This Gear Junkie’s guide to rockin’ a Ragnar Trail Ultra Race

Racing on trails is awesome, but running constantly for 25hrs on technical single-track between a team of 4 can get a bit tricky. Whether you’re racing on trails by yourself during the dark hours in a non-race, on a team for a Ragnar Relay, or in some wicked ultra race, there are certain things you’ll need to get you through it.

Here’s a list of my must-have items from this past weekend’s Ragnar Trail Tahoe race:

  • A high-quality headlamp: It’s gonna be incredibly tough to meander through trees, rocks, and single track without a well-lit path. Granted, the moon can shine pretty darn bright, but the chances of your race being on the same night as a full moon are confounded by potential cloud coverage and time-of-the-month.
    • Things to look for in a good headlamp are:
      • Brightness– the higher the lumens, the brighter the beam; aim for something above 50 lumens.
      • Comfort– running causes gear to do a lot of bouncing around, so make sure that the headlamp isn’t going to move around on your forehead. It’s inconvenient if the headlamp bounces off your head, and it is can be dizzying if the lamp isn’t rigid with respect to your head.
      • Weight– this kind of goes with comfort; the lighter the lamp, the less you’ll notice it. But also take into consideration what material is on the forehead-facing side of the headlamp. If there are ridges that you wouldn’t notice while wearing it over a hat, but will leave dents in your forehead when wearing it during warm summer nights, it’s probably not the headlamp you want. Some headlamps come with “cushioned” backsides, kind of like a rubber backing that you put on the bottom of chairs to keep them from scratching hardwood floors. So long as that backing doesn’t come off from sweat, somethign like that is probably going to work well, and it will keep the headlamp from slipping around your forehead.
      • Battery life– carrying extra batteries isn’t a big deal, but changing them in the dark can be difficult. Getting a lamp that is definitely going to last you through a night of running is your best bet. Most require AAA batteries, but there are a few newer ones out that are USB-rechargeable, which means lower weight and a perfect plug-in for your solar charger during the day. On that note, make sure to pick up a pack of extra batteries, use fresh batteries from the start of the race, and get lithium batteries instead of alkaline (lithium are lighter).
      • I rocked my husband’s Black Diamond Spot, which was pretty decent. I somehow lost my other headlamp, which was also a Black Diamond Spot, probably at the last Ragnar Trail race I did. Anyway, the brightness factor on the Spot was fantastic, but it did bounce around a bit more than I’d have liked, and the tighter I made the strap, the more uncomfortable it was on my forehead. Whatever, not a big deal. But, I’m looking to upgrade for next time to Sprinter by BD or Petzl’s Tikka XP2 Core.
  • An easy-to-carry- and easy to refill- hydration device: I packed my handheld Nathan bottle carry, but only carried this for the night laps when I needed more volume and somewhere to stash a candybar.
    • I ended up buying a Salomon Sense Hydro at the race from the local vendor, and I am totally geeked about it. It was super low profile, with the glove coming in three different sizes (I went with small), and the flask reducing in size as it empties. It was leakproof for me, but my teammate- Chris- bought one that had a pinhole leak  which was unfortunate. The nipple is bite-and-squeeze, and the 8-oz bladder harnessed by the straps across your palm as well as a loop around the nipple. It was also easy to refill at the aid stations throughout the course- in my opinion, it was not so far that you’d need a pack but it was too far to not take anything (especially during the daylight runs).
    • My teammates, Sean and Stephen, both used a hydration pack, both of which were low-profile. Sean refilled his between his last two loops of his final run. Stephen even went on a lap or two without a bladder in it; he just threw a bottle where the bladder goes and stuffed food in the pockets. Sean rocked the Salomon Advanced Skin S-lab Set, which made me envious. That’s on my wish list for long-ass trail runs or even my next ultra race, although I am not sure I’ll use one for a Ragnar Relay (the legs were never more than 3hrs at a time, with at least two water stops).
    • Along with carrying fluids, I hydrated like a fiend with Nuun all weekend, especially the day before and the morning of the race. Running at altitude can be tough, but it can be made a bit easier by hydrating well. In fact, I drink twice as much as I normally do before a run or a race whenever I’m at altitude higher than 6,000ft (Ragnar Tahoe started at 7500ft), and I make sure that its not just water to avoid hyponatremia.
      • Cherry Limeade is fantastic and, in my opinion, should be THE drink of Ragnar Trail races. For the early morning run, the caffeine kept me alert. I wish I had slugged it with me for the night run (I needed the boost of caffeine).  Fortunately for anyone who is racing, the Nuun gang sponsors Ragnar events (including the trail ones!), so there is an endless supply of Nuun for your bottle-filling pleasure (although they sample caffeine-free kinds, but they are still delicious!)
  • A good pair of shades:
    • Not only is a sunshade a good idea (which the GearJunkie crew brought along), a good pair of sunglasses is a must. I have been on the cusp of buying new shades for a while now; my Oakleys from 2010 in Team Trakkers green are beyond scratched, and the Tom’s sunglasses I bought for my wedding broke. So, at the airport in St Louis, I bought a pair of Maui Jim’s Sugar Beach. Sure, airport purchases are never a good idea, but the price wasn’t horrible (MSRP) and they are not knockoffs. I frickin’ love these sunglasses. And, they look fantastic, have great coverage, and are polarized. Make sure to try out your sunglasses before running on trails; sometimes, they can bounce around and might go flying off your head if you’re doing a lot of weaving in and out of trees on singletrack. These ones are fantastic; they are super light weight, grippy, flexible, and scratch resistant (Maui Jim’s prides themselves on making shades for surfers, so they are sea-water resistant. Turns out, sweat is a lot like sea water).

