weather had been icy and dangerous, meaning a bailed attempt and warm fireplaces at Cracker Barrel with Mike as we ate our weight in pancakes, bacon, and biscuits. Mike agreed to join me at the road intersection around halfway, as I wanted to run a portion solo and in the dark, in preparation for the 7 hours of darkness I’d be running through only two weeks from now. I was anxious about my knee and gave in to the temptation of ibuprofen. I packed sweet potato muffins, gels, gummies, electrolytes, music, and more. The temperature was cold but bearable.
The first 7 miles to Little Bald were terrible! I actually sat for a second and pouted because I felt so slow, texted Mike to tell him I felt like $h!t, and carried on. I dreaded the second climb to Big Bald. But as I finished the first of two steep miles, I started feeling better, encouraged by progress, albeit it slow. As I crested the ridge, I saw Mike’s happy self trotting along the trail! He fell in behind me as I proceeded down, down, down towards his truck, where surprises and aid awaited me. He recorded a video of me jaunting along, and not long after, I rolled my ankle badly. I cried out, cursed, pulled myself together, and hobbled along until it didn’t hurt anymore! I was excited to be looking past the aid station instead of viewing it as an end point.
I had no time goal really. I wasn’t sure what to expect, putting all these different sections together that I’d run only separately. We began the rolling ascent towards Hanky, and we just played in the woods. It was marvelous. The weather was perfect; the run was perfect; everything was getting better! Hanky sucked, but hilariously so. It was so steep; what else could you do but laugh?
Multiple times, I stopped to check that we were on the correct trail, particularly when we hit the dirt/grave/grass road. By this point, I was feeling impatient. Less than 8 miles to go, now seeing a time goal come into clear view. I wanted to break 7 hours. Hitting the single track was exciting, but I’ll admit, I got a little frustrated at around mile 26 regarding when I’d see the turn off for the overlook trail. I was skipping, jumping, leaping over the rocks, and d@mn, I felt amazing! When I finally passed by that turn off, I knew it was time to start rolling. 27 miles in!!! Crossing the bridge was kind of hilarious because Mike started jumping on it behind me, and I didn’t know these ladies were approaching the bridge until after I teasingly told him off. That was kind of awkward, but they were like “you’re amazing”, and I was like “it’s a great day!” and took off up that final climb. I hiked for maybe 30 seconds here to regain my breath, and then powered it home across the road and the final stretch of single track returning us to the trail head! 6 hours 10 minutes of moving time, 6 hours 40 minutes of elapsed time. I’m confident I can break 6 hours now! I look forward to going back!
After this run, I committed to minimal running leading up to Hellgate. Instead, I focused on foam rolling, epsom salt baths, high protein foods, rest, and ibuprofen. Two more appointments with Dr. Glazer included adjustments, exercises, taping, and laser. Ultimately, my taper was pretty successful in that I was well rested. While I was not without knee pain, it was the best it could have been given the circumstances, and I’m grateful the damage isn’t any worse!
I went on to run the race of my dreams at Hellgate. I had a great day, even better than the one I had at TWOT, with only maybe a cumulative hour of "ugh I hate this" the entire race.
The Year End Reflection
The build up for Hellgate was quick and hard, but it was specific in many ways and full of adventures I’ll always be grateful for. This year’s training taught me how to have courage, how to grow mental fortitude, and how to believe in myself because there will always be people who don’t believe in me or sadly are put off by my success. This year’s experiences, and let’s be real, 2020 has been hard on everyone, have taught me that I can always keep going: another week, another few months, another mile, after failure. There is always redemption if you seek it and commit to it. As my trail dad Bill Gentry says, “It can’t always get worse.” Good days are only achieved by the Law of Attraction: believe in goodness and you will inevitably receive it.
It’s 3:30, and my sore body can’t sleep anymore. Seems like a good time to write a race report!
Before the Race
So maybe let’s start with this past Thursday, when the Governor of Virginia’s looming afternoon announcement had me on pins and needles about whether Hellgate would be allowed to take place. Hints of instated curfews would be the perfect storm to prevent the 12:01 AM start from occurring, and after much beating around the bush, it was shared that among other admonishments, curfew would be in place from 12- 5 AM… going into effect Monday morning! We’re saved!!!! Hellgate goes on!
