Sunday, February 27, 2011

Trailheads and the promise of Infinite Possibility

A trailhead is simply the point at which one steps onto a specific trail from their previous location. You can step from pavement to trail, from grass to trail, or even from trail to trail, at a trailhead. No matter the circumstances of the transition, however, there is some intangible promise that lies in that moment.
I have stepped up to probably thousands of trailheads in my life. Every time I have accepted their promise and gone onto the trail. And I can't say that I've ever been disappointed. You see, in that unassuming junction where a dirt path reaches a delta of civilization, there lies the promise of Infinite Possibility. You cannot see more than a few feet down the trail. You cannot know what lies ahead. You cannot know what the climbs are like, what the weather is, how many logs you will climb over, or how many heart-stopping wildlife encounters there will be before you reach the end of the trip.
This tantalizing risk is what fuels the addiction.
Sure, you can scour the topos and check NOAA religiously. You may even have hiked the route before, but the truth is, you cannot know what lies ahead on any given day. Your hike may be short, sunny, and replete with sightings of cute deer and squirrels. Or it might have a hailstorm resulting in you getting lost above treeline, bailing down a ridge and stumbling into a grizz and her cubs. Or anything in between. Bluebird mornings turn to lighting riddled nights and vice versa.
Recently I was talking with someone who grew up in another country and he mentioned the risks of everyday life. He commented on how "boring" American life is. We are relatively safe, our government transitions peacefully, we don't have to worry about our next meal. He then drew the connection between our safe society and how many "adrenaline junkies" are Americans (or from other stable western nations) versus from less stable countries. The less risk and adventure in daily life, the more people will seek it out in other ways. That clicked in my brain. Of course!
Obviously not everyone seeks adventure and has to feel risk to feel alive, but I do. Quite frankly my past life (what seems like 7 lifetimes ago) was very safe and stable. Well thought out and without real risk. Perhaps that's why the first car I had saw 100mph at least a dozen times. Perhaps that's why at some point I realized that I felt dead in that life and left it behind to hike, to run, to roam. Although I've never felt I was a product of this society, in fact, feeling like I very much do not fit, I've found that perhaps I am more a product of it than if I did "fit". The more I think about it, the more I find that I am a counterweight to the ordered life.
Not everyone will find freedom on a trail like I do and I understand that. There is nothing wrong with a safe and orderly society, and I certainly wouldn't want to live in a less safe one. I love and value living in a time and a place where I am safe and free to follow the trails and explore the paths I want to. We are all parts of society in different ways. Some make it safe. Some further learning. Some champion human rights. Some protest. Some are misfits. Some are leaders.
As for me, I will always accept the promise and lure of a trailhead.
I will be the adventurer.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Orcas Island 50k Recap

The last time I ran 31 miles was October 2nd and I thought I'd destroyed my menisci at about mile 20.
Yesterday I ran 50k again with very little training and a lot of trepidation about whether my body would hold up.

I've spent about 3 months doing intensive physical therapy to solve the knee pain issues. Apparently the knees were not the culprit, just the victims that yelled the loudest. I have muscle imbalances in my glutes/hamstrings and lack of rotation in my hips. All of that combined with ridiculously tight IT bands finally came together and put me through a lot of pain and many pensive months hoping that when February 5th came along I'd be ready to tackle the first race of the season pain free.

Orcas is a burly 50k course. It boasts 8,000ft of elevation gain over a root laden, rocky course that climbs Mt. Picket once and Mt. Constitution twice. It's also a great low key event where elites and back of the packers alike can hang out around the post race bonfire. It's part of Rainshadow Running's many races. These events live up to the laid back atmosphere of ultra-runnings roots. The courses are spectacular...and spectacularly hard.

I went over to Orcas Friday night and stayed in one of the cabins. My knees had been hurting me all week, so I did my PT and went to bed. Morning came without rain!! Things were looking up. April was there, driving all the way up from Corvalis, OR, to run. She'd sprained her ankle the week before, but it seemed to be doing much better. We lined up with the typical motley mix of runners at 8:30 and headed out.

1.5 hours in and we still were just smidge shy of the top of Mt. Picket (apprx. mile 6) and April and I were both drenched. Neither of us had expected to sweat so much in January! The 47 degree temps were downright balmy without rain. Luckily I had some salt tabs and we both downed one. At the top April let me go first as we turned to head down the old gravel road back to the start and aid station 1.

I'd been holding myself back, letting my muscles warm up, afraid to push too hard. I still wasn't sure whether my knees were going to start screaming at me or not. I'd already decided not to bring Ibu since first of all I usually have to be nearly dying to take it, and also I did not want to mask my body crying for help. I'd decided that If it came to it I would take my first DNF and save my body to race another day. Coming down the road I picked up my pace, letting myself slip into my typical fast descent mode. I cruised into aid station 1 ate a massive handful of tortilla chips and headed back out. So far, so good.