      Shades, handheld, tank top, and buff. All awesomesauce and ready to rock the singletrack. Photo by Gear Junkie/Sean McCoy.

  • Get a buff: Let’s be real; Sweat in the eyes is annoying. I switched between a Gear Junkies and a Salomon buff all weekend, and it kept the sweat out of my eyes. I also learned all the cool things you can do with a buff (no pun intended), like make it into a toque or headband or neck gaitor. More importantly, you can get it wet with cold water before you head out on a run so that you stay cool (also, wet your shirt/shorts with cold water to keep your temp down).  I cut off about 3 inches from the end of one to make a sweatband, which was awesome, and soaked it before both my daytime runs. Now if only I had one with birds on it…
  • Recharging station: I love my Goal0 Nomad 7 solar charging panels, and it was awesome having it to keep my phone charged. I also stole some solar juice from Sean’s bigger charging station, and the USB compatibility is awesome for digital needs. The Ragnar Trail events have Suntrap Solutions for phone charging, but if you don’t want to worry about a que and want to charge your stuff at your camp site, look into getting a solar panel of your own.
  • Dry-wicking clothes: Running three times (or 6, if that’s how you roll in an ultra relay) in 24 hrs can be pretty gross. I brought a variety of running clothes in case my shirt/shorts didn’t dry in time for my next leg, and so I had something dry to run in for the night leg (standing around waiting for the next runner in wet clothes is uncomfortable). Salomon gave Chris and I, as winners of the sweepstakes, a pair of shorts and a shirt. I also brought along a Oiselle tank and a pair of Roga shorts. The Roga shorts were clutch for the long leg, when I was out there for 3 hrs, because the pockets are huge and have zippers- I didn’t lose any of my nutrition and I didn’t lose any of my trash after eating it. The tank was long and comfortable, which kept me from getting chafed by the number belt, and it dried super fast between legs (I ran in it for two of the three legs). As soon as I was done running, I changed everything I was wearing and laid out my wet clothes to dry. Fortunately, Tahoe was dry and I could put my stuff out on the parking lot (since that’s where we camped), but it might be worth bringing something to hang your stuff on just in case.
  • Good pairs of running shoes (note the plural): I ran three times, and each time I ran in a different pair of shoes. I started with the Salomon Sense Mantra. I was hesitant to run in these shoes, because they kind of reminded me of a “grandma-walking-shoe,” but after doing a lap with a lot of sandy downhill sections, I was impressed. My only complaint was, because they were a minimalist shoe, there wasn’t a lot of support in the forefoot for steep downhill terrain. But, that’s not what they are made for; they are a good all-around singletrack shoe. It’s pretty damn hard to find a shoe that’s made for downhill. I ran my midnight lap in the Brooks Cascadia 7. As much as I love Brooks, I finally realized in this race that the Cascadias are not for me. I ran in them at Leadville when pacing a MegaTough teammate, and I’ve run in them tons on singletrack in Michigan and Missouri, but I always seem to roll my ankle. I think I need a lower profile shoe for trails. Anyway, my third lap, I ran in the Salomon Fellcross 2, which comes out in September. These were, hands down, the best show I’ve run in on trails. Super grippy, super light, and they hugged my feet perfectly. There was no toe-smushing, or slipping feet on descents, and there were no rolled ankles. And along with the shoes, don’t forget socks: I wore a different pairs of Merino blend socks from Fitsok on each leg, and the ISW were my faves.
  • Camp-site essentials:
    • Ice
    • A cooler with cold drinks (including cola, coffee [like Starbucks DoubleShot], and maybe even beer)
    • Calorie-dense snacks (Picky bars, almond butter, chocolate, you know- the good stuff).
    • A piece of paper or a spreadsheet to write down lap times, to keep you and your teammates sane (so they know when to wake up, mostly). The ultra team offers less flexibility; at least in the regular team, the person running two legs before yours can wake you up when they hand off to the runner that’s before you.  With an ultra, you can still do that, but you could be up for about 3+hrs before its your turn to run. Having an estimated time to run is nice for extra shut-eye, especially when the miles add up.
    • A large towel (to dry off with, to clean up with, to sit on the ground with, to wipe your face with, to keep yourself warm at night with, to take swimming, whatever, you’ll need it)
    • A camp chair
    • Pitch your tent in a shaded spot or bring along a shade tent (your tent will get hot)
  • And of course, last but definitely not least, camping gear:
    • Tent– I’ve had a two-person lightweight tent for years that I bought from Cabela’s. Their stuff is made just as well as the “brand name” stuff, but it’s significantly cheaper. I have an older version of the XPG 2-person tent, and it is super easy to put up (takes me by myself less than 5 minutes) and it is easy to keep organized inside. If you’re car-camping, then a bigger, heftier tent would probably be fine, but if you have to fly to the race, go for a lighter tent (that is easy to pack in your luggage). Depending on your teammates, you can coordinate sharing a tent as well; Three GearJunkie folks slept in one tent (albeit, it was a 6 person tent). There’s no reason that everyone needs to bring their own tent, especially if you don’t mind getting close with your teammies.
    • Sleeping bag– Again, I have a Cabela’s XPG bag (15degrees).
    • Sleeping pad– this is essential, especially if you find yourself in a situation like we had at Tahoe where the camp site is under construction and the racers have to set up camp in a parking lot. I have a Thermarest, some teams brought blow-up air mattresses, and the Gear Junkie guys even off-the-shelf’d some pads from Walmart (which, as it turns out, were pretty crappy). Both for comfort and for keeping the heat in, definitely bring a sleeping pad with.

Have you done a trail relay or a trail stage-race before? Did you race as a regular or an ultra team? What gear did you find to be essential for surviving the weekend?

Advertisements

Sunrise to moonrise and back again: Racing Ragnar Trail Tahoe with Team @TheGearJunkie

It’s 2AM and it is taking all the concentration I have to keep my eyes open. I’m on my fourth of six laps in total, my second time on the trails. 19 miles down, 15 to go. I have to convince myself to stay alert, to look for rocks, to pick my feet up. Keep moving. Down the fire road. The faster you get down this mountain, the sooner you can sleep. But really, I could sleep right now. I could curl up alongside the trail and just. Sleep. The descent becomes more dizzying, my eyes continue to accrue mass, my mind is heavy and a blur. It seemed like hours by the time I made it back to transition; my watch battery had died and I was out of water. With my teammate’s worry replaced by relief, I crawled into my sleeping bag for a few hours of shuteye before my last laps.

This weekend, I raced the Ragnar Trail Relay in Tahoe as an honorary Gear Junkie team member on their ultra team. I won a sweepstakes in May for an all-expenses-paid trip to Reno and registration to the Ragnar Relay, as well as a plethora of amazing running gear, thanks to Gear Junkie, Salomon Running, and Suunto.

Pew pew! This way to the awesomest team at Ragnar Trail Tahoe.

My teammates included, in pseudo-reverse running order, Mr. The Gear Junkie himself, Stephen:

Team captain, Stephen, prepping for his first two laps.

Firepants McCoy, AKA Sean:

Dude is fast.

 And of course, Chris, who also won the contest:

Fooled you. This isn’t Chris (it’s Salomon runner, Theodorakakos Dimitrios). Photo by Salomon Running

LOL. Fooled you again. This isn’t Chris either, it’s Salomon runner, Kilian Jornet. Photo by droz-photo/Salomon Running

This is Chris. For real. Photo by Sean McCoy/Gear Junkie

and of course, myself:

Cruising the singletrack like a boss. Photo by Ragnar Trail Relay

I wasn’t the only girl in our Gear Junkie camp, though. Amy came along as logistics coordinator/beer-and-cheese-balls wrangler, which was an invaluable service when you have an entire team made of native Midwesterners. She even jumped in as pacer for a lap, although who wouldn’t when the loop started with a ride up a chair lift?

Amy and Sean doing actual work, particularly on the cheese balls.

We convened on Reno on Thursday night, with Sean and Stephen on the same flight as me out of Phoenix, and Chris meeting us in the smallest big city after a could-have-been-better flight out of Milwaukee/PHX. After harnessing the power of the Awful Awful burger and contemplating a climb up the side of a building (which was actually encouraged), we swung by Walmart for some essentials (coffee, beer, and cheese balls, obvi) and then… finally… rolled onward to the Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. Setting up camp at midnight made us feel a little like assholes, until another party arrived around 3am to do the same thing, only with inflatable air mattresses. Approximately three hours of sleep later, it was up and at ’em for an action packed day of hydrating, eating yellow #5, and enjoying the entertainment of enthusiastic athletes in costumes.

Setting up camp, with a view that wasn’t half bad.

Our start time was 2:30pm, and Chris was reeling to go. We got the low-down from Ragnar Trail Blazer, Steven, as usual:

This dude is legit. He MC’s for hours on end, while us weenie athletes sleep between our laps in our tents and stuff our faces with s’mores and Nuun.

Ready…. SET… Ahooooo!!! There’s Chris on the edge of the shot.

The three loops, Green-Yellow-Red, were done in order over and over (G-Y-R-G-Y-R… etc) until everyone runs each lap once, or twice in our case since we were an ultra team. That meant that Chris’s first leg, totaling two laps, was Green-Yellow, with Green being 2.6mi up the bunny hill and back down a steep sandy grade, and Yellow being a 6.7mi grueling fire-road climb with a fast descent down a fantastic singletrack. All trails converged with 0.5mi remaining, which was a steep and tough climb, and Green/Yellow converge with about a mile left. So, there was some overlap between loops, but each loop was distinct in its own way.

Leg 1: 4:30-6PM:

I started my first run of the weekend’s race in the Salomon Sense Mantras on the red loop, which meant I got to ride the chair lift to the top of the mountain (at 9,000ft) and run down. Or at least, I thought I’d get to run down. There was a fantastic jaunt across the top of the mountain for about two miles before the descent began, and when it did, it was on fast fire road for a solid 4 miles. I was hauling. The miles ticked off quickly at 6:30min/mile pace, and I was sure that I’d put us in a good position heading into the night laps. But then the descent ended, and I found myself climbing up singletrack, with sun blazing and legs and lungs burning. It all balanced out, and I got back through transition and onward to the Green lap. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into, so I took the climb up the bunny hill conservatively. It reminded me a lot of running up Ripley, with the sun beating down, the exposure and sand and lungs burning. When the trail split between Yellow and Green, I followed the Green downhill, and fast. I was unsure how the Salomon Sense Mantra would handle the sandy and steep terrain, but damn if I didn’t run in these shoes much before the race.  I felt like I was flying down the side of a cliff face like a mountain goat. I was connected to the earth, but didn’t roll my ankle or feel sluggish. I felt fast.

I cruised into the last mile’s arduous false flat into the finisher’s climb, turned the corner and let loose down the hill, handing off the race belt to Sean as he cruised through the longest two laps (Y-R). I knew that I still had a lot of miles to get through, but I was happy to find myself feeling ok with the altitude. My next lap wouldn’t be for several hours, so I got some food, shade, and water and relaxed until the time came.

Leg 2: Midnight – 3AM:

I threw on a pair of Cascadias and and rolled out of transition a little after midnight. In hindsight, I should have napped, or at least scored some caffeine an hour or so before my night run started. The first loop of my second leg was Yellow, followed by Red; Yellow was faster than I expected, given that the first half is an incredible climb up fire road that included switchbacks but was mostly just straight up the side of the freakin’ mountain. I think it helped to do this lap first at night, as opposed to during the day when you could see exactly where you were going; I knew I was climbing but I didn’t know just how steep it was, or how much longer I’d have to go. Eventually I turned onto singletrack and got a little unnerved by cracking branches in the woods; some other runner probably tripped or stumbled, but I took it as some other bear or cougar is out to eat my face. The adrenaline went through me a little too early, and I cruised through the lap on time. It wasn’t until I got to the chair lift for the second time on the Red loop that I realized just how euphoric this experience truly was. I stopped running, wrapped up in the blanket, and sat on the chair, lifting me up up up the side of the mountain. I turned off my headlamp, and the moonlight reflected off the boulders below me. I ate a Snickers and put my feet up, in awe of the stars and the moon, and then the tiredness hit me.

As I got off the lift, I highfived the lifty and flicked my headlamp back on. I careened around the top of the mountain, but by the time I got to the descent, I knew something was off. The Snickers didn’t do it for me, and I started fading fast. It took all the concentration I could muster to keep my eyes open, to stay alert. I passed a few runners and could barely get out a gruntly “great job.” My feet hit the ground so heavily, and my ankle turned a few times. I was ready to be done, but the descent just kept going. I didn’t remember it being so long the first time. Eventually, I made it onto the singletrack, where my GPS watch battery died, but knew that I just needed to get back to the road; the road meant there was less than a half mile to go.

Arriving back at camp, I handed off to Sean and forced myself to grab a banana and almond butter. I ate it while crawling into my sleeping bag, and was asleep before my head hit the sweatshirt pillow.

Leg 3: 10:30AM- 12:30PM

I was up and moving by 6AM, but felt like I had slept for days. I grabbed a coffee, threw on a loaner pair of Salomon shoes from Josh and the Salomon gang (I tried the Fellcross 2), and gathered myself for a hot, late morning run, and waited. Other teams had started doubling, and tripling, up their laps; if there were more than two runners left that had Green loops to run, they were to run together in order to complete the race by 6PM. As an ultra team, this was not that feasible, but we weren’t too concerned about finishing on time- the projections still had us finishing at or around 4PM.

Snagging a pair of demo shoes from Salomon.

Feet up, resting, waiting for Chris to finish his final leg (and rocking the new Fellcross 2)

Chris cruised through transition and handed off the race belt, and I soared through the Green Loop just 2 minutes slower than my first go at it. And I felt good; I was trying to hold myself back so I didn’t blow up on the Yellow, but I also wanted to use my strengths (false flats, downhills) when I could.

The Yellow Loop’s grinding climb was not as runnable the second time as it was the first; I think because I could see just how onerous it was. I ski-walked to the best of my ability, and once I got onto the single track, cruised and ate a gel. The singletrack on the last loop of the race for me was the most awesome singletrack I’ve run on in a while. Up and over boulders, over logs, under logs, across riverbeds, flowing trail that was so well designed and fast. And the Fellcross were an amazing shoe; so light and grippy, low to the ground, and I didn’t have any rolled ankles. By the time I got to the fire road at the end of the singletrack, I tried to put the hammer down. I knew I had just about 2 miles left, and 2 miles is not that far. My legs burned, my quads just ached, but one foot in front of the other got me to transition.

Lap time estimates to guide us in predicting the next runner’s arrival time.

Sean and Stephen both cruised through their last legs, just absolutely flying. Amy, even with fresh legs, couldn’t keep up with Stephen on his last lap of 7.7miles on the Red loop. As he came around the final turn down the hill toward the finish chute, we hopped up and hit the trail behind him, crossing the line around 4PM.

All in all, the weekend was a fantastic blast. I was able to meet up with my teammie, Margot, in South Lake Tahoe for a swim and a burger, and the crew and I enjoyed a sunset over the mountains. We got back to camp and the party wasn’t completely dead, so we hung out with another team playing Flippy Cup and drinking Coors Light. Staying the night after the race is the way to go, for sure.

Doing a trail relay as an ultra team is my cup of tea. It’s fun either way, but I like the extra miles and the challenge of keeping my head in it. It’s not as hard on the body to do the trail relay as an ultra as it is, say, doing the relay as an ultra on the roads. Trails are just easier on the bones, but may be harder on the lungs. The trail relay teams are smaller than the road relays, too, which is seemingly easier to organize and manage. I am really looking forward to doing more of these, and am grateful for the opportunity to race with the Gear Junkie team at this year’s Tahoe race.

Special thanks to Salomon Running and Suunto for the amazing gear; the Sense Mantras are a fantastic trail shoe that is light with excellent traction, and their clothing is comfortable and wicking. I ran in the Start trail running shorts for two legs, and never had any chafing or rubbing. I also purchased a Salomon Sense Hydro S-Lab handheld, which was fantastic to use (and incredibly lightweight!). Suunto really hit the nail on the head with the Ambit2S- I absolutely love this watch and I don’t even know how to use it to the best of its abilities. And last but not least, thanks to Gear Junkie for picking me to be on your team. What an honor! I look forward to racing with you guys again!

Race Face: June Racing Recaps #findingmyfast

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve blogged, and I’ve raced a few races. In fact, I’ve raced THREE! Ah, sorry for not giving each their own post, but they were short and I haven’t quite figured out how to indulge literarily (is that a word?) on running events that take less time to run than it does to write a post about them.

So, on with it.

I sort of did a reverse-distance race plan for the month of June, in which I ran a 10K, followed a week later by a 5K, which was followed two weeks later by a 1 mile race. I have really been digging the idea of just jumping into races, and fortunately, the Saint Louis area has a ton of races. The weekend I did the 10K, there were over a dozen running events in a 50mile radius. But, I chose the Route 66 10K because it was the Central Region RRCA Championships, and I wanted to see how fast I could run a 10K with the training I had been putting in.

So, first race on the list: Route 66 10K. Obviously, I am not a pro at racing 10Ks. I have only ever run four in my life, including the one I raced earlier this month at the Midwest Champs. This race distance takes practice to dial in, and I think that the 10K is one of the toughest events (that, and the 800m on the track). So, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that I didn’t race it well. I definitely, without a doubt, went out too fast. When my watch said 6:08 at the 1mi mark, and I was shooting for 6:45s, I panicked a little. I let off the gas, and rolled through mile 2 with a 6:35. Ok, a little slower, that’s good. But then my time kept rising. Mile 3 = 6:45. Mile 4 = 6:55. Mile 5 = 7:20. Eeek. I just pulled myself together to cross the line. Good way to get the first race of the year out of my legs.

10k

Moving on to the second race on my list: The Go! St Louis All-American 5K. This one is self-proclaimed to be the fastest 5K in STL. And it was; net downhill, point-to-point, perfect time of year (mid June), and lots of fast people. Holy, crap. We’re talking Saint Louis University’s 10K record holder, Hillary Orf, and Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, Julie Lossos. Fast women. I was more excited about this race;  I LOVE 5Ks, they are quick and relatively painless. Plus, I needed redemption.

I settled into the start line two or three rows back, knowing full well that lots of people would sprint out of the gate. I didn’t want to do that, but I did want to get into a good position. After the gun went off, I settled into pace after the shuffling of people in front of me toned down about 100meters in. I cruised through mile 1 feeling great, and looked at my watch. 5:55. Ok, well… that’s a little fast, considering I was shooting for a 19:45. Whatever, roll with it. Use the middle mile as a relaxed-but-tactical mile. I pushed a little on the ups, but not too hard, and I used the downhills to my advantage. Mile 2 was a solid 6:30. That felt like a 6:3o. I picked it up a little, pushed a little harder. Mile 3 was 6:25. Fantastic, I think that’s the first time in my life that the third mile was faster than the middle mile. The course, with its net negative elevation gain, did have a few blips of uphills, including three teeny ones in the last mile, but I felt strong and finished in as much of a sprint I could muster, with a time of 19:36, good for 11th woman and 3rd in my age group.

In between the 5K and the mile, I headed to visit my parents’ in Michigan. Unfortunately, my mom was admitted to the hospital for side pains the Sunday after the 5K, which – after a CT scan – led to the diagnosis of pulmonary clots… so for a week, I learned more than I thought I could about what it truly means to be strong, and to be patient. By the end of the week, she was released from the hospital on strict orders, and while I would have loved to spend time with my mom on better terms, I was reminded once again of the love and caring family I have. While she’s not out of the woods yet (she’ll need to go to the clinic at least once a week to get blood levels checked for the next six months), she is feeling better, and at home, and is also making progress on her physical therapy (she had her rotator cuff repaired 6wks ago, too). I love you, Mom!

OK! Finally, the third race on my list, the Macklind Avenue Mile. I’ve lived in Saint Louis for nearly three years now, and I’ve volunteered at this event for the last two years. It is so much fun; loads of spectators and racers, and tons of enthusiasm all around. This year, I decided to follow through with my new mantra, to find my fast, and decided to race it. I had no idea how fast I would go, since I haven’t run a mile since high school. High school! That was 12 years ago. Seriously, that’s a long time. And I don’t honestly remember what my fastest time was. I think it was 5:45. I think. Have no idea. I think that I ran a low 5 in the 1500 in college, which probably translated to roughly a 5:30 mile, but that was on a track when I was training for short stuff. Anyway, back to what I said: I had no idea what I’d do.

So I signed up for the Macklind Mile as soon as I got home from the All American 5K. The MM is really unique; the races are segregated into a “community” event, which is for those who are looking to race with their family or dogs or whatever. Then, there is a “competitive men’s” and “competitive women’s” race, followed by an “elite” race (top 10 fastest seeds from men and women are eligible). I chatted with some friends before the race, and warmed up a bit, but was not sure how quick my legs would be.

The open (competitive) women’s race was after the men’s, and I lined up in front next to a few youngin’s and some older women that I recognized from other races and group runs. The first part of the race is a steep downhill, followed by a small climb, and the last half is all downhill. I tried to not go out too fast in the first quarter but I didn’t want to lose contact with the front. Through the 400, I was at 1:20, which was about right given the downhill and my recent paces on the track. I settled in a little, and floated through the half at 2:43. I was surprised to see at this point that I was next in line behind the leader, Heidi, who crushed me in the 5K two weeks before (she ran a mid-18). I could hear a small pack behind me, and felt another girl inch her way alongside me. She got ahead of me, and around the 3/4mi mark, I realized I could be running faster.

Photo taken by Brent Newman

So I did. I pushed, positioned myself back in 2nd, and crossed the line behind Heidi in 5:22, 2nd open woman. It’s rare for me to finish in the top three overall. In fact, I don’t know that I ever have in a road race, regardless of the distance. The pessimist in me says, “well, the elite women were in a different race, so you really finished 8th.” But, really, I am proud of this race and how I did, and proud to have pushed at the finish and cross the line in second place.

Photo by Brent Newman

Thanks to Big River Running Company for being a part of two of the three events I raced in June; these were fantastic. BRR puts on exceptional events; they are well organized, well orchestrated, and I always enjoy them. The Macklind Mile is truly a unique event, and Saint Louis has such an amazing running community- thanks in part to the crew at Big River. I went to their weekly run from the South City store right after moving to this city; it was the first exposure I had to the St Louis running community, and it’s truly a great one. I am so glad to be back into and focusing more in the sport, and it’s events like the ones I raced in June that help reinforce why I love running, and racing, so much.

Revolutionize the West Coast

Wanna do an awesome race on the west coast? Rev3, my favorite race series in the universe, is hosting a HalfRev triathlon in and around the beautiful and superfun city of Portland.

I love the Northwest, especially Portland. When I was in grad school in Montana, my flatmate and I drove from Bozeman to Portland for a weekend away and to attend the Portland Brewer’s Fest. It was on the waterfront, it was before I was following a gluten free diet, and it was a good ol’ time. Portland it a very unique city. The parks are great, and the botanical and Japanese gardens are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Plus the culture is just so eclectic and the town is pretty darn hip.

If you live in the Northwest, this is a serious must-do race. If you don’t, you should look into traveling out there for it! July in the Northwest is gorgeous. Check out tickets through Southwest Airlines (cheap bike charge!) and Alaska Air (supah cheap baggage fees here too!).


See you there!

Life lessons I’ve learned as a Race Director

I have been racing for years, but I’ve never put too much thought in the process behind the race. At least, not until I got the idea of having a long course triathlon in the UP. Since there isn’t one up here in my neck of the woods, I wanted to bring one. But I didn’t know, really, how much work it would really be.

While its fairly straight forward to put on a high school cross-country meet (have clipboard, will travel), its a tad more complicated to put together a half-iron distance triathlon. Obviously. With the Koop just passing, I have had my share of panic attacks and nightmares that woke me up at 2am double-checking that the swim caps are already in. While I didn’t direct the Koop all by myself, I did feel an overwhelming sense of overwhelmingness (?) when I thought about all the things that could go wrong on race day.

Along with all the stress of trying to execute an awesome race, Ive learned (and am still learning) a lot about what goes into these things. Before, I had an idea, but I never really knew the depth and length of the lists involved in putting on a successful and huge event. It really is putting a lot of it all into perspective. And not to mention, worrying about appeasing triathletes (uhm, hello?! We are a finicky, demanding, and needy bunch) didn’t make it any easier.

It’s interesting, really- the things that we take for granted as athletes.  I can’t help but grin ear to ear when I think about all the cool things involved in this long course tri. So without further adieu, here’s my translation of life lessons that were reiterated to me while directing my first ever triathlon, the Kuparisaari Tri, this past Sunday.

Communication is key. No one (in real life) can read minds. So if you need something done, you need to ask for it. Not only that, but other people don’t take kindly to being surprised. Communication started with local officials and businesses back in October when we decided to put on this race. Where could we have the swim? What would make a good bike loop? Can we even use the roads we want to? The Coast Guard was there, as was an ambulance, and this required planning and communication from both ends to know who needed to be where and at what time.

The most important means of communication, our live race updates, could not have been so painless without the help of KD8FPN and friends, and the Keweenaw County Repeater Association. The Ham Radio folks were stationed at nearly a dozen locations to relay information about the live race back to race headquarters, which was a huge deal since cell phone coverage is nil across most of the race course. The radio folks seriously saved our race from being a flop, in so many ways. Without them, I am not sure how painful race day would have been.

Perseverance pays off. Between you and me, there were a lot of behind-the-scenes situations that may have exploded in our faces. For example, we ran dangerously low on water at one of the bike aid stations, we nearly ran out of cups on the run course. The buoys didn’t get out for the swim course until the morning of the race. But the athletes weren’t aware, and/or didn’t care, and we at least made it appear that everything went off without a hitch. In reality, it really did; no one was injured, no one got into any serious accidents. There were no broken bones Smith Fisheries Road descent and no one needed an IV after the race. The race crew did a great job of defining a problem and immediately establishing a way to remedy it, so the athletes were none the wiser.

Money doesn’t grow on trees. There are a bajillion costs tied into making a successful race. Seriously. Aside from all the things that the athletes get to take with them (in the Koop, we gave out medallions: $5, shirts: $15, swim caps: $3, age group awards: $5-10 depending on the placing), there’s also things that the athlete might not realize. Timing costs about $8 per athlete. The swim buoys are around $100 each (for the cheapest ones!), water jugs are about $20 each (and there’s usually two at every aid station) and water/food for around the course really adds up. Plus, there’s the PortaJohn or two (or five)? That’s $100 a pooper. Renting tables (and chairs too) for aid stations and the finish area cost about ten bucks a piece, which isn’t a lot, but that adds up, too. For sanctioning, we had to pay for registration to USAT ($150), plus pay for permits for land use around the race area. There’s always something good that comes out of offering the volunteers a (tangible) gift to take with them, too, so for the Koop, I wanted to treat our volunteers well. I offered a race shirt or visor and pasties and coffee for them. A hungry volunteer is an unhappy volunteer. I’m not sure who told me that, maybe it was my mother? Anyway, turns out that the coffee and pasties (and shirts!) were a huge hit! The biggest point of the matter is, things don’t just come together, there is a lot of penny-pinching and renting and borrowing involved, especially with a first-year, small scale event.

There are some really incredible people in this world. Dare I say that the Keweenaw is home to many of them? There were plenty of people that let us borrow their services for free (whether it be their time, their loot, their sleep, or their energy, or all of the above). Luckily, we had some awesome sponsors (The Bike Shop, Downwind Sports, and Cross Country Sports) that donated swag for us to give away to athletes as prizes, and Churning Rapids Trails, Portage Health and The Keweenaw Co-Op donated food and gear for us to use for free, too. We didn’t have to pay for photography, because some awesome friends (Juskuz and xmatic) volunteered their services for free. We had two extraordinary bike aid stations, sponsored by Team UP and Northwoods Endurance, and the groups didn’t need any guidance, they just stepped up to the task and held down the fort.

Hands-down, we could not have had this race without the volunteers and local businesses. For the Koop, our volunteers and sponsors were AMAZING! Some of our biggest support came from The Bear Belly Bar and Grill, who made nearly 200 pasties for the athletes and workers, and scavenged for cups for the finish area when we were bombed out and depleted.  Without Cathy and Troy and family, the volunteers would be eating coffee beans off the table instead of drinking fresh brewed coffee from cups. The family and staff at The Lac La Belle Lodge worked their buns off helping out all day on Sunday, and I am forever indebted to them. And they did it, all day, with a smile on their face. They even said (dare I repeat?) that they had FUN!

Without our volunteers, spread out across the course, the world would be cold and empty and our race courses would be barren and dry. People showed up, offering their awesome services for nothing (aside from the best spectator spots ever), and just did what needed to be done. People were shifted from one job to another, some stood out at the aid stations for hours just waiting for the last of the athletes to come by.

Grin and bear it. Most of our athletes were really happy, excited that such a big race could be found in the quiet Keweenaw Peninsula. But there were some that just did not seem to enjoy their time up here. They didn’t get enough swag in their race packet, they didn’t like the awards, they didn’t understand why the race was so expensive (in my defense, early registration was $95 online, which is the cheapest half iron distance tri I have ever seen). What could I say? Could I do anything to defend myself from their insults? We put a lot of hard work into the race, the weekend, the event; was I just going to sit back and take it? You bet. It’s not my place to cry about it, nor is it my place to tell an athlete that they are wrong. In their opinion, they didn’t get enough. So whenever the race would get criticized, I was getting criticized, but I would just bite my tongue, nod my head, and grin and bear it.

There is a lot of power in the words “Thank You”. The behind-the-scenes-craziness of race directing is overwhelming, to say the least. but there always seems to be someone there that comes to the rescue. Every time I turned around, someone was there to help me complete a task that I didn’t think know I wouldn’t be able to do by myself, like put up the 20×30 foot tent, or help get the buoys in the water. It blows my mind how helpful and selfless people can be; athletes were helping set up the finish area the day before their big race, community members were spending their Sunday of leisure running errands and carrying gear from point A to point B.

The other side of this: When athletes came up to me post-race and said thank you, for putting on the race, inviting them up, showing them my favorite part of the UP. That was it. That was all I could ever have asked for. People were happy (generally speaking) with the race. Sure, there are tweaks and things we can improve, but our athletes enjoyed themselves. Practically everyone crossed the line with a smile on their face. When I look through the race photos, I see happy faces, smiling faces, joy, excitement (and yes, a little bit of pain, but hey, it was a long course tri! What do you expect). In the end, it was a very rewarding day.

Note: The kind of pasties I’m taking about are a Yooper thing. It’s a food, a Cornish meal-in-a-pastry-shell that is best eaten with ketchup. Meat, potatoes/rutabaga, and onions. mmm… if only they were gluten free.

Ready to run…

The Columbus Marathon is on Sunday. I’m leaving for downstate tomorrow morning, going to wave hello to the Mackinac Bridge, and will hopefully miss the rush hour traffic of Detroit and Ann Arbor. Saturday morning will be a relaxed departure from my parents’ home in Monroe to my friend Kendra’s place, right in the heart of Columbus. We’re going to pick up our race packets and then?… I will get to see my cousin and her newborn baby, hang out with one of my awesome MegaTough teammates, and just chill out for the evening. I have a lackadaisical attitude about the whole thing, and I’m not sure if that is good or bad. Columbus isn’t my “A” race (that designation was given to IMoo), but – of course- I still want to do well. I was hesitant to set any steep goals, but the way training has been going and how I’ve been feeling the last four weeks, I thought, what the hell.

My goals:
A- Finish around 3:15. This is seven minutes faster than my PR, mind you.
B- Finish under 3:30. That would make Columbus at least my second-fastest marathon.
C- BQ

If I don’t complete “C”, I will be disappointed. I will probably still be a little bummed if I don’t get goal “B” as well, but I guess I can’t really predict what will happen on race day. It could blizzard… or something worse.

How am I going to try and reach my “A” goal? Here’s my race day strategy:

-Settle into a good rhythm, focus on form and breathing
-Go out the first around 47min. Not too much faster than that (7:30-7:35s)
-Get to half around 1:38-39. Again, not too much faster than that. (same pace)
-Second half needs to be in 1:36, so after halfway, pick up pace to 7:20-25s.
-Last 10K, hopefully have enough in the tank to give’r a little more. 7:15-20s.

I think it’s doable. We’ll see on Sunday!

To Wisconsin and Back!

What better way to train for the Ironman than to spend a weekend in Iron County, Wisconsin? I was lucky enough to be invited by my friend, Laurie (who is also training for IMoo), to head down to Hurley, Wisconsin, via bicycle. But the real icing on the cake? We were to sign up for the Paavo Nurmi marathon as a relay team the next day. This may sound like a nice, easy, breezy training weekend, but it’s more than 100 miles from Houghton to Hurley, over glacial cut mountains. And so the story unfolds…

Laurie, along with a few other women (Ann and Diane), Adam, and myself met at Laurie’s mother’s place in Atlantic Mine, about three miles west of Houghton. These ladies are extreme! Like I said, Laurie is training for IMoo, too, and she’s already done it before in 2007. She knows the ropes, and was able to give Adam and I some excellent insight during the ride down, our downtime, and the ride back home. Ann and Diane (along with Amy, who joined us for the half-marathon on Saturday) train with Laurie and on their own. They are easily convinced to be put through the ringer, all for a little athletic fun, I suppose. Ann and Amy are excellent runners; I remember when I first moved back to Houghton in ’07, I raced against Ann in the Canal Run. She’s one tough cookie. And Amy kicked my butt last year at the Canal Run. I tried so hard to keep with her, but she dropped me at mile 5 and I never caught back up. Diane joined Ladies’ Road Riding nights a few times, and she is very excitable and can hammer hard on her Orbea. So I knew these chicks were some serious business. Adam and I were in for a real training treat.

On Friday morning, we loaded up the Durango (Amy would be meeting us that evening in Hurley and was Diane’s partner for the relay) and headed off on our bikes. It was a lot of climb climb climb, descend descend descend, not in that particular order. The roads were great, though. I absolutely love the route along M-26 from Atlantic Mine toward Ontonagon. It’s great pavement, typically not too much traffic, and rolling hills with great scenery. The trees kind of canopy the road. Just outside Toivola, along a beautiful stretch of highway, a deer popped out of the woods and ran along side of us. It was a little unnerving not know when he’d want to cross the road, but we gave him space and the little guy jumped across the highway. We flew down the hills just east of M38, but once traffic started picking up a little more (there seemed to be a lot of RVs out there this weekend), things got a little more hairy.

The ladies, myself, and Adam pushed through the rolling terrain. Some of the hills were long and gradual, and some were the out-of-the-saddle approach. It was good practice in getting in and out of the saddle, and I am so excited to be comfortable on my race bike. There were some downhills that we’d fly on, and it was great to be riding such a long distance with a group of people that were so excited to be out and doing something like that. We would enjoy our breaks, and Adam and I had a chance to hammer out +20mph in some areas.

We stopped every 20 miles or so at gas stations for a stretch and a snack, and it made for the perfect rest intervals. Adam and I told each other we didn’t want to push it too hard with the race the next day, but we found ourselves cruising at 21-23mph on some stretches… which brings me back to the rest intervals- very well deserved! Unfortunately, I disobeyed all rules about race-day nutrition and was a little too excited to eat garlic rice crackers and dill pickle chips from the grocery store in Bruce Crossing. Luckily, the IMoo aid stations probably won’t have garlic crackers and dill pickle chips. If they do, I think I will still be ok… because I really don’t want to eat either of those anytime soon. You can check out the bike route that we took here on my Garmin Connect. I didn’t get the entire route, because after starting off from some of the gas stations I didn’t always hit the start button on my watch, but you’ll get the drift (and 103 out of 106 of the miles).

Anyway, by the time we got to
Ironwood, it was just around 3pm, Laurie, Ann, and myself went for a quick transition run. We then settled into the hotel room where we enjoyed a well-deserved rest. Amy arrived around 630pm, and we ventured to The Liberty Bell for some food. The claim to fame of the Bell is their pizza, and Laurie was really excited to go. Unfortunately, the service was terrible. Win some, lose some, I suppose. I had the chicken Cordon Bleu, which wasn’t the most delicious pre-race meal I’ve ever had, and I was still quite hungry afterward. Luckily for me, and the rest of the group, there was a gelato stand right next door! Cherry chocolate almond screamed my name.

We got ready for the morning and went to bed. In the morning, Diane drove Laurie, Amy, and Adam to the bus pickup. I ended up getting really bad stomach cramps (usually get them from not eating enough) and was balled up on the bed while Diane was away. It cleared up about an hour before we were to leave to go to the half-way point. Phew! That’s the last time I’m eating a high-protein, no carbohydrate dinner pre-race, and I am sure the junk food all day didn’t help.

The halfway point of the marathon, where the handoff was located, was in Gile. This was a really cool park near the flowage.

The half-marathon point, in Gile, was right by a park and was a great spot for a relay transition. The leaders came through while Ann and I were warming up, and it was exciting to see the mix of marathoners, half marathoners, and five person relay folks. I was jogging along the route that the first-half follows, and saw Amy coming in. She was cookin’! I hurried back to the handoff location and waited for Adam.

Adam coming into the exchange
Laurie coming into the exchange

Adam came into the exchange quickly, and the chip-relay was smooth. His time was around 1:47, which is a 3:33 marathon. Being that his “goal race” would be a marathon under 4hrs, I’d say he’d be able to crush that goal. So, that’s exciting!!

After I wrapped the chip around my ankle, I took off and headed through the rolling hills. I felt good the whole race. There were a few climbs that seemed to keep going, but nothing too daunting for the 13.1miles until the end. I tried to stay relax, not push it too hard at any point, just keep focused. I paid attention to my form, keeping my shoulders relaxed, and running forward. I kept an average 7:27 pace, which is about a 1:37.35 half marathon. There were a few miles that were over 7:30s, with one even at 7:53, but there was also a steep hill in that one, so I wasn’t too worried about it. Having a strong finish really made the whole race worthwhile. My time was not too bad at all for such a hilly course, and had I run the half marathon open, I am confident I would have placed in the top spots. It made for a great marathon-pace run, because for me to do a 7:27min/mile pace on a flat marathon course would give me a personal best (right on 3:15, which is my current goal). Check out the elevation chart:

Yikes!

Post-race, it started to rain a little, and I was cold but not really that excited about the Mojakka (fish) stew. I found a cup of Mountain Dew and a banana, and waited for Ann to come through. I tried to cool down with a quick jog, but my legs were tired and I wasn’t too excited to run anymore. We finally found Amy and Adam, so Ann, Diane, and I were able to shower at the hotel before leaving Ironwood. We stopped at the Dairy Queen in Bessemer for some ice cream (and lunch, I suppose). Yay for a well-deserved M&M blizzard!! I slept the entire way home…

The Paavo Nurmi would be a sweet marathon to do, it would definitely be challenging and not necessarily something I’d try to get a PR for. All in all it was an extraordinary weekend with some awesome athletes.