Friday morning, I woke up full of nerves after a terrible night of rest. Most races begin in the morning, but I’d be going all day, so this whole eating thing. That. I began with a cup of protein coffee and chewed half-heartedly on a sweet potato muffin on my way to work. I accidentally left my lunch in the car. Because I’ve been working half time, when I came back home to pack for the race, I then ate half of my lunch: sautéed chicken, steamed broccoli, and sweet potatoes. This is a staple meal in our house. Once all of my gear was packed up, I departed (around 2:45) to fuel up my car and pick up a pepperoni pizza from Vito’s for dinner.
I arrived at Camp Bethel around 4:30, picked up my packet, connected with Steve Combs, whom I’d be driving to the start. Once the sun started setting (around 5), I climbed into the back of my car and curled up on my new car air mattress (it was pretty nice) to rest. Sleep was iffy, but at least I was going through the motions? I definitely was experiencing that sense of dread thinking about how once this thing starts, the only way out is through! Before I knew it, Steve was rapping on my window. It was time to go.
We arrived at Hellgate Trail head around 11:30 and were anxious to hand over our drop bags, but we needed to wait for the first two waves to deliver theirs. I’m glad I went to the bathroom when I did, because when I returned to the car from the woods, the horn was blaring, a series of whoops were hollered, and a stream of headlamps were bobbing just past where I’d been! Almonst a full moon kind of night for them!
After the 2nd wave of runners were started, exactly 5 minutes later, I knew it was time to meander over to the start, even though my nerves were telling me to barricade myself into the car. Finishing Hellgate would mean a distance PR, a climbing PR, and time on feet PR. I definitely had put myself in uncharted territory with many variables to navigate.
Regardless of my angst, my time to start had come. I thanked Horton for the race, whooped and cheered, and we were off. I had no idea what to expect, but I wanted a good day and a great race experience so badly. I have crewed and paced others through the night for 100 milers, but that is entirely different. What I didn’t want was to run all through the night by myself. The first few miles were quite runnable, but I was trying very hard to set the pace easier than easy. Very quickly, I got too warm for the waterproof Lululemon jacket I was wearing, but I didn’t want to stop, so I began the process of removing my jacket while still holding my pack and keeping my eyes on the trail. Actually, I was very excited to shed my jacket because I had intentionally worn my reflective clothing: Lululemon shorts and a long sleeve crop top by Oiselle. If we were going to run through the night, might as well light it up, right????
Right before hitting the road a fellow runner accidentally ran off course toward someone’s house. This reminded me to focus my energy on the trail; even veterans can get off course. Shortly thereafter, we hit the first road climb, and my body really wanted to run this, but I remembered all of the warnings about how bad an idea this can be with dire consequences later in the race. I allowed myself 100 steps of running and 50 steps of hiking. There was no benefit long term to powering through these endless series of long road climbs, and yet, I was already passing people from earlier waves, and that lifted me! I fell into pace with a newly made friend, Richard Key, over this long road climb. He has a very strong power walk, so I'd run several steps and then hike next to him. Not long into the climb, one of my gels did NOT sit well with my stomach (in fact it felt sour), so I switched to gummies and sipping tailwind to help it settle, doing my best not to worry about it and instead focus on my surroundings. In the darkness of this night, I’d notice twinkling lights far above me, realize they were moving steadily, and realize oh boy, we are climbing up there. On occasion, the higher we climbed, we could look out and see the spaced out lights suggesting a town that I don’t know the name of (no sense of direction, here) and also look up and behold the beautiful stars made visible by a clear night. We power hiked a lot, ran through some gnarly single track. For hours and hours! We realized when we were on the Promise Land course (nostalgia!), and I asked Richard about the exact cut off/mileage again for Heardforemost Gap. He said there was no need to worry about this as we were currently on pace for 15 hours. 15 hours! Wow! This was going to be a 5th Hellgate for him, so it was helpful getting some play-by-play of where we were on the course and what was ahead. Really, I just wanted to know for general mile marking and getting past certain parts of the course. As we began descending, Richard and I passed by a couple of runners complaining of knee and ankle pain and that they were dropping at the next aid station. I felt really bad for them, but they were safe and moving, so after offering Advil and apologies, we resumed our descent.
Soon after this, we hit 22 miles, or ⅓ of the course behind us! I told myself I would do a happy dance when I reached this mark. Then, I realized with all the downhill that I really needed to go to the bathroom. Stopping for this was such an inconvenience; it was an obstacle to my momentum. I can now understand why some would… yeah you know. I told Richard I've absolutely gotta go, and he said he'd see me soon probably... little did he know it wouldn't be for another 22 miles before we were running together again. Anyway, while I was off the trail, a bunch of people I had passed flew by. I got back on the course, and focused on regaining ground… safely. I have a history of twisting my left ankle, and it's the inside of my left knee collapsing inward to compensate that has been giving great pain the past several weeks - I didn't want it to worsen in the slightest.
Once I reached the aid station 4 (I ran through aid station 1, refilled tail wind at aid station 2, and I don’t think I remember aid station 3), I was ready to eat! Someone said I was around 11th female (which made zero sense to me given the number of other women in earlier waves, but it motivated me to keep pushing along!). Volunteers refilled my tailwind while I quickly ate a whole grilled cheese, sipped on some broth (it was amazing broth), and then grabbed a baggies of pretzels, grapes, and peanut butter M& M’s! Yum! I also almost forgot to visit my drop bag (I do not like to waste time at aid stations). I put my jacket (I'd been wearing it around my waiste) in my bag, and that was it. I pulled out some sweet potato cookies and got moving. In hindsight, I should have removed a headlamp, my waterproof gloves, and my hydration reservoir. Too much weight I was lugging.
I hit the next section with excitement. Just over 1 hour of night time left! I was on a gravel/dirt road for sometime and running behind another man. We approached single track that was pretty technical, but the next aid station was the breakfast one! I was so excited; I'd made it through the night! As we were descending toward Jennings Creek, I got caught by a woman who started in wave 5. That was a gut punch. She said she was aiming for faster than 16 hours, and I then realized, with how quickly she could descend on technical trail, the only way to pull away from her and probably others was to climb hard. My competitive streak had kicked in. We continued descending on a grassy road with the occasional hole, and sometimes my footing was really bad. Curse words were said, and I began to realize that I was running a little scared, and it was causing me to get sloppy. After that long grassy descent, we approached the breakfast aid station at 6 hours and 40 minutes elapsed time, I ate a slice of bacon, two potatoes, refilled my tail wind, was assured by Jeremy Peterson that I was 10th female (again, this placement wasn’t making sense to me, but he meant well), but it urged me forward regardless! We hit a road climb as the sunrise was peeking over the ridgeline. I put my power climbing wheels on and left everyone I’d been running with behind me. I never saw them again.
As I powered up the road, I saw another person (who had long hair), but I couldn’t tell if it was a male or a female! The runner kept looking back from me and pushing harder. Now, I was really curious! Who is this person? I looked at the ridgeline, and this beautiful sunrise was kissing my face. I pulled out my phone for the first time and snapped a picture. I wanted to remember that moment! I texted Mike to tell him I was 32 miles in. I had hit the 50K mark in 6 hours and 45 minutes, only 12 minutes off my fastest Promise Land finish - could I run that twice?? Then I was wondering, how much elevation had we covered thus far? Anyway, finally we hit a descent and then a lovely flowing single track that went down, down, down. As I was descending, I came about Sophie Speidel looking relaxed and feeling good! It's always nice seeing familiar faces on the trails!
Not long after that, the trail spit us out at the bottom of Cove mountain, and I began powering up that, still seeing this long-haired person, whom I realized was a man by this point. Also, at this point, I realized I was approaching two women! Yessss! We reached the aid station at the top of this climb, and I again refilled my tailwind (alternating caffeine and naked). I took a bag of cheezits here, which I never opened. I introduced myself to Shane, Alexis, and another female. We meandered down the road, and I eventually took off. I actually was very excited because Alexis was from wave 1, starting 15 minutes ahead of me, which means I had been bridging the gap steadily. By this point, a marathon remained. Only a marathon. A marathon! Okay, that is a long way to go. But I was feeling really good, a flow state. I took off. I passed by another female (I think her name was Jennifer), I asked how she was doing, she said fine, but I think she wasn’t feeling very good. I later learned GI issues had plagued her early on. That could have been me. Broth has an absolute game changer for my digestive tract. It calms my stomach, gives me plenty of salt, and soothes the lining of my intestines. I had broth three times this race (and I ate chicken noodle soup for my post-meal dinner with no feelings of gut rot - yay!).
I passed by a couple of other guys, who said I was looking and doing great! That was nice. It was around this point that I hit 44 miles, ⅔ of the race behind me, and my celebratory act for this milestone was to pull out my headphones and jam out! Finally, this undulating section of trail leads into the Devil Trail. I ascended to this trail after briefly seeing Richard Key above me navigating his way through it! It’s been ⅓ of the race since I’d seen him! Anyway, once up there, the leaves! The rocks! There’s no way with my ankle and knees as precarious as they were that I’d hop around on that. I looked up and saw Alissa Keith. I was making continuing to make ground! I powered to her, chatted for a bit, particularly about how much longer this section was before Bearwallow Gap, and then took off the best I could.
I crossed the creek finally, got a little confused on the markings because I’d seen one orange flag but none in the direction I sensed I needed to go. I took a deep breath, went to the bathroom (I realized quickly I needed to rehydrate), and proceeded to the route. Feeling a little lost in this part cost me a good two minutes, but it turns out my sense was correct and I was going in the right direction. And soon, I crossed the road. I'll admit, the single track was kind of frustrating. I was already at 46 miles and was wondering where the aid station was!!! A little tapping here to release myself of feelings of impatience. Finally, I emerged from the trail and entered the large parking lot at Bearwallow Gap.
I was so proud of myself.
I was having a great day, running a great race!
I was a strong woman!
I had been emptying water from my hydration bladder periodically to reduce weight. I was very much looking forward to lightening my pack here. First, I went directly to my drop bag. I asked for a large bandaid from an amazing, cheerful volunteer. He asked for size, and I lifted my shirt so he could see my back. He asked no further questions. I had noticed a rubbing on my back for some time -- something was chafing me, and I didn’t pack body glide. Anyway, he came back with a very large bandaid and applied it. I took out my hydration bladder, both headlamps, my gloves, mittens, and shirt. With 20 miles to go, I needed as little weight as possible on me!
I refilled my tailwind bottles again. From this aid station, I consumed more broth, some Mountain Dew, and then I grabbed two packages of peanut butter M&M’s which I never ate. I love that the aid stations had these though because chocolate and peanut butter is my favorite combination! Everyone was cheering for me as I left the aid station, told me I looked amazing. I said, “It’s my first Hellgate. I’m so excited! Thank you for everything!” With whoops and hollers, I was on my way with 20 to go! Only 20 to go!!!! That didn’t seem so hard! I could definitely finish in 15 hours! It was barely 10 AM, though it felt like afternoon, to be completely honest.
It wasn’t long before I was climbing again. Relentlessly. It was the kind of climbing that is steep and the winding trail showing you where you're headed is also visible. This time, I was hurting. I had my music, but I was finally entering the pain cave. Whenever, my headspace started heading south, I changed the music. I passed a few people engaged in the death march. That was not going to happen to me. I simply wouldn’t let it. I reminded myself of my committment to having a great day and a great race, and so I started my Faster EFT finger tapping, releasing myself of all expectation and finding my constant flow of energy. It was here when I recalled Annie Stanley’s compelling words of encouragement that she had left on one of my posts leading up to Hellgate: “I’m sure you have lots of mantras - this is my favorite: This is temporary. Best used, of course, in the hardest moments but also a good reminder at the highs, that it won’t always feel or look or be as amazing as it is in this moment.” Amazing advice.
It was not soon after I crested the ridge of this climb and was descending that I encountered Mandy Debevc and Richard Key prancing along. I fell into rhythm with them for a bit, pausing my music. It was good to be with people here. Richard realized it was me, and we chatted about how the race had been going. Mandy introduced herself to both of us, and when she realized I started in wave 4, she was complimentary and encouraging of my hard work. She asked my age and then said she is a Masters runner, and she decided she wouldn’t be offended by my catching up to her. After that, the two of them were giving me excellent advice for the upcoming Forever Trail and the Final Road climb/descent. By this point in the race, I was taking it a mile at time. I had just set a 50 mile PR of around ~10:30. Not too shabby (my last 50 mile race was actually 52 miles in 13:38 at Bighorn, which was also at elevation)! We had around 17 miles to go, and we ran several miles together, snaking along the ins and outs of the ridge. We were quite high up, and I was loving the views here. I was extremely grateful to share them with company; this definitely kept me from dipping into a low place. We talked about finishing predictions, worst case scenarios (since I dropped both my headlamps), and how late it feels in the day, even though it’s not even 11 am.
Mandy asked me, “Are you blowing up?” I replied that my hip flexors are tired and my power is gone. We tried to go through all of the women in waves 1 and 2, but it was inevitable that we'd miss someone. She said okay, you could be 5th female, so if you want to really go for it, relax on the "forever" section and run the final climb/descent like you’re going to throw up. Try to make as much ground as possible. I told her I wasn’t sure I’d be able to run the climb that way. She said to try even a run/walk. I said I could do that.
I felt they were implying that it was time to take off, with maybe 14 miles to go, and so I did. I separated myself from these two awesome people, and after passing a few more runners, I approached the Bobblets Gap aid station, which was located in a tunnel underneath the Blue Ridge Parkway. I entered the aid station, but didn’t want any of the food - the finish line was pulling me. I did want Mountain Dew, though. Suddenly, Mike descended from some area just off the trail. He told me he almost missed me, as he’d just arrived there, and I was very glad to see him, but also in a hurry to move on. So he ran a few steps of the way with me as I began the descent. I told him I was hurting but I was having a great race and I was committed to having an awesome finish. I told him I really wanted to come in under 15 hours. He encouraged me and said he would see me at the last aid station: Day Creek.
This section of the course was intense with a long descent. At one point, I twisted my ankle for no apparent reasons and cried out so loudly (I thought). I kept moving though, even though now my ankle was definitely screaming at me. Maybe 11 miles to go; I’d come too far to give up now. At this point, I remembered Annie’s advice again and took it a step further. I began listing gratitudes I had that directly related to race day:
- Hellgate is happening
- The weather is surprisingly nice
- I’m having an amazing race
- I was allowed to race
- The volunteers have been amazing
- The racers have been amazing
- Steve has been so positive with the pre-race jitters
- I got to see Mike at the aid station
- My knee has held up this long (this was a huge concern!!!)
- Dr. Glazer did amazing work on my knee.
Listing these was a tremendous help to me.
Admittedly, I was hoping the "forever trails" included this long descent and hoped it would continue for awhile. I could rely on gravity and sacrifice my quads! Nevertheless, I saw the orange streamers indicating a sharp right hand turn for single track… here they were, the Forever Trails. Oh, how these miles sucked. So much hiking. Upon entering, the trail went up, up, up. Sigh. The descents were overall pretty technical, so therefore, this really felt like it took forever. I came upon 4 men, 2 of which were racing. One man was propped against a tree with his crew surrounding him. I had my music in my ears, but I hope that what I said encouraged him to keep going “this is temporary; relentless forward progress; this won’t be forever.” It wasn't long before I saw him behind me, and so we all were basically together for a period of time. The mountain views here were breathtaking, but I didn’t want to stop. It seemed like one man was ready to pass me, another technical descent had me watching my footing very carefully, and I ushered him to pass, and he fell over. I felt really bad about that. His crew helped him back up and they proceeded ahead of me. I must have I passed them one final time before heading into Day Creek because I didn't see them until they finished. I was somewhat grumpy coming into the final aid station because at this point (miraculously my Garmin still had battery), I was over 60 miles; was Hellgate going to be 68 miles??? Finally, I exited this trail, saw Mike snapping pictures, subsequently took a bad step, and proceeded to the aid station.
I asked Mike to get my other watch of my pack out just in case my current watch battery died. While he was doing that, I was refilling my bottles with water and tail wind. I downed the ginger ale and sipped on broth. No more food, though. I had plenty if I felt I needed it. Mike began hiking with me, told me it was 2.4 to the top of the 1,000 foot climb, then 3 down. I was ready. I told him that I wanted to finish as close to 2:15 as possible. He said he was predicting 14 hours 30 minutes for my finish. Challenge accepted.
I began running up the mountain. 100 steps, 50 hiking. That was too much; my heart rate was sky high and I wasn’t recovering enough to run again, so I reduced myself to 50 steps running, 50 hiking. That was better, but only for a time. I eventually passed Rick, a very strong local ultrarunner. It was good to exchange with him for a bit (he was a wave 3 runner), but ultimately, I carried on. I ran when I could. Sometimes the grade of this mountain just wouldn’t allow for it. About 600 meters from the top, I encountered Becca Weast. She was out for a jog after crewing all morning. She shared that I'm almost to the top, just where that gate is ahead, and then a mostly smooth descent. I continued to hike, very excited to end the climbing. Finally cresting that mountain was a huge victory! Coming down the other side was painful however, but I was hoping to finish by 2:20, so I needed to keep going. At times the pace was 8:30, other times, 9:30. Usually I can bomb it out in a race on these final descents, but I’d left my heart on the race course by this point. There simply wasn’t much hardly anything left to give… except my resolve to keep going. At 65 miles, my watch was still going, but I was getting anxious to see that “final mile” sign on the road… at long last, there it was. 65.37 when I saw the red spray paint.
1. More. Mile. The descent leveled out to a flat road, and, woof, that was painful powering up my glutes and hip flexors again. I resorted to my music, shuffling through my “Race Playlist” for the gangsterist of gangster music to power me home. The final turn was coming, I could see it after passing by a few houses, but I wasn’t quite sure where the finish line was. Was it where packet pick up was? I had a moment of weakness and backed off for about 30 seconds. I could see a couple of spectators, but couldn’t see the finish - where was it????? Finally, I saw some streamers establishing the finishers’ chute and saw that it was a short (grassy, slightly inclined) chute! Yessss! I powered it home, tears welled up in my eyes, and I was done. I wasn’t top 5, but my performance was strong, and I was very happy to finish in 14:03. So close to 14 hours. It turned out my placement was 8th. Here are the final results.
My post-race reflections:
That was really challenging - so many things I’ve never done before! I do think I pushed a smidge too hard in the beginning, but I powered through some major hurt with a resolute attitude. I wanted to set the tone for something I’d never done before in a positive light. By mentally proclaiming that it is a great day, a smart race, a great performance, I literally willed these things into being. Yes, there were definitely low moments, but those were made less by reminding myself that this is how I chose to spend my weekend, that the hard spots helped me appreciate the finish and the highlights even more. Besides, it’s not even the whole weekend; this is temporary, and most of the race experience will be awesome!
I shared with a friend earlier today: “I think I’m most proud of being seeded in the 4th wave and finishing among 1st wave women… I believed in me, and it paid off well.” I was a dark horse literally dressed in black. No one expected anything out of me, and personally, I have found that those are the best races… where you blow everyone away (especially including yourself), minimize expectations, and experience the flow state. Going into this race, my main expectation was to finish in 17 hours, but I ultimately couldn’t know what to expect, how this would feel, what a feasible finishing time prediction would be for me. I knew I was strong going into it. I ran TWOT and stopped often to eat, take pictures, revisit the map, and I still finished in well under 7 hours! That after a tempo the day prior. I ran so many hard training runs solo. I amped up my mileage and my climbing quickly, suffered a bit of injury, questioned my readiness (most people do, right?), and tapered hard. I fueled my body for success. I prioritized rest and recovery. I listened to my gut, and my gut didn’t betray me.
What composes a person who is clutch or a person who chokes? I listened to an amazing podcast by Steve Magness and Brad Stuhlberg (Growth Equation Podcast) about this on my birthday about 6 weeks ago. Mike and I were headed to a 5K race in Waynesboro, VA as I was finishing up the podcast, and my main takeaway ultimately was that to access the flow state you must remain mentally "in the game". Practicing this in training with solo attempts, tough weather conditions, and hard workouts (5-6 miles under 7 minute pace or track intervals with minimal recovery, for example) that repeatedly load up the mental burden quickly and force your resolve to either choke or lean in. I'm a mentally stronger runner now. I'm confident, had the race been canceled due to COVID government mandates, that I would have run a solo 100K anyway, but I will say I enjoyed coming from the back, chasing people down. It forced me to stay focused, calculate risk, and feel the magnetic attraction of the finish line for the duration of the race!
If the 2020 pandemic hadn’t happened, I likely wouldn’t have applied for this race… yet. I’m so thankful for the experience. It was mostly heavenly - heavensgate.