The course followed the edge of Cascade Lake to the base of the powerline swath that goes up the side of Mt. Constitution. Then, the flagging lured us into the brush and mud and then finally up what felt like a 70 degree slope. Another runner passed me near the bottom and offered these words of wisdom, "Yeah, it goes straight up the power lines for about 2 miles".

A few minutes into this extreme ascent with no trail (just muddy, bootpacked bare earth) I thought, "Wow, this is like climbing up a steep, snowy pass. And then a moment of brilliance. I turned sideways and began "French stepping" up the mountain as though I were climbing in steep snow. The burning in my calves stopped. The tension transferred to my abductors. I wasn't breathing hard and I fell into rhythm with my music. I didn't have to stop and take breaks as I could see people ahead of me doing. Soon I was passing people (including the guy who'd warned me about the length of the climb) and continued to do so steadily up the climb. As anyone who's ever run with me knows, if I'm passing people going up, it's a minor miracle. This bolstered my confidence even more.

At the top of the powerline climb the course bent onto trail and then looped around and down Mt. Constitution. I hit this point still without any pain and let my body unwind even more on this descent than coming down Mt. Picket. I passed a steady stream of folks all the way around to the base of Mt. Constitution on the other side of the mountain at Mountain Lake. Here, at mile 19, we got the joy of embarking on another climb (this time all the way to the summit) of Mt. Constitution. At least this round was on trail. I hiked up this one, taking more salts and keeping on the drinking, but the distance between aid stations started to hit me hard about 1 mile from the top. I was dizzy, low energy, and I could hear my stomach growling.

At the top I made a beeline for the aid station, ate probably 10 slices of apple...slathering half of them with peanut butter. I knew the peanut butter (and quantity of food) would make me nauseous in a mile or two, but that risk was outweighed by the fact that I was going to need some slow release calories to carry me through the last 9 miles. The fructose hit me almost instantly. I jettisoned my pack and extra things into the pile of drop bags, refilled my water bottle (20 oz would have to get me to the finish), drank some coke and for good measure shoved a double chocolate chunk cookie into my mouth. I was ready to push myself.

The first 1.5 miles-ish out of the aid station was a rapid descent on the backside of the mountain, and sure enough, by the time I got to the junction and began the climb back toward the powerlines I was slightly nauseous. I focused on hiking uphill as fast as I could and jogging the flatter sections to allow my body to process the food and by the time I reached the powerlines the nausea had abated. It was about 5 miles to the finish and I still hadn't had any knee pain so I ran the flats to the Cold Springs turnoff hot on the heels of a guy I'd been just behind for most of the race. I hit the junction right behind him and we started the 2 mile descent to the lake.

People ask what I think about when I'm running for hours on end. Really, there are a lot of things. Mostly my mind wanders around and comes back to check in on my body every few minutes before it wanders off again. Sometimes I'm thinking only about the scenery...or where I'm putting my feet. At the marathon distance yesterday I was thinking that my body felt great, my knees aren't hurting and I am actually going to finish this race.

I blew past the guy I'd been following in the first switchback and within 30 seconds I was in full on descend-uneven-trail-at-light-speed mode. I'm sure I was smiling stupidly as I blazed past people. I was focused on moving my feet as fast as possible and relaxing into the descent. The rush of going downhill fast is unbeatable in my book. The next two miles were absolute joy.

I popped out at Cascade Lake where a volunteer pointed and said, "2 miles left!". I began to run the fairly flat trail around the lake and then the thought came to me, "What about the 20 or so people you just passed?" "Good point". I ate another salt tab and a mini babe ruth and I hauled as fast as my tired legs would let me.

The final 150yds were uphill on the campground road and then a short dash down the hill to the finish line. I got to the top and sprinted down the hill, screaming at the top of my lungs. I vaguely remember this eliciting a lot of cheering from the spectators. I wasn't paying attention to that. I was yelling with the excitement of knowing that I'd managed to complete a difficult early season ultra with little training...and no knee pain! I'd even managed to pass people, stay ahead of them and feel as good at mile 29 as I did at mile 9. Success!

At the finish April found me. Right after I'd passed her she'd resprained her ankle--and this time it was pretty ugly. She'd dropped out of the race at the first aid station. Together we found a creek where she iced her ankle and I iced everything from the knees down. We spent the rest of the evening hanging out with runner friends, eating and rehydrating. A little later, after all the runners were in, we found the results posted and looked for my placement. I'd come in at 6:57:44 which placed me 54th out of 136. It also put me as the 13th female and 3rd in my gender/age group!

I didn't break any records this weekend, but I had a fabulous time. I also gained confidence that my body is well on it's way to healing and I got a glimpse at what some focus and some race strategy can do.

Chuckanut, I'm so ready for